Observations on life; particularly spiritual

Christian

Jesus: history or myth?

santa-400px

santa-400pxI don’t believe in the Tooth Fairy. I don’t believe in the Easter Bunny. I don’t believe in Santa Claus. You could say, I’m a skeptic! But what if I don’t believe that Babe Ruth, Mark Twain, and Christopher Columbus were real people? That they were myths as well.

Also, what if I don’t believe that people who lived longer ago like William Shakespeare (AD 1600) and Muhammad (AD 600) were real people? And what if I don’t believe that Jesus (AD 30) existed? That He’s a myth made up by Christians.

According to a survey in 2015, 22% of people in England thought that Jesus was a mythical or fictional character, while another 17% were unsure whether He was real or not. The remaining 61 % said Jesus was a real person who actually lived. It was found that younger people are the most skeptical about Jesus’s existence.

What is a “myth”?

In everyday language, the term “myth” is given to stories, ideas or beliefs that are false and not true. They are unreal or imaginary stories that may be called “legend”, “fiction”, “fairy tale”, “folklore”, or “fable”. But academic scholars use “myth” as a synonym for a story with a symbolic message that used to be believed as true, but now there are no implications on the truthfulness of the story. In this post I’m using the everyday usage of the word “myth”, not the academic one.

Let’s look at two skeptical views about Jesus.

Skeptical views about Jesus

Christ myth theory.

Some people claim that Jesus is a mythical character, and not a historical person. He never existed. He was made up by the early church which wrote the New Testament. They conclude this from the following beliefs:
– Jesus left no writings or other archaeological evidence.
– We don’t have any original manuscripts of the New Testament.
– The genre of the gospels may be legendary fiction instead of ancient biography.
– The Gospels and other early Christian writings cannot be verified as independent sources, and may have all stemmed from a single original fictional account.
– All documents about Jesus came well after the life of the alleged Jesus – so it’s all unreliable hearsay. No eyewitness accounts survive.

Mainstream historical view

Others say that Jesus of Nazareth did exist but He had virtually nothing to do with the founding of Christianity and the accounts in the gospels. They believe that Jesus was an extraordinary man, but He didn’t do miracles. The miracles were made up by Christians afterwards and written in the Bible. The life of Jesus was embellished like St Nicholas became Santa Claus.

We will now evaluate these two skeptical views about Jesus. Do they match the evidence or not?

Historical evidence for the existence of Jesus

Most of what is known of the ancient world comes from written accounts by ancient historians. But these only record a sample of human events and only a few of these documents have survived. Few people could write such histories as illiteracy was widespread in ancient times. And the reliability of the surviving accounts needs to be considered. But the existence of someone in history is often easily established on the basis of small textual samples, sometimes even a single name in a list or sentence. For example, my great grandfather Richard Hawke is in a list of people living on the goldfields at Hill End near Bathurst in New South Wales in 1867. This is listed in a book that was published 109 years later in 1976 (“Valleys of gold” by Brian Hodge).

Jesus was a Jew (a minor race) who lived in Galilee, which was a part of Palestine (not the capital, Jerusalem). And Palestine was an outpost of the Roman Empire (a tiny part of a vast empire). He was a long way away from the local center of power and from Rome (the capital of the empire). So the fact that we can find any written record of Jesus outside the New Testament is significant. Based on this, the best place to look for evidence of Jesus that is independent of the Bible is in ancient Roman and Jewish literature.

Roman literature

About 80 years after Christ’s death, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote (“Annals”, 15, 44, AD 115-117): “They (Christians) got their name from Christ, who was executed by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius. That checked the pernicious superstition (Christianity) for a short time, but it broke out afresh not only in Judea, where the plague first arose, but in Rome itself, where all horrible and shameful things in the world collect and find a home”.
The Annals is a history of the Roman Empire from the reign of Tiberius to that of Nero (AD 14–68). The context of this passage is the 6-day fire that burned much of Rome in July AD 64. It indicates the manner and time period of Christ’s death. Emperor Nero (AD 37-68) accused the Christians of starting the fire and he persecuted them.

Jewish literature

Josephus is the best known Jewish historian. He was born in Jerusalem and went to Rome in AD 71 where he wrote his histories under Roman patronage. Jesus Christ is mentioned twice in his “Antiquities of the Jews” (a history of Israel from Genesis to the first century AD) published around AD 93 (about 60 years after the death of Jesus).

A passage in Book 18, 63-64 of the “Antiquities of the Jews” says:
Now, there was about this time (a source of further trouble) Jesus, for he was a doer of surprising works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure (men who welcome strange things). He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him (cease to cause trouble). And the tribe of Christians, so named for him are not extinct to this day”.
The context of this passage is the political disturbances that the Roman rulers dealt with during this period.

A passage in Book 20, Chapter 9, 1 of the “Antiquities of the Jews” says,
he (Ananus the high priest) assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned”.
This event is dated at AD 62. The Bible also says that James was the brother of Jesus (Gal. 1:19). This passage assumes you already know about Jesus, which is true because Josephus has already mentioned him two books earlier.

Summary of Roman and Jewish literature

These two non-Christian historians are independent historical sources, one Roman and one Jewish. What do they say about Jesus?
– He was a Jewish man named Jesus and Christ (in Greek) who lived in Judea.
– He had a brother named James.
– He had a reputation for doing unusual works (possibly miracles)
– He won over both Jews and Greeks (but most of this happened after His death).
– He was sentenced by Pilate to be executed by crucifixion during Tiberius’s reign. The Jewish leadership pressured Pilate to condemn Jesus in this way.
– Christianity and Christians came out of Christ’s ministry.
– Both Jewish and Roman leaders were hostile towards Jesus and Christians.

ranking-of-historical-figures-400pxSo, hostile Jewish and Roman witnesses show that Jesus is a historical figure, and not a myth. This means that the first skeptical view that Jesus never existed is debunked. It is a myth itself!

Calendar

In 2013 Time magazine had an article on “the 100 most significant figures in history”. They ranked them like Google ranks web pages. They said that historically significant people leave evidence of their presence behind. The top rank went to Jesus, followed by Napoleon, Muhammad, William Shakespeare and Abraham Lincoln. So Jesus left an impact in our world. One indication of this is that the years in our calendar are dated from when He was born. Mythical figures don’t leave such an impact. Another indication is the growth of the church despite persecution.

We will now evaluate the second skeptical view that doesn’t believe Jesus did miracles.

Historical evidence for Jesus’ miracles

Now we’ve established that Jesus existed, the question is “did He do miracles?”. Is the only evidence of these in the New Testament that was written by Christians? No! The Christian message was offensive to both the Jews and the Romans. They attacked Christianity by saying that Jesus was a real wonder-worker who made blasphemous claims to divine authority.

Jesus was regarded by the Jews of His day as a person who possessed supernatural powers. According to Justin Martyr, they said that Christ’s miracles “was a display of magic art, for they (Jews) even dared to say that he (Jesus) was a magician and a deceiver of the people” (Justin Martyr, AD 160). They executed Him for sorcery and said His power to do miracles was Satanic.

According to Celsus, an anti-Christian Greek Philosopher, “Jesus performed His miracles by sorcery” (“The true word”, about AD 180). And, “because (Jesus) was poor he hired himself out as a workman in Egypt, and there tried his hand at certain magical powers on which the Egyptians pride themselves; he returned full of conceit because of those powers, and on account of them gave himself the title of God…”.
“These were the actions of one hated by God and a wicked sorcerer…

Celsus treated Jesus as a person who was a dangerous con-artist like a conjuror or illusionist. He considered Jesus to be a magician who made exorbitant claims.

So both hostile Jews and Greeks acknowledged that Jesus had miraculous powers. And they said that these were magical, Satanic and deceptive.

Were the gospels fabricated?

Some skeptics claim that the gospels were fabricated after Christ’s death and aren’t reliable accounts of what actually happened. But you wouldn’t expect the following in the gospels if they were fabricated:
– Mathew was written by a tax collector and Jews hated these.
– A key event, the resurrection of Christ, was revealed first to women who had low status in society at that time. A woman’s testimony was not accepted in court during those days.
– No Jew would invent a story of a crucified Messiah, and Christians wouldn’t invent such a horrific ending for their leader.
– There are multiple accounts of the life of Jesus in the gospels with variations between them.
– The embarrassing parts would probably have been deleted: Jesus’ baptism by John (Mk. 1:4-11), His family believing He was out of His mind (Mk. 3:21), His ignorance of the time of His own return (Mk. 13:32), His not doing miracles in some places (Mt. 13:58), and Jesus calling Peter Satan (Mt. 16:23).
– Why would the apostles invent so many miracle stories, when most Jews expected a political deliverer as Messiah, not a wonder-worker?
– Why would the apostles invent a religion that caused them painful humiliating deaths?

Time gaps

The New Testament was written by the apostles and their associates. The apostles were eyewitnesses to the events they described and the associates would have obtained information from eyewitnesses. Scholars think that the “memory gap” between the events described in the gospels and their documentation is about 30-55 years. There are variations between the gospels. This is because there are multiple witnesses and multiple writers. And like in real life, there are variations between the accounts (each records different aspects and details) but they have the same core message and they are consistent with each other. It’s a bit like children recalling events from their childhood for a parent’s eulogy.

Let’s look at the “copy gap” (between the original document and the oldest manuscript available today) for some historical documents. For the works of Josephus in their original language of Greek, the copy gap was about 800 years and for the Annals of Tacitus it was about 1,000 years. On the other hand, for the New Testament, the copy gap was about 300 years – Codex Vaticanus was copied in AD 300-325 and Codex Sinaiticus in AD 330-360. So the gap is significantly shorter for the New Testament. A longer gap means more copies of copies, which means more potential for copy errors to appear in the text. So the version of the New Testament we have today should be a more accurate copy of the original than is the case for these other Roman and Jewish historical documents. In this way, the evidence for the existence of Jesus is stronger than that for most other people of the ancient world.

Do we have an open mind?

I’ve presented some evidence, but whether you believe it depends whether you have an open mind or not. Our presuppositions can override the evidence in order to inevitably conclude what was presupposed from the start. That’s circular reasoning! In such cases our assumptions and beliefs largely determine our findings and interpretation of these. If we have already made up our minds, no evidence will change them.

Let’s look at some people who investigated Jesus with an open mind.

CS Lewis

CS Lewis was Irish and became an atheist in his early teenage years. He graduated from Oxford University with triple First Class Honors in Classics, Philosophy and English. And he wrote many books. His mother died when he was 10 years old, he had been unhappy at school, and he experienced trench warfare during the First World War. But after spending some years with Christian colleagues at Oxford University, at 30 years of age he became a Christian. He realized that atheists don’t have an open mind because they deny the supernatural and therefore the existence of God. They don’t even consider this possibility. But if God exists, then surely the Creator can intervene in His creation. He can alter the natural environment, reverse the progression of disease, or conquer death in ways we consider to be miraculous. He has written many books defending Christianity, including “Mere Christianity”.

Lee Strobel

Lee Strobel trained at Yale Law School and was an avowed atheist. He was a legal journalist for 14 years. After his wife’s conversion, he began investigating the Biblical claims about Christ. After a nearly two-year investigation, he became a Christian at the age of 29 years. He has written many books defending Christianity, including “The case for Christ”.

Jennifer Fulwiler

Jennifer Fulwiler was an atheist blogger. But she came to realize her mind was closed to ideas that didn’t fit into her atheist worldview. At the birth of her first child the only way her atheist mind could explain the love that she had for him was to assume it was the result of nothing more than chemical reactions in her brain. Then she realized that’s not true! She found that the Christian worldview had the best rational explanation for the world in which we live. She writes a blog called “Conversion Diary”.

Warner Wallace

Warner Wallace was a homicide detective. He was an atheist, but reading the gospels changed his life. After he saw that they were accurate eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus, he became a Christian. He stresses that as detectives need to be open minded by avoiding presuppositions, so should we. And the highest standard for prosecution is “beyond a reasonable doubt”, not “beyond every possible doubt”. This is because they are dealing with history, not observational science or mathematics. Wallace writes a blog called “Cold case Christianity”.

This evidence from an author, a journalist, a blogger and a detective shows that when people investigate Jesus with an open mind, they are convinced that He did the things described in the Bible.

Lessons for us

We have seen that Jesus is a historical person and not an imaginary figure. The evidence is overwhelming. And that He wasn’t an ordinary person. He did miracles and founded Christianity that has spread across the world. Also, the gospels are based on eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus and not something fabricated by early Christians. And people with an open mind will agree with this finding.

Do you have an open mind about Jesus? Have you read about Him in the gospels? Do you think He is a great moral teacher, but don’t accept his claim to be God? In that case, Jesus would be a liar. Why would a person willingly die under an accusation they knew wasn’t true? Or do you think He was deluded? That He had a mental illness? Then why would the apostles give up their lives for such a person? The only other option is that He was the person who He claimed to be and who He demonstrated to be by His miracles, the divine Son of God.

And if Jesus existed and did the things that history says He did and He’s alive today as the Son of God, then what must change in our lives today?

Why did Jesus come?

Jesus coming to earth is a bit like us becoming an ant in order to talk to the ants. Or us becoming an amoeba or bacteria to communicate with them. It’s amazing! It’s even more amazing because Jesus made and sustains the world He entered! The Creator and Sustainer became a creature at the same time.

Jesus came to earth so we can have spiritual life. A life connected with God now. A life that is connected with God forever. That’s called eternal life. He did it to solve the problem of our rebellion against God. Adam and Eve rebelled against God. Noah’s generation rebelled against God. The people of Babel rebelled against God. The Israelites rebelled against God. The Jews and Romans killed the Son of God. And we ignore God. He’s not in our calendar! The Bible says that we all rebel against God and that’s what separates us from Him (Rom. 3:23). We’re all guilty of wrong attitudes and wrong behavior. How do we know what’s right and what’s wrong? The Bible gives examples and our conscience can guide us (Rom. 2:15). The consequence of our guilt is to be separated from God.

Jesus solved the problem of our rebellion against God by taking our punishment when He was executed by crucifixion. He substituted for us. No one else could have done this because everyone else is a rebel and is separated from God themselves. Only Jesus could do this because He is the Son of God who is always in contact with God the Father.

Jesus asked Peter, “Who do you say I am” (Mt. 16:15-16NLT). Peter answered, “You are the Messiah (or Christ), the Son of the living God”. Can you say that as well? If we recognize that we can’t get right with God ourselves because of our rebellion, and that as the Son of God, Jesus has done all that is needed for us to get right with God, then the Bible says that the barrier between us and God comes down and we are no longer separated from Him. We come near to God. We become spiritually alive. If you want to get right with God, pray to Him about it and speak about it to a Christian today.

Eternal life

Jesus described eternal life as follows: “as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man (Jesus) must be lifted up (be crucified), so that everyone who believes in Him will have eternal life. For this is how God loved the world: He gave His one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent His Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through Him” (Jn. 3:14-17NLT).
Here we see that Jesus was on a rescue mission. Just as the Israelites could be healed of snakebite by looking at the bronze snake on a pole, which changed their status from dying to being alive, our separation from God can be removed by accepting Christ’s sacrifice for us. We become spiritually alive and our destiny changes from hell to heaven.

Jesus also said, “I have come that they may have (eternal) life, and have it to the full” (Jn. 10:10). Jesus came so we can have spiritual life. And following Jesus turns an empty spiritual life into a bountiful one. “Life, be in it!” was a program to encourage us to be more physically active. But Jesus says, “Eternal life, be in it!”. Let’s get spiritually active.

Jesus as Lord

But what if you already follow Jesus? This evidence about Jesus and the Bible supports our faith. We are Christians because of historical events, not because of mythical stories.

Peter told Cornelius that Jesus Christ “is Lord of all” (Acts 10:36). “Lord” means a person who has authority over others; a master, boss, chief, or ruler. But most people act like Jesus was a liar or a mental case. They live as though Jesus never came to earth. But if we have trusted Him to bring us close to God, the Bible says that we are to live as though He is Lord of our lives (Rom. 10:9). That means giving Him priority. How can we do that? By obeying God’s commands and principles in the New Testament. A disciple follows their leader.

Paul is also a good example to follow. He said “You should imitate me, just as I imitate Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Is what we say and what we do consistent with what Paul said and did? Here’s one example from Paul, “dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all He has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind He will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship Him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect” (Rom. 12:1-2). Do we give our bodies to God? Does He influence our calendar? Do we copy the behavior and customs of this world? Or, do we let God transform our lives? Do we let Him change the way we think? Are we different from those that don’t follow Jesus? Is it evident that we are spiritually alive?

Conclusion

We have seen that because Jesus lived on earth almost 2,000 years ago, and did miracles to prove His divinity, and paid the price so we can be reconciled with God, if we turn to follow Him, He turns an empty spiritual life into a bountiful spiritual life.

Eternal life, be in it!

Written, February 2017

Also see: Extra-biblical evidence of Jesus


Babylon, center of humanism and materialism

titanic-400px

titanic-400pxFrom Genesis to Revelation

History is full of examples of the proverb, “Pride goes before destruction” (Prov. 16:18). The Titanic was declared indestructible by its proud makers, but it sank on its maiden voyage. The word “Babylon” occurs in about 270 verses of the Bible, where it is associated with humanism, materialism, pride and wealth. But we will see that this atheistic way of life is doomed to destruction.

Is “Babel” the same as “Babylon”?

The Hebrew word that’s translated “Babylon” (Babel, Strongs #894) can also be translated “Babel”. The reason for this is that the written Hebrew text only uses consonants and not vowels. The word “Babel” means confusion, because that’s where God caused different languages to arise and cause confusion between the different groups of people (Gen. 11:9). It’s not a Hebrew word, but is a word from one of the Semitic languages of the Shinar region. “Babel” was most likely what the place of the Tower was called by the Semitic people who lived in Shinar at the time of the final editing of the Old Testament (about 450 BC). The Greek name “Babylon” comes from the Assyrian word Bab-ilani, which means “gate of the gods”. The first occurrence of this Hebrew word (Babel, Strongs #894) in the Bible is in Genesis 10:10 where a city in the kingdom of Nimrod (Noah’s great-grandson) is said to be: “Babel” (ESV, NET) or “Babylon” (HCSB, NIV, NLT). And the NET says “or Babylon”, and the Septuagint (written about 3rd to 1st century BC) says “Babylon”. So the ESV is the only one of these five modern translations that doesn’t specifically equate Babel with Babylon. So the consensus is that the words Babel and Babylon refer to the same geographic location.

Nimrod was a mighty warrior and a great hunter. Babel (Babylon) was one of the cities in his kingdom and he built the city of Nineveh, which became the capital of the Assyrian Empire. Nimrod rebelled against God and the tower of Babel was probably one of his projects. His personal emblems were the dragon and the snake. “Ancient gods and their associated legends arose from the deification of dead human heroes” (Merrill, 2005). This happened to Nimrod and his wife Semiramis.

babel-tower-1-400pxAfter the flood, God told Noah’s descendants to “fill the earth” (Gen. 9:1NIV). But they embarked on a project to build a tower in order to make a name for themselves (a reputation that would be honoured after death) and thereby avoid being “scattered over the face of the earth” (Gen. 11:4). The tower was to keep people together, so they wouldn’t spread out across the earth. Maybe it was to be a place to sacrifice to God. In fact, ziggurats and pyramids have been used all over the world for religious events. It seems as though this disobedience against God’s command to fill the earth may have occurred at Babylon (Babel). However, God responded by confusing their languages, which resulted in them being scattered “over all the earth” after all (Gen. 11:9).

So, in about 2200 BC, Nimrod and the people of Babel (Babylon) rebelled against God. They were anti-God. God’s plan was that people spread out across the earth and form nations (Gen. 10 – The table of nations), whereas they congregated in the same area, glorified humanity, and took pride in their achievements.

A powerful and wicked nation

The ancient city of Babylon was located on the Euphrates river, about 80km (50 miles) south of the modern city of Baghdad (in Iraq). Abraham travelled through it on his way from Ur to Haran and then Palestine (Gen. 11:31). About 1,500 years later this city became the head of the Babylonian Empire.

After conquering Assyria in 612 BC, the Babylonians defeated the Egyptians at Carchemish in 605 BC (2 Ki. 24:7). The Babylon Empire ruled the Middle East for about 70 years (612 – 539 BC).

Babylon was a great city with an area of about 200 square miles (513 square km). It was protected by a double brick wall with towers and a moat (Jer. 51:53, 58). Access was via eight gates, the best known being the Ishtar Gate with images of dragons and bulls. There were many temples to gods and goddesses, including Marduk (also called Bel, Jer. 50:2). The hanging gardens of Babylon were one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

Babylon was likened to a queen and a jewel (Isa. 13:19; 47:5). It was a city of merchants and traders, and manufacture of clothing (Josh. 7:21; Ezek. 17:4). King Nebuchadnezzar called it “The great Babylon” and he was proud of his achievements (Dan. 4:30). Babylon was wealthy (Jer. 50:37; 51:13) and had great military and naval power (Isa. 43:14; Jer. 5:16; 50:23). The Babylonians thought they were invincible.

But the Babylonians were cruel and arrogant (Isa. 14:13-14, 17; 47:6-10; Jer. 50:31-32; 51:25; Hab. 1:6-7). They trusted in sorcery and astrology (Isa. 47:9, 12-13; Dan.2:1-2) and followed idols (Jer. 50:38; Dan. 34:18). Jeremiah said that “it is a land of idols” (Jer. 50:38). Babylonians were also irreverent and wicked (Isa. 47:10; Dan. 5:1-3) and oppressive (Isa. 14:4).

Babylon and Judah

God made a covenant with the nation of Israel (Ex. 24:1-8). The conditions of the covenant were given in the law of Moses and they were summarized in the Ten Commandments. There were rewards for keeping the covenant and punishments for disobedience (Lev. 26; Dt. 28). The punishments included being invaded, taken captive and being scattered among the nations (Lev. 26:27-35; Dt. 28:36-37, 47-57). Once Israel accepted the covenant, they were bound to the promises made to God.

Unfortunately, the message of the prophets and the history of Israel show that Israel did not keep the demands of the covenant. They broke the covenant and worship idols like Baal by offering sacrifices to them, and trusting them for fertility, healing and deliverance from enemies (Jer. 19:4-5). Because they were unfaithful to God, God divorced the kingdom of Israel and allowed them to be invaded by Assyria (Isa. 50:1; Jer. 3:1-13). But Judah took no notice of this and continued to be unfaithful! God said that they were guilty of spiritual adultery. They were like an unfaithful wife (Jer. 3:20; 9:2; Ezek. 6:9) and like a prostitute (Isa. 1:21; Jer. 3:1-5; Ezek. 16:15-34). The prophets used these metaphors repeatedly. And because Judah continued to be unfaithful to God (like an adulterer or prostitute), God’s judgement was that they would be destroyed by the nations they idolised (Ezek. 16:35-43).

Predictions

When Merodach-baladan, king of Babylon sent envoys to king Hezekiah of Judah (who ruled 715 – 686 BC), they were shown the kingdom’s wealth. After Isaiah questioned Hezekiah, he prophesied that all of Judah’s wealth “will be carried off to Babylon” and some of the people would be deported as well (2 Ki. 20:12-18; 2 Chron. 32:31; Is. 39:1-4). This prophecy happened over 100 years before the Babylonian exile and before the Babylonians defeated the Assyrians.

Because Judah was a “rebellious people”, the prophets predicted the destruction of the Jerusalem by the Babylonians (Isa. 22:1-25; Jer. 21:3-14; Ezek. 12:1-3). Ezekiel said, “Therefore the Lord Almighty says this: “Because you have not listened to my words, I will summon all the peoples of the north and my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon,” declares the Lord, “and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants and against all the surrounding nations. I will completely destroy them and make them an object of horror and scorn, and an everlasting ruin. I will banish from them the sounds of joy and gladness, the voices of bride and bridegroom, the sound of millstones and the light of the lamp. This whole country will become a desolate wasteland, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon seventy years” (Jer. 25:8-11).

Fall of Jerusalem

King Nebuchnezzar lead three campaigns against Judah: 605 BC, 580 BC and 586 BC. In the final campaign he conquered Judah, destroying Jerusalem and deported part of its population to Babylonia (2 Ki. 24:1 – 25:21; 2 Chron. 36:20-23; Ezra 5:2; Jer. 39:1-10; 52:12-30). So Babylon was God’s instrument to punish Judah (Ezek. 21:1-27).

Psalm 137 records the feelings of a Jew who was captive in Babylon. The first three verses say:

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion (Jerusalem).
There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

They missed their homeland and didn’t want to sing Jewish songs to their captors. Daniel was deported in 605 BC and he tells us what it was like living in Babylon in his book of the Old Testament (Dan. Ch. 1-6).

Even the remnant of Jews who escaped to Egypt would be largely destroyed because they burnt incense to “the Queen of Heaven”, who was the Babylonian goddess Ishtar (derived from Semirami, the wife of Nimrod).

End of empire

Predicted

Although Babylon was God’s agent for the punishment of Judah, the Old Testament prophets predicted that God would also punish Babylon (Isa. 13-14; 21:1-10; 47; Jer. 25:12-14; 50-51). Babylon was to receive what she had done to others (Jer. 50:15, 29; 51:24,35,49). They said that it would become uninhabited (Isa. 13:19-22) and a heap of ruins (Jer. 51:37). Babylon’s judgement was inevitable (Isa. 47:1-15).
“Babylon, the jewel of kingdoms, the pride and glory of the Babylonians, will be overthrown by God like Sodom and Gomorrah” (Isa. 13:19).
“Babylon will be a heap of ruins, a haunt of jackals (dragons, dinosaurs) an object of horror and scorn, a place where no one lives” (Jer. 51:37).

Fall of Babylon

In 539 BC, Babylon surrendered without a battle to Cyrus king of the Persians. This enabled groups of Jews to return to help restore the city of Jerusalem in 538 BC (Zerubbabel), 458 BC (Ezra) and 444 BC (Nehemiah). Their efforts are described in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.

Babylon fell into disrepair after the Persian empire fell to Alexander the Great in 330 BC and after this it declined in importance and it is now only a mound of rubble (a tell). The kingdoms that followed Babylon were the Medes and Persians, the Greek, and the Roman. Like the Babylonian Empire, these were all anti-God (they had different gods).

The Magi

After Jesus was born, Magi (Magos; Strongs #3097) came from the east to worship Him (Mt. 2:1, 7, 16). According to Thayer’s Greek Lexion, a magus is the name given by the Babylonians (Chaldeans), Medes, Persians, and others, to the wise men, teachers, priests, physicians, astrologers, seers, interpreters of dreams, prophets, sorcerers etc. The fact that they came from the east would have been assumed by most people in New Testament times, because the Magi were primarily known as the priestly-political class of the Parthians who lived to the east of Palestine. The magi were skilled in astronomy and astrology (which, in that day, were closely associated) and were involved in various occult practices, including sorcery, and were especially noted for their ability to interpret dreams. It is from their name that our words “magic” and “magician” are derived.

The magi were a powerful group of advisors in the Babylonian empire. Because the Lord gave Daniel the interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream; which none of the other court seers was able to do; Daniel was appointed as “ruler over the entire province of Babylon and placed him in charge of all its wise men” (Dan. 2:48).

Because of Daniel’s high position and great respect among them, the magi would have learned much from that prophet about the God of Israel, and about His will and plans for His people through the coming Messiah. Because many Jews remained in Babylon after the exile and intermarried with the people of the east, it is likely that Jewish messianic influence remained strong in that region even until New Testament times. So the Magi who visited Jesus probably travelled from somewhere near Babylon (in their day Parthia) and followed a similar route to Palestine as Abraham did many years before.

Symbol of Rome?

“Babylon” is also mentioned in the New Testament. Peter’s greetings at the end of his first letter include: “She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you her greetings, and so does my son Mark” (1 Pt. 5:13). “She” could refer to an individual woman or to a church with whom Peter is staying. According to the NET, “Most scholars understand Babylon here to be a figurative reference to Rome. Although in the Old Testament the city of Babylon in Mesopotamia was the seat of tremendous power (2 Ki. 24-25; Isa. 39; Jer. 25), by the time of the New Testament what was left was an insignificant town, and there is no tradition in Christian history that Peter ever visited there. On the other hand, Christian tradition connects Peter with the church in Rome, and many interpreters think other references to Babylon in Revelation refer to Rome as well (Rev. 14:8; 16:19; 17:5; 18:2, 10, 21). Thus it is likely Peter was referring to Rome here”. Also, Peter was in Rome in the final years of his life.

Peter may have used “Babylon” as a symbol for the city of Rome in order to protect the Christians in Asia Minor from prosecution. Nero was the Roman Emperor when this letter was written in about AD 62. It’s interesting to note that John Mark was in Rome with Paul in about AD 60 (Col. 4:10), which is consistent with him being in Rome with Peter when this letter was written. So it seems that in this instance Peter probably used a metaphor to describe Rome as being like Babylon.

Just as ancient Babylon had oppressed the Jewish exiles, the Roman Empire was persecuting the Christians that lived in Rome. It also invaded Jerusalem in AD 70, burned the temple and dispersed the Jews from their homeland. So there are similarities between Babylon and the Roman Empire.

What about the references to “Babylon” written in about AD 95 in Revelation (14:8, 16:19; 17:5; 18:1, 2, 10, 21)? According to the Futuristic interpretation of Revelation, its structure is outlined in 1:19. “What will take place later” (after AD 95 and still future) is given in 4:1 – 22:5. This includes aspects of the tribulation (Rev. 6:1-18:24) between the rapture (when all Christians are taken to heaven) and the second coming of Christ (after which Christ rules on earth for 1,000 years). The events of the tribulation are designed to bring Israel back to God.

“Babylon” in Revelation

Babylon is mentioned in the judgement associated with the battle of Armageddon (Rev. 16:13-21). The context is the second coming of Christ at the end of the great tribulation. It doesn’t relate to the true church because all believers are taken to be with the Lord at the rapture. The fall of Babylon is also mentioned in Revelation 14:8 and more details are given in chapters 17-18. Chapter 17 is the religious fall of Babylon and chapter 18 the political fall of Babylon. Babylon stands for a global system of religion in chapter 17 and a global system of government and commerce in chapter 18.

Revelation 17-18 is apocalyptic literature. Ancient apocalyptic writings were filled with visions that revealed hidden truths in figurative language for the purpose of assuring persecuted people of the goodness of God’s ways. For example, Ezekiel 37-39 and Daniel 7-12 were messages to the Jews who were devastated after their defeat and exile by the Babylonians.

“Babylon” is symbolised as a prostitute riding upon a scarlet beast. Her name is “Babylon the great – the mother of prostitutes – and of the abominations of the earth” (Rev. 17:5-6). She also commits spiritual adultery (Rev. 14:8). In the old Testament, “prostitution” and “adultery” were used symbolically to describe God’s people when they followed the idols of other nations instead of following the true God (Ezek. 16:26-32; 23:1-48). So Babylon the great is a spiritual adulterer and a prostitute; an apostate religion. Grant Richison calls her a “worldwide ecumenical religion”, a super-religion.

This apostate religion will be attractive and wealthy and comprised of unbelievers. It will blend different belief systems together. And she will cause the death of martyrs who will preach the gospel of the kingdom of God in the tribulation period (Rev. 11:1-10; 17:6; 18:24).

The woman rides a beast with seven heads that represent “seven hills on which the woman sits” (Rev. 17:7, 9). Some think that this refers to Rome, which has seven hills. But this passage is not dealing with a literal city or mountains but with kings (Rev. 17:10, 12).

The fall of Babylon is predicted as being God’s judgment. The global systems of religion, government and commerce think they are invincible. But they will receive what they have done to others (Rev. 18:5-6, 20). This is a principle that God uses in “the day of the Lord” (Obad. 1:15). Babylon is also guilty of pride, idolatry, and demon possession (Rev. 18:2, 7). And it’s clear that the global systems of religion, government and commerce are based on materialism and humanism.

Lessons for us

So the story behind Babylon stretches from about 4,200 years ago to the coming tribulation between the rapture and the second coming of Christ. Babylon is opposite to Zion. Babylon was a wicked place (where people rebelled against God), while Zion was a holy place (where God lived).

It reminds us that:
– God kept His promises to Israel. The law said that if they disobeyed God and followed idols, they would be expelled from Palestine (Dt. 4:25-28; 28:62-65; 30:1-3). And that’s what happened. Likewise, God will keep His promises given to us in the New Testament.
– God is sovereign over all the events in human history. He is powerful (source of different languages and different nations; and caused the rise and fall of nations). And He uses who He wills to achieve His purposes. He used a pagan nation to punish Judah.
– God judged the wickedness of Babylon. Likewise, in the future God will judge all evil and wickedness.
– Apostate religion is doomed. God wants us to separate from apostate religion.
– Materialism and humanism is doomed. God wants us to separate from materialism and humanism.

References
Steven Merrill (2005) “Nimrod. Darkness in the cradle of civilization”. Diakonoa Publishing. Greenboro, North Carolina, USA.
Grant Richison. Commentary on the book of Revelation.

Written, February 2017

Also see other articles on places in the Bible:
Bethlehem, God’s solution to our crises
Gehenna – Where’s hell?
Where’s Zion?


What does “by his wounds you have been healed” mean?

figurative-language-1-400px

figurative-language-1-400pxAll languages contain figures of speech where words have a figurative meaning instead of the literal one. The same is true for the Bible. It’s important to correctly recognize figurative language so we don’t treat figurative language as though it were literal, or treat literal language as though it were figurative.

The passage “by his wounds you have been healed” is mentioned in Isaiah 53:5 and 1 Peter 2:24. What does it mean? From the context, “his wounds” refers to Christ’s suffering on the cross. Does it mean that through Christ’s death we can be miraculously healed from illness or injury? Or does it mean something else?

This passage is also alluded to in Deuteronomy 32:39NIV: “There is no god besides me. I (God) put to death and I bring to life, I have wounded and I will heal, and no one can deliver out of my hand”.
This verse is a part of the song of Moses which deals with the punishment of the nations which God used to punish Israel. Here God is shown to be sovereign over the nations. He can destroy them (“put to death”) and create them (“bring to life”). He can judge them (“wound”) and restore them (“heal”). So in this context, the word “heal” is used as a figure of speech for restoring the fortunes of a nation. It has nothing to do with recovering from an illness or injury.

We will now look at Isaiah 53:5, followed by 1 Peter 2:24.

In Isaiah

The Hebrew word nirpa (Strongs #7495), which is translated “heal”, is mentioned in six verses in the book of Isaiah. According to the Appendix, in 80% (4/5) of these verses, the word “heal” is used as a figure of speech. So what does it mean in the other verse, Isaiah 53:5? Is it figurative or literal?

Isaiah prophesied and wrote in Judea in about 700BC when there was great wickedness and idolatry amongst the Judeans. There are four “servant songs” in the book of Isaiah in which the servant is the promised Messiah (Isa. 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13 – 53:12). The fourth song describes a servant who would experience suffering and exaltation. Isaiah 53:5 is set in the following context.

4 Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

Here the servant endured: pain, suffering, punishment, striking, affliction, piercing, crushing, and wounding. This punishment was from God and in this way the servant took the punishment that “we” deserve for “our” transgressions, iniquities and sin (v.10, 12). In this context the “we” and “our” were the faithful remnant of Judah (Isa. 10:20-23; 11:11; 37:31-32; 46:3). The result is that they experience peace and healing and justification (v.11). Their problem was that they “had gone astray” (v.6). They had sinned and transgressed the law of Moses. There is no mention of illness or injury. So in this verse “healed” means forgiveness of their sins and transgressions, not physical healing. According to the NET version, “Healing is a metaphor for forgiveness here”. It’s a spiritual healing, not a physical one. Brown-Driver-Briggs says that its figurative and addressing a nation or city like Babylon (Jer. 17:14). This means that the word “heal” is used as a figure of speech in 83% (5/6) of the verses where it is mentioned in the book of Isaiah.

In 1 Peter

The Greek word iaomai (Strongs #2390), which is translated “to heal”, is only mentioned once in the books written by Peter (1 Pt. 2:24). Most of the other instances of this word in the New Testament refer to physical healing. The exceptions are:
Acts 28:27, which is a quotation of Isaiah 6:10 in which the phrase “I (God) would heal them” is used as a figure of speech for a spiritual revival (see Appendix).
Hebrews 12:13 “’Make level paths for your feet,’ so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed”. The context of this verse is enduring hardship as God’s discipline (v.3-13). They are encouraged to persevere instead of giving up. The desired outcome is to “share in His (God’s) holiness” (v.10). This is a spiritual solution, not a physical one. So it was a spiritual problem, not a physical one. The “lame” is a weak believer (who had maybe drifted away, Heb. 2:1) and to be “healed” is to be built up, strengthened and restored (instead of stumbled). The NLT says “Mark out a straight path for your feet so that those who are weak and lame will not fall but become strong”. So the words “lame”, “disabled” and “healed” are being used metaphorically in this verse.

So what does “heal” mean in 1 Peter 2:24. This verse is set in the following context:

23 When they hurled their insults at Him (Jesus), He did not retaliate; when He suffered, He made no threats. Instead, He entrusted himself to Him (God the Father) who judges justly. 24 “He himself bore our sins” in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by His wounds you have been healed.” 25 For “you were like sheep going astray,” but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

After dealing with submission to authorities, Paul gives the example of Christ’s submission when He suffered for our sins. Then he quotes from Isaiah 53:4-6 to encourage believers to live godly lives: “so that we can be dead to sin and live for what is right” (v. 24, NLT). The verse is referring to sin and righteousness, not sickness and disease. Therefore, being “healed” means to be forgiven and saved, not to be physically healed. According to Thayers’ Greek Lexion “by His wounds you have been healed” means “to bring about (one’s) salvation”. It’s a way of saying that Christ’s death brings salvation to those who trust in Him. So, it’s spiritual healing. This is consistent with the finding that Isaiah 53:5 is also addressing spiritual healing, which should be the case as that is the source of the quotation in 1 Peter 2:24.

Discussion

This study has illustrated how to use the surrounding context to distinguish figurative language from literal language in the Bible. The verses and passages in each book of the Bible are set out in an order determined by God. Don’t try to understand a verse or passage in isolation. Look at the message in the whole book. Look at the message in the same chapter, in the previous chapter and in the following chapter. Look at the message in the verses before and in the verses after. Read it like any other book; don’t just read here and there. Proverbs is the only book of the Bible where the verses aren’t always related to each other.

If a verse is quoted and explained without looking at the surrounding context, there is a danger of eisegesis (an interpretation that is imposed on the biblical text by the reader – it comes from the reader’s preconceived ideas) instead of exegesis (an interpretation that is obtained/derived from the biblical text).

In our everyday language the meaning of the words we use is mainly given by the surrounding context. The same rule applies when interpreting Scripture. It’s not good practice to select verses elsewhere in Scripture (i.e. “cherry picking”) to derive the meaning of a particular verse. Who decides which selection is best? But once the meaning has been explained, it’s OK to look for other passages of Scripture that are consistent with the meaning.

If this passage from Isaiah 53:5 and 1 Peter 2:24 is not relevant to illness and injury, then what is a proper Biblical response to such circumstances? Paul prayed about his health problems, but when it was clear that that weren’t going to be taken away, he knew that God doesn’t promise to remove our ailments and problems (2 Cor. 12:9). Instead God can give us the strength to live with our ailments and problems, because human weakness enables the display of divine power. Like a parent trains their children, God uses suffering for our spiritual development (Heb. 12:4-13). It’s how our self-reliance, pride, and earthly wisdom can be replaced with godliness and a stronger faith. James taught that the purpose of such trials is to develop our endurance, patience and perseverance (Jas. 1:2-3). Because our problems can develop our Christian character, we should accept them joyfully instead of getting angry, complaining, giving up, having self-pity, or believing that God will take them away. That can be a challenge for us!

Conclusion

We have seen that the passage “by his wounds you have been healed” mentioned in Isaiah 53:5 and 1 Peter 2:24 doesn’t mean that through Christ’s death we will be miraculously healed from illness or injury. Instead it means that through Christ’s death our sins can be forgiven and we can be spiritually healed and revived. However, physical healing is promised in future when believers will be resurrected to experience no sickness, pain, suffering, or death (Rev.21:1-4, 22:1-3).

Paul’s response to his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:9), parental training of their children (Heb. 12:4-13), and James’ advice on trials (Jas. 1:2-3) are good examples on how to react to illness or injury.

Appendix: Usage of the word “heal” in Isaiah

The Hebrew word nirpa (Strongs #7495), which is translated “heal”, is mentioned in six verses in the book of Isaiah. We now look briefly at the meaning of this word in five of these verses.

Isa. 6:10b: “Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed”. This verse is in a passage describing the results of Isaiah’s ministry to Judah. The people would be unresponsive (like being deaf and blind) and turn even further from God. It’s opposite to people turning back to God (being repentant). And opposite to a spiritual revival. And opposite to spiritual healing. So the phrase “be healed” is used in this verse as a figure of speech for a spiritual revival.

Isa. 19:22: “The Lord will strike Egypt with a plague; He will strike them and heal them. They will turn to the Lord, and He will respond to their pleas and heal them”. Here the Egyptians are able to pray for deliverance from the plague like the Israelites (1 Ki. 8:35-40). In this verse, the word “heal” is used for physical healing from the plague, which is a disease.

Isa. 30:26: “The moon will shine like the sun, and the sunlight will be seven times brighter, like the light of seven full days, when the Lord binds up the bruises of his people and heals the wounds he inflicted”. This chapter describes Israel relying on political alliances instead of on God, which results in suffering and sorrow. The suffering and sorrow are referred to metaphorically as “bruises” and “wounds”. But they are promised blessing if they repent. The end of their suffering and sorrow is likened to a metaphorical healing. So the word “heals” is used as a figure of speech for a spiritual revival when the Israelites repent to obey God once again.

Isa. 57:18-19: “I have seen their ways, but I will heal them; I will guide them and restore comfort to Israel’s mourners, creating praise on their lips. Peace, peace, to those far and near,” says the Lord. “And I will heal them”. These verses are in a passage where God promises to restore the Israelites who turn away from idolatry. The meaning of the word “heal” is given as to “guide”, to “restore comfort to Israel’s mourners” and to bring “peace”. There is no mention of illness or injury. So the word “heal” is used here as a figure of speech for forgiveness and restoration.

So in 80% (4/5 of these verses, the word “heal” is used as a figure of speech. The other verse that we haven’t considered here is: “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed“ (Isa. 53:5). The meaning of “healed” in this verse is discussed above under the heading “In Isaiah”.

Written, February 2017

Also see: Goes God heal all our sicknesses? Part 1
Does God heal all our sicknesses? Part 2
Understanding the Bible


Monolingual Islam

esperanto-1-400px

esperanto-1-400pxEsperanto is an international auxiliary language devised in 1887 to help break down the language barriers between different ethnic groups. It was to help communication while allowing retention of different languages and cultures. And a language to unite humanity and bring world peace. However, its proponents were persecuted by the Communists and Fascists and it remained a small movement. In this post we look at an international religious language.

When I was investigating the Islamic faith, I realized that to follow Muhammad and the Quran (Koran), you need to learn how to recite classical Arabic. Classical Arabic is a sacred language for Muslims because it was the language of the 7th century AD used by Muhammad and the language of the Quran. It’s no longer spoken in everyday language (except for religious purposes), being equivalent to Shakespearean English in the English speaking world.

The Quran

The Quran is Islam’s holiest book; which Muslims believe are the commandments of Allah (God). Muslims believe that the Quran is divine (being Allah’s final message) and must be recited and studied in classical Arabic. A translation into another language (such as English) is viewed as being not divine because a human being did the translation – so it’s viewed as being only a human interpretation. Therefore, one needs to learn classical Arabic in order to properly understand the Quran.

This belief is based on a particular interpretation of this verse from the Quran: “We have revealed/made it (the Quran) an Arabic Quran, that you may understand” (12:2; 43:3). Of course, this is a translation into English, not the original version in classical Arabic! So Muslims would say that it’s not from the “real” Quran because it’s the wrong language! See my exegesis (interpretation) of this verse in the Appendix which gives a different interpretation because it includes the context given in the Quran.

As Islam forbids translation of the Quran from classical Arabic into another language, in all mosques around the world the recitation of the Quran is done in classical Arabic. In this way, classical Arabic is the world-wide liturgical language of Islam.

The mandatory prayers

Muslims are required to pray five times a day facing Mecca. They believe that all these prayers are to be recited in the classical Arabic language because the prayers include extracts from the Quran. Non-Arabic speakers often learn them by heart and recite them from memory. That’s why the Call to prayer announced by loudspeakers five times daily from mosques is only given in classical Arabic; even in non-Arabic communities. Has anyone ever heard this announcement made in any other language?

A sacred language

So to become a Muslim, you have to adopt the classical Arabic language for these most important religious activities. No other language is accepted except classical Arabic. In this way, Islam is a language-exclusive religion. It is monolingual.

Muslims have many native languages, but one religious language. Non-Arab Muslims have to accept this bias as a natural part of life. As language is a part of culture, the daily use of classical Arabic language would affect one’s culture. In this way, it is understandable that Muslims would adopt aspects of Arabic culture into their local culture as well. For example, some non-Arabic Muslims adopt Arabic names and give their children Arabic names. They also often adopt Arabic modes of dress. So Islam is closely associated with Arabic language and Arabic culture.

Multilingual Christianity

On the other hand, Christianity is definitely multilingual. The Bible has been translated into all major languages and is being translated into minor languages as well. When the church began on the day of Pentecost (50 days after Christ’s death), there was a miracle whereby the apostles were able to speak in the native languages of people from at least 15 different language groups (Acts 2:5-15). This was called the gift of tongues (the ability to speak a foreign language without learning it). So from the beginning, the message about Jesus Christ was given in the native languages of the hearers, and not in only one “sacred” language (such as Latin or Koine Greek or Aramaic, John 19:20).

If Christianity was monolingual, then all public usage of the Bible would have to be in a single language like Koine Greek, or Latin or King James English.

Christianity is also multicultural and multinational. Peter had to change his attitude towards Gentiles after being shown that the barrier between Jew and Gentile had been removed because God doesn’t favor people because of their nationality (Acts 10:28, 34).

Discussion

There is another example in the Bible of God using a multilingual approach rather than a monolingual one. After the Jews returned to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon, in about 444 BC, Ezra read the Pentateuch (Genesis to Deuteronomy in the Old Testament) to them. But the people no longer understood the Hebrew language as their native language was now Aramaic. So the Levites “instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear (translating it) and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read” (Neh. 8:7-8NIV). Afterwards the people were pleased “because they now understood the words that had been made known to them” (Neh. 8:12). It seems as though the Levites were translating the Scripture from Hebrew into Aramaic on this occasion. Many Hebrew words needed to be explained as it was no longer their native language.

Evidence of the usage of Aramaic in this era is given in the book of Ezra. The only portion of the Old Testament that wasn’t written in Hebrew is Ezra 4:8 – 6:18; 7:12-26, which was written in Aramaic. These passages refer to correspondence to and from the king of the Persian Empire written between 534 BC and 458 BC.

Muslims claim to worship the same God as the Jews and the Christians. But we have seen from these examples that the God of the Jews didn’t ask the Jews to treat Hebrew as a sacred language and the God of the Christians didn’t ask the Christians to treat Koine Greek (or Aramaic or Latin) as a sacred language. Yet Allah asked the Muslims to treat classical Arabic as a sacred language. Clearly Allah is inconsistent with the God of the Jews and the Christians. Is seems like Allah is a different god.

Conclusion

To follow Muhammad, Allah and the Quran, you need to learn to recite classical Arabic because classic Arabic is the international liturgical language of Islam. Fortunately, you can follow Jesus Christ in your native language.

Appendix: My exegesis of Quran 12:2; 43:3

This verse says, “We have revealed it (the Quran) an Arabic Quran, that you may understand” or “We have made it (the Quran) an Arabic Quran so that you may apply reason”.

The steps involved in understanding an ancient passage like this are as follows:
– What was the meaning when it was written? This is the original meaning.
– What were the original principles behind this meaning?
– What has changed since then?
– What are the universal principles for us today? Here we update the principles.
– What is the meaning for us today? How should we apply these universal principles? Here we update the applications or practices of the principles.

Original meaning

The Quran was written in 7th century AD Arabic language (Classical Arabic) so that the 7th century AD Arabic people could understand it. This is different to Islam whose original meaning seems to be; “the Quran was written in Classical Arabic because that’s the language that Allah used”.

Original principles

The Quran must be understandable. This is different to Islam whose original principle seems to be; “the Quran must be in Classical Arabic because that’s the language that Allah used”. Islam seems to ignore the context, which is given as “that you may understand”.

What has changed since then?

It is claimed that the Quran was written at least 1,300 years ago. Since this time Islam has spread to other nations. This means that Muslims no longer speak the same language and no longer speak classical Arabic in everyday life. And for many Muslims, Arabic isn’t their native language.

Modern principles

For the Quran to be understandable by all Muslims, it needs to be available in their native language. This is different to Islam whose modern principle remains; “the Quran must be in Classical Arabic because that’s the language that Allah used”. As mentioned above, this seems to ignore the context, which is given as “that you may understand”.

Modern applications

Translate the Quran into native languages so it can be readily understood by those who read and recite it. This application of the verse is different to Islam because I took the context into account, which is given as “that you may understand”. However, I am in the minority!

Written, January 2017

Also see: Basic Islam
Islamic prayer
Testing Islam
Understanding the Bible


Mind the gap

gap-4-cropped-400px

gap-4-cropped-400px“Mind the gap” is a warning phrase to take caution while crossing the spacial gap between a train doorway and the station platform. It’s used by many train and rapid transport systems. This gap is wider at stations with curved platforms, which increases the likelihood of passengers or luggage falling into the gap between the train and the platform.

In this blogpost we look at the temporal gaps between the events described in the New Testament and their communication to us today. We will see that as the memory gap (from an event to the original written account) is less than one generation and the copy gap (from the original written account to the oldest manuscript available today) is significantly less than for other ancient documents, we can trust the historical accuracy of the New Testament.

According to scholars, the New Testament was written between AD 50 and AD 95. And most of the events described in the New Testament occurred between 5 BC and AD 65. But why was the New Testament written so long after the events it describes (up to about 65 years)?

Oral communication

The major way in which events and ideas were communicated in the ancient world was through the spoken word. It was an oral society. Many people were illiterate and writing materials were scarce. There were few books (scrolls) and they were very expensive to produce. So information was passed on by word of mouth and oral accounts were valued above written accounts.

In oral communication, the accuracy of a message received by a listener depends on the reliability of the speaker (sender) and the reliability of the information that the speaker wants to communicate. A reliable speaker tells the truth (instead of lying) and the information they communicate is more reliable if the speaker has access to the original source of the information, such as eyewitnesses.

A message can become unreliable if it passes through many intermediate speakers between the original speaker and the final listener. This is demonstrated in the telephone (Chinese whispers) game in which one person whispers a message to the ear of the next person through a line of people until the last player announces the message to the entire group. What usually happens is that the statement announced by the last player differs significantly from that of the first player. Obviously, if a message (or story) has been retold by many people, some of it can change if people forget parts of what they are told.

But the telephone (Chinese whispers) game doesn’t apply to the New Testament, because the time period when it was communicated orally was less than 65 years, which is one lifetime, and not many lifetimes. I call the gap to the first written account of the New Testament “the memory gap”, because in this case the accuracy of the message is dependent on the accuracy of the messenger’s memory.

The memory gap

The New Testament was written by the apostles and their associates who were eyewitnesses to the events they described.  An apostle had accompanied Jesus Christ during His 3-year ministry (from His baptism to His ascension) and had been with the other apostles when Christ was resurrected (Acts 1:21-22). So they knew Jesus very well. This means they had accurate source of the information.

The memory gap for the gospels is 30-55 years. Mark, Matthew and Luke were probably written in the AD 60s, and John about AD 85. Some skeptics claim that, even with eyewitnesses, memory isn’t trustworthy over that period of time and that all kinds of things can contaminate the message. But the accuracy of the New testament message is enhanced by the fact that:
– there were multiple witnesses. According to the Old Testament, there must be at least two witnesses to establish the truth in a court case (Dt. 17:6; 19:15). For example, the accounts of four separate witnesses are given in the gospels (Matthew, Mark. Luke and John).
– there were 12 apostles who could oversee (control) the accuracy of the message. In this was there was corporate control of the message.
– When it’s all you’ve got, memory works well. For example, children have good memories for stories and the words and tunes of songs.
– Memory works well if you have a stake in what took place. The apostles had a stake in the gospel message because they had given up everything else to follow Jesus and most of them were martyred for their Christian faith.
– Corporate repetition is important for retaining stories and memories. The Christian message was repeated at weekly church gatherings.

It seems as though the message in the gospels was put in writing when the eyewitnesses were near the end of their lives. This enabled an accurate record to be passed on to subsequent generations. In a eulogy children recollect events that occurred in their family up to 50 years earlier. When they do this, the gist of their accounts will be the same, although they will recollect different details. Likewise, the gospels have the same core message, but each writer records different details. Most alleged contradictions in the gospels are just minor variations in the account. One eyewitness will include a piece of information, while another one will leave it out. If the accounts were identical, then there could have been collusion or plagiarism.

As Paul was in Jerusalem at the time of the crucifixion, he knew what had happened. So when he was writing letters between 50 and 66 AD (20 to 26 years later), he knew what he was writing about. Paul was probably converted a few years after the resurrection. He summarized the gospel as “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance; Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4NIV). He received this message orally from other apostles (Gal. 1:18-19) and passed it on to others. That’s an example of oral communication.

Oral transmission was done very carefully in ancient times. For example, Paul commended the Corinthians “for following the teachings I passed on to you” (1 Cor. 11:2NLT). These teachings were prescribed standards for Christian living.

The copy gap

The Bible is like a library (or anthology) – it’s a collection of books written by different authors. The text of each book was originally written on a manuscript (written be hand) called an “autograph”, which in the case of the Bible would have been a scroll. The memory gap is the period of time between the writing of the autograph and the events described in the autograph.

We don’t have the autograph (original manuscript) of most ancient documents. Instead we have copies that were made at a later time. Textural critics use the available copies to reconstruct the original autograph. I will refer to the time gap between a copy and the autograph, as the “copy gap”. Obviously, other things being equal, a longer copy gap provides more opportunity for copy errors to accumulate in the manuscript.

Ancient texts were written on papyrus scrolls which may have had a useful life of about 100 years (and up to 500 years in dry climates). However, some papyrus codices (books) from the third century AD survive today (such as the Chester Beatty Papyri written about AD 200). Between the late 3rd century and the 5th century AD, papyrus scrolls and codices were replaced by parchment pages in a codex (book). Parchment (or vellum; made from animal skins) was more durable and could have a lifetime of about 1,000 years. For example, marginal notes in the Codex Sinaiticus indicate that it was still being used by scholars about 300 years after it was written.

codex-vaticanus-2-400pxAccording to classical scholars, the oldest surviving complete copies of single New Testament books were written around AD 200, and the oldest surviving (nearly) complete copy of the New Testament, was written about AD 350 (see below). And the oldest surviving fragments of manuscripts of the New Testament were written in the second century AD (such as the John Rylands Papyrus written about AD 125). The fragments and books could be 1st and 2nd generation copies of the autograph, while the whole New Testament (copied in the mid 4th century AD) could be a 2nd or 3rd generation copy of the autographs. It should be understood that “complete manuscript” when used by a textual critic does not necessarily mean 100% of it has survived. “Complete” is a technical term meaning that the manuscript has the beginning and end of the book in question. For example, a “complete copy of John” would be required to have John 1:1 and John 21:25 and substantial portions of those verses between.

It’s instructive to look at the “copy gap” (between the original autograph and the oldest complete manuscript) for other historical documents. The copy gap is about:
– 1,400 years for the Histories of Herodotus (written in the 5th century BC),
– 800 years for the works of Josephus in their original language of Greek (written about AD 90),
– 1,000 years for the Annals of Tacitus (written about AD 115),
– 750 years for the letters of Pliny the Younger (written AD 112),
– 700 years for the “The Twelve Caesars” by Suetonius (written AD 120).
It has been stated that the copy gap (for the oldest complete manuscript) for most non-biblical classical sources is about 700-1400 years.

On the other hand, for the New Testament, the copy gap is about 300 years – Codex Vaticanus was written in about 325-350 AD and Codex Sinaiticus in about 330-360 AD. So the gap is significantly shorter for the New Testament. A longer gap means more copies of copies, which means more potential for copy errors to appear in the text. So the version of the New Testament we have today should be a more accurate copy of the original than is the case for most other ancient historical documents.

The scholar Sir Frederic Kenyon concluded, “The interval then between the data of original composition and the earliest extant (complete) evidence becomes so small to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scripture have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.”

Conclusion

An investigation of the gaps between the events described in the New Testament and their communication to us today shows that as the memory gap (from an event to the original written account) is less than one generation and the copy gap (from the original written account to the oldest complete manuscript available today) is significantly less than for other ancient documents, we can trust the historical accuracy of the New Testament.

Appendix: Dating the New Testament

We can infer that most of the NT was written before AD 70, because there is no mention of the invasion of Jerusalem by the Romans and the destruction of the Jewish temple. This event was prophesied in Matthew, Mark and Luke. So these gospels were written before AD 70.

Also, the martyrdoms of James in 62 AD, Paul in 64 AD, and Peter in 65 AD, which would have had a significant impact on the Christian community aren’t mentioned in the New Testament. So Acts was written before 64 AD, and Luke was written before Acts (Acts 1:1-2). This is consistent with Paul quoting from Luke in 1 Timothy (Lk. 10:7; 1 Tim. 5:18).

Most scholars agree that John was written after Matthew, Mark and Luke because it seems to build on and supplement these. The fact that the destruction of Jerusalem is not mentioned in John may be because the book was written 15-20 years later, when the shock had worn off. Also, church fathers thought that John wrote Revelation in about AD 95 (during Domitian’s reign over the Roman Empire).

Written, January 2017

Also see: Is the New Testament reliable?
Can we trust our Bibles? How the Bible came to us.


Extra-biblical evidence of Jesus

jigsaw-3-400px

jigsaw-3-400pxHave you ever worked on a giant jigsaw puzzle? What if some of the pieces are missing? How about piecing together the 20,000 Dead Sea Scroll fragments! Historians piece together pictures of what life was like in days gone by. They also look for patterns – what has remained the same, what has changed, and why. In their investigations, historians follow a process of historical inquiry – they ask questions, form opinions and theories, locate and analyze sources, and use evidence from these sources to develop an informed explanation about the past.

Most of what is known of the ancient world comes from written accounts by ancient historians. But these only record a sample of human events and only a few of these documents have survived. Few people could write such histories as illiteracy was widespread in ancient times. And the reliability of the surviving accounts needs to be considered.

According to Christian history, Jesus lived in Palestine about 5 BC to 33 AD. The gospels record His birth, teaching, death, burial and resurrection. But all historians are biased and selective. Christians are biased towards believing that Jesus existed as a historical person, whereas non-Christians can be biased towards doubting the existence of Jesus. Could the story of Jesus be just a Christian myth or conspiracy and He doesn’t exist outside the Bible or outside early church history? By the way, almost no early ancient historian believes this. But how robust is the historical evidence about Jesus? How confident are we that Jesus lived in history?

Jesus was a Jew (a minor race) who lived in Galilee, which was a part of Palestine (not the capital, Jerusalem), which was an outpost of the Roman Empire (a tiny part of a vast empire). He was a long way away from the local center of power and from Rome (the capital of the empire). So the fact that we can find any written record of Jesus outside the New Testament is significant. Based on this, the best place to look for extra-biblical (outside the Bible) evidence of Jesus is in ancient Roman and Jewish literature.

Roman literature

In His work “Lives of the twelve Caesars” (AD 120, about 85 years after Christ’s death), the Roman historian Suetonius (AD 69 – AD 122) says,
He (Claudius) expelled the Jews from Rome, on account of the riots in which they were constantly indulging, at the instigation of Chrestus” (Book 5, Life of Claudius 25.4).
Claudius was the Emperor of Rome in AD 41-54. “Chrestus” may be a misspelling of Christ (this is debated by classical scholars). If Chrestus refers to Christ, the riots were about Him, rather than led by Him. Alternatively, it has been suggested that Suetonius misunderstood conflicts between Jews and Christians over “the Christ” as a conflict involving a person named Chrestus (a common slave name). This passage may refer to the expulsion of Jews from Rome in AD 49 mentioned in Acts 18:2. Or, Chrestus could have been an agitator in Rome. As the meaning of this passage is inconclusive, it’s debatable whether it refers to Jesus Christ or not.

Now we move to an earlier reference that is more conclusive. In his “Annals” (AD 115-117, about 80 years after Christ’s death), the Roman historian Tacitus (AD 56 – AD 120) says,
They (Christians) got their name from Christ, who was executed by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius. That checked the pernicious superstition (Christianity) for a short time, but it broke out afresh not only in Judea, where the plague first arose, but in Rome itself, where all horrible and shameful things in the world collect and find a home” (15, 44).
The most recent complete copy of the Annals was copied in the 11th century AD (1,000 years after it was written). The Annals is a history of the Roman Empire from the reign of Tiberius to that of Nero (AD 14–68). The context of this passage is the 6-day fire that burned much of Rome in July 64 AD. The integrity of the passage isn’t disputed by classical scholars. It indicates the manner and time period of Christ’s death. Emperor Nero (37-68 AD) accused the Christians of starting the fire and persecuted them. This means that the Christians in Rome must have been a well-known group, with many members, and with good internal organization. Paul Barnett suggested that as a former consul in Rome, Tacitus would have had access to official archives and may have seen Pilate’s report to Tiberius about the execution of Jesus and others in Judea in AD 33.

We now move from Rome to Bithynia in Asia Minor (now Turkey). Pliny the Younger was the Roman governor of Pontus/Bithynia in 111-113 AD. We have a whole set of exchanges of his letters with the emperor Trajan on a variety of administrative political matters. Letters 10, 96-97 describe his encounter with Christianity (See Appendix A and B), where the emperor advises that Christians be punished unless they denounce Christianity by worshipping Roman gods.

Pliny said that Christians:
– Wouldn’t offer prayer with incense and wine to images of the Emperor and Roman gods.
– Wouldn’t offer sacrificial animals at temples to the Emperor and Roman gods.
– Wouldn’t curse Christ.
– Met on a fixed day before dawn and sang a hymn to Christ as to a god (worship).
– Pledged not to commit any crimes such as fraud, theft, or adultery, or be dishonest or untrustworthy.
– Assembled together to eat ordinary food (communal meal).
– Practiced depraved, excessive superstition. “Superstition” was what the Romans called religions they didn’t like.
Trajan supported Pliny’s approach, provided he acted justly and not on the basis of rumor.

Pliny’s letter supports the existence of the early Christian Church (80 years after Christ’s death) and its rapid growth and mentions aspects of its belief system. It shows that the movement had spread from Jerusalem into Asia Minor and to Rome. And it was widespread in Turkey at that time. Clearly the movement was named after its founder, Christ. This meant that Jesus existed. Because if Jesus didn’t exist, then Christianity wouldn’t exist. Furthermore, Christians worshipped Christ “as to a god”. Clearly Pliny said this because Christ was a human being, unlike their Roman gods. Also, it states that Christians died for their faith (Pliny executed Christians who refused to renounce their faith), which is unlikely to have happened if Jesus was only a mythical figure that had not existed. So this passage shows the impact of Jesus about 80 years after His death.

Jewish literature

Josephus (37 – 100 AD) is the best known Jewish historian. He was born in Jerusalem and went to Rome in 71 AD where he wrote his histories under Roman patronage. Jesus Christ is mentioned twice in his “Antiquities of the Jews” (a history of Israel from Genesis to the first century AD) published around 93 AD (about 60 years after the death of Jesus). The oldest manuscripts of the works of Josephus in their original language of Greek date to the tenth and eleventh centuries (800 years after it was written).

Book 20, Chapter 9, 1 of the “Antiquities of the Jews” says,
he (Ananus the high priest) assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned”.
This event is dated at 62 AD. The Bible also says that James was the brother of Jesus (Gal. 1:19). According to Dr. Chris Forbes (Senior Lecturer in Ancient History at Macquarie University), no historian suggests that this passage is forged or not authentic. This passage assumes you already know about Jesus, which is true because Josephus has already mentioned him two books earlier (see below).

The exact wording of Book 18, 63-64 of the “Antiquities of the Jews” is disputed as it comes down to us only through Christians. It has probably been edited by a Christian scribe (whose annotations have been added to the text) and it’s fairly easy to decide which parts were written by Josephus and by the scribe. Here is a likely wording of what Josephus wrote:
Now, there was about this time (a source of further trouble) Jesus, for he was a doer of surprising works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure (men who welcome strange things). He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him (cease to cause trouble). And the tribe of Christians, so named for him are not extinct to this day” (D. Bock, 2016)

The context of this passage is the political disturbances that the Roman rulers dealt with during this period. It’s clear from what Josephus wrote that:
– Jesus lived during the time of Pilate.
– Jesus had a reputation for doing unusual works (miracles).
– The Jewish leadership pressured Pilate to condemn Jesus to the cross.
– Jesus died by crucifixion.
– Christianity and Christians came out of Christ’s ministry.

Does any tampering with a passage like this make it inadmissible? No, because historians always face incomplete and inconclusive evidence. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle with lots of pieces missing! In this case, the consensus is that there is a historical nucleus written by Josephus, but it was edited by a Christian scribe.

According to Justin Martyr (Apology 69.7; AD 160), the Jewish view of Jesus was “They said it (Christ’s miracles) was a display of magic art, for they even dared to say that he was a magician and a deceiver of the people” (D. Bock, 2016). So the Jews acknowledged the existence of Jesus and explained His unusual ministry by saying He was a “magician”, “deceiver” and a “false prophet”. In this context a “magician” was an appeal to spiritual forces, and not to an entertainer. Because they tried to explain the source of His power, they accepted Christ’s miracles. This is consistent with the account in the gospels where the Jews say that Jesus:
– was “subverting our nation” (Lk. 23:2).
– “stirs up the people all over Judea by His teaching” (Lk. 23:5).
– was “inciting the people to rebellion” (Lk. 23:14).
– “It is by the prince of demons that He drives out demons” (Mt. 9:34; 12:24).
– was “called Beelzebul (Satan or the prince of demons)” (Mt. 10:25). Here He was accused of being a deceiver.
Also, the Israelites were told in the Pentateuch that a prophet that urged them to follow other gods “must be put to death for inciting rebellion against the Lord your God” (Dt. 13:1-5). So false prophets were to be put to death (Dt. 18:20-22). Furthermore, during Christ’s religious trial, the high priest Caiaphas accused Him of blaspheme, which was punishable by death under the law of Moses (Lev. 24:16; Mt. 26:65-66).

Dead Sea scrolls

Is Jesus mentioned in the Dead Sea scrolls (DSS)?  Scholars have dated the scrolls from approximately 200 BC to 70 AD (the date of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans). According to scholars most of the scrolls were written before Christ’s birth and so we wouldn’t expect Jesus to be mentioned in them. That’s why most scholars have dismissed any connection between the community that hid the scrolls in caves at Qumran about 2,000 years ago and the earliest followers of Jesus. Therefore, they assume that Jesus isn’t mentioned in the Dead Sea scrolls. And this preconceived idea may influence how they translate the text of some of the scrolls.

It has been suggested that words such as “dove”, “nail”, “cross” and “mourning” in DSS fragment “4Q451” may refer to Jesus. And “11QT54” says that a person who is a “glutton and drunkard” and a traitor is to be crucified. But it is debatable as to whether these refer to Jesus or not.

Discussion

Skeptics are biased towards doubting the existence of Jesus. Because the contents of these documents differ from their bias, they usually doubt the authenticity of these passages. But if we discard so many different passages, then we are in effect saying that any ancient document is unreliable and that we know very little about ancient history.

Because of the temporal spread of these documents, it’s unlikely that all the statements about Jesus were interpolated into the original texts. Together with the consistency between these passages, this is strong evidence of the existence of Jesus. The documents stated that:
– Jesus lived in Judea/Palestine.
– Jesus was a wise man and a teacher.
– Jesus did “surprising works” (miracles) which the Jews said was magic.
– Jesus was Jewish and had a brother called James.
– James (who was martyred in AD 62) was a contemporary of Josephus.
– Some people said Jesus was the Christ (that is, the Jewish Messiah).
– Jesus was accused by the Jews.
– Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate, during the reign of Tiberius.
– Jesus had followers (called Christians) who were persecuted for their faith in Christ.
– Early Christians believed Jesus was GOD.
– Early Christians upheld a high moral code.
– Early Christians met regularly to worship Jesus.
– Early Christians were persecuted and some were martyred.
– Christians were named after Christ.
– Within 85 years, Christianity spread from Judea to Asia Minor and Rome and the Christians in Rome were well-known, with many members, and with good internal organization.

So there is significant evidence outside the Bible for the existence of Jesus. This means that the story of Jesus isn’t a Christian myth or conspiracy. By the way, the mere existence of someone in history is (often) easily established on the basis of small textual samples (sometimes even a single name in a list or sentence). So, we are confident that Jesus lived in history. These historical sources rule out the option that the story of Jesus was a fabrication (it was made up).

There are no “contemporary” accounts of Jesus. But the fact is, almost no ancient historical figure has contemporary accounts of their existence, including Alexander the Great, and we don’t see anyone questioning his existence.

It’s also instructive to look at the “copy gap” (between the original autograph and the oldest manuscript) for these historical documents. For the works of Josephus in their original language of Greek, the copy gap was about 800 years and for the Annals of Tacitus it was about 1,000 years. On the other hand, for the New Testament, the copy gap was about 300 years – Codex Vaticanus was copied in 300-325 AD and Codex Sinaiticus in 330-360 AD. So the gap is significantly shorter for the New Testament. A longer gap means more copies of copies, which means more potential for copy errors to appear in the text. So the version of the New Testament we have today should be a more accurate copy of the original than is the case for these other Roman and Jewish historical documents.

Conclusion

Extracts from ancient Roman and Jewish extrabiblical literature confirm that there is a historical basis for the existence of Jesus outside the Bible and outside early church history. So the evidence that Jesus existed is conclusive. Furthermore, these independent extrabiblical sources are consistent with the biography of Jesus given in the gospels of the Bible. This means that the story of Jesus isn’t a Christian myth or conspiracy. And we are confident that the Jesus described in the Bible lived in history.

Appendix A: Pliny’s letter (AD 111)

“It is my rule, Your Majesty, to report to you anything that worries me, for I know well that you are best able to speed my hesitation or instruct me in my ignorance. I have never in the past been present at the investigations into Christians, and so I am at a loss to know the nature and extent of the normal questions and punishments.

I have also been seriously perplexed whether age should make some difference, or whether the very young should be treated in exactly the same way as the more mature. Should the penitent be pardoned, or should no mercy be shown a man who has recanted if he has really been a Christian? Should the mere name be reason enough for punishment however free from crime a man may be, or should only the sins and crimes that attend the name be punished?

Till I hear from you, I have adopted the following course towards those who have been brought before me as Christians. First, I have asked them if they were Christians. If they confessed that they were, I repeated, my question a second and a third time, accompanying it with threats of punishment. If they still persisted in their statements, I ordered them to be taken out (executed). For I was in no doubt that, whatever it was to which they were confessing, they had merited some punishment by their stubbornness and unbending obstinacy. There were others possessed by similar madness, but these I detailed to be sent to Rome, for they were Roman citizens.

Soon, as I investigated the matter, types began to multiply as so often happens, and charges started to spread. An anonymous notebook was presented with many names in it. Those who denied that they were or ever had been Christians I thought should be released, provided that they called on the gods in my presence, and offered incense and wine to your statue (which I had expressly brought in with the images of the gods for that very purpose), and, above all, if they renounced Christ, which no true Christian, I am told, can be made to do. Others informed against admitted that they were Christians but later denied it; they had been, but had given up, some three years past, some further back and one person as long as 25 years ago. All of them reverenced your statue and the images of the gods, and renounced Christ.

They stated that the sum total of their fault or error was as follows. On a fixed day they used to assemble before dawn to sing an antiphonal hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath not for any criminal purpose, but to commit no fraud, no robbery or adultery, to bear no false witness, and not to deny any debt when asked to pay up. After this it was their custom to separate and to reassemble to eat a communion meal, all together and quite harmless. They claimed that they had stopped even that after my edict in which I followed your commands in banning society meetings. So I felt it all the more necessary to find out the truth under torture from two slave girls whom they called Deaconesses. But I found nothing but a depraved and groundless superstition.

So I postponed my inquiry to consult you. The matter seemed worth your attention, especially since the number of those slipping is great. Many people of all ages and classes and of both sexes are now being enticed into mortal peril and will be in the future. The superstition has spread like the plague, not only in the cities but in the villages and the countryside as well. I feel it must be stopped and checked. It is true that everyone is agreed that temples once deserted are now being attended once again, and that sacred ceremonies once neglected are again being performed. Victims for sacrifice are everywhere on sale, for which only an odd buyer could be found a short while ago. All this goes to show how many men could be saved if there is room for repentance.”

Appendix B: Emperor Trajan’s reply

“You have acted quite properly, Pliny, in examining the cases of those Christians brought before you. Nothing definite can be laid down as a general rule. They should not be hunted out. If accusations are made and they are found guilty, they must be punished.

But remember that a man may expect pardon from repentance if he denies that he is a Christian, and proves this to your satisfaction, that is by worshiping our gods, however much you may have suspected him in the past. Anonymous lists should have no part in any charge made. That is thoroughly bad practice and not in accordance with the spirit of the age.”

Written, January 2017

Also see: Jesus:history or myth?


Whatever happens

2016-race-400px

2016-race-400pxBecause of favorable tail winds, the recent Sydney to Hobart yacht race was won in record time. The most disastrous race was in 1998, when a severe storm developed near Eden, with the loss of six lives and five yachts and 55 other sailors had to be airlifted from their yachts by rescue helicopter. Only 38% of the yachts finished the race in 1998. Meteorological observations showed that mean wind speeds reached 55 knots (100 km/hr; 63 mph), with frequent gusts to 75 knots (140 km/hr; 86 mph). And wave heights were 5-8 meters (16-26 ft), with individual waves up to 15 meters (49 ft). So the weather is a major factor influencing the progress of the fleet. Sometimes it helps and other times it hinders.

Our journey of life is like this yacht race – it’s made up of good times and difficult times. It’s always changing. And sometimes things can be out of our control. But it’s good to know that according to the Bible, whatever happens, God is always in control.

1998-race-book-3-400pxGod’s promise

The year 2017 begins today. What will this year bring in your journey of life? Like the life of Abraham in the Bible, there will be ups and downs. Good times and difficult times. But whatever happens is no surprise to God, because He has promised:

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28NIV).

The context of this verse is “our present suffering” (Rom. 8:18). Because hope sustains believers when they suffer (v. 22-25), they can wait patiently for their ultimate redemption (v.25). Two reasons are given for waiting patiently. First, the Holy Spirit helps them when they pray (v.26-27). And, second they can be confident that God works in all the circumstances of their lives to accomplish His good purpose for them (v.28). Whatever God allows to come into our lives is designed to assist our growth into the image of Christ (v.29) and bring us to final glory (v.30). This means that in a coming day we will be free from sin and will have glorified bodies like Christ’s. So, our daily lives aren’t controlled by impersonal forces such as chance, luck or fate, but by our loving God. Instead, we know that God manages the circumstances and events of our lives toward a proper end. The “things” that happen to us might not be good in themselves, but God uses every event for our ultimate good. All hardships, misfortunes, suffering and setbacks contribute to the good. He brings good out of “all things”. So, God is at work on our behalf (v.28-30). He is sovereign over all the affairs of life.

This doesn’t mean that everything will turn out OK in our lives. The reason for this is that the object of this promise is God’s eternal purpose, not just our temporal affairs. For example, Joseph went through lots of suffering, but acknowledged that God allowed it (Gen. 45:5-8), and God used it for good within his lifetime (Gen. 50:19-20).

As well as bringing ultimate good out of every event in our lives, God controls the timing of our lives.

God’s timing

The Bible says that Jesus was born at a time that was set by God:
“But when the set time had fully come, God sent His Son (Jesus), born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship” (Gal. 4:4-5).
A father in the Roman Empire marked a specific time when his child became an adult. Likewise, God the Father marked a time when He sent His Son into the world. God had a precise time for Christ to be born (Daniel 9:24-27). He came precisely at the moment God designed from eternity. This is the time when God began to put to an end to the dispensation of the law by sending His Son to fulfill all the demands of the law.

Likewise, for us. We were born at a time set by God. David wrote: “all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (Ps. 139:16). David’s span of life and its events were sovereignly determined. Our span of life and its events are also sovereignly determined. This gives meaning to our life. Because we are living when God planned for us to live, it’s the right time for us.

But, as well as bringing ultimate good out of every event in our lives, and controlling the timing of our lives, God meets all our needs.

God’s provision

Because David was aware of God’s promises, timing and provision, he wrote Psalm 23 (NLT).

The Lord (God) is my shepherd;
I have all that I need.
He lets me rest in green meadows;
he leads me beside peaceful streams.
He renews my strength.
He guides me along right paths,
bringing honor to his name.
Even when I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will not be afraid,
for you are close beside me.
Your rod and your staff
protect and comfort me.
You prepare a feast for me
in the presence of my enemies.
You honor me by anointing my head with oil.
My cup overflows with blessings.
Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me
all the days of my life,
and I will live in the house of the Lord
forever.

With the assurance of God’s provision (v.1), rest (v.2), strength (v.3), guidance (v.3), protection (v.4), comfort (v.4), honor (v.5), goodness (v.6 and love (v.6), what more could David want? If we trust in God through Christ, like David we can experience God’s shepherd care. After all, Jesus said He was “the good shepherd” (Jn. 10:11, 14-15).  He is “good” because He died in order to save His sheep (followers). In this way, God met the needs of true Christians.

Conclusion

We have seen that God uses every event in our lives for our ultimate good, controls the timing of our lives, and meets all our needs. So whatever happens in 2017, let’s remember that God is always in control. And He cares for us.

Written, January 2017