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?’

What Easter Teaches Us About Prayer

Timothy Keller muses, in Prayer, “It is remarkable that in all of his writings Paul’s prayers for his friends contain no appeals for changes in their circumstances. It is certain that they lived in the midst of many dangers and hardships. They faced persecution, death from disease, oppression by powerful forces, and separation from loved ones. Their existence was far less secure than ours is today. Yet in these prayers you see not one petition for a better emperor, for protection from marauding armies, or even for bread for the next meal. Paul does not pray for the goods we usually would have near the top of our lists of requests.”

Giotto - Kiss of JudasThe point, as Keller goes on to develop, is not that we should never appeal to our heavenly Father for change or respite during hardship and suffering, but that we must take care that our prayers are neither limited to nor led by these requests. As Paul writes in a verse most readers will be familiar with, “In every situation, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, tell your requests to God” (Philippians 4:6). Paul then provides the antidote for anxiety, “The peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7). Prayer is entrusting ourselves in faith to God, not necessarily receiving our petitions, but knowing his peace. But what does that have to do with Easter?

In Gethsemane, Jesus models prayer that is submissive to the Father’s will despite remaining unanswered. As Mark Jones puts it in Knowing Christ, “He knew his hour had come; but this ‘hour’ would be his most difficult hour, and he would need strength from God to undergo the massive trial that was yet before him.” As I wrote in another post, Jesus is neither valiant nor stoical as he prepares himself for the task at hand. He pleads with the Father. He begs, “Let this cup pass from me.” His soul was deeply pained (Mark 14:34) and he experienced agony as he prayed (Luke 22:44). The disciples had not seen their master looking more pitiable and pained. Jesus looks weak. However, his faith is strong as he prays, “Not what I will, but what you will.” Jesus’ faith is not challenged by unanswered prayer; it is evident through it.

Giotto - CrucifixionIn his short prayer, offered up three times, Jesus boldly entreats his Father yet is ultimately resigned to the Father’s will. And it is striking that as his enemies approach to arrest him, Jesus’ resignation turns to resolve, to fortified trust his God and Father. When the band of soldiers call for Jesus, he confidently answers, “I am he” (John 18:5). That shift takes place so quickly that we rarely appreciate what has happened. Prayer has emboldened Jesus’ faith despite being denied what he asked for. Prayer was Jesus’ means of entrusting himself to the Father’s will. Despite the God forsakenness that Jesus anticipates beyond his arrest and trial, having pleaded with the Father to take the cup from him, Jesus’ prayers ground his trust in the Father’s purposes.

Reflecting on Jesus’ prayers should cause us to reflect on and even change our own, both how we pray and what we pray for. The content of our prayers should not be entirely shaped by our circumstances. Our faithfulness in prayer should not depend on God answering us. As Jesus asked in Luke 18, “When the son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Many today would measure faith by the outcomes of prayer, when in Jesus’ life we see that faith is wholehearted trust in God despite its results.

The Holy Spirit’s Ministry and Jesus’ Humanity

 

Jesus If you share a similar Christian tradition to me then I am sure you that have heard comments akin to these about the Holy Spirit, “He is the shy member of the Trinity. He points away from himself and to Jesus. Spirit-filled ministry is Jesus-focused ministry,” and so on. But, developing a point made by Colin Gunton, this narrow, “under-determination of the person of the Holy Spirit,” does not only fail to appreciate Scripture’s presentation of the Spirit but also makes it difficult to give proper dogmatic weighting to Jesus’ humanity. Thus Gunton called the doctrine of the Holy Spirit “the Achilles’ heel of Western theology.” In this post my aim is to convince you that greater significance must be laid on the work of the Spirit if we are to appreciate the life and work of Jesus Christ.

Last year I posted on Christ’s temptation in Matthew 4 and suggested that the Spirit sent Jesus into the wilderness and partnered him as he faced Satan (Matthew 4:1). This close tie between the Spirit and Jesus is apparent throughout Matthew’s narrative: as the earliest creeds state, Jesus was conceived by the Spirit (1:18); John the Baptist foretold that Jesus’ ministry would be inseparable from the Spirit’s (3:11); when Jesus is baptised we are told that the Spirit rests on him (3:16). So when Isaiah 42 is quoted, in Matthew 12:17-18, “Behold my servant, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him,” we ought to understand the Spirit to be, borrowing a phrase from Gordon Fee, “God’s empowering presence.” Immediately following that quotation we read Jesus’ stern rebuke of the Pharisees, who were blaspheming the “Spirit of God” (12:28, 31) by attributing the Spirit’s work through Jesus to Satan (12:26-27). Jesus’ ministry, his miracles and his mission, was inseparable from the Holy Spirit’s ministry.

Dove of the Holy SpiritThere are, in my opinion, at least three reasons we often fail to clearly articulate this biblical truth. Firstly, Driscoll, in Doctrine, writes, “All of the major creeds compiled during the early church…overlook the example of Jesus’ life, in general, and his exemplary relationship with God the Holy Spirit, in particular.” Jesus’ life was not merely ‘God striding across the earth’ (Käsemann), but a window into the remarkable potential for Spirit-empowered humanity. The second reason, linked to the previous point, is most preachers’ penchant to view every miracle Jesus does as evidence of his divinity. When we do this we overlook Jesus’ dependence on the Spirit (as well as the Father) throughout his life. Thirdly, in discussions about Jesus’ temptation our default position is: because Jesus was God he could not possibly have yielded to Satan’s seductive promises. However, that position, in my opinion, makes the temptation no more than a stage drama. Instead, we should recognise that Jesus was truly tempted but also empowered to stay his course by the Holy Spirit.

Returning to our starting point, one can now hopefully see how underappreciating the Holy Spirit’s role throughout Jesus’ life can result in an overemphasis of Jesus’ divinity, at the expense of his humanity. On the other hand, when we fully appreciate God’s empowering presence then, as Gerald Hawthorne writes, in The Presence and the Power, we rightly see Jesus as the archetype of what is possible in a human life, characterised by total dependence on the Spirit of God. In an old post I compared Jesus’ temptation with our own and concluded that when the Christian is tempted they are empowered by the same Spirit who bolstered Jesus’ resolve. By way of conclusion, a proper appraisal of Jesus’ humanity does at least two things: it (1) affirms the biblical emphasis on and importance of the Spirit in all of God’s work, and (2) reassures us in our struggle with sin and temptation of the Spirit’s presence and power.

The Pharisees According to Jesus

Last year I wrote a three part series on the Pharisees, prompted by my frustration at how the Pharisees are often portrayed in teaching and writing. My appeal throughout the series was towards a more discerning exegesis, considering literary criticism and historical context when studying the Gospels. In this post I will offer a few observations about the Pharisees found in the Gospels, challenging the view that reduces their theology to works based righteousness. Since Jesus made no secret of his disapproval, and sometimes even disdain, towards this Jewish sect, I have fleshed out four points, headed by a few of his woes delivered against the Pharisees.

Commandments“You neglect justice and the love of God”

One of the repeated ironies found in the Gospels is the Pharisees’ assertion of unflagging obedience to the law coupled with their failure to practice its two fundamental fiats: loving Yahweh and your neighbour (Deuteronomy 6:5, 19:8; see Mark Matthew 22:34-40). Jesus’ many Sabbath miracles expose this failing, as the Pharisees insisted no man of or prophet from God would commit the travesty of restoring life when he should have been resting. The heart of the Old Testament law was devotion to God, as well as commitment to the wellbeing of others but it appears the Pharisees had lost sight of that. God’s laws were given to make his people more loving towards others as they appreciated his grace towards them.

“They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on people’s shoulders”

In a similar vein to the previous point, Jesus accused the Pharisees of supplanting the authority of Scripture, and God’s laws, by the establishment of traditions, which in turn had become litmus tests for orthodoxy and devotion. But Jesus firmly opposed laws imposed by people, even the esteemed “elders,” quoting Isaiah, “In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Mark 7:7). Though the Pharisees probably invented these rules to keep them from becoming ceremonially unclean and sinning against God, it seems that by the 1st century those rules had become enshrined traditions, considered to possess the same authority as God’s inspired words. The same legalism, able to take many forms, has plagued the church throughout every generation.

Shut door“You shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces”

Jesus kept very unsavoury company, according to the Pharisees; and for one who claimed such deep intimacy with God, even identifying himself as God, his fraternisation with sinners implied that God reaches out to the unrighteous. This is perhaps nowhere better illustrated than in Luke 15, where the Pharisees grumble, “This man receives and dines with sinners.” Jesus then uses three very familiar parables confirming their suspicions about God, “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than ninety-nine righteous persons who does not need to repent.” The parables of Luke 15 climax in the brilliantly subtle identification of the Pharisees with the elder brother, who served his father and never disobeyed but refused to celebrate the return of the younger brother, the sinners and tax collectors.

“They love the place of honour”

Reading through John’s Gospel one notices the author has arranged his narrative around Jesus’ signs. Following the resurrection of Lazarus, the sign paired with, and only second to, Jesus’ resurrection in John 20, the Pharisees find themselves in a bind. They cannot deny Jesus’ “many signs” but fear that if he is recognised and followed by the Jewish people then the political privileges they enjoyed from the Romans would be under threat (John 11:47-48). The reader of John’s Gospel cannot help but to be incredulous at this hinge in John’s storyboard, for the Pharisees choose their comforts over the Christ. As I concluded a previous post on John’s Gospel, “In gaining Pilate’s concession [to execute Jesus, the Pharisees] pledged sole allegiance to the Roman emperor.” The Pharisees exalted themselves and were guilty of an over realised importance. But more damning than this self-preservation was that it blinded them to see God’s messiah, before their very eyes.

Doodle: Pharisees versus Prophets

Giotto - Scene 26Being passionate about literature I often attempt to pull threads of thought through multiple works. I realise that occasionally the result of this is that my writing resembles little more than poorly sewn patchworks of ideas. Working on my current series treating the Pharisees – (1) In defence of the Pharisees, and (2) literary and historical considerations for reading the Gospels – two passages from Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead came to mind. In this post I hope to unpack them in reference to my series and a few other related passages.

In Gilead, John Ames ruminates on the difference between a Pharisee and a prophet: “The prophets love the people they chastise.” And the implication of his reflection is that Pharisees do not. As I have studied each instance of the Pharisees in the four Gospels, one of Jesus’ recurring rebukes levelled against the Pharisees was their gross inability to love the people they taught. Sure, as Jesus noted, they were extraordinarily righteous, able to demonstrate unparalleled obedience to the law. However, and quite ironically, despite their fastidious obedience to God’s laws they failed to fulfil the second part of the greatest commandment: loving their neighbours as themselves.

Giotto - Scene 28In his earthy and encouraging work, The Imperfect Pastor, Zack Eswine notes the Pharisees’ penchant for loveless obedience. He writes, “These Bible teachers justified ingratitude and bitterness in the name of standing for righteousness. They gracelessly pounded people with religious virtues.” But the thread I want to pick up from Ewine is what he says next, “The harshest things Jesus ever said (like the prophets who foreshadowed Jesus) were to the ministry leaders of his day (Matthew 23:1-36).” Towards the end of that cutting catena, in Matthew 23, Jesus labels the Pharisees diametric opposites of the prophets. For their fathers killed the prophets (23:31-32), and in time they themselves would silence the prophets too (23:34). Jesus then utters his distressed lament for Jerusalem, the Pharisees and the people of God, “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it” (23:37).

In a book I return to often, The Founder of Christianity, C. H. Dodd ties some of our loose ends together, “Jesus [stood] in direct succession to the prophets of ancient Israel…The prophets took their stand on the conviction that God was at hand in human affairs, and they therefore interpreted the events of their time with insight derived from their converse with the Eternal…Similarly, we should understand Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God as an interpretation of the contemporary situation in terms of his knowledge of God. It was a significant situation on any showing. Within Judaism a crisis loomed which was bound to resolve itself one way or the other before long…This was ‘zero hour’, the hour of decision.”

Giotto - Scene 34As John Ames approaches then end of his memoir he writes, “The word ‘preacher’ comes from an old French word, prédicateur, which means prophet. And what is the purpose of a prophet except to find meaning in trouble?” Jesus was never mistaken for a Pharisee, while the Galilean public did liken him to the prophets of old (Mark 6:15). Ominous dark clouds hung over Jerusalem in the 1st century, and Jesus entered history to disclose the purposes of God, to dissect the mounting troubles of God’s people. Thus we see him as a prophet for at least two reasons. Firstly, his heart broke for those he preached to, seen in his anguished laments for Jerusalem. Secondly, in Jesus’ own words, “I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following, for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem” (Luke 13:33).