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?’

Doodle: Resurrection Bodies and The Silmarillion

Corinthian mosaicThis year our small groups have worked through Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. With us fast approaching the end of this apparently eclectic, immensely encouraging, and sin exposing epistle we have spent the last few weeks in chapter 15. What struck me in preparation was Paul’s contrast of our present earthly bodies and promised heavenly bodies (see 15:35-58).

The biggest contrast Paul draws is between our perishing present and the imperishable future. He writes, “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (15:50). The Corinthians could not fathom how the dead would enter heaven (15:35), but Paul’s answer is that even the living are unfit for heaven for they need to become imperishable (15:42). An explanation of the material between these two points is that Paul stresses continuity between our earthly and heavenly, natural and spiritual, bodies. This continuity undergirds the entire section but what the Corinthians needed to learn was that our present bodies made from dust are perishable. The problem is not that the dead cannot be raised but rather that the perishable cannot inherit the imperishable (15:50). Our bodies need to be changed, transformed and clothed with immortality (15:52-54). The resurrection does not only mean that bodily death poses no threat to our hope of heaven; it promises that we will be made imperishable and fit for heaven.

Tolkien - SilmarillionWhat does that have to do with Tolkien’s The Silmarillion? I think that an episode towards the end of Tolkien’s masterful myth clearly illustrates the point made by Paul. In the Akallabêth, the Númenoreans, a mighty line of Men also known as the Dúnedain, yearn for the West, being enamoured by the undying lands of Aman they are embittered that their lives are tied to Middle-earth. Their unrest is told to the Valar by the Elves and it comes as grievous news. Manwë, one of the Valar, sends messengers, “who spoke earnestly to the King, and to all who would listen, concerning the fate and fashion of the world.” They told them there is no profit in voyaging to the Blessed Realm for, “There you would but wither and grow weary the sooner, as moths in a light too strong and steadfast.” There is no hope in leaving the perishable world, for their fate is intertwined with it. But even if they were to sail from Middle-earth to the Blessed Realm, the question Mandos, another one of the Valar, asks earlier about Eärendil rings loudly, “Shall mortal Man step living upon the undying lands, and yet live?”

Empty tombTo quote Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:53, “This perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.” What guarantee do we have of this? “Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead” (15:20-21).

Resurrection Day

What a fantastic reminder; today, a couple thousand years ago a Galilean carpenter/teacher proved to be more than just a rabbi or even a prophet but the very Saviour of mankind.

Regarding the question of Jesus’ identity, Melito of Sardus (a second century bishop) wrote this:

Who is this Jesus?
And so he was lifted up upon a tree and an inscription was attached indicating who was being killed. Who was it? It is a grievous thing to tell, but a most fearful thing to refrain from telling. But listen, as you tremble before him on whose account the earth trembled!
He who hung the earth in place is hanged.
He who fixed the heavens in place is fixed in place.
He who made all things fast is made fast on a tree.
The Sovereign is insulted.
God is murdered.
The King of Israel is destroyed by an Israelite hand.
This is the One who made the heavens and the earth,
and formed mankind in the beginning,
The One proclaimed by the Law and the Prophets,
The One enfleshed in a virgin,
The One hanged on a tree,
The One buried in the earth,
The One raised from the dead and who went up into the heights of heaven,
The One sitting at the right hand of the Father,
The One having all authority to judge and save,
Through Whom the Father made the things which exist from the beginning of time.
This One is “the Alpha and the Omega,”
This One is “the beginning and the end”
The beginning indescribable and the end incomprehensible.
This One is the Christ.
This One is the King.
This One is Jesus.
This One is the Leader.
This One is the Lord.
This One is the One who rose from the dead.
This One is the One sitting on the right hand of the Father.
He bears the Father and is borne by the Father.

[translated by James White]

Today I read part of Carson’s book “Scandalous” on Crossway’s blog and I thought that this pretty much sums it up:

Nothing is more central to the Bible than Jesus’ death and resurrection. The entire Bible pivots on one weekend in Jerusalem about two thousand years ago. Attempts to make sense of the Bible that do not give prolonged thought to integrating the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus are doomed to failure, at best exercises in irrelevance. Jesus’ own followers did not expect him to be crucified; they certainly did not expect him to rise again. Yet after these events their thinking and attitudes were so transformed that they could see the sheer inevitability that Jesus would die on a cross and leave an empty tomb behind, and absolutely everything in their lives was changed.

Indeed, it is the climax of all of history. In closing – because the other guys always say it better than I can – I am reminded of the words of Calvin. As you read, replace the word “gospel” with “message of the cross”.
Without the gospel everything is useless and vain; without the gospel we are not Christians; without the gospel all riches is poverty, all wisdom folly before God; strength is weakness, and all the justice of man is under the condemnation of God. But by the knowledge of the gospel we are made children of God, brothers of Jesus Christ, fellow townsmen with the saints, citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, heirs of God with Jesus Christ, by whom the poor are made rich, the weak strong, the fools wise, the sinner justified, the desolate comforted, the doubting sure, and slaves free. It is the power of God for the salvation of all those who believe.