Tuesday, May 8, 2018

The 'Pilate Stone' in Israel's Caesarea-by-the-Sea

(by Daniel Peterson deseretnews.com 5-3-18)

Until the summer of 1961, absolutely no archaeological evidence existed that would demonstrate that Pontius Pilate, a pivotal figure in the New Testament gospels, ever really existed. Some literary sources mention him — including a few brief allusions in Jewish material (e.g., Josephus) and in late Roman chronicles (e.g., Tacitus) — but no administrative records survive from him and no genuine letters of his have been preserved. Plenty of Roman ruins exist in Israel, but none bears his name, and a historical Pilate isn’t required to account for them.

He has loomed large in subsequent Christian thought and legend. One thinks, for example, of the memorable opening line of Sir Francis Bacon’s early 17th-century essay “Of truth”: “What is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.”

But did he really even exist? Critics eager to dismiss the New Testament Gospels as imaginative fiction (along with their accounts of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ) were only too happy to point to the lack of evidence for Pilate as support for their broader dismissal.

In June 1961, however, while working in the Mediterranean seaside ruins of Caesarea Maritima, a team led by the Italian archaeologist Antonio Frova found a sizable piece of limestone — slightly more than 0.8 meters wide and somewhat less than 0.7 meters high — that bears the name of “Pontius Pilatus.” The Latin inscription read as follows:

To the Divine Augusti (this) Tiberieum
... Pontius Pilate
... prefect of Judea
... has dedicated (this)

Pontius Pilate most likely made his headquarters at Caesarea Maritima, travelling up to Jerusalem only when he had to do so. (From a cynical Roman leader’s point of view, Jerusalem was a virtually ungovernable den of incomprehensible religious fanatics, while Caesarea possessed and still retains the charm that could easily have made it the site of a beautiful coastal resort.)

The inscription says that Pilate had built a “Tiberieum” — evidently a temple in or near Caesarea dedicated to the then-reigning Roman emperor, Tiberius, who ruled from A.D. 14 to A.D. 37. Plainly, as others also did, Pilate was seeking to flatter the emperor. (Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, had founded the important city of Tiberias, on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, in Tiberius’ honor sometime around A.D. 20.)

This fact perhaps explains the power over Pilate of the implicit threat from Jesus’ Jewish accusers, as recorded in John 19:12: When Pilate wanted to release Jesus, “the Jews cried out, saying, If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar’s friend.”

The so-called “Pilate Stone” is historically significant because it dates to Pilate’s own lifetime. It is contemporary evidence. Yet — powerfully illustrating the distinctly random nature of archaeological discovery — the excavators could easily have missed it, simply discarding it as rubble. By the fourth century, it had been incorporated into a set of stairs in Caesarea’s Herodian theater. There, the inscription faced downward — fortunately, because that position preserved it from being worn away.

The “divine Augusti” to whom the dedication refers are the late (deified) Augustus Caesar (reigned 27 B.C. to A.D. 14) and his wife Livia, who were, respectively, the stepfather and the mother of Tiberius. The inscription identifies Pontius Pilate as the “prefect” of Judea, a title that seems to connote not only a governmental or administrative role but a military one — which seems to fit the brief literary references to his career.

A replica of the “Pilate Stone” stands directly to the east of Caesarea’s “Palace of the Procurators” — a place of enormous New Testament interest in its own right, where the apostle Paul was imprisoned for over two years under the Roman governors Felix and Festus (Acts 23:31-35; 24:27) and where he made his famous speech before Festus and Agrippa (as recorded in Acts 26) — while the original stone itself is located at Jerusalem’s Israel Museum, where it is protected from erosion and other damage.

It is, quite simply, no longer tenable to argue that Pontius Pilate never existed. And, while Pilate’s demonstrable reality certainly doesn’t prove that Jesus rose from the dead or atoned for our sins, or that he merits our devotion as our divine Lord, it constitutes an important part of a cumulative case for the reliability of the gospel accounts — which do, in fact, assert all of those things. In answer to Pilate’s question “What is truth?” (John 18:38), the New Testament declares that Jesus himself is (John 14:6).


LDS leader explains why everyone should care about religious freedom

(by Kelsey Dallas deseretnews.com 5-3-18)

Everyone has a stake in ensuring the freedom of religion or belief, whether or not you believe in God, according to an international religious leader speaking in London this week with other U.S. and U.K. leaders.

During a May 1 address to the All Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief, Elder D. Todd Christofferson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints emphasized the role religious freedom plays in building safe, happy and successful societies. This value is foundational to other civil rights and enables people of faith to contribute to the great good of their communities, said Elder Christofferson, a member of the church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

"Today a substantial amount of the social welfare delivered to vulnerable communities comes from the freewill offerings of religious entities and religious people. They give food to the hungry, shelter to the homeless and jobs to the unemployed," he said.

Elder Christofferson's comments come at a time when the concept of religious freedom is increasingly maligned, said Tim Schultz, president of the 1st Amendment Partnership. These days, religious freedom is linked with controversial lawsuits and legislation, rather than the people and faith groups it's protecting around the world.

"People have come to judge (religious freedom) through the lens of their political preferences," he said.

In this political climate, it's important to remember the value of religious freedom in countries where members of a dominant faith group can silence or imprison nonpractitioners, including atheists, said Nick Fish, national program director of American Atheists, an organization that works to protect the civil rights of nonbelievers around the world.

"In nations where apostasy is a crime, and I'm talking primarily about nations where there is an official state religion, people who leave the faith or are in any way critical of it are imprisoned, put to death and subject to brutal punishment for their beliefs," he said.



Sunday, April 29, 2018

Is this the place of Christ's baptism?

(by William Hamblin and Daniel Peterson deseretnews.com 4-27-18)

One of the most significant biblical sites in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is known as “al-Maghtas,” which, in Arabic, means “baptism,” or “immersion.” It sits on the eastern shore of the River Jordan, directly opposite an Israeli equivalent — only a few feet distant across the stream — that is known as “Qasr al-Yahud” (“the castle of the Jews”).

Traditionally, this is the point on the Jordan where the Israelites under Joshua are said to have miraculously crossed on dry ground into the Promised Land (Joshua 3:14-17), the prophet Elijah was taken into heaven, and John the Baptist baptized Jesus.

The area was heavily mined on both sides of the Jordan after the Six-Day War in 1967, and it’s only relatively recently that the Jordanian al-Maghtas and the Israeli Qasr al-Yahud have been reopened to tourists and pilgrims. (In the meanwhile, the Israelis established a northern baptismal site called “Yardenit,” just south of the Sea of Galilee, that has little if any merit, historically speaking.)

While the authenticity of al-Maghtas as the site of Jesus Christ’s baptism cannot be established beyond doubt, there are some reasons to take it seriously.

It is certainly true that ancient Christians were venerating the site by at least the A.D. 400s. For instance, a church dedicated to John the Baptist was built at al-Maghtas late in the fifth century, under the Byzantine emperor Anastasios. Significantly too, a Byzantine monastery commemorating the assumption of Elijah into heaven was built, not far away, at roughly the same time. Moreover, accounts from ancient pilgrims describe these sites and the buildings that once stood there.

According to the New Testament, John the Baptist preached and baptized in “the wilderness of Judea,” and people came to him “from Jerusalem, and all Judea, and all the region round about Jordan” (Matthew 3:1, 5-6; compare Mark 1:5). That seems to put John’s activity at the southern end of the River Jordan, near Jericho, a very ancient town located on the river’s west side just north of the Dead Sea.

Moreover, both John 1:28 and John 10:40 identify the place where he was baptizing as located “beyond the Jordan” — which, assuming that the vantage point of the gospel author was in Palestine, would put it on the eastern side of the river.

The leaders of the Jews at Jerusalem sent priests and Levites down into the Jordan River Valley (which is far below sea level) to ask John who he was. Curiously, one of the questions they asked was whether he was “Elias” or “Elijah.” (He replied that he was not.)

Why would they pose that particular question to him? His style of dress undoubtedly had something to do with it. John was clothed in garments of camel hair and skin (Matthew 3:4; Mark 1:6), which recalls the very similar dress of the prophet Elijah (2 Kings 1:8).

Another reason, however, may be connected with the location itself:

Elijah came originally from an area known as Gilead that lies east of the Jordan River. Today, it is known as Jal‘ad, and it sits squarely within the territory of northern Jordan.

2 Kings 2:1-18 tells the famous story of his ascent into heaven in a chariot of fire. According to the account, Elijah and his successor Elisha traveled from Jericho eastward to the river’s bank. The Jordan miraculously parted before them, and they crossed over to the other side — manifestly, to the east side — on dry ground, reminiscent of the original crossing of the children of Israel (traditionally at the same location). After Elijah’s ascension, the miracle was repeated: Elisha crossed the Jordan again on dry ground, traveling back westward and staying for a time in Jericho.

Thus, John seems to have appeared at the very same place — on the eastern side of the Jordan River, not far from Jericho — where the similarly dressed Elijah had rather mysteriously disappeared roughly nine centuries before. (2 Kings 2:16-18 records the futile search undertaken for Elijah by some of his contemporaries after he had been assumed into heaven.) In a sense, the first-century priests and Levites who asked to know whether John was Elijah were not asking an altogether unreasonable question.

Furthermore, it does not seem unreasonable to think that al-Maghtas, the baptismal site on the eastern or Jordanian side of the River Jordan, may actually be the place where Jesus accepted baptism at the hand of his cousin John in order “to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15).



In seeking redress from national government, Prophet's quest was inspiring though unsuccessful

White House - 1846

(by R. Scott Lloyd deseretnews.com)

It was late October 1839, an inopportune time for Joseph Smith to be journeying to Washington D.C. — or anywhere else.

His little son Frederick lay sick at home in Commerce — soon to be renamed Nauvoo — Illinois, where many of his people, having recently been driven from Missouri, were struggling to rebuild their lives. Many were seriously ill.

In addition to caring for her ill son and her family, Joseph’s wife, Emma, was providing care in her home for those who needed it.

“There’s something heart wrenching, when I read Joseph Smith’s letter to Emma shortly after he left, and he talks about how it hurt his heart to leave little Frederick behind in that condition,” said Spencer W. McBride, one of four volume editors of the latest Joseph Smith Papers volume, Documents, Vol. 7.

“We really get the sense of how it weighed on Joseph Smith when we read the letters that he wrote to Emma,” said McBride at an April 19 lecture in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square, where he addressed the topic “Joseph Smith in the White House, exploring Joseph’s 1839 trip to Washington.

“And this is actually a very fortuitous result of his trip. In the entire corpus of Joseph Smith documents, there are not very many letters between Joseph and Emma. … But by leaving Nauvoo, this creates the need to generate new documents, letters that Joseph writes to Emma and that Emma writes to Joseph.”

McBride quoted this passage from Joseph’s letter, written from Springfield, Illinois, en route to the nation’s capital: “It will be a long and lonesome time during my absence from you, and nothing but a sense of humanity could have urged me on to so great a sacrifice. But shall I see so many perish and not seek redress? No. I will try this once in the name of the Lord. Therefore, be patient until I come, and do the best you can.”

Poignantly, the prophet adds: “I cannot write what I want, but believe me, my feelings are of the best kind towards you. My hand cramps, so I must close.”

Writing back a month later, Emma encourages Joseph on his political mission and updates him on the health of their children (Frederick has recovered, but Joseph III has now taken ill).

She closes by writing, “The day is waning and night is approaching so fast that I must reserve my better feelings until I have a better chance to express them.”

“I love these letters,” McBride remarked, “not only for what they tell us about Joseph and Emma, but these letters grant us a glimpse into the way that Joseph and Emma Smith communicated with each other about issues such as parenting.”

By stagecoach, Joseph arrived in Washington on Nov. 28, accompanied by Eilias Higbee, checking into the cheapest boardinghouse they could find, McBride recounted.

Illinois congressman John Reynolds had agreed to introduce them at the White House, and they go with him the next day to see U.S. President Martin Van Buren.

“We found a very large and splendid palace surrounded by a pleasant enclosure decorated with all the fineries and elegancies of the world,” the Prophet wrote.

“And then he said that he felt at home in the White House, that he had a perfect right there, as much right as Van Buren, because the house belonged to the people,” McBride said.

It was not a private audience with the U.S. president, as has been supposed. Rather Van Buren would hold receptions almost daily, just outside his office, and the Mormon representatives were obliged to compete for his attention inside a crowded parlor.

Reading a letter of introduction that had been written for them by prominent officials in the West, Van Buren put it down in frustration and reportedly said, “What can I do? I can do nothing for you. If I help you, I will come in contact with the whole state of Missouri.”

Van Buren did not have a history of religious prejudice, McBride said, but it was for electoral reasons that he declined to help the Mormons.

Nevertheless, he did agree to reconsider, and the Church leaders left with the hope that he would favorably mention them in his upcoming annual message to Congress.

That, McBride said, appears to be the primary reason for the visit to Van Buren, for they were about to deliver a petition, or “memorial” to the lawmaking body seeking redress and $2 million reparations for the wrongs that had been inflicted upon the Church members in Missouri.

In this, they were disappointed, both by Van Buren and by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which determined that Congress had no jurisdiction in the matter but that the Church members should take their case to the Missouri government or the courts in that state.

“And so this was devastating to the Mormons,” McBride commented. “But what made it even worse was the language of the committee’s report. It reads: ‘The petitioners may if they see proper apply to the justice and magnanimity of the state of Missouri, an appeal which the committee feels justified in believing will never be made in vain by the injured or oppressed.’

“Talk about the wrong thing to say to a people who had just been kicked out of Missouri!”

An impact of the experience, McBride said, was that in designing the charter for the new city of Nauvoo, Joseph reserved considerable powers. “Most of these powers — having a militia, a university, the right to hear arrest charges and issue writs of habeas corpus — existed in other Illinois cities at the time. But what made the Nauvoo charter so controversial was that it contained all those rights together. It as the aggregation of those powers that contributed to the outcry against the Mormons in Nauvoo.”

In the context of the trip to Washington, it can be seen that Joseph realized he couldn’t depend upon outside government agencies for help and that he needed to find another way to protect his people, McBride noted.

Despite the visit to Washington not having a happy ending, there is an encouraging note to be drawn from the episode, he said. "In Joseph, we see a man deeply committed to his beliefs, a man who endured severe conditions to protect the men and women who followed him. As a prophet, he was true to his convictions, and he was buoyed by his faith in God. To see such conviction, to witness such faith by those men and women who came before us, is something that should inspire us. Maybe, just maybe, Smith’s resilience amid difficulties and his perseverance in the face of repeated rejection is the encouraging moral of the story.”