Science Turns to God

Eric Metaxas’ ‘Science turns to God’ article in The Australian (29 December, 2014) provoked a spate of hostile letters and the newspaper’s editorial comment.

In brief, the article contrasted what we know today about the conditions for life on this planet with what we knew back in 1966.  In that year Time published the opinion of Carl Sagan that there were ‘two criteria for a planet to support life ? the right kind of star, and a planet the right distance from that star’.

Metaxas’ argument is that the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI), despite high levels of funding, has not discovered any signals pointing to life elsewhere in the universe.  He claims there are octillion planets (1 + 24 zeros) in the universe, surely more than enough for their signals to be picked up by our vast telescopic networks.  But, says, the author, ‘silence of the rest of the universe has been deafening’.

The article then turns to what scientists today think are the necessary criteria for a planet to support life.  Metaxas claims that ‘there are now 200 known parameters necessary for a planet to support life — every single one of which must be perfectly met’.  He cites the example of a large planet like nearby Jupiter, whose gravity draws to it asteroids that would destroy Earth.

His argument is that greater faith is required to believe the universe depends on random, accidental forces that belief in an intelligent creator.

The major statistic relates to the creation of the universe itself.  If the four necessary forces — gravity, electromagnetic force, the ‘strong’ and the ‘weak’ nuclear forces — were determined less than a millionth of a second after the big bang, there would be no universe.

Two Criticisms:
(i)        Metaxas is not a scientist, and his style is a little over-confident.
(ii)       Letter writers to The Australian complain that his appeal to Fred Hoyle and Paul Davies were inaccurate.
(iii)      His reference to SETI seems to be an example of the ‘God of the gaps’ argument by which God’s existence is positively asserted because of what we don’t know.

Reflections of a non-scientist:
(i)        The contrast between current multiple known criteria for life on the planet             relative to the known criteria in 1966 is helpful.  But Metaxas doesn’t say who are these more modern authorities.
(ii)       The 200 criteria, if accurate, are very important.  But their importance needs to be stated cautiously and humbly, without any hint of coercion so as to drive unbelievers into a corner.
(iii)      The arguments of ‘natural theology’, which seem to be Metaxas’ approach, may arouse interest, and the beginnings of faith.  But it is the testimony of the Gospel that arouses a genuine and true faith in the God and Father of our Lord  Jesus Christ.



Debt Slavery and Redemption

A fine article by Haznain Kazim in the Australian Financial Review (‘A Tale of Deliverance’, 9 January 2015) states that 35.8 million worldwide live under debt slavery.

It gives an example about how it happens.  A penniless family borrows a small sum (by our standards), in this case to build a modest dwelling.  They repay the debt by all the family working in the lender’s brick-making factory, except that the interest rates are so high that the amount owed does not diminished but grows.  The whole family is now trapped in debt slavery in perpetuity, with almost no freedom and crippling working conditions.

The owner, a prominent politician in Pakistan, hypocritically says, ‘Our employees have a good life with us’, he says, ‘They aren’t lacking anything’.

The article claims that many debt slaves are physically abused, including sexually, and that there are examples of people missing without trace, incinerated in the fiery hot brick kilns.

Perhaps the ‘slaves’ might simply run away and find freedom?  They are effectively prevented by a cultural sense of shame in reneging on their promises.

The article speaks warmly of a small Christian aid organization, Vast Vision that raises funds to buy the freedom of debt slaves.  It tells of a man, a debt slave for many years, being set free by the founder of Vast Vision physically handing over a wad of cash to the ‘owner’.  With tears in his eyes the free man collects his wife and two small children and they walk away to a new life.

Of course, debt slavery is illegal in Pakistan, but the authorities do little to stop it.  Powerful and wealthy slave owners see that the law is not enforced.

Vast Vision has one condition in liberating adult debt slaves.  Their children must go to school so that they will not be drawn back into this servitude.

Epiphany – Five Reflections from a Life Time


(Mere Anglicanism Conference, Charleston SC, January 2013)

 I count it a great privilege to share these thoughts with my fellow-Anglican Christians. Like the apostle Paul I do so with ‘fear and trembling’, though for a different reason.  Paul was amongst dangerous enemies; I am amongst friends.

My fear is threefold.  First, much of what I will say is in the realm of history, and history is a turn off for many.  Secondly, I want to speak personally, and that could easily sound egocentric and self-indulgent, another turn off.  Thirdly, and most worryingly, is my Aussie accent that I know is foreign to many ears.  So, please pray for me!

I am mindful of the critical times in which we live.  Yes we have the passionate campaigns of the New Atheists outside the church, but we also have the sceptics inside the church, amongst church leaders and scholars.  It would not be unfair to use the word ‘apostasy’ of some branches of the Anglican family.  The same sadly holds true in other traditions, Presbyterian and Lutheran, for example.

But I do not intend to dwell on the negatives but the positives and to do so in terms of my personal discoveries over the 55 years of my Christian journey.  ‘Discovery’ is not the right word because it puts the emphasis on me.  ‘Epiphany’, or ‘epiphanies’ would be better because these discoveries are really ‘revelations’ from God, God-given insights.  ‘Flesh and blood’ does not discover truth about God; God must reveal it.

As it happens it is, or recently was, the season of Epiphany – if you will cut me a little slack.

Nor will I speak mainly about theological issues, but historical ones.  Theology to be true depends on what happened historically.  If the Word did not actually become flesh in Bethlehem in the latter years of Herod, then the theology stated in John 1:14 is just empty words, akin to myth.  F.F. Bruce saw no incompatibility between theology and history and observed that ‘a man cannot be a good theologian unless he is a good historian’.[1]

The first epiphany happened in a class in Ancient History 101.  I was a mature age student, 29 years old.  I had not studied classical history at school, but I was now a junior professor at a seminary and my President sent me off the University to study Classical Greek and Ancient History.  My background had been in the Building industry.

Six years earlier I had been converted out of a totally unchurched background.  It was pretty dramatic, but I was wary of emotionalism and kept asking my new church friends, ‘How do we know it’s true?’ to which they replied, ‘It just is.  Just believe it’.  But the question remained, even when I spent 4 years in seminary and did well enough to become an instructor.

The epiphany happened when I suddenly realized how good were the historical sources for Jesus and the birth of Christianity.  We had been studying Alexander the Great and the Roman Caesars.  For Tiberius, the Caesar in whose time Jesus ministered, we mainly depend on Suetonius for information.  But Suetonius wrote about eighty years after Tiberius’ death, when no one was alive who could question what had been written.  Mark wrote his Gospel only 30 or so years after Jesus, when many Jesus’ contemporaries were still alive.

My first epiphany quickly connected with things I had come to know.  I knew that the 27 books of the New Testament were written by ten mostly independent authors, and were in circulation and use by the mid-90s – less than 60 years after Jesus; most of them much closer to Jesus, especially the epistles.  As well, I knew by then that these early texts had been accurately transmitted and copied from the time they were written.  I knew there are 5600 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament from the early centuries and 19,000 translations in Latin, Coptic, Arabic, and Armenian – more than 24, 000 in all.  Cross checking by Textual Critics means that the texts in our Bibles are 99% certain, and nothing doctrinally hangs on the 1%.

I cannot tell you how excited I was in that lecture room.  It was a ‘eureka’ moment.  The witness of the New Testament to Jesus more than holds its own relative to the documentation of the Caesars of those times, whose life stories are not in doubt.

Also connected with my first epiphany was a little book by A.M. Hunter, Paul and His Predecessors, which pointed out that Paul did not write the words we find in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7.  That’s where he quotes that Christ died for our sins, was buried, was raised the third day, and appeared on 5 separate occasions to more than 500 people.  Paul was quoting what he had been taught at or soon after his conversion, that is, only about one or at most four years after Jesus.  In other words, the idea that Jesus was the Messiah, who died for sins and who was resurrected on the third day, did not evolve decades later than Jesus but was part of Christian understanding from the beginning, in the immediate aftermath of his lifespan.  Why would the earliest Christians in Jerusalem have formulated this teaching, if it wasn’t true?

By now I was hooked on history and found myself researching a post-graduate thesis on first century Jewish history.  My topic was ‘Civil Disturbances in Judea in the First Century’.  Did you know that three civil wars broke out when Herod died in 4 BC, led by Judas in Galilee, Simon in Perea and Athronges in Judea?  Each of these claimed to be a king and it took the might of the Roman army from Syria to put down these revolts.  Then there were violent Pharisees like Saddok in AD 6, a prophet like Theudas who was killed in 46 in and patriots like Menahem who marched into Jerusalem in 66.  These were formidable figures with big followings, who spanned the era of the New Testament.

So why are these men who fill the pages of Josephus forgotten today and Jesus is a household word?  It’s because history is full of people who blaze briefly like comets and are then forgotten.  But Jesus claimed to be the Son of Man who forgave sins, who healed the sick and raised the dead, who entered Jerusalem as its Messiah-king, whose teaching on love and forgiveness was profound and unheard of, and who himself was resurrected from the dead.  Without the resurrection Jesus would have been just another mistaken prophet whose death guaranteed his relegation to obscurity, like the shadowy figure of the Teacher of Righteousness, the founder of the Dead Sea Sect, whose name we do not even know.

Now in my 30s, whilst pastoring a second congregation I had the opportunity to do research for a PhD.  This was not in theology but again in Jewish history in roughly the same era as the New Testament.  Following that I became head of a University College and a professor in New Testament history within an Ancient History university department.

It was then I began my visits to Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Turkey and Greece, which I still continue on an annual basis and have done for twenty-five years.  I am privileged to have visited every place mentioned in the New Testament, with one important exception – Tarsus, birthplace of Paul.  That was to have been in 2011, but for the civil war in Syria.

A second epiphany – in my forties – was based on my first visit to Israel and Jordan – and confirmed many times since.  That lake – the Sea of Tiberias – its storms, its fishing, its surrounding hills is the lake of the Gospels.  The towns of the Holy Land – Bethlehem, Nazareth, Cana, Capernaum, Chorazim, Bethsaida, Gennesaret, Magdala, Sychar, Caesarea Philippi, the Decapolis, the borders of Tyre and Sidon, Jericho, Bethany beyond Jordan, Bethany near Jerusalem are the towns and places of the Gospels.  They have been mostly continuously settled in the years since, with place names unchanged.  The geography of Galilee and the topography and streetscape of Jerusalem cohere amazingly with the biblical text.  The entire ministry of Jesus is embedded in places we can still visit.

The context of John’s ministry and Jesus’ ministry is stated by Luke (3:1-2) – the fifteenth year of Tiberius (AD 28 or 29) when Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod Antipas tetrarch of Galilee, Annas and Caiaphas high priests – link in exactly to the complex jurisdictions of the holy land after the death of Herod and Augustus’ division of Herod’s kingdom.

In Luke-Acts there are no less than sixteen texts that connect Luke’s narrative with famous named people in world history, like Sergius Paulus Proconsul of Cyprus, to take one example.  Then there are dozens of lesser figures like the centurion Cornelius in Caesarea Maritima who are no less authentic.  In other words, the geography, topography and history of the New Testament coheres with the geography and history of the era in which it is located.  This is the more impressive because such references are made in passing, matters of incidental detail, easily missed because of the weightiness of the narrative.

Luke-Acts is an amazing text covering 70 years from the birth of John the Baptist to Paul’s imprisonment in Rome and represents 25% of the volume of the New Testament.  It is widely commended by great secular historians like Mommsen, Meyer and Sherwin-White, but surprisingly spurned by many specialist Christian scholars.  Crossan’s index to his Birth of Christianity, for example, does not have a single reference to the book of Acts and declared the first thirty years of Christian history to be ‘dark decades…cloaked in silence’.  That is a convenient viewpoint if you want to write your own history of Christianity and present your own revisionist, designer theology!  Luke-Acts is critical to recovering Christian origins, the beginnings of Christianity.  Only this continuous text connects the rise of early Christianity to the impulse of Jesus, his identity, his saving death and his glorious resurrection.

As Luke tells us in his opening words, it was the original disciples of Jesus who handed over textual sources to Luke for him to write his great global history.  Who was better placed than them to do so?  The ‘we’ and ‘us’ passages in Acts 21-28 tell us that Luke was with Paul for the last five years of the narrative of Luke-Acts.  Luke was Paul’s companion and therefore well placed to write about Paul.  Who else but Paul could have given Luke the material he uses about Paul, his early life, his persecutions, his conversion, and his remarkable missions in Syria-Cilicia, Galatia, Macedonia, Achaia and Asia?  Luke-Acts shows us the immediate continuity between Jesus, crucified and risen, and the first three decades of Christianity.  The apostles preached Jesus as the risen Christ and Lord, because he was!

The archaeologists’ spade as well as accidental discoveries have confirmed much of the data we encounter in the biblical texts.

•A fishing boat from this period, discovered in 1985;

•an inscription bearing the name Pontius Pilate, discovered in 1961;

•a burial chest inscribed Joseph Caiaphas, discovered in 1990;

•the Pool of Siloam, identified in 2004;

•Jacob’s well near Joseph’s tomb under the shadow of Mount Gerizim;

•a Pool near the Sheep Gate, known as Bethesda;

•the tragic remains of the crucified man, Yehohanan, discovered in 1968;

•the discovery of rolling stones to seal tombs.

All these subtly but cumulatively reinforce the sense that we are in the realm of historical and geographical reality when we read the Gospels.

So far I have shared some ‘eureka’ moments, epiphanies.

•The quality, quantity of the sources for Jesus, and their closeness to him.

•The early, oral formulation of words embedded in 1 Cor. 15:3-7 about Christ’s death for sin, his burial, his resurrection on the 3rd day, and his multiple appearances.

•The linkages from Luke-Acts into world history, pointing to Luke’s integrity.

•Based on numerous visits to Israel the amazing coherence of geography, topography, and history, supported by archaeological finds and discoveries.

Each of these has confirmed my strong confidence in the integrity of the New Testament texts in their witness to Jesus, a the Son of God, who performed inexplicable miracles, who proclaimed the kingdom of God, who was the friend of sinners, who trained his disciples for world-mission, who died on the cross as our sin-bearer, and whom God raised from the dead to give us the hope that God has triumphed over evil and will triumph over evil – and who established the church.  I have absolutely no doubts about the authenticity and historicity of the New Testament.

One thing is certain.  No mere prophet or holy rabbi could have been the impetus for the amazing movement that arose in his immediate aftermath, as reflected in the New Testament in general and Luke-Acts in particular.  As I have mentioned, there were many warlords, prophets, and charismatic rabbis in Palestine in the first century, but they are lost in the dust of time.  It is only the deity of Jesus, his gracious miracles, his profound love ethic and his resurrection form the dead that explain not merely the survival of faith in him, but the immediate explosion of that faith and its rapid dissemination around the Mediterranean world.  Jesus gave hope to a hopeless world, and – thank God – he still does.

Let me share three other epiphanies.

The third was when I was lecturing at university.  I decided to make a detailed comparison of the accounts of a miracle that each of the four Gospels narrate.  I chose the miracle of the loaves and fishes.  As I spread out the four Greek texts in parallel, I was quickly reminded that Matthew and Luke make use of Mark’s account, often word for word.  Matthew and Luke are derivative texts, based mainly on Mark.  Most scholars accept that Mark’s is the earliest of the three, and that Matthew and Luke also incorporate other sources in their idiosyncratic Gospels making them both longer than Mark’s.  John, however, does not replicate any words from the other three, except for the statistics – 5000 men, five loaves, two fishes, twelve baskets, etc.

But there are other differences.  In John they are barley loaves and pickled fish that belong to the boy, details found only in John.  And his story line is a little different:  In John Jesus welcomes the crowd but in Mark he arrives after them.  Clearly Mark did not depend on John or John on Mark.  At a secular university with mostly secular students with no church background I set an essay question about this incident as in the four gospels.  The universal opinion was that Mark and John were primary, independent sources.  That means there are two independent witnesses to this miracle.

I was reminded of ‘Momigliano’s Rule’: ‘historical research is based on the distinction between original and derivative authorities’.  Professor Momigliano of Cambridge is one of the doyens of ancient history studies.

So what we have are two core texts – Mark’s and John’s – that are independent of each other.  Each is the final, written up version of a tradition – written or oral – that went back to the event, and that separately testifies to the truth of the event, the great miracle.  This criterion is called ‘Multiple Attestation’, and it is fundamental to all historical enquiry but no less to the jury process.  One witness may inspire confidence, but two or more – if credible – make for a weighty case.  But a second witness who merely repeats a primary witness is no use at all, according to Momiglinano’s wise counsel.

There are thirty-seven separate miracles of Jesus in the four Gospels. These fall into four categories – exorcisms, nature miracles, healings and raisings up from the dead.  These are found in the independent Mark and John and in the three independent sources underlying Matthew and Luke, known as Q (common to Matthew and Luke), L (unique to Luke), and M (unique to Matthew).  The thing is that each of these miracle types in found in at least two independent sources, of which the Miracle of the Loaves and the Fishes is a case in point.  Based on the principle of Multiple Attestation a historian would rightly conclude that these four miracle types – exorcisms, nature miracles, healings and raisings up from the dead – actually happened at the hands of Jesus, testifying to Jesus’ unique deity.

This is a matter of history, based on the historical method.  It is not mere unsubstantiated dogma.

My next epiphany – the fourth – occurred while I was giving a talk on a university campus about the reliability of the New Testament when a questioner asked me about the Qur’an.  I had to admit that I didn’t know enough to respond.  So I set about reading the Qur’an and thinking about the question.

Let me say, I do not doubt that Muhammad was a real person, with a huge impact, and that the Qur’an reflects the oracles he believed that God spoke to him.  But when I read the text, I was struck by an absence of linkages into world history and local geography that we find in the Gospels, Acts and Letters.  There are no people like Jairus, no places like Capernaum, no references like, ‘the next day’ that tie down the narratives about Jesus to other people, real places and actual times.  What we find in the Qu’ran is mainly ‘teaching’ that is not anchored – so far as I can see – into times, places or people within the Prophet’s life span 570-632.  The earliest extant biography of the Prophet, written by Ibn Hisham 213 years after Muhammad’s death has some of these details, but not the Holy Qur’an.  In this regard the New Testament is another world.  The letters of the New Testament – even the Revelation – are full of personal, historical and geographical information.

I discovered another fascinating difference.  To my knowledge there are no external contemporary texts that shed light on the Prophet or the early years of Islam.  Early Christianity is different.  Josephus, writing mid-90s from Rome, reports that Jesus was a ‘wise man’ whose tribe still continued sixty years later.  Tacitus writing ca. 110 observes that the ‘Christians’ took their name from Christus whom Pilate executed in Judea, but whose movement did not die with its founder but spread to Rome where it became an ‘immense multitude’, and a convenient scapegoat for Nero after the great fire in 64.

Also writing about 110 was Pliny, governor of Bithynia a Black Sea province, who said that the Christians’ practice was to meet weekly to sing hymns to Christ, ‘as to a god’.  This is a striking detail that confirms the witness of the New Testament that the early Christians met, worshipped and prayed to the exalted Jesus, ‘as to a god’, as Pliny would say.  Pliny confirms the witness of the New Testament that the early Christians met to worship Jesus as Lord.

It is striking that Josephus, Tacitus and Pliny strongly dislike Christianity and the Christians.  Tacitus and Pliny describe Christianity as a spreading disease.  Tacitus said the Christians pursued ‘vile practices’ and Pliny implies that they were fanatics.

Although these writers are opposed to the Christians their accounts of the raw facts about Christian origins and practice exactly correspond with the raw facts in the New Testament.  The interpretations of Jesus and the Christians are diametrically opposed, but the facts corroborate one another. These are unbiased, even hostile witnesses, yet they confirm the accounts written from inside the movement.  This is not merely Multiple Attestation, but Multiple Hostile Attestation that neatly dovetails with the narrative of the New Testament.

So to my final epiphany, the fifth.  It occurred in the mid-90s when I was a scholar in residence in a seminary in London preparing to give a public lecture series back in Sydney.  I stumbled across a book called The Practice of History by Geoffrey Elton, a distinguished scholar of Tudor history.  There wasn’t a thing in it directly related to the New Testament.  However, Elton made a distinction between ‘evidence…intended for publication’ and incidental information produced for ‘another purpose’.

I immediately thought the Gospels and Acts belonged to the first category of ‘evidence…intended for publication’ whereas the Letters were produced ‘for another purpose’, that is, informal even trivial documents relating to the passing, sometimes mundane needs of the recipient churches.   Elton shrewdly observed that those who wrote histories – documents intentionally written for publication – were open to suspicion regarding their motives to whitewash their subjects whereas surviving trivia like invoices and laundry lists were not, and were often full of useful information about the economy of the times, for example.

I thought to myself, ‘How important therefore are the New Testament epistles.  They have not been written as chronicles or histories to convince somebody, yet they contain lots of historical and chronological information.  This is especially true of Galatians, First and Second Corinthians, Romans and Philippians.  At so many points these texts ‘written for another purpose’ – the often trivial problems in the churches, and not originally intended for wider publication – confirm the details in the intentionally written Gospels and Acts.  For me this was an important discovery and it became a chapter in a book, Jesus and the Logic of History published in 1997.

So these have been some ‘Eureka’ moments, some God-given ‘epiphanies’ I have received over the years along with connecting ideas.

Epiphany 1:  The historical source material for Jesus is very close to Jesus.  In the case of Galatians it is a mere 15 years after the crucifixion and resurrection.  Information about Tiberius, the Caesar under whom Jesus was executed is approaching a century after his death in AD 37.

Connected with this:

•The text of the New Testament is recoverable because of the many manuscripts from the early centuries – 5600 in Greek, 19000 in translations in Latin, Armenian, Coptic, etc.

•Paul did not originally write the little catechism in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 that teaches Christ died for our sins, was buried, was raised on the 3rd day and appeared to many hundreds, several of whom are named.  The Jerusalem Christians had devised that catechism in a narrow time corridor of less than three years after Jesus.  Why would they have devised that catechism unless Jesus had been raised from the dead?

Epiphany 2:  My many journeys to Israel have convinced me that the Gospels reflect the time, and place and people – the history, topography and geography of Galilee and Judea in the late 20s and early 30s of the first century.

Connected with this:

•The numerous artefacts – the boat, the Pilate inscription, the Caiaphas ossuary, the Pool of Siloam – all combine subtly to reinforce the integrity of the Gospels.

Epiphany 3: Careful study of the Gospel accounts of the Feeding of the Multitude led me to conclude that there were two independent traditions to that miracle that arose in parallel because of that miracle.  The principle of Multiple Attestation -– so vital in the work of history and of jury trials – convinced me of the historicity of the thirty seven miracles classified as four types of miracles of Jesus, pointing to his unique deity.

Epiphany 4: Study of the Qur’an made me appreciate the contrasting historical and geographical character of the New Testament.

Connected with this:

•Study of the non-Christian witnesses – Josephus, Tacitus and Pliny – point to the principle of Multiple Hostile Attestation that confirms the raw facts of the New Testament about the crucifixion, the spread of Christianity throughout the Empire, and that the early Christians worshiped Jesus ‘as a god’.

Epiphany 5: The recognition that the New Testament letters are not intentionally written history but are confirmatory of intentionally written history, especially since they predate the writing of the Gospels and Acts.  The early dating of the letters of Paul indicate that the three or so decades between Jesus and the writing of Mark were alive with missionary work and the creation of Christian congregations far and wide.

There is more, but I mustn’t indulge your patience further.  History is not for everyone!  But I am encouraged in my confidence in the witness of the New Testament to Jesus, Son of God, Lord, and Saviour.  The creeds we confess in church arise out of the New Testament and the multiplicity of its sources and the integrity of its transmission undergirds its trustworthiness.

I could not reject the historical reliability of the New Testament, even if I wanted to.

Let me conclude by referring to your mission statement:


Mere Anglicanism’s vision is for a reformed, renewed orthodox Anglicanism  within North America. We recognize that to achieve a restored and faithful   Anglicanism, many battles must be fought, many lessons learned. Seminaries must be re-made with faithful, godly deans and teachers.


Today, however, there are teachers of biblical subjects in universities and seminaries who deconstruct the texts and reconstruct them in line with their own worldviews. The duly reconstructed then reconstructed Christ is a tame individual, with views similar to the collective ‘groupthink’.  This is not evidence of the Spirit of God, but the spirit of the age.  It promotes scepticism and doubt, including among church people.

By way of example, a recent article argued that the narrative about Paul in Acts 13-28 was imaginatively reconstructed from Paul’s letters by an unknown author in the Second Century.  Those chapters did not correspond with what actually happened in Acts 13-28, but were the novelistic creation of this unknown second century author.

According to the article this author wrote Acts 13 to identify Antioch in Pisidia as ‘little Rome’, anticipating Paul’s arrival in ‘big Rome’.  This was the point of a contrived narrative that was said to have had no basis in historical truth.

I can think of several historical reasons why this article in wrong, but let me mention two.  The first is the problem of an author fifty or more years later inventing the detail in Acts 13-28, detail that based on modern archaeology is quite credible to us.  It is far more likely that Paul himself was the source of the information that Luke used, that Luke had written up while Paul was still alive, or at least had begun to.  The subtleties of Paul’s seaboard and overland travels in Acts 13-14 are consistent with what we know of the sea lanes and road system of the region, but which may not have been imaginable to an author remote in time and place from the places and events in the narratives.

The second is that Luke in no way exploits a ‘little Rome’ / ‘big Rome’ typology because the words ‘Rome’ and ‘Roman’ do not appear in Acts 13.  It is true, as we now know, that this Antioch was a Roman colony, built on the model of Rome.  Luke may or may not have known this, but either way it is not the point he was making.  Luke’s point was that at Antioch God had ordained that the gospel the Jews were rejecting should be taken to the Gentiles.  That is the point that Luke is making, and that is the point we the readers should be understanding.

Do we understand what is going on here?  First, this scholar explicitly says that Acts 13-28 is not historically true, but is a fictitious narrative.  This robs the text of the truthfulness that Luke claimed for it in his Prologue to Luke-Acts.  Secondly, by finding a Rome-to-Rome motif would make the text of merely antiquarian interest, a talking point for the scholars’ guild.  But the text is not merely an ancient relic for scholars to discuss.  It is a canonical text of sacred scripture that has a continuing missionary mandate for us today and tomorrow and until the Day of the Lord.  That mandate if for us to spread the good news about Jesus to Gentiles everywhere, but also to God’s historic people, the Jews.

How can I say this?  We do not want our ministers in training shaped by that kind of scholarship.  The vision statement calling for ‘faithful, godly deans and teachers’ is exactly right, and the key to future revival of the faith. We want Christian scholars to apply their skills to teaching and applying the Bible, not deconstructing it.

So we need to hold the line and ‘contend for the faith once and for all delivered to the saints’.

Paul Barnett

Epiphany 2013.



[1]Bulletin of the Johns Rylands Library 51 (1969), 294.

Paul and Mission in a Pluralistic World

Paul and Mission in a Pluralistic World


The Pluralistic Environments of the Old and New Testament.

During the 1950s the Student Christian Movement series Studies in Biblical Theology published texts that highlighted the pluralistic environments of the Old and New Testaments respectively, the one written by G.E. Wright, the other by F.V. Filson.  Each pointed to the distinctiveness of the faith of each testament against the religious culture to which it came.  More recently, and based on up-to-date data, a collection of essays, One God One Lord in a World of Religious Pluralism (ed. B.W. Winter and A. Clarke, Cambridge: Tyndale Press, 1991), has contributed further to this subject.

Religious pluralism, which has become new to us in western culture in recent times, was not new in the broader historical background of the New Testament era.  It was, in fact and in particular, a distinguishing mark of the Graeco-Roman culture of the world in which the heralds of Jesus went forth to proclaim him as the unique Lord and Christ.

 Paul’s History: from Pharisee to Apostle

I suspect that for his first thirty or so years Paul had limited exposure to the religious pluralism of the Graeco-Roman world.  True, he spent his first years in Tarsus in Cilicia but seems to have been shielded from Hellenistic influence in a conservatively Jewish family, perhaps through home schooling by a tutor.  His practical world was probably the home and the synagogue with little exposure in Tarsian culture.  By his mid-teens Paul was living in the holy city, enrolled in the academy of Gamaliel the foremost rabbi of his generation, where he would have been immersed in the judgments of the scribes.  Jerusalem was indeed the ‘holy’ city, free from the evils of the Hellenistic world.  Paul’s letters, written considerably later, whilst displaying a preacher’s gift for a rhetorical turn of phrase, inhabit the intellectual universe of the Greek Bible.  There is no trace of the literature of the Greek classics in the letters of Paul but echoes from the Septuagint abound.

His radical redirection from attempted destroyer of the faith to its passionate preacher began to bring him into contact with Gentiles.  During his so-called ‘unknown years’, the fourteen years between the Damascus ‘call’ and the Jerusalem ‘agreement’ that he should go to the Gentiles, there is evidence of his foundation of gentile churches – in Syria and Cilicia (Acts 15:23, 41).  Titus, the uncircumcised ‘Greek’ who accompanied Barnabas and Paul to Jerusalem, is a prominent example of a Gentile who had become a Christian during the decade or so that Paul spent in the ‘regions of Syria and of Cilicia’ where his proclamation of the faith he had formerly attempted to destroy had come repeatedly to the attention of the churches in Judea (Gal. 1:21-23).

The big question, though, is: Were Titus and the members of the Syrian and Cilician gentile churches  God-fearers or idolaters?  Francis Watson argued that Paul did not begin to evangelize outright Gentiles until the journey to Cyprus, Pisidia and Lycaonia recorded in Acts 13-14, having concentrated to that point in his ministry to Jews, a conclusion readily based on evidence from the book of Acts.  The early chapters of Galatians, however, strongly imply that throughout the ‘fourteen years’ Paul had been preaching the Son of God to the uncircumcised.  For their part, Martin Hengel and Anna Maria Schwemer incline to the view that these Gentiles were synagogue-connected God-fearers.  This would help explain why Paul was repeatedly beaten in the synagogues (2 Cor. 11:24).  He asserted that the crucified Messiah, not the Law, was the true and only route to ‘life’ with God.

The evidence from Acts 15:23, 41 points conclusively to Paul’s ministry to Gentiles through his decade in Cilicia (based in Tarsus) and Syria (based in Antioch).  If Hengel and Schwemer are correct – that these Gentiles were mainly God-fearers – it would mean that the Gentiles Paul met were those who had already separated from pagan pluralism in their attendance at the synagogues, adopting instead the ways of Judaism.

In this case it would mean that Paul’s first missionary foray – which was in Cyprus and Southern Galatia – was the first occasion when Paul encountered outright pagans in any number, front on.

Paul and Idolaters

Paul’s mission letters, written during the decade of the westward missions (AD 47-57) in Galatia, Macedonia, Achaia and Asia, give abundant evidence of former idolaters who were now members of his mission churches.

In Pisidia and Lycaonia (ca. 47/48)

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were in bondage to beings that by nature are no gods (theoi); but now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits (stoicheia), whose slaves you want to be once more?  You observe days, and months, and seasons, and years!  I am afraid I have laboured over you in vain (Gal. 4:8-11; cf. 5:20 – ‘idolatry’/eidolatria)

In Macedonia (ca. 49)

For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything.  For they themselves report concerning us what a welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols (eido|la), to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come  (1 Thess. 1:8-10)

In Corinth (ca. 50-56)

Therefore, my beloved brothers, flee from the worship of idols (eidolatreia) (1 Cor. 10:14; cf. 1 Cor. 8-10 passim).  What agreement has                   the temple of God with idols (eido|la)?…Therefore. Come out from them, and be separate….(2 Cor. 6:16,17)

In short, the documents of Paul from the missionary decade (AD 47-57) reveal that he gathered into his churches significant numbers of idol-worshippers as well as those ‘God-fearers’ who had already left the temples to join the synagogues.

Mixed Churches

In Paul’s letters we are able to pick up references to Jews and Gentiles within the congregations of the Pauline mission.


From Galatians the many references to ‘you’ are directed to those Gentiles who have been negatively influenced by the Jewish-Christian ‘agitators’, for example, ‘I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you’ (1:6); ‘O foolish Galatians who has bewitched you?’ (3:1);  ‘Formerly when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are no gods’ (4:8); (5:7); ‘I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves’ (5:12).  In Galatians the ‘you’ are Gentile Galatians.

Nonetheless, buried within the text of Galatians we also find oblique references to Jews.  Paul’s review of Old Testament history and promises in chapter 3 is directed to Jewish readers, as summed up in chapter 4: ‘In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons’ (4:3-4).  ‘We’ in Galatians are Jews like Paul and Cephas (‘we ourselves are Jews by birth and not gentile sinners’ – 2:15) but also the Galatian Christian Jews.

First and Second Corinthians

We know that the foundation members of the church in Corinth were God-fearers and Jews.  We would expect that First Corinthians would address issues that affected them, but apart from the reminder that he originally preached ‘Christ crucified’ in the synagogue – as in ‘the “Christ” [Messiah] who ‘died for our sins’ (1 Cor. 1:23; 15:3) – it is difficult to find passages that reflect Jewish issues.  Wisdom from speech, porneia, idolatry, denial of end-time resurrection were issues for Gentiles.  It is otherwise in Second Corinthians where part of the excursus on New Covenant ministry (3:1-18) appears to be directed to Jews who were being influenced (by the ‘peddlers’) to think that the former covenant remained in place, unabrogated.  On the other hand, however, the appeal to ‘come out’ applies to those Corinthian Gentiles who continued to frequent the temples of Corinth (2 Cor. 6:14-7:1).


In Romans Paul specifically addresses Gentiles (‘I am speaking to you Gentiles’ – 11:13) and they probably were amongst ‘the strong’ in 14:1-15:7.  On the other hand, he addresses those who ‘know the law’ – that is Jews (7:1) – whom also he addresses in symbolic terms as the ‘weak’ (Rom. 14:1-15:7).  The greater part of Romans is Paul’s response to criticisms that emanate from from a Jewish source or sources (e.g., 3:8; 6:1; 9:1-3).


Passages in Galatians, 2 Corinthians and Romans indicate the presence of Gentiles and Jews as members of the churches of the Pauline Mission.  These remind us of the pluralism of the Graeco-Roman world where Paul preached his message of Christ crucified and risen, whose members have been included within the churches (cf. Gal. 3:27-28 – ‘For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus…’).  Paul does not necessarily signal that his readers for the moment are Gentiles or Jews but they would understand who he was addressing in various parts of his letters.  Today we easily miss the nuanced references to Jews and Gentiles but the original hearers of Paul’s letters would not have been in doubt.[1]

Pluralism in Corinth

As already mentioned most references in First Corinthians relate to Gentiles.  From these we have a series of social snapshots of the kind of pluralism that marked gentile behaviour in the Achaian capital.   Chapters 1-4 focus on the wisdom that comes from rhetoric; from chapters 5-6 emerge of picture of Corinthian toleration of porneia and litigiousness; from chapters 8-10 the language of temples and sacrifices takes us into the world of Graeco-Roman temple worship; the prophesying and tongues-speaking in chapters 11-14 connect us with the oracular language of Delphi and the Pythian priestess; and the denial of resurrection in chapter 15 brings us into contact with Greek soul-based eschatology; chapters 1, 4 and 11 point to the deep social stratification between the ‘not many’ who were ‘haves’ and the great majority of poor free people and slaves who were the ‘have nots’ (with whom Paul identified himself).   First Corinthians reveals a pluralism of beliefs and attitudes amongst the Corinthian Christians, a pluralism that mirrors the pluralism of the city.

Tourists who visit the remains of classical civilizations like Corinth or Ephesus easily have the impression of ancient societies marked by order and beauty.  However, in the course of his travels in Galatia, Asia, Macedonia and Achaia Paul would have addressed people who worshipped rocks, believed trees could be gods, owned sacred animals, accepted ritual castration and participated in temple prostitution, both heterosexual and homosexual.[2]   Moreover, these were societies that crucified ‘difficult’ slaves, sanctioned bloody combats in the arenas, exposed their unwanted children to the elements and bought and sold men, women and children like cattle.  The world to which the apostle Paul came preaching the gospel of Christ was a pluralistic world, both in religion and ethics.  In reality it was by no means in all matters morally elevated or spiritually enlightened.

Corinth, like other cities in the Graeco-Roman world, was pluralist in religion, with ‘many “gods” and many “lords’” (1 Cor. 8:5).  Pausanias, the travel writer who visited Corinth some time after Paul, describes numerous temples and shrines to a bewildering array of deities in Corinth’s public square (agora) – for Artemis, Dionysius, Fortune, Apollo, Poseidon, Aphrodite, Hermes, Zeus, Athena, Octavia the sister of Augustus.[3]

Paul adapts the Shema’

Paul’s proposition of the uniqueness of God and of Christ that he makes in 1 Cor. 8:6 is based on the great confession in the Shema’:

Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one.

And you shall love the Lord your God

with all your heart, and

with all your soul, and

with all your strength

(Deut. 6:4).

Yahweh had revealed himself to the people he chose in word and saving act and he was jealous for his name, forbidding the worship of other or alternative deities.

In First Corinthians Paul adapts the Shema’ to encompass Yahweh’s revelation of himself as the Father of Jesus his Son who is Lord.

there is one God, the Father,

from whom are all things

and for    whom we exist


one Lord, Jesus Christ,

through whom are all things

and through whom we exist (1 Cor. 8:6).

Paul applies his adapted Shema’ to the pluralism of Corinth.   In First Corinthians chapter 8 he reminds them of his catechesis when he established the church in Corinth.

We know that             ‘an idol has no real existence’ and

‘there is no God but one’.

Paul and the Corinthians ‘know’ that no reality exists behind man-made gods; they ‘know’ that there is ‘no God but one’.  Clearly, ‘There is no God but one’, is adapted from the Shema’, and is also found in various other statements in the New Testament, for example, ‘There is one God and Father of us all’, and ‘There is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus’ (Eph. 4:5; 1 Tim. 2:5).

‘There is no God but one’ also echoes Yahweh’s own self-revelation of his uniqueness in, ‘I am the Lord, and there is no other’ (Isa. 45:5).  There it is affirmation clinched by denial, ‘I am the Lord, and there is no other’.  In the Pauline catechesis it is reversed, ‘there is no God but one’.  In pluralist Corinth, with ‘gods many and lords many’, Paul’s denial of the gods and his affirmation ‘there is no God but one’ ruled out the worship of any other deity.

That these gods are said to be ‘in heaven and on earth’ identifies them as current objects of worship.  Later he will say, ‘Flee from the worship of idols (pheugete apo te|s eido|lolatrias) and ‘what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons’ (1 Cor. 10:14,19). In the face of their stubborn continuing involvement in their temples (by some Corinthians) Paul urges in the Second Letter, ‘Come out from them and be separate from them…and touch nothing unclean’ (2 Cor. 6:17).  Paul regarded the worship of idols as defiling

The temple worship in question frequently involved the sacrifice of animals, which occurred on altars outside the cultic shrine.  Large drains carried away the blood from these sacrifices.  Moreover, cultic prostitution often occurred within the precincts of the temple.  Paul urges the Corinthians to ‘flee’ from the twin and connected evils of eido|lolatria and porneia (1 Cor. 6:18; 10:14).

The gods do not exist despite the Corinthians belief that they do.  They are ‘so-called gods’ or ‘said-to-be gods’.  Yet though the gods do not exist the Corinthians who worship them are connected with evil spiritual forces as they pray to the effigies of Zeus, Artemis and Poseidon.  They are offering sacrifices to demons (1 Cor. 10:20).

The assertion ‘there is one God, the Father…and one Lord, Jesus Christ’ declares that only the Father and the one Lord, who is his Son, are the ways men and women are to think of God, to serve God and to worship God.  As Paul commented to the Thessalonians, ‘you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God and to wait for his Son from heaven’ (1 Thess. 1:9-10)

Against the plethora of deities in Corinth and elsewhere Paul is insisting that ‘all things’, that is, in creation and redemption, are ‘from’ the one God, the Father, but that they are ‘through’ the one Lord, Jesus the Christ.  The creation is an entity because its Creator, God is a unity.

By contrast the plurality of ‘gods many, lords many’ implied not the unity of the creation, but its fundamental dissonance, its fragmented-ness.

But according to the gospel everything is ‘from’ the Father and ‘through’ the Lord.  They, who together are ‘one’, are the source and means of the unity of the creation.  They, who together are ‘one’, are also the source of the objectivity, the other-ness of the Creation.  ‘Gods many, lords many’ was implicitly pantheistic and implied that ‘things’ were gods, to be worshipped.  Polytheism and pantheism go together.  But Christian monotheism de-deified the ‘things’ and put the creation at ‘arms length’ to humankind, objectifying it, making it subject to man’s enquiry, but not his worship.  Here the seeds of modern science were sown in the apostolic preaching, which would begin to bear fruit in late antiquity. (See Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003).

The Unity of the God and the ethical life

First Thessalonians: Sexuality

Two passages should be connected.


you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God,

            and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who            

              delivers us from the wrath to come (1:9-10).


Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you  received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave  you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification:  that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you knows how to control his own body in holiness and honour (4:1-4).

The ‘turning’ to God from the ‘many gods’ demands at the same time a radical moral ‘turning’.  In the culture of ‘many gods’ there was the acceptance of many sexual partners.  The temples of the many gods were the temples of multiple sexual encounters.  But the ‘turning’ to the God who is one required the commitment to one heterosexual spouse and to the care of the children of that union.  Closely connected to this new commitment was the ‘work ethic’ by which parents took responsibility to provide for their families.

Marital fidelity for the whole of life as an ethical response to the unity of God in creation and redemption occurs repeatedly in the Pauline corpus, no doubt reflecting Paul’s preaching and catechesis.  This in turn arose from the teaching of the Messiah, Jesus.

First Corinthians: others-centred living (agape)

All behaviour now is to be others-centred, inspired by love, for the good of others and for their moral and spiritual ‘up-building’.  But this is not merely to live virtuously, as a matter of cold duty.  All behaviour, whether truth telling, marital fidelity, purity of speech, sobriety, respect for the powers that be, working to support one’s family, contentment (the rejection of the idolatry of covetousness), gentleness and forgiveness all flow from the new relationship with the one, true and living God as revealed in the life, ethical teaching, death and resurrection of the Son of God.

The plurality of ‘many gods’ and ‘many lords’ allowed a plurality in behaviour, a lack of consistency, except that all behaviour was self-centred, not others-centred.  In Corinth each one said, ‘I am of Paul, I am of Apollos, or I am of Cephas’ (1 Cor. 1:12) and ‘All things are lawful to me…” (1 Cor. 6:12).

The word agape| was then of uncertain meaning and rare use and its practice was foreign to the pluralistic world.  But in the world that was the kingdom of God this new word agape reigned supreme, based on the revelation of the One God and the One Lord.  This is the antithesis of the ‘I’/‘me’ individualism in pluralistic Corinth.

The word agape and its related words fill many pages in a concordance of the Greek New Testament.  Just as advent of the computer has generated new language and acronyms, so the incarnation of Christ has generated a new agape|-based language.  ‘God so loved the world…’; ‘a new commandment…love one another, as I have loved you’.

It is striking that the passage where Paul affirms that there is ‘one’ Father, ‘one’ Lord in rejection of the ‘gods many, lords many’ is a passage where he affirms the indispensability of love (agape|) for the other person (1 Cor. 8:1-13).

            Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.  This ‘knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up. If                        anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if  anyone loves God, he is known by God (1                Cor. 8:1-3). 

‘Knowledge puffs up but love builds up’, that is, ‘builds up’ the other.  The man of ‘knowledge’ in Corinth who ‘knows’ that ‘there is no God but one’ and that there are ‘no gods’ and ‘no lords’, but yet who eats food in an idol’s temple is outwardly still an idolater, still in effect an idolater, despite his theoretically true but privatively held ‘knowledge’ about God and ‘no gods’.

‘Puffed up’ by his ‘knowledge’, true as it is, it nonetheless means that he does not ‘know as he ought to know’.  For to truly to ‘know’ the One God is to express that knowledge in truly loving the other person.  A self-centred knowing of God – even if the knowledge is accurate – that does not love the neighbour is not ‘a knowing’ of God at all, despite the truth and accuracy of that theoretical knowledge.  These are scary words for theologians and their students.  The overwhelming number of German pastors contemporary with Bonhoeffer were rock solid about justification by faith but went along with the Nazis in their hatred of the Jews, in acquiescing in the ‘final solution’.

When we read First Corinthians we find there is a single Corinthian ethic underlying the many issues Paul deals with.  Underlying factionalism, fornication, litigiousness, temple attendance, the eucharistic meal, tongues-speaking and resurrection denial, there is one Corinthian foible.  ‘Each one of you says, I’; ‘all things are lawful for me’.  Life in pluralistic Corinth was all about ‘I…me’.

The theological worldview of ‘many gods’ and the ethic of ‘me-centredness’ went together. Societies that have a worldview of ‘many gods’ and the ethic of ‘me-first’ are societies with limited future, despite their wealth and technological achievement.  Dissonant plurality in theology is inevitably expressed in the dissonant ethic of selfishness and points to inevitable social fragmentation.

It is for this reason that Paul repeatedly calls his congregations to exercise ‘truth-in-love’.  The Graeco-Roman context was one of endless squabbles and discord, a dissonance that was all too easy to express in the social life of the churches of Paul’s mission, but also today.  Not only is this discord debilitating for a congregation’s mission to bring Christ to the world, equally it gives expression to the ego-centred ethic that is the accompaniment of the pluralistic worldview.  The body of people who together confess the great catholic creeds must also be a people united in others-centred love.  Not to do so is to deny the ultimate truth of those creeds.

It is striking that in Paul’s list of 15 ‘works of the flesh’ in Galatians 5:19-21, which he says are ‘evident’, no less than 8 are social sins – enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy.  (Philo’s vice list has 141 items!)  Paul warns the Galatians against ‘biting and devouring one another’ and he pleads with them not to become ‘conceited, provoking one another, envying one another’.  Whether Paul is addressing a congregation in Galatia, Corinth, Colossae, Philippi or Rome, again and again the message is the same, his plea for unity based on love and humility.  It is not just because of a shared sinful nature that he must make these pleas.  It is because a pluralistic worldview implies a me-first ethical pluralism, a worldview that they claim to have abandoned.

The apostolic message directed the hearers to the One God (unity) in place of many gods (plurality); and to a single ethic, the ethic of love (agape), a way of living that is others-centred (a source of unity) in place of me-centredness (plurality, an inevitable source of division).  The agape ethic is a corollary of the of the Christo-centric theology.

Agape underlies every ethical challenge Paul makes throughout First Corinthians.  But it is an agape that is informed by the ultimate expression of others-centredness, the others-centredness of the Lord who was crucified for others.  Agape is no mere virtue, amongst other virtues, as proposed by the ethicists of Paul’s day.  This agape| was incarnated in the crucified man, the Kyrios.

The apostolic standard agape was and is a hard standard to attain and it is never fulfilled completely.  Yet our best efforts, as strengthened by the Spirit of God, make a radical difference to the way Christians live against the backdrop of the way societies are.  That is the power of apostolic teaching and the power of the Spirit of God.

Paul Barnett


[1]For example, 2 Cor. 3, which teaches the ‘end’ of the Old Covenant, was surely directed to Jewish Christians.  The Old Covenant was a covenant with ‘the house of Israel and the house of Judah’ (Jer. 31:31); it was not a covenant with Gentiles/the nations.  The ‘new perspectives’ on Judaism and Paul imply that the covenant with Israel still stands, despite Paul’s words in 2 Cor. 3.  But the covenant with Israel/Judah ‘ended’ in Christ and the coming of the Spirit.  Christian Jews in Corinth should understand that culturally they may remain Jews, but theologically they may not.  A true Jew is no longer identified by a circumcised foreskin but by ‘circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter [= law]’ (Rom 2:28).

[2]D.W.J. Gill, “Behind the Classical Facade: Local Religions of the Roman Empire,” in One God One Lord, pp. 72-87.

[3]Pausanias, Description of Greece 2.6-7.

Christmas – Myth or History?

Christmas – Myth or History?


You cannot but be impressed with the zeal of the modern sceptic and reciprocally unimpressed with the lethargy of the contemporary Christian.  Right on track the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Weekend (3rd December, 2011) has a lengthy and well-researched article, Divine Intervention’ (Fenella Souter) in which she debunks the historical basis for the first Christmas.

Her two main arguments are that there are only two gospel accounts and that they are contradictory, with the addition of many fictional details.

It’s true that there are two accounts (Matthew and Luke) but it is no less true that John’s whole Gospel is focused on the Eternal and Divine Word who ‘became flesh’.  John’s description of a believer’s rebirth ‘without blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God’ (1:13) seems to be based on the virgin conception of Christ (born ‘without blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God’).  Paul likewise taught the ‘incarnation’ of the Son of God from his pre-existent deity to his human life culminating in his degradation as a crucified felon  (Phil. 2:5-8).  Paul teaches that ‘when the time had fully come’ Christ was ‘born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem…’ (Gal. 4:4-6).  So while it’s true that there are only two sustained narratives of that first Christmas the writings of John and Paul are consistent with historical narratives like Matthew and Luke.

Matthew and Luke wrote independently of each other, arising out of source material peculiar to them.  Matthew was a Jew writing for Jewish Christians and Luke a Gentile (God-fearer?) writing for Gentile readers.  Matthew focuses on Joseph with little mention of Mary and Luke focuses on Mary with little mention of Joseph.  Luke writes in terms of OT birth narratives; Matthew is more ‘matter of fact’.  Their respective genealogies are so different as to be irreconcilable.

By way of example, both the Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian reported on the ALP Conference.  The journalists brought out different things from their respective viewpoint for their varying readership.  Yet it was the same conference  –  (where) in Sydney; (when) 1st week of December, 2011.

Is it a problem that Gospel writers should put things differently?

Islam believes that the Qur’an was written as by God through a Dictaphone; there was no human involvement.  Christianity, however, holds that the books of the Bible were each written by a human person each with distinctive vocabulary, grammar, personality, etc.  Equally it believes that God inspired the writers so that what they wrote is trustworthy and authoritative, the Word of God.  So it is no problem that Matthew and Luke see things from their viewpoints for their respective readers.  If Matthew and Luke said exactly the same thing in exactly the same way it would indeed be a problem and make us suspicious.

Despite fundamental differences in style (and genealogies) there is agreement:

Matthew               Luke.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem                                    2:1                         2:2

In time of Herod (d. 4 BC)                                            2:1                         1:5

Mother: Mary                                                                    1:18                     1:26

Father: Joseph (named the child)                              1:18                      1:26

But not the biological father                                         1:16, 20, 22        1:34; 3:23

Brought up in Nazareth in Galilee                               2:22-23                 2:39

From the line of David                                                    1:1                      1:32

The biggest problem in the accounts is that Matthew already has Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem whereas Luke describes their journey there from Nazareth.  Is this insurmountable?  Perhaps Matthew did not know about the journey.  Alternatively, his preoccupation with Jesus’ descent from David may have inclined him to focus on Bethlehem, the city of David.  Either way the difference is not fatal to the integrity of the accounts.

Another issue is that the census in Luke 2:2 appears to relate to a later census in AD 6 conducted by Quirinius.  But it is possible that Luke is referring to a lesser known census that was held some years before the Quirinius census.

What about ‘post card’ items in the narratives?  ‘Magi’ were students of astrology and astronomy that arose in Mesopotamia who might have been expected to be interested in spectacular ‘signs’ in the heavens, especially when such signs were held to be portends of great events. What about the ‘star’?  There was a conjunction of planets in 6 BC and a comet in 5 BC. Time Magazine 27/12/1976 wrote: ‘There are those who dismiss the star as nothing more than a metaphor…others take the Christmas star more literally, and not without reason. Astronomical records show that there were several significant celestial events around the time of Jesus’ birth’. What about the ‘shepherds’?  Bethlehem was ‘sheep’ country; the whole middle-east is sheep country.  Sheep were also needed for sacrifice in the temple in nearby Jerusalem.  And the ‘manger’, is that feasible?  Stone food troughs are still to be seen in Israel, e.g., at Caesarea Maritima near the theatre.  It is a problem that 25th December should be the date since this is mid-winter and shepherds would not have been outside at night and the sheep secure in sheep pens.  The Gospels do not give the date of the first Christmas.

When we read Matthew 1:18-23 we learn the following:

1.            Jesus was ‘born king of the Jews’ (Matt. 2:1).   He was the long-awaited Messiah, of line of David.

2.            Joseph was ‘the husband of Mary’, not the father of Jesus (Matt. 1:16).

The child was ‘conceived…from the Holy Spirit’; he was the Son of God.

• truly human, yet uniquely the Son of God (Emmanuel) ; no mere prophet.

• uniquely able to teach us and show us the will of God.

3.            It was to fulfil ancient prophecy, God’s word of promise:   Emmanuel, God with us.

4.            David saved his people their enemies;  the Son of David saves us from our sins.

5.            We cannot separate Christmas from Good Friday.

Christmas is one huge step down, followed by other steps down into the deepest pit.

In Phil. 2:5-8 Christ, in obedience to God, did not hold on to equality with God but emptied himself to become a man, in fact a slave, who submitted to crucifixion.  The journey the Son of God took at Bethlehem he finished in Jerusalem, nailed to a cross.

All for us.

Who could invent such a story?

So don’t let the sceptics and atheists take away you hope.  The narratives of the first Christmas are grounded in historical reality and tell the story of God’s unbelievable love for lost folk, such as we all are due to our selfishness and sins.


Paul Barnett







The Corpse that Stood Up




Of course the Greeks laughed.  Their poets, whose writings had the status of ‘holy writ’, said, ‘When the dust has drained the blood of a man, once he is slain, there is no resurrection’.  ‘There is no resurrection’ is also what some of the Greek Christians in Corinth were saying, prompting Paul to write his majestic fifteenth chapter of his first letter to the church in Corinth.

The laughter in Athens and the disbelief in Corinth are understandable.  Why is that?  It’s because the words ‘resurrection of the dead’ literally mean, ‘The standing up of corpses’.  If there is one thing a corpse doesn’t do is ‘stand up’.  A corpse is a dead person and death means the total absence of life and the power to ‘stand up’.

So, corpses don’t stand up.  Greeks laughed then and their modern counterparts also laugh.  Greeks, however, did believe in the survival of the soul.  That seems a better idea, really.  It lets you have it both ways.  The dead are dead and corpses don’t stand up, but the idea of the ‘me-within-me’ lives on seems helpful.  Some of the Corinthian Christians who disbelieved that corpses stand up most likely did believe that the souls of the departed did survive.  Maybe many church people today are like those resurrection disbelievers in Corinth.  Corpses don’t stand up but the soul lives on.

We can understand that those Athenians laughed at the Jew Paul.  Corpses don’t stand up.  No one had ever seen a corpse stand up.  Athenian scholars would have heard that Jews believed that at the end of history that corpses would stand up, that is, all corpses.  But here is this strange man Paul saying that the corpse of a man did stand up, and just a few years ago, in Jerusalem.  So they laughed him out of the assembly.

Wherever he went this Paul announced that his Master had been crucified by the Romans but resurrected by the Almighty, the Creator of the universe.  Nothing else and no one else is powerful enough to make a corpse stand up.  We know about the awesome power of volcanos that shut down airlines and tsunamis, earthquakes and cyclones that smash buildings and destroy lives.  We know about the amazing acts of man that create massive A380s and huge cruise ships and electronic wizardry.  But neither the forces of nature nor the genius of man enables a corpse to stand up.  It doesn’t matter whether it is the corpse of the world’s richest or the world’s poorest, it doesn’t stand up.  From the dust it was taken and to the dust it will return.

Except for one man, just one man, the Messiah Jesus.  Like the Athenian philosophers who laughed there are many theologians who maybe don’t laugh but at least smile at the idea.   Their problem is really that they don’t hold with the idea of the Almighty Creator.  Rather they think of ‘God’ (or god) as the human spirit or inner light.  It follows that the resurrection of Jesus must be reinterpreted away from the literal to the figurative, from the objective to the subjective.  Somehow the spirit of Jesus came alive in them as they remembered him.  His resurrection was ‘in’ them and he continued to be ‘real’ to them.

But this ‘explanation’ ignores several stubborn facts.  The first is that the tomb in which the dead Jesus was placed was empty when the women came early on the first day of the week.  Each of the four gospels establishes with absolute clarity that the body of the deceased Jesus was gone.  Likewise the earliest Jerusalem tradition that Paul passed on to the Corinthians, that Christ died, was buried, was raised, appeared alive to many hundreds.  It does not say the tomb was empty but presupposes it was empty: ‘he was buried [in the tomb]’, ‘he was raised’.

So who took the corpse of Jesus from Joseph’s tomb and why?  Grave robbers?  But there was nothing to steal and why take a corpse somewhere else.  The Roman or Jewish authorities?  But they would have produced the body when the disciples began preaching the resurrection.  Disciples?  But they scoffed at the reports of the women that the tomb was empty.

Then there is the easily neglected detail that John records, that the linen wrapping was in the tomb.  An eminent medico pointed out that nobody removing a wrapped corpse would unwrap it, bloodied and scarred as it was, but leave the wrappings in place and remove it still wrapped.  But the wrappings were in the tomb.

Another stubborn fact is the witness of the independently written gospels Luke and John.  Both these gospels narrate in extensive detail that Jesus came amongst the  disciples physically, as ‘a corpse who stood up’.  He walked along the Emmaus road with two men and talked with them and later ate with them.  That night he came to the band of disciples and ate with them.  John records that Jesus showed them his hands and feet that had been pierced in crucifixion.  A week later the disbelieving Thomas was confronted with the bodily resurrected Jesus and forthwith confessed him as his ‘Lord and God’.

In fact, the entire New Testament, whether gospels or letters, insist that Jesus was raised alive from the dead, raised bodily, that God made the corpse of his Son ‘stand up’.

Two final thoughts.  There are a number of facts that define our faith so that to doubt or reject them would place us outside the boundaries of that faith, facts like the historic incarnation of the Son of God through virginal conception, his miracles and teaching, his sacrificial death as the ‘Lamb of God’ who bore the sin of the world and his bodily resurrection.  As the hymn says,

These are the facts as we have received them,
these are the facts that the Christian believes.
This is the basis of all of our preaching:
Christ died for sinners and rose from the tomb.

That, as they say, says it all.

Secondly, God’s raising of his Son is the potent sign that God is the victor over the Devil and human wickedness and the most profound basis for our hope that in the face of the last enemy death and of every lesser enemy we will be more than conquerors through him who loved us.

The Lord is risen.  He is risen indeed.

Paul Barnett

Easter 2011



Manning Clark and Luke.


Manning Clark and Luke.


Manning Clark, the legendary chronicler of Australian history, is well known for his left-leaning interpretations, including sympathetic comments about Communist Russia.  Clark, in his 1960 book Meeting Soviet Man, described Lenin as ‘Christ-like in his compassion’ and in a speech in Russia in 1970 called him ‘teacher of humanity’.  Even after Brezhnev’s brutal repression of Czechoslavakia in 1968 and other revelations of Soviet brutality Clark could only say that his earlier views on Russia were merely an ‘error of judgment’ and that he had ‘not made clear what was really in his mind’.

Being blinded by ideology is not unique to Clark as a historian.  What has now been evident for some years, however, is that Clark also lied.

‘As An old man looking back on his life, Manning Clark claimed to have seen with his own eyes the horrors of Kristallnacht. Witnessing this notorious Nazi pogrom changed his life, said Clark, and made him the historian he was. It became the most famous story of a great storyteller (David Marr, au/news/  national/manning-clarks-fraud/2007/03/04/1172943275676.html).

According to Clark, ‘I happened to arrive at the railway station at Bonn am Rhein on the morning of Kristallnacht,’ he told the poet John Tranter in 1987. ‘That was the morning after the storm troopers had destroyed Jewish shops, Jewish businesses and the synagogues. Burned them and so on…I saw the fruits of evil, of human evil, before me there on the streets of Bonn.’

But Clark was not there that day. The historian’s biographer, Mark McKenna, reveals this week in The Monthly that Clark did not reach Nazi Germany for another fortnight. The person who saw the broken glass and smoking synagogues on that morning in November 1938 was the woman Clark was to marry. ‘It was Dymphna Lodewyckx, not Manning Clark, who witnessed the immediate aftermath of Kristallnacht’ (; M. McKenna, An Eye for Eternity, MUP, 2011).

So Australia’s most famous historian is now exposed as someone who lied, and did so repeatedly about the unspeakable Kristallnacht pogrom.  It is probably the case that once we have given a version of something a few times it becomes part of us and we really believe what we are saying.  Our truth becomes the truth.

Luke, the author of the two volume Luke-Acts provides an interesting point of contrast with Clark.  In his opening words Luke makes it clear that he did not know Jesus but was dependent on written sources that the followers of Jesus had handed over to him.  Unlike Manning Clark, he does not claim to have been there.

In his second part, the book of Acts, he quietly inserts himself into the narrative.  This he does by subtly changing the narrative about Paul from ‘they’, ‘them’ to ‘we’ and ‘us’, to indicate that he was now Paul’s companion who traveled with him from Greece to Jerusalem, and later from Jerusalem to Rome.  These travels occurred over a five year period.  He does not make any fuss about this quiet change of pronouns but any casual reader of the ‘we’ passages can’t help noticing how much more detailed are these passages.  A classic example is Luke’s description of the sea voyage to Rome and the shipwreck on the rocks of Malta (Acts 27).

Luke makes it clear, as noted above, that he depends on the writings of others for his narrative about Jesus.  One such narrative is the Gospel of Mark.  Luke reproduces about half of Mark so it is easy to see what Luke does with Mark’s text.  Does Luke embellish or ‘beef’ up the Jesus that Mark writes about?  Does he change a prophet into a divine figure, for example?  In fact, Luke generally shortens Mark’s narrative and in no way does he make Jesus into something or someone else.  Mark’s Gospel is the earliest written of the four and Mark’s Jesus is already an exalted figure.  In Mark, Jesus is the Son of God, and the Son of Man, the one destined to rule the world but who, paradoxically, will be crucified by the Jewish and Roman authorities.  Luke’s version of Jesus is similar.

The example following is interesting.  In Mark Jesus reveals himself to be the ‘Son’ God finally sent to Israel.  Luke shortens Mark’s account but does not in any way exalt the figure of Jesus.

Mark 12:5-6 Luke 20:12-13
And he sent another,and him they killed;

and so with many others,

some they beat

and some they killed.


He still had one other,

A beloved son;

finally he sent him to them saying,

‘They will respect my son.’

And he sent yet a third; 

this one they wounded and cast out.





Then the owner of the vineyard said,

‘What shall I do?

I will send my beloved son;

It may be they will respect him.


Manning Clark was quite open about writing history out of a particular world-view.

Indeed, anybody writing history does so out his or her temperament, personality and values.  This would have been true also of Luke.  Clearly Luke is passionate about the mission that Jesus unleashed on the world and he writes his great Luke-Acts from that barely concealed intention.  That does not mean his narrative is untrue.  In fact, given the across the board evidence from other sources it is evident that Jesus inspired a mission to the nations of the world.  Luke is doing no more or less than the rest of the documents of early Christianity.

In any case, practical objectivity is attainable, even if that objectivity cannot ever be perfect.  Manning Clark is a great historian and anybody can quickly work out his biases and prejudices and observe, ‘Well he would say that, wouldn’t he?’

But lying, falsifying evidence is different.  It calls every page into question.  That’s the problem with lying, isn’t it?  We don’t trust liars.

The thing is, that Luke can be crosschecked.  Anybody can put a Luke passage alongside a Mark passage and come to decision about his care – or otherwise – as a scribe.  Likewise, one can check Luke’s version of his record Paul’s autobiographical speeches in the Acts against Paul’s own autobiographical references in his letters.  The vocabulary (Greek) is different but the content is the same.

Paul himself (Philippians 3:5-6) Paul according to Luke (Acts 26:5; 22:3-4
As to the law, a Pharisee

As to zeal, a persecutor of the church

I have lived as a Pharisee

Being zealous for God…I persecuted this Way unto death


This is quite remarkable.  By the time Manning Clark wrote his many books historiography had become highly sophisticated, based on careful analysis of statistics, records and archives.  None of this expertise or resources was available to Luke.  There was not even a universally recognised calendar; Romans, Greeks and Jews observed different calendars.  Yet for all these disadvantages Luke has tried hard to be truthful and careful within the parameters of his passion for the message and mission of the one he called ‘Lord’.

2nd May, 2011.






Christians through Roman Eyes

Delivered at Macquarie University 11 April, 1992
What did the pagans think of the early Christians ?
The three Romans I have chosen through whose eyes we see Christians are two early second century Roman governors Pliny and Tacitus and the fourth century historian Ammianus Marcellinus.  Each is thoroughly Roman in his outlook.

Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus took his post as Legate of Bithynia- Pontus (south of the Black Sea) in September 111 AD.  He died at his post less than two years later.

At 50 when appointed he was a youngish governor.

The nephew and adopted son of Pliny the famous naturalist and confidant of Vespasian and Titus, the younger Pliny received the best education available for an aristocratic Roman.  He complted his studies under Quintillian the noted rhetorician.  Pliny enjoyed reading the works of others as well as writing his numerous letters.  The tenth book of letters (60 letters, including Trajan’s replies) were written to the emperor while Pliny was governor of Bithynia-Pontus.

His education completed, Pliny became an advocate in a lower court devoted to property and inheritance matters.  But to fulfil the accepted career path he did a stint in the army – in Syria – but avoided active service, gravitating to a preferred posture, auditing the accounts of an auxiliary legion.  On return to Rome – where he remained until his posting to Bithynia-Pontus, Pliny rose in prominence as public figure – quastor of Domitian, tribune of the people, consul – the most honoured office, all before he was forty.  Thereafter he acted as prefect for military finances (managing a pension fund for disabled soldiers) then prefect of the state treasury.

After the death of Domitian, Pliny returned to private legal practice, awaiting the favour of the new emperor Trajan.  More prestigious appointments came – the coveted augurate, the same priesthood enjoyed by Cicero, on whose career Pliny consciously modelled himself.  Thereafter Pliny was elected president of the curators of the Tiber, the body responsible the riverbanks and the city sewer and sanitation.  In 109 or 110 he was appointed governor of the province of Bithynia-Pontus, thus reaching the pinnacle of his career.  Pliny’s expertise in administration and finance was appropriate given the numerous problems of the cities of the province to which he was sent.

A meaure of Pliny’s love of Roman values may be seen in his letter to a friend who was governor of Achaia:

never forget…how much it means to establish order in the constitution of free cities, for nothing can serve a city like ordered rule and nothing is so precious as freedom

Pliny, Epistle  8.24

On his arrival Pliny began extensive travels, especially to the coastal cities, encountering municipal fraud, maladministration and – not least – worrying evidence of private clubs and associations (hetairia).  Trajan directed that these should disband, including fire-fighting associations.  Who knows what political consequences there might be if meetings outside the official body politic were permitted.

During these travels – but to a city not identified by Pliny – the governor came across the sect of the Christians, about whom he sought the emperor’s advice.

They … repeated after me a formula of invocation to the gods and…made offerings of wine and incense to your statue (which I had brought into court for this purpose along with
images of the gods) and moreover had reviled the name of Christ: none of which things … any genuine Christian can be induced to do.

Pliny, Epistle 10


Tacitus (b. 56-d.117) was a friend and contemporary of Pliny, though not so well known. (Naturally, Pliny’s letters tell us more about Pliny than Tacitus’ historical works reveal about Tacitus).  Tacitus studied rhetoric and became famous as a speaker, as well as a historian, even within his lifetime.  A committed republican, he preferred the Roman republic at its worst to the Imperial system at its best.

A native of Narbonese, Gaul, Tacitus pursued a senatorial career under Vespasian. Under Domitian the tyrant Tacitus was appointed praetor 88, consul 88.  Trajan appointed him Proconsul to the very important province of Asia 112-113 – a measure of his competence ? – thus he held his appointment at the same time as his friend Pliny in Bithynia-Pontus, the adjoining province.

It is significant that these two contemporaries in adjoining provinces – where there were concentrations of Christians – should be the first Romans to refer to the new religion, and at about the same time. The Annals, written c.116, is separated from Christus and his execution by more than 80 years.  Tacitus’ sources of information about Christus are not known. Tacitus would have had access to Pilate’s official report of the crucifixion of Christ in Judaea, but such a report may not have been lodged in Rome. Possibly such a trial may not have been deemed worth the effort or it may have been one of many irregular trials which, according to Philo, occurred in Judaea under Pilate. More probably, however,  Tacitus’ information arose from unofficial sources.

Tacitus has no interest in the origins of Christianity for their own sake.  He is narrating the era of Nero and the great fire of Rome in 64.  Christians and Christus the founder are part of that story and only for that reason are they mentioned.

[The Christians'] originator Christ had been executed in Tiberius’ reign by the governor of Judaea, Pontius Pilate.
But in spite of this temporary set back the deadly superstition had broken out afresh, not only in Judaea , but even in Rome…

Annals of Imperial Rome  xv.44

Critical to Tacitus’ account is the application of the word superstition (superstitio) to the Christians, which disease-like not been eradicated with the execution of Christus in Judaea but broke out afresh in Judaea from which it had spread to Rome, whither in time all such plagues eventually arrive.

Thus Tacitus speaks of Christians in same terms as Pliny, and another from that same aristocratic class, Suetonius (“a new and wicked superstitio“).  The movement of the Christians was a superstitio, which was spreading like a disease throughout the empire.  We detect a sense of fear in these writers.

So what was a superstitio ?

It will not do to simply equate superstitio with our word “superstition.”  By our definition, the Romans were quite “superstitious”; one thinks of their deference to the omens, entrails and the like, which in so accomplished and rational a people strike us as odd.

By superstitio they meant something different, namely, beliefs and practices that were strange to the Romans; cults from nations conquered by the Romans which impinged on Roman government both in the provinces and in Rome itself.

Judaism is an example.  Although for political reasons Augustus and Tiberius afforded some protection for the numerous Jews within the empire, to Tacitus they were “a people prone to superstition and the enemy of true religion” [1]. This resembles his reference in the Annals to the Christians’ “hatred of the human race.”

Roman religion was public and civic in character.  It had priests, rites and ceremonies. It had a private expression, a domestic expression as well as an expression in associations and groups. But these were always a function of a piety that was associated with the Roman state.  The Roman gods were seen as binding society together.  Cicero wrote that “disappearance of piety towards the gods will entail the disappearance of loyalty and social union among men as well, and of justice itself, the queen of all virtues” [2].  Piety including to the minutiae of ceremonial observation (eg the feeding of chickens in a precise way) contributed to the well-being of society, through the providentia of the gods. Piety brought providence.

The Romans distinguished religion from superstition. “Religion has always been distinguished from superstition,” wrote Cicero.  For superstition implies groundless fear of the gods” whereas religion consisted in “pious worship of the gods” [3].  Other writers (e.g., Plutarch) declared that superstition sets people off from the rest of society because it is marked by terror of the deities and also by fanaticism.  Plutarch wrote that the superstitious man “enjoys no world in common with the rest of mankind”.  To him the gods are “rash, faithless, fickle, vengeful, cruel and easily offended” [4].

This, then, would have approximated to Tacitus¹ abhorrence of Christians. He would have seen them as at odds with his view of Roman order and the relationship between religion and that order.  They were a superstitio.

And yet for Christians, as for Jews, the state occasions when the community gathered were a difficulty precisely because of their religious character.  As one contemporary said: “What is a stage show without a god, a game without a sacrifice ” [5].  Thus the Romans chided the Christians, according to the Christian Minucius Felix, [6]:

You do not go to our shows, you take no part in our processions, you are not present at our public banquets, you shrink in horror  from our sacred games.

Hollywood’s portrayal of the Romans as lurid and debauched – influenced perhaps by the rhetorical excesses of Suetonius and Juvenal – is not true of the Roman writers Pliny and Tacitus.  According to their lights they were moral and upright.  Their attitudes towards Christians did not spring from profligate behaviour so much as from their concern for the order of the state and the danger to the state of non-Roman cults, which were private in nature and fanatical, in a word from the effects of superstitio, the spreading disease of Christian superstitio.

Ammianus Marcellinus

A Greek born in Antioch (330-d.395), Ammianus Marcellinus wrote a massive history – Res Gestae -covering AD 98-378 (Trajan to the battle of Adrianople) in Latin in self-conscious continuation with Tacitus (31 books – 1-13 lost; 13-31 cover 353-378 in fine detail, much on eye-witness basis).

As a young man Ammianus served in army under Julian the Apostate, from whom he may have heard criticisms of Christianity.  (Julian was to launch a literary attack Christian beliefs). Nonetheless, Ammianus writes without the animosity of Pliny and Tacitus, though in a somewhat deprecating tone (“synods as they call them” – suggesting Christianity was not by then well established, which it was).  His branding of laws forbidding Christian rhetoricians and grammarians as “harsh” is a direct criticism of Julian the author of those laws.  Even though he generally admires Julian he is prepared to criticise him. [7]

XXI.16 refers to Constantius II, an Arian emperor, at the height of the synodical disputes over Arianism, with many synods and much travelling by bishops at state expense.

Ammianus is not so much anti-Christian per se, as prepared to much criticisms where they were applicable. In XXI.16 it is a silly emperor and incessant seemingly pointless theological disputes which he criticizes.

In another place he notes the dissensions among Christians and their antipathy towards those with whom they differed.  Because of these dissensions Julian the Apostate had nothing to fear from the [Christian] common people, “having found from experience that no wild beasts are as hostile to men as are most Christians to one another” [8]

Again, he criticizes the disputes between Damasus (Bishop of Rome) and his rival Ursinus which led to the slaughter of 137 in the Christian basilica of Sicinius.  He comments sardonically that he understands why there should be such disputes among Christian leaders since, he writes,

“after they have succeeded, they will be free from care for the future, being enriched by offerings from matrons, riding in carriages, dressing splendidly and feasting luxuriously so that their entertainments surpass even royal banquets. And they might be really happy if, despising the vastness of the city, behind which they hide their faults, they were to live in imitation of some of the bishops of the provinces, whom the most rigid abstinence of eating and drinking, and plainness of apparel, and eyes always cast on the ground, recommend to the everlasting deity and his pure worshippers as pure and reverent men”

Res Gestae XXVII.3.12-15

Ammianus is an unbeliever, an admirer of the Apostate Julian.  Nonetheless, he can criticize Julian for foolishness or unfairness. Equally, he can see good in Christians where they are true to their profession of faith and behaviour. But he is not slow in noticing behaviour which is at odds with Christian values. As such he knows more about Christians than Pliny and Tacitus and is more moderate in his assessments.


1. Tacitus The History 5:13

2. Cicero, Nat. D. 1.4

3. Cicero, Nat. D. 117; 2.72

4. Plutarch, On Superstition 166C, 170C

5. Pseudo-Cyprian, De spectaculis 4

6. Minucius Felix Octavius 12

7. eg when Julian made an fool of himself in Antioch – Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae XXII.14.3

8. Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae XXII 5.4

The Abolition of Death: An Exegesis of 1 Cor 15:20-28

The Abolition of Death: An Exegesis of 1 Cor 15:20-28
October 1999

The Corinthian doubters were saying “there is no resurrection of the dead” (15:12). “But”, says Paul “This must mean Christ is dead and not resurrected.” God might ‘be there,’ but Christ lay dead, un-resurrected and decaying somewhere. But this could not be further from the truth, says Paul in the passage following. Rather, the risen and exalted Christ is ruling history as King defeating his enemies until his return when he ‘hands over’ his rule to God, his Father.

Many aircraft display a screen for passengers tracing the origin, progress and destination of the flight. Verses 20-28 display where history has come from, where it is going and who is in control. Paul’s history, however, is not about the rise and fall of the Egyptian, Greek, Roman, British and other empires. Rather, it is a short history of Death.

(a) Adam and the Christ (verses 20-22)

20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead,
the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.

21 For since death came through a man,
the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man.

22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.

In verses 20-22 Paul contrasts Christ with Adam. Through the first man Adam Death entered history. The ‘seed’ of every man and woman in history was present in Adam, so that all people owe their life and their physical descent to that man. But because of his sin Adam’s ‘seed’ was infected with the fatal virus called ‘Death’ so that all his descendants must die. The man Christ, however, has been raised from the dead, making possible the resurrection of the dead for others.

For just as in Adam all die so also in the Christ all will be made alive verse 22.

Paul refers to the extremities of the history of Death, its beginning and its end. Adam introduced Death, but the Christ will abolish Death.

And the reason ? It is because Christ has been raised from the dead on Easter day that all will be raised alive on the Last Day. Here Paul uses the language of the ‘firstfruits’ reaped early in anticipation of the whole harvest. Christ as raised from the dead was the historic ‘firstfruits’ of a ‘harvest’ of the dead that will be raised on the Last Day. With the resurrection of Christ the harvest was begun, but it has been temporarily ‘put on hold’ to allow opportunity for more and more people to be ‘reaped’ for the Kingdom. The resurrection of the dead has begun, but has been interrupted in the mercy of God.

In this passage, and indeed, in this whole chapter, Paul is not addressing the question of the judgement of all people at the General Resurrection (see, e.g., 2 Cor. 4:14; 5:10). Rather, Paul is ignoring the future of the unbeliever and concentrating onthe abolition of Death for those who are ‘in Christ.’ For those who are ‘in Christ’ his resurrection has already defeated Death, at least in principle. Those who have died ‘in Christ’ are said to be ‘asleep,’ ready and waiting to be roused from sleep by the Lord at his Coming (verse 23).

(b) Each in his Own Order (verses 23-24)

23 But each in his own turn:
Christ, the firstfruits;
then, when he comes, those who belong to him.

24 Then the end will come,
when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father
after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power.

Paul sets out the sequence of events that will culminate in the abolition of Death.

But, each ‘in its own order’ (verse 23-24):

Christ, the resurrected ‘firstfruits.’
Then, at his coming,
the resurrection of those who belong to the Christ.
Then, the End when
he hands over the kingdom to God his Father, and
he abolishes every dominion.

There is a divine ‘order’ here, as seen in ‘Christ raised from the dead…then… then…’ Christ, the ‘firstfruits’ has already been raised, at the First Easter, as Paul reminded them (see on verse 4). This is an accomplished fact of history. But still in the future is another historical event, Christ’s ‘Coming’ (parousia). This word, which is regularly used of Christ’s return (See e.g., Matt. 24:3, 27, 37, 39; 1 Thess. 2:19; Jas. 5:7; 2 Pet. 3:4; 1 Jn 2:28), was often employed for the grand appearing of an emperor or other high dignitary. At his ‘Coming’ those who ‘belong to the Christ,’ that is, those who are ‘asleep in him’ will, like him, be raised from the dead (see verse 20). Then follows ‘the End’ (telos), a word for ‘goal,’ or ‘end-point,’ but which has the idea of ‘perfection’ (see on 13:10; cf. 1 Pet. 4:7). In the verses following Paul explains what will happen then.

(c) The Kingdom of Christ (verses 25-26)

25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.

26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

When he was raised from the dead and exalted Christ assumed his kingly rule. This kingship is expressed in the language of Psalm 110:1, the OT text most quoted in the NT:

Yahweh said to my Lord [= the Christ],
‘Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies your footstool.’

Paul identified the ‘enemies’ of the Christ as various malevolent spiritual forces, whom he calls ‘all rule,’ ‘all authority,’ ‘power’ and ‘death’ itself. These are the ‘enemies’ over whom Christ must reign as king until they are all finally ‘abolished.’ Christ exercises his kingly rule and abolishes these ‘powers’ through the preaching of the Gospel of himself crucified and risen. Through this Gospel sins are forgiven and those formerly in bondage are set free from the powers of darkness and, in the power of the Holy Spirit, brought under the dominion of Christ (Col. 1:13-14).

According to a tacky advertisement for a funeral company, ‘Death is just a natural part of life.’ This is not the way death is viewed by ordinary people. Death brings the one precious life we have to its end. Death takes loved ones and friends from us. Nor is this the view of Paul the apostle. For Paul death was unnatural, a malevolent spiritual’ enemy,’ a blight caused by sin, the ‘last’ and most formidable ‘enemy’ of God.

The last enemy being abolished is Death.

The verb tense is important. Katargeitai, ‘is being abolished,’ is present passive which means that Death is being abolished by God. Thus Death ‘is being abolished (present tense) because the risen Christ is reigning as king (present tense) as men and women hear the Gospel of his death and resurrection and begin to ‘belong to’ him. But Death will be finally and visibly removed at the Coming of Christ.

(d) The End of Kingly Rule (verses 27-28)

27 For he “has put everything under his feet.”
Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him,
it is clear that this does not include God himself,
who put everything under Christ.

28 When he has done this,
then the Son himself will be made subject to him
who put everything under him,
so that God may be all in all.

The risen Christ rules throughout this age until his Coming (parousia – verse 23c), the arrival of the End (telos – verse 24a), when all his ‘enemies’ will have been ‘abolished,’ Death in particular. At that time Christ will ‘hand over’ his kingly rule to God his Father (verse 24 b).

Indeed, it was God who placed all things under Christ’s feet (verse 27). It was only ever a delegated rule, not an autonomous one. Here Paul appeals to Psalm 8:6:

Thou [God] hast set him [the Son of Man]
over the works of thy hands.

Paul does not quote, but rather echoes, this text in his own words, ‘All things are put in subjection to him,’ that is, by God. God is not among the ‘all things’ that are subject to Christ. Rather, God placed Christ over the works of God’s hands.

Hence it is appropriate that once the ‘enemies’ of God including Death are finally vanquished by the Son that he himself should ‘hand over’ his kingship to the Father and be subject to him (verse 28). The humility and obedience of Christ shown in his incarnation and dreadful death (Phil. 2:5-8; cf. 2 Cor. 10:1) is shown also in his voluntary subjection to the Father once his work of ruling is completed. From that moment God will be ‘all in all,’ which is Paul idiomatic way of saying that God will reign supreme over all that is evil and that has been opposed to him. Then we will ‘see God face to face’ and we will ‘know him as we have been known’ (13:12).

No human commentary on Paul’s words can equal the inspired text of John in his book of Revelation.

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“Now the dwelling of God is with men,
and he will live with them.
They will be his people,
and God himself will be with them and be their God.

He will wipe every tear from their eyes.
There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain,
for the old order of things has passed away.”

Revelation 21:3-4

The Gospels, History and God


That God the Creator is not visible to the human eye is something we cannot deny.  Yet the astonishing claim of the New Testament is that the invisible, intangible Creator has made himself known to the human senses of sight, hearing and touch.

No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.
John 1:18

In [Christ] the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily
Colossians 2:9

These assertions were the more remarkable since Jewish men, John and Paul, made them.  The Second Commandment prohibited any visual portrayal of God and the Shema’ taught that God was ‘one’, thereby excluding any idea that a man or angel could be regarded as a deity.  Yet such was the impact of Jesus that these Jews were compelled radically to rethink their ideas about God.

The implication is breathtaking.  The unseen God has shown himself and he has done so not partially or as a passing glimpse, but fully and clearly.  God has done this for a kindly purpose, to draw men and women and children into a loving and deeply personal relationship with him.  Flawed and broken though we humans are, God has made it possible for us to honour him by our dependence on him and by our joyous service.  In other words, we humans find lifes otherwise mysterious meaning now revealed in knowing and loving the One who has come to us.

God has revealed himself in this way in and through the Messiah Jesus at a particular time and a particular place, that is, in Palestine in the era of the Roman emperor Tiberius.  In other words God has done this at a historical moment, as documented in the Gospels.

These Gospels have two unique and connected characteristics.  They are historical biographies about Jesus back then (and would have been recognised as such at the time) but equally they are the word of God to us now.  God meets us dynamically and spiritually as we read and hear the gospel, which is God’s own and living word.

Atheists and History[i]

Aggressive atheists who seek to disprove God make historical attacks on the New Testament as part of their strategy.  Their instincts are correct.  Destroy the historical credibility of the Gospels and you destroy the credibility of Jesus and by so doing destroy belief in God.  Christopher Hitchens is clear:

The case for biblical consistency or authenticity or ‘inspiration’ has been in  tatters for some time, and the rents and tears only become more obvious with better research, and thus no ‘revelation’ can be derived from that quarter.[ii]

Hitchens is wide of the mark in asserting that “the case for biblical consistency has been in tatters” but he is correct in seeing the importance of attacking the Bible as a way of discrediting belief in God.

This provokes the question: how well do these prominent atheists know the Bible and its historical setting?  In fact: surprisingly not very well, despite their high qualifications in other disciplines.

Richard Dawkins refers to anecdotes about the boy Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas[iii] which he confuses with the Infancy Story of  Thomas; the Gospel of Thomas contains no narrative but is a collage of Jesus’ words.  Even worse, Dawkins attributes the story of the Magi to the Gospel of Luke when it appears in the Gospel of Matthew.[iv] Dawkins goes so far as to question the very existence of Jesus.[v] Here he depends on the opinions of Professor G.A. Wells, who, however, is not a historian but a scholar in German studies.  No reputable ancient historian doubts that Jesus was genuine figure of history.  Again, Dawkins reveals his ignorance in ascribing a tribal harshness (out-group hostility) to Jesus as in the Old Testament.[vi] But Jesus’ “friendship with sinners” and social outcasts is one of the most secure details about him.  Finally, Dawkins is wrong in asserting the Gospels were as much works of fiction as Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.[vii] Biblical scholars, however, have reached a consensus in viewing the Gospels as identifiable historical biographies.[viii]

Another prominent atheist is Michel Onfray who thinks the hope of eternal life is based on the monotheistic faiths arising in the desert.

I thought of the lands of Israel, Judaea and Samaria, of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, of Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee. Places where the sun bakes men’s heads, desiccates their bodies, afflicts their souls with thirst. Places that generate a yearning for oases where water flows cool, clear and free, where the air is balmy and fragrant, where food and drink are abundant. The afterlife suddenly struck me as a counterworld invented by men exhausted and parched by their ceaseless wanderings across the dunes or up and down rocky trails baked to white heat.[ix]

This is incorrect.  Lakeside Galilee is admittedly hot in the summer but in a sub-tropical not desert sense.  It is a lush fertile area that grows bananas, mangos and avocados in abundance.

More could be said.  It is clear from these serious errors that Dawkins, Hitchens and Onfray are not well informed about the New Testament or its historical and geographical setting.  Their errors, however, serve to make us appreciate the true authenticity of these texts in their contexts.

The Gospels, History and God

Belief in the credibility of the Gospels in itself does not bring one into contact with God.  This occurs as we hear and personally engage with the message of God’s love.  If, however, we believe there are serious and substantial doubts about the veracity of the texts then it is difficult for us to hear God speaking through them.  The aggressive atheists betray inferior knowledge of the New Testament but they are right in seeing those texts as worthy targets of their attacks.

My argument, however, is that the data about Jesus the Messiah in the New Testament is soundly based according to the highest standards of historical analysis.  We should be confident in believing Jesus’ words to us and in his death and resurrection for us.  By doing so we are brought into the presence of God.











[i]This section owes much to an unpublished paper of Dr Jon Dickson, The Nouveaux Atheists, delivered at Macquarie University Sydney (10 May, 2008).

[ii]Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (Twelve, 2007),122.

[iii]Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Bantam Press, 2006), 96

[iv] Dawkins, Delusion, 94.

[v]Dawkins, Delusion, 250

[vi] Dawkins, Delusion, 257.

[vii] Dawkins, Delusion, 97.

[viii]See generally R.A. Burridge, What are the Gospels: A Comparison With Graeco-Roman Biography. Cambridge University Press, 1992).

[ix] Michel Onfray,  Atheist Manifesto (Arcade Publishing 2005), xi.