Are Churches Essential Businesses/Services?

This week’s blog entry comes from the news that Joel Osteen’s Houston megachurch received $4.4 million in Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration. Contrast that news with the bitter fight by Bernie Sanders and others to secure, among other protectionary measures, a second round of direct payments to the American people to assist families struggling to pay rent, mortgages, and other expenses.

Photo by Harry Smith on

The federal government’s response to the ongoing social and economic stagnation caused by the Coronavirus pandemic, while passing with bipartisan approval, has been straight out of the Republican playbook: a form of inequality-expanding trickle-down economics propping up institutions that would otherwise have failed under free market conditions, under the guise of allowing businesses to keep their workers employed. 

What seems odious to many is that churches, while increasingly involving themselves in right-wing politics and not being forced to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, have lined up in droves to receive PPP loans to the tune of $7.3 billion as of July 2020. Yes, churches may have janitors, organists, and ministers on their payrolls, and these individuals and their families would certainly experience hardships if their wages were disrupted, but there is no clear justification for such federal aid to be disbursed via their employers when direct payments to the American people has so clearly been an option from the start. The Small Business Administration even bent its rules that would typically have disallowed non-profits from receiving this special funding, according to ABC13 in Houston

Federal documents reveal the PPP program ‘declined to enforce’ provisions of federal law for PPP typically barring religious groups from accepting federal loans.

Ted Oberg and Sarah Rafique, ABC13

It is clear that the government’s approach to the Covid pandemic has taken a page out of the 2008 bank bailouts, deeming institutions and corporations of all sizes “too big to fail” and therefore essential services to society. Whether churches are so essential to our social fabric, in an era of ever-increasing religious “nones” and others identifying merely as spiritual apart from religious institutions, does not seem to have been considered. And yet, somehow, most of the population has survived 2020 without regularly stepping foot inside their local churches.

While news about Osteen’s megachurch receiving PPP funding has certainly caused a stir in recent days and prompted a PR response from the church’s spokesman, it remains to be seen whether the fact that churches in general have queued up for their bailout will scandalize either the faithful or Americans broadly who have treasured the separation of church and state, the First Amendment’s establishment clause, and a long tradition of standoffishness about government intervention in ecclesiastical affairs. As congregants and tithers continue to decrease, these PPP loans for churches may simply be delaying the inevitable collapse of America’s religious bubble.

Though designed as a loan system and expected to be repaid to the federal government, the Payroll Protection Program loans can be forgiven if the funds were used for eligible payroll and mortgage expenses. Osteen and other megachurch purveyors of the prosperity gospel tend to portray their donations received as “seeds” that, when planted, can grow into a mighty tree. We will perhaps have to wait and see if Osteen and other churches taking PPP loans symbolically bury their talents (Mt 25:24-28) or manage to sow their seeds into a hundredfold (Mt 13:8) for the benefit of American society. But given the kind of rhetoric coming out of churches lately, I’m not holding my breath.

Chart: Greek Manuscripts of the Shepherd of Hermas (Pre-7th Century)

For a recent term paper I needed to catalogue the contents of the 24 extant Greek manuscripts (pre-7th century) of the Shepherd of Hermas. I’ve written here about the Shepherd’s significance from the 2nd to 4th centuries CE before, but for this paper I was interested in all of the Greek manuscripts we have before Latin became the primary language of both the Church at large and the Shepherd’s use/preservation.

The Shepherd of Hermas in Codex Sinaiticus (Herm. 92.2 [Mand. 9.15.2]).
I was surprised to find that no one had really put together the relevant information in a list or chart. Appendix 1 in Larry Hurtado’s The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (pgs. 224-225) only extends to the early fourth century, as he’s primarily interested in the pre-Constantinian period. But he doesn’t list contents of the manuscripts.

I built off the graph Hurtado started, adding all other manuscripts through the 6th century CE with a number of additional fields. For one thing, the Shepherd uniquely uses two systems of numbering/citation—one continuous, with chapters numbering 1 to 114, and another that breaks the chapters up into sections of 5 Visions, 12 Commandments/Mandates, and 10 Similitudes.[1] I list the contents of each manuscript using both notational forms, given that both still carry currency and are recommended by SBL in citation of the Shepherd. I’ve also linked to each manuscript fragment’s entry in the exceedingly useful Leuven Database of Ancient Books, or LDAB, and to each manuscript’s free and open online access, where available. Without further ado (click image for full chart):

Click the image for full chart (PDF).

I hope that this chart is useful to other scholars and interested persons. In the future I may add where the critical editions of each manuscript can be found, but LDAB has much of this information even if it is sometimes difficult to decipher. Let me know if you see any errors that require fixing.

Offline Citations

[1] Because this is so wonky, we who study the Shepherd even get our very own Appendix in the SBL Handbook of Style! See Appendix D of the 2nd ed., pgs. 331-332.

On the History of the Nativity Scene

It’s not everyday that the course of my research drives me into immediately popular territory—that is, interesting and relevant to normal people who don’t spend all of their time thinking about religion or biblical studies. But recently I was looking into court cases and other newsworthy incidents surrounding the public display (meaning, on public property) of nativity scenes. The end result was a fun term paper on a 37-year-old case that took place right in my backyard of Denver, for which professors from my two institutions (Iliff School of Theology and the University of Denver) served as expert witnesses. It was called Citizens Concerned for Separation of Church and State v. City and County of Denver, and most of the relevant details can be read in the Saint Louis University Law Journal,[1] if you’re interested.

In his deposition for that case, the Mayor of Denver, William McNichols, testified of the nativity scene:

“It is not offensive to anyone nor should it be.”[2]

The mayor might have needed a lesson on facts versus opinions. Whether the crèche was offensive or not was not the concern or the trial; rather, the groups that bring these sorts of suits allege that the display of religious symbols on public grounds violates the First Amendment’s establishment clause. Contrary to Mayor McNichols, Judge Richard Matsch heard at trial from a number of people—professors of religion, psychologists, a Jewish woman, Christians of various denominations, and an atheist—very compelling reasons why the crèche was offensive.[3]

Somehow, the judicial system has held that the display of the nativity scene on public grounds is permissible, thus ignoring the Constitution “in order to placate popular opposition to its clear demands.”[4] Thus we continue to see episodes of competing displays between Christian nativities, a Satanist “snaketivity,” Gay Pride Festivus Poles, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and placards wishing passersby a “Happy Solstice.” What insanity!

Fox News’ Gretchen Carlson, as lampooned in Dec. 2013 by Jon Stewart (we miss ye dearly).

In the midst of my research, I became interested in the history of the nativity scene: when it was first displayed, how it developed, and why it’s now such a cultural cause célèbre. I didn’t answer all of these questions scientifically. For the last of them, it seems to me that a subset of Christians latch onto the nativity scene out of a concern that Christ not be erased from Christmas, given that it’s the most overtly religious symbol for what broader culture has so egregiously refashioned as the “Holiday Season.”

The other questions are more empirically answerable. And the result is a story not often told.

Biblical Origins

Though they contain some common elements, such as Mary’s virginal conception and the birth in Bethlehem, the two gospels featuring “pre-ministry” narratives are essentially irreconcilable.[5] Matthew tells a story of Joseph’s dreams, a hovering star, a birth in Mary and Joseph’s “hometown” of Bethlehem, the visit of the magi, and the family’s exile in Egypt during the final stages of Herod the Great’s life (d. 4 BCE). Luke replaces these elements with Gabriel’s appearance to Mary, the worldwide census under the governorship of Quirinius (c. 6 CE), an improbable trek to Bethlehem from the family’s hometown of Nazareth, no vacancy at the inn, a choir of angels, and curious shepherds.

Told as they were by different human authors for different human audiences on opposite ends of the Roman Empire—some 75 to 100 years removed from the events they describe—these disparate stories cannot be plausibly combined into a master narrative, as careful observers in the early church recognized. Scholars have generally decided that the narratives were constructed not as a reflection of history, but to conform to various so-called prophecies from the Hebrew Bible other typological and mythological elements. Jesus was probably not born in Bethlehem, but in his well-acknowledged hometown of Nazareth, and his conception and birth were most likely completely conventional.[6]

Two-Dimensional Art

But the Christians of late antiquity certainly weren’t privy to the conclusions of modern scholarship. Instead, their art reflected the stories told in scripture. When Christianity achieved the status of approved religion in the Roman Empire in the 4th century, artwork celebrating Jesus’s birth began to appear—ironically enough—on the large, ornate stone coffins known as sarcophagi (singular: sarcophagus, from Greek, literally meaning “flesh-eater.”). A few examples are below in Figs. A and B:

Fig. A: Sarcophagus lid, marble, late 4th century. Origin unknown, but housed today at the Vatican. Notice Mary alone (Matthew 2:11), the star overhead, and the ox-ass pairing.

(Possibly also) Fig. A: Though detached from the previous image, this sarcophagus fragment seems to depict the magi presenting gifts. Yes, though, those do look quite like sheep!

Fig. B: Sarcophagus body, marble, date unknown but presumed contemporaneous with Fig. A (4th century). France. The magi occupy the lower panel, whereas the ox-ass combo closely inspect baby Jesus.

In comparison to the common modern nativity scene, with their hosts of characters, these depictions are rather reserved. Fig. B shows Mary and Joseph, while Fig. A only includes Mary, and both feature the magi paying their respects to Jesus. A star hangs nearby Mary in both examples. But the most interesting element of these sarcophagi is the pair of animals overlooking the infant Jesus, which appears in neither of the gospel accounts telling the story of his birth.

As becomes clearer in the artwork below, these animals are an ox and an ass. Though traditionally mentioned together in the Hebrew Bible, such as in the well-known opening verses of Isaiah (“The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib…” [Is 1:3]), the iconography of the ox and the ass does not point to any particular scriptural referent. Instead, Jonathan Pageau counts their primary intention at the nativity as the proclamation of the church made possible by Jesus’s sacrifice[7]; thus, the animals at Jesus’s birth foretell the joining together of the clean (the ox, representing Jews/Israel) and the unclean (the ass, representing Gentiles, sinners, etc.) under the plan of God (cf. Acts 10; Galatians 3:28-29).

Eventually, nativity artwork appeared on other mediums, from gospel manuscripts and book covers to the ceilings and altars of holy spaces. In each case, the ox-ass pairing is retained, and Joseph also becomes a mainstay of the depictions. A representative example of such artwork from the 5th to the 13th centuries is below:

Fig. C: Gospel book cover, ivory, mid-to-late fifth century. Origin from Western Christianity, perhaps near Milan.

Fig. D: Lid of Byzantine reliquary casket, 6th century. Origin from Eastern Christianity. Note the despondent Joseph—from around this time, it becomes common to depict Joseph as troubled, with his hand to his face. This is also the first indication of the nativity scene taking place not in a gazebo-like structure, but rather a cave.

Fig. E: Painting within a gospel manuscript, 11th century. Germany. Notice that our cast of characters has increased to include a number of angels.

Fig. F: Ceiling mosaic, 12th century, Daphni Monastery, Greece. The angels overlook the beams of the Matthean star, which somehow reach down at the entrance of the cave, while the ox and ass play peekaboo.

Fig. G: Painting from the Altar of the Holy Virgin Mary, 13th century, Avia, Catalonia.

Interestingly, before about 1000 CE, surviving examples of nativity art are rare. Though an imperfect representation of nativity scene popularity in the historical imagination, the search results bar reproduced below, revealing hits (including some false hits) for the term “nativity,” yet approximates the development of the crèche in surviving art. It suggests growth and increased interest in the nativity beginning significantly only in the second millennium of the common era.


It is, of course, possible that the set-in-stone sarcophagus inscriptions are merely our earliest surviving examples of nativity artwork, and that drawings and paintings of the nativity were popular from the earliest Christian centuries, but have not survived the stresses of time. This would be an argument from silence, however, and I am aware of no nativity artwork from—to take a thematic example from other spaces of preserving the remains of the deceased—early Christian catacombs, where other scriptural referents reign: Jonah and the whale, Jesus’s baptism, the raising of Lazarus, Jesus and the Samaritan woman, and others.[8] Absent historical evidence, I proceed under the impression that nativity artwork only became a topos in the 4th century, though situated within and juxtaposed against the space of human death, it may well have emerged as a rather literal hetero-topos (following Michel Foucault and Eric C. Smith) before emigrating into other artistic venues.

The Third Dimension: Stand-Up Nativities

Still, even through the completion of the 13th century Fig. G above, the crèche abided only in two-dimensional artwork. It wasn’t until 1223 CE when St. Francis of Assisi organized the first “live” nativity that the scene would pop out of popular art into the third dimension. Notably, however, his visual depiction mirrored the simplest of the art displayed above. A recent article in Slate explains:

St. Francis got permission from Pope Honorious III to set up a manger with hay and two live animals—an ox and an ass—in a cave in the Italian village of Grecio. He then invited the villagers to come gaze upon the scene while he preached about “the babe of Bethlehem.” (Francis was supposedly so overcome by emotion that he couldn’t say “Jesus.”)

It is unclear whether this first stand-up nativity scene included living human beings and an infant, but L.V. Anderson adds that either way, it had primarily educational value in a day when few understood the Latin spoken at mass. St. Francis delivered his message in the local tongue rather than the high church language, and his public display of the nativity performed the same familiarizing effect. He presumably expounded on the significance of the ox and the ass while telling the story of Jesus’s birth, now relocated to a cave (as in Figs. D and F above) given the influence of the account in the Protoevangelium of James [ch. 19] and the well-known fact that the Bethlehem Church of the Nativity was situated atop a grotto ripe for the pilgrimage. One can only long to have heard the story as St. Francis told it, if for no other reason to understand how he managed to narrate the events completely without mentioning Jesus.

This gesture, equal parts reverential and educational in genesis, would spread rapidly across the European continent. It was further fertilized by the Catholic Church’s response to Martin Luther, whose Protestant Reformation opposed rampant iconography and instead preferred the evergreen tree as a Christmastime symbol. In response, the Council of Trent (1545-1563) boosted the staying power of the nativity scene, blessing it as an officially sanctioned display, but also detaching it from the canonical birth accounts. Previously, most artwork featured only one scene or the other: the magi bearing gifts (so Matthew) or the shepherds and the angels (so Luke). Now, as in the present day, all characters were invited to the scene.

Shortly after the Council of Trent, the Jesuit Order set mechanizing the crèche into workable, automatic three-dimensional displays.[9] These mechanical exhibits were soon in full demand among the wealthy, aristocratic classes and in churches and royal palaces as well. One example, constructed toward the end of the 16th century for the Court of Saxony, “includes shepherds and kings proceeding past the manger while angels fly down from Heaven, Joseph rocks the cradle, and an ox and an ass rise up to stand before the Holy Infant.”[10] Within just a few centuries, the St. Francis’s simple educational and reverential endeavor had given way to the sort of ostentation we moderns might enjoy during an 8 p.m. drive around Suburbia.


Nativity Manger
“Nativity Manger” via GlacierGuyMT on Flickr

Despite Reformation-era divisions between the evergreen “Christmas tree” and the nativity scene, contemporary American Protestantism has found little problem incorporating both symbols of the holiday season. Few are aware that Martin Luther and early Protestants virulently opposed the iconography of the crèche, often counted as the more explicitly religious of the two symbols today, and virtually all would be surprised to learn that the nativity scene is a phenomenon limited largely to the second Christian millennium. This brief history of the nativity does not detract from its present popularity within Christianity, but adds an oft-untold backstory of the most popular display of religion to modern battles over its appropriateness in the public square.

Final Thoughts

At best, the nativity scene is a theologically rich, though historically dubious, symbol of the Christian proclamation of Jesus’s origins. Though revered by many, it attests to particular ideas not apparently shared in the period of Christian origins by the authors of Mark and John, and also not celebrated in the present day by certain Christian denominations and individuals. As a display and even in artwork, the crèche was developmentally delayed, and did not appear extensively until the 11th century. Treasuring the display of the nativity scene is thus largely a product of the second Christian millennium, though it eventually achieved near-ubiquity in the Christian world as a symbol of reverence. Even then, Protestant Reformers would reject the nativity on iconographic grounds for a while, preferring to erect evergreen trees as part of their Christmas celebrations. Most who faithfully place the nativity scene side-by-side with a Christmas tree are probably unaware of the previous Catholic-Protestant rift exemplified by these two symbols.

The early 20th century witnessed many municipalities—including Denver, beginning in 1913—opting to display the nativity scene on public grounds with public funds, and this lasted for decades without significant opposition given Christianity’s grip on American society. Today, however, the nativity scene can only be so publicly arrayed as a denial of pluralism and the erosion of Christianity as the common cultural soil. What St. Francis cobbled together out of deep reverence, and as an educational tool, is often foisted upon the public sphere antagonistically, wrapped in the clothes of tradition but imbued with spite, rather than the good news. The escalating recriminations in recent years from atheists, humanists, and wisecrackers are but a mirror, a long time coming, held up in the face of this protracted evangelism-by-force.

It’s no wonder that fewer and fewer are interested in this version of the Christian story.

Offline Citations

[1] Jonathon B. Chase, “Litigating A Nativity Scene Case,” Saint Louis University Law Journal 24.2 (Sept. 1980): 237-271. The plaintiffs, members of a Denver humanist organization, were represented by the ACLU of Colorado, which argued a rather excellent case and won a slam-dunk decision by Judge Richard Matsch, though the decision was immediately stayed and later vacated over “standing” concerns. (At retrial in 1981, the Tenth Circuit Court found resoundingly against the Citizens Concerned group.)

[2] Ibid., 239.

[3] For example, the Jewish woman explained powerfully that the crèche made her wary of persecution, while the two Christians expressed various misgivings, including that they were disappointed in how the city’s display elevated their beliefs while simultaneously demeaning or disregarding those of others. Most significantly, the clinical psychologist testified to feelings of fear and exclusion within out-group members when the dominant culture stages “public expressions of values” not shared by the entire society. The testimony had a significant cumulative effect on Judge Matsch, who ruled that “the evidence presented at this trial is so overwhelmingly supportive of the plaintiffs’ position.” Furthermore, he noted: “The convincing expressions by various witnesses of their feelings of “discomfort,” “anger,” “fear” and “being left out” upon viewing the scene, coupled with the expert testimony of the psychologist as to the effects upon minorities of symbolic governmental alignment with the majority, strongly suggest that the Nativity Scene may well have the effect also of inhibiting religious beliefs (non-beliefs) of viewers.” Ibid., 265, 267.

[4] Chase, 268. See also Jill Nutter Fuchs, “Publicly-Funded Display of Religious Symbols: The Nativity Scene Controversy,” Cincinnati Law Review 51 (1982): 353-372.

[5] Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, updated ed. (New York: Anchor Bible Reference Library, 1993), 189.

[6] Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz, The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide, trans. John Bowden (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 164-166; 569.

[7] Pageau, interestingly, also regards the presence of the ass, as a beast of burden, as “a symbol of corporality itself,” and thus an indication of the Word made Flesh and the Johannine doctrine of the incarnation. I am open to this but not totally convinced; I would be interested in hearing whether the ox similarly carries some second-level symbolism.

[8] For greater detail, see Eric C. Smith, Foucault’s Heterotopia in Christian Catacombs (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 52 and the entirety of ch. 5.

[9] Christian Roy, “Christmas,” Traditional Festivals: A Multicultural Encyclopedia: Volume 1 (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2004), 64.

[10] Jessica Riskin, The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument over What Makes Living Things Tick (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 26.

“No Lives Matter” at the Missouri State Penitentiary

Ah, summer time, when on-break academic types travel to see family and the decrepit relics of a once-flourishing Midwest. After seeing billboards for the Missouri State Penitentiary Tour one too many times along our travels to and from St. Louis, we broke down and paid our twelve dollars to visit, for whatever reason, this site of tremendous human misery.

An active prison from its completion in the 1830s until, astoundingly, 2004, the labyrinthine Missouri State Penitentiary once housed a maximum of 5,300 prisoners at once, according to our nice, sweet tour guide, himself a former long-serving guard at the prison. In his telling, thousands of prisoners died at the Missouri State Penitentiary over its 168-year lifetime, 40 of whom were executed in its gas chambers.

(Incidentally, the MSP gift shop proudly sells a set of 40 postcards commemorating its history of gruesome capital executions. Eight bucks.)

Quite a bit bothered me about this all-white (1), no-need-to-acknowledge-contributions-to-and-complicity-with-historical-injustices tour (2), perhaps more than I’m able to put into words. In light of this, this blog post iis not intended to be a thorough review or critique of the prison tour, but rather more of a stream-of-consciousness commentary approximating my feelings and thoughts from my two-hour stay in its terrifying walls.

  1. To be perfectly honest, a black woman and her daughter showed up at some point after the tour had officially begun, but left just after it was half over. I can’t be certain why this was the case, but the tour guide did acknowledge that we were sitting in the MSP’s all-black barracks shortly before they left. If this was not the reason, perhaps it was a realization that the tour was essentially a whitewash—in the sense of skin color, an event meant to be interesting/palatable for us and not for anyone else, as well as in the sense of a non-acknowledgement of wrongs, essentially a two-hour stream of quasi-governmental braggadocio about  its accomplishments.
  2. The tour guide approached, but stopped short of outright criticism, several times. One example that comes to mind was when he recounted a man’s 17-year stay in the “dungeon” of the prison after the warden believed he started a major fire, ostensibly as a distraction that would allow for a mass prison revolt and escape. “That used to make a man crazy,” he said; emphasis on the “used to” portion of the quote mine. There was no acknowledgement that people are still held in solitary confinement for cruel and unusual lengths of time these days, with one example being a man by the name of Shaka Senghor. (Shaka spent seven years in solitary confinment as part of a 19-year sentence for murder.) I came across Shaka’s story in a recent Democracy Now! program on the efforts toward prison reform that have created strange bedfellows, from himself and liberal activist/writer Van Jones to the Koch Brothers. Of course, I highly recommend the program, which can be downloaded as a podcast as well.
Our tour guide showed us photos on posterboard from as far back as the 1870s inside the prison, with prisoners standing in line waiting to go from station to station inside their caged existence: barracks to yard, yard to mess hall, mess hall to showers, showers to barracks—wash, rinse, repeat. In a moment that either showed his hand or was meant to be a critique of poor record-keeping habits, he told us that no one knew the names of this man or that man in line; it was as if they didn’t even matter.

In the Missouri State Penitentiary, no lives matter. On top of this, were they even human? He repeated his mantra over and over again that outside the walls of the prison, we have our world. “We call it society,” he said. Inside the prison, they have their own world. They’re not like you and me. He recalled being the go-to mentor for new prison guards, and he would tell them, “You can’t trust them. They’re not like you.” They’re not human, essentially.

Our prison system is currently overtaxed and overrun, full of both violent criminals who should be locked up for life (or suitable terms to fit their crimes) and people who sold or turned to drugs and were hit with mandatory minimums and other drug war-era overreaches of an insidious and often racist nature. Obviously, there is not a binary that fits all persons presently in prison, but I mean to emphasize the problems of our prison system encapsulated by one statistic: the United States comprises five percent of the world’s human population, but somehow can claim twenty-five percent of the world’s overall prison population. We have a serious over-incarceration problem—one that the Missouri State Penitentiary certainly contributed to, having previously housed abolitionists who freed slaves and anti-war activists who ran afoul of the Espionage Act—but on this tour, nothing of this over-incarceration problem existed.
Through a recent tour live-tweeted by activist Deray McKesson, I became aware of the Whitney Plantation in rural Louisiana. Formerly known as “Habitation Haydel,” the Whitney Plantation has been transformed into a living museum of the history of enslavement. To the best of its founders’ abilities, they have tried to recover the names of all slaves who worked on the plantation during its history, and to transmit, in whatever terms possible, the manner of life lived by them. I’ve not been on this tour, obviously, but hope to someday.


Given the example of the Whitney Plantation, and the historical (and ongoing!) injustices in our prison system, the Missouri State Penitentiary tour could’ve been so much better. One wonders how long it might take for universal acknowledgement of penitential wrongs, however. It’s much harder to see and name injustice when we’re living through it and perpetuating it, whether through outright complicity or passive cognitive support.


Post Script. I might not have written any of this had the tour guide not ticked the last box of fanatical hasbara (a.k.a. “explanation,” a.k.a. pro-Israel propaganda). In the midst of emphasizing, in English, not to close any prison cell doors behind us after entering several times, the tour guide believed that there might have been someone among us fifty or so white people who didn’t understand him. (By this point, the black mother and daughter had left the tour.) “Is anyone here Al Qaeda? Taliban? Hamas?” he asked. “I’ll give it to you in Arabic!” He proceeded to speak in a Semitic-sounding language, but as I don’t speak Arabic, I of course can’t confirm if it was authentic or jibberish. I wasn’t aware Hamas had aided or abetted attacks on the United States. They haven’t, of course: lately, anyway, they’re usually busy responding to Israeli aggression against Gaza, as Max Blumenthal laid out so brilliantly in his recent “The 51-Day War.”

Benjamin Netanyahu predicted the sentiment espoused by our tour guide just after the twin towers came down, calling the acts of terror “very good” for Israel, which would henceforth be able to sell its struggle against militant Palestinian factions opposing its apartheid occupation as an analogous struggle to that which the United States would eventually embark upon.

It’s a special relationship. Very good for Israel, indeed.


Finally, I don’t know where exactly to put this, but here’s a cross on the way to the Missouri State Penitentiary’s gas chamber.

Random Bible Fact: Early Christian Manuscripts and the Shepherd of Hermas

Based on manuscript recoveries alone, the most popular books in second, third and early fourth-century Christianity[1] were as follows: the Book of Psalms, the Gospel according to John, the Gospel according to Matthew, and the non-canonical Shepherd of Hermas.

According to Larry Hurtado’s 2006 book The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins, manuscript recoveries for biblical books in this period are as follows:

  • Psalms: 16-18 copies[2]
  • John: 11-15 copies
  • Matthew: 12 copies
  • The Shepherd of Hermas: 11 copies
  • Genesis and Exodus: 8 copies each
  • Luke and Acts: 7 copies each
  • Isaiah: 6 copies
  • Revelation: 5 copies[3]

A number of factors complicate matters here: very few books from the second century in particular survive complete and intact, whether from natural use and deterioration or deliberate destruction by the ruling Roman authorities during periods of local persecutions. Many of the manuscripts that survive are just a handful of pages or no more than a couple of verses or chapters. For the book of John in particular, scholars are unsure whether some of the pieces belonged to the same manuscript or represent distinct manuscripts. And finally, all of our conclusions related to this earliest period must be considered “temporary” or “in progress”: as Hurtado admits, “only about 1% of the estimated 500,000 manuscripts from this period” have been properly identified![4]

The popularity of John and Matthew in this early period is pretty understandable, given that the books were thought to have been written by the disciples of Jesus of those names. The book of Psalms might not have been your first guess at the most popular book in early Christianity, but its popularity is also sensible.

What might throw you off is the early popularity of the Shepherd of Hermas, a book that is now only really known among the scholarly community. Written in Rome in the mid-second century, the Shepherd of Hermas consists mostly of moral instructions delivered in the form of revelations from a shepherd-like character to the author, named Hermas. The book is exceptionally long—if it had made its way into the canon, it would be easily the longest book of the New Testament, and only exceeded in length in by the Old Testament books of Genesis and Jeremiah.[5] In the book, Hermas portrays himself as somewhat of a ditz—he must be given explanations about all of his visions by the shepherd—although he is genuinely interested in moral improvement and proper behavior.

So, why would a book like this eventually be regarded as non-canonical, in spite of its early popularity? In other words, why is the Shepherd not in the Bible? That discussion may feature as a “Random Bible Fact” in the future.

[1] Why this period, from roughly 100-320 CE? This is before Christianity became the entrenched state religion of the Roman Empire, before a rigid orthodoxy developed from the unifying vision of Emperor Constantine.

[2] Two copies of the Pslams retain the Tetragrammaton, or “Yahweh” in Hebrew characters, as the name of God, and therefore these may be Jewish manuscripts rather than Christian. Either way, the book of Psalms wins out as the most popular pre-Constantinian Christian book.

[3] These data come from Hurtado (2006), 19-28 (see especially, 19-21 and 23). His book includes an excellent appendix cataloging and detailing the precise contents of biblical and apocryphal books from this period.

[4] Hurtado (2006), 25.

[5] This is according to the stichometric list inserted into the sixth-century Codex Claromontanus, which lists the Shepherd at 4,000 lines, Genesis at 4,500, and Jeremiah at 4,050.