Doodle: Constantine, the Caesars, and Jesus Christ

Bavaria Faith Religion Head StoneLast week I posted an article on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I argued that the birth of the early Christian church is more than a historical peculiarity, for it demands that we answer why despairing disciples became daring heralds of their crucified lord. Jews living in the Roman Empire saw many messiahs publicly killed, and every futile revolution left those who believed in it with a decision: seek out a new messiah or surrender any sort of hope. But those who followed Jesus did neither. Rather, as Paul Barnett writes in The Logic of History, “The early rise of Christianity as a movement close in time to Jesus is a fact of history. Someone gave impulse to the rise of that movement in the immediately preceding weeks and months”. Thus I argued that if we apply logic – and avoid sceptical presuppositions, or poor historical explanations – the resurrection of Jesus provides us with both a satisfactory and startling answer.

When I preached on Christ’s resurrection over Easter I joked that most of us only know who Julius Caesar is because we were forced to read Shakespeare at school. Furthermore almost none of us know his nephew, Augustus Caesar. Yet these men were considered gods. I mention Julius and Augustus because the latter was a contemporary of Jesus, and both were considered divine. Classicist Mary Beard writes in SPQR, “There were priests and temples, sacrifices carried out to them, not on their behalf, and some wonderful surviving images that literally put the imperial gods in the Olympian heavens.” But none of them are broadly remembered today, and they are certainly no longer worshipped. Strangely, on the other hand, the Jewish peasant who was publicly executed by the Romans has stubbornly endured.

Enter The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown, faux historical research, Wikipedia, and conspiracy theories that make employees at Area 51 incredulous, to rescue us from believing Christianity was a significant presence in the Roman Empire before Constantine. These reputable sources have indubitably proven that prior to Constantine’s conversion Christianity was hardly worth mentioning. Upon gaining state support it, however, enjoyed meteoric success and growth. But that is to be a poor student of history, not to mention a gullible consumer of popular fiction. In his insightful work, The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark writes, “Constantine’s conversion would better be seen as a response to the massive exponential wave in progress, not its cause.” This agrees with actual historians, not potboilers. A notable Christian sect must have existed in the Roman Empire in the 4th century C.E. Constantine did not venture into the religious marketplace in search of an obscure faith; he could not ignore the influence of a faith that was sweeping through his empire.

Those who would claim that Constantine is the reason for the season must explain what happened to Julius Caesar, supposed descendant of Aeneas, and his nephew Augustus, those first Roman emperors who had ascended, becoming imperial gods. Constantine’s state sponsorship of Christianity is thrown around as if it was the first occurrence in history. It is also ignorantly supposed that Constantine’s support of Christianity enforced exclusivity in the Empire. The reality is that a contemporary of Jesus enjoyed state support – of varying degrees – for over 300 years until Constantine’s conversion experience. Where are the imperial gods now? Condemned to the fading memory of history. Those who supposedly ascended to Mount Olympus and took their place amongst the pantheon of classical gods are all but forgotten today.

CaesarThe one truth we might draw out of this meandering post is the ephemeral nature of state sponsored religion, or perhaps just the shallowness of such faith. Christianity was almost certainly already a significant Jewish sect long before the 4th century. It held its own in that religious marketplace not because it had state backing, such as the worship of Caesar Augustus, but because Christians from the 1st century were convinced something incredible had happened. As Marilynne Robinson writes in Wondrous Love, explaining what gives the cross and resurrection such lasting power, “They tell us that there is a great love that has intervened in history, making itself known in terms that are startlingly, and inexhaustibly, palpable to us as human beings. So, as Gamaliel said about some of the disciples who were preaching Christ’s death and resurrection, ‘Keep away from these men for if this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them” (Acts 5:38-39).

How the Early Church Proves the Resurrection

In her most recent novel, Lila, Marilynne Robinson draws back the curtain on a character who, though present in her previous two novels, Gilead and Home, has remained fairly mysterious. She is the young wife of John Ames and Lila recounts her austere life as a migrant worker, dominated by loneliness and loss. But one day Lila finds herself in a church service, when she was only looking for shelter from the rain, “She was thinking how strange it was for them to be there singing songs to somebody who had lived and died like anybody.” Very few historians would dispute that there was a historical man named Jesus, who was remarkable at most but died nonetheless. And this means Lila’s bemusement is more than bare wonder, but a question we must all answer: how do we explain two millennia of singing?

A historical note

CrucifixionFirstly, because without it the resurrection makes little sense, we must look at the death of Jesus. “Crucifixion,” David Seccombe writes, “was designed to inflict as much pain as possible for as long as possible, in a manner that brought about the complete public humiliation of the victim…This was Rome’s way of exposing the foolishness of anyone with political pretensions. There was no honour or heroism in such a death” (The King of God’s Kingdom). For Jesus’ disciples, his death signalled a miserable failure and a familiar pattern. Jewish messiahs would gather devoted followings, appealing to the oppressed people with promises of God’s powerful liberation. None succeeded. Jesus fits this category: supposed Jewish messiah executed by the Romans. In dying Jesus was painfully ordinary, even predictable. He was not exceptionable and arguably not even the most popular messiah of his day. This was what happened. And, in addition to the Jewish people’s familiarity with disappointment, they did not expect their messiah to die and be resurrected (a point very well made by N. T. Wright). Therefore, historically, the Jesus story is very similar to the lesser-known stories about other failed Jewish messiahs. Strangely, Jesus’ story is remembered.

An improbable hypothesis

That brings us to our next point, the quite incredible historical reconstruction put forward by sceptics. This popular explanation of the resurrection requires, in my opinion, a greater suspension of logic than the kind Christians are often accused of. For it says that a bunch of despondent and utterly disappointed followers, whose messiah was recently put to death, went about proclaiming his resurrection. Their teacher had just been horrendously executed and before that, as he was being arrested and tried, they were climbing over each other to dissociate themselves from him. Jesus was dead, going the way of every other messiah. So they decided to proclaim that he had been resurrected. Even though it had not happened. Indeed, no one expected it to, probably not even Jesus’ disciples. But in the midst of overwhelming disappointment and guaranteed ridicule as well persecution for proclaiming it, they go about preaching Christ’s resurrection. Again, the sceptic must face up to the difficulty that logic presents. What could possibly propel the disciples into the Empire that had recently killed their messiah, declaring that he was alive?

An unpopular explanation

ResurrectionFormer Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams proposes the incredible but altogether logical explanation, “Jesus appeared to people whose confidence in him had crumbled, not to believers. It was the resurrection that created the Church and its faith, not the Church that created the resurrection.” He makes two points: the first has been lightly touched on already, we might paraphrase Williams in saying that Jesus appeared to sceptics. In the final chapter of Luke’s Gospel we encounter two former followers of Jesus, pouring out their heavy hearts in the wake of Jesus’ apparent failure, “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” Now whether you consider the Gospels historically reliable or not, it is safe to assume that those two men accurately illustrate how Jesus’ disciples would have felt after his death. As Williams correctly says, their confidence in him was shattered and he would be assigned a place with all the other failed messiahs. But that did not happen, as Williams’ second point suggests; a new faith was born, which is hard to account for apart from Jesus’ resurrection. Their faith, their eschatological hope and longing for liberation, did not anticipate the resurrection of a single man. The resurrection created the church, for their fractured faith would not have created a resurrection.

A resurrection shaped hole in history

That unpopular, though logically credible, and in my opinion more probable, explanation answers the question we started with, the strange fact that people are still singing songs to Jesus. The answer goes beyond curiosity, to ask us what we make of Jesus, his resurrection, and the early church. American pastor Timothy Keller comments in The Reason for God that the first Christians knew that if the resurrection was true then they could no longer live their lives however they wanted to. He goes on, “If it happened, it changes our lives completely.” What will you do? How else do you suggest to expain the faith of the early church? Let me close with the now famous lines from C. F. D. Moule, in The Phenomenon of the New Testament, ‘If the coming into existence of the Nazarenes rips a great hole in history, a hole the size of the and shape of the Resurrection, what does the secular historian propose to stop it up with?’

Mark’s Ending: From Apologetics to Application

Turn Your Fear to Faith by BrittlebearAt Friday youth we have been doing a course called Christianity Explored (the youth version though – called Soul). The course runs for seven weeks with each week teaching something different from the book of Mark. In the fourth week the topic was the resurrection and because the course is an introduction to Christianity, we encourage questions. The question that came was not particularly surprising – especially given Mark’s surprising ending:

Mark ends in verse 8 of chapter 16 as follows:
Mark 16:8 “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”
and actually, verse 7 says, “But go, tell his disciples, even Peter, that he is going ahead of you into Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you.” ”

Imagine the reader’s confusion when s/he reads any of the other Gospel accounts:

Matthew 28:8 “So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples.”

Luke 24:9 “When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others.”

John 20:2 “So she [Mary Magdalene] came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said …”

What do we do with Mark’s mistake here? Doesn’t this disprove the Bible?

My response, which I am hoping exemplifies a helpful response, was the following: I began with the assumption that Mark was not a complete idiot – a reasonable assumption I think. Based on that, I asked whether – considering Mark had obviously heard about the resurrection – he actually thought that the women said nothing to anyone. Clearly they said something to someone or Mark himself wouldn’t know about the it. We still don’t know what he means by it but we can be confident that he wouldn’t disagree with the other gospel writers.

The difficulty then moves from the realm of “contradictions in the Bible” to that of interpretation. By simply assuming that the writer is not stupid we don’t have to worry about losing Scripture. The question lingers though – what did Mark mean?

To answer this I would point the reader to the rest of Mark’s gospel where we find fear and faith juxtaposed (for example 4:40, 5:36). Here, I think, Mark is directing his readers to respond not by fleeing in fear but by in following in faith. His readers, in case you hadn’t caught on, are me and you; we’re the ones he’s challenging to “run from the tomb and tell everyone because we are filled with faith.”

Evolving beyond faith, and ethics

It never really surprises me when I come across an article in public media that rails against religion (even less so when the article vilifies Christians). It was, therefore, not exactly shocking when I was presented with an article by The Times columnist, Fred Khumalo which does just that. To be fair, it was a bit of a struggle to figure out where he stands at all when he writes both, “those of us who are of the Christian faith … ” and , “Issues of faith or religion, are constructs of the human imagination”. I came to the conclusion that the former quotation was crafted to keep the reader in suspense as to where the author stands but Mr Khumalo can hardly be accused of vilifying Christians. His article is entitled, “The Darkness that zaps us from the sky” and assumes the Dennet-like arguments that religion is a construct from our evolutionary past and he complains about the fact that some people still hold on to these myths. His complaint was, I admit, understandable; the MEC for co-operative governance and traditional affairs in KZN told a family, some of whom had been killed by lightning, “We will do an investigation with a view of trying to identify the causes of the recent upsurge of fatal lightning incidents in the province.” But the idea that atheism somehow solves the world’s problems was too much for me, so I wrote a letter to Mr Khumalo.

Good day Mr Khumalo,

I have just been presented with your article on “The darkness that zaps us from the sky”. It led me to consider the way in which intellectual climate of our day has changed the weather. You are of course, quite correct in your assertion that lightning and thunder are natural phenomena. I found the idea of lightning hawkers quite amusing. Of course, the idea is not far from the indulgences peddled by the Roman Catholic Church not long ago (which could, for example buy time off purgatory). What disturbed me about your article is what you overlooked.

As a naturalist should, you affirm, “Issues of faith or religion, are constructs of human imagination.” Faith and religion are mere concoctions of our evolutionary past that have helped our ancestors to survive and with the likes of Daniel Dennet and Richard Dawkins you argue that we should move beyond them. The only thing that I would add to this is that we should move beyond our ethics too. After all, any notions of morality are only constructs of human imagination. Moral absolutes are for those who, in their cowardice hide behind religion – an antique of our evolutionary past. The call should not be merely to stop thinking that lightning had anything to do with a supreme power who could call to account for our ethical decisions but also to abandon the idea of ethics.
Sir, your worldview doesn’t work but I am more than willing to continue the discussion.

And I sincerely hope that the discussion will continue.

Jesus and the Answer to Jehovah’s Witnesses

Colourful booklets and smart attire make it easy for the person on the other side of the spyhole to figure out that the pair standing outside the door is a Jehovah’s Witness team. I had the chance to walk into a kingdom hall yesterday and picked up their tract “What the Bible Really Teaches” (all 200 pages of it). Paging through it, one is immediately presented with the name Jehovah; packaged as the way to get near to God. “If you want someone to get to know you, what might you do? Would you not tell the person your name?” they ask in – what I believe for the vast majority is – utmost sincerity.

Of course, it’s easy to get lost when speaking to a member of the Watchtower society in arguing over the various truths they distort or deny (hell, the Trinity, the person of Jesus and who goes to heaven are obvious ones). So the question we want to ask is: How do we present the gospel to these very genuine individuals without destroying their beliefs?

The answer that presented itself to me in the first few pages of this book was in answering the question that they themselves pose, “Can you be close to Jehovah?”. I recall asking a friendly lady how I could be close to God, her response was that the first step was to know His name. Suppose I rather pose the question to my friend, “What is it that separates us from God?”. The answer that I can give from Scripture is found in Isaiah 59:1-2 and I’ll quote their New World Translation, “Look! The hand of Jehovah has not become too short that it cannot save, nor has his ear become too heavy that it cannot hear. 2 No, but the very errors of YOU people have become the things causing division between YOU and YOUR God, and YOUR own sins have caused the concealing of [his] face from YOU to keep from hearing.“.

So ultimately, whether I call God “YHWH”, “Jehovah”, “Father” or something else, it’s not what I call God that will separate me from Him, I am already separated and it’s because of my sin. So again, I can pose their question “Can you [or, I] be close to Jehovah?”. At this point I want to answer emphatically that even though I have disagreed with them, I do think that the answer is a resounding “yes!” And the Bible makes it clear, John 14:6-7 tells us, “Jesus said to him: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If YOU men had known me, YOU would have known my Father also; from this moment on YOU know him and have seen him.”” [NWT].

The way we get to the Father is through Jesus. It’s not by knowing a name, it’s not by doing good works (c.f. Ephesians 2:8-9); it’s by God’s grace. So if from the outset you have in mind that Jesus is the only way of salvation and that His death as God on the cross is what makes that salvation possible, you can direct conversation and discussion along these lines and present the gospel hopefully out of the questions that they raise. You will notice that I have quoted from the NWT, I have done this because Jehovah’s Witnesses are unlikely to trust anything that comes from you anyway. If you read from their literature and their copy of the Bible (as distorted as it may be) you will create a common ground on which you can speak the gospel which cannot be constrained even by the NWT.

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BIBLIOGRAPHY:
Quotations from the NWT are taken from:

  • http://www.watchtower.org/bible/isa/chapter_059.htm
  • http://www.watchtower.org/bible/joh/chapter_014.htm

The Tract that I quoted is called

  • What Does the Bible Really Teach