Monday 28 December 2009


Hives 2 and 5 have died out. I can't see any obvious reason; neither had touched the candy I gave them, though both were very short of stores. They don't show the normal signs of starvation, so it's not isolation, when a cluster can't move over to food in cold weather. The overwhelming majority of my losses involve first-year queens, so it has to be something to do with the queens. They weren't mated in bad weather, or when there was a shortage of drones, so it's a mystery. Losing half my hives is a major setback!

Friday 25 December 2009

What do we do with the Christmas story?

Despite what the church says, there isn't one Christmas story in the Bible. There are two, and they're different.

Matthew is a strict Jew, writing for a Jewish audience. He hates the Pharisees, insists that the Law must be kept more strictly than they do, but who generally agrees with their interpretations. His Jesus is born in a Jewish context, to a family in Bethlehem (apparently they live there), in the reign of Herod I, who died in 4 BC. The first people to respond to the birth are Gentile astrologers, following a star.

The origin of the star is to be found in Numbers 24:17. A king called Balak has summoned Balaam, a pagan prophet, to curse Israel An angel intervenes, and Balaam is forced to bless them instead. He says that 'A star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the borderlands of Moab, and the territory of all the Shethites.'

When devout Jews found themselves impoverished and oppressed in the last couple of centuries BC, they started to imagine that God would intervene decisively, to put things to rights. Either he would send a great angel, or a human king, the Messiah (messiah means 'anointed one'; the king was anointed at his coronation, and was sometimes called 'the Lord's anointed'). This king was symbolised by the star; the Dead Sea Scrolls use the passage in a messianic context.

Matthew envisages an essentially Jewish Kingdom, but there is plenty of room for Gentiles within it. There is no evidence that any Jew ever claimed that Gentiles would not find their place. So to emphasise this, Matthew presents Gentiles as the first people to respond to Jesus.

The astrologers go to Herod, expecting to see a royal baby. He knows nothing of the birth, and reacts angrily. He was a paranoid tyrant; Augustus allegedly said that 'It was safer to be Herod's pig than his son'. When he was dying, he had the sons of Jewish notables arrested, with orders that they should be killed as soon as he was dead, so that the Jews would mourn his passing. In the event, they were released unharmed. So, according to Matthew, Herod ordered the slaughter of all the children under two around Bethlehem. The massacre is not mentioned elsewhere.

Meanwhile, Mary and Joseph have been warned by an angel in a dream, and have run away to Egypt, where they live as refugees. Eventually, they return, believing it to be safe. However, Herod's son Archelaus now rules Judea and Samaria. After another dream, they move to Nazareth, where another of Herod's sons, Antipas, now rules.

Luke writes for Romanised Greeks, and is the most obviously Gentile of the Gospels. His Jesus is born immediately after the Romans establish direct control of Judea. Archelaus ruled as Ethnarch for about ten years, until Jewish complaints led to the Romans sending him into exile, and establishing direct rule.

Judea came under the Syrian Legate, the most senior Roman official after the emperor, who had responsibility for the entire eastern frontier as far as the border of Egypt. This was far too large an area for one man to control directly, so most of it had come under native princes who were subject to Rome. At the time, the Legate was a man named Quirinius. He visited Judea, and carried out a census, to determine the taxation base. This happened in late 6 or early 7 AD. In order to deny that there is a discrepancy between the two Gospels, some conservatives claim that Quirinius may have served as Legate twice. Unfortunately, this is based on a mistranslation of a partial inscription which does not include the mane of the governor it refers to. After the census was complete, a Prefect, drawn from the minor aristocracy, was appointed to govern Judea.

According to Luke, John the Baptist was born before Jesus, and was his cousin. He was born miraculously, to an elderly mother, under 'King Herod of Judea', ie Herod I. Six months later, ten years having been dropped from the story, unless Luke confused his Herods, an angel appeared to Mary announcing the birth of Jesus. She protested that she was too young (parthenos means 'a young woman', not necessarily 'virgin') but the angel reassures her. There is an undoubted virgin birth in Matthew, but Luke is ambiguous, and can be read either way. Both are concerned to say that the birth was miraculous.

The family live in Nazareth, but have to visit Bethlehem for the census, as this is where Joseph's family originated. This makes little sense. Roman taxation was based on where you lived, not where you ancestors lived, for obvious reasons. No system could handle that degree of chaos. Additionally, Galilee was ruled by Antipas, and taxes would have been paid to him, not to Rome. Both Matthew and Like have to cope with a tradition which said both that the Messiah was to come form Bethlehem, and that Jesus was from Nazareth. Luke's solution looks a little contrived!

So, according to Luke, Jesus was born in a stable in Bethlehem. There are no animals; they were added to the story later. Shepherds are the first to respond to the birth; Luke is greatly concerned for the poor.

So we have two rather different versions of the story, one for Jews, and one for Gentiles. In all probability, neither author had much to go on; very likely, nobody was sure of the exact year of Jesus' birth. But that doesn't matter; they weren't writing history. In fact, in our modern sense, history writing had not been invented. They were writing theology, in the form of story. Matthew writes for Jews at a very difficult moment of their history, and presents Jesus as a suffering Jew. Luke writes for Gentiles, and presents him as having been born into the Roman world, and as being recognised first by the poor. Both show him as the miraculous Son of God from the moment of birth.

After 2000 years, the church should be mature enough to take both stories seriously, with all the tensions between them, rather than smothering them with the saccharine nonsense of the traditional 'Christmas story'!

Tuesday 22 December 2009


I had a quick look at the allotment yesterday; as expected, everything's frozen solid. The canal towpath, which is fancy brick paving going into town, is like an icerink. It's supposed to be warming up a little by the end of the week, according to Metcheck, so with any luck, I might get to taste some oca this side of the New Year.

Monday 21 December 2009

The failure of the Overconfident Age

Somehow, we have drifted into a situation where we think we have the power to find an easy answer to everything. We feel we need 'effective management' of every situation, to make the 'problem' go away, and let us get on with our lives untroubled by whatever it is. When things don't get solved in a short time, we look for someone to blame. We blame the individual worker, the manager, or in politics, we blame the government. But some 'problems' don't have instant or easy solutions.

We think we can solve the 'problem' of crime by imprisoning ever more people, without remembering the historical link between crime and relative poverty, as that would upset our ever more unequal society. We don't think about how many criminals suffer from mild learning disabilities, or mental health probles, which deny them the chance of a decent job. We don't think how many come from broken families, or wonder whether these might be a function of an individualised, very mobile society in which we no longer know our neighbours, and no longer have the support of the extended family. Support networks are missing, so in every generation, some parents fail to cope. Children of dysfunctional families are unlikely to become the parents of healthy families, and so the 'problem' snowballs from one generation to the next.

Then there is climate change. There is, of necessity, no easy or instant solution. So we deny it, and believe every manipulated 'fact' thrust at us by people who are doing very nicely out of deceiving us. Governments meet to seek solutions, but lack the courage to look beyond the next election, the next opinion poll, the next press conference. We have built a society where a government which asks for sacrifice in the face of disaster may well lose the next election to a party which offers pie in the sky. Whatever power struggles are going on behind the scenes in China, their government evidently has as much invested in short-termism as we.

So Copenhagen has failed, as it was always likely to, and Obama is spinning it as 'meaningful', as he inevitably would. Nations get the governments they deserve, and this catastrophe is a function, not of political failure, but of ingrained hedonism. As a society, we are unable or unwilling to face reality.

But a significant proportion of us do realise what is happening. That is our strength. If a grassroots movement could grow until even governments realised that slavery had no future, we can do the same here. None of us have any interest in the collapse of our climate. Only ordinary people, defying when necessary a regime which consistently attempts to criminalise protest, can force can force that regime to take the necessary action.

Sunday 20 December 2009

Bad sex?

A church in New Zealand has got itself into hot water with a poster about Mary and Joseph: .

What strikes me is that it doesn't deny the Virgin Birth, as I would, but it asks questions about it. There's nothing wrong with that; as Thomas Aquinas said, God is not the answer, but the question. I suppose the conservatives would get upset. I don't understand the mentality, but to them, it's de rigeur to be offended by any questioning of religious tradition. But questioning is good. As St. Paul said, 'Test everything, hang onto the good'. If we don't ask questions, how can we sieve the good from the bad in our traditions?

We don't know anything directly about Jesus. He didn't write anything down himself that we know about, and if he did, it has not come down to us. Unlike Muhammad, nobody recorded eyewitness testimony about him; claims that the Gospels were written by eyewitness hang on special pleading and dubious interpretation. Rather, we have what some sections of the church chose to record about him a generation or two after his death. Not suprisingly, they disagree. Matthew makes him a strict Jew, insisting that every least bit of the Law [of Moses] should be followed strictly, as they interpreted it. Despite Matthew's loathing for the Pharisees, his Jesus always seems to agree with them on legal matters. Mark, on the other hand, makes Jesus abolish the food laws, and Luke is so eager to whitewash the Romans that he blames the Jews for everything. The evangelists were men of their time and place, wtiting for the diverse needs of their own communities.

That doesn't mean we shouldn't take what they say seriously. If the church wants to call the Bible a holy book - even presume to call it 'the Word of God', whatever that means - then we need to take it ultra-seriously, even the bits we don't like and don't read. It is, after all, the only witness we have to the origins of church traditions. If we want to claim that Christianity has some basis in history, then that is where we have to begin. But let's drop the practice of taking selected snippets, ignoring the diversity of the Bible's witness, and insisting that traditional interpretations are 'what the Bible says' and have to be 'believed'.

How many people out there believe that infanticide can be a blessed thing? It's there in the Bible (Psalm 137), doubtless as the witness of a community which remembered Babylonians killing their kids during the sack of Jerusalem. We can take their despair and grief seriously without making infanticide a religious duty. Why can't we be as mature in our handling of the rest of the Bible?

Thursday 3 December 2009


The oca was, as I expected, flattened by the frost a couple of days ago. it's a south American rootcrop which I haven't grown before, and which, you will have gathered, is frost-sensitive. I had wanted to fleece it, but I couldn't due to a bad cold.

You plant it in spring, about a foot apart, and let it get on with its business all season. Tubers start to develop as the daylength shortens, and you lift them a couple of weeks after the foliagfe dies completely back. I expect to have it for Christmas, if there's a crop there.

All the beehives are still alive. That's a pleasant change from last year. I think the difference is in the autumn weather. Two autumns ago, the weather was so vile that they couldn't go out and forage, and went through what stores they had. I got them through last winter on candy, but that's only carbohydrate. I think the lack of pollen led to malnutrition, hence the problems. There are artificial substitutes available, but they're only used as a stopgap, and aren't satisfactory for more than a few weeks. This year, they were bringing in lots of pollen, so hopefully they'll come through better. Hive 5 is a bit of a worry, with only two seams of bees, but the others all have four.