The James Ossuary

21 October

The James Ossuary (above) was announced to the world at a press conference in Washington DC today in 2002. The limestone burial box bore an inscription in ancient Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus: Ya’akov bar Yosef akhui di Yeshua (‘James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus’). James, the first leader of the early Church in Jerusalem, was put to death in the year 62, according to the 1st century writer, Josephus. Could the ossuary have contained the bones of Jesus’s brother? Despite a trial of the ossuary owner (who was found guilty of illegally trading antiquities) and several scholarly investigations, experts remain divided on whether the ossuary is authentic or a modern forgery.

Today is the feast of St Hilarion, a hermit in Gaza who lived for 50 years in a simple mud hut on a diet of figs and vegetables. Ironically, his solitary spirituality proved attractive, and crowds of followers, visitors and tourists destroyed his solitariness. So he fled to Egypt, then Libya, then Sicily, then Dalmatia; in each arriving unknown, in each drawing crowds. Finally he went to Cyprus, only to move on one final time, as all must do, when he died today in about the year 371.

The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins turned away from his upbringing as a High Church Anglican today in 1866 to join the Roman Catholic Church. He was an undergraduate at Oxford at the time, and was received into the Church by Cardinal John Henry Newman. It was a decision which alienated him from his parents and some of his closest friends. Two years later, he decided to become a Jesuit priest and consigned all his poetry to a bonfire, not writing another poem for the next seven years.

‘My conversion is due to the following reasons… an increasing knowledge of the Catholic system, which only wants to be known in order to be loved – its consolations, its marvellous idea of holiness, the faith and devotion of its children, its multiplicity, its array of saints and martyrs, its consistency and unity, its glowing prayers, the daring majesty of its claims, etc. etc.’ Gerard Manley Hopkins, letter to his father, October 1866

The People’s Crusade was wiped out today in 1096 by a hail of Turkish arrows in a narrow valley near the town of Nicea, in Asia Minor. They had started out from Northern France and Germany a few months earlier when a charismatic monk, Peter the Hermit, had gone on a preaching campaign, calling for followers to leave everything and help him liberate Jerusalem from Muslim occupation. His campaign was wildly successful, raising huge and unruly crowds of peasants and knights, who wanted to set off immediately. On the way to Nicea, they killed thousands of Jews in Eastern Europe, as well as pillaging and burning the city of Belgrade. The few thousand who survived the Turkish assult limped back to Constantinople.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, co-founder with William Wordsworth of English Romantic poetry, was born today in 1772 in the town of Ottery St Mary in Devon, England. He was the youngest and 13th child of his father John, the town’s vicar, who peppered his sermons with Hebrew quotations to the bafflement of his country congregation. Like his father, Coleridge was a bookworm, and he was a solitary, dreamy child, his imagination filling his horizon in anticipation of his life to come as a poet of experience, an opium addict, and a mystical theologian.

‘I was in a continual low fever. My whole being was, with eyes closed to every object of present sense, to crumple myself up in a sunny comer, and read, read, read — fancying myself on Robinson Crusoe’s island, finding a mountain of plum-cake, and making a room for myself, and then eating it into the shapes of tables and chairs – hunger and fancy!’ Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Revd Harold Davidson, the Rector of Stiffkey in Norfolk, and (according to the press) the Prostitutes’ Padré of Piccadilly, held his last church service as an Anglican priest today in 1932 before he was unfrocked for immoral conduct. For 15 years he had spent every Monday to Saturday trying, by his own account, to save prostitutes and potential prostitutes in London. The Church accepted accusations that he had done more corrupting than saving. To fund an appeal, he capitalized on his notoriety and exhibited himself in a barrel at Blackpool for twopence a look.

Image: The James ossuary was on display at the Royal Ontario Museum from November 15, 2002 to January 5, 2003

Time-travel news is written by Steve Tomkins and Simon Jenkins

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