Posts tagged ‘History’

Is The Bible Reliable?

bible-blur-book-2898207.jpg

Credit: KML from Pexels

Over the past few weeks, there have been some astounding archaeological discoveries related to the Bible.  First, researchers have found possible evidence of the existence of the biblical people of Edom, a people long dismissed by scholars as mythical rather than historical.  Reporting for the Daily Mail, Joe Pinkstone writes:

The Biblical kingdom of Edom was long thought to be a myth, but scientists now think they have found proof of its existence in a controversial new finding. 

Analysis of copper mines and slagheaps dating back to the 11th century BC reveals evidence of improvements to smelting in mines throughout a 60-mile wide region …

Researchers from the University of California and Tel Aviv University concluded that due to its age and location, the authority controlling the mining and smelting could only be Edom, the kingdom which stood in the way of the expanding Israelites. 

The book of Genesis refers to the Edomites, who were thought to be descendants of Jacob’s brother Esau.

That’s incredible.  But that’s not all.  In another fascinating find, archaeologists uncovered a 1,500-year-old fresco that depicts Jesus feeding a crowd of 5,000 people.  Rory Sullivan reports for CNN:

A colorful mosaic recently found in an ancient church in Israel appears to depict a miracle Jesus is said to have performed nearby – the feeding of the 5,000 – archaeologists say.

The discovery was made in the “Burnt Church” in Hippos, an archaeological site on a mountain a mile east of the Sea of Galilee. The church was built around 1,500 years ago and destroyed by fire in the early 7th century AD.

Christian scholars have long argued that the Bible is a remarkably historically reliable document.  These recent finds simply contribute additional credence to these claims.

Of course, findings like these do not answer every question or criticism people have about the Bible.  But they should at least lead us to consider just how truthful this book just might be.  The peoples and places of the Bible seem to be exceptionally archaeologically accurate.  So, perhaps we should wonder: What else in this book is accurate?  Could the miracles described by the Bible be factual?  Could the teachings proffered by the Bible be wise?  Could the God confessed by the Bible be real?  Could the Bible be what it claims to be – divine revelation?

Archaeological discovery can help us verify the Bible’s accuracy.  But the Bible claims to be much more than just accurate.  It claims to be authoritative.  It is meant to guide and shape our lives.  As the Psalmist puts it: “Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path” (Psalm 119:105).

It is important to ask the of the Bible: did the events described therein happen way back when?  But it is just as critical to answer: how do the events described therein apply to me now?  For the Bible is not just a history book.  It is a helpful book.  And it is not just a helpful book.  It is a holy book.  May we treat it as such.

October 21, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

The Resurrection of Jesus in History

Caravaggio_-_The_Incredulity_of_Saint_Thomas

Yesterday, Christians around the world gathered to celebrate the defining claim of their faith:  the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.  The apostle Paul is very frank in his estimation of the importance of Christ’s resurrection:

If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith … And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.  (1 Corinthians 15:14, 17)

Paul places the full weight of Christianity’s reality and practicality on the resurrection’s actuality.  If the resurrection is not a historical fact, Paul declares, then the whole of the Christian faith is foolish.

But how can we decipher whether or not the resurrection happened historically?  N.T. Wright, in his seminal work, The Resurrection of the Son of God, notes that the empty tomb of Jesus combined with appearances from Jesus offers a compelling testimony to the historicity of the resurrection.  If only there was only an empty tomb, Christians would not have been able to claim that Jesus rose from the dead.  Likewise, if there were only phantasms of someone who looked like Jesus, Christians could not have claimed a resurrection.

Wright explains the power of this combination thusly:

An empty tomb without any meetings with Jesus would have been a distressing puzzle, but not a long-term problem.  It would have proved nothing; it would have suggested nothing, except the fairly common practice of grave-robbery … Tombs were often robbed in the ancient world, adding to grief both insult and injury.[1]

Indeed, grave robbery was so common in the ancient world that emperor of Rome shortly after the time of Jesus, Claudius, issued an edict meant to intimidate anyone who would consider pillaging tombs:

Ordinance of Caesar.  It is my pleasure that graves and tombs remain undisturbed in perpetuity … If any man lay information that another has either demolished them, or has in any other way extracted the buried, or has maliciously transferred them to other places in order to wrong them, or has displaced the sealing or other stones, against such a one I order … the offender be sentenced to capital punishment.[2]

Apparently, the problem of grave robbery had become so pervasive that Claudius saw no other recourse to end it than to threaten capital punishment for it.  Wright consequently concludes:

Nobody in the pagan world would have interpreted an empty tomb as implying resurrection; everyone knew such a thing was out of the question.[3]

Wright continues by noting that mere appearances of Jesus alone could also not make a case for a resurrection:

‘Meetings’ with Jesus, likewise, could by themselves have been interpreted in a variety of ways.  Most people in the ancient world … knew that visions and appearances of recently dead people occurred … The ancient world as well as the modern knew the difference between visions and things that happen in the ‘real’ world.[4] 

It is only the combination of an empty tomb along with multiple appearances of Christ that could have given rise to the idea that Christ had, in actuality, risen from the dead.  This is part of Paul’s point when he writes that Christ “appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:6).  Paul knows that one person can suffer a delusion of a resurrection.  It is much more difficult for 500 people to have the same delusion.  And in case anyone has any questions about what these 500 saw, Paul notes that most of them are still living.  People can simply go ask them.

With all of this being said, a primary objection to the historical veracity of the resurrection remains, which is this:  dead people tend to stay that way.  I have never – and I would guess that you also have never – seen a dead person come back to life.  So how can we accept something as fact in the past when we cannot repeat it in the present?

Again, N.T. Wright offers two helpful thoughts.  The first is that history, by its very nature, is the study of that which is unrepeatable:

History is the study, not of repeatable events as in physics and chemistry, but of unrepeatable events.[5]

In other words, just because we cannot – and, in many cases should not – repeat historical events – such as the crash of the Hindenburg, the sinking of the Titanic, or the horrors of the Holocaust – does not mean that they did not happen.  To apply a standard of “repeatability” to the resurrection in order to accept its truthfulness is to apply a standard by which no other happening in history could be deemed true.

But second, and even more importantly, Wright explains that the early Christians themselves would agree that dead people stay dead!  This is what makes their claim that there was a dead person who did not stay that way all the more astounding:

The fact that dead people not ordinarily rise is itself part of early Christian belief, not an objection to it.  The early Christians insisted that what had happened to Jesus was precisely something new; was, indeed, the start of a whole new mode of existence, a new creation.  The fact that Jesus’ resurrection was, and remains, without analogy is not an objection to the early Christian claim.  It is part of the claim itself.[6]

The early Christians fully understood that what they were claiming was radically unique.  But they claimed it anyway.  Whatever one may think of the historicity of the resurrection, one must at least admit that the biblical witnesses saw something and experienced something that they could explain in no other way than in a bodily resurrection from death.

These considerations, of course, do not constitute an airtight or empirically verifiable case that the resurrection did, in fact, happen.  But history rarely affords us such luxuries.  Nevertheless, these considerations do present us with a case that makes the resurrection, according to the normal canons of history, highly probable and worthy of our consideration and, perhaps, even our embrace.  There is enough evidence that we must at least ask ourselves:  has Christ risen?  And the answer of not only Scripture, but of history, can come back, with sobriety and credibility:  Christ is risen!

Which is why, 2,000 years later, Easter is still worth celebrating.

___________________________________

[1] N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2003), 688.
[2] Ibid., 708-709.
[3] Ibid., 689.
[4] Ibid., 689, 690.
[5] Ibid., 686.
[6] Ibid., 712.

April 2, 2018 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Not Just Any Old Crucifixion

"Calvary" by Josse Lieferinxe, c. 1500

“Calvary” by Josse Lieferinxe, c. 1500

In the ancient world, crucifixions were a dime a dozen.  Hardly a day passed without one.  Consider these statistics:

  • 519 BC: Darius I, king of Persia, crucifies 3,000 of the leading citizens of Babylon.
  • 332 BC: Alexander the Great crucifies 2,000 people after invading the city of Tyre.
  • 100 BC: Alexander Jannaeus, king of Judea, crucifies 800 Pharisees.
  • 71 BC:  A great uprising of slaves against the Roman Empire, led by the great gladiator Spartacus, leads to the crucifixion of 6,000 of his followers along a stretch of highway from Capua to Rome, totaling 120 miles.
  • 4 BC: Varus, governor of Syria, crucifies 2,000 Jewish rebels who were leading a Messianic revolt.
  • AD 70:  The Roman general Titus sweeps into the city of Jerusalem, sacks it, and begins crucifying 500 people a day he runs out of wood to make crosses.

Crucifixions happened all the time.  In fact, according to one estimate, as many as 30,000 people were crucified just in Israel by Jesus’ day.[1]

This Friday is Good Friday – a day when we commemorate a crucifixion.  But with crucifixions being so commonplace in the ancient world, it’s worth it to ask:  Why do we commemorate one particular crucifixion?  Why don’t we commemorate the many crucifixions of the citizens of Babylon, or of Spartacus’ followers, or of the Jews under Titus’ reign of terror?  Why do we commemorate only one crucifixion – Jesus’ crucifixion?

The Mishnah, an ancient compendium of Jewish rabbinical teaching, explains that if a criminal was condemned to execution, which would have included crucifixion, he was to say, “Let my death be atonement for all of my transgressions.”[2]  The idea was that if a person’s crimes were so heinous that he was deserving of death, only death could save him from those crimes.  Crucifixion, then, was connected not only to punitive punishment, but also to personal atonement.

Jesus’ crucifixion, however, was different.  Rather than making recompense for His own sins by His death, Jesus asks for forgiveness for others’ sins:  “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).  And rather than seeking atonement for Himself by His execution, the apostle John says Jesus makes atonement for the world:  “[Christ] is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).

This is why we commemorate Jesus’ crucifixion.  For we remember not only that Jesus was crucified, but why Jesus was crucified.  He was crucified not for His own sins, but for ours.  Jesus’ crucifixion did what no other crucifixion could do.  It saved us.  And that’s worth remembering…and celebrating.  And that’s why this Friday is not just any Friday, but a Good Friday.

______________________________

[1] John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary:  Matthew 24-28 (Chicago:  The Moody Bible Institute, 1989), Matthew 27:27-37.

[2] m. Sanhedrin 6.2.

April 14, 2014 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Jesus – More Than Just God

Jesus 1Was Jesus really human?

These days, this question does not get asked a lot.  Rather, people wonder whether or not Jesus was God.  And time and time again, people come to the conclusion that Jesus is not, was not, and, indeed, could not have been God.  Take, for instance, Reza Aslan, author of the bestseller Zealot:  The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.  In an interview with NPR about his book, Reza summarizes his position on Jesus’ divinity:

If you’re asking if whether Jesus expected to be seen as God made flesh, as the living embodiment, the incarnation of God, then the answer to that is absolutely no.  Such a thing did not exist in Judaism.  In the 5,000-year history of Jewish thought, the notion of a God-man is completely anathema to everything Judaism stands for.  The idea that Jesus could’ve conceived of Himself — or that even His followers could’ve conceived of Him — as divine, contradicts everything that has ever been said about Judaism as a religion.[1]

There’s no way, Reza says, Jesus’ followers could have considered Him to be divine.  He was only a man who led a failed revolution as a failed run-of-the-mill Messiah.

In my studies for a class I’m teaching on Galatians, I came across some terrific commentary from the second-century church father Tertullian on Galatians 4:4-5.  The apostle Paul writes in these verses: “But when the time had fully come, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.”   Tertullian comments on Paul’s phrase “born of a woman”:

To what shifts you resort, in your attempt to rob the syllable “of” of its proper force as a preposition, and to substitute another for it in a sense not found throughout the Holy Scriptures! You say that He was born through a virgin, not of a virgin, and in a womb, not of a womb.[2]

In Tertullian’s day, there were people trying to rob Jesus not of His divinity, but of His humanity.  A group of called the Docetists considered everything corporeal to be evil while holding anything non-corporeal to be good.  They thus denied that the non-corporeal God of the universe would ever dare to take on corporeal human flesh.  This group taught that though Jesus may have been born “through” Mary, he was not born “of” Mary.  In other words, He did not take on human flesh as a genuine offspring of a genuine human mother.  Rather, He merely passed through Mary as an immaterial God and received nothing concrete from her.  Indeed, the Docetists taught that though Jesus may have appeared to be a physical being, He was not.  In fact, the very name “Docetist” comes from the Greek word meaning, “to appear.”  Jesus, then, was simply an apparition – divine, yes, but certainly not a corporeal human.

Tertullian has no time for such teaching concerning Christ.  He says that Docetists “murder truth”[3] and vigorously makes the case for Christ’s humanity.  Thus, the problem in the early Church was not that some denied Jesus’ divinity, but that many denied His humanity!  Reza has the problem exactly backwards.

Ultimately, to deny Jesus’ humanity or His divinity is to deny Him.  Paul is crystal clear concerning the person of Christ:  He is God’s Son and He is born of a woman.  He is both God and man.  Any other or lesser confession of Christ simply will not do.


[1]Christ In Context: ‘Zealot’ Explores The Life Of Jesus,” NPR (7.15.2013).

[2] Tertullian, On the Flesh of Christ 20.

[3] Tertullian, On the Flesh of Christ 5.

November 11, 2013 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

A Life That Ended Too Soon…At 116 Years

Besse Cooper

Besse Cooper (Photo: David Goldman, AP)

Last Tuesday afternoon, Besse Cooper of Monroe, Georgia passed away peacefully.  She was 116 years of age.  She was also the world’s oldest woman.[1]

I was doing the math in my head.  And though I don’t know her birthday so my I may be a year off on some of my calculations, I’m still pretty close.  Besse Cooper was born in 1896.  This means when the Titanic sank, she was sixteen.  When the United States entered World War I, she was twenty-one.  When the stock market crashed the Great Depression hit, she was thirty-three.  When Pearl Harbor was bombed, she was forty-five.  When John F. Kennedy was assassinated, she was comfortably settled into retirement at sixty-seven.  When Apollo 11 landed, she was seventy-three.  And when 9/11 rocked our nation, she had passed the century mark at one hundred and five.

As I thought back over all the events to which this woman had been witness, even if only from afar, I stood in awe.  A lot of history happens in 116 years!  And yet, even a life as long and robust and Mrs. Cooper’s is hardly a hairbreadth long in the eyes of the God who gives it.  The Psalmist puts it bluntly:  “Man is like a breath; his days are like a fleeting shadow” (Psalm 144:4).  On the stage of history as a whole, 116 years occupies nary a dark corner.

Though the biblical writers may look at life as fleeting, they nevertheless do not resign themselves fatalistically to its end.  Instead, they kick mightily against the truncated span of life.  The prophet Isaiah notes that a life that lasts a mere century – or perhaps a little more – has not lasted nearly long enough!  He yearns for a world where “he who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere youth” (Isaiah 65:20).  Even one hundred years is not enough for Isaiah.  He wants more.

Finally, the problem the biblical writers have has nothing to do with when life comes to end, but with that life comes to end.  A life that ends – be that at ten days, ten months, ten years, or ten years times ten years – is a life that ends too soon.  And indeed, this is true.  For God, when He gave us life, intended life to be a gift we keep.  He intended life to be a gift that lasts.

Sin, of course, had other plans.  But this is why Christ came on a mission – to recapture and raise, by His resurrection, people who die way too soon.  To recapture and raise, by His resurrection, people who die at all.  Like Besse Cooper.  May she rest in peace.  But better yet, may she wake at the telos’s trumpet.


[1] Associated Press, “Woman, 116, listed as ‘world’s oldest’ dies in Ga.,” USA Today (12.5.2012).

December 10, 2012 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


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