Multiculturalism, Religious Pluralism and The Uniqueness of Christ.

 

1.         Multiculturalism Today.

In recent years many countries have experienced a shift in religious attitudes. Countries like Britain, Canada and Australia that were formerly “Christian,” at least in name, are now “multicultural”socially and in religion, pluralist.  Their temples and houses of worship tell us that Muslims and Hindus are no longer people in distant places to whom we sent missionaries.  They are now here, alongside us.  At the same time, in former colonial societies like Canada and Australia, there has been a dramatic upswing of support for indigenous peoples in recognition of past evils perpetrated against them, including – it is asserted – by the religion of the imperialist colonizers, Christianity.  Indigenous religion and spirituality is increasingly appreciated.   In short, the sense of local monopoly that Christians once had is no more.  All the signs are that it has gone forever.  Newcomers to our shores, with their religions, are given equal rights in all things in the public arena, as is only fair.  Implicit in this new situation is the possibility that Jesus is only “a way, a truth and a life” and that it is no longer acceptable to claim that “no one comes to the father but by [him].”

Relationships between Christians and members of other religions is obviously important.  Common humanity dictates that courtesy and decency is extended by all parties.  Muslims have long memories stretching back to the injustices of the crusades.  Hindus remember too well the paternalism of the “Christian” colonial era.  The playing field for all parties is now more or less level.  Christians now have the opportunity to witness to the Lord Jesus by showing love and concern to fellow-citizens of different faiths, not from a position of superiority but from the new reality of equality.

But what does this mean for Christian attitudes to their religions  ?  Should we attempt to persuade them of “our truth and their error”  ?  Should we evangelize others of different faiths ?  Should we accomodate ourselves to them theologically ?

2.         Theological Accomodation.

In recent years various theological responses have been offered to the growing sense of the presence and influence of other religions.[1]

2.1         Inclusivism.

Since Vatican 2 a number of Roman Catholic theologians have taught that earnest members of non-Christian religions are really worshipping Christ, though they are unaware of it.  Karl Rahner coined the term, “anonymous Christian” and Raimundo Pannikar, an Indian, wrote a book entitled, The Unknown Christ of Hinduism.  Quite understandably members of other religions have not warmed to the idea that they are really Christians after all.  Is this not paternalism by another name ?  Besides, there is no biblical warrant  for this approach.

2.2         Pluralism.

Among numerous writers John Hick is prominent among those who advocate  a pluralistic approach to God.  According to Hick there is but one God, whom the faithful in the various religions are actually worshipping.  Every religion has developed within a concrete  historical context; one’s religion is “an accident of birth,” whether Christian, Hindu or Muslim.  This view challenges the proposition of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the only saviour.

It can be objected that whereas “inclusiveness” speaks of the “anonymous Christ” in other religions “pluralism” affirms the “anonymous God” whom all, without their knowledge, are actually worshipping.  Besides, pluralism by definition dispenses with discrimination.  It must logically include all religious activity, even witchcraft.

Pluralism is at odds with the totality of NT teaching about the uniqueness of Christ[2] Even if, for the sake of argument – and this is not my own view, one has difficulty accepting all the words of Jesus as quoted in the gospels as his ippsisima verba, his very words, there can be no doubt that those gospels echo and give expression to his teachings, including his claims to uniqueness as the only way to the Father.  Those who committed to writing the teachings of the greatest Rabbi would not dare wilfully to change his teachings or to put teachings into his mouth he he would not have said.

2.3         Mysticism.

A sub-set of pluralism is the theory that “God” is to be experienced mystically by members of different religions, above and beyond those religions.  According to Frithjof Schuon, The Transcendent Unity of Religions (1993), the various religions are concrete and finite vehicles, from which, nonetheless, those who meditate meet ultimately in God.  The Hindu is right to be Hindu, and the Christian is right to be Christian; earnest commitment to the particular is reasonable.  But the things which, from our human viewpoint are absolute and true, are merely relative from the divine perspective.

There are echoes here of the third century philosopher Plotinus, who combined Platonic thought with eastern mysticism; Plotinus is believed to have travelled to India and to have been exposed to Hindu teaching.  According to Plotinus the One is a Unity-Absolute from which all plurality proceeds.  Union with the One is the supreme self-realization.  The proposition of a “God who is above and beyond,” who is the focus of the various religions and yet not ultimately revealed in any of them sounds rather like a re-cycled form of Plotinus’ Neo-Platonism.

Does this mystical way make any moral discrimination, for example, against a revival of the occult or witchcraft  ?  Appeal is made to do just that as well as the need to belong to a secure religious base or community from which to know God in this way.  This caution restricts religious expression to existing faith communities which have been tested over time.  However, one must ask why this should be done and by what criteria one “faith” (e.g., Christianity) would be acceptable and another  (e.g., Satanism) would not be acceptable.

One senses here an overriding post-modernism, which allows for individualism of belief, but yet tends to be harsh in its judgements, for example, towards any form of fundamentalism, Christian, Muslim or Hindu.  Mystic-pluralism  is, then, judgemental after all and its canons are those of the political correctness of the intellectual elites.  It is to say, the Muslim is right, the Christian is right and the Hindu is right and no one is wrong, but let none of them say with any seriousness that others are wrong and they are right.

It is doubtful whether this view will satisfy any one except the religious dilletante.  Those who hold a high view of their faith, as a revelation of the divine, will not be enthusiastic at propositions of religious indifferentism.  For their part, Christians who hold to a biblical faith will not agree with these mystical paths to the One Being.

 

3.         The Pluralistic Environments of the Old and New Testament.

During the 1950’s the SCM series Studies in Biblical Theology published texts which highlighted the pluralistic environments of the OT and NT 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 in which it was born.  More recently, and based on more 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 made the same point.

Religious pluralism, which may be new to us, is not new against a broader historical background.  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.

4.         The Uniqueness of Yahweh.

The proposition of the uniqueness of Christ begins with the uniqueness of Yahweh, the covenant God of Israel.  According to the Shema, God said

“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.”[3]

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.  That he is “one,” is not a statement of arithmetic relating to an indivisible monotheism.  Rather, it asserts that he is “one,” in the sense that he is incomparably, incontestably unique.   This is the teaching of the Law and the Prophets.

The prophet Isaiah makes a number of “I am” statements on behalf of Yahweh, for example,  “I am the Lord, and there is no other.”[4] Jesus, too, makes “I am” statements, apart from “I am the bread…,” etc.  It has been long-recognised[5] that Jesus’ absolute ego| eimi statements in John relate in some way to Yahweh’s words jani hu / “I am” quoted  in Isaiah, for example

I am he who bears witness concerning myself                  John 8:18

Unless you believe that I am, you shall die in your sins         John 8:24

When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you shall know that I am John 8:28

Before Abraham was I am John 8:58

In LXX Isaiah 43:10 Yahweh said,

I am (ego| eimi) a witness, says the Lord your God….that you may know and believe and understand that I am (ego| eimi).

The author of this gospel is presenting Jesus as making claims “as if” Yahweh the God of Israel.  The question must be asked, why would this author have so-presented Christ if this was not true historically of Jesus’ own attitudes and teachings.  The question is especially pointed when NT writers across the board present Jesus in this way (see e.g., “Many will come in my name saying, ego| eimi ”- Mk 13:6).

 

5.         Pluralism in Corinth.

Corinth, like other cities in the Graeco-Roman world, was pluralist in religion, with “many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords.’”[6] Pausanias, a travel writer who visited Corinth some time after Paul, describes numerous temples and shrines to a bewildering array of deities in the public square (Gk. agora)  of the Achaian capital – for Artemis, Dionysius, Fortune, Apollo, Poseidon, Aphrodite, Hermes, Zeus, Athena, Octavia the sister of Augustus.[7]

Tourists who visit the remains of classical civilizations may 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.[8] Moreover, these were societies which sanctioned bloody combats in the arena, exposed their unwanted children to the elements and bought and sold men, women and children as slaves.  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.

 

6.         The Uniqueness of Christ.

6.1         In 1 Corinthians: the Unique Lord.

In the face of such pluralism, religious and ethical, in which the Corinthian Christians had previously freely participated, Paul rehearses the following statements introduced by “we know.”  Some kind of prior catechetical instruction is presupposed by  Paul’s “we know” -type statements.

We know that ‘an idol has no real existence’
and
‘there is no God but one.’

Negatively, Paul and the Corinthians “know” that no reality exists behind man-made gods, but positively that there is “no God but one.”  The latter confession, “There is no God but one,” is adapted from the Shema, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one” and is also found in various other statements in the NT, 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.”[9]

“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.”[10] There it is affirmation clinched by denial. “I am the Lord, and there is no other.”  In the Pauline catechism 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” completely rules 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” (Gk. pheugete apo te|s eido|lolatrias ) and “what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons.”[11] In the face of their stubborn continuing involvement in their temples Paul urges in the Second Letter, “Come out from them and be separate from them…and touch nothing unclean.”[12]

It should be noted that the temple worship in question frequently involved the sacrifice of animals.  Moreover, cultic prostitution often occurred within the cultus of the temple.  Paul urges the Corinthians to “flee” from the twin and connected evils of eido|lolatria and porneia. [13]

Paul then continues in a brief creed-like statement expressing this “one”-ness or uniqueness of God in terms of his final, now-completed revelation in the “one…Father” and the “one…Lord, [his Son].”  Through the coming, death and resurrection of Christ, the unique God of Israel has now disclosed himself as “the Father” of “one” who is “Lord,” Jesus Christ.  The unique God has revealed himself uniquely from the inside to the world as “Father” of the man who is Jesus Christ the Lord.

but for us
there is one God, the Father,
from whom are all things
for    whom we exist
and

one Lord, Jesus Christ,
through whom are all things
and through whom we exist.

The gods do not exist in the way the Corinthians think they do.  They are “so-called gods” or “said-to-be gods.”  Yet though they do not exist the Corinthians are connected with spiritual forces as they worship these apparent deities.  They are offering sacrifices to demons.[14] The assertion “there is one God, the Father….and one Lord, Jesus Christ” declares that only to the Father, through the one Lord, who is his Son, are men and women 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.”[15]

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.  Christ is the agent of both creation and redemption.

Paul summed up his ministry as, “We proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord.”[16] The church’s confession, perhaps associated with baptism, was “Jesus is Lord.”[17] Solemnly, he declares, “If any one does not love the Lord, let him be anathema.  Maran atha, ‘Lord come.’”[18] Against the background of “many lords” the Corinthians must understand that there is but one true Lord, the Messiah Jesus.

6.2         In 2 Corinthians: the Unique Sin-Bearer.

In Second Corinthians Christ’s role in redemption is emphasized.[19] Having spoken of the “new creation” which is “in Christ” Paul moves on to speak about “reconciliation with God,” a concept which he now introduces in his letters.  “All this,” that is, the new creation, “is from God who through Christ reconciled us to himself…”[20]

He continues, God was in Christ reconciling the world (Gk. kosmos) to himself not counting their trespasses against them…

The grammar is important.  The present tense “was…reconciling” and “not counting” of v. 19 emphasizes the thoroughly completed nature of “reconciled” (aorist tense, completed action) in v. 18.  The third person pronouns “their trespasses…against them” underscores the reality that the trespasses of all the people in the world now said to be reconciled to God have been dealt with, at least potentially in the death of Christ.

The same cosmic or universal note is struck earlier in the words, “one died for all, therefore all died…”[21] The “one” who was qualified to die “on behalf of (Gk. hyper) all” must, indeed, be a unique “one.”  Is Paul again picking up the Shema ?

Paul continues:

And he died for all,
that those who live might no longer live for themselves
but to him who for their sake died and as raised.

He does not say, “he died for all that they might live” as if “all will live.”  That would be a form of universalism that believes that “all” will “live,” regardless of their response to Christ’s love for them.  Rather, Paul puts it, “he died for all that those who live.”  “Those who live” represents a smaller circle within the universal circle of the “all” for whom he died.  God’s intention is that the “those” who respond to him should “live for him who for their sake died and was raised.”  Within the great circle of “all” humanity for whom Christ died there is a smaller circle of “those” who now no longer live ego-centrically, but Christo-centrically.  Here on one hand is the world, the human cosmos, but here on the other, within that cosmos, is the true people of Jesus Christ who are reconciled to God in him and who now live for him.

The words, “One died for all…he died for all” anticipates and points to the climax of the passage:

For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.[22]

In life Christ “knew no sin” yet he was “made sin” [by God] in his death for others.  His sinlessness in life qualified him to be their sin-bearer in death.  He was their sin-bearer before God, in order that “in him” we might be deemed to be the “righteous ones” of God.  Corporately, all who are “in him” through faith-commitment are dedicated, forgiven to God as his holy ones.

Christ is the “one” who died and was raised for “all,” that is, for “the world,” to bring about its reconciliation to God, from whom its community of people is alienated by sin.  His person and work is sufficient for the totality of humankind throughout the whole of history.  Yet theology has always asserted that Christ crucified and risen is even greater  and bigger than the task he came to accomplish, the reconciliation of human-kind.  He is a figure so incomparably unique that words are inadequate to portray him.

Yet not all are “in him,” either because they are as yet uninformed about him or because they are disobedient towards him.  Does he, nonetheless, somehow save them, regardless of their positive response to him ?  The answer based on 2 Corinthians 5:14-21 must be in the negative.  No universalism is possible from that passage.

This great passage  by no means exhaust Paul’s reflections on this majestic person.

In another passage his words, “you know…that” reminds the readers what they have already been taught through the gospel.  An echo of carechetical teaching is once again to be heard.  In this verse both incarnation and atonement are in view.

For you know the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ,
that

for you, rich though he was
he became poor,
that you through his poverty
might be made rich.[23]

“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ” is a benediction Paul often prayed for the churches.[24] In this verse, however, he expands upon Christ’s gracious action for his people.  (The pointed repetition of “you” at the beginning of each leg is directed at the Corinthians who were anything but generous !)

Again the grammar is important.  The Lord Jesus Christ “being rich” (Gk. plousios o|n – present participle) speaks of his previous state as one of continuous, unlimited condition of wealth.  “He became poor” (Gk. epto|cheusen) points to a specific time and a specific place.  Here Paul has in mind Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, but also his indigent life in Galilee (with “nowhere to lay his head”) and his God-forsaken death at Golgotha.  He was rich in heaven, but he became poor on earth.

But this was intentional, as the purposive particle hina shows.  “He became poor so that you…might be made rich.”  The verb (Gk. ploute|se|te) is aorist and divine passive[25]; at a particular moment God made his people rich.  When was that moment ?  It was revealed earlier in chapter 5 verse 21.  It was in the “poverty” of his death at Golgotha that he “became poor.”  At that time he was “made sin” we were made rich in the righteousness of God.  We were made rich precisely because he became poor.

We must confine ourselves to one remaining passage.  Here Paul sets Christ within an eternity to eternity frame of reference.  In the preaching of the historic Son of God God has said, “yes” to his promises made under the old covenant.  Beyond that, however, this Son of God is God’s unambiguous, never-to-be-retracted “yes.”

As surely as God is faithful, our word to you is not yes and no.
For the Son of God, Jesus Christ,
whom we preached among you, Silvanus, Timothy and I,
did not become yes and no; but in him it has become and is yes.
For all the promises of God find their yes in him.
That is why we utter the ‘amen’ to God through him.[26]

Paul is replying to Corinthian accusations that he has broken his word to them, promising to return directly to them (saying “yes”), but knowing in his heart that he would do something else (meaning “no”).  Paul replies that his personal word (Gk. logos) is inseparable from his preached word; his own word is as certain and unambiguous as  God’s word which he has preached among them.

God’s word, as preached in Corinth is centred on the Son of God, Jesus Christ, in fulfilment of the promises in the OT scriptures.  Again Paul’s verb tenses are quite important.  There is a contrast between “did not become” (Gk. egeneto – aorist tense) and “has become and is” (Gk. gegonen – perfect tense).  Paul is saying that the Son of God became God’s “yes” in his birth and in his historic ministry, and that as a consequence of that historic ministry, but also of his death, resurrection and exaltation he has become and forever will remain God’s “yes,” his standing affirmation.  The absoluteness of the divine “yes” demands our recognition of his unqualified uniqueness.

This Son of God, who became and now remains God’s everlasting “yes” Paul also refers to as, “Christ…is the image (Gk. eiko|n) of God.”[27] This is “the Lord” whom he preaches.[28]

7.         The Christ of Faith is the Jesus of History.

The last two decades have witnessed a flood of books about the historical Jesus.  Many of them are quite humanistic in their attitude, denying the deity, miracles and resurrection of Jesus.  As it happens, this interest in the historical but all too human Jesus corresponds with the many  “lives of Jesus” which appeared in latter decades of the nineteenth century.  The historical Jesus then was, to generalize, a figure of religious idealism (expressing the romanticism of the nineteenth century); the late twentieth century Jesus is a political idealist and activist (expressing our preoccupation with politics).  Now as then, a wedge is driven between the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith,” to pick up the title of Martin Kähler’s famous book, which he then wrote against the “lives of Jesus” movement and which remains thoroughly worth reading.

Prominent among recent biographers of Jesus is John Dominic Crossan.  According to Crossan Jesus was a Galilean social subversive who was crucified but who was buried but not raised from the dead.  This is typical of many versions of Jesus.  For some he is a devout rabbi.  To others, a fiery apocalyptist.  To others, a zealot sympathizer.  To some he is thoroughly Jewish, to others as much Greek as Jewish.  Among the many Jesuses on offer the common element is that he was not raised bodily from the dead.  These reconstructions depend exclusively on evidence from the gospels in particular the Q source, along with the Gospel of Thomas.

The second of Luke’s volumes, however, in immediate continuity with the first volume narrates that after his death and resurrection Jesus was “lifted up and a cloud took him from their sight.”  The angels said, “This Jesus who was taken up into heaven will come in the same way you saw him go into heaven.”  Peter declared, “This Jesus whom you crucified, God has made Lord and Christ.”  In other words Luke carefully establishes an objective continuity from the historical Jesus to the heavenly Jesus (who is the returning Jesus).  The Acts of the Apostles insists that the historical Jesus of Nazareth of the first volume became  Jesus exalted as Lord and Christ.

It is only by removing the Acts of the Apostles and the Letters of the Apostles that such humanistic versions of Jesus can be constructed.  It is quite unhistorical simply to assert that the early Christians many years later superimposed on this man who was crucified and buried – we know not where – the belief that he was somehow to be worshipped as Lord.  This is to equate the rise of Christianity with the birth of the Elvis cult.  Here the writings of Paul, including to the Corinthians, are highly significant.

8.         The Importance of Paul.

Most of this paper has been devoted to passages from the writings of Paul.  Why this concentration on Paul ?

Paul is both a source of clear Christian teaching on the uniqueness of Christ.  Equally important, he is our earliest historical witness to Christianity.  His letters inform us about Christianity as he came across it very soon after the hsitorical Jesus.  Thus Paul is critical in historical apologetics.

Three elements are important  our witness to other religions.  We must speak out of doctrinal conviction based on the Holy Scriptures.  Second, we must speak out of a full heart.  Deep Christian experience gives conviction to what we say.  Third, we need to be assured of the rock of “truth”  – historical truth, that is – on which our faith is founded.  This third leg is important.  Other wise in our interface with e.g., Muslims we may only exchange our dogmatism for their dogmatism and our experience for their experience.  Gridlock !  But historical evidence can break that gridlock.  Christianity is centred in the historical incarnation, the historical ministry of Jesus, the historical death, the historical bodily resurrection and the historcial exaltation of Christ.  The evidence for each of these historical element s is strong.

Paul is very important  for historical apologetics.

Paul is an early convert to the faith of Christ; the Damascus Road encounter occurred within less than than two years of the first Easter (which I take to have occurred in 33).  Before that he was the much-feared persecutor of the early Christians.  Paul was part of the history of earliest Christianity almost from the beginning with enough knowledge about Jesus, even as a non-Christian, to know his movement was dangerous to Judaism.  It is clear from recollections in his first letter, Galatians, written in c. 48, that at the time of his conversion about fifteen years earlier there were already “apostles,” “churches” and a body of teaching he calls “the faith.”[29] In other words, these entities had come into existence in the immediate aftermath of Jesus, within the few months between his resurrection and the conversion of Saul of Tarsus.

How can we explain these historical phenomena within earliest Christianity except by the impact of Jesus himself upon his disciples ?  Earliest historical Christianity arose from the impulse of the historical Jesus upon his disciples.  A movement, with leaders and teachings with its own speed and trajectory was already in motion which confronted Paul and to which Paul took took violent exception.  Paul did not invent earliest Christianity, as is routinely claimed.  Rather, he sought to destroy it.

There is no time-chasm between the historical and the heavenly Jesus.  The historical Jesus became the heavenly Jesus after an interval of only forty days.  Paul refers to both the historical and the heavenly Jesus in the two letters to the Corinthians.  He alludes to the poverty and sinlessness of his life, his meekness  and gentleness in ministry, his institution of the Lord’s Supper, his betrayal, his crucifixion and his resurrection.  Equally, however, Paul speaks of him Son of God, Christ and Lord.

There is a close alliance between many scholars in the contemporary Jesus-studies movement which is dismissive of the historicity of the gospels, whether regarding the words or the works of Jesus, and the religious pluralists who deny the uniqueness of Christ and who assert that “all mystical roads lead to ‘God.’”  A mere Galilean rabbi, unrisen from the dead, goes well with the newly recycled Neo-Platonist mysticism, discussed earlier.

But the historical Paul, persecutor, early convert and first theologian in earliest Christianity, stands like a great barrier, blocking the road to these views.  Paul’s letters, so surely datable and so early in Christian history, point certainly to an early Christianity which is so close to the historical Jesus that only the historical Jesus himself can account for its existence and character.  Those letters of Paul innocently and gratuitously reveal a Jesus who was a genuine figure of history  and who is a heavenly figure to be worshipped and served.

It is for this reason that I have chiefly used some of the letters of Paul and taught from the text of those letters.  Doing theology apart from exegesis and a sense of historical sequence is a slippery operation, quite lacking in control or accountability.

9.         Conclusion.

It is clear that multiculturalism is driving liberal Christians away from historic, “catholic” Christian beliefs and practices.  It is possible that liberal Christians were previously propped up within a broadly nominal Christian culture.  The pressure of multiculturalism may mean that only those who hold firmly to “the faith once delivered to the saints” will be able to survive as Christians and as church members.

More than ever it is now necessary for Christians to know what they believe and to know why they believe it.  Not least our pastors need to be seized by a Christ-centred Genesis to Revelation biblical theology and by a commitment to the text of Holy Scripture as the revelation of the mind of God.  Otherwise the Bible is merely a bundle of texts testifying to an evolutionary now irrelevant phase of religious history with Christ merely one among a number of teachers and prophets.  But a coherent biblical theology will give unity to and make sense of those scriptures and the careful teaching of it will nourish the souls of pastors and people alike.

Paul Barnett

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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[1]For a major discussion of pluralism and post-modernism see D.A. Carson, The Gagging of God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996).

[2]Jn 14:6; Acts 4:12; Phil 2:9-10; 1 Tim 2:5.

[3]Dt 6:4.

[4]Is 45:5.

[5]See D.M. Ball, “My Lord and My God: The Implications of the ‘I Am’ Sayings for Religious Pluralism,” in One God One Lord ed. A.D. Clarke and B.W. Winter (Cambridge: Tyndale, 1991), pp. 53-71.

[6]1 Cor 8:5

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

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

[9]Eph 4:5; 1 Tim 2:5.

[10]Is 45:5.

[11]1 Cor 10:14,19.

[12]2 Cor 6:17.

[13]1 Cor 6:18; cf. 6:9.

[14]1 Cor 10:20.

[15]1 Thess 1:9-10.

[16]2 Cor 4:5.

[17]1 Cor 12:3.

[18]1 Cor 16:22.

[19]Was this due to Paul’s concern about the impact of the Judaizers who were teaching an alternate route to righteousness via Torah observation ?  See 2 Cor 3:7-9; 11:4,15.

[20]2 Cor 5:18.

[21]2 Cor 5:14.

[22]2 Cor 5:21.

[23]2 Cor 8:9 (my translation).

[24] See e.g., 1 Thess 5:28.

[25]The use of the passive voice was reverent way of avoiding over-use of the word “God.”

[26]2 Cor 1:18-20 (my translation).

[27]2 Cor 4:4.

[28]2 Cor 4:5.

[29]Gal 1:13; 19; 23.

The Mystery of Christian Origins

I was not raised as a Christian; so I am a convert.  An adult convert.
This was many years ago. At that time I had one nagging question:  was it all true?
That is, historically?

The truth question was not my new friends were asking.
They just said it was.

Anyway I finished up leaving my job in the building industry
and studying for the ministry and then becoming a seminary teacher and a preacher.

But I still asked myself, ‘Is it true?’ It was not a question that kept me awake at night.
But it was still there.

So alongside my teaching job I enrolled in Ancient History and Greek at Sydney University.

I had my answer quickly, within a few months of studying Roman History. I was bitten by the history bug, which has become work and hobby rolled into one.

So I continued studying ancient history and this issued in two thesis-based higher degrees, the writing of articles and books and numerous visits to Egypt, Jordan, Israel, Turkey and Greece. I have just come back from my umpteenth visit to Turkey and Greece, walking with others in the footsteps of Paul and John.

Let me give some reasons why I answer my history-based question positively.

FIRST:           Jesus was genuine figure of history.
The main evidence is the New Testament itself. But there is a scatter of evidence from other sources.

Tacitus is our major source for the Roman world in the century of Jesus. He describes the fire that destroyed most of Rome in the year 64. Many blamed the fire on Nero. Nero in turn ‘scapegoated’ a new sect, the Christiani. To be a scapegoat a group had to be both visible and hated.

In Annals xv.44 Tacitus explains where these ‘Christians’ came from.
The ‘founder of the name Christian’ was ‘Christ’.
This ‘Christ’ had been executed thirty years earlier in Judaea in the time of Tiberius by Pilate the governor of the province.

But the ‘sect’ did not die with its founder (as most movements did). It sprang up again in Judaea and spread to Rome where it had become an ‘immense multitude’ (as Tacitus called it).

Tacitus, though, was sickened at the punishment meted out to these wretches. Crucified by the thousands and then daubed with pitch and set alight.

Tacitus had been a member of the Roman Senate and himself governor of a major province.
He had access to imperial records.
Tacitus knew what he was talking about.
So Tacitus the ever careful historian pinpoints Christ’s execution as to

(1) time (AD 30),
(2) place (Judaea)
(3) circumstance (treason).

And he explains how these ‘Christians’ came to be in Rome in the year 64.

No serious scholar known to me doubts Tacitus’ account.

Here I make an observation that is important to me.
World history has noted Christian origins. Not just Christian history.
World history, furthermore, that was independent of Christian sources.
Tacitus’ information most likely comes from official Roman reports.
Crucifixions in the provinces were the subject of reports filed in official archives in Rome.
As a former Roman consul Tacitus had access to such records.

But then I notice something else. The narrative of Luke and Acts (which is one book in two volumes) tells the same narrative as Tacitus when reduced to its broad outline.

Christ was executed in Judaea in the time of Tiberius
by Pontius Pilate the governor
and the movement sprang up again
and had spread beyond Judaea including to Rome.

Tacitus the historian and Luke-Acts agree:

Who founded Christianity:          Christ
Where it was founded:                  Judaea
When it was founded:                  When Pilate was Prefect of Judaea.
Circumstances of its founding:         After the execution of Christ
Progress of the movement:         It spread from Judaea to Rome.

One further comment about Tacitus: Tacitus is a hostile witness
He hates Jews and he hates Christians.
His corroboration of the outlines of Christian history is the more valuable because he is hostile.

SECOND:          The New Testament talks about Jesus and the early Christians in the same way it mentions famous people and events.

The New Testament often connects to prominent figures in world history.
Herod king of the Jews,
Herod tetrarch of Galilee;
Pilate, Sergius Paulus, Felix, Festus, Roman governors; Caiaphas High Priest in Jerusalem;
Aretas King of the Arabians;
Emperors Augustus, Tiberius, Claudius;
a great famine in the time of Claudius.

These are all real people and events known from world history and archaeology and they appear in the pages of the New Testament.

Just as world history noticed Christ and Christians, reciprocally (as it were) Christian history notices famous people in world history.

And they appear in the New Testament in the same way Jesus, Peter, John, Luke, Mark and Paul do.

In other words, the people we specially meet in the New Testament – Jesus in particular – are not mythical or legendary – but real and historical.

It’s worth remembering that the Graeco-Roman world was a golden age in terms of education and literature.

We know far more about the times of Jesus in the Graeco-Roman world than Europe during the thousand years from the Fall of Rome until the Renaissance.

They were, indeed, ‘dark ages’ compared to the brilliance of the age of Rome and the Caesars.

I visited Ephesus again a few weeks back.

Paul established Christianity in this great city.
Aqueducts brought water 40 kilometres for this city of 250,000.
Running water served the homes.
There was reticulated sewerage.
Elegant villas.
Beautiful frescoes decorated the walls with scenes from Homer.
Finely chiselled statues and fountains adorned the streets.
A theatre accommodating an audience of 25,000 people.
The comedies of Aristophanes and the tragedies of Aeschylus.
The Library of Celsus where there would have been many thousands of scrolls.
The sophisticated tools used by stonemasons and builders.
The ingenious surgical instruments used by doctors.
Civic life was more coherent in that city than in ours today.
City squares, gymnasiums, sports arenas, playhouses, a great theatre.
Civic life much more focused than in our sprawling technoloplies.

Cities like Ephesus were found every few miles.
Magnesia, Priene, Miletus, Aphrodisias, Didyma, Halicarnassus…

The world in which Christ was born and his Gospel was preached was not ‘stone age’ or ‘primitive’.There may have been a Camelot and there may have been a king called Arthur, or there may not have been. But there can be no doubt about the nature of the world into which Christ was born.

The documents of the New Testament – the Gospels, the Acts, the Letters – speak about real people in a known world.

I have personally seen
•the inscription dedicated by Pontius Pilate to his emperor Tiberius,
•the burial chest (ossuary) of Caiaphas the High Priest
•the inscription bearing the name Sergius Paullus (Acts 13).

I have walked on the pavement dedicated to Erastus of Corinth (likely mentioned in Romans 16).

The Gospels and Acts and Letters are carefully written by real people in that world known to us from other sources.

These documents write about Jesus, Peter and Paul in exactly the same down to earth terms as they refer to known figures from the world history of that day.

Is the New Testament history?  Indeed it is.

THIRD:         All the texts of the New Testament were written close in time to Jesus.

The Gospel of Mark was written by 70;      40 years after Jesus.
The Letters of Paul are written from 50;    20 years after Jesus.
This struck me like a thunderbolt when I did Ancient History 101 at University.

The evidence for the people we were studying – Alexander, Augustus, Nero – often came from many years after them.

It is hard to find a famous person of the times for whom the evidence is so close as it is for Jesus.

Paul’s earliest letters are written within 20 years of Jesus.
My youngest child has more years than the years separating Paul from Jesus.

I remember what I was doing and where I was doing it when she was being born more than 30 years ago.

Mark’s Gospel was published within 40 years of Jesus.

I have been married 40 years. I remember the time, the place, what the minister said what colour suit I wore.

It is more than 40 years since I was in Seminary. I remember my teachers and I remember their teachings.

Mark was as close to Jesus in terms of years as I am to the day I was married or to the time I was instructed by my teachers.

The documents of the New Testament were all written and in circulation within a life time of Jesus’ lifetime.

Those who were his original disciples spanned from Jesus into the early church where they were leaders and missioners, guaranteeing that what was preached and written was true to the facts about Jesus.

The disciples did not die with their Master but spanned on for the next 30 years (in the case of Peter) and 60 years (in the case of John).

In other words, the written texts that come down to us as the New Testament were either written by these disciples or were validated by them.

Suetonius wrote his Lives of the Caesars including of Tiberius.
But Tiberius has been dead a hundred years when Suetonius wrote.

Mark wrote his Gospel less than forty years after Jesus.
It was not a cold biography but a living text the written down version of what had been preached in the years between Jesus and the moment Mark dipped his pen in ink and opened his scroll and began to write.

 

FOURTH:  Our sources for Jesus are numerous.

Augustus was the greatest of the Roman emperors who ruled for nearly half a century and brought peace to the world – the Pax Romana.

For Augustus we rely on Appian, Suetonius, Dio Cassius each of whom wrote a century of more after his death.

Jesus was born under that emperor’s (Augustus’) rule; from an obscure corner of the empire (land-locked Galilee); a member of a despised race (a Jew); and was crucified (unmentionable in polite society).

For Augustus very little survives. Most important is the Res Gestae – his own funeral speech.

For Jesus a crucified nobody from a despised race we have earlier and better sources of evidencethan for the greatest Roman in history:

The four Gospels
the Synoptic Gospel sources ‘Q’, ‘L’, ‘M’
the Letters of Paul, James, Peter, Jude and John
and the Revelation.

About a dozen in all – mostly primary, underived sources.

So many fingers each pointing to: Jesus, who is called Christ
of the royal line of David
the Son of God
crucified for sins
raised alive from the dead

The closeness of the evidence to the person, and the extensive and diverse nature of the evidence is very impressive, historically.

We have a sense of its historical reliability.

In that world only the truly famous were remembered in print.
History remembers winners not losers.
Totally unremembered.  Not even their names.
You and I might be nobodies.
But our names will be remembered in the archives.
But not nobodies then.It was as if they never were.
So we contrast the greatest of the great, Augustus
with Jesus the crucified Jew from nowhere, a real nobody.

Augustus is unremembered except for scraps of information
that have survived from a century and more later.

Jesus has a dozen or so vibrant documents that were written within a lifetime of his lifetime.

Historians are by definition curious, ever looking for explanations. The word ‘history’ (historia) means ‘enquiry’.

How did this man Jesus, a sociological ‘nobody’, generate this plethora of early documentation. In my opinion, two things alone account for this.

His identity:                               the Son of God.
What happened to him:          he was raised alive from the dead.

FIFTH:         There is an unbroken transmission between Jesus and us.

Jesus was raised from the dead on the first day of the week. So say each of the Gospels.

He appeared to his disciples on the first first day of the week.
He appeared to his disciples on the second first day of the week.
As Thomas had good reason to remember, not having been there on that first Sunday, and having doubted that Jesus had been raised alive.

Every Sunday since – for 2000 years – disciples have met on that resurrection day, the first day of the week.

At first those original disciples spread Jesus’ words and works orally.
Very soon they committed that word to writing.
The churches were adapted synagogues.
Like synagogues their core activity was reading their texts.
That’s what they chiefly did when they met on Sundays.
They read the writings of the apostles to one another.
The Qu’ran calls Christians ‘people of the book’ and that is correct.

This is how it happened:

First there was Jesus the teacher and saviour.
Then his disciples oralized his words and works as they missionized.
Seamlessly that missionizing orality became textualized, written.
By the end of the textuality phase we already have an important phenomena – copying and publishing these texts.
Every new church must have texts for reading on Sundays.
The Corinthians would copy Paul’s letters to them and exchange their copies with the Ephesians.
The seven churches of Revelation would each have their copy.

Tacitus and Pliny each called Christianity a spreading disease.

Look at maps of churches in AD 40
- Jerusalem, Lydda, Joppa, Caesarea (in Palestine), Antioch (in Syria), Shechem (in Samaria), Ptolemais, Tyre, Sidon (in Phoenicia), Rome (in Italy).

Look at a map of churches in AD 50.
- all of the above
AND Tarsus (in Cilicia), Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, Derbe (in Anatolia), Philippi, Thessalonica, Beroea, Corinth (Greece).

Keep looking at these maps every decade for the next 200 years and what do you see?  Measles.
Dots on maps representing churches in every country ringing the Mediterranean.
By AD 300 hundred, even thousands of them. Spreading like rampant measles.

A movement growing from a few thousand in AD 30 to perhaps 10 million by AD 313 when Constantine saw a vision of the cross in the sky with words, ‘By this conquer.’

The point is that these churches met on Sundays for one main reason. To read the writings of the apostles (along with the Old Testament). So what did they need? They needed copies.

Many such copies have survived. Some very early.
A few lines from John from early in the second century that is likely a copy of the autograph that John wrote.

From the second century P46 (in Dublin) – Paul’s letters + Hebrews.
P45 (in Dublin) the Gospels and the Acts.

From the 300’s the whole NT found in the late 1800’s by von Tischendorf at St Catherine’s Mt Sinai purchased from the Russians pre world war 2 for 100,000 pounds and now in the British Museum.

From the early centuries there are 5000 texts of the NT, in part or whole, in Greek, Latin, Coptic, Syriac, Armenian.

Perhaps we know how many manuscripts there are of Tacitus’ Annals?
One.  Discovered in the 1500’s.

Also in those early centuries after the NT period the early church Fathers who quote extensively from the NT.

You can cut and paste the whole NT from quotations of it in the early church fathers.

By an objective science called Textual Criticism we are confident that the NT we read is 99% certain to be the NT as it left the hands of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, James, Jude and the writer to the Hebrews.

Several things guarantee this.
One is that Christianity always was a missionary movement
Another is that converts were gathered into churches.
Another is churches met weekly for their core activity – reading.
Another is that churches multiplied exponentially.
Another is that they needed copies, copies and more copies.
Another is that thousands of those copies in various languages have survived the ravages of time.

In other words the very nature of the movement created the situation whereby today we may be confident of the integrity of the texts we read.

SIXTH:         I don’t know what else could have given rise to the texts of the New Testament except that Jesus was the Son of God, raised from the dead?

These sources say that Jesus was the Son of God who died for our sins and was raised alive from the dead.

They were either right or they were wrong.

If wrong logically we would have to say they were either sincerely wrong (misguided) or insincerely wrong (mischievous).

Am I able to read these ten disparate independent sources and conclude they are misguided or mischievous?

The nature of the evidence – its earliness and its independence – drives me to reach another conclusion – that they portray Jesus as he was.

My sense is that they know what they are talking about.
The New Testament ‘rings true’.

Let me summarise:

 

1.         There can be no doubt that Jesus was a genuine figure of history that he was crucified under the Roman Governor, Pilate circa 30 and that within 30 years there were many Christians in Rome.

2.         The New Testament mentions famous people and events in the same way that it talks about Jesus and the first Christians.

The NT is about real people in real places in real circumstances.
This is not the stuff of myth and legend.

3.         The New Testament was written within a lifetime after Jesus. Mark’s Gospel was written only 40 years after Jesus and Paul’s earliest letters within 20 years of Jesus.

The evidence for Jesus is closer than for almost all great figures in that era.

4.          There are as many as a dozen independent primary sources of information about Jesus, each pointing to him as Son of God and raised from the dead.

Even great leaders like Augustus have nothing like this attestation. For a ‘nobody’ to have this documentation demands that he was a somebody.

5.         The nature of Christianity as a missionary movement that meets on Sundays to read texts guaranteed that a plethora of texts survived from that era guaranteeing the practical probity of those texts.

6.         It is difficult to account for the rise of Christianity and the writing of the NT unless Jesus was the Son of God, raised from the dead.

Misguided?  All twelve?  All of them? Surely not.
Mischievous? All twelve? All of them? Again, surely not.

Many years ago I asked the question, ‘Is it true?’
You have my answers in my paper tonight.

I called this paper ‘the mystery of origins’. What is the ‘mystery’?

Just this. The evidence from origins is compelling.

The mystery is: Why don’t more people believe it?

 

Paul Barnett

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


[1]Referred to (a) in literary sources (e.g., Josephus, Tacitus), and (b) coins and inscriptions.

[2]Large volume of writings following New Testament that quote extensively from NT (‘citations’).

Resurrected Messiah – evidence from Paul

Our argument is that since the earliest Christians worshipped Jesus as a deity we are forced to inquire what manner of person the pre-resurrection figure must have been.  This is a awkward question for sceptics since the post-resurrection worship of Jesus is incontestable historically, being confirmed in both Christian and non-Christian sources.

The answer of sceptics is that the pre-resurrection Jesus was actually only a prophet or rabbi but that the post-resurrection church made him into the Son of God and the Messiah.  This answer implies (or states outright) that the claims of the New Testament for Jesus are spurious, whether naively mistaken or wilfully fraudulent.

In my view, however, it is difficult historically to dismiss the pre-resurrection Jesus as merely a prophet or rabbi.  True, the public perception of Jesus was of a prophet or rabbi and both of these categories were true of him.  But there was another face that Jesus showed to his disciples in private, whose words and works they remembered and recorded, and which immediately formed the constituent texts underlying the Gospels written three or so decades later.

As we tease apart the Gospels of Matthew and Luke we find the independent sources Q (common to Matthew and Luke), M (only in Matthew) and L (only in Luke).  If to these we add the independent primary Gospels of Mark and John we have in all five discrete sources of information about Jesus.  These originated from both oral recollection of Jesus’ words and deeds and from written down accounts of his teachings and acts, though it is not possible now to disentangle the oral from the written.  Fairly soon, however, these earliest sources were committed to writing, for the catechetical and worship needs of the churches.  Then, some time later, these sources began to be woven into the Gospels as we have them.  The entire process from time his disciples began following Jesus until the completion of the four Gospels was only fifty years.

The historian, like the judge and jury in a criminal trial, is interested in multiple independent witnesses.  Applied to biblical studies this is sometimes (and helpfully) called “multiple attestation”.  Throughout this book we have applied this principle to the pre-resurrection Jesus and found multiple witnesses to his identity (as Messiah, Son of Man and Son of God), to his sense of messianic mission, to his miracles and to his kingdom parables where he himself is the agent of that kingdom.  Based on multiple attestation applied to historical analysis our verdict is that the post-resurrection church was entirely justified in venerating and worshipping the risen Jesus.

What, then, was the role of the resurrection in this?  Unbelief argues that “resurrection” (note the quote marks) explains everything.  For unbelief “resurrection” happened only in the minds of Jesus’ distraught followers.  Like the passing of a much-loved relative Jesus “lived on” in their memories.  In candid terms, there was no actual resurrection external to them but an experience within them.  Their fond memories of their deceased friend prompted them to exalt and elevate him into the figure we ultimately meet in the Gospels.

Is this the true explanation?

There are numerous obstacles to this view.  As we have noted one is the multiplicity of underlying sources that individually witness to Jesus as a messianic figure.  Another is the early evidence for the bodily resurrection of Jesus, a resurrection that was physically external to the disciples.

Earliest evidence: Paul
The earliest historical reference to the resurrection of Jesus is found in Paul’s quotation ca. 54 of an oral statement that Paul himself “received” either in 34 (at his baptism in Damascus) or 36 (from Cephas in Jerusalem) and which had been formulated in Jerusalem beforehand,[i] very soon after Jesus’ death in 33.

 

what I…received

that              Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures
that               he was buried
that               he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures
that               he appeared to Cephas
then                                     to the twelve
then              he appeared to more than five hundred at the one time,                                                                                                                most of whom are still alive,  though some have fallen asleep,
then        he appeared to James
then                                to all the apostles

This passage appears to have been created originally as a memorisable teaching aid.  The fourfold that followed by the fourfold then suggests an original catechetical format.

This carefully rounded statement signifies something objective, an entity, a raft of four facts each introduced by “that”.[ii] Each that in effect introduced a separate statement that today we would place within quotation marks (Greek language then lacked punctuation marks).  In other words, this oral gobbet contains four critical assertions from the earliest believers in Jerusalem.

But the four statements are logically interconnected: Christ died and was buried and was raised on the third day and appeared alive to various people. The four statements are of a piece; they form one complete statement about what happened to Christ at the time of the first Easter. He died; he was buried; he was raised; he appeared.  Each statement depends on its predecessor: Christ appeared because he had been raised; he was raised because he had been buried; he was buried because he had died.

Having died, Christ was not so much “buried” (downwards, as in a grave) but entombed (sideways, in a tomb hewn out of rock).[iii]

He was raised on the third day.  Paul’s Greek here betrays an underlying Aramaic form of words, literally “Christ…was raised in the day the third.”  The uncorrected Greek echoes the confession of the Aramaic-speaking community in Jerusalem from whom Paul received it.

He appeared on five occasions, the “then…then…then…then”, suggesting precise sequence.  The first two probably occurred in Jerusalem, the third and fourth in Galilee, and the fifth in Jerusalem.

The names of those to whom he appeared – and was seen by – are either given (Cephas/Peter, the twelve, James) or are able to be readily ascertained (the five hundred, all the apostles).  The witnesses to this event can be interrogated, including the vast number of five hundred who saw the risen Christ on one occasion.  The sources of this remarkable event are identified and accessible.  Let those who doubt go and inquire of these people themselves.

Paul states that this fourfold “that”, whose focus is the resurrection sightings, is what he and the Jerusalem apostles preach and what the churches believe.[iv] Clearly, the fact of Jesus’ resurrection was absolutely central in early Christianity.

At the end of this Jerusalem oral tradition Paul adds his own experience, which of course is not part of that tradition:

last of all as to one untimely born he appeared also to me.

Whereas the original witnesses saw the risen Lord within a forty-day period in Paul’s case it was a year or so after his ascension.[v] Paul saw and heard the Lord but differently, as the unusual words “as to one untimely born” imply.

The effects of this distinction are considerable.  For Paul it meant that he was easily seen as a second-class apostle, one who had not been a disciple of Jesus and who had not actually seen and handled the Lord in the way the others before him had.

For us, however, this distinction is very important historically since it means that the original disciples did not see and hear Jesus from heaven (as Paul did) but on earth, whether in Jerusalem or in Galilee.  In other words, the distinction Paul makes reinforces the fact that the original Jerusalem witness to Jesus’ resurrection was not visionary but physical, concrete and bodily.  In short, those many who relegate the resurrection of Jesus to realm of the minds of the disciples are wrong to do so.

 

 

Non-Biblical Evidence for the Historical Jesus

Non-Biblical Evidence for the Historical Jesus

1.            The earliest and most important such evidence is from
(a)              Josephus, the Jewish historian (writing from Rome circa 95);
subjects
: the execution of Jesus and the execution of his brother, James

(b)            Pliny, Roman governor of Black Sea province Bithynia (writing circa 110)
subject
:  a letter to emperor Trajan about his execution of Christians

(c)            Tacitus, historian & governor of Asia Minor, friend of Pliny (writing circa 110)
subject
:  the Christiani Nero executed in Rome originated with Christus whom Pontius Pilate executed in Judea.

2.            Josephus’ text has been corrupted by Christian insertions that make the “wise man”          Jesus into (i) “more than a man”, and (ii) the Messiah (Christ in Greek).

Nonetheless, from emendation of Josephus’ text we learn

that Jesus was a rabbi (“wise man”) of some kind, who worked miracles
that he was said to be the Messiah
that he was executed by Pilate (AD 26-36) at request of leading Jews
that he had a brother named James (executed in AD 62)
that “the tribe of Christians” had still not died out when Josephus wrote

3.            Pliny’s letter to Trajan is uncorrupted and is of special value
(a) Christians had become very numerous in Bithynia since at least AD 90, so much so that many pagan temples had been closed.
(b) Their practices included meeting on a fixed days and chanting hymns to  Christ “as if to a god”, confirming very early New Testament texts that Christians met to worship Christ including by singing hymns to him.
(c)Christians would die rather than comply with Roman “tests” – pray to statues of the emperor and the gods and curse Christ.

4.            Tacitus’ Annals is uncorrupted and is important
(a)His reference to Christians in Rome in AD 64 as scapegoats for Nero                                     following the fire that destroyed 10 of the 14 suburbs of Rome.
(b)Tacitus says that there was an “immense multitude” of these Christians (exaggeration?)
(c) Although these Christiani were hated for the “vices” (especially their                                     nonconformity in religious practices) the population felt sorry for them.
(d) Nero had large numbers crucified and daubed with tar and set alight.
(e) Tacitus digresses briefly to explain that the sect Christiani took their name  from a certain Christus who was executed in Judea under Pontius Pilatus.
(f) Surprisingly, Christus’ movement “broke out afresh” following his death and   spread from Judea to Rome.
(g) Tacitus was a former consul in Rome and may have written based on official                         archives (from Pilate in Judea).

 

5.            Josephus (as reconstructed), Pliny and Tacitus between them indicate
(a) Christians took their name from Christ.
(b) Christ was executed in Judea by Pontius Pilate (between 26-36).
(c) He was said to be the Christ (Messiah), suggesting that his execution was for                         treason as “king of the Jews”
(d) The movement spread to Rome so that by 64 it was voluminous
(e) The movement spread to Bithynia so that by 110 it was dominant
(e) The early Christians met weekly (like the Jews, but on a different day)
(f) The main point of meeting was to worship Christ, as if to a god.

6.            Pliny and Tacitus (and to a lesser degree Josephus) are hostile sources
(a) Pliny and Tacitus describe Christianity as a spreading epidemic that threatens  the Roman state and religion.
(b) They regard it as an evil superstitio (non-conforming sect) whose members  “hated the human race” (because they would not pray to the emperor) and who were believed to engage in various “vices” (cannibals who ate someone’s flesh – misunderstanding the Holy Communion; and incestuous whose brothers married their sisters – misunderstanding church members in                         “family” terms).

 

7.            These sources are particularly valuable because they are written by “outsiders”, who             are hostile to the Christians.
They cannot be accused of pro-Christian bias.
This is important since our main sources in the Gospels and Letters of the New   Testament are all written by “insiders” and clearly Christian.

8.            At no point of detail do these sources contradict historical details in the New             Testament, but confirm the “raw facts” about who (Christ), where (Judea) and when (under Pilate) and what next (spread out from Judea into the Roman empire).

9.            They confirm the New Testament’s picture that the Roman authorities took a negative          and punitive attitude to the followers of Christ.

 

10.            Of great importance is Pliny’s window into early Christian meetings where people             assembled weekly to worship this crucified man as if alive, as to a god.  Pliny confirms the central claims of the New Testament that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified as the Messiah, but that he was resurrected and worshipped by his followers in assemblies called churches.

 

 

 

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