Category Archives: History

New Evidence of Jesus Crucifixion

The Easter story is at the heart of the Christan religion. On Good Friday Jesus was executed by crucifixion for treason after claiming he was “King of the Jews”, and his body was subsequently taken down from the cross, and buried in a cave. The entrance to the guarded tomb was sealed off by an enormous stone, so that no one could steal Jesus’ body.

However, the following Sunday, some women visited the grave and found that the stone had been moved and that the tomb was empty. 

Jesus himself was seen that day, and for days afterwards by a number of people, and his followers claimed that God had raised his son from the dead.

Naturally, some atheist scholars have long refuted the claim that Jesus ever existed, let alone that he was crucified as told in the Bible.

Professor Richard Dawkins insisted in the God Delusion that a “serious” historical case can be made that “Jesus never lived at all”.

The late Christopher Hitchens also noted Jesus’ “highly questionable existence” and on the Easter story said: “We have a right, if not an obligation, to respect ourselves enough to disbelieve the whole thing”.

Meanwhile, French philosopher Michel Onfray contends that Jesus was merely a “trick born of the rational mind”, while he finds the crucifixion story particularly implausible. 

Mr Onfray stated in 1980: “At the time, Jews were not crucified, but stoned to death.”

He also asserted that if Jesus had been crucified he would not have been placed in a tomb as the Gospels say, because crucifixion victims were never given a proper burial.

However, Mr Onfray’s claims have been refuted by 1968 discovery of Jehohanan, a Jewish man who had been put to death by crucifixion in the 1st century.

Dr John Dickson, the director of the Centre for Public Christianity, wrote in Sydney Morning Herald in 2008: “Jews were perhaps the most crucified people in antiquity.

“The Dead Sea Scrolls and Josphus both report an incident where 800 Pharisees were crucified on one day; their wives and children made to look on.

“Josephus tells us further that during the siege of Jerusalem in AD70 the Romans crucified 500 Jews a day while sacking the city.”

He added: “Actually our only archaeological remains of a crucifixion victim ‒ a male heel bone with an 11-centimietre nail still in place ‒ were discovered in a Jewish tomb.

“This Jew, like Jesus, had been crucified and then properly buried.”

Though the resurrection story is a matter of faith, a consensus of historians agree that Jesus did exist and the Easter events have some accuracy.

Mr Dickson continued: “Few biblical historians accept all of the details of the Gospel accounts ‒ but most, whether Jewish, Christian or agnostic, agree that these writings have preserved a reliable core of information about the tumultuous final days of Jesus’ life.

“He created a public disturbance in the Jerusalem temple shortly before his arrest; he shared a final (Passover) meal which his disciples; he was arrested by the priestly elite and handed over to the Romans; he was crucified for treason under the mocking charge ‘King of the Jews’.

“These are accepted facts of the Easter narrative. Christian apologists may often exaggerate them but the new atheists simply ignore them.”

Most mainstream scholars do not treat the resurrection story as part of their field of inquiry, but instead it is for philosophers and theologians to decipher.

However most scholars do claim that Jesus’ tomb was empty just days after his crucifixion.

Mr Dickinson said: “No historian wearing his or her historical cap would say God raised Jesus from the dead. This is a theological interpretation of the evidence.

“What most scholars do affirm is more modest, though not without significance: Jesus’ tomb was empty shortly after his crucifixion and significant numbers of men and women experienced what they believed to be appearances of the risen Jesus.

“These are the historical facts of Easter Sunday: an empty tomb and resurrection experiences.”

Million yeah old evidence of man found in Israel

Using state-of-the-art artificial intelligence, researchers in Israel have been able to uncover some of the earliest evidence for the use of fire, dating back at least 800,000 years ago.

In an article published on Monday in PNAS Science Journal, Weizmann Institute of Science researchers detailed the advanced, innovative method that they have developed and used to detect nonvisual traces of fire, giving a rare glimpse into the lives of early humans.

Archaeologists believe that the controlled use of fire by ancient hominins – a group that includes humans and some of our extinct family members — developed around a million years ago.

The prevailing theory, called the “cooking hypothesis,” states that the use of fire was crucial for the evolution of homo sapiens, with flames not only enabling the creation of more sophisticated tools but also making food safer to eat and increasing its nutritional and digestive benefit — providing more nutrients for brains to develop and grow.

While the theory is widely accepted in the academic community, researchers have found it difficult to find evidence of fire use at the early stages of humans’ evolutionary development, and thus do not have the necessary data to fully support it.

Traditional archaeological methods allow for the discovery of fire usage to only as far back as some 200,000 years ago, since researchers rely mainly on modifications to material by heat, for example color changes.

So far, evidence of fire use dating back to 500,000 years ago has only been found in five sites around the world, and data is sparse.

“We may have just found the sixth site,” said Dr. Filipe Natalio of Weizmann’s Plant and Environmental Sciences Department.

Natalio had previously worked with Dr. Ido Azuri, of Weizmann’s Life Core Facilities Department, to discover evidence of controlled burning dating back to between 200,000 and 420,000 years ago at several archeological sites in Israel using AI and spectroscopy. That partnership served as the basis for the latest project.

Joined by PhD student Zane Stepka, Dr. Liora Kolska Horwitz from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Prof. Michael Chazan from the University of Toronto, Canada, the team set out on an expedition to the Evron Quarry in northern Israel — an open-air archaeological site in the Western Galilee that was first discovered in the mid-1970s.

“When we started this project,” said Natalio, “the archaeologists who’ve been analyzing the findings from Evron Quarry told us we wouldn’t find anything. We should have made a bet.”

Previous archeological work at Evron, led by Prof. Avraham Ronen, uncovered 14 meters (45 feet) of animal fossils and tools from the Paleolithic era, dating back to between 800,000 and 1 million years ago, which made it one of the oldest sites in Israel.

However, researchers did not discover any evidence at the site of fire use.

With ash and charcoal degrading over time, the finding of such evidence at the site is close to impossible.

Before arriving at Evron, the team began by updating and advancing the AI models they have used before.

“We tested a variety of methods, among them traditional data analysis methods, machine learning modeling, and more advanced deep learning models,” said Azuri, who headed the development of the models.

“The deep learning models that prevailed had a specific architecture that outperformed the others and successfully gave us the confidence we needed to further use this tool in an archaeological context having no visual signs of fire use,” he said.

The main benefit of using AI is that it can analyze the chemical composition of materials and from there estimate the templates they were heated in.

With an accurate AI method in hand, the team could start fishing for molecular signals from the stone tools used by the inhabitants of the Evron Quarry almost a million years ago.

An analysis for the heat exposure of 26 flint tools previously found at the site showed some exceeding 600°C, with a tusk of an extinct elephant also showing signs of heating.

Besides being the clearest evidence for ancient fire usage at the site, the researchers said that the presence of the heat signature could also be evidence of ancient hominids’ experimentation with different materials.

The team believes that the technique could be employed not only to identify the use of fire, but serve as a window into the origin of its implementation by early humans.

“Especially in the case of early fire,” said Stepka, “if we use this method at archaeological sites that are one or two million years old, we might learn something new.”

“It was not only a demonstration of exploration and being rewarded in terms of the knowledge gained,” said Natalio, “but of the potential that lies in combining different disciplines: Ido has a background in quantum chemistry, Zane is a scientific archaeologist, and Liora and Michael are prehistorians. By working together, we have learned from each other. For me, it’s a demonstration of how scientific research across the humanities and science should work.”

NATO Ally has Waged a War on Christianity

While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is ongoing, an EU member nation remains occupied, ethnically cleansed and colonized by a NATO member — and this for the past 48 years. I’m referring to the continual occupation of the Republic of Cyprus by Turkey.

Much of the cultural and religious heritage of this ancient nation has been obliterated by Turkey. The Turkish invasion brought with it destruction to non-Muslim historic sites, including the cultural heritage of Greek, Jewish, Armenian, Latin, Maronite, and other communities. In spite of this, the West has largely remained silent.

The illegal invasion and forced division of Cyprus by Turkey in 1974 based on the religion and ethnicity of its residents, has led to countless human rights violations including cultural heritage destruction and systematic discrimination — even regarding death and burial.

Ninety-year-old Greek Cypriot citizen, Spyros Hadjigregoriou, for example, lost his life in November of last year due to a brain hemorrhage. He died in his native country, Cyprus, deprived of his greatest wish: being buried in his village of Gerolakkos. Nicosia has been illegally divided in two by Turkey, which occupies part of the city. After the invasion campaign, in violation of international law, Turkey established an illegal regime in the occupied north of Cyprus.

Hadjigregoriou spent decades trying to receive “permission” from the de-facto Turkish “authorities,” including the presidents of the occupying regime in the north of the Republic of Cyprus. His constant requests and appeals were of no use. The Turkish occupying forces did not allow him to rest in peace in the village of his ancestors.

Since its occupation in 1974, 36% of Cyprus has remained under Turkey’s rule.

Sener Levent, a Turkish Cypriot journalist, and editor in chief of the newspaper Avrupa, has extensively covered Hadjigregoriou’s story: “I wrote my first article about Spyros in the late 1980s,” Levent said.  “My newspaper continued covering his story for years until his death. Spyros was a peace activist who hosted events in his house to bring together all Cypriots. He was a good friend of mine, and we once went to the cemetery of his village together. Most gravestones were no longer in the cemetery. But he still yearned to be buried there.”

Around 40,000 Turkish troops are still illegally deployed in the northern part of Cyprus. Forced mass displacement occurred when Turkey invaded Cyprus twice in 1974 — on July 20 and August 14 — 14 years after Cyprus gained independence from British rule and became an independent republic in 1960.  Like the rest of the island, the northern part of Cyprus’s population was Greek majority until the invasion, which forcibly changed the demographic character of Cyprus.

The military campaign was characterized by murders, bombing of civilian targets including hospitals, unlawful detention of both soldiers and civilians in what amounted to concentration camps, systematic, summary execution of civilians, as well as torture and mistreatment including rapes of Greek Cypriots. Through these atrocities, the Turkish occupation forces terrorized Greek Cypriots, causing approximately 170,000 to flee south. Their lands, homes, businesses and other properties were seized, looted and distributed to members of the Turkish occupation army and illegal settlers from Turkey. To this day, at least 1,000 Cypriots remain missing.

Hadjigregoriou’s story is not an isolated incident. Indigenous Greek Cypriots who were forced to leave the occupied north are not allowed by the Turkish occupying forces to be buried in their ancestral cemeteries. In fact, the cemetery where Hadjigregoriou’s parents were buried is in ruins. “The tombstones are scattered all around … Dry yellow grass is knee-deep … Hadjigregoriou could not find [the graves of] his mother and father lying in this cemetery, ” the newspaper Afrika reported in 2012. This is part of the Turkish campaign to plunder and systematically destroy the Cypriot cultural and religious heritage in the occupied part of the island.

Even if Hadjigregoriou had been able to be buried in his native village, his grave would probably not be safe as Christian cemeteries in the occupied area have been methodically destroyed.

According to a report “The Destruction of the European Civilization of Cyprus by Turkey” by the Committee of Cyprus Occupied Municipalities:

“When a number of checkpoints opened in 2003, Greek Cypriots who visited their villages and cities witnessed with their own eyes the extent of barbarity and devastation, especially so in Kyrenia, Yialousa, Assia, Genagra, Lysi etc. Similar treatment was reserved for the Jewish cemetery in Margo, which was desecrated in a grossly irreverent manner.”

Historic churches, chapels and monasteries have also been subject to desecration and destruction. They have been pillaged, deliberately vandalized and, in some cases, demolished. Many have suffered irreparable damage. Innumerable cultural and religious artifacts of enormous value have been stolen to be illegally transferred to different countries around the world and sold.

The Representation of the Church of Cyprus to the European Union further reports:

“All cemeteries have been ravaged and churches have been turned into mosques, museums, cultural centres, athletic clubs, cafes, hotel apartments, granaries, stables and barns, warehouses, theaters, hostels, restaurants, offices, art studios and galleries, garages and military installations. One of them is even a morgue! Some have already collapsed, and others have been purposely demolished … The cemeteries of our ancestors have been looted and destroyed. Graves have been opened and crosses and gravestones have been broken.” 

All this destruction has taken place in an ancient land known for its Christian history, civilization, and heritage. The report explains:

“Cyprus possesses a unique history and an ancient civilisation that dates back to 9,000 BC. Thanks to its geographical location close to the Holy Land, it was one of the earliest countries to embrace Christianity. In 45 AD, when the Apostles Paul, Barnabas and Mark travelled to the island and preached the Gospel. It is for this reason that the whole island represents an open museum of Christian Art, with a huge number of churches and monasteries in urban rural and mountainous areas, frequently decorated with mosaics, murals and icons from every historical period. In Cyprus, the religion of the vast majority of the population, 80%, are Orthodox Christian, while 18% are Muslims and 2% are Maronite Christians, Armenians and Latins.”

The destruction is not limited to the monuments belonging to the Church of Cyprus, but also extends to religious monuments belonging to the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem and to the Armenian, Maronite and Catholic Churches of Cyprus.

Sadly, the West has stayed silent, if not complicit regarding the occupation and the subsequent ethnic cleansing and destruction of cultural heritage in the occupied territory. What is the reason for the West’s incoherent attitude towards Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus compared to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? 

Sadly, in the case of the occupation of Cyprus, the West, and NATO have stood with the aggressor and against the victim. This Western incoherency in freely allowing the Turkish occupation of Cyprus undermines the West’s credibility and international authority.

For the past 48 years, the rightful owners of the Turkish occupied territory are unable to return to their homelands. Most of their cultural heritage has been demolished, and they have been subject to apartheid-style segregation by Turkey, even in death.

Uzay Bulut is a Turkish journalist and political analyst formerly based in Ankara. Her writings have appeared in The Washington Times, The American Conservative, The Christian Post, The Jerusalem Post, and Al-Ahram Weekly. Her work focuses mainly on human rights, Turkish politics and history, religious minorities in the Middle East, and antisemitism.

Secret Underground Christian City Discovered

Persecuted by the Romans, early Christians in what is now Turkey went underground—literally. Archaeologists have found evidence of a massive subterranean city they believe was designed for just that purpose. The city is thought to have housed roughly 70,000 people in the second and third centuries C.E., Live Science’s Tom Metcalfe reports.

Researchers believe the city, estimated to cover an area of over 4 million square feet, was used as a refuge by persecuted Jews and early Christians.

Situated beneath the city of Midyat, the complex was found in 2020 during routine restoration work on the city’s historic houses, according to the Wall Street Journal’s Joseph De Avila. After discovering a hidden entrance to a cave, workers took a passage that led them to the massive complex.

The complex has been named Matiate, which means “city of caves” in ancient Assyrian.

The city is “the only one [of its kind] in the world,” Gani Tarkan, director of the Mardin Museum and head of the excavations, tells Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency (AA).

Researchers believe the complex was inhabited through the sixth century C.E. and was later used as a catacomb and wine-manufacturing facility when residents moved back above ground, according to the Wall Street Journal. They have found 49 chambers so far—less than 5 percent of the estimated underground city. In the areas that have been studied, researchers have found silos, coins, and lamps, as well as human and animal bones.

The underground complex also includes a number of places researchers think were used as places of worship, including one with a Star of David carved near the ceiling.

“Christianity was not an official religion in the second century [and] families and groups who accepted Christianity generally took shelter in underground cities to escape the persecution of Rome,” Tarkan told LiveScience.

Since many early Christians were also Jews, both religions were subject to persecution. Rome’s pagan rituals were part of the “normal fabric” of life in Roman cities, writes Biblical historian Wayne A. Meeks—and those who refused to participate in them “had no legal standing.”

After the Romans, the early Christians were persecuted by the Persians. And medieval soldiers who came through the area in wartimes recorded entire cities devoid of people.

Though experts believe this underground city to be the largest in Turkey, it’s far from a unique discovery for the country. More than 40 other such cities have been discovered in Turkey, the most famous of which is Derinkuyu—a massive subterranean complex believed to have been built between the eighth and ninth centuries B.C.E. Able to hold around 20,000 people, Derinkuyu was used as a hiding place by Byzantine Christians and Jews between the 8th and 12th centuries C.E.

More recently, an underground complex discovered under a Turkish house by looters in 2017 was found to be an Iron Age creation, reports Smithsonian’s Elizabeth Djinis.

Other sites important to early Christianity have become tourist destinations across the region once dominated by the Roman Empire. Burials in the Roman catacombs helped spur the development of Christian funerary art; in Matera, Italy, tourists can visit caves that served as some of the earliest Christian churches and even book a stay in those that have been turned into hotel rooms.

While it seems unlikely the newly discovered city will be converted to hotel status, there are hopes the complex will become a tourist destination once excavations and research are complete, much like the city above it. AA writes that Midyat is “almost an open-air museum” because of its preservation of its rich history.

The area has received worldwide recognition for its cultural heritage and its many churches and monasteries, which date from the sixth to eighth centuries B.C.E., are candidates for Unesco’s World Heritage List. Throughout the centuries, early members of what is now the Syriac Orthodox Church practiced Christianity despite the rise and fall of numerous empires.

First settled around 4000 years ago by the Hurrians during the Bronze Age, the city has been ruled by, in order, the Assyrians, the Arameans, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, and the Ottomans. Its 17th, 18th, and 19th-century architecture draws around 3 million tourists per year.

Church defends Christian’s singing on plane

A church has defended a Singaporean man’s singing of a worship song on a plane, noting that Singapore is not only a secular state but also a multi-cultural, multi-religious society.

In a post on its Facebook page on Tuesday (19 April), the 3:16 Church noted that Jonathan Neo’s action has drawn criticisms from many in Singapore for “imposing” his religious beliefs on others.

“The beauty of this nation is not in the exclusion of religious practices and views but a neutral platform for the free exercise of all cultural diversities which are beautiful and valuable to a thriving culture,” according to the post, written by a Pastor Norman.

The incident has led to many netizens criticising Neo, who was strumming his guitar on a plane while he sang a worship song to unsuspecting passengers during mid-flight. Neo was supposedly on board an easyJet flight when the incident happened.

Neo claimed on social media that the flight pilot had introduced him and his fellow worshippers to the passengers, and that they sang in six languages.

Singapore-based 3:16 Church claimed that in an “increasingly anti-Christian climate”, many will “amplify” their criticisms of such an incident. “In these last days, the scoffing is not something that Christians should be surprised by,” the church said.

Neo was given permission to sing, according to the church. Neo previously claimed that the pilot had introduced him and his fellow worshippers during the flight.

“Also, those on the plane had agency to voice out their disapproval should they not want to tolerate his singing. I’m certain Jon would have responded appropriately and humbly. I’m grateful to hear that many passengers reciprocated the love with claps, tears and smiles,” the church wrote.

Many netizens have criticised the church for its post.

Among them, a Germaine Ong said, “I am a believer. I am grieved – grieved that a preacher who professes to know Christ is taking this narrow and myopic view of the matter.” A Ryley Khandro said, “Please stop pushing your Christian agenda on the silent majority.”

However, other netizens also supported the church’s position and Neo’s action. One netizen, Adeline Pang Siow Ling, said, “I hope I would have his courage. Good job, Jonathan and thank you once again!” Praising the post, a Timothy Anand Weerasekera said, “So well written! So much for us to reflect on!”

Matthew Exposed Oldest Conspiracy Theory

In the middle of scenes of Jesus’ resurrection, the Gospel of Matthew recounts the birth of one of the oldest conspiracy theories.

On Easter morning, while the women are on their way to announce the resurrection of Jesus to the disciples, Matthew 28:11–15 highlights another movement: Some tomb guards report the weekend’s events to the chief priests. These men, in turn, then consult with the elders and decide together to conceal what has happened. At no point do they investigate what happened to Jesus’ body. They know from the start that what they might discover will not please them.

Instead, they invent what would today be called a conspiracy theory, with the “alternative facts” that support it: The disciples came to steal Jesus’ corpse. Never mind that those who had fled in fear after the arrest of their master would have needed to come at night to face a guard of several armed men. Never mind that they would have needed to loosen the seals on the tomb, roll away a massive stone, and remove the body of Jesus—all without waking anyone who could raise the alarm.

This version of the facts is absurd. Not only in and of itself, but because the disciples would later risk their lives to proclaim that Jesus had risen. If they had known it was a lie, where would they have found the courage to face the authorities threatening them? Why preach a knowingly falsified gospel? The audacity of the apostles, their courage, their zeal, their perseverance, and the whole expansion of Christianity is inexplicable without the Resurrection.

But all this, the elders do not yet know. So they try their luck and make a deal with the soldiers. The proposed lie is not without danger for them—the guards obviously weren’t supposed to fall asleep—but there is money involved, and the Jewish leaders assure them of their protection.

Thus, this version of the story, the text says, has spread among the Jews to this present day—the first century of our current era. But it is also our reality today, where theories to eschew the truth of the resurrection of Jesus continue to be propagated.

But it is probably not because of their credibility that these explanations persist. In fact, the explanation of the guards is so implausible that the apostle Matthew takes the liberty of mentioning it in his gospel, knowing full well that anyone who wanted could go and check this account.

When you want to drown out a truth, your lies or half-truths don’t have to be believable or well-founded. It is enough that your version suits what your listeners want to hear or avoids confronting them with a reality that disturbs them.

An ominous light

One might be surprised at the response of the Jewish leaders. The one announced to be the Messiah had just come back to life. An extraordinary miracle! A staggering truth! But instead of euphoria, they react with anger.

What the Shroud of Turin Showed Us

n the past, in Christian art and pious legends, thorny plants have symbolized suffering. The most familiar example, is, of course, Christ’s Passion, when he wore a crown of thorns on the Cross.

Thorns carry several meanings — they can also represent moral courage, endurance, victory, protection, salvation, and conquering adversity.

Thorns and their meaning

The Cardoon or Artichoke Thistle (Cynara cardunculus) stems are recorded in Greek and Roman cuisine. They remained a popular food throughout the region until the 19th century. In art, the plant alludes to man’s need to labor for his food after the expulsion from Eden, and as such to labor through his inclination to sin to achieve the food of salvation — Jesus.

An easily recognized thistle is the Scottish thistle (Onopordum acanthium), which is symbolic of protection. It is said that armies invading Scotland were thwarted by this plant’s defensive nature. The Order of the Thistle was founded in 1540 by King James V, who created it for himself and 12 of his knights, “in allusion to the Blessed Savior and his Twelve Apostles.”

In a pious legend of King Charlemagne, it is said that his army was dying of the plague when an angel appeared to him in a dream and told him to shoot an arrow into the air and whatever plant the arrow landed upon, he was to feed his soldiers with. Charlemagne did as the angel instructed; his arrow landed in a patch of milk thistle (Silybum marianum), thereafter renamed Holy Thistle. He had all his men eat the plant, and all were saved and continued the holy fight for Christianity. 

Historically the Benedictine monks grew the Blessed Thistle (Cnicus benedictus) as a cure-all; it was believed to be especially effective in curing smallpox. It is a yellow-flowered thistle that has been used medicinally — for internal and external ailments — for over 2,000 years.

Thorns and flowers on the Shroud of Turin

We have read in the Bible that the torture endured by Our Lord during his Passion began with cruelty at the hands of Pilate’s soldiers. It was those brutes that gave Our Lord his first crown — that of thorns — which became, along with the cross, a symbol of victory over evil. Here is where we come to know the most notorious of all thistles, the Carduus and the Gundelia tournefortii, the thistles found on the Shroud of Turin.

Experts in the natural sciences began examining the shroud toward the end of the 19th century. Botanical experts on the research team found the imprints of plants and grains of pollen that can serve as seasonal and geographic indicators.

Four plants on the shroud are significant because, as researchers Danin and Baruch report, “the assemblage … occurs in only one rather small spot on earth, this being the Judean mountains and the Judean Desert of Israel, in the vicinity of Jerusalem.”

These experts succeeded in identifying 36 species of plants on the shroud. They discovered that almost all of the flower images remaining on the cloth, and the highest concentration of pollens, were where the head of the corpus would have been lying. (Editor’s note: See the author’s The Catholic Gardener’s Spiritual Almanac, 149-151, for more on this subject.)

The botanists found several factors of particular interest to those studying, even doubting, the authenticity of the shroud. These are some of their findings:

  • All the plants are ones that grow in Israel. Of these, 20 are known to grow in Jerusalem itself and eight others grow in the vicinity in the Judean desert or the Dead Sea area. 
  • Although some of these plants are also found in Europe, 14 of the plants grow only in the Middle East.
  • Twenty-seven of the plants bloom in the springtime at the same time as the Jewish Passover. 
  • Zygophyllum dumosum has both pollen as well as an image on the shroud and grows only in Israel, Jordan and the Sinai region. 
  • Gundelia tournefortii (most frequent of the pollens found by the scientist on the shroud, and indicative of season) was the plant material found where the Crown of Thorns was imprinted around the head on the cloth.

During Lent we look to where our weaknesses are, the “thorn in our side” that calls us to dependence on Our Lord — whose first crown was worn while enduring suffering for the sake of us.

How Jesus’ followers Practiced Christianity

The apostles were 12 of the disciples of Jesus who went on to spread his message and found the early Christian church. After the crucifixion of Jesus in the 1st century, they split up and began to proselytize both the message of Jesus and the concept that he was the son of God. In so doing they expanded the following of this offshoot of Judaism and set out the early tenets of what Christianity would become. 

The apostles typically refers to those who were among the original followers of Jesus, although the term apostle, which means “one sent on a mission,” according to Merriam-Webster, is sometimes applied to later figures such as St. Paul who also had a big impact as a missionary. Their efforts helped to forge the religious movement that has shaped history and is today followed by around 2.6 billion people today. 

The Gospels of the New Testament and the Acts of the Apostles describe a core of twelve followers of Jesus that were closest to him. These are the men most commonly called apostles, though the term is occasionally applied to others in the Bible.  

The Gospels give differing lists of the twelve apostles. All four agree that Simon, Peter, Andrew, James son of Zebedee, John, Philip, Thomas, and Judas Iscariot were among the disciples. The Gospel of John differs from the other three gospels however by either not mentioning several of the apostles or using different names. Most Christian sects have reconciled the differences between the lists by saying different names were used for the same person. 

In the Gospel of Matthew it says that after a night of prayer “Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.” These were activities that would require the physical presence of the apostles. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus sends the apostles out in pairs, telling them to “take nothing for the journey except a mere walking stick — no bread, no [traveler’s] bag, no money in their belts — but to wear sandals; and [He told them] not to wear two tunics.” The apostles were to lead a peripatetic existence both while with Jesus and after his death.

They were set on their various paths by Jesus himself, according to W. Brian Shelton, professor of theology and author of “Quest for the Historical Apostles: Tracing Their Lives and Legacies” (Baker Academic, 2019) who spoke to Live Science. In Matthew 28:19-20 Jesus commands the apostles to “make disciples of all nations.” “The journeys of the apostles after the Book of Acts are significant because they represent the impetus of the apostles and a global expansion of the church,” said Shelton

Though the death of the charismatic leader usually leads to the decline of a religious movement the apostles believed they had been given proof that he really was the son of God. “These disciples of Jesus had walked with the Messiah, witnessed his miracles and resurrection, gained inspiration from his teaching, and found transformation in their own lives,” said Shelton. 

They were given further proof when, during Pentecost, tongues of fire are said to have descended on them and they were given the power to speak all the languages. This would have proven useful in their later travels, though we are told some at the time were unimpressed with their new linguistic ability. According to Acts 2 NIV, they scoffed at the disciples and said “They have had too much wine.”

While it should be approached with some skepticism historically, the Book of Acts is a fascinating document that reveals much about the lives of the early Christians. We are told that they met together for prayer, broke bread together, and lived together. Those who followed the apostles are said to have sold their property and laid their money at the feet of their leaders so that all things could be shared among them. However, the early Christians and the apostles would not be able to stay in Jerusalem forever.

Jesus had been put to death for causing trouble for both the Jewish and Roman authorities.  A group of people hoping to further his message was unlikely to be looked on favorably. We are told of several apostles being arrested for their activities spreading the message of Jesus. The harassment of the early Christians did not stop at arrest.

The first of the apostles to die, other than Judas, was Stephen. Dragged before the Sanhedrin, the supreme council and tribunal of the Jewish people, he was sentenced to death and stoned. One of those watching this execution was Saul, a man who would later become St. Paul after his conversion on the road to Damascus. The Book of Acts describes how a great persecution then erupted.

The Book of Acts describes how king Herod had Peter arrested and put in jail. “Herod lived as a faithful Jew, so he would naturally have been concerned to stop the growth of any heretical sect,” wrote Sean McDowell, author of “The Fate of the Apostles” (Routledge, 2018). Only the timely intervention of an angel freed him. Peter, according to the Book of Acts, “departed and went to another place,” avoiding the martyrdom that was looking like a common end for the apostles. 

While the followers of Jesus who left Jerusalem spread his message, the apostles who remained there had to decide exactly what that word was. Some felt that converts to Christianity first had to become Jewish. Paul seems to have not required this. The first controversy of the church that was settled by a council involved several of the apostles meeting in Jerusalem to decide if converted followers of Jesus had to be circumcised. 

This matter was important because the apostles had begun to win converts in non-Jewish areas. The settling of the matter also reveals much about the structure of the early Church. The apostles voice their opinions in turn and a letter is sent to the Christians in Antioch who had first raised the matter. Letters and council decisions would long play a role in administering the church.

“The first council of apostles in Jerusalem have authoritarian pronouncements concerning the admittance of the Gentile converts into the Christian movement. Yet this did not seem to have the ecclesiastical authority then that we attach to it now,” wrote William Steuart McBirnie, author of “The Search for the Twelve Apostles” (Tyndale Momentum, 2008). 

Last to speak in this first council was James the Just, also known as the brother of Jesus. According to the historian Eusebius James was the first bishop to be appointed over the church in Jerusalem. That he is said to have remained in this position for thirty years shows how important the apostles’ direct connection to Jesus was to their authority.

The Book of Acts was probably written after 90 A.D. and by the same author as the Gospel of Luke. The relatively early date of authorship makes it a valuable source as it is entirely possible that the author knew some of the apostles, or knew people who had known them. Other texts are more problematic as they were sometimes written centuries later. 

“The historical accounts of the apostles after the New Testament are primarily contained in a genre of literature known as the Apostolic Acts. These works are marked by fantastical stories, speeches and theological teaching contrary to the New Testament, and a worldview known as gnosticism,” said Shelton. There are other sources that can be used in piecing together their lives. “Their historical accounts are also contained in sermons, commentary writings, and histories by church fathers, often without historical substantiation and sometimes with minor elements of contradiction to other sources,” added Shelton.

Some of the later Apostolic Acts contain extraordinary tales that may not be literally true but would have helped to spread the faith of Christianity by entertaining and educating at the same time. Shelton told Live Science about one tale “that often gives an audience a good laugh is the episode of Paul encountering a lion in the wilderness of Palestine in The Acts of Paul. The lion talks, inquires about the faith, becomes a disciple, and seems to have even been baptized by Paul. When the apostle is later thrown to the lions at Ephesus, a reunion takes place that day rather than a martyrdom.” 

Peter, always listed first among the apostles, seems to have been the first to found a church outside of Jerusalem. Tradition has it that he was the first Patriarch of the church in Antioch, today located in southern Turkey. He may also have created a Christian community at Corinth. 

Yet it is Rome that is most associated with St. Peter. The Pope claims direct apostolic succession from Peter as the Bishop of Rome. The writings of Paul do not mention Peter in Rome even when discussing the church there, nor does the Book of Acts. Tradition however has long placed him there and many sites in the city are claimed to be linked to him.

The Apostle John was recorded as remaining mostly in Judaea and aiding in the conversion of people to Christianity. Later traditions give him adventures of his own. Tertullian, writing in the late 2nd century, says that John was persecuted and plunged into boiling oil. Luckily the Apostle emerged unscathed and was then exiled to the isle of Patmos off the Turkish coast. Tradition has John living a long life – perhaps until as late as 98 A.D.

While it was inside the Roman Empire that the Christian message found its first converts tales have long been told of the apostles traveling much further afield. One text in Acts describes how Matthew traveled to Ethiopia to spread the word of Jesus. Matthew eventually converted the royal family of Ethiopia. Though the sources for this mission are much later there is indeed an ancient Christian community that exists in Ethiopia, which can be traced back to at least the reign of Aksumite emperor Ezana in the 4th century, according to the Met Museum.

Other apocryphal gospels however place Matthew as performing his ministry elsewhere. “The Acts of Matthew accounts how two magicians conjured a dragon to charge the apostle, which he rebukes and turns against the magicians,” said Shelton. Other, less fabulous, sources do however say that Matthew met his death in Parthia. 

The Apostle Thomas is supposed to have journeyed furthest in his preaching. The Acts of Thomas, written in the 3rd century tells of how he was told by Jesus to go to India. When Thomas, not for the first time, expresses doubts “Jesus forces his hand by selling him to the merchant Abban,” who was heading to India. In India the Apostle undergoes various adventures before serving a local king called Gondophares.

“The Thomas journey has strong historical support. Throughout church history, new missionaries to India often landed to discover an established church there which linked itself to the ministry of Thomas in the first century. That pride extends even to today, where Indian Christians carry the name, ‘Thomas Christians’. A strong oral tradition, legends, hymns, poetry, and histories still circulated today perpetuate the tradition that Thomas came to India. Both the cities of Mylapore and Andrapolis have sites that lay claim to his martyrdom there” Shelton told us.

There is also a tradition that the Apostle Bartholomew visited India but most scholars reject this view. There is however a strong link between Bartholomew and Armenia. There he is said to have converted the local king to Christianity. It was also there that he met a particularly gruesome death – a fate that awaited many of the apostles. 

Images of Bartholomew can be found in churches across the world, though at first people can find them hard to interpret. Bartholomew is often shown carrying something that looks like a melting wax figurine. Closer examination reveals that he is actually holding his own flayed skin. Tradition has it that he was skinned alive and beheaded for his conversion of king Polymius.

Bartholomew’s fate was not so unusual if tradition is to be believed. Of the twelve apostles, including Matthias who replaced Judas, eleven are said to have died for their faith. 

St. Peter was supposedly crucified upside down in Rome after declaring he was unfit to die in the same way as Jesus. Simon the Zealot is said by some texts to have been sawed in half in Persia. A 3rd century text says Andrew was scourged and crucified, surviving on the cross for three days. Hardly any of the records of the deaths of the apostles would pass historical scrutiny judging by modern standards of scholarship but the stories associated with the ends of their lives were massively influential for centuries in Christianity.

It is perhaps fitting for people who preached about life after death that many of the apostles enjoyed colorful afterlives. The bodies of the apostles became important relics and sites of pilgrimage. 

In one legend Regulus, bishop of Patras in Greece, was visited by an angel in 345 A.D. and told to move the bones of St. Andrew as far as he could from their resting place. He packed them up and traveled with them all the way to Scotland, to the city now known as St. Andrews. 

The bones of St. James that became the basis of the great pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela were discovered by a holy hermit called Pelagius in 814 A.D. Strange lights in the sky led him to the tomb of the Apostle. Quite how the Apostle came to be buried in Spain was not recorded. 

It is likely that we will never know whether the relics that are claimed to be those of apostles are authentic. But in many ways it does not matter as the story of how they came to be revered and the centuries of devotion that have been paid to them is of interest in itself. 

St. Mary of Egypt: A saint to invoke against sexual promiscuity

The sexual revolution of the 1960s dramatically altered the moral landscape of the Western world. But of course, sexual promiscuity was not invented in the 1960s; it has always been with us, although it may have been more rampant in some places and some periods of history than others.

St. Mary of Egypt was born into a family of Egyptian Christians. At age 12, she ran away from home and went to live in Alexandria, the most cosmopolitan, most sophisticated and in many ways one of the most corrupt cities in the Mediterranean world. She supported herself as a singer and dancer. At some point, we don’t know when, she lost her innocence.

Mary’s sexual appetite took over her personality. She cruised the streets of Alexandria, looking for partners. Her favorite diversion was to corrupt innocent young men. But many years later, as she told St. Zosimus — the monk who wrote down her autobiography — she never accepted money from the men she slept with, she never became a prostitute.

Once, while walking along the wharves at the harbor, she saw a group of men boarding a ship. She asked one of the sailors who the men were, and where were they going. He said they were all pilgrims, heading to Jerusalem to celebrate there the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. On impulse, Mary decided to go, too. By the time the ship reached the Holy Land, Mary had seduced every pilgrim and every member of the crew.

In Jerusalem she continued her usual routine of looking for new partners. On the holy day, a throng of pilgrims made their way through the narrow streets of Jerusalem to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Mary, out of curiosity, joined them. But when she reached the threshold of the church, some invisible force held her back. She could not enter. All at once the wickedness of her life overwhelmed her, and she began to cry.

Near the door was a carving of the Blessed Virgin. Turning to the sacred image, Mary prayed for the first time in years, “Help me,” she begged Our Lady, “for I have no other help.” With that, the power that had kept her from entering the church withdrew and Mary went in. She found a priest and made a full confession.

After the Mass and veneration of the Holy Cross, Mary left Jerusalem, crossed the Jordan River and headed out into the desert. There she became a hermit, living a life of prayer and penance for nearly 50 years.

Toward the end of her life she encountered the monk Zosimus, to whom she told her story. Then she begged him to return to her on Holy Thursday with the Blessed Sacrament — it had been decades since she had been able to receive holy Communion. Zosimus returned, as he had promised, but he found that Mary had died. He buried her, then went back to his monastery and began to make known the story of Mary of Egypt.

The Deal With Christianity and Stonehenge

So Stonehenge was built for the communal fun of it. Maybe. Some archaeologists now wonder whether the main point of the monumental erection was the mass participation involved in getting it up. There were years of feasting and frolicking at the site’s construction, as well as lots of head scratching and mansplaining about whether wax-treated rope could produce maximum torque with minimal tension, or something. It was a cross between Glastonbury and Homebase.

Or maybe this theory says more about us than about our oldest public art work. We have a vague awareness that this is what we lack as a culture: a sense of communal religious purpose. We sense that the fullest creativity and social joy comes from doing something together that feels necessary and important, rather than just seeking personal bourgeois thrills. We get glimpses of this at Christmas and Halloween when we happily waste hours on decorations and costumes, and occasional public events to do with royalty or sport or public protest might produce the same obscure joy. Communal celebration and creativity is what makes human beings most deeply happy, but our culture doesn’t know how to maximise it, because it jars with capitalist-individualist normality.

As I explained in my recent Lent talk on the radio, this is what has deepened my interest in religion, this attraction to public ritual. Our Christian culture can only find renewal here, in the attempt to recapture the thrill of pre-modern public festivity. Religious culture as it presently exists is just too little and dull, too private and wordy. Time for a stone-age inspired revolution.

Deuteronomy 27:2-8 ESV / 3 helpful votes

And on the day you cross over the Jordan to the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall set up large stones and plaster them with plaster. And you shall write on them all the words of this law, when you cross over to enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you, a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your fathers, has promised you. And when you have crossed over the Jordan, you shall set up these stones, concerning which I command you today, on Mount Ebal, and you shall plaster them with plaster. And there you shall build an altar to the Lord your God, an altar of stones. You shall wield no iron tool on them; you shall build an altar to the Lord your God of uncut stones. And you shall offer burnt offerings on it to the Lord your God, …

Numbers 17:1-13 ESV / 2 helpful votes

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel, and get from them staffs, one for each fathers’ house, from all their chiefs according to their fathers’ houses, twelve staffs. Write each man’s name on his staff, and write Aaron’s name on the staff of Levi. For there shall be one staff for the head of each fathers’ house. Then you shall deposit them in the tent of meeting before the testimony, where I meet with you. And the staff of the man whom I choose shall sprout. Thus I will make to cease from me the grumblings of the people of Israel, which they grumble against you.” …

Numbers 13:1-33 ESV / 2 helpful votes

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel. From each tribe of their fathers you shall send a man, every one a chief among them.” So Moses sent them from the wilderness of Paran, according to the command of the Lord, all of them men who were heads of the people of Israel. And these were their names: From the tribe of Reuben, Shammua the son of Zaccur; from the tribe of Simeon, Shaphat the son of Hori; …

Joshua 4:9 ESV / 1 helpful vote

And Joshua set up twelve stones in the midst of the Jordan, in the place where the feet of the priests bearing the ark of the covenant had stood; and they are there to this day.