Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Historical Context for the Gospels

I am coming back to study the historical context of the New Testament - the first two centuries BCE. Here is a brief summary, using the 25-year grid method. Beginning this period in 200 and ending at the year 1 gives us eight blocks of time. I Maccabees covers block 2-3, while II Maccabees starts in block 1 and ends in block 2.

Block 1 (200-175) - Israel is under Syrian Rule.

Block 2 (175-150) - Leadup to the Maccabean revolt. Antiochus IV Epiphanes takes the throne in 175. He desecrates the Jerusalem temple, leading to the Maccabean revolt, which takes place about half-way through the block (167). Matthias (the first of the Hasmoneans) and his son, Judas lead the movement in turn and are both killed. The clensing of the temple from pagan influence (prompting the feast of dedication, or Hannukkah) occurs in 164. Jonathan, Judas' brother, leads the movement for the last ten years of this block and the first half of the next.

Block 3 (150-125) - The Maccabean struggle. Jonathan is killed, followed by his brother,Simon. I Maccabees ends with John Hyrcanus, Simon's son, becoming high priest (134), which he held through the next block.

Block 4 (125-100) - Hasmonean compromise. Hyrcanus dies and is followed by his son, Aristobulus I, who adds the title 'King' to his position as high priest. He reigns until nearly the end of the block (103). Both Hyrcanus and Aristobulus make concessions to Hellenistic culture which are detested by orthodox jews.

Block 5 (100-75) - Hasmonean Decline. Aristobulus's brother, Alexander Jannaeus, dominates this block, as king from 103-76.

Block 6 (75-50) - Hasmonean End. Alexander Jannaeus' wife takes power during the first half (until 66), followed by civil war between her sons, Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II.

Block 7 (50-25) - Roman influence. Antipater, the first of the Herods, compells the Romans (under Pompey) to depose of the Hasmoneans altogether. He is assassinated early in the block, when his son, Herod I takes control. Herod reigns for the second half of this block (37 onward) until nearly the end of the next block!

Block 8 (25-0*) - Herod's glory. Herod has all sorts of building projects in Judea, repairing the Jerusalem temple, building the port-city of Caesarea, and countless temples, fortresses, and palaces. Herod I reigns until 4 BCE, when his son, Archaelaus briefly has power.

With a bit more work, I could fill out the next three:
Block 9 (0*-25) - Romans in power. A series of governors rule Judea.
Block 10 (25-50) - Romans still in power. Unrest grows.
Block 11 (50-75) - Destruction. Jerusalem razed in the year 70.

I should probably extend through block 14, with the Bar Kockhba revolt. Right now I'm trying to get a grip on blocks 1-8, which is what prompted this series to begin with. I am aware that I oversimplify things, but I think the clarity that I gain outweighs the little bit I lose from oversimplifying. And, of course, these years are totally arbitrary - and yet they seem to work pretty well. Let me know what you think.

*There is no such thing as year 0, since the people who first made the calander didn't get the concept. Technically you have to skip from 1BC to AD1. I noted earlier that the years are guides, not exact dates, so I use numbers that are convenient. Also, I use BC and BCE interchangably, as well as AD and CE. There is little rhyme or reason as to when I use one or the other. I probably should just pick one and stick to it.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

My Personal Welsh Revival

I've never even been to Wales, but they have bestowed quite an honor upon me. And here all this time I was worried that I am developing a gut! Silly me.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

A Grid for Understanding History, Part II

In my last post I laid out my grid approach for understanding history. Today I am examining the way individuals fit into the grid.

Similarly to my study of world history, this is the problem I have when studying biographies: I have trouble figuring out where the subjects fit in relation to everything else. Now with the grid, I have a place I can quickly 'file them' in my mind. It gets a little tricky, since very few people were born right on one of the grid lines, so what I do is get a rough approximation of where they fit. Here is how it works:

Segment the person's life into 25-year segments, beginning at their birth. Next figure out approximately how far off the 25-year marks from world history the person is (that is, the 0, 25, 50, and 75 year dividers in world history). For instance, Martin Luther was born in 1483, so he is about one third off from the 1475-1500 block.

Generally, every person gets three 25-year blocks if they live a full life. During the first block there are very few individuals that ever do anything important. You are just learning about the world. But it is important to pay attention to this block of time in a person's life because whatever is happening in world history is going to be formative. During this block, people may be willing to change the world, but generally are not able yet.

You can safely assume that each individual has indirect access to three blocks of time before they were born. That is, even if the subject did not personally experience those blocks, he or she will know people who did - typically parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents.

When people drastically change the world, it is generally during the second block of their lives(25-50 years old). By this block, people have acquired enough knowledge and experience to have a real impact, but generally have no deep commitments to the received wisdom of the past generation. People in this period are still willing to change the world, but now have acquired the ability.

Taking Martin Luther as an example again, he nailed his theses to the door in 1517. Because he is about a third off of the historical blocks, his second block starts about a third after 1500, or about 1508. It is the middle of his second block that he departs from the conventional wisdom of his time, becoming the catalyst for the Protestant Reformation. For Luther, it is his second block of time that is most important.

It is the third block, from 50-75 years, that people generally do their best work. They have already taken their stands on whatever issues they have chosen to tackle. These are the years when people are best able to really flesh out positions taken earlier in life. It is not so much that people in this block no longer wish to change the world, but they have already taken a stand on how to change it. Usually the people we are interested in studying are the kinds of people who overturned the prevailing orthodoxy, but once that is done, their own positions have become the new orthodoxy and need working out. People in this block of life are generally the most effective in whatever they have decided to do because they have so much knowledge and experience to bring to bear on it. Keeping with our example, Martin Luther died only a few years into his third block.

Occasionally people like Billy Graham get a fourth block. This used to be pretty rare but with modern medicine is becoming a lot more common. I call this the bonus round. It's usually harder to do things during this block, but it's like you get double points for everything you do.

I think this system helps give a quick-and-dirty view of a person's life. By comparing the person to the grid, you can often guess about when the person's major life events occurred. Nine times out of ten the grid's predictions will be spot-on. The remaining 10% of the time are worth taking note of, because there is probably a detail that accounts for it that is worth noting.

Let's look at a few more examples:
Karl Barth (1886-1968) - He is almost half way off the 1875 grid line.
  1. 1st block (approx. 1886-1915)
  2. 2nd block (approx. 1915-1940) - Romans commentary written 1922 (about a third of the way into his second block), the bomb in the playground of liberal theology; Barmen declaration written 1934 against Nazism.
  3. 3rd block (approx. 1940-1965) - Church Dogmatics, begun in 1932, but mostly written during this block of time, representing Barth's later theology and moving away from the dialectical theology of the 2nd block. Many of his most important lectures are delivered at the end of this block, 1962-1965.
  4. Bonus (1965-1968)

Paul (10-65, though much of this is guesswork) - This puts him just over a third off the Year 1 grid line.
  1. 1st block (10-35) - Paul is converted near the end of this period, about the year 33.
  2. 2nd block (35-60) - The first third of this block is spent in Cilicia and Syria; the second two-thirds are his missionary journeys.
  3. 3rd block (60-65) - Paul in Rome. We have very little information about Paul's activity during this time. Tradition says he was beheaded in Rome.
Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE) - He's just a few years behind the 350 grid line, so we'll line his up at about five years off.
  1. 1st block (356-330) - One of the very few individuals in history to make an impact during his first block, which makes him noteworthy. He takes over Macedonia after his father's assassination in 335. Even so, he contributes militarily rather than intellectually, which partially explains this deviation.
  2. 2nd block (330-323) - Alexander dies early, having conquered the known world.
In my next post, I will look at a specific time period, the period that has grabbed my interest currently: Israel under the Maccabees and the time leading up to the New Testament gospels.

Friday, September 07, 2007

A Grid for Understanding History, Part I

I just cannot fathom how high school teachers can make history seem so boring. Okay, I'm pretty sure Wisconsin history is pretty dull. But everything else is usually fascinating. World history is pretty much littered with wars, intrigue, and assassinations - the stuff good novels are made of. But most of what I got was "social studies," where we spent our time learning the main export of each country. Oh yeah, that will really hook kids on learning about history.

So I never figured out that history was cool until college. Even then I only took two history classes. My first was Byzantine history, which was a smart choice since it covers over 1000 years, guaranteeing that I would become hopelessly lost in the details and mixing up people who were separated by, say, 200 years or more. The problem is that I had no framework for grasping a span of history that large, a problem I discussed yesterday.

I have encountered the same problem several times since then, whether church history classes, personal studying, or teaching homeschool. History is so vast that it's hard to keep everything straight.

I have developed a solution that I have gradually developing since my American church history class a couple years ago. It has seemed to work pretty well for me so far. My idea was to break up history into 25-year blocks. The 1900s, for instance, would be broken up into four blocks: 1900-1925; 1925-1950; 1950-1975; 1975-2000. I am intentionally repeating numbers rather than using, say, 1926-1950. That is because I am not intending to separate events into hard-and-fast categories. I am just trying to get a feel for what fits where, using 1925 as a general reference point.

There are a number of advantages to this kind of system. First, it makes it easier to understand the relation between different events in the grid. Have you ever copied a line drawing by superimposing a grid over the original drawing and then doing your copy over a similar grid? You'll be amazed how well you can copy a drawing, even if you are a poor artist. Imposing a grid helps you to recognize proportions and spacial relations. When studying history, a grid helps recognize temporal relations. So even if twenty-five year blocks are totally arbitrary, they still work well for creating mental storage compartments for various historical facts.

Second, my system gives us perspective. Perhaps my illustrations yesterday of 6000 babies or six chairs were not helpful to you. (Some people didn't catch the joke.) They are not helpful because we have no real frame of reference for understanding 6000 1-year-periods or 6 1000-year-periods. But we can easily understand a 25-year-period since it fits within most of our lifetimes.

6000 years are composed of 240 blocks. 240 is still a lot, but at least it's manageable. And we really don't have that much information on the first 2000 years, so you can lop off about 80 blocks by just getting down a few basic facts. But more importantly, we are not usually focusing on the entire 240 blocks. Our topic will usually just take a portion, like Roman history, or the expansion of Islam, or American history. Each one is only going to cover 10 to 20 blocks. That is very accessible. In addition, we can gain a concept of how long a particular period is in relation to the whole. The US has been a nation for just over 10 blocks, for instance, which is pretty short compared to 240, but yet not so small as to be insignificant. I have found this perspective indispensibly helpful.

Third, twenty-five years is about the right amount of time to have its own story. You tend to get a lot of the same key actors in each block. Much smaller and you miss important parts of the story; much bigger and you start incorporating another story. Occasionally stories will 'spill over' into the next grid section. When a particular story, like a king's reign, is spread pretty equally over two blocks, that is also fairly easy to remember by thinking of it stretching between the two blocks, like part A and part B.

In my next post I will further develop the grid method in reference to individuals. If you haven't bought into it yet, stick with me. There are more reasons why I think the grid system works.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Americans and World History

Since I'm an American, the perspective my public school education gave me was that anything outside of my lifetime is old; anything that happened before the 1920s or so is ancient history; history more-or-less started in 1492, but it didn't really get going until the 1600s when people began to colonize the east coast of America, and that was all just a lead-up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

We Americans have such a limited perspective. I recently reviewed the Chrononauts card game (Looney Labs) for Knucklebones magazine in an article about using games for homeschooling (which is currently slated for the July issue of 2008). It is a fabulous game where you become a time traveler who changes parts of history and then watch the ripple effects later in the timeline. From an educational standpoint, the game is awesome. Well, awesome for learning American history from about 1900 on. I found myself thinking, if I had a time machine, I would want to see Rome, visit Ancient Babylonia, watch the building of the pyramids, meet Charlemagne, and listen to the Sermon on the Mount. Why do we somehow think that history means the past four generations of American history?

Looneys, if you happen to read this, I didn't mention any of this in my article, since a gaming magazine is not really the place for me to take up my own personal rant. I had only great things to say about your game. I can't wait to play Andy's hippy game in the new Stonehenge expansion. It sounds very interesting. But I digress.

Here's the problem as I see it:
(1) Americans (myself included) have a hard time getting our minds around the history of our own country, which is just over 250 years old.
(2) Recorded history goes back over 6000 years.

6000 years is a long time! Have you ever tried to think about it? Just to help you grasp the immensity of it, let me illustrate for you. My youngest daughter is just over a year old. If you took her exactly on her first birthday, you would have one year's worth of child. So that helps you get a feel for how long a year is. Now, if you want to understand how long 6000 years is, you would have to line up 6000 children on their first birthdays and add them all together. Simply mind boggling, isn't it?

Or how about this: if your kitchen chair represented 1000 years of history, it would take an unbelievable SIX CHAIRS to represent world history! That's enough chairs to fit around your dining room table.

That's why you come to this blog, isn't it. Perspective. Tomorrow I will share more profound insights for understanding over 6000 years of recorded history. It's all in service to you, dear reader.