04/30/14

China sparks fear of war on Christians

Leo Lewis Beijing

Last updated at 12:01AM, April 29 2014
Demolition crews descended on a huge unsanctioned church in eastern China yesterday, defying weeks of public protest and stoking fears that Beijing has launched an undeclared war on the rise of Christian worship.
Images of the crumbling walls of Sanjiang church began emerging on Chinese social media sites yestedsy as police protected the heavy machinery in case of protest as it pounded much of the building to rubble.
It remains unclear how much of the church is to be knocked down, and some religious groups say that at least four floors of the church’s annex building had been knocked down by the end of last week.
Activists told The Times that in the days before the destruction began, key members of the congregation had been threatened by the authorities and told to abandon their attempts to protect the church from the wrecking equipment. Earlier this month, parts of the the Sanjiang church, along with others in the region, were daubed with the Chinese character for “demolish” – a word that has been synonymous with the country’s rapid urbanisation and of the destruction of rural homes throughout the land.
The 50m high Sanjiang church, completed only last year and built in a part of the country known as “China’s Jerusalem”, has one of the country’s largest congregations: it was constructed with donations amounting to more than £2 million.
Confronted with the vast new edifice – and in particular its large exterior crosses visible from across the eastern city of Wenzhou – the authorities said that the building had failed to meet structural safety standards. It was claimed that in its planning application the church indicated that the building would be around a third of the size it actually turned out to be. As recently as last September, however, the church had been proudly designated a “model project” by the authorities.
Although the church is registered, it is not part of the officially sanctioned Protestant church in China – a version of the faith which allows itself to be overseen by the Communist Party. Many Chinese who object to that oversight prefer to worship in underground “house churches” that are regularly the target of government crackdowns.
But church sources believe that Beijing is now gearing-up for a far more substantial campaign against the rapid growth of Christian worship in China – a faith that state media recently said was “booming in capitalist fashion”.

04/30/14

The Origin of Christianity

Geza Vermes on the Transition from Jewish Christians to Gentiles

Noah Wiener • 11/09/2012

A turning point in the Jesus movement, Peter baptizes the Roman centurion Cornelius, the first non-Jewish Christian, in Jerusalem (Acts 10), as shown in one of five baptism scenes on a 12th-century baptismal font in St. Bartholomew’s Church in Liège, Belgium. Image: Jean-Pol Grandmont.
Today the concept of “Jewish Christians” may sound like a confusion of two religions. However, to understand the origin of Christianity, one must begin with the population of Jewish Christians who lived during Jesus’ lifetime. In the November/December 2012 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Dead Sea Scrolls and early Christianity scholar Geza Vermes explores the origin of Christianity by examining the characteristics of the Jewish Jesus movement to see how it developed into a distinctly gentile religion.

In the New Testament, Jesus only preaches to a Jewish audience. Geza Vermes describes the mission of the 11 apostles to preach to “all the nations” (Matthew 28:19) as a “‘post-Resurrection’ idea.” After the crucifixion, the apostles began to champion a new faith in Jesus and the ranks of the Jesus movement (known as “the Way” at the time) swelled to 3,000 Jewish converts. At first, these followers were distinctly Jewish, following Mosaic law, Temple traditions and dietary customs.

Geza Vermes writes that “Acts identifies the demographic watershed regarding the composition of the Jesus movement. It began around 40 C.E. with the admission into the church of the family of the Roman centurion Cornelius in Caesarea (Acts 10). Later came the gentile members of the mixed Jewish-Greek church in Antioch (Acts 11:19–24; Galatians 2:11–14), as well as the many pagan converts of Paul in Syria, Asia Minor and Greece. With them the Jewish monopoly in the new movement came to an end. Jewish and gentile Christianity was born.”
In the free eBook Paul: Jewish Law and Early Christianity, learn about the cultural contexts for the theology of Paul and how Jewish traditions and law extended into early Christianity through Paul’s dual roles as a Christian missionary and a Pharisee.

As gentiles joined the Jesus movement, focus on Jewish law decreased and we start to see the origin of Christianity as a distinct religion. Jewish Christians in Jerusalem participated in separate Jewish services from the gentile Christian population, and while the two groups agreed on Jesus’ message and importance, the separate rites and communities led to increasing division between the groups.
The early-second-century Epistle of Barnabas is one of the earliest expressions of gentile Christianity and describes Jesus as quasi-divine. ©The British Library
Geza Vermes presents the late first century C.E. Jewish Christian Didache as an important text for understanding the Jewish Jesus movement. The Christian document focuses on Mosaic Law and the love of God and the neighbor, and describes the observance of Jewish traditions alongside baptism and the recitation of “Our Father.” The Didache treats Jesus as a charismatic prophet, referring to Jesus with the term pais, a word for servant or child that is also used for King David, rather than the “Son of God.”

By contrast, the early second century Epistle of Barnabas shows a distinctly gentile Christianity in its presentation of the Hebrew Bible as allegory instead of covenantal fact. The clearly divinized Jesus in this document is distanced from the Jewish Christians and the divide between the Christian communities continued to widen over time. Geza Vermes writes that after Hadrian’s suppression of the Second Jewish Revolt, the Jewish Christians quickly became a minority group in the newly established church. At this point we can see the origin of Christianity as a distinctly non-Jewish religion; late in the second century, the Jewish Christians either rejoined their Jewish peers or become part of the newly gentile Christian church.

 

04/30/14

Is the Church Dying in the U.S.? Redefining Christians as Cultural, Congregational, & Convictional

by: Ed Stetzer

The church is not dying.

Yes, the church in the West—the United States included—is in transition right now. But transitioning is not the same as dying, particuarly if you hold the belief that Christianity is represented by people who live for Christ, not check “Christian” on a survey form.

While I believe we need to understand reality inside our ranks, I don’t believe the situation is quite as dire as many are making it out to be. Actually, no serious researcher believes Christianity in America is dying. Not one.

Instead, I believe this current cultural shift is bringing clarity that will assist in defining who we are as Christians, and that is a good thing in some ways.

I have talked about this before, but I think it bears repeating, if for no other reason than to encourage us in our shared mission once again.

In the American context, 2009 was a turning point in regards to the perception of Christianity’s health in the United States. That year, the results of the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) caused quite a stir. In its wake were several articles in prominent national publications touting the coming demise of Christianity in America. And Americans bought in.

The ARIS results showed the percentage of self-identified Christians had fallen 10 percentage points, from 86 to 76, since 1990. It also showed that the “Nones”–those who claim no religious affiliation–rose from 8 to 15 percent in the same time period.

Following the release of the results, Newsweek ran a cover story entitled “The End of Christian America.” Earlier the same year, Michael Spencer–the Internet Monk–penned “My Prediction: The Coming Evangelical Collapse” that was picked up by the Christian Science Monitor. The settled narrative became that Christianity was in precipitous decline. The sentiment has continued to grow ever since.

An October 2012 Pew Research Study added fuel to the fire, stating that the “Nones” had increased more than five percent in the previous five years alone. A cursory look at the numbers may very well lead people to frightening conclusions, and the numbers are only going to get worse when you look at people who call themselves Christians.

That being said, the sky is not falling. Christians are not leaving the faith in droves, even though some people are screaming that loudly. In many cases, people who once called themselves Christians are simply no longer doing that. That is a different issue, which I explained further in my USA Today column last year.

Most believers likely realize that though 86 percent of Americans checked the “Christian” box on a survey in 1990, the population was not made up of that many genuine followers of Jesus. For many, the idea of being Christian and being American are one-in-the-same. But the church defines “Christian” differently than culture at large, and the distinction is an important one to make.

Around 75 percent of Americans call themselves Christians—they “self identify” as Christians, regardless of how others might define them. I find it helpful to separate those who profess Christianity into three categories: cultural, congregational and convictional.

Now, these are NOT exact numbers, but broad categories. The numbers are different from region to region, but as a whole, the categories might be helpful.

The first category–Cultural Christians–is made up of people who believe themselves to be Christians simply because their culture tells them they are. They are Christian by heritage. They may have religious roots in their family or may come from a people group tied to a certain religion, e.g., Southern Evangelicals or Irish Catholics. Inside the church, we would say they are Christians in name only. They are not practicing a vibrant faith. This group makes up around one-third of the 75 percent who self-identify as Christians—or about a quarter of all Americans.

The second category–Congregational Christians–is similar to the first group, except these individuals at least have some connection to congregational life. They have a “home church” they grew up in and perhaps where they were married. They might even visit occasionally. Here again though, we would say that these people are not practicing any sort of real, vibrant faith. They are attendees. This group makes up another third of the 75 percent—or about a quarter of all Americans.

The final group–Convictional Christians–is made up of people who are actually living according to their faith. These are the people who would say that they have met Jesus, He changed their lives, and since that time their lives have been increasingly oriented around their faith in Him. Convictional Christians make up the final third of the 75 percent—or about a quarter of all Americans.

Interestingly, since 1972 and according to the General Social Survey, the percentage of the final type of Christian in the U.S. population has remained generally stable. On the other hand, mainline Protestantism has declined, but other areas within evangelicalism have grown slightly to offset that loss.

As I see it, the numbers of people who those of us in the church would say are actually committed Christians—those who are practicing a vibrant faith—are not dying off. The Church is not dying. It is just being more clearly defined.

The “Nones” category is growing quickly, but the change is coming by way of Cultural and Congregational Christians who no longer feel the societal pressure to be “Christian.” They feel comfortable freeing themselves from a label that was not true of them in the first place. Convictional Christians are not leaving the faith; the “squishy middle,” as I like to call it, is simply being flattened.

As Christians find themselves more and more on the margins in American society, people are beginning to count the cost. While it used to serve Americans well to carry the label “Christian” in most circumstances (think about running for public office, for instance), it can actually be polarizing or considered intolerant now. So for those who really don’t have any skin in the game, shedding the label makes sense.

As the trend continues, we will see the “Nones” continue to grow and the church lose more of its traditional cultural influence. Christians will likely lose the culture wars, leading to difficult times ahead for us. But we do not need to lose hope. This is not cause for despair. It is a time to regroup and re-engage.

Christianity may be losing its top-down political and cultural influence, but Jesus spoke of His followers making an impact in a very different manner. He taught that God’s kingdom was subversive and underground. He used examples like yeast, which changes things from the inside, and mustard seeds, which are small and must be planted in order to grow up and out.

As the distinctions between Christians and an ever-growing post-Christian culture emerge, we will have to set aside any nominal belief systems and become active agents of God’s Kingdom. The answer is not found in waging cultural wars incessantly, or in making a theological shift to the left to pacify a culture offended by the gospel. The answer is in all of God’s people, changed by the power of the gospel and propelled by love, moving into the mission field as agents of gospel transformation.

This is no time to panic or exaggerate the situation. As I said in Lost and Found, in the midst of a hysterical panic about 94 percent of evangelical young adults leaving church, “Crises sell books but usually don’t fix problems.” (And, it is nowhere near 94 percent.)

Yes, we need a serious dose of what I write in Christianity Today a few years ago: Curing Christians Stats Abuse.

Facts are our friends, and the facts do point to a cultural change. And, in the midst of that cultural change we do see that American looks more like a mission field. However, what we need is a mobilized—rather than demoralized—mission force.

Bad stats and hyperbole do just that—demoralize God’s people.

Today, we need a mobilized mission force in the midst of this mission field. So, it’s time to time to work for the sake of the gospel, and to live for the cause of the gospel, not run around proclaiming the sky is falling.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ed Stetzer is the President of LifeWay Research, a prolific author, and well-known conference and seminar leader. Stetzer has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, holds two masters degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles and books.

04/22/14

The Ultimate Self-Help Book: Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’

THE SATURDAY ESSAY
The Ultimate Self-Help Book: Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’
‘The Divine Comedy’ is not just a classic of world literature. It’s the most astonishing self-help book ever written

By ROD DREHER
Updated April 18, 2014 6:38 p.m. ET
Dante’s goal was ‘to remove those living in this life from the state of misery and lead them to the state of bliss.’ Above, ‘Portrait of Dante Alighieri’ by Attilio Roncaldier De Agostini/Getty Images
On the evening of Good Friday, a man on the run from a death sentence wakes up in a dark forest, lost, terrified and besieged by wild animals. He spends an infernal Easter week hiking through a dismal cave, climbing up a grueling mountain, and taking what you might call the long way home.

It all works out for him, though. The traveler returns from his ordeal a better man, determined to help others learn from his experience. He writes a book about his to-hell-and-back trek, and it’s an instant best-seller, making him beloved and famous.

Everyone knows that “The Divine Comedy,” is one of the greatest literary works of all time. What everybody does not know is that it is also the most astonishing self-help book ever written. “The American Conservative” senior editor Rod Dreher discusses. Photo: Getty.
For 700 years, that gripping adventure story—”The Divine Comedy” by Dante Alighieri—has been dazzling readers and even changing the lives of some of them. How do I know? Because Dante’s poem about his fantastical Easter voyage pretty much saved my own life over the past year.

Everybody knows that “The Divine Comedy” is one of the greatest literary works of all time. What everybody does not know is that it is also the most astonishing self-help book ever written.

It sounds trite, almost to the point of blasphemy, to call “The Divine Comedy” a self-help book, but that’s how Dante himself saw it. In a letter to his patron, Can Grande della Scala, the poet said that the goal of his trilogy—”Inferno,” “Purgatory” and “Paradise”—is “to remove those living in this life from the state of misery and lead them to the state of bliss.”

The Comedy does this by inviting the reader to reflect on his own failings, showing him how to fix things and regain a sense of direction, and ultimately how to live in love and harmony with God and others.

This glorious medieval cathedral in verse arose from the rubble of Dante’s life. He had been an accomplished poet and an important civic leader in Florence at the height of that city’s powers. But he wound up on the losing side of a fierce political struggle with the pope and, in 1302, fled rather than accept a death sentence. He lost everything and spent the rest of his life as a refugee.

The Comedy, which Dante wrote in exile, tells the story of his symbolic death, rebirth and ascension to a higher state of being. It is set on Easter weekend to emphasize its allegorical connection with Christ’s story, but Dante also draws on classical sources, especially Virgil’s “Aeneid,” as well as the Exodus story from the Bible.

Dante’s masterpiece is an archetypal story of journey and heroic quest. Its message speaks to readers, whether faithful or faithless, who are searching for moral knowledge and a sense of hope and direction. In its day, it’s worth recalling, the poem was a pop-culture blockbuster. Dante wrote it not in the customary Latin but in Florentine dialect to make it widely accessible. He wasn’t writing for scholars and connoisseurs; he was writing for commoners. And it was a hit. According to the historian Barbara Tuchman, “In Dante’s lifetime, his verse was chanted by blacksmiths and mule-drivers.”

Who knew? Not me. I always thought “The Divine Comedy” was one of those lofty, doorstop-sized Great Books more admired than read. Its intimidating reputation is likely why few people ever walk with Dante through the fires of the Inferno, climb with him up the seven-story mountain of Purgatory and rocket with him through the stars to Paradise.

What a pity. They will never discover the surprisingly accessible beauty of Dante’s verse in modern translation. Nor will they grasp how useful his poem can be to modern people who find themselves caught in a personal crisis from which there seems no escape. Dante’s search for deliverance propels him on a purpose-driven pilgrimage from chaos to order, from despair to hope, from darkness to light and from the prison of self to the liberty of self-mastery.

Dante showed me how to do it too. Midway through my own life, my journey brought me back to my hometown, where, in the wake of my sister’s death, I had hoped to start anew with my family. The tale of my sister Ruthie’s grace-filled fight with cancer and the love of our hometown that saw her through to the end changed my heart—and helped to heal wounds from the teenage traumas that had driven me away.

But things didn’t work out as I had expected or hoped. By last fall, I found myself struggling with depression, confusion and chronic fatigue—caused, according to my doctors, by deep and unrelenting stress. My rheumatologist told me that I had better find some way to inner peace or my health would be destroyed.
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My guides were my priest, my therapist and, surprisingly, Dante Alighieri. Killing time in a bookstore one day, I read the first canto of “Inferno,” in which the frightened and disoriented Dante comes to himself in the dark wood, all paths out blocked by savage animals.

Yes, I thought, that’s exactly what this feels like. I kept reading and didn’t stop. Several months later, after much introspective prayer, counseling and completing all three books of “The Divine Comedy,” I was free and on the road to recovery. And I was left awe-struck by the power of this 700-year-old poem to restore me.

This will startle readers who think of “The Divine Comedy” only as the “Inferno” and think of the “Inferno” only as a showcase of sadistic tortures. It is pretty gory, but none of its gruesomeness is gratuitous. Rather, the ingenious punishments that Dante invents for the damned reveal the intrinsic nature of their sins—and of sin itself, which, as the poet says, makes “reason slave to appetite.”

On the spiral journey downward into the Inferno, Dante learns that all sin is a function of disordered desire—a distortion of love. The damned either loved evil things or loved good things—such as food and sex—in the wrong way. They dwell forever in the pit because they used their God-given free will—the quality that makes us most human—to choose sin over righteousness.

The pilgrim’s dramatic encounters in the “Inferno”—with tormented shades such as the adulterous Francesca, the prideful Farinata and the silver-tongued deceiver Ulysses—offer no simplistic morals. They are, instead, a profound exploration of the lies we tell ourselves to justify our desires and to conceal our deeds and motives from ourselves.

This opens the pilgrim Dante’s eyes to his own sins and the ways that yielding to them drew him from life’s straight path. The first steps to freedom require honestly recognizing that one is enslaved—and one’s own responsibility for that bondage.

The second stage of the journey begins on Easter morning, at the foot of Mount Purgatory. Dante and his guide, the Roman poet Virgil, stagger out of the Inferno and begin the climb to the summit. If “Inferno” is about recognizing and understanding one’s sin, “Purgatory” is about repenting of it, purifying one’s will to become fit for Paradise.

Like all the redeemed souls beginning the ascent, Dante girds himself with a reed symbolizing humility. This is a truth every 12-stepper knows: Alone, we are powerless over our addictions.

But we aren’t entirely powerless. On the Terrace of Wrath, where penitents must purge themselves, amid choking black smoke, of their tendency toward anger, the pilgrim meets a shade called Marco, whom he asks to explain why the world is in such a bad state. Marco sighs heavily and points to the poor choices that people make. “You still possess a light to winnow good from evil, and you have free will,” Marco says. “Therefore, if the world around you goes astray, in you is the cause and in you let it be sought.”

With these lines, the poet tells us to stop blaming other people for our problems. As long as we draw breath, we have it within ourselves to change.

Change is difficult and painful. But the penitents of Purgatory endure their purifications with joy because they know that they are ultimately heaven-bound. “I speak of pain,” says a repentant glutton, now emaciated, “but I should say solace.” The holy suffering of these ascetics unites them with Christ’s example and sacrifice, which gives them the strength to bear it.

Dante’s guide Virgil, who represents the best of human reason unaided by faith, can take the pilgrim to the mountaintop, but he cannot cross into Paradise. That task falls to Beatrice, the woman whom Dante had adored in life and in whose beautiful countenance young Dante saw a glimmer of the divine.

When he meets Beatrice at the summit, Dante confesses that after her death, he learned that he should set his heart on the eternal, on a love that cannot perish. But he forgot this wisdom and made his goal the pursuit of what Beatrice calls “false images of the good.” This confession and his abject sorrow open the door for Dante’s total purification, making him strong enough to bear the weight of heaven’s glory.

“Paradise,” which tracks Dante’s rise with Beatrice through the heights of heaven, is the most metaphysical and difficult of the three books of “The Divine Comedy.” It offers a vision of the Promised Land after the agonies of the purgatorial desert.

Allegorically, “Paradise” shows how we can live when we dwell in love, at peace with God and our neighbors, our desires not denied but fulfilled in harmonious order. It describes in rapturous passages how to be filled with the light and love of God, how to embrace gratitude no matter our condition and how to say, with the nun Piccarda Donati in an early canto, “In His will is our peace.”

The effect all this had on me was dramatic. Without my quite realizing what was happening, “The Divine Comedy” led me systematically to examine my own conscience and to reflect on how I too had pursued false images of the good.

A portrait of Dante from the late 16th century. He hoped his poem would lead readers ‘to the state of bliss.’ National Gallery of Art
I learned how I had been missing the mark in my vocation as a writer. My eagerness to chase after new ideas before I had mastered old ones was a form of intellectual gluttony. The workaholic tendencies I considered a sign of my strong professional ethic were, paradoxically, a cover for my laziness; the more time I spent writing, the less time I had for the mundane tasks necessary for an orderly life.

Most important of all, reading Dante uncovered the sin most responsible for my immediate crisis. Family and home ought to have been for me icons of the good—that is, windows into the divine—but without meaning to, I had loved them too much, seeing them as absolute goods, thereby rendering them into idols. They had to be cast down, or at least put in their proper place, if I was going to be free.

And “The Divine Comedy” persuaded me that I was not helplessly caught by my failings and circumstances. I had reason, I had free will, I had the assistance of good people—and I had the help of God, if only I would humble myself to ask.

Why did I need Dante to gain this knowledge? After all, my confessor had a lot to say about bondage to false idols and about how humility and prayer can unleash the power of God to help us overcome it. And at our first meeting, my therapist told me that I couldn’t control other people or events, but, by the exercise of my free will, I could control my response to them. None of the basic lessons of the Comedy was exactly new to me.

But when embodied in this brilliant poem, these truths inflamed my moral imagination as never before. For me, the Comedy became an icon through which the serene light of the divine pierced the turbulent darkness of my heart. As the Dante scholar Charles Williams wrote of the supreme poet’s art: “A thousand preachers have said all that Dante says and left their hearers discontented; why does Dante content? Because an image of profundity is there.”

That image is what Christian theologians call a “theophany”—a manifestation of God. Standing in my little country church this past January on the Feast of the Theophany, the poet’s impact on my life became clear. Nothing external had changed, but everything in my heart had. I was settled. For the first time since returning to my hometown, I felt that I had come home.

Can Dante do this for others? Truth to tell, it is impossible for me, as a believing (non-Catholic) Christian, to separate my receptiveness to the poem from the core theological vision both Dante and I share.

But the Comedy wouldn’t have survived so long if it were just an elaborate exercise in morality and Scholastic theology. The Comedy pulses with life, and it bears witness in its luminous lines and vivid tableaux to the power of love, the deathlessness of hope and the promise of freedom for those who have the courage to take the first pilgrim step.

Over Lent, I led readers of my blog on a pilgrimage through “Purgatory,” one canto a day. To my delight, a number of them wrote afterward to say how much Dante had changed their lives. One reader wrote to say that she quit a three-decade smoking habit while reading “Purgatory” over Lent, saying that the poem helped her to think of her addiction as something that she could be free of, with God’s help.

“I’ve had the sensation of maddeningly stinging, prickling skin during the nicotine withdrawal phase when I’ve tried to quit before,” she said, “but reading Dante helped me to imagine the sensation as a cleansing fire.”

Michelle Togut, a Jewish reader in Greensboro, N.C., told me that she was surprised by how contemporary the medieval Italian poet seemed. “For a work about what supposedly happens after you die, Dante’s poem is very much about life and how we choose to live it,” she said. “It’s about spurning our idols and taking a long, hard look at ourselves in order to break out of the destructive behaviors that keep us from both G-d and the good life.”

The practical applications of Dante’s wisdom cannot be separated from the pleasure of reading his verse, and this accounts for much of the life-changing power of the Comedy. For Dante, beauty provides signposts on the seeker’s road to truth. The wandering Florentine’s experiences with beauty, especially that of the angelic Beatrice, taught him that our loves lead us to heaven or to hell, depending on whether we are able to satisfy them within the divine order.

This is why “The Divine Comedy” is an icon, not an idol: Its beauty belongs to heaven. But it may also be taken into the hearts and minds of those woebegone wayfarers who read it as a guidebook and hold it high as a lantern, sent across the centuries from one lost soul to another, illuminating the way out of the dark wood that, sooner or later, ensnares us all.

Mr. Dreher is a senior editor of The American Conservative, where portions of this essay first appeared. His most recent book, “The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming” (Grand Central), was published in paperback this week.

04/22/14

And you shall love the proselyte

When a convert or their children or grandchildren make aliyah, he or she needs Jewish status validated

Back in 2008, the Rabbinical Council of America ( RCA) announced a new system of conversion ( GPS – Geirus Policies and Standards). Ostensibly, their goal was to create a universal and centralized standard for all conversions. We warned then that the GPS system would result in invalidating conversions that had been done in the past in accordance with Orthodox law and approved by the RCA ( JTA, March 10, 2008, “RCA Deal Hurts Rabbi, Converts”).
Unfortunately we have been proven correct. In a letter sent by the Beth Din of America ( BDA, which is under the auspices of the RCA) to the Chief Rabbinate’s office, it was stated that “we cannot accept the conversion of any rabbi who served in a synagogue without a mehitza [ a partition between men and women].” The RCA should clarify whether this refers to any rabbi who ever served in a synagogue without a mehitza, or if it refers to a rabbi who performed that specific conversion while serving in a non- mehitza synagogue. Either way, this pronouncement should alarm countless converts.
Back in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, many Orthodox rabbis ordained at Yeshiva University (YU) served in mixed-seated shuls. The Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, felt that in certain communities, YU rabbis should serve because the shuls might one day construct a mehitza. The BDA letter now places the conversions of all of those rabbis in jeopardy.
This means that the children and grandchildren of these converts, some living in Israel, could be declared to not be Jewish. This is a terrible violation of the law which prohibits the oppression of converts.
It is also a violation of the RCA’s own promise when it declared, “…any conversions performed previously [before GPS] that met its standards then, would continue to be recognized” (RCA Response to Public Attack on GPS Geirus Policies, March 19, 2009). PRIOR TO the GPS system, when conversions were questioned, the RCA would vouch for its members who were in good standing. The RCA didn’t think twice about Orthodox rabbis who served in mixed-seated shuls in the ‘50’s or ‘60’s, as this was common practice. This has now changed.
When we wrote that the RCA would question conversions done prior to the 2008 GPS standards, we never asserted that the RCA would conduct a witch- hunt to actively search out converts, find them, and declare them invalid. What we said was that those converts who now needed to have their conversions validated by the RCA would be in jeopardy as the RCA would cast aspersions on pre- GPS conversions by imposing post- GPS standards.
This is precisely what is happening. When a convert or their children or grandchildren make aliyah, he or she needs Jewish status validated. Because of the centralization of the GPS standards, the Chief Rabbinate’s office now turns to the Beth Din of America for guidance. The upshot of this is that conversions performed by RCA rabbis who served in non- mehitza shuls for years – some who even went on to become presidents of the RCA – are now in question.
RCA validation of conversions may not be limited to converts who emigrate to Israel. It can also encompass those applying to Orthodox day schools right here in the United States, or applying for membership in an Orthodox synagogue, as these schools and synagogues will be looking to the RCA for guidance.
And the matter is even worse. As a result of the GPS system, the RCA now has a practice of not only evaluating converts at the time of conversion, but for years after. Most recently, a convert who converted through the GPS system informed us of a call received from an RCA official. Having heard that the convert was struggling with Orthodox communal norms, the official threatened to retroactively invalidate the conversion.
The RCA practices should be of great concern to every convert who converts today. Now, the RCA is not only invalidating conversions done prior to the GPS system but threatening to undo conversions done through the GPS system itself.
It is these issues that require immediate detailed clarification from the RCA. In the meantime we should all be concerned about what seems to be both a retroactive application of current GPS principles and also a creeping reduction of the convert’s status in the Orthodox community.
Rabbi Marc Angel is founder and director of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals ( jewishideas. org) and a former president of the RCA.
Rabbi Avi Weiss is senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and Founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School and Yeshivat Maharat.
They are co- founders of the International Rabbinic Fellowship ( IRF).

04/18/14

Signs of hope as church swells with new recruits

Times Newspapers Ltd

Ruth Gledhill
Published 23 minutes ago
‘Fresh expression’ is leading a Christian revival, says Ruth Gledhill
The Archbishop of Canterbury, writing in this week’s Radio Times, challenges the comic stereotype of the declining, hopeless church offered up by BBC2’s Rev. “The show amusingly depicts some of the challenges facing clergy up and down the country. But while it’s great entertainment, it doesn’t truly tell the whole story,” writes Justin Welby. “I have a friend who runs a growing church in Reading city centre, filled with young people with no church background; I have another friend who has had to plant two new churches because his congregation is bursting at the seams. As with all of life, the picture is complex, but I see plenty of struggle and plenty of grounds for celebration. Therefore, while Rev is great viewing, it doesn’t depress me quite as much as you might think!”
Bishops and archbishops can sometimes appear in deep denial about the Church of England’s seemingly perpetual decline over many decades. The latest Census figures show that numbers declaring themselves Christian fell from 71.7 per cent in 2001 to 59.3 per cent in 2011. Yet new research, some of the most thorough ever done on the Church of England, is starting to tell a different story. The Church, crucified by so many on the altar of modern secularism, is in danger of undergoing a bodily resurrection.
A new church named after one of the Church of England’s oldest martyrs tells the tale. Just outside the M25 between Oxford and London, a handful of people who started in a rented house in Beaconsfield found and acquired a derelict farm nearby. They repaired the barns. Named after Hugh Latimer, who was burnt at the stake in Oxford in 1555 for his Protestant preaching, Latimer Minster fits a model common in Britain before the parish system.
The model comes from the earliest missionary communities in the British Isles, organised to teach and evangelise and often including farming, crafts and hospitality. It is “a form of outward-focused monasticism”, says Frog Orr-Ewing, the rector. Young ordinands in the Church of England are queuing up to serve there. Latimer’s is an example of how “fresh expressions” phenomena are calling a halt on the long-term decline in church attendance, and, in some places, actually setting it on an upward trend. In two years, numbers have grown to between 150 and 200 attending during the week and on Sunday are bursting out of the barn. Latimer’s ordered a big top, due to be delivered next month. Many are meeting weekly in smaller groups around Buckinghamshire in what are being termed small “pastorates”, functioning groups of Christians living in community who know each other well.
“The idea is to identify leaders of smaller groups who will form groups of confident believers, people who will not retreat into some little cosy Christian subculture but will engage with the real world. They then will also spawn other little groups,” explains Nancy Gifford, of the Oxford Centre for Apologetics. “ Latimer’s has everyone from builders, those seeking work, to sporting champions, venture capitalists, civil servants, teachers and workers for NGOs.”
As with Holy Trinity Brompton, the founding church of the phenomenal evangelical success story that is the Alpha Course, key ingredients of Latimer’s success seem to be prayer, food and, perhaps most important of all, a strong sense of community.
The Bishop of Chelmsford, the Right Rev Stephen Cottrell, who has one of the most diverse dioceses in the country, from the East End of London to rural Essex, has embraced these new forms of church. He says: “We are pretty confident we have stopped declining. We are suddenly starting to see a really significant impact on the overall figures.” In his diocese, about 2,000 people are in one of these new forms of church on a Sunday morning. His research shows that for every two existing churchgoers involved in starting one of these, eight new people have joined. Of these, three might be lapsed and returned, but five are new. “Churches are a lot more optimistic than they have been,” he adds.
In a project funded by the Church Commissioners, Canon George Lings of the Church Army has researched and analysed the “fresh expressions” phenomena. He chose ten dioceses and found 20 types of these new churches, the most common being messy Church, child-focused church and café church. Messy Church is a family-focused form of worship that is more or less what it says on the tin. There are a lot of children and they create a lot of mess. More than 500 fresh expression churches have been started since 1992 in the ten dioceses studied, nearly half in the last three years, and most are still going. “If these figures prove typical, then across the Church of England there could be about 2,000 genuine fresh expressions of Church,” says Dr Ling. “In seven out of the ten dioceses, what they add in numbers equates to reversing the decline in the average weekly attendance figures in those dioceses over the years 2006-2011.”
To reflect the changing nature of church attendance, the Church of England has introduced a new measure to its annual statistics: “worshipping community”. On average, one million people attended church each week in 2012, the average being 30 in rural parishes and 100 in urban areas. The past decade has seen almost no change. The first worshipping community figure, measuring those who turn up at least once a month, also came in at about one million. The number of people joining the Church in 2012, 38,000, exceeded those leaving. The churches most likely to be in decline are those with no children. Nearly half of all churches have fewer than five people aged under 16.
Dr Bev Botting, head of research and statistics at the Church of England, reports that half of the church’s 10,000 parishes are stable, one quarter are in decline and a quarter are growing. New research is being commissioned to find out what makes the difference, and why. “We know that there is a numerical link between the number of children and whether a church grows or not, but we have not proven yet whether one causes the other.”
It’s too early to say for sure, but as another Easter approaches, it seems as though God really might not be dead after all.

04/18/14

Pope of the poor kneels to wash the feet of the disabled

Pope of the poor kneels to wash the feet of the disabled | The Times

Pope of the poor kneels to wash the feet of the disabled | The Times

Pope Francis swabbed and kissed the feet of patients

James Bone Rome
Published at 12:01AM, April 18 2014

Pope Francis washed the feet of 12 residents of a disabled home on the outskirts of Rome yesterday, one of them a wheelchair- bound African teenager.

Kneeling, the Pope swabbed and kissed the feet of patients stricken with paralysis and neurological disorders at the Don Gnocchi centre; a traditional Easter ritual, which recalls the actions of Jesus when he washed the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper.

Yesterday’s group of 12 included Oswaldinho, 16, from Cape Verde, who was paralysed in a diving accident last summer, and one Muslim, a 75-year-old man called Hamed. Originally from Libya, he suffered serious neurological impairment in a traffic accident.

Francis did not, however, repeat his controversial gesture of last year of kissing the feet of a young Muslim woman at a nearby youth detention centre.

Furio Gramatica, a research scientist at the foundation, said the Pope’s visit was “too fantastic to be true”. He added: “Concerning our guests, one might guess that most of them cannot fully catch the meaning of this visit, but this is definitely not true, even for the most critical cases. Our guests all develop a clear ‘sixth sense’ on how much they are loved.”

Earlier, Francis added a personal touch to his mass at St Peter’s Basilica for Maundy Thursday. Encouraging Christians to feel

the joy of Jesus, he admitted he too had suffered “gloomy moments when everything looks dark” and “moments of listlessness and boredom which at times overcome us”.

The man dubbed “Pope of the poor” argued that being a priest was inextricably linked to poverty. “The priest is poor in terms of purely human joy. He has given up so much. And because he is poor, he, who gives so much to others, has to seek his joy from the Lord and from God’s faithful people,” he said.

After the Easter weekend, the Vatican will prepare for the rare double-canonisation of two popes — John Paul II and John XXIII — on April 27.

 

04/17/14

The Church needs more than this hapless Rev

Tim Montgomerie

Tim MontgomeriePublished at 12:01AM, April 17 2014

The hero of the BBC’s religious sitcom is likeable but ineffectual. Christians have to fight harder for their faith

A few years ago David Cameron’s faith was very, well, Church of England-ish. It was, he said, a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: “It sort of comes and goes.” More recently the signal seems to have become stronger. Last week, at an Easter reception for Christian leaders, he described Jesus Christ as “our Saviour”. He said that his moments of greatest peace came when he attended church.

He seems to be on a journey. Perhaps the burdens of office have changed him? Perhaps it was the tragic death of his son Ivan five years ago? In the latest edition of Church Times he notes how he has “felt at first hand the healing power of the Church’s pastoral care”.

What the prime minister definitely is, in modern Britain, is atypical. Although the decline in church-going has slowed, and perhaps even halted, the numbers attending an Anglican church this weekend — the most important in the Christian calendar — will be only about 1.3 million. Britain is one of the most secular countries in the most secular of continents. If Mr Cameron shares the peace with his fellow congregants on Easter Sunday it may well remind him of the Conservative party’s members. There’ll be an awful lot of grey hair, walking sticks and adjustment of hearing aids.

If only 1.3 million Brits attend the national Church this Easter then about twice as many tune into the warmest TV portrayal of a Christian minister for years — at least since The Simpsons’ Ned Flanders (once described as “the United States’ most well-known evangelical”). The BBC’s Rev,currently in its third series, is winning plaudits from believers and non-believers alike. For those of you who haven’t seen it, the Rev Adam Smallbone, brilliantly played by Tom Hollander, is a kind man coping in the extraordinarily difficult circumstances of a deprived inner city parish. Like many vicars, he earns only about £20,000 — much less than his qualifications would command in other walks of life. He usually works extraordinary hours, often thanklessly.

Although the first series of Rev fell into the default mode of modern TV drama, nastily portraying evangelical Christians as hypocritical, uncompromising and even corrupt, Smallbone himself is always trying to do what he thinks is the right thing. He visits the poor, honours gay members of his congregation and works with the local mosque. He’s also funny and clever. You’d want him as a neighbour or presiding over your loved ones’ hatches, matches and dispatches.

Most of all, he’s honest. He doesn’t hide his struggles with faith and his relationship with God consequently appears more real. Christians often seem afraid to admit doubts and weaknesses but the Psalmists in the Bible never did. Eugene H Peterson’s modern translation of verses 9 and 10 of Psalm 42 could have been written for Rev: “Sometimes I ask God,/my rock-solid God,/‘Why did you let me down?/ Why am I walking around in tears,/ harassed by enemies?’/ They’re out for the kill, these/ tormentors with their obscenities,/Taunting day after day,/ ‘Where is this God of yours?’ ”

In the Psalms and Rev there is a compelling intermingling of faith in God with near soul-destroying exasperation from his followers at what they sometimes have to go through.

But, overall, I can’t really join the plaudits for the show — because ultimately Smallbone is losing. And losing without much evidence of a fight. His church is nearly empty. The nearby mosque raises £12,000 overnight to restore a local playground where, despite great efforts, he can raise only 38p. He is pusillanimous in the face of church bureaucrats who speak like the bureaucrats in the BBC’s other hit comedy of the moment, W1A. Smallbone doesn’t represent the Church militant — determined to prevail against the gates of hell. He has the meekness of Jesus but not the Jesus of Matthew 21:12 — who loved enough to be actively angry when he encountered injustice. The Jesus who kicked over the tables of the money lenders in the temple.

And so this is my challenge to the Church. Most institutions measure themselves in terms of popularity — via opinion polls, number of customers, financial power. Those can’t be irrelevant to the Church. Without some popularity it won’t build support for laws that maintain religious freedom. It won’t have money to fund good works. But popularity can’t be the decisive measure. Jesus may have founded the biggest movement in history but he didn’t win much popularity during his time on earth. Days after he and his donkey were welcomed by crowds into Jerusalem he was betrayed or denied by his closest disciples. He ended up crucified.

Today’s Church should not seek unpopularity but it should worry about the indifference that the real life equivalents of the Rev Adam Smallbone produce. The Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas and other hate-filled perversions of the gospel represent the very worst manifestation of the Church. Yet to be liked but ignored, like Rev, is far from ideal.

I recommend a bit of table overturning, but where to start? I suspect many churchgoers would choose the boardrooms of big City institutions. Some would even nominate the Church of England’s General Synod. But where would Jesus go? The blood-soaked halls of the Kremlin? The useless talking shops of the United Nations? The world’s abortion clinics? Or somewhere closer to home? He might visit the golf and social clubs or pubs where modern Britain relaxes — while elderly relatives sit at home, lonely and neglected. If Jesus did return today, he’d be busy and more than a little angry. His modern-day disciples should be too.

04/16/14

Passover – the feast of freedom

Several years ago a friend suggested that we hold a Seder without the Haggada, which, in her opinion, is an outdated, anomalous and politically incorrect text. Instead, she proposed that we organize a meal (not necessarily a kosher-for-passover one) around the concept of freedom, which, she argued, is the leitmotif of Passover. I objected.

Whatever the merits or demerits of the Haggada, the traditional Seder, based on the Haggada, is part and parcel of the Jewish tradition with which both she and I grew up as secular Jews, and besides being an enjoyable social event, spent with family and/or friends and involving very specific and detailed culinary planning and preparations, also involves childhood memories and nostalgia.

Whatever one may think of the actual text of the Haggada, it is undoubtedly an ingenious layout for keeping everyone busy and engaged, even if one might resent the distribution of roles (where are the women, except in the kitchen?).

True, following the return to Zion, there were attempts, especially in the kibbutzim, to rewrite the Haggada, so that it would be better suited to the new era and circumstances. Non-Orthodox streams in Judaism, feminists and others have also produced new versions, befitting their beliefs or ideology. I wouldn’t be surprised if the vegans produced their own version, without the carnage of Had Gadya . However, personally I never managed to connect to any of the alternative Haggadot. There is no escape from the fact that there is something a little unnatural about invented traditions.

The closest I have been willing to go toward an alternative text and narrative is to bring with me to the Seder a copy of “Halaila Hazeh – Haggada Yisraelit,” which was written by Mishael and Noam Zion and published in 2002 in memory of Marla Bennett, who was massacred that year in a terrorist attack in a cafeteria at the Hebrew University, and which includes the full traditional Haggada, with various modern explanations and additions, and fun illustrations by Michel Kichka.

During Seders I attend from time to time abroad, to which gentile friends are occasionally invited, I am happy to have a text I can add to the embarrassing “shfoch hamatcha al hagoyim asher lo yaducha,” (pour out Thy wrath upon the nations who knew Thee not) which blesses the gentiles who have protected Jews in difficult times. I have heard the traditional explanation for the original paragraph, but always find it wanting. Just as I would consider it offensive if in a Christmas celebration Christians would pray to God that he pour out his wrath upon the Jews who reject Christ as the son of God and the Messiah, so I believe it is offensive to ask God to pour out his wrath on the gentiles, who do not believe in him as the God of Israel.

But back to the concept of freedom. It is certainly a topic worthy of serious philosophical conversation, with or without an accompanying meal, but preferably without children, who out of sheer boredom might well start playing out their natural freedom instincts.

I have frequently wondered about the historical accuracy of the biblical story of the exodus from Egypt, which like most other biblical stories undoubtedly has a grain of truth in it, but is unfortunately not backed up by concrete evidence or archeological finds. However, assuming that the Jewish people were, in fact, slaves in Egypt, gained their freedom with or without the help of the Almighty, and then made their way at snail’s pace to the Land of Israel, dayenu – a reason to rejoice, and count our blessings.

However, if we look at how various sections of the Jewish people view the concept of freedom today, here we are likely to find a reflection of all the schisms that divide us into different political, economic and social camps, which at times seem to threaten our continued existence as a sovereign, independent state, as if there is something ingrained in our collective DNA which prefers longings for liberty and freedom to liberty and freedom themselves.

Freedom for the haredim and freedom for liberal secular Jews represents something very different. While for the liberal secular Jew freedom implies being able to live one’s life as one chooses, without any religious coercion or other interference (beyond obeying the law of the land), for the haredi man freedom implies being able to spend his whole life studying in a yeshiva, without having to work, and without serving in the army. What freedom means to the haredi woman is less clear – I wonder whether the word “freedom” has any meaning for her, unless the almost total absence of personal choice can somehow be interpreted to mean the freedom to live as God created woman (according to Orthodox Judaism) to live.

For members of the National Religious settlers in Judea and Samaria, freedom means the right to live anywhere in these territories, which are viewed by them to be inalienable Jewish land, irrespective of facts on the ground, the rights of others and how the international community views the situation. To some this sense of freedom is taken to extremes, as we observed last week in Yitzhar, which demonstrates how easily “freedom” may turn into “anarchy” and “lawlessness.”

For neo-liberals freedom means an unbridled and unregulated free economy, even though its social consequences are ruinous, while in the eyes of social-democrats there can be no freedom without a well-ordered welfare state. There are, however, those who try to combine the two approaches, and thus Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who strongly believed in the free market and the right to private property, nevertheless stated that the state is responsible for providing its citizens with sufficient food, adequate housing, clothing, schooling and health services.

However, what is most disturbing is that there are many who believe that it is only Jews who have the right to enjoy full freedom in Eretz Yisrael. The concept that the other inhabitants of this land including Israel’s Arab (Palestinian) citizens, Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, foreign workers, African refugees and non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union also deserve full personal freedom, not to mention basic human and civil rights, is totally foreign to them, and anyone who dares advocate this concept is considered by them to be a self-hating, apologetic Jew, lacking in dignity and self-respect.

This is, in a nutshell, just a taste of what is involved in a serious discussion on what we mean by the word “freedom.” I prefer to spend the Seder reading the Haggada, eating a traditional Seder meal, and singing the Passover songs. It is a welcome respite from all the daily concerns. Hag same’ ah! The writer is a retired Knesset employee.

04/15/14

The Exodus: Does archaeology have a say?

The short answer is “no.” The whole subject of the Exodus is embarrassing to archaeologists. The Exodus is so fundamental to us and our Jewish sources that it is embarrassing that there is no evidence outside of the Bible to support it. So we prefer not to talk about it, and hate to be asked about it.

(Reuters)AN EGYPTIAN archaeologist touches up the seam on a relief showing a royal cupbearer, dating from about 1300 BC, it is one of the very few tombs in the area from the period of Pharaoh Akhenate.For the account in the Torah is the basis of our people’s creation, it is the basis of our existence and it is the basis of our important Passover festival and the whole Haggada that we recite on the first evening of this festival of freedom. So that makes archaeologists reluctant to have to tell our brethren and ourselves that there is nothing in Egyptian records to support it. Nothing on the slavery of the Israelites, nothing on the plagues that persuaded Pharaoh to let them go, nothing on the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, nothing. Nothing at all. There are three Pharaohs who said they got rid of the hated foreigners, but nothing to say who the foreigners were, and no Pharaoh is named as having persecuted foreign slaves or suffered unspeakable plagues.

However, there is another way of looking at it, another way of seeking support for this fundamental experience of our peoplehood. We do not look for evidence from the biblical text, but we can look to it for the general context of a sojourn in, and an exodus from, Egypt, and there are three major elements. The first is that the Israelites were slave workers in mudbrick. They had to manufacture the material and they were semi-skilled workers in laying the bricks. As there were thousands of Israelites, what projects were they working on? The pyramids and the temples were in stone, the mudbrick houses of the peasants were built by themselves, so what project needed hundreds of workers in mudbrick?

Secondly, when the Israelites escaped, it was during a period of turmoil brought on by the magical plagues, a period when the Egyptians were off their guard and keen to see the slaves go as they wished into the desert. When could that have been?

And thirdly, the Israelites escaped into the desert and there built a most luxurious portable shrine to their God, to accompany them through their long desert trek and to house the Deity that would lead them and protect them on the way. It was to be made of fabulous materials, in hardwood and colored cloth with gold and copper trimmings, as described in detail in 16 chapters of the Torah. How could all that have been manufactured and assembled in the arid Sinai wilderness?

We should then ask, is there any period in Egyptian history when the conditions for these three elements could have come together and thus formed a basis for the context and account of the Exodus? And the answer here is “yes” – there was one such period.

It was around the death of the heretic Pharaoh Akhenaten, the one who decreed that all worship should be directed to the single god Aten, the disc of the sun, and all other gods should be downgraded to secondary rank. To impose his new religious order, Akhenaten closed the old cultic centers of Saqqara and Luxor, closed the temples there, disowned their priests and founded a new city, Akhetaten, called the Horizon of the Aten, on a prime site well away from the old centers. TO IMPOSE the new rule, the city had to be built quickly, and it went up in the incredibly short time of two years, being built throughout in mudbrick, except for the temple and palace, which were in traditional stone.

How could it have been built so quickly? It was said to have employed thousands of slaves working under military taskmasters. It was the largest mudbrick project in Egyptian history and it required thousands of bricklayers and millions of bricks. It employed the army to supervise the slave workers and force them to work as fast as the Pharaoh demanded. The new city was at El Amarna, on the east bank of the Nile, where there was plenty of soft mud for the bricks but little straw.

Thanks to slave labor, Akhenaten’s model city was built in record time, but it did not last long. After only 16 years, Akhenaten died, his reforms had been deeply unpopular and when he died, his new religion was abandoned, and so was his city. Akhenaten and his beautiful wife Nefertiti had had no son, only six daughters, and so it was one of the sons-inlaw who succeeded him: Tutankhamun, the famous boy king Tut.

He had the onerous task of restoring the old order, the old religion, the old gods and their priests, and he was under threat if he did not do so. The restitution stele says that the old gods would punish him if they were not given back their old rights and positions. Hapi, the androgynous god of the Nile, would make its waters undrinkable; Kermit, the goddess of fertility, would release her frogspawn to swarm over the land; Osiris, the god of corn, would not prevent the locusts from consuming his cereals, and Ra, the sun god, would refuse to shine. Sound familiar?

The laws of succession had already been altered, there was no firstborn son to succeed Akhenaten, only a daughter and son-in-law.

As the new city was abandoned, there was breakdown in law and order and the Israelite slaves saw their chance to escape. Like the other departing inhabitants they took with them any treasure they could lay their hands on. They “despoiled the Egyptians” (Exodus 12:36) and marched off with precious materials and above all the battle shrine of Tutankhamun.

Every Pharaoh had a portable battle shrine, to go with him into war, so he could consult the deity and look to it for guidance on the field. Tutankhamun did not go to war, as far as we know, but he had to be ready and he had a war chariot, as one was figured on his furniture, so he would have had a battle shrine as well, but none was found among the luxurious treasures of his tomb when it was uncovered by Howard Carter in 1922. Where then was his battle shrine ? It had been taken away by the Israelites.

And what was its form? We can assume that it was similar to that of Ramesses the Great, whose battle shrine is depicted on the walls of his temple at Abu Simbel. It was a two-chamber movable building set in a large courtyard; the inner chamber was square and contained the ark of a deity protected by two winged birds, and the outer room was twice as large, for the worshipping priests.

That of Tutankhamun was taken by the fleeing Israelites and converted by artisans Bezalel and Oholiab, as instructed by Moses, to become the portable Mishkan or Tabernacle, that accompanied them through the wilderness and landed up at Shiloh, in Canaan. Thus it was made of the finest material, as was everything else that Tutankhamun left behind, including furniture with carrying poles and a golden chest surrounded by cherubim. Sound familiar? THUS, AT the death of Akhenaten we have a situation in Egypt where the three major conditions of the Israelite account of the Exodus came together; the building of a vast mudbrick project; a period of unrest and turmoil when slaves could escape; and the foundation of the Mishkan in the shape of a luxury battle shrine. The date of the death of Akhenaten is placed at about 1330 BCE, and Tutankhamun came to the throne the same year. Was that then the date of the Exodus?

Dating is a tricky subject and it is difficult to see how the Hebrew Bible can give us exact dates, for how were they counted in antiquity? But the Bible gives us two hard dates. One is that the Children of Israel were in Egypt for exactly 430 years, from entry to Exodus (Exodus 12:40). If the Exodus was 1330 BCE, the entry would have been in 1760 CE. That of course is too early for Jacob and his 12 sons, and the rabbis themselves have rejected that period of 430 years and reduced it to 210 years in the Passover Haggada, to relate it more logically to the four generations from Jacob to Levi, to Kehot, to Amram, to Moses. But it works with the idea that the Israelites came to Egypt with the semitic Hyksos, as proposed by Josephus Flavius, the early Jewish historian, and that event is placed by scholars at around 1750 BCE.

The other “fixed” biblical date is that the Solomonic Temple was built 480 years after the Exodus (I Kings 6:1). That is a nominal date as the author will have counted 12 generations and multiplied them by the biblical reckoning of 40 years per generation. But that figure is too high, as a generation, for even in biblical times it was more like 30 years. If we then say 12 generations make up 360 years, then 360 years after 1330 is 970 BCE. The Temple is dated by most scholars to around 950 BCE, so 970 BCE is not a bad fit.

Evidence or not for the Exodus? Evidence there is none, but we can see that there was one period in Egyptian history when such an event could have taken place, one period when the three major conditions suggested by the biblical account came together and could have given it plausibility. And that would make Akhenaten the Pharaoh of the Oppression and young Tutankhamun the Pharaoh of the Exodus. And the date? That would be around 1330 BCE.

The author is a Senior Fellow at the W. F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem.