History is His Story
Tacitus the great historian of First Century Rome leaves us in no doubt about the main historical outlines of the New Testament. Tacitus, a leading politician and a provincial governor, reports that the ‘Christians’ took their name from a person called ‘Christ’ who was executed by Pontius Pilate in Judea in the era of Tiberius Caesar.
Tacitus expected the movement to die with its founder but instead it spread to Rome where, by the time of the great fire in AD 64, it had become ‘immense’. Tacitus’s history tell us (a) Jesus was known as ‘Christ’, (b) that he was therefore a genuine figure of history, (c) when and where he was executed, and (d) that in spite of his death as a disgraced felon within thirty years his movement spread from Palestine on the edge of the empire to its heart, Rome.
Tacitus’s confirmation of the ‘raw’ facts about earliest Christianity is impressive. Not only was he a careful historian he was also bitterly critical of this new movement, which he calls a ‘superstition’ whose members were guilty of evil ‘vices’ and who, he said, ‘hated the human race’. Tacitus, a proud Roman, despised these Christians who loved their Christ more than the empire. Tacitus’s comments about Christian origins are all the more important since he is an independent witness, in fact, a hostile witness.
The word ‘Christian’ (Christianos) literally means ‘a follower of Christ’ and it was a word coined by outsiders, most likely public officials in Antioch in Syria. Only later did the Christians use the word for themselves. Also significant is the fact that the word ‘Christ’ originated as a title, ‘the Christ’ which is Greek for ‘the Messiah’ or ‘Anointed King’. So the Christians were seen to be followers of the Christ. And it was this that brought them into headlong conflict with the Roman authorities. The Romans crucified Jesus as ‘king of the Jews’ and they persecuted his followers for saying there was ‘another king’, that Jesus, not the Roman Caesar, was the true king over the world.
Historical analysis demands that Jesus knew he was the Christ, the long awaited One anointed by God, the ‘son of David’ prophesied centuries before. Even during his three year ministry his disciples had become convinced that Jesus was ‘the Christ’. The writers of the New Testament are certain that Jesus was the Christ. Where did that conviction come from except by the impact of Jesus upon them, as dramatically confirmed by his resurrection for the dead?
At the head of his letter to Christians in Rome Paul sets out this summary of God’s gospel as:
concerning his Son,
who descended from David according to the flesh
who was designated Son of God in power
according to the Spirit of holiness
by his resurrection from the dead
Jesus Christ our Lord
(Romans 1.3-4 RSV).
From this pre-formed summary statement were learn three things.
First, the words ‘his Son’ points to an intimate relationship between God and his own Son. This is consistent with Jesus’ prayer to God as Abba, Father and to Jesus’ reference to himself as ‘the Son’ and to God as ‘the Father’.
Secondly, he was truly human having descended from the line of David. The RSV translation ‘descended’ does not bring out that Jesus ‘has come’ – comma – ‘out of the seed of David’. This implies that Jesus ‘came’ from somewhere else, that is, from his eternal pre-existence in the presence of God and – historically speaking – came through the ‘seed of David’.
Without mentioning it this is in line with the virginal conception of Jesus which Matthew and Luke independently attest in their genealogies, and which Paul confirms in his letter to the Galatians where he writes that Jesus was ‘born of a woman’ (i.e., independently of a man).
Thirdly, the historical person of Jesus was ‘designated’ as Son of God in power (that is, as ‘Lord’) by his resurrection from the dead and by his outpoured gift of the Holy Spirit at and subsequent to Pentecost.
Paul’s brief statement is as historical as Tacitus’s. Tacitus wrote historically about Christ from the viewpoint of an uninformed and hostile outsider. The ‘external’ facts that he gives agree exactly with those of Luke-Acts. But as an outsider he does not know the ‘inside’ story that Paul gives us at the beginning of Romans. Jesus ‘came’ from a pre-existent eternity; as a historical figure he was a descendant of the messianic line of David; God raised him from the dead as his ‘powerful Son’ (i.e., as ‘Lord of all’); whereupon he poured out ‘the Spirit of Holiness’, which he continues to do.
Paul’s summary statement, though accurate, is incomplete. Paul will expand upon it later in the letter to teach that God ‘did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all’ (Romans 8:32). In other words, the Christ who existed before the creation of the universe, who came into our world in fulfilment of prophecy, who died on the Roman cross for our forgiveness, who was raised alive from the dead, who pours out his Spirit to those who commit to him in the One who rules history until his historic return. This Christ, whom Christians follow is the Lord of history.
By a happy quirk of language his ‘story’ is the true and eternal ‘history’. Modern day enemies of Christ like Richard Dawkins attack this history, but it will still be true when his days are passed. Christians must continue to struggle for the BC and AD division of history since it represents His Story.