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Take a Once-in-a-Lifetime Look Inside the Tomb Where Jesus Was Supposedly Buried

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by Peter Weber/The Week

Jesus, in the Christian tradition, does not have a burial place because he rose up to Heaven, but for three days he lay in a tomb outside Jerusalem. Recently, some 50 scientists, workers, priests, monks, and a camera crew from National Geographic became the first people in centuries to look inside what's believed to be that tomb, during restoration of the marble shrine around it — the Aedicule — in the middle of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, one of Christianity's holiest sites. By the time Peter Baker of The New York Times arrived, the tomb had been resealed, he wrote in Thursday's Times, and nobody else is expected to peer inside in any of our lifetimes.

Three denominations sometimes uneasily share control of the church: Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Armenian Orthodox. The restoration team had no plans to open the tomb originally, but decided they had to — very gently, for the first time since the 1500s — to make sure it remained dry and sealed. "We saw where Jesus Christ was laid down," Fr. Isidoros Fakitsas, the superior of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, told Baker. "Before, nobody has.... Now we saw with our own eyes the actual burial place of Jesus Christ."

The tomb has a long history, Baker explains:

"The church was first built where the tomb was discovered in the fourth century during the reign of Constantine, the first Roman emperor to officially convert to Christianity. It was sacked after Jerusalem fell to the Persians in the seventh century, then rebuilt and later destroyed by Muslim caliphs in the 11th century. After the Crusaders captured Jerusalem, the church was restored in the 12th century but burned to the ground in the 19th century and then rebuilt yet again. The marble shrine, known as the Aedicule, was built in its existing form in 1810 during the Ottoman era. [The New York Times]

The researchers collected samples they hope will teach them more about Christianity and its origins. And although you will never be able to see inside the tomb in person, National Geographic has released a longer teaser of the special they will air later in November. You can get a taste below.

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History
How a Shoemaker Became America’s Most Controversial Mystic—and Inspired Edgar Allan Poe
Internet Archive, Flickr // Public Domain
Internet Archive, Flickr // Public Domain

Andrew Jackson Davis may not be a prominent figure now, but in the 19th century, he amassed a dedicated following that helped give rise to Spiritualism, a once-popular religion that believed in communicating with the dead. Davis used the teachings of a German doctor named Anton Mesmer to enter trance states that he claimed allowed him to see into space, the afterlife, other worlds, and even the human body. His metaphysical exploits earned him the nickname the “Poughkeepsie Seer,” and while frequently derided by his contemporaries, he inspired at least one well-known American writer: Edgar Allan Poe.

A HUMBLE SHOEMAKER

By all accounts, Davis had a fairly unremarkable childhood. He was born in Blooming Grove, New York, in 1826. His father, a shoemaker, was prone to drink, so Davis and his sister picked up odd jobs to support the family. Most of his schooling came from a then-popular program where teachers taught advanced students, who then taught one another. Ira Armstrong, a shoemaker/merchant he apprenticed under, later recalled that Davis's education “barely amounted to a knowledge of reading, writing and the rudiments of arithmetic.”

In the 1830s, Anton Mesmer’s teachings became popular in America thanks to several impassioned lecturers in New York and New England. Mesmer, who had found fame in Europe in the late 18th century, believed he could use magnets and his own touch to move “magnetic fluids” through the body, healing his patients of everything from the common cold to blindness. Though his theory of animal magnetism, as he called the existence of such fluids, was discredited by the French Academy of Sciences in 1784, medical professionals later became curious about Mesmer’s ability to manipulate his patients into altered mental states. Doctors—conventional or otherwise—studied the phenomenon of mesmerism, traveling across the country to demonstrate their findings.

It’s this mesmerist renaissance that first brought Davis into the public eye. In 1843, a Dr. James Stanley Grimes traveled to Poughkeepsie, New York, advertising his ability to induce trance states. Many Poughkeepsie residents attended the production—including Davis, although he wasn't entranced as advertised. The visit excited the community, especially a tailor and acquaintance of Davis's named William Levingston, who began dabbling in mesmerism himself. One day in early December, Levingston asked if he could mesmerize Davis, and he succeeded where Grimes had failed: Davis, while blindfolded, was able to read a newspaper placed on his forehead, and listed the various diseases of a group of witnesses.

Rumors soon swirled about Davis’s abilities. After that first session, Levingston mesmerized him nearly every day, and hundreds crowded into Levingston’s home to gawk at the spectacle. The sessions followed a pattern: Davis would enter a trance state and diagnose visitors with maladies, and then Levingston would sell remedies. The pair eventually began to travel, taking their show to Connecticut.

Some of Davis’s advice was unorthodox. For deafness, as Davis wrote in his autobiography, The Magic Staff, he once recommended a patient “catch thirty-two weasels ... take off their hind legs at the middle joint, and boil that oil which Nature has deposited in the feet and the parts adjacent thereto.” This preparation, he went on, “must be dropped (one drop at a time) in each ear, twice a day, till the whole is gone—when you will be nearly cured!”

Sketch of Andrew Jackson Davis on a yellow background
Internet Archive, Flickr // Public Domain

However, Davis swore off parlor tricks in 1844 after he claimed to have teleported 40 miles in his sleep. During the episode, he purportedly spoke with the ghosts of the Greek physician Galen and the Swedish scientist and philosopher Emmanuel Swedenborg, who hinted that Davis had a higher purpose. Galen gifted him with a magic staff, although he was not allowed to keep it. The tale mirrored that of Joseph Smith, who around 1827 had claimed a holy messenger guided him to golden plates on which the Book of Mormon was written. The year after the teleportation episode, Davis decided to part ways with Levingston, and moved to New York City in the company of Silas Smith Lyon, a doctor, and two Universalist ministers, William Fishbough and Samuel Byron Britton.

There, Lyon placed Davis into trance states several times a day, during which time he would lecture on science and philosophy while also diagnosing patients. Fishbough, meanwhile, would transcribe Davis’s transmissions, which were published as his first book, The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelation, and a Voice to Mankind in 1847. Davis combined Spiritualism with utopianism, describing a heaven-like space where all would be welcomed by a Mother and a Father God. Academics of the time soon noticed Davis’s insights were nearly identical to writings that Swedenborg had published years before: Both Davis and Swedenborg claimed to see a spiritual world beyond our own, where all humans could be welcomed into heaven, regardless of religion.

Christian leaders called Davis’s text heretical, while newspapers referred to the book as “ridiculous” and “incomprehensible.” One professor of Greek and Latin at the University of New York said the book was “a work of the devil,” and displayed an “absurd and ridiculous attempt at reasoning.” Joseph McCabe, in his 1920 book Spiritualism: A Popular History from 1847, declared that there was “no need to examine the book seriously” since it contained so many scientific errors. Notably, The Church of New Jerusalem, founded on Swedenborgian ideas, never publicly endorsed Davis’s theories.

Despite this criticism, Davis attracted passionate defenders. George Bush, a Swedenborgian scholar and distant relative of George W. Bush, was among his champions. He insisted that a simple youth like Davis had no access to Swedenborg’s texts and must have been communing with spirits. In 1846, when the French mathematician Urbain-Jean-Joseph Le Verrier postulated the existence of the planet Neptune, supporters were quick to write the New York Tribune claiming Davis had already discovered the eighth planet. “As to the asserted fact that this announcement by Mr. Davis was made in March last,” Bush declared, “I can testify that I heard it read at the time; and numerous gentlemen in this city are ready to bear witness that I informed them of the circumstance several months before the intelligence reached us of Le Verrier’s discovery.”

Detractors were just as vocal. When Fishbough admitted to extensively editing Davis's words, a reviewer at the London Athenaeum couldn’t contain his derision: “That a seer ‘commercing’ with the Mysteries of Nature should have needed an editor in this technical sense is remarkable enough," he wrote. "It might have been supposed that the Revelations which brought to an uneducated man the secrets of Science might have brought him grammar, too, to express them in.” Fishbough countered that it would have simply been too much work for Davis to pay attention to such tiny details.

"MARTIN VAN BUREN MAVIS"

Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of the more prominent people occasionally making fun of Davis was Edgar Allan Poe. In the satirical “Mellonta Tauta,” Poe wrote in a preface that “Martin Van Buren Mavis (sometimes called the ‘Toughkeepsie Seer’)” had translated the story—thus poking fun at Davis and his acolytes. Poe also included Davis in his “50 Suggestions,” brief witticisms published in 1849 that took aim at popular beliefs and theorists of the time: “There surely cannot be ‘more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of’ (oh, Andrew Jackson Davis!) ‘in your philosophy,’” Poe wrote.

Yet Davis’s The Principles of Nature may also have inspired the prose poem “Eureka,” in which Poe proposed his theory of the universe. The work has puzzled critics since its inception: Poe’s use of humorous nicknames in the text (he refers to Aristotle as “Aries Tottle”) point to “Eureka” being a satire, but historians have pointed out that several of Poe’s intuitive concepts actually anticipated the study of scientific phenomenon like black holes and the expanding universe.

Several historians have also remarked on the way Davis’s demonstrations in New York influenced Poe’s short story “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” which follows a mesmerist who puts an old man into a trance on his deathbed and watches his body float between life and death. Davis had claimed his trances put him in a state near death, freeing his mind to travel to spiritual realms. In his book Occult America, writer Mitch Horowitz notes that Poe completed the story in New York the year he met Davis. Dawn B. Sova also mentions in Edgar Allan Poe A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work that Poe used his observations of Davis’s trance sessions to complete the story.

For his part, Davis himself seemed somewhat taken with Poe. Of meeting him in 1846, he wrote in Memoranda of Persons, Places and Events, “My sympathies are strangely excited. There are conflicting breathings of commanding power in his mind. But … I saw a perfect shadow of himself in the air in front of him, as though the sun was constantly shining behind and casting shadows before him, causing the singular appearance of one walking into a dark fog produced by himself.”

Charlatan or not, it was an eerie observation to make of a writer who would meet his end three years later.

Davis himself would live a long and rich life. He continued to lecture and write books until the 1880s, doing away with his scribe for later publications. He then earned a traditional medical license and moved to Boston, serving as a physician until his death in 1910. Though he sought to distance himself from the spectacle of spiritualism later on in life, Davis’s humble background and curious rise to fame made the “Poughkeepsie Seer” one of the movement’s most notable figures—and one who still maintains a strange resonance today.

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James Dean and 12 Other Celebrity Quakers
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Though you probably remember learning all about Quakers and their doctrine of the "Inner Light" in middle school, your teacher probably didn't tell you that James Dean was one. To celebrate what would have been the Rebel Without a Cause's 87th birthday, here are 13 famous Quakers.

1. JAMES DEAN

Sent off to be raised by his father's sister in Fairmont, Indiana, James Dean was raised Quaker. And though the faith may not have played the biggest role in his life or career (there are tales that it was through befriending a Methodist reverend that he was encouraged to pursue his loves of bullfighting, car racing, and theater), today he's buried in a Quaker cemetery.

2. RICHARD NIXON

US president Richard Nixon (L) toasts with Chinese Prime Minister, Chou En Lai (R) in February 1972 in Beijing during his official visit in China
AFP/Getty Images

While the nation made a big deal about John F. Kennedy being Catholic, it's interesting to note that old Richard Milhous Nixon was born and raised Quaker. He was raised with strict conservative Quaker values, which included no swearing, no drinking, and no dancing. When he couldn't afford to go to Harvard, despite earning a scholarship, he attended California's Whittier College, a local Quaker college, where he became class president, started a fraternity, practiced with the football team, and even spent his Sundays teaching Sunday school to kids.

3. ANNIE OAKLEY

Annie Oakley—the sharp-shooting female who was rumored to split playing cards edge-wise, then shoot through them a few times before they hit the ground—grew up a dirt-poor Quaker. In fact, her early skill with the gun came from having to hunt food for her impoverished family.

4. DANIEL BOONE

American settler, hunter, and folk hero Daniel Boone was born and raised Quaker. In fact, his family emigrated to the U.S. from England partially for that reason. What's more interesting, however, is why the Boone family didn't stay within the fold. Daniel's sister Sarah made waves in the community when she married a non-Quaker. What's more: she was visibly pregnant at the time she did, which led to her being disowned by the Society. The family publicly apologized for their daughter's behavior, but after their son Israel also married a non-Quaker, the Boones became a famiglia non grata and up and moved to Carolina.

5. EDWARD R. MURROW

Famed news anchor Edward R. Murrow was born on April 25, 1908 in Polecat Creek, North Carolina to Quaker abolitionist parents. For the first six years of his life, he grew up in a log cabin with no plumbing or electricity. His parents, who farmed for a living, made only a few hundred dollars a year—at least until they picked up and moved to Washington state.

6. JOAN BAEZ

Folk singers Joan Baez and Bob Dylan perform during a civil rights rally on August 28, 1963 in Washington D.C
Rowland Scherman, National Archive/Newsmakers/Getty Images

If you're wondering how folk singer Joan Baez's religion might have played into her development as a political activist, you might want to take a look at her father's life choices. Albert Baez converted to Quakerism when Joan was just a kid, and despite being a co-inventor of the X-ray microscope and a well-known physicist, he refused to work on the atomic bomb project in Los Alamos. He also turned down lucrative job offers from defense contractors during the Cold War.

7. JOHN CADBURY

If you love Cadbury chocolate, you definitely owe a note of thanks to the Society of Friends. As a young man, John Cadbury hoped to pursue a career in medicine or law. But because Quakers were discriminated against by all of the major universities at the time, Cadbury decided to focus on business. Believing that alcohol only exacerbated society's ills, he decided to focus on a happy alternative: chocolate and drinking cocoas. In addition to his views on temperance, Cadbury was also a bit of an activist: He led a campaign to stop the use of boys as chimney sweeps, and he founded an organization to prevent animal cruelty.

8. DAVID BYRNE

 David Byrne poses in the 'Listening Lounge' during the Meltdown Festival launch at Southbank Centre on August 17, 2015 in London, England
Ian Gavan, Getty Images

According to a 1992 issue of Goldmine, music and "the tolerant philosophies of Emma Byrne's Quaker faith" were among the most frequently heard sounds Talking Heads frontman David Byrne heard growing up. "David's parents encouraged his own interest in painting and music (which intensified after the Byrnes visited a cultural exposition in Montreal during his fifteenth year), and he took up the guitar, violin, and the accordion."

9. JUDI DENCH

Though her parents were Methodists, Oscar-winning actress Dame Judi Dench converted to Quakerism after attending The Mount, a Quaker school in York, England. What initially attracted her to the faith? "I liked the uniform," she admitted. "I used to see these girls with their white white collars and blue uniforms, and I thought, 'That’s where I want to go.' Luckily, I got in." In 2013, she told YorkMix that while “I haven’t been to a Meeting, shamefully, for such a long time ... I think it informs everything I do. I couldn’t be without it."

10. BONNIE RAITT

As musician Bonnie Raitt told Oprah: "I think people must wonder how a white girl like me became a blues guitarist. The truth is, I never intended to do this for a living. I grew up in Los Angeles in a Quaker family, and for me being Quaker was a political calling rather than a religious one."

11. JOSEPH LISTER

1855: British surgeon and founder of antiseptic surgery, Joseph Lister (1827 - 1912), as a young man
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The British surgeon who promoted cleanliness and sterility (and the man for whom Listerine mouthwash is named) grew up in a wealthy Quaker family. Of course, this didn't stop him from being discriminated against. In fact, Lister studied medicine at the University of London precisely because it was one of the only institutions at the time that accepted Quakers.

12. PIERS ANTHONY

While agnostic today, best-selling science fiction author Piers Anthony grew up in a fairly devout Quaker family. During the Spanish Civil War, Anthony's parents left young Piers and his sister to their grandparents' care, and then went to "fight" in Spain. In his own words, "my parents were helping to keep those devastated children alive, by importing food and milk and feeding them on a regular basis. It was worthy work, and I don't fault it, but there was a personal cost."

13. CASSIUS COOLIDGE

Cassius Coolidge—the painter behind Dogs Playing Poker—was born to abolitionist Quakers in upstate New York. Side note: He's often credited with creating Comic Foregrounds, those novelty photo scenes you pay $2 to stick your head into, to make your body look muscle-bound at the beach.

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