Posts Tagged ‘history’

Book Plunge: Why Church History Matters

September 29, 2014

What do I think of Robert Rea’s book? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

Let’s be blunt. For many of us, history isn’t always the most exciting topic, which is quite really a shame since it impacts our lives so much. If we’re Christians, we love the Bible and we think it’s important to know what happened in it, but aside from perhaps something like the Reformation, many of us don’t know what happened in church history. Go to your average church and ask the people who know their Bibles well to name a single early church father. Most likely, you’ll get blank stares and some might say “Martin Luther? John Calvin? John Wesley?”

It’s a shame that those of us who have such a great love of Scripture so often do not bother to understand how our own history that went before us turned out. We act as if Jesus came and then perhaps something like the Reformation happened and lo and behold, we are here now and now we must live our lives.

Part of this is the individualism in our culture that places each of us in our own little vacuum of existence where what went before us doesn’t matter and what’s happening outside of us doesn’t really matter. It is our personal universe that is of the supreme importance. What difference can the Donatist controversy make? How can I be repeating the errors of the Gnostics today, whoever they were? Why should I care about those old arguments Thomas Aquinas put forward for God? Do I really need to care about how John Chrysostom interpreted Scripture?

Rea tells us that in fact church history does matter and if we are students of Scripture, we should be students of that history. We should be learning about the great men and women who came before us and realize that the lessons we learn from them in the past can be highly influential in our day and age and keep us from repeating their errors and help us to repeat their successes.

C.S. Lewis years ago gave the advice to read old books because when you do, you read another time and place that critiques yours and can see blind spots in your position that you do not see because of the unspoken assumptions you accept in your culture. Meanwhile, you too can see blind spots in the work that you are reading that they would miss for the same reasons.

In fact, the author suggests we read outside of the circle of our own faith tradition, our own time, our own location, and our own culture. In doing so, we will interact with areas we would never have considered before. If we are wrong, we can correct our view. If we are right, we are still the better for getting to see why others think differently.

The first part of the book is about tradition. How is it understood? The reality is Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox (By orthodox, unless stated other wise, I mean branches of the church such as Eastern Orthodox) all place some value on tradition. Some place it on the same level as Scripture. Some don’t, but they see it as important to consider and insofar as it agrees with the Scripture, should be accepted. Bible-Focused Christians, as Rea prefers to call them regardless of where they land on the church spectrum, would all tend to accept statements like the Nicene Creed for instance.

Regardless of your position, tradition should not be ignored. Even if you think it is wrong in a certain place, it is helpful to learn how it is that that tradition came about, why it was held to in its day, and what the reasons were for believing in it. It would not be as if people just woke up one day and said “Hey! Let’s believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary!” There would be reasons for holding to it, rightly or wrongly, and a context that it was discussed in.

This part also includes a little bit about church history and how we got to where we are. As stated earlier, too many of us really have no idea even though we claim to be Bible-focused. This is interesting in an age where many of us like sites like ancestry.com where we want to see where our families came from, and there is no wrong in doing so of course, but our very Christian faith does not get the same treatment.

The second part is about the way we interact with the past. Can you form friendships as it were with those who went before. I am thinking of a debate I had with an atheist not too long ago where I stated that we do have the works that we can read by the past and we should critique them today and learn from them today. We can interact with the philosophers and others who went before us rather than leave reality up to only people today who happen to get a voice just because they’re conveniently alive at the time. There is a well of wisdom before us and we need to drink from it.

This includes finding mentors and accountability partners. No. You can’t communicate with them the same way you would with a friend, but you can still learn from them and let their lives be a blessing to you. I think of Aquinas for instance whose arguments I use today. When properly understood, they are incredibly powerful in our day and age. Too often, we have dismissed ideas just because they are old. Some ideas will stand the test of time and we will find we have just reinvented the wheel when we are done if we ignore them.

Finally, we have a section on how this affects us today. Can we bring the past into the present? What this deals with is how to interpret Scripture, such as by learning from the methodologies used in the past to interpret Scripture, and also how learning history affects our practices of worship and compassion and missionary service.

I will say I was a bit disappointed that despite being academic, when it came to this last section, nothing was really said about apologetic approaches. It would have been good to see how those of us who are in the apologetics ministry could look to the past for valuable mentors and friends in the field. Other important areas were mentioned, but this one was left out. I hope a future edition will include that as well as we can learn from great defenders of the faith in the past such as Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas.

Still, this is a recommended read and got me thinking about the importance more of learning from the past and learning how to interpret Scripture as they did. You won’t find out much about church history per se, but you will find out much about why you should find out about it.

In Christ,

Nick Peters

Book Plunge: The Myth of Christian Beginnings

July 1, 2014

What do I think of Robert Wilken’s book? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

Recently someone suggested on Facebook a book called “The Christians as the Romans Saw Them.” Naturally, seeing a book mentioned like that, I went straight to the library web site. I also saw listed “The Myth of Christian Beginnings” which seemed like a curious title so I went and ordered that as well.

This is an odd book in how it reads. One gets catapulted early on into the 4th century to read about the history that Eusebius wrote. This was the first official history of the church and Wilken says that it is in fact not a history at all. It is because Wilken says Eusebius treats all dissent from the traditional path as heresy and therefore, there is not any real opposition the way we’d think. There is not progress so much as just a straight line as the church remains faithful to the teaching of the apostles.

Wilken says that this has been done throughout church history. When the Reformation started, the Reformers claimed that the Catholic Church had moved away from the traditions and they wanted to remain true to the teaching of the apostles. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church wanted the reformers to show that they had a teaching that was with the apostles. They were insistent that they were holding on to the tradition of the apostles. It was the Reformers who were the innovators.

As I’ve said often, in the ancient world, novelty was viewed with suspicion. In fact, in many ways, it still is. Novelty in technology can be seen as a good thing, but when it comes to that which is traditional, we can often just as much view it with suspicion. This is especially so in the church. How often do we hear “We’ve always done it that way!”?

When N.T. Wright started his teaching on justification, someone I knew sent me a video of Al Mohler speaking on the topic with some other leaders. One of them gave a line that has always stuck with me where he said “N.T. Wright may think that he’s found something new in the Scriptures, but he’s going against the tradition!”

For those of us who are Protestants, isn’t that what the Reformation was about? Wasn’t it saying we were holding on to traditions that didn’t come from the apostles?

The downside with Wilken’s book is that it doesn’t really argue the case the way that I’d think. It more just asserts with just-so stories. To be fair, this was written in 1971 so there has been more research done since then, such as early Christian creeds being shown more often. Wilken instead gives a kind of just-so story about two people going separate ways and starting churches and having radically divergent paths of what a Christian should be.

The problem is that these ideas are more just asserted. Evidence is not given. Wilken says that there was no Christian beginning. There was never a pure golden age. Now of course, I don’t think the apostles walked in lock-step on everything, but they were certainly unified on several matters and the oral tradition would have made sure that these teachings were preserved. Now of course, it could be the case that I am mistaken in that, but Wilken does not make the case that I am not or that his view is correct.

Of course, I do think some doctrines have had their understanding focused more over time. I would not say Christ taught the Trinity for instance, but rather left the seeds of the doctrine for us to work out, and we did. That is the role of a disciple after all. The disciple gets the student started on the path of learning and the student is to go and work out the rest of the way how he is to learn.

Still, Wilken’s book does provide a good service. It will get us looking at history and wanting to make sure we are being true to history. While I do think there was an apostolic teaching that was agreed to by all, that too must not be assumed and we must be willing to look at the evidence. Church history really does matter to those of us who are Christians. To know where we are today, we need to know where we came from.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Why Mythicism Should Not Be Taken Seriously

June 24, 2014

Should Christ-mythicism really be treated as a respectable position? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

Many of my friends in this field have already taken the official stance that they do not debate people who claim Jesus never even existed. I’m not one of them. I will still debate mythicism, but that is because these people need to be answered if not for them, for those who are watching. That more and more people are coming to this position shows that it is a problem.

Note they’re not coming to the position because they’re doing good research! On the contrary! They’re coming to the position because of poor research! Their main authorities on people on YouTube and people who write blogs and those people they’re interacting with are not reading scholarly material. Some of you could say that I am not a scholar. You are certainly right! What you will find here by contrast to mythicist works is a constant interaction with scholarship. On the podcast, you will hear interviews with Christian scholars who have done the hard work. For now, consider this place a conduit to get the scholarly information. I still urge you to always be open to checking everything that I say.

Yet mythicism is a position that has come about because of the age of the internet where people might read much, but they will study little. These people will accept just without any research the claims of someone on the internet the way the Christians they condemn will accept the claims of Scripture or their minister. Now of course I want you to accept the claims of Scripture, but I want you to also research and test those claims using the best information on both sides.

To show an example of what I am talking about, consider a group shown to me recently of Mythicists in Milwaukee. In a debate with them on the Unbelievable? group, I was told that they had an exposing quote to show me. In fact, the quote supposedly came from an early church father. Who was this father?

Celsus.

celsusjesusmyth

Some readers who have not looked at this issue might wonder what the problem is.

To begin with, Celsus was NOT a church father. In fact, he was an opponent of the early church. To say a statement like him is exposing is like saying a statement from Ken Ham that evolutionary theory is not true is exposing on evolutionary theory or that a statement from Richard Dawkins on why creationism is false is exposing on creationism.

That’s the first mistake there. Anyone who had done five minutes of research would know Celsus was not a church father. Just for the heck of it, I even did a Google search and the descriptions of the web pages in fact told me that Celsus was an opponent of Christianity.

It is hard to say how it could get worse, but it does. Celsus was an opponent of Christianity but he never once denied that Jesus existed. In fact, no early opponent of Christianity ever made such a claim.

And it gets worse from there! Not only did Celsus hold that Jesus existed, he also agreed that Jesus did many works considered miracles. He just attributed it to sorcery that Jesus learned in Egypt.

Yet the case gets even worse for these people! The arguments we were given amounted to the quotes coming from “Against Origen.” Anyone who knows this field knows we don’t have Celsus’s words themselves. We only know what he said because Origen quoted it profusely!

Is there more? Yes there is! The quote itself is not right! Here is what it really says.

“The Jew continues his address to those of his countrymen who are converts, as follows: Come now, let us grant to you that the prediction was actually uttered. Yet how many others are there who practise such juggling tricks, in order to deceive their simple hearers, and who make gain by their deception?— as was the case, they say, with Zamolxis in Scythia, the slave of Pythagoras; and with Pythagoras himself in Italy; and with Rhampsinitus in Egypt (the latter of whom, they say, played at dice with Demeter in Hades, and returned to the upper world with a golden napkin which he had received from her as a gift); and also with Orpheus among the Odrysians, and Protesilaus in Thessaly, and Hercules at Cape Tænarus, and Theseus. But the question is, whether any one who was really dead ever rose with a veritable body. Or do you imagine the statements of others not only to be myths, but to have the appearance of such, while you have discovered a becoming and credible termination to your drama in the voice from the cross, when he breathed his last, and in the earthquake and the darkness? That while alive he was of no assistance to himself, but that when dead he rose again, and showed the marks of his punishment, and how his hands were pierced with nails: who beheld this? A half-frantic woman, as you state, and some other one, perhaps, of those who were engaged in the same system of delusion, who had either dreamed so, owing to a peculiar state of mind, or under the influence of a wandering imagination had formed to himself an appearance according to his own wishes, which has been the case with numberless individuals; or, which is most probable, one who desired to impress others with this portent, and by such a falsehood to furnish an occasion to impostors like himself.”

See Chapter 55

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with paraphrasing at times, but if you claim something is a quote, you should make sure that it is a quote.

So what do we have here?

We have a group of mythicists saying that Celsus was a church father (He wasn’t) as if that bolsters their claim (It doesn’t) and that the book comes from a work called Against Origen (That doesn’t exist) and the quote itself is inaccurate!

When I say this position is not to be granted respect in the academic community, I mean it. No one who wants to consider themselves an academic should hold to such a view. The academic community does not take this seriously at all. The claims that are really popular on the internet are not at all discussed by academic scholars in the field.

And that’s not because these scholars are Christian! A great number of them in the field are not! It is because these claims are dead. They do not pass peer-review. They do not get serious treatment. You might as well talk about the Earth being flat or the holocaust never happening.

And if you think I’m making this stuff up about these people using these sources, I am not. Just look for yourself.

Acharya S. and Peter Joseph as sources? Where are the scholars in the field? You will not find them because scholars do not support this stuff!

Now some might think I am giving them undue attention. Sadly, one has to to expose this material, but let it be clear that this position should be treated like a joke. If you meet someone who holds a position on this, just laugh and ask “Do you really believe that?” Let it be the case that people are ashamed of holding to a stance like this one.

Now if you want to hold the position that Jesus existed but He was not the Son of God and/or never claimed to be or He was not the Messiah and/or never claimed to be and that He never did miracles even if it was believed that He did and that He never rose from the dead, then fine. I disagree with those positions, but you will find scholars who side with you on that one.

By all means, mythicists must be answered lest they continue spreading to those who do not do research, but when answering it, do not treat the position with any respect whatsoever. How you respond to the person can differ, but the position itself is not a serious one at all. Make it clear that those who hold to this position have zero respect in the scholarly and academic community.

We could end this by asking this position one question that we already know the answer to.

scholarship

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Sense and Goodness Without God Part 10

January 14, 2014

Why do I not buy Carrier’s “refutation” of the resurrection story? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

As we continue through Richard Carrier’s “Sense and Goodness Without God” we come to a favorite piece of mine. In this, Carrier compares the evidence for the crossing of the Rubicon by Caesar to that of the evidence for the resurrection.

Now to be sure, I am not making any claim about the quality of the evidence for Caesar crossing the Rubicon in 49 B.C. I am simply looking at Carrier’s argument to see if it holds up or not and I contend that it does not.

So what are the points? Carrier’s first is that this event is a physical necessity. Rome’s history would not go as it had without it. Yet is this the case? Caesar did have to move his troops into Italy of course, but did he have to cross the Rubicon? We can say that would be the most convenient way to do so, but it was not the only way that it could have happened.

Carrier says all that is needed to explain Christianity is a belief, but this is not the case. Of course one would need to believe in a resurrection, but what events would have to happen for there to be a belief in the resurrection?

First, you would need a historical Jesus, which Carrier does not accept

Second, you need to have it known that he died.

Third, you need something to explain that this death was not the end.

This isn’t even counting all the social factors that go into play with Christianity.

The next piece Carrier points to is physical evidence. To begin with, what kind of physical evidence does Carrier want to see? He really thinks the evidence for a crucified Jew in Palestine should be compared to that of a major event by Julius Caesar?

Well actually, we do have some physical evidence. We do in fact have documents. We have the Gospels, the Pauline Epistles, Acts, and of course the rest of the New Testament. We also have writings outside of the NT such as Tacitus, Josephus, Suetonius, etc.

We also have the claim that the tomb was empty, which would be a physical claim that could be checked, and the claim that one could talk to eyewitnesses who claimed to have seen the risen Jesus. Carrier also says it has been proven the Shroud of Turin is a forgery. Unfortunately, he does not say by who or when this was done. Perhaps he wants me to take it by faith.

Carrier also says we have unbiased or counterbiased corroboration for Caesar. Well not really. His enemies could attest to this in fact to show that Caesar was a threat. It is also interesting that Carrier says we have unbiased sources when he says his friends wrote about it. How are those unbiased?

Yet what does he expect for the resurrection? Obviously, if someone believes Jesus was raised, then they are going to be biased. Who will write a testimony saying Jesus was raised and still reject Christianity in Jesus’s day? (I say then because today, Pinchas Lapides is a Jew who holds that Jesus was raised but does not believe He was the Messiah.)

On the other hand, if someone writes against the resurrection, we can just as well say they are biased. The resurrection would focus on the claims Jesus made for Himself so you could not approach the subject or speak about it without some bias.

The fourth one is my favorite. In this, Carrier says the crossing of the Rubicon appears in almost every history of the age, and this is by the most prominent scholars. Who are these guys? Suetonius, Appian, Cassius Dio, and Plutarch.

What about the resurrection? It’s not mentioned until two to three centuries later. There’s also the point that the ones who wrote about the Rubicon were quite scholarly and show a wide range of reading and citation of sources, whereas the historians of Christianity in the first century did not.

Yes. Paul was definitely a slouch in scholarship. Only trained under the best of his time and his writing shows a great skill in Greco-Roman rhetoric and argumentation.

Also, the Gospels do cite eyewitnesses in their own way. For an example, in Mark’s Gospel, Peter is the first and last disciple mentioned. What’s the point of this? It shows it’s an inclusio account whereby Peter is thus known to be the source. Aspects like this can be found in “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses” by Richard Bauckham.

But what’s most interesting about this is the fact of every scholar of the age. Let’s use a site like this.

Here we find Suetonius was born in 71 A.D. At the start, this puts us at 120 years+. Let’s suppose for the sake of argument that Suetonius waits until he’s 30 to begin writing. That would mean this reliable account is 150+ years later.

Appian?

He was born in 95 A.D. That puts us at 144 years+. Let’s suppose he waited until the age of 30, and it’s more likely he waited until later. If we give 30, then that means he wrote 174+ years later.

Cassius Dio? He was born in 164. This puts at at 213 years+. He started writing the Roman Histories at the earliest in 211. That puts us at 260 years+.

Someone had said something about the accounts of the resurrection being two to three centuries later….

But strangely enough, Cassius Dio two to three centuries later is okay.

Plutarch would be the earliest being born in 46 A.D., but this puts us at 95 years+ and if he waits till thirty, well that’s 125 years+.

That means not ONE of these sources could have talked to an eyewitness of the event. Not one of them was a contemporary of Caesar either. Not one of them would have been a firsthand account.

And yet they’re all accepted.

And you know what? I have no problem with that. That’s the way ancient history is done, but when Carrier gives these names, he doesn’t tell the audience when these people lived and wrote. It’s a double-standard.

The final piece of evidence is that apparently, we have Caesar’s own words. Unfortunately, we have no such statement of “I crossed the Rubicon” or “I crossed the river” that I know of in relation to this event. So how do we have Caesar’s own words?

Carrier then says we don’t have any writings of Jesus. This is true. We also don’t have writings of Socrates. As is pointed out in “The Lost World of Scripture” most teachers did not write out their works. Instead, they left it to their disciples. Most teachers also did not care for writing their works since they feared their works could be misunderstood. For those interested in where to find information on this, see here and here.

Carrier also says the names of the Gospels were applied later and on questionable grounds. What were these grounds? Well he doesn’t tell us. Here you can listen to Tim McGrew answering this question and if one is interested in charges of forgery, go here.

Carrier also says Paul saw Jesus in a vision. Evidence of this given? None. Of course, if Jesus did not rise, it would have to be a vision, but what if He did rise? And further, did Paul really think He had just had a vision, or did he think that Jesus physically appeared to him?

In the end, I conclude that Carrier’s argument is just based on false assumptions all throughout and at times, not entirely honest.

We’ll wrap up on history next time.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Sense and Goodness Without God: Part 9

January 10, 2014

Can miracles work with the historical method? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

We’re going to return today to our look at Carrier’s Sense and Goodness Without God. This one will largely focus on history.

Carrier chooses to look at a number of miracles. The first is the rain of Marcus Aurelius. Let’s look at some statements.

Carrier says it is incredible that there would be Christians in the army, let alone an entire legion of them, but saying something is incredible is not the same as showing that it is. In fact, we do have testimony from church history of Christians in the army.

Let’s start with Eusebius.

8. This persecution began with the brethren in the army. But as if without sensibility, we were not eager to make the Deity favorable and propitious; and some, like atheists, thought that our affairs were unheeded and ungoverned; and thus we added one wickedness to another.
324
And those esteemed our shepherds, casting aside the bond of piety, were excited to conflicts with one another, and did nothing else than heap up strifes and threats and jealousy and enmity and hatred toward each other, like tyrants eagerly endeavoring to assert their power. Then, truly, according to the word of Jeremiah, “The Lord in his wrath darkened the daughter of Zion, and cast down the glory of Israel from heaven to earth, and remembered not his foot-stool in the day of his anger. The Lord also overwhelmed all the beautiful things of Israel, and threw down all his strongholds.”

Here we have testimony from Eusebius that there were in fact Christians in the army.

We can go further here.

Others passed through different conflicts. Thus one, while those around pressed him on by force and dragged him to the abominable and impure sacrifices, was dismissed as if he had sacrificed, though he had not. Another, though he had not approached at all, nor touched any polluted thing, when others said that he had sacrificed, went away, bearing the accusation in silence.

Now the situation in all of this is that the Roman army was running out of water and needed the rain in the face of the enemy and the Christians prayed causing rain to come and a storm routed out the enemy. There is no reason to question the rain and storm came. There is a monument depicting that that is soon after the event by the emperor himself. Christians at the time said a Christian legion prayed. Others said it was Egyptian magic.

Which is it? I couldn’t tell you honestly. I wouldn’t even rule out magic if you could show some evidence for it. Is it any shock though that the emperor would attribute it to Jupiter? The emperor is going to defend his honor and he has the power to shape the story the way he thinks it should be shaped as well. Will he go with a belief with honor or a belief with dishonor?

Also discussed is the healing of Vespasian. Again, I have no problem with saying this healing could happen. Yet there is a problem here. The healing took place in Alexandria where Vespasian healed a blind man by spitting on his eyes. What is not mentioned normally is that even the doctors were not convinced the man who was healed was fully blind. Also, the healing took place in Alexandria whose patron deity was Serapis. Wanna guess what one of the first cities was to endorse Vespasian on the throne? If you guessed Alexandria, give yourself bonus points. They had something to gain from this.

Moving on, when we get to Carrier on historical methodology, I do agree with much of what Carrier says. He starts with textual analysis making sure the document is handed down accurately. I agree. He also says this on page 237.

We must ascertain what the author meant, which requires a thorough understanding of the language as it was spoken and written in that time and place, as well as a thorough grasp of the historical, cultural, political, social, and religious context in which it was written, since all of this would be on the mind of both author and reader, and would illuminate, motivate, or affect what was written.

I find this highly agreeable. I just wish Carrier would do this. As we see later on when we see his view on certain biblical passages, he doesn’t. In fact, this is advice I would give to atheists wanting to understand the text, and of course to Christians. Both groups consist of fundamentalists who too often read a modern American context onto the text.

The second recommendation of Carrier is

always ask for the primary sources of a claim you find incredible. Many modern scholars will still get details wrong or omit important context or simply lie.

I would hesitate to say a modern scholar is lying. One needs really good evidence to make an accusation of moral turpitude. It’s important to also realize that sharing information that is false is not the same as lying. Sharing information as true you KNOW to be false is lying. I also would disagree at the start. Don’t ask for primary sources on claims you find incredible. Ask for primary sources on any historical claim!

Carrier also says the historian must try to gather all the evidence and not just rely on one item. I agree. Of course, one could never truly say they’ve examined ALL the evidence, but one must try to find as much as they can.

Carrier also gives characteristics of a good explanation.

First, it has explanatory scope. It explains more facts than other explanations. I have no problem with this.

Second, explanatory power. This means the explanation will make the facts more likely than any other.

Third is plausibility. It is historically reasonable that such a thing happened, which Carrier wishes to add even if it was improbable.

Fourth is ad hocness. It will rely on fewer undemonstrated sources. Most theories will have some aspects that are ad hoc, but not entirely. The fewer, the better.

Fifth, it fits the evidence. It will not contradict other facts that we know about the event and the context.

I have no problem with these.

Next time, we’ll get to see some of this at work as Carrier deals with the claim that the resurrection has more evidence than the crossing of the Rubicon. It is my plan to finish this chapter on that and move on then, but it is a lengthy section so I will save it for the next time.

In Christ,
Nick Peters