The Gutenberg Bible, the first printed Bible

Bible in Pop Culture Week 1: Creationism in Schools

Image Attribution:By NYC Wanderer (Kevin Eng) – originally posted to Flickr as Gutenberg Bible, CC BY-SA 2.0,


Creationism and Schools: Youngstown, Ohio Opts for Science Only

News articles published between September 8th and 10th, 2016 noted that Crish Mohip, the Youngstown Schools Chief Executive Officer has stated that schools are obligated to follow the 344-page science standards developed by the Ohio Department of Education, which present the evolutionary view of biological development. Beginning with the 2016-2017 school year, “any reference to intelligent design, creationism, or any like concepts are eliminated from the science curriculum,” Mohip stated.[1] The memo that Mohip sent out was prompted by the use of a video in a science class that claims to present evidence for creationism based on the proliferation of species starting 500 million years ago. Complicating the issue is the fact that the video was produced by a Turkish Islamic televangelist named Adnan Oktar who is reportedly a Holocaust denier and the leader of a sex cult.[2]

The teacher who showed the video in class stated that he was presenting different views and that students should be able to clearly identify and weigh the merits of various arguments.[3] This, however, contradicts Ohio state policy. Creationism is the theory that the universe was intelligently, or purposefully, designed by God as described in the Abrahamic tradition of religions. Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Scriptures and Christian Bible as well as the Quran describe existence as having been formed by God. Modern science presents the theory that the universe was compressed into a small bit of matter surrounded by nothingness and, for reasons unknown, that pinpoint of matter suddenly exploded and began to expand into all of existence as we know it today.

The fight over the teaching of creationism in schools has been taking place for decades, with the common consensus shifting from creationism to evolutionary and scientific theories. In the American context that fight has revolved primarily around the Christian, literal interpretation of the Genesis creation story. In 1925, John Scopes was convicted of violating a Tennessee law making it illegal to teach evolution in a state-funded school. In 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a Louisiana law making it illegal to teach evolution in public schools without also teaching creationism.[4] In more recent years, the tide has turned in favor of the teaching of evolution over creationism. The recent decision of the Youngstown Schools Chief Executive Officer is just the most recent event in this ongoing trend and serves to show that a text compiled approximately 2200 to 2900 years ago still has meaning and significance in to modern societies.


Brown, S. (2016, September 8). Creationism Booted From Ohio Public Schools. Retrieved September 11, 2016, from Americans United For Separation of Church and State:

Gauntner, M. (2016, September 10). CEO cuts ‘Creationism’ from Youngstown school classrooms. Retrieved September 11, 2016, from


[1] Mike Gauntner, “CEO cuts ‘Creationism’ from Youngstown school classrooms,” Locally Owned, published September 2, 2016, modified September 10, 2016 and accessed September 11, 2016,

[2] Simon Brown, “Creationism Booted From Ohio Public Schools,” Americans United For Separation of Church and State, published September 8, 2016 and accessed September 11, 2016,

[3] Ibid.

[4] Mike Gauntner, “CEO cuts ‘Creationism’ from Youngstown school classrooms,” Locally Owned, published September 2, 2016, modified September 10, 2016 and accessed September 11, 2016,

Jesus’ World

A short essay I wrote for an undergraduate class called “Jesus the Jew” about a year ago.


Understanding who Jesus was is dependent on understanding the social context he was born into. What were the problems the Jewish people faced? What was the religious composition of the country? Was Jesus unique? Or were there others like him? After decades of Roman occupation, would Jesus’ message have been viewed favorably by his contemporaries?

When Jesus was born, Judea was occupied by the Romans. The invasion of the Romans was the last of many such occupations of Jewish lands by foreign powers that gradually diminished Jewish territorial control and sovereignty. Rome’s involvement with Judea began as an opportunistic intervention into a struggle over succession between Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II. Pompey the Great, a Roman proconsul, backed Hyrcanus and restored him to the throne because he believed that Hyrcanus would be more likely to comply with Roman desires. The illusion of self-rule came to an end in 6 CE, when Judea was incorporated into the Roman empire as the province of Iudea and placed under direct Roman rule. By the time Jesus was born, there was widespread belief that the appearance of a messiah who would destroy the Romans and restore Jewish sovereignty was imminent. There were, in fact, many people wandering the desert claiming to be just such a person, and most of them were crucified by the Roman government.

Contemporary Jewish religion was very diverse, from established denominations to temporary movements built around charismatic individuals. The vast majority of the Jewish people were what today might be called mainstream practitioners. They were not heavily invested in the finer points of theology, but rather followed tradition and relied on instruction from those in their community with religious authority. This figure was usually a Pharisee. In contrast to the Sadducees, a group of priests who performed the required sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem, the Pharisees were accessible to the people. Sadducees were educated, but status as a Sadducee was inherited and could only be inherited. Pharisees were also educated, but could be anyone: your neighbor, your son, or your uncle, and they lived nearby and could answer your questions. Another popular denomination was the Essene community, which lived a celibate and missionary lifestyle. There were also Zealots, or Fourth Philosophy groups, and groups like the one at Qumran, which may have produced the Dead Sea Scrolls. There were also charismatic individuals, typically wandering the country or living in the desert. They usually inspired followers or students, like Bannus, a hermit that Josephus sought wisdom from, and John the Baptist. There was no sense of normative Judaism. Jewish religion covered a broad spectrum of beliefs centered on the acceptance of the Hebrew Bible as scripture.

Jesus, as a man that preached a messianic message about the imminent establishment of the kingdom of God on earth, would not likely have been a surprise to his contemporaries, since he was but one of many such men traveling the country preaching a similar message. He also would not have been seen as a heretic, necessarily. Years later, Josephus defended the Christians because they were viewed as another group of Jews. There is no contemporary record of Jesus’ life, so it is impossible to know for sure how he was received, but he would have been seen as acting within the limits of Jewishness and, chafing under Roman rule, a message that advocated the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty probably would have been welcomed by the average person, or at least not a surprise.

Jesus in Modern Scholarship

This is a paper I wrote for an undergraduate course about a year ago called “Jesus the Jew”.


In The Historical Figure of Jesus, E. P. Sanders presents a very detailed examination of the evidence available for Jesus’ life. Of the three sources used for this paper, it is the most complete and the most scholarly in nature. F. E. Peters’ unpublished chapters on Jesus are very similar to Sanders’ work, though written in a more conversational way and with more emphasis on Jesus as the Gospels portray him, and on how Jesus viewed himself. Reza Aslan’s book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, is written for a mainstream audience and relegates complex arguments about sources to the endnotes, but it also presents a scholarly view of Jesus with an emphasis on social unrest.

Sanders is very clear about the evidence relating to Jesus. He writes that “the more or less contemporary documents, apart from those in the New Testament, shed virtually no light on Jesus’ life or death, though they reveal a lot about the social and political climate.”[1] He is probably referring to Philo, who did not mention Jesus, and Josephus, who was born after Jesus was crucified. Sanders explains that using the New Testament as a source is problematic because it was not written as a history; it was intended to be a theological document and though historians can glean information from it, as Sanders, Peters and Aslan all do, it is impossible to know whether the information is accurate or not.

A good example of this is the contradictory reasons given to explain why Jesus grew up in Nazareth in Galilee rather than in Bethlehem.[2] The device used to reconcile this apparent scriptural contradiction is a census that required people to travel to the hometown of their ancestor of forty-two generations. Sanders describes this method as being the result of a difference between how history is thought of today and salvation history, which required Jesus to be placed in a narrative that met traditional models or types based on scriptural precedents. Aslan also points out the obvious inaccuracy of the census but explains it as the inability of writers at the time to think of history scientifically because they were attempting to reveal truths, rather than facts.[3] Regardless, the point is that the New Testament is not a document that is meant to convey factual history; it is a theological document.

Sanders relies heavily on Josephus and also references Philo as a source of information to describe the historic and social setting that Jesus acted in. Sanders writes in detail about the problems of using the New Testament and explains how it was formed, starting out orally and evolving into pericopes that could be rearranged into stories depending on the author’s needs. Because of these issues, he believes that understanding Jesus can best be done by understanding the social and historical setting of first century Palestine. Aslan is also heavily invested in exploring the social setting of Palestine to try to understand how it may have influenced Jesus as a man. He also uses Philo as source for information about Judaism and Palestine, but does not mention him within the text of the book itself. Rather, he uses extensive endnotes to mention his sources. He seems to rely more heavily on Josephus and does not engage in the sort of literary critique of the New Testament that Sanders does, perhaps because his book was written for a less scholarly audience. Peters uses the same sources, but also references post-Biblical literature like the Book of Enoch.

The limited number of resources available results in all three authors having very similar arguments and conclusions about Jesus. Sanders presents Jesus as a man who had very little impact in his own society based on Jesus’ lack of a major following and Rome’s inaction in terms of suppressing him and his movement. Aslan mentions that the authorities were highly sensitive to any hint of sedition, but Sanders points out that, despite Josephus’ narrative of steadily increasing social unrest, this was just a plot device he used to build up to the revolt in 66 CE. Aslan’s interpretation implies that Jesus’ activities were more notable than Sanders believes they were, though Aslan also acknowledges the routine nature of Jesus’ crucifixion. All three authors agree that Jesus was crucified for political ideas that undermined Rome’s position, though Peters seems to place more blame on the Jews than either Aslan or Sanders.

Both Aslan and Sanders express similar ideas about the purpose of Jesus’ mission. Aslan writes that Jesus was not interested in gentiles, at least not during his ministry. He was solely concerned with the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24).[4] Sanders is more specific and explains that Jesus was also concerned with Jews of a specific social class: poor, rural Jews like himself. He also examines the symbolism of Jesus’ use of terminology like “the Twelve” and “the kingdom” to try to discover what Jesus thought he was going to accomplish. We’re left with an image of a devout Jew that felt he was attempting to bring about a new Jewish kingdom of God on Earth that would appear soon after his death. According to Sanders and Aslan, Jesus was not trying to establish a heavenly kingdom and he did not anticipate the dissolution of the physical universe. He was attempting to recreate the golden age of Jewish sovereignty, which may be why he symbolically referred to his primary disciples as “the Twelve,” referencing the twelve tribes of Israel. Peters’ work seems to imply a more apocalyptic meaning (in the Christian sense) in Jesus’ message, but that may simply be due to the unfinished nature of his unpublished work.

Sanders spends the majority of his book whittling away at source material to try to find a believable middle-ground that describes who Jesus might have been and what he might have thought about his role in society. Aslan, on the other hand, spends more time focusing on the social conflict between the Jews and Rome and between different Jewish groups. Peters puts more emphasis on the content of the Synoptic Gospels and Jesus’ role as a messiah with a scriptural basis, but all provide similar images of a historical figure based on the limited sources available. Who Jesus was as a person is likely lost forever, buried in layers of theology, revision, addition, and interpretation by later writers. Most of what can be known about Jesus, barring a new discovery, is already available and all that is left to academia is creative interpretation.




Aslan, Reza. Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Kindle Edition. New York: Random House, 2013.

Peters, F. E. “Chapters 1-5 concerning Jesus.” Unpublished Work. New York, 2012.

Sanders, E. P. The Historical Figure of Jesus. Kindle Edition. New York: Penguin, 1995.


[1] E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin, 1995), 3.

[2] Ibid., 85.

[3] Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Random house, 2013), Kindle Location 682-688.

[4] Quoted in Zealot…. The translation is the author’s own.

History in the “Confessions” of St. Augustine

St. Augustine in his study.

St. Augustine in his study. Source: Wikipedia

Saint Augustine’s Confessions is a book about the early life and conversion to Christianity of Augustine of Hippo, one of the most famous Christian scholars of antiquity. The book starts off with a description of childhood, then moves on to describe Augustine’s quest for knowledge both among the Manichees and through study of the traditional liberal arts, including oratory and rhetorical skills. An intensely personal account by design, Augustine reveals his internal struggle as he reminisces about the loss of his childhood friend, whose name he does not reveal, as well as his struggles with sexuality and his doubts about the nature of God. Essentially, the book is meant to show Augustine’s path from a confused childhood to a position of solid conviction in the Catholic faith, but Confessions can also be used as a source of historical information. This essay will examine the first seven chapters of Confessions to discover what it implies about the late 4th and early 5th century Roman society that shaped Augustine’s life.

One of the more interesting things that can be discerned from the book is the potential for mobility available in Roman society, both in terms of physical and social movement. Of course, Augustine’s case is not indicative of the norm, but he was able to advance from being the son of a modest family in Tagaste (in modern day Algeria) to being a well-respected and socially connected professor of rhetoric in Milan, before his conversion, which is related in chapters outside the scope of this essay. Augustine’s reasons for leaving his home village were originally related to study opportunities and a need to leave a place that reminded him strongly of the death of a childhood friend. His ability to travel within the empire for education purposes is interesting because it implies that there was a system in place that allowed for the boarding and education of students during his time. His ability to rise through the ranks of society based on his intellectual abilities shows that class distinctions were not set in stone and he specifically mentions that many Roman offices were available to anyone with the right amount of money. In a modern context, this has a negative connotation, and perhaps it did in Augustine’s time as well, because in his writing he felt the need to explain that as a system it allowed the state access to needed revenues and acted as a pathway to success for those born to lower classes.

In his writing, Augustine mentioned that not all families were willing to support their children’s education outside of their local towns, even when they were better-off economically than Augustine’s own family. Augustine did not go into detail about this point, but it leaves the reader wondering what motivations a family might have for not wanting to promote the education of their children at all costs, as Augustine’s did, when it might lead the family to greater success. If the story about Alypius and the responsibility of a “house” for a crime is any indication, the Roman family unit probably shared equally in success as well as culpability for crimes and failures.[1] Was it a cultural expectation that children would follow in the footsteps of their parents, leading to a lackadaisical attitude towards aggressive social advancement, or was the lack of interest in education outside of Tagaste something specific to that locality?

Much of Augustine’s writing in Confessions deals with education, because he wrote about both his time as a pupil and as an educator. His writing makes it clear that corporal punishment was a well-used form of discipline that acted as a motivator for children to pay attention to their studies. The fact that Augustine and, presumably, other children endured caning as a punishment and prayed for respite instead of abandoning school indicates that there was some measure of compulsion in attendance, either from families or from the state. Also, unless the phrase was added by the translator, the inclusion of the “three Rs” as a figure of speech (reading, writing, and arithmetic) shows that areas of study for primary school students in the late 4th century were fairly consistent with modern education standards.[2] His later education reveals a break with modern ideals about the purpose of studying the liberal arts, however. According to Augustine, forming logical arguments that revealed the truth about a matter were of secondary importance to style and delivery. Eloquence and the ability to convey a sense of conviction were more important than being able to logically argue a truth.

Similarly related to education, student culture in Roman society is revealed through Augustine’s writings. Bullying was alive and well in the 4th century. Schoolyard gangs even had nicknames, like “The Wreckers”, who would find “shy and unknown freshmen… to persecute…by mockery…to feed their own malevolent amusement.”[3] Augustine dealt with this group as a student by staying on friendly terms with them, but refused to participate in their mockery and acts of vandalism. Augustine wrote that in Carthage, students would burst into a classroom and purposely disrupt it with “mad behavior.”[4] Later, as an adult, Augustine complained of a practice common among Roman students, who would sit with a teacher for a number of classes and then transfer en masse to another instructor to avoid making payment.[5]

Augustine’s writing reveals quite a bit about religion during the late 4th and early 5th centuries in the Roman Empire, most obviously because the book is about his journey to conversion to Catholocism, but the first seven chapters of the book also discuss the Manichees and give an example of religious syncretism among professed Catholics. Augustine wrote that he spent nine years as a follower of the Manichee religion and through his writings, we can see that it was institutionally similar to the Catholic Church, including having Bishops, but professed very different concepts of God. The instance of religious syncretism that Augustine took time to mention was his mother’s practice of tomb veneration through the offering of plates of fruit and the ritual sipping of wine at the burial sites of Catholic martyrs. Augustine mentioned that his mother was not alone during these ceremonies, so the practice must have been widespread. I also make this conjecture based on the fact that in later centuries, and continuing up to the present, Islamic scholars in the Middle East have been condeming the same practice among Muslims regarding veneration of the tombs of saints, martyrs and especially Sufi pirs.

This brief selection of information from the first seven chapters of Saint Augustine’s Confessions shows how historical information about an author’s society can be revealed by analyzing that author’s work, even when recording historical information is not the main purpose of the work. This essay examines the chapters on their own, but by comparing what Augustine wrote to other available information, one could further the process of reconstructing Roman society and elaborate on the circumstances surrounding Augustine’s life and conversion to Catholocism.

[1] Saint Augustine, Confessions (Oxford University Press, 2009), 101.

[2] Ibid., 15.

[3] Ibid., 38.

[4] Ibid., 80.

[5] Ibid., 86.



Saint Augustine. 2009. Confessions (Oxford World’s Classics). Translated by Henry Chadwick. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.


Comparing Antonin Brtko and Oskar Schindler: Holocaust in Film

Tono Brtko, from The Shop on Main Street*, and Oskar Schindler, from Schindler’s List, are both main characters in Holocaust films that, while similar, have very different impacts on the Jewish communities they interact with.  The Shop on Main Street takes place in a small town in Slovakia during 1942, at a time when the fascist government is cracking down on Jewish residents. Schindler’s List** takes place in the latter years of World War II in and around Kraków, Poland. Both characters are non-Jews that are placed in positions of power over Jewish people, one as a shop manager and the other as a factory owner. The roles are similar, but because of the different motivations that guide Tono and Schindler’s actions, their relationships with Jews lead to very different results.

Antonin "Tono" Brtko and Mrs. Rozalia Lautmannová

Antonin “Tono” Brtko and Mrs. Rozalia Lautmannová

The more complicated of the two characters by far is Tono Brtko. The Shop on Main Street is a highly symbolic film and endless meaning can be read into Tono’s actions, but it is fairly safe to say that Tono represents the Slovakian nation. He is “Mr. Everyman Slovakia” and his behavior in the film can be seen as a critique of how the average Slovakian citizen treated his or her Jewish neighbors. In the film, all of those Jewish neighbors are represented by Mrs. Lautmann, a widow that runs a bankrupt button shop on Main Street.

Tono’s relationship with Mrs. Lautmann is essentially predatory. Throughout the film, he acts only in his own interest. Tono’s only purpose in interacting with Mrs. Lautmann is to satisfy his greed. As part of the Aryanization process in Slovakia, Jewish people were required to turn over their businesses to Aryan managers. This is depicted in the film and, because of his brother-in-law’s position, Tono is appointed Arisator of Mrs. Lautmann’s button shop. The idea of stealing the wealth of another person and not having to work for it put Tono in good spirits, which were dashed when he realized Mrs. Lautmann’s store was bankrupt and had nothing to offer him. The only reason he continued to have anything to do with her was because the Jewish community offered him a salary to look after Mrs. Lautmann and her shop. So, Tono was only interested in Mrs. Lautmann when there was an apparent means of profiting from her situation.

Oskar Schindler and Itzhak Stern in Schindler's List

Oskar Schindler and Itzhak Stern in Schindler’s List

Oskar Schindler, in Schindler’s List, is easier to understand. He is the hero of the story and a hero of the Jewish people. His development as a character follows a path similar to Tono’s, but there is a key difference. Unlike Schindler, Tono never has a change of heart. He never wants to help Jewish people because it is the right thing to do. Instead, he is only interested in profit. Schindler is depicted as being far more altruistic. At the beginning of the movie, Schindler is a cold, calculating business man who sees an opportunity to make massive profit off of cheap Jewish slave-labor during wartime conditions. This is similar to Tono’s desire to become wealthy through the acquisition of Mrs. Lautmann’s shop. In both cases, they are stealing the labor of others and converting it into personal profit, but when Schindler comes to understand the brutality of the Nazis, he empathizes with the Jews and expends all of his wealth in an effort to save as many of them as he can.

At the end of The Shop on Main Street, Tono attempts to hide Mrs. Lautmann from fascist soldiers approaching the button shop. It is possible that he does this because, in that moment of crisis, he realizes he actually cares about Mrs. Lautmann and feels guilty about what is going on, but it is more likely that Tono acted out of self-interested fear for his own well-being and a desire to avoid being considered a “Jew-lover.” In contrast, Schindler takes much greater risks than Tono in an effort to save people.

At the end of the two movies, both Tono and Schindler are broke, but while Tono ultimately has nothing to show for his efforts except a town empty of Jews, Schindler has saved over a thousand lives. If Tono had come to the same conclusion as Schindler, he could have saved Mrs. Lautmann, but because he was only thinking of how to profit from her, he caused her death. In the end, Tono and Schindler really aren’t that alike after all. They start out in similar circumstances, profiting from the labor of others, but their motivations and desires set them widely apart.

*For more on The Shop on Main Street, see this post:

The Shop on Main Street: The Holocaust in Film

**For more on Schindler’s List, see these posts:

Schindler’s List: The Holocaust in Film

Criticism of Schindler’s List: The Holocaust in Film