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What do Scholars say about Jesus’ Resurrection: is it just a Myth?

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

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“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die like everyone else, will live again.”–Jesus Christ

“When he said that He himself would rise again from the dead, the third day after He was crucified, He said something that only a fool would dare say… No founder of any world religion known to men ever dared say a thing like that.” –Wilbur Smith (Bible scholar)

“I believe that when I die I shall rot, and nothing of my own ego will survive.” –Bertrand Russell (English Philosopher)

The story of Jesus’ resurrection is foundational to Christianity as a religion. To deny it is in effect to dismiss Christianity as just another myth which modern “enlightened” man ought to dismiss, the sooner the better, as a mere legend embellished over time. It is also to declare the whole of the gospels’ narration as an hoax perpetrated on human-kind in the last two thousand years. This is usually the attitude of assorted agnostics and atheists vis a vis Christianity and religion in general.

What we read in the gospels is that Jesus appeared alive to his disciples after his crucifixion and burial. They claim not only to have seen him but also to have eaten with him, touched him, and spent forty days with him. If this is false, it invalidates everything he said about himself, about the meaning of life and man’s destiny after his death. As Paul aptly puts it: “If Christ did not resurrect, our faith is in vain.” It is founded upon a lie. On the other hand, if the claim of resurrection is true, then, as written by theologian R.C. Sproul “Jesus has the credentials and certification that no other religious leader possesses.” Indeed, all other religious leaders are dead, but Christianity insists that Christ is alive. So, is Jesus’ resurrection a fantastic fact or a vicious myth? To find out, we need to look at the evidence of history and draw proper conclusions.

Many skeptics have attempted to disprove the resurrection. Josh McDowell was one such skeptic who spent more than seven hundred hours researching the evidence for the resurrection. McDowell stated this regarding the importance of the resurrection: “I have come to the conclusion that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is one of the most wicked, vicious, heartless hoaxes ever foisted upon the minds of men, or it is the most fantastic fact of history. McDowell later wrote his classic work, The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict (1999), documenting what he discovered.

There are other skeptics such Bertrand Russell, quoted above, who is not concerned with historical facts but denies the resurrection; the mythologist Joseph Campbell who declares that the resurrection is not a factual event, just as most narrations in mythology are neither factual nor historical; the theologian John Dominic Crossan who seems to agree with Campbell. None of those skeptics present hard evidence for their views.

In advance of his death, Jesus told his disciples that he would be betrayed, arrested, and crucified and that he would come back to life three days later. That’s a strange plan! Jesus was no entertainer willing to perform for others on demand; instead, he promised that his death and resurrection would prove to people (if their minds and hearts were open) that he was indeed the Messiah. In other words, it is perfectly logical to suppose that since Jesus had clearly told his disciples that he would rise again after his death, failure to keep that promise would expose him as a fraud.

We know the facts of Jesus’ passion and death on the cross. Most scholars do not dispute the fact that there is an historical Jesus who was born in Palestine at the time when Caesar Augustus was Rome’s emperor, and who died under Tiberius’ reign when Palestine was governed by Pontius Pilate. An even greater darkness of depression annihilated the dreams of those who had become infatuated with Jesus’ charisma and joyful vitality. Former Lord High Chancellor of Britain, Lord Hailsham, notes that “The tragedy of the Cross was not that they crucified a melancholy figure, full of moral precepts, ascetic and gloomy … What they crucified was a young man, vital, full of life and the joy of it, the Lord of life itself … someone so utterly attractive that people followed him for the sheer fun of it.”

Pilate wanted verification that Jesus was dead before allowing his crucified body to be buried. So a Roman guard thrust a spear into Jesus’ side. The mixture of blood and water that flowed out was a clear indication that Jesus was dead. “The dead do not bleed, ordinarily, but the right auricle of the human heart holds liquid blood after death, and the outer sac hold a serum called hydropericardium.” Once his death was certified by the guards, Jesus’ body was then taken down from the cross and buried in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb. Roman guards next sealed the tomb, and secured it with a 24-hour watch.

Meanwhile, Jesus’ disciples were in shock. Dr. J. P. Moreland explains how devastated and confused they were after Jesus’ death on the cross. “They no longer had confidence that Jesus had been sent by God. They also had been taught that God would not let his Messiah suffer death. So they dispersed. The Jesus movement was all but stopped in its tracks.” All hope was vanquished. Rome and the Jewish leaders had prevailed – or so it seemed.

But it wasn’t the end. The Jesus movement did not disappear, and Christianity exists today as the world’s largest religion. In a New York Times article, Peter Steinfels cites the startling events that occurred three days after Jesus’ death: “Shortly after Jesus was executed, his followers were suddenly galvanized from a baffled and cowering group into people whose message about a living Jesus and a coming kingdom, preached at the risk of their lives, eventually changed an empire. Something happened.

There are only five plausible explanations for Jesus’ alleged resurrection, as portrayed in the New Testament: 1) Jesus didn’t really die on the cross. 2) The “resurrection” was a conspiracy. 3) The disciples were hallucinating. 4) The account is legendary or mythological. 5) It really happened. Let’s work our way through these options. In the first place we need to ascertain that there was a corpse. After all, occasionally “corpses,” or people who are believed dead, do recover and walk away.

One place to ascertain that is in the reports of non-Christian historians from around the time when Jesus lived. Three of these historians mentioned the death of Jesus: Lucian (c.120 – after c.180) referred to Jesus as a crucified sophist (philosopher). Josephus (c.37 – c.100 ) wrote, “At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man, for he was a doer of amazing deeds. When Pilate condemned him to the cross, the leading men among us, having accused him, those who loved him did not cease to do so.” Tacitus (c. 56 – c.120) wrote, “Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty … at the hands of our procurator, Pontius Pilate.”

Noted skeptic James Tabor stated, “I think we need have no doubt that given Jesus’ execution by Roman crucifixion he was truly dead.” In light of such historical and medical evidence, we seem to be on good grounds for dismissing the first of our five options. Jesus was clearly dead, “of that there was no doubt.”

However, many others have questioned how Jesus’ body disappeared from the tomb. English journalist Dr. Frank Morison initially thought the resurrection was either a myth or a hoax, and he began doing research to write a book refuting it. The book became famous but for reasons other than its original intent.

Morison began by attempting to solve the case of the empty tomb. The tomb belonged to a member of the Sanhedrin Council, Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph must have been a real person. Otherwise, the Jewish leaders would have exposed the story as a fraud in their attempt to disprove the resurrection. Also, Joseph’s tomb would have been at a well-known location and easily identifiable, so any thoughts of Jesus being “lost in the graveyard” would need to be dismissed.

Morison wondered why Jesus’ enemies would have allowed the “empty tomb myth” to persist if it weren’t true. The discovery of Jesus’ body would have instantly killed the entire plot. And what is known historically of Jesus’ enemies is that in fact they did accuse Jesus’ disciples of stealing the body, an accusation clearly predicated on a shared belief that the tomb was in fact found empty.

Dr. Paul L. Maier, professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University, similarly stated, “If all the evidence is weighed carefully and fairly, it is indeed justifiable … to conclude that the tomb in which Jesus was buried was actually empty on the morning of the first Easter. And no shred of evidence has yet been discovered … that would disprove this statement.”

The Jewish leaders were stunned. They accused the disciples of stealing Jesus’ body. But the accusation did not hold water, for the Romans had assigned a 24-hour watch at the tomb with a trained guard unit (from four to 16 soldiers). Josh McDowell notes that these were not ordinary soldiers. “When that guard unit failed in its duty – if they fell asleep, left their position, or failed in any way – there are a number of historical sources that describe the punishment. They were stripped of their own clothes and burned alive in a fire started with their own garments, or they were crucified upside down. The Roman Guard unit was committed to discipline and they feared failure in any way.” It would have been impossible for anyone to have slipped by the Roman guards and to have moved a two-ton stone. Yet the stone was moved away and the body of Jesus was missing.

If Jesus’ body was anywhere to be found, his enemies would have quickly exposed the resurrection as a fraud. Tom Anderson, former president of the California Trial Lawyers Association, summarizes the strength of this argument: “With an event so well publicized, don’t you think that it’s reasonable that one historian, one eye witness, one antagonist would record for all time that he had seen Christ’s body? … The silence of history is deafening when it comes to the testimony against the resurrection.” So, with no body of evidence, and with a known tomb clearly empty, Morison accepted the evidence as solid that Jesus’ body had somehow disappeared from the tomb.

As Morison continued his investigation, he began to examine the motives of Jesus’ followers. Maybe the supposed resurrection was actually a stolen body. But if so, how does one account for all the reported appearances of a resurrected Jesus? Historian Paul Johnson, in A History of the Jews (1988), wrote that “What mattered was not the circumstances of his death but the fact that he was widely and obstinately believed, by an expanding circle of people, to have risen again.” The tomb was indeed empty. But it wasn’t the mere absence of a body that could have galvanized Jesus’ followers (especially if they had been the ones who had stolen it). Something extraordinary must have happened, for the followers of Jesus ceased mourning, ceased hiding, and began fearlessly proclaiming that they had seen Jesus alive.

Each eyewitness account reports that Jesus suddenly appeared bodily to his followers, the women first. Morison wondered why conspirators would make women central to their plot. In the first century Jewish community, women had virtually no rights, personhood, or status. If the plot were to succeed, Morison reasoned, the conspirators would have portrayed men, not women, as the first to see Jesus alive. And yet we hear that women touched him, spoke with him, and were the first to find the empty tomb. Later, according to the eyewitness accounts, all the disciples saw Jesus on more than ten separate occasions. They wrote that he showed them his hands and feet and told them to touch him. And he reportedly ate with them and later appeared alive to more than 500 followers on one occasion.

Legal scholar John Warwick Montgomery stated, “In 56 A.D. [the Apostle Paul wrote that over 500 people had seen the risen Jesus and that most of them were still alive. (1 Corinthians 15:6ff.) It passes the bounds of credibility that the early Christians could have manufactured such a tale and then preached it among those who might easily have refuted it simply by producing the body of Jesus.”

Bible scholars Geisler and Turek agree. “If the Resurrection had not occurred, why would the Apostle Paul give such a list of supposed eyewitnesses? He would immediately lose all credibility with his Corinthian readers by lying so blatantly.”

Peter told a crowd in Caesarea why he and the other disciples were so convinced Jesus was alive: “We apostles are witnesses of all he did throughout Israel and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by crucifying him, but God raised him to life three days later … We were those who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.” (Acts 10:39-41). British Bible scholar Michael Green remarked, “The appearances of Jesus are as well authenticated as anything in antiquity … There can be no rational doubt that they occurred.”

As if the eyewitness reports were not enough to challenge Morison’s skepticism, he was also baffled by the disciples’ behavior. A fact of history that has stumped historians, psychologists, and skeptics alike is that these eleven former cowards were suddenly willing to suffer humiliation, torture, and death. All but one of Jesus’ disciples were slain as martyrs. Would they have done so much for a lie, knowing they had taken the body? Moreover, ignorant fishermen could hardly be expected to die for an idea, a la Socrates.

The terrorists on September 11 proved that some will die for a false cause they believe in. Yet to be a willing martyr for a known lie is insanity. As Paul Little wrote, “Men will die for what they believe to be true, though it may actually be false. They do not, however, die for what they know is a lie.” Jesus’ disciples behaved in a manner consistent with a genuine belief that their leader was alive and they were willing to die for him. No one has adequately explained why the disciples would have been willing to die for a known lie. But even if they all conspired to lie about Jesus’ resurrection, how could they have kept the conspiracy going for decades without at least one of them selling out for money or position? Moreland wrote, “Those who lie for personal gain do not stick together very long, especially when hardship decreases the benefits.”

Chuck Colson, implicated in the Watergate scandal during President Nixon’s administration, pointed out the difficulty of several people maintaining a lie for an extended period of time: “I know the resurrection is a fact, and Watergate proved it to me. How? Because twelve men testified they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, and then they proclaimed that truth for forty years, never once denying it. Everyone was beaten, tortured, stoned and put in prison. They would not have endured that if it weren’t true. Watergate embroiled twelve of the most powerful men in the world – and they couldn’t keep a lie for three weeks. You’re telling me twelve apostles could keep a lie for forty years?” Something happened that changed everything for these men and women.

Could mass hallucination be an explanation? Psychologist Gary Collins was asked about the possibility that hallucinations were behind the disciples’ radically changed behavior. Collins remarked, “Hallucinations are individual occurrences. By their very nature, only one person can see a given hallucination at a time. They certainly aren’t something which can be seen by a group of people.” Hallucination is not even a remote possibility, according to psychologist Thomas J. Thorburn. “It is absolutely inconceivable that … five hundred persons, of average soundness of mind … should experience all kinds of sensuous impressions – visual, auditory, tactual – and that all these … experiences should rest entirely upon … hallucination.”

Furthermore, in the psychology of hallucinations, the person would need to be in a frame of mind where they so wished to see that person that their mind contrives it. Two major leaders of the early church, James and Paul, both state forcefully that they encountered a resurrected Jesus, neither expecting, or hoping for it. The apostle Paul, in fact, led the earliest persecutions of Christians, and his conversion remains inexplicable except for his own testimony that Jesus appeared to him, resurrected. The hallucination theory, then, appears to be another dead end.

Some unconvinced skeptics attribute the resurrection story to a legend that began with one or more persons lying or thinking they saw the resurrected Jesus. Over time, the legend would have grown and been embellished as it was passed around. The same may happen with a myth. On the surface this seems like a plausible scenario. But there are three major problems with that theory. First, legends simply don’t develop while multiple eyewitnesses are alive to refute them. An historian of ancient Rome and Greece, A. N. Sherwin-White, argued that the resurrection news spread too soon and too quickly for it to have been a legend. Second, legends develop by oral tradition and don’t come with contemporary historical documents that can be verified. Yet the Gospels were written within three decades of the resurrection. Third, the legend theory doesn’t adequately explain either the fact of the empty tomb or the historically verified conviction of the apostles that Jesus was alive.

Therefore, the legend theory doesn’t seem to hold up any better than other attempts to explain away this amazing claim. Furthermore, the resurrection account of Jesus Christ actually altered history, beginning with the Roman Empire; and empire that within three centuries would be wholly Christianized; Constantine making Christianity its official religion. How could a mere legend make such an enormous historical impact within such a short period of time?

Morison was bewildered by the fact that “a tiny insignificant movement was able to prevail over the cunning grip of the Jewish establishment, as well as the might of Rome.” Why did it win, in the face of all those odds against it? He wrote, “Within twenty years, the claim of these Galilean peasants had disrupted the Jewish religious establishment … In less than fifty years it had begun to threaten the peace of the Roman Empire. When we have said everything that can be said … we stand confronted with the greatest mystery of all. Why did it win?” Indeed, by all rights, if there were no resurrection, Christianity should have died out at the cross when the disciples fled for their lives. But, to the contrary, the apostles went on to establish a growing Christian movement.

J. N. D. Anderson wrote, “Think of the psychological absurdity of picturing a little band of defeated cowards cowering in an upper room one day and a few days later transformed into a company that no persecution could silence – and then attempting to attribute this dramatic change to nothing more convincing than a miserable fabrication … That simply wouldn’t make sense.”

With myth, hallucination, and a flawed autopsy ruled out, with incontrovertible evidence for an empty tomb, with a substantial body of eyewitnesses to his reappearance, and with the inexplicable transformation and impact upon the world of those who claimed to have seen him, Morison became convinced that his preconceived bias against Jesus Christ’s resurrection had been wrong. He began writing a different book – entitled Who Moved the Stone? (1987)– to detail his new conclusions. Morison simply followed the trail of evidence, clue by clue, until the truth of the case seemed clear to him. His surprise was that the evidence led to a belief in the resurrection.

In his first chapter, “The Book That Refused to Be Written,” this former skeptic explained how the evidence convinced him that Jesus’ resurrection was an actual historical event. “It was as though a man set out to cross a forest by a familiar and well-beaten track and came out suddenly where he did not expect to come out.” Morison is not alone in this. Countless other skeptics have examined the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, and accepted it as the most astounding fact in all of human history. C. S. Lewis, who once had even doubted Jesus’ existence, was also persuaded by the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. He writes, “Something perfectly new in the history of the Universe had happened. Christ had defeated death. The door which had always been locked had for the very first time been forced open.”

One of those who originally thought the resurrection was simply a myth, only to reverse his position like Morison, was one of the world’s leading legal scholars, Dr. Simon Greenleaf. Greenleaf helped to put the Harvard Law School on the map. He wrote the three-volume legal masterpiece A Treatise on the Law of Evidence, which has been called the “greatest single authority in the entire literature of legal procedure.” The U.S. judicial system today still relies on rules of evidence established by Greenleaf. While teaching law at Harvard, Professor Greenleaf stated to his class that the resurrection of Jesus Christ was simply a legend. As an atheist, he thought miracles to be impossible. Three of his law students challenged him to apply his acclaimed rules of evidence to the resurrection account. After much prodding, Greenleaf accepted his students’ challenge and began an investigation into the evidence. Focusing his brilliant legal mind on the facts of history, Greenleaf attempted to prove that the resurrection account was false.

But Greenleaf was unable to explain several dramatic changes that took place shortly after Jesus died, the most baffling being the behavior of the disciples. It wasn’t just one or two disciples who insisted Jesus had risen; it was all of them. Applying his own rules of evidence to the facts, Greenleaf arrived at his verdict. In a shocking reversal of his original position, Greenleaf accepted Jesus’ resurrection as the best explanation for the events that took place immediately after his crucifixion. To this brilliant legal scholar and former atheist, it would have been impossible for the disciples to persist with their conviction that Jesus had risen if they hadn’t actually seen the risen Christ.

In his book The Testimony of the Evangelists, Greenleaf documents the evidence that caused him to change his mind. In his conclusion he challenges those who seek the truth about the resurrection to fairly examine the evidence. Greenleaf was so persuaded by the evidence that he became a committed Christian. He believed that any unbiased person who honestly examines the evidence as in a court of law would conclude what he did – that Jesus Christ has truly risen. But the resurrection of Jesus Christ raises the question: What does the fact that Jesus defeated death have to do with my life? The answer to that question is what New Testament Christianity is all about.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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Serious Drawbacks in Ukraine’s Adopted ‘Church’ Bill

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On January 17, Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada (parliament) passed the bill No. 4128 on new amendments regarding the subordination (denomination) of religious organizations and the procedure of state registration of religious organizations with the status of legal entities. The relevant law No. 2673-VIII was signed by President Poroshenko on January 28 and came into force on January 31, 2019.

Though the bill was designed to simplify the process of changing the religious subordination of a religious community, it actually introduces a new, more complicated scheme of registration and reregistration for religious organizations of all confessions including Protestants.
So, reregistration becomes not just a long-lasting process full of red tape but also is rather expensive. Thus, according to Art. 15 of the Law of Ukraine “On State Registration of Legal Entities, Individual Entrepreneurs and Public Organizations”, the signature of every community member must be authenticated by a notary.

Moreover, the law No. 2673-VIII requires to submit a new charter of a religious community along with the list of the Assembly participants, which is an unjustified state interference in the internal affairs of religious organizations and infringes believers’ right on confidentiality of their religious views envisaged in Art. 4 of the Law of Ukraine “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations”.

It’s worth noting that a request to submit the community members’ signatures contradicts European standards, for example Point 25 of the Guidelines on the Legal Personality of Religious or Belief Communities published in 2015 by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR):

Any procedure that provides religious or belief communities with access to legal personality status should not set burdensome requirements.68 Examples of burdensome requirements that are not justified under international law include, but are not limited to, the following: that the registration application be signed by all members of the religious organization and contain their full names, dates of birth and places of residence; that excessively detailed information be provided in the statute of the religious organization; that excessively high or unreasonable registration fees be paid; that the religious organization has an approved legal address; or that a religious association can only operate at the address identified in its registration documents. Such requirements would not appear to be necessary in a democratic society for the grounds enumerated in international human rights instruments. Also, religious or belief communities interested in obtaining legal personality status should not be confronted with unnecessary bureaucratic burdens or with lengthy or unpredictable waiting periods. Should the legal system for the acquisition of legal personality require certain registration-related documents, these documents should be issued by the authorities.

There is another unjustified burden for the religious activity of brotherhoods, missions, religious schools – they are required to submit documents confirming the right to own or use the property where they are registered. It is also impossible for newly formed religious communities to comply with the new demand (according to Art. 14 of the Law of Ukraine “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations”) to hand in a “properly authenticated copy of a document on the right of property or usage” since the community cannot obtain any property rights without becoming a legal entity first.

Another contradiction is that during reregistration, religious communities must produce “the original registration certificate of the religious organization’s charter” as such document is not determined by the Ukrainian legislation and cannot be issued or demanded.
As the adopted law No. 2673-VIII stipulates, one of the reasons for rejecting the documents for registration is “their non-compliance with the existing requirements”, but it is not stated by which acts these requirements are set. This enables the authorities to voluntary decide whether the submitted documents comply or not with the requirements and leads to corruption.

Moreover, according to the same law No. 2673-VIII, if the authorities decide to reject the registration documents without reviewing them or refuse to register the charter, they do not have to provide to the religious organization a written response with all remarks related to the papers and an explanation in what manner the legislation was not complied with.
Obviously, such an irresponsibility of the registration body paves the way for a biased revision of the submitted documents and increased corruption risks.

Shortly before the second reading in the Parliament, churches, religious and public organizations appealed to the deputies to correct the above-mentioned drawbacks but contrary to the Verkhovna Rada’s regulations, the lawmakers were not permitted to do so.

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Patriarch Theophilus to decide whether to concelebrate Liturgy with the new Ukrainian Church hierarchs

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Patriarch Theophilus III of Jerusalem

On the Orthodox Christian feast of Theophany, the 19th of January, President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko will visit Jerusalem. As part of this trip, a meeting with his Holiness Patriarch Theophilus III of Jerusalem is planned.

The Ukrainian leader will be accompanied by several bishops of the newly established Orthodox Church of Ukraine, who are expected to serve with the hierarchs of the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem. At least this scenario is persistently promoted by the Ukrainian side with the support of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Israeli authorities and American diplomats.

The Orthodox Church of Ukraine was established as the merge of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kyivan Patriarchate (UOC-KP) and the Ukrainian autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC) at the Unification Council on the 15th of December, 2018, and received a Tomos of autocephaly on the 6th of January this year. Currently, the new Ukrainian religious entity is in communion only with the Ecumenical Patriarchate and is still to be recognized by other Autocephalous Churches.

As a source in the Jerusalem Patriarchate is quoted by the Orthochristian.com website, one of the two former hierarchs of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in unity with the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) who joined the OCU at the Unification Council, Metropolitan Alexander Drabinko, is among Ukrainian bishops who may concelebrate with Theophilus III.

At the same time, the Patriarchate of Jerusalem has not yet agreed to receive the OCU representatives and concelebrate with them: due to the unresolved status of the OCU, joint prayer with its hierarchs can seriously affect the reputation of Theophilus III. First of all, there is still no official decision by the Holy Synod of the Jerusalem Patriarchate on the new Ukrainian Church. Other Local Orthodox Christian Churches also consider it necessary to investigate the Apostolic succession of the OCU bishops thoroughly first, as well as to find a solution to the problem of the former UOC-KP parishes in the canonical territories of the four Autocephalous Churches.

Although Alexander Drabinko is portrayed as the most preferable representative of the OCU for the hierarchs of the Local Churches to meet with, questionable reputation of this defrocked UOC-MP bishop also plays an important role here.

Will Patriarch Theophilus III agree to take the risks entailed by the concelebration with the OCU hierarchs, including Metropolitan Drabinko? Will the external pressure prevail over the opinion of the hierarchs of the Jerusalem Patriarchate? Now it’s up to His Holiness Theophilus to decide.

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The Evolving Orthodox Triangle Constantinople – Kiev – Moscow

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Churches think in centuries and are not bound to short-term political mandates. On January 5, 2018 the Patriarch of Constantinople implemented his decision to grant independence to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, a move that upset Moscow. To understand the current developments, it is worth looking back at this centuries-long history of fluid relationship between Constantinople, Kiev and Moscow.

Constantinople-Kiev: Christianization

In 882, Oleg of Novgorod moved his capital to Kiev and continued the work of Rurik to unite Slavic tribes, setting the stage for the history of Kievan Rus. The prediction of Saint Andrew was unfolding. It is said that during the first century, when Andrew the Apostle traveled to what is now Kyiv, he climbed onto a hilltop overseeing the Dnepr River. There he planted a cross, prophesizing the future of the great Christian city and the role it would play.

The Slavs were a loose union of tribes, whilst Constantinople was flourishing. In 980, Vladimir the Great ruled in Kiev and endeavored to consolidate and expand further his territories. In 988, he conquered the city of Kherson, in Crimea, where a bishop see had been established since the fourth century. Although accounts vary on the conversion of Vladimir, what is clear is that the Byzantine emperor sent his sister Anna to marry Vladimir, uniting Kiev and Constantinople. When Anna arrived, Vladimir converted to Christianity, restored Kherson to Constantinople, and returned to Kiev with Crimean ecclesiastics. It is undeniable that economic and political reasons influenced his choice to convert as his agenda leaned toward the Christian world.

Although the Byzantine emperor appointed the head of the clergy in Kiev, he faced opposition from the Kievan princes who did not endorse a filiation of churches from Constantinople, nor did they submit to the emperor’s authority to make Kievan Rus a colony of the Byzantine Empire. Relations with the empire were complicated: Constantinople did not mingle directly in Kiev’s internal affairs but would not let the princes interfere in religious matters. In other words, the authority of Constantinople over Kiev was exerted through the clergy, who enjoyed considerable powers in Kievan Rus. As a consequence, the first inclination toward creating an independent church appeared. Yaroslav the Wise proclaimed Hilarion of Kiev the first non-Greek metropolitan in 1049. Nonetheless, Constantinople regained control over the appointment of the head of the church in Kiev. Constantinople never bestowed upon Kiev the right to appoint its own Slavic metropolitan, establishing a red line that would trigger immediate action from Constantinople. For centuries to come, the position would mostly be held by Greeks, who remained outside of internal Kievan politics. As Kiev had grown to be a major economic center, it was in Constantinople’s interest to stay on good terms with its Slavic neighbor, gaining importance on the international scene.

Yaroslav the Wise passed away in 1054, a key date as it is the year of the schism between Rome and Constantinople.

Kiev choses Constantinople over Rome

Opinions on rites and theological elements diverged over time between Rome and Constantinople, in part because of linguistic differences. Latin became dominant in the West while Greek was the language of choice in the East. Because of the status of language as a major cultural vehicle, the use of different languages impacted religious rites. Gradually, Rome imposed the closure of churches following the rites as practiced in Constantinople and Constantinople did the same to churches following the practices of the Western Church. Eventually, the Roman pope Leo IX and Michael Cerularius of Constantinople excommunicated each other in 1054.

Humbert of Silva Candida, the papal legate who delivered the excommunication to Patriarch Michael Cerularius, decided to stop by in Kiev on his way back to Rome from Constantinople. The newly converted Kievan Rus represented an attractive potential ally for Rome, especially given that the young federation of Slavs was expanding in size and importance on the international scene. Since integrating with this new community of Christians would strengthen their hand against Byzantium, Rome’s envoy visited the Grand Prince of Kiev with the aim of convincing him to join Rome. Yet Yazislav, the new Grand Prince of Kiev, refused any allegiance to Rome. The clergy in Kiev would remain on the Orthodox side with Constantinople in the great East-West schism.

But rivalries amongst Slavs were fierce. In 1169, the pious Grand Prince of Vladimir-Suzdal Andrey Bogolyubsky sacked Kiev and took many religious pieces, including a highly revered Byzantine icon of the Mother of God of Odigitriya, one of the holiest in Russian Orthodoxy. He initiated the construction of many churches in Vladimir-Suzdal, near today’s Moscow and converted more Slavic tribes. He is also renowned for having made the first attempt to set up a new eparchy to compete with Kiev. Around the year 1170, he bypassed the Kiev Patriarchate and directly requested of the Patriarch of Constantinople, Luka Khrizovergus, that he established an eparchy in Vladimir. He also asked for the new metropolitan to have the same rank as the one in Kiev. The patriarch declined his request, but the competition with Kiev had begun.

Moscow enters the scene

The Mongol invasion spread quickly from east to west and reached Kiev in 1240. The city was destroyed and almost its entire population was dispersed. Kiev, the beautiful jewel of a city was shattered. Some sixty years after the destruction of Kiev, the city was still not recovering. So, the metropolitan Maksim moved his residence from Kiev further east to Vladimirin 1299. Nonetheless, he kept his title of Metropolitan of Kiev and All Rus. The transfer of the religious center from Kiev was a major move, the consequences of which greatly affected the future of Orthodoxy and lay power as well. At that time, the Mongol dominated the region. The first union of Slavs, the Kievan Rus had disappeared and new states had not formed yet.

In a short span of three decades, major events shaped the face of the new power that emerged in Moscow, the capital of the Grand Duchy of Moscovy.

Under the relative religious tolerance of the Mongols, the church consolidated its power and the metropolitan Piotr moved to Moscow in 1325, giving the sign that the city was one of the leading politico-religious centers.

In the meantime, Constantinople was mired in its own problems and the Eastern Roman Empire was suffering through its last days. As the Vatican was entering the Renaissance era, it was eager to end the 1054 schism, especially to its own advantage. Thus the Catholic pope was well inclined to help Constantinople, which had asked for help and unity in resisting the Ottoman threat. At the Council of Florence in 1439, the Catholic Church and the Patriarch of Constantinople signed an agreement that should have put an end to the schism. At that time, Constantinople was still appointing the Metropolitan of Kiev and All Rus, and it counted on the support of Moscow to endorse the agreement. But reality dictated otherwise as Russia had gained much distance from Constantinople and its issues. The Patriarch of Constantinople died soon afterward, and it was decided that his signature was nonbinding for the Orthodox churches. Only Constantinople still hoped that the union with Rome would save them from the Ottomans. But a decade later, in 1453, Constantinople fell under the control of the Ottomans.

Moscow-based bishops decided to emancipate themselves from Constantinople, which had compromised with the Catholics to save itself, yet was now under Muslim rule. For the first time, Moscow elected its own head of the church, independently from Constantinople. Although the autocephaly of the Russian Orthodox Church was recognized only in 1589, the church became de facto independent in 1448, with Jonah as its first metropolitan. One of his first objectives was to maintain religious unity in territories over which his predecessors had authority. Eventually, in 1458, the canonical territories over which the metropolitan professed corresponded to those over which the Grand Prince of Moscow ruled. This transition was reflected in his title, which changed in 1461 to Metropolitan of Moscow and All Rus. The Russian Church was now an actor of importance that saw itself as the guardian of Orthodoxy, the Third Rome.

The new Autocephalous Church asserts itself

The remaining element was the recognition of autocephaly by Constantinople. Without the approval of its peers, the self-proclaimed autocephaly has no validity in the Orthodox world.

The Ottomans imposed heavy tributes on patriarchates that fell under their territorial control. Economically weakened, the patriarchates lost considerable weight, especially Antioch, which had been weakened and forced into exile several times due to centuries under the dominion of Arabs and crusaders. In 1586–1587, the patriarch of Antioch, Joachim V, engaged in a journey to collect donations from other Orthodox churches. In Moscow, the future tsar Boris Godunov offered his support and seized this political moment to stir ambitions of an official autocephaly. Two years later, the patriarch of Constantinople, Jeremias II, traveled to Moscow with the same objective of collecting money. During his stay, he would have discussed with Boris Godunov the possibility of remaining the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch but being based in Russia. Finally, after lengthy negotiations, Jeremias II decided to give autocephaly to the Russian Orthodox Church and returned home. The recognition was made official in 1589 with the concurrence of the other three original patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem.

In 1589, the Russian Orthodox Church for the first time had a patriarch at its head, Job of Moscow. There were now five patriarchs: Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Moscow. And the tsar was the guardian of Orthodoxy.

Kiev, the Tsarist Empire and the church

Peter the Great launched many reforms to modernize Russia, following European model. He replaced the patriarchate with a committee termed the Holy Synod, placing a bureaucrat, the Chief Procurator, as its de facto head and the tsar’s eyes and ears in the church. With authority over religious matters and control over the appointment of bishops, Peter succeeded in relegating the church to the status of a ministry or state department, with clerics placed in charge of spiritual matters.

Catherine the Great continued the policies of Peter the Great. She entertained the Austro-Russian idea of dissolving the Ottoman Empire. As part of this scheme, she nurtured plans to embark on a “Greek Project”: re-establishing a Greek Byzantine empire to replace the Muslim Ottoman Empire, which had gained ground in continental Europe. For instance, she supported the Daskalogiannis Rebellion in Crete in 1770, in which Cretans rose up against the Turks. In reality, she was rather indifferent to religion: she embraced the project, promoted by Prince Potemkin, for geopolitical rather than religious reasons. Yet it did not materialize, and no alliance with Austria came into being. In 1783, Catherine decided to annex Crimea, putting an end to the revolts occurring there and, most importantly, pushing the Ottoman Empire back across the Black Sea. Crimea became a Russian province and part of Novorossiya or “New Russia” in 1784.

Religion politics in Russo-Turkish Wars

Eventually, tensions between the Russian and Ottoman empires had reached a climax, and war broke out in 1787. The conflict lasted for five years but was decided to Russia’s advantage. Russia was therefore able to consolidate its positions around the Black Sea but never captured Constantinople, the gateway to the Mediterranean’s warm waters and an Achilles heel for Moscow to this day. Even though the Treaty of Jassy, signed at the end of the war on January 9, 1792, recognized the Russian territorial gains, relations with the Ottoman Empire remained tense. Russian expansion benefited from momentum on the world scene shaken by the French and American revolutions. Consequently, nobody really reacted to Russian expansion until the situation in France had stabilized. But Napoleon reaction was short-lived.

Alexander’s victory over Napoleon gave him a new sense of divine mission, and by 1814, the tsar had grown more religious and prone to messianism. His religious awakening triggered his initiation of the Holy Alliance between Prussia, Austria, and Russia. Signed in Paris in 1815, this alliance aimed to promote Christianity but was also a reaction to the Napoleonic Wars. The Great Powers wanted to ensure a balance of power in Europe and avoid revolutions. During the two hectic decades that followed, the Catholic Church remained strong and Napoleon III pursued a pro-Catholic agenda, as proven by his 1849 expedition to restore the pope. He posed as the champion of Catholicism in Europe, which in part explained his decision to engage in the Crimean War against Russia.

With its territorial gains and advances well into the Black Sea region, Russia represented a growing threat for the Ottoman Empire and its French and British allies. Paris, together with London, backed the Ottoman Empire, whose western territories in the Balkans saw many uprisings, such as those of the Orthodox Serbs and Orthodox Greeks.

The trigger of the Crimean War of 1853–1856 was religious, but the roots were indisputably linked to the fear of Russia’s growing influence in the weakened Ottoman Empire. At the beginning, quarrels between Catholic and Orthodox monks arose in Palestine about their prerogatives. As the matter had reached serious levels, Tsar Nicholas I intervened and asked the Sultan to recognize the right of Russia to protect the Christians of the Ottoman Empire according to the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca, signed after the war of 1774. This right gave the Russian Orthodox Church further predominance over the Patriarchate of Constantinople. The document also gave Russia access through the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles. This privilege was certainly not pleasing to France or England.

Catholic France declared that it wanted to have authority over the Eastern Christians, a decision contradicting a previous agreement that gave Russia the right to protect Christians. The French Catholic Emperor Napoleon III promised support to the Sultan if he were to resist this Russian “aggression.” Stung by the humiliating conditions of the treaty following the Ottoman defeat, the Sultan agreed. Consequently, a new war erupted between the Ottoman Empire and Russia. As promised, France, joined by England, intervened in support of the Sultan to preserve the territorial integrity of his empire.

The protection of holy places and Christians became the source of an international war with several fronts around the Black Sea, including in the Caucasus. The war was eventually lost by Russia, which was then forced to hand over several territories around the Black Sea. As a result, France gained influence in the Holy Lands.

Moscow – Constantinople Competition

World War 1 put an end to both Russian and Ottoman empires. Under the Soviet, religion was undermined, priests were killed and churches destroyed. So, the Russian church found itself in a state of confusion when the Soviet government collapsed. The church was divided and weak. During the final years of the twentieth century, the ROC stabilized and consolidated its power over its canonical territory thanks to the support of the Russian authorities. It also reasserted its stance within the Orthodox Church worldwide. By far the largest in terms of parishioners and with growing wealth, the Russian Orthodox Church overshadowed the patriarch of Constantinople.

The later did not enjoy much freedom under the new Turkish rule. In addition, it had lost jurisdiction in the Balkans in the nineteenth century. Turkish authorities imposed that the Patriarch should be a Turkish citizen, usually of Greek origin, and such candidates are rare. All in all, the Patriarch of Constantinople has been in an increasing difficult position for centuries, and Moscow has proved to be a strong challenger. In 2016, the ROC asked to convene the Pan-Orthodox Council in Crete and not in Istanbul as Turkish authorities had downed a Russian jetfighter deployed for operations in Syria. Based on this security argument, the Council agreed to change location. Nonetheless, local Orthodox churches, namely the Bulgarian Church, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch, and the Serbian and Georgian Orthodox churches refused to participate because of disagreements over the agenda. The ROC suggested solving those issues to guarantee full attendance, even if it meant postponing the Council. Eventually, the disputes were not resolved and the ROC decided to cancel its participation. By so doing, the ROC expressed a defiant message about the role and authority of the Constantinople Patriarchate. Tensions never resolved and the situation in Ukraine added insult to injury in the relation between Constantinople and Moscow.

Moscow – Kiev: rivals once more

Since the mid seventeenth century, Kiev remained largely under the rule of the Tsar and then Soviet Moscow. Ties binding Ukraine and Russia were strong especially in the field of alimentation, industry and energy.

After the end of the Soviet Union, the Western European World and Russia have tried to attract Kyiv into their respective spheres of influence, a game from which Kiyv benefitted. In 2014, the tables turned drastically with the Euromaidan revolution that toppled President Yanukovych.  Incapable of averting Ukraine’s choice of the EU, Moscow was concerned that Ukraine might ally with NATO. Russian authorities treated the situation as a security matter and actively supported the separation of the autonomous region of Crimea and its attachment/annexation to Russia. The situation spiraled out of control and a kinetic conflict erupted in the Donbas, leading to serious readjustments in international affairs.

Against the backdrop of the complex international relations prevailing in the early twenty-first century, interests of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian state have overlapped in Ukraine. The question of religion and allegiance to the Kyiv or Moscow patriarchate has become a matter of identity and call for resistance among some Ukrainians against Russia in 2014. This unfortunate confusion resulted in intra-Orthodox confrontation with the killing of orthodox priests and the destruction of orthodox churches. In a vicious circle, religious and political differences fueled each other.

Many critics have interpreted the positions of the Russian church and the Russian authorities as two sides of the same coin. Consequently, the Russian church became synonymous with Russian interference in Ukraine, and as such the separation as we see it unfolding was almost a fait accompli.

The creation of an autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church is another turn in this fluid relationship between the three historic cities of Constantinople, Kyiv and Moscow. And it is hardly to be the last move…

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