Top(?) Ten Christian History News Stories of 2009
A preliminary list.
As the managing editor for news and online journalism at Christianity Today, I’m constantly watching out for religion news. As a church history fan, I pay particular attention when today’s developments intersect with yesterday’s.
We’ve recently finished putting together our list of the top news stories of 2009 (we haven’t released our list yet, but Religion Newswriters Association, Baptist Joint Committee, Catholic News Service, and Time have.) I have to say, for pure news value, it seemed like a slow news year in religion news.
It was a bit of a slow news year in Christian history news, too, but I was able to put a list together of some notable events. Still, I can’t help but feel I’m missing something rather significant. Consider this, then, a non-authoritative, preliminary list.
1. A year of anniversaries
The “restoration movement” celebrated the 200th anniversary of its founding document of sorts, Thomas Campbell’s “Declaration and Address of the Christian Association of Washington.” Baptists celebrated the 400th anniversary of the first Baptist congregation by Thomas Helwys and John Smyth. The 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth drew renewed attention to his “enigmatic” faith (Charles Darwin, born the same day, got similar treatment.) But, probably due to the growing popularity of the “young Reformed movement,” the 500th birthday of John Calvin got the most attention.
2. Archaeologists find Israel’s largest artificial cave near Jericho
University of Haifa Archaeologist Adam Zertal told reporters he thought the site might be Galgala (Gilgal)—or perhaps just a place where later Christians thought Gilgal might have been. But at the very least, the 31 cross markings on the pillars and the suggestion that the site may have been a monastery or early Christian refuge during periods of persecution remains intriguing.
3. Discovery announced of a Byzantine church near Jerusalem with “breathtakingly beautiful mosaics”
The good news: A church from the sixth or seventh century was discovered at Moshav Nes-Harim, near Jerusalem. Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist Daniel Ein Mor said the excavation “supplements our knowledge about the nature of the Christian-Byzantine settlement in the rural areas between the main cities in this part of the country during the Byzantine period, among them Bet Guvrin, Emmaus and Jerusalem.” Among the findings: “breathtakingly beautiful mosaics” and an inscription: “O Lord God of Saint Theodorus, protect Antonius and Theodosia the illustres [a title used to distinguish high nobility in the Byzantine period] - Theophylactus and John the priest [or priests]. [Remember o Lord] Mary and John who have offe[red - ] in the 6th indiction. Lord, have pity of Stephen.”
The story does not have a happy ending: “In November , during the first excavation in the site, archaeologists exposed the church's narthex—the broad entrance at the front of the church's nave. It was filled with a carpet of polychrome mosaics that was adorned with geometric patterns of intertwined rhomboids separated by flower bud motifs. Unfortunately, at the conclusion of that excavation, the mosaic was defaced and almost completely destroyed by unknown vandals.”
4. Pope Benedict XVI confronts Holocaust denial
The Pope’s decision to lift the excommunication of four bishops associated with the Society of St. Pius X, including Richard Williamson, caused an uproar. Williamson had denied the extent of the Holocaust, saying, “I think that 200,000 to 300,000 Jews perished in Nazi concentration camps, but none of them in gas chambers.” Pope Benedict acknowledged “mistakes” in handling the lifting of the excommunication, including not “consulting the information available on the internet.” The debate, which became a focus of Benedict’s May visit to Israel, gave opportunity for pundits to call attention to the longstanding discussion over whether Vatican did enough to save Jews during World War II and to the history of Catholic-Jewish relations.
5. Did the “authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls” exist? Some critics of Dead Sea Scroll scholarship didn’t.
Rachel Elior made headlines with her claim that the Essenes were merely an invention by Flavius Josephus and that the efforts to tie the sect to the Dead Sea Scrolls are thus doomed to failure. But her claim was overshadowed by the arrest of Raphael Golb, son of Dead Sea Scrolls scholar Norman Golb, on charges of identity theft, criminal impersonation and aggravated harassment. Norman Golb is one of the most vocal critics of the Essene-authorship theory (though he apparently believes they existed). Raphael Golb apparently created many internet aliases and trolled the internet to promote his father’s work and smear critics. Did either Golb or Elior significantly change Dead Sea Scrolls scholarship this year? Maybe not. But it gave people something to talk about, anyway.
6. Texas board of education fight shifts from biology to history
David Barton of Wall Builders and Peter Marshall of the “America’s Christian Heritage” books were among the new appointees to the Texas Board of Education, which is currently debating changes to the statewide social studies curriculum. For the last several months Barton and Marshall (along American University professor Daniel Dreisbach ) have been arguing for more recognition of the role Christianity played in American history, from the role the Great Awakening played in the founding of the republic to Billy Graham’s shaping of the 20th century.
"We're in an all-out moral and spiritual civil war for the soul of America, and the record of American history is right at the heart of it," Marshall told The Wall Street Journal.
7. Father Damien officially becomes a Catholic saint
The Belgian “leper priest” is widely admired by Protestants and Catholics for his incarnational ministry to the outcasts of Molokai in the 19th century. Such wasn’t always the case.
8. As Codex Sinaiticus goes online, a new discovery
“An online project by the British Library has reassembled the surviving pages of the world's oldest Bible,” the CBC and other news agencies reported (not entirely accurately) in July. “The Codex Sinaiticus, written by Greek scholars in the fourth century, exists in four separate pieces in Britain, Germany, Russia and Egypt. But all of the extant text of Codex Sinaiticus went online Monday, along with interpretations in modern Greek and in English, for those who cannot read the ancient language.”
Well, not so fast. A month later, a Greek Ph.D. student announced that he accidentally discovered a previously unseen section of the manuscript in the binding of another codex at St Catherine's Monastery in Egypt.
9. Lucas Cranach the Elder painting gets brief (unfortunate) attention
There was brief attention to one of the most important (though not always remembered) figures of the German Reformation, Lucas Cranach, as his painting, “Suffer the Little Children to Come unto Me,” was stolen from a Lutheran church in Norway. The painting, worth between $2 million and $3 million and in the church since 1677 was quickly recovered.
Other stories worth considering:
Greece's new Acropolis Museum fights over apparent reference to Christian vandals.
Shroud of Turin stuff: Researcher claims to find faint writing as research on first-century leper casts doubt on the shroud’s early origin.
President Obama’s various speeches spark historical reflections on crusades, Reinhold Niebuhr, just war theory, Turkey’s Halki seminary, civilization’s (and America’s) “debt to Islam,” and many other church history topics.
Archaeologists find 2,000-year-old synagogue in Migdal, where Jesus may have preached. (I omitted this from the above list simply because there’s little connection to church history after Jesus. But what a find!)
Okay. That’s my list. What did I miss? (Remember the rules for such things: All responses must be written in an incredulous tone and generally should start or end with an insult and the words “I can’t believe you…”)