Friday, May 27, 2022

The Nag Hammadi Library

THE NAG HAMMADI LIBRARY (Coptic Christian, 3rd-4th centuries CE)

In 1945 an Egyptian farmer found 13 leather-bound papyrus codices (similar to books, not scrolls) buried in a meter-high sealed jar in a cemetery, perhaps during a simple grave robbery. The finder at first feared the jar might contain a "genie," but when he realized there might be gold inside, he smashed it with gusto. He took the documents home and dumped them next to the oven; his mother admits to having used many pages for kindling. What remains are 52 treatises, most of them Gnostic texts (including the Gospel of Thomas). They were translated into Coptic, a late form of Egyptian, from earlier Greek manuscripts. The collection is named for the Upper (southern) Egyptian town near which it was found; it is currently housed in the Coptic Museum in Cairo, Egypt.


Thursday, May 26, 2022

Hilary of Poitiers

HILARY OF POITIERS (Roman Christian, c. 310-367)

Saint Hilary of Poitiers (actually Hilarius, a man's name meaning "happy") was a Bishop and a Doctor of the Church, sometimes called the "Hammer of the Arians" (and the "Athanasius of the West") for his staunch opposition to Arianism. After a solid pagan education, he was a married man and a father when he read the Bible and converted; his wife and daughter (Saint Abra) were baptized with him. The Christians of Poitiers unanimously elected him bishop in 350 or 353. Like Athanasius, he was exiled by an emperor (but only once, for four years), where he continued writing. The reason for his exile is unclear, but his hobby was getting other bishops condemned for heresy, so it may have been plain old enmity. He left numerous works of theology, history, and hymnody and is remembered in biographies, the names of churches, and as the patron saint of lawyers.


Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Athanasius I of Alexandria

ATHANASIUS I OF ALEXANDRIA (Alexandria, Roman Egypt, c. 297-373)

Athanasius I of Alexandria, also called the Great, the Confessor or, among Coptic Christians, the Apostolic, as well as "Athanasius Against the World," was a Greek church father, and the 20th Coptic Orthodox "pope" (bishop) of Alexandria. He was bishop off and on for 45 years; 17 of those spent in five exiles on the order of four different Roman emperors. As a theologian, he was the chief defender of Trinitarianism against Arianism, which taught that Jesus was not co-eternal with the Father but was created by him in time. With John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, and Gregory of Nazianzus, he is considered one of the four great Eastern Doctors of the Church by the Roman Catholics.

  • The name of Athanasius is often associated with a convoluted and redundant Trinitarian statement called the "Athanasian Creed," though he almost certainly had nothing to do with it.
  • He was also the first person to list the 27 books of the New Testament canon that is in use today.


Tuesday, May 24, 2022

The Lotus Sutra

THE LOTUS SUTRA (Indian Buddhism, c. 1st century BCE-2nd century CE)

The Lotus Sutra (in Sanskrit, the Saddharma Pundarika Sutra, or "Sutra on the White Lotus of the True Dharma") is one of the most influential sutras of Mahayana Buddhism, particularly important in the Chinese Tiantai (Jp. Tendai, Kr. Cheontae) sect, as well as Japanese Nichiren Buddhism. (The Chinese call it Fahua Jing; the Japanese, Myoho Renge Kyo or Hoke-kyo for short.) Some east Asians consider it the highest, final teaching of the Mahayana or "Great Vehicle." It teaches the doctrine of the One Vehicle (all Buddhist schools and practices are "skillful means" leading to Buddhahood); that all beings can become Buddhas; and that the lifespan of the Buddha is immeasurable, so he only appeared to pass on into final Nirvana (death)--he is still teaching the Dharma.


Monday, May 23, 2022

The Ecclesiastical History


The Ecclesiastical (Church) History by Eusebius (260 or 265-339) tells the history of Christianity from the time of Christ to nearly the time of the author, stopping sometime around 320, during the reign of Constantine, the first officially Christian Roman emperor and Eusebius's patron. Arranged chronologically into 10 books, it incorporates and thus preserves long portions of documents no longer available to us. Its value as history has been argued: some consider it accurate, and some think it little more than pro-Constantine propaganda. Nevertheless, it is the first such history of Christianity, and set the style for later works, earning Eusebius the title "Father of Church History." He also wrote Biblical commentaries, a life of Constantine, and other, lesser works of history, including a Chronicle purporting to give the history of each nation--Assyrians, Chaldeans, and so on up to the Romans--from more or less "the beginning" (the Hebrew Chronicle starts with Adam).


Friday, May 20, 2022

Anthony the Great

ANTHONY THE GREAT (Egyptian Christian, 251-356 CE)

Anthony the Great, also called "of Egypt," "the Abbot," "of the Desert," "the Hermit," etc. and "the Father of All Monks" (though he was actually not the first), was the best known of the so-called Desert Fathers, partly because of the biography of him written by St. Athanasius of Alexandria, a work which functioned as a PR pamphlet for the new-fangled practice of Christian monasticism. Legends say that he endured supernatural temptation in the desert, a motif common in depictions of him.

  • A story: A philosopher asked the illiterate Anthony: "Father, how can you be so happy without the comfort of books?" Anthony replied "My book is the nature of created things, and any time I want to read the words of God, the book is before me."


Thursday, May 19, 2022

The Avesta

THE AVESTA (Persian Zoroastrian, 224-651 CE)

The Avesta is the main collection of religious texts of Zoroastrianism. It was composed in Avestan; this language was spoken by ancient Iranians, and is close to the Vedic Sanskrit used in the Rig Veda. The principal liturgical text is the Yasna, which is the name of Zoroastrianism's primary act of worship, at which the text is recited. The most important part are the five Gathas, consisting of seventeen hymns which are attributed to Zoroaster himself.

Other sections of the Avesta include:

  • The Visperad, supplements to the Yasna; 
  • The Vendidad, a list of evil spirits and how to conquer them;
  • The Yashts, 21 hymns devoted to various deities; 
  • The Siroza, a list of the 30 divinities that preside over the days of the month;
  • The Nyayeshes, prayers for regular recitation;
  • The Gahs, invocations to the five divinities that watch over the five divisions of the day; and 
  • The Afrinagans, four "blessing" texts for various occasions.