21st Century Reflections on 2nd Century Description of Christians

Rome, Italy. Trajan Markets, built in 2nd century AD by Apollodorus of Damascus in the time of Emperor Trajan

The following descriptions of Jews contrasted with Christians in the Roman Empire inspire my thoughts today:

“Rome respected Judaism because the religion was ancient and enduring. Jews had survived opposition for over a thousand years and, in spite of that opposition, had spread throughout the Roman Empire and beyond.… Roman authorities did not require Jews to venerate the gods (say, through sacrificial offerings in local temples) or to serve in the military, and Romans viewed and used at least some local synagogues as civic centers, which implies that Judaism served the larger Roman public, however modestly. Jews were far more integrated into Roman society than it might at first appear.

“…. Jews worshiped one God, Yahweh, to whom they were exclusively devoted; followed a rigorous set of ethical and religious practices; and refused to participate in pagan rituals and festivals. They observed a way of life that set them culturally apart. The Jewish rite of circumcision kept Romans who were attracted to Judaism from wholesale conversion. Jewish kosher laws required that Jews shop in their own stores, their dress codes made them noticeable, and their commitment to marry only fellow Jews prevented them from assimilating into Roman culture.”


“Christians appeared to live like everyone else. They spoke the local language, lived in local neighborhoods, wore local styles of clothing, ate local food, shopped in local markets, and followed local customs. ‘For Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race by country or language or custom. They do not live in cities of their own; they do not use a peculiar form of speech; they do not follow an eccentric manner of life.’ At a surface level Christians appeared to blend in to Roman society quite seamlessly.

“Yet they were different, too, embodying not simply a different religion but a different—and new—way of life. ‘They live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land.’ They functioned as if they were a nation within a nation, culturally assimilated yet distinct at the same time. ‘Yet, although they live in Greek and barbarian cities alike, as each man’s lot has been cast, and follow the customs of the country in clothing and food and other matters of daily living, at the same time they give proof of the remarkable and admittedly extraordinary constitution of their own commonwealth.’”[1]

This is the fascinating description of Christians from an anonymous letter writer in the Second Century to Diognetus, a Roman official, which the writer of the book from which the excerpt is taken compares to the Roman view of the Jews in the same time period. The comparison inspires a number of thoughts that are worth exploring.

Continue reading “21st Century Reflections on 2nd Century Description of Christians”

The Unwitting Encounter that Inspired A Great Christian Novel

Gen. Lew. Wallace, 1827-1905, he was an American lawyer, union general, governor of the New Mexico Territory, politician, and author, vintage line drawing or engraving illustration

John Ingersoll, the son of a Congregationalist pastor who shared a pulpit with the famous American revivalist, Charles Finney, was an agnostic. His father was mistreated by the church, suffering contentious charges for deviating from “Old School Calvinism”, and he left the ministry and the church. His son, John, who was young at the time, was so influenced that he became a lifelong agnostic, preaching as vociferously against faith in God as his father once preached faith in God.

Such was the great, negative influence of the tensions among Christian brothers New England in the early 1800’s. Though he unwittingly sparked one of the great Christian novels in American history, Ingersoll led a life of hostility toward God and religion for which he was well-known.

The schism between Old School Calvinism and New School Calvinism lasted about 20 years beginning in about 1837. That’s it. Only 20 years! (Wikipedia)

The tension pitted conservatives from the “Old School” against upstarts from the “New School”. The Old School adherents stuck close to the “Westminster standards” and didn’t support the “New School revivalism” championed by Presbyterian revivalists, like Finney, and New England Congregationalist theologians like Jonathan Edwards.

For those interested in history, Princeton Theological Seminary was the defender of the Old School, while Yale and Lane Theological Seminary became the champion of the New School. Looking back, it is with some wonder that Princeton was on the conservative side of this controversy, the same Princeton today that produced the great skeptic New Testament scholar, Bart Ehrman.

It is also noteworthy that the “renewed interest in religion” generated by the revivalism of the Second Great Awakening that took place in the early 1800’s inspired the social activism that energized the abolitionist movement. Lyman Beecher, the father of the famous abolitionist, Harriet Beecher Stowe, was a New School Calvinist.

Revivalism and slavery were key issues in this schism. Revivalism divided the Old School and New School; while slavery divided both and eventually brought elements of the Old School and New School back together again into factions that were divided more along geographic lines – north and south – as the country teetered toward civil war.

I am struck that social and theological movements always stretch the wine skins and leave people divided, today no less than in the past. While conservatives entrench, progressives plow new paths. While old, brittle wine skins burst, wasting the contents on the ground, over eager revolutionaries might abandon the wine skins altogether. Either way, the wine (the very point of the wine skin) is often lost in the process.

I am reminded of the “proverb” spoken in Ecclesiastes: “It is good to grasp the one thing and also not let go of the other; for the one who fears God comes forward with both ….” (Ecc. 7:18 NASB)

Throughout history we see God moving among people, emphasizing new things at different times. People react by resisting, holding back and becoming entrenched or embracing the new thing, letting go of the old and eventually tilting off the path in the other direction. Wisdom lies in grasping the new thing God is doing without letting go of the truth firmly established by God in the past. This is the stretch that requires the new wine skins!

But back to the story of John Ingersoll and his unwitting influence on the writer of one of the greatest Christian novels written by an American. Lew Wallace was a Civil War General who commanded Union troops at Shiloh. Ingersoll served under him in that great battle. It was their chance encounter that prompts this article.

Continue reading “The Unwitting Encounter that Inspired A Great Christian Novel”

Paul… the Radical Countercultural?

Neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female: we are “all one in Christ Jesus”

Paul Mosaic at Chora Church in Istanbul

People today don’t give Paul (or Jesus or the Bible) enough credit for “forward thinking”. We like to think that modern man has pulled himself (and herself) up by the bootstraps, a notion that emerges from our modern view of ourselves, of beings that have made ourselves after a long, doggedly determined climb out of the primordial slime.

Paul is often called patriarchal and even misogynist. He is blamed for the “backward thinking” that prevails in some areas of the church. Bronze age ideas and norms, they say, enslave the church in primitive thinking that quashes the rights of more sophisticated modern people.

There are dozens of examples in Scripture that this isn’t true. When we read the Scripture through a modern lens and don’t understand or appreciate the context of the time when it was written, we fail to appreciate the radical nature of Scripture.

I have written on these things many times in the past, but my attention is drawn to one example today. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul wrote:

“[I]n Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.
“I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.” (Galatians 3:26-4:7)

Let’s unpack this a bit, and I think you will see what I am talking about. First, we need to consider the context of the time in which this letter was written. Then we need to look closely at what Paul is saying.

Continue reading “Paul… the Radical Countercultural?”

Significance in the Way Christianity Spreads

Islam rivals Christianity in its “travel” around the world. But the spread of Islam looked different than the spread of Christianity.

Os Guinness talks about differences between Christianity and other religions in an interview with Justin Brierley a few years ago. He made a statement that Christianity is the only “traveling religion”.

He observed that Hinduism began in India and remains primarily in India. Buddhism began in India and remains primarily in India and Eastern Asia. Islam began in the Middle East and remains primarily in the Middle East. Christianity, however, began in the Middle East. Then it moved to Europe; and then it moved to North America; and now Christianity is growing fastest in Africa and Latin America and Asia.

While I think Guinness overstates the case little bit, he got me thinking about the how the major world religions have spread. For instance, Islam, which rivals Christianity in numbers, grew very rapidly during the life and immediately after the death of Muhammad. It spread throughout the centuries into Europe and down into Africa and more recently across Southern Asia.

To that extent, Islam rivals Christianity in its “travel” around the world. But the spread of Islam looked different than the spread of Christianity. This is the significant fact, in my opinion – not so much that Christianity has traveled through all the world (though it has) like no other religion.

Continue reading “Significance in the Way Christianity Spreads”

Are the Gospels Reliable?


I recently read a blog post by Brett Lunn, on his blog, Capturing Christianity, titled Why Everyone Should Believe that the Gospels are Reliable. If it were that easy, everyone would believe the Gospels are reliable. But, he makes some good points, and one in particular that sparked my interest.

The Gospels, of course, refer to the books we know as the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The earliest copies of those writings don’t actually contain a reference to authorship, which has occasioned a great deal of modern conjecture about who really wrote them. I say “modern conjecture” because the authorship wasn’t questioned for centuries.

In fact, the earliest charge from anyone raising a question about the authorship of the Gospels was advanced in the 4th Century by Faustus. Augustine, the great writer, thinker and theologian took on the skeptic, Faustus, with the response, “How do we know the authorship of the works of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Varro, and other similar writers but by the unbroken chain of evidence?”[1] With the Gospels, we have a history of acceptance that they are authentic writings of the men to whom they are ascribed all the way up to the 4th Century. That’s a pretty good chain of title.

Further, it’s not as if the writings didn’t actually identify the authors, as people suppose. They did identify the authors, but the identification was in the titles (not in the text), and they didn’t uniformly identify the authors in exactly the same format. Some said, “Gospel according to….”, and some simply said, “According to….” Much ado about nothing?

Another criticism is that the Gospels weren’t written by the most officious people. John, of course, was a close disciple of Jesus, and so was Matthew, but Matthew was kind of suspect. He was a tax collector, and tax collectors for the Roman government were persona non gratis in the Jewish outskirts of the Roman Empire. Couldn’t a disciple with better credentials have authored a Gospel?

Mark and Luke aren’t even disciples! Luke was a companion of Paul. He wasn’t even Jewish; he was a gentile! He wrote in the Greek style of the highly educated, using Greek expressions, instead of Hebrew ones. We know him chiefly through Paul’s letters: Luke the doctor (Col. 4:14) who was the last companion to remain with Paul before his death (2 Tim. 4:10-11) among other references.

And Mark? He was a companion of Peter. He was also a companion of Paul, being described as a missionary with Barnabas and Paul (John Mark) in whose house many gathered to pray. Paul also asks for Mark to come to him in the same letter in which he laments that Luke is the only person still with him. (2 Timothy 4:11) Peter referred to Mark as his son, which most scholars take to mean a term of honor and endearment. (1 Peter 5:13)

Mark also had a falling out with Paul at some point, however. (Acts 15:36-39) Luke was a Gentile. Matthew was a despised tax collector. Couldn’t even a fledgling religion come up with credible scribes of the central story?

Sure, if Christianity was nothing but a religion concocted by the imaginations of men. Frankly, why would anyone choose this cast of characters?

I think the answer is that no one would have chosen these guys, and the story wasn’t made up. These are the men who reported what they saw, what they heard and what they knew to be true from firsthand accounts. The truth is kind of like that. It isn’t neat and clean like a story someone made up. It is what it is.

And this is the point that intrigues me by the article that inspires this piece. Continue reading “Are the Gospels Reliable?”

Remembering Palmyra: a Call to Enter Through the Narrow Gate

The destruction of the ancient ruin of Palmyra is a war crime, but we risk a greater loss.

The Palmyran Valley and Oasis
The Palmyran Valley and Oasis by Steve Murray

Sometimes things we read in the news hit close to home, even from halfway around the world in an ancient, foreign land. A friend from college has a personal connection to the ruins of the temple in the Palmyra Valley of Syria. He visited there and took the photos I have published in this blog with his permission. I started this blog article years ago, when ISIS was at it’s public height.

He describes the Valley, sitting about 125 miles north-east of Damascus, Syria, in the desert, as it appears above, “a welcome relief after weeks, months on the road” for the travelers along the Silk Road from the east. The “peaceful place… filled with memories” was no longer peaceful and filled with pleasant memories when I began this piece. I don’t know how things stand today. The news has moved on, leaving whatever ravages that continue out of the pubic eye.

“’Among the great cities of antiquity, Palmyra is comparable only to Petra in Jordan, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and the Athenian Acropolis in Greece,’ argues GW Bowersock, professor emeritus of ancient history at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.” (quoted in Isis’s Destruction Of Palmyra: ‘The Heart Has Been Ripped Out of the City’ by Stuart Jeffries in the Guardian Sept. 2, 2015)

With fond reminiscences of a peaceful time, relationships developed between disparate brothers and sisters who shared good will and historic significance of this desert oasis along the ancient silk road, the utter sadness and ache of the loss of the ruins is deep and vacuous. And more so now that my part of world has largely forgotten the devastation that exploded in front of the world’s eyes just a few short years ago.

Palmyra’s Baalshamin temple ‘blown up by IS’

read the headlines in Britain. Another British headline grimly pronounced,

ISIS behead archaeologist who wouldn’t give up priceless artifacts for terrorists to loot and destroy.

In the Atlantic, the headline read with finality, An Ancient Temple in Palmyra Is Destroyed. “Reports of the site’s destruction come just days after the Islamic State killed Khaled Asaad, an 82-year-old Syrian expert on Palmyra who refused to divulge the location of artifacts despised by the militant group [and coveted for the booty they would bring]. Asaad had run Palmyra’s antiquities department for 50 years.”

“The taking of the historic city of Palmyra by Islamic State represents ‘the fall of a civilisation’, according to Syria’s antiquities chief Maamoun Abdulkarim. Speaking to Reuters today, he said: ‘Human, civilized society has lost the battle against barbarism. I have lost all hope.’” (Mark Woods Christian Today Contributing Editor 21 May 2015)

Temple at Palmyra
Temple at Palmyra by Steve Murray

Barbaric, incomprehensible, brutal, evil, criminal, atrocity …. Words fall short. No regard for history, culture, art, life …. The ISIS militants did not even have regard for their own lives. The wrought unspeakable destruction and the taking of precious life in the Venice of the Sands.

Christians, humanists, peaceful Muslims, people of all stripes condemn what ISIS has done. The destruction of the ancient ruin of Palmyra is a war crime. The killing of Khaled al-Assad, the curator and protector of the Palmyran antiquities, is an atrocity of the worst order. If he had only given his life to protect those beautiful, ancient ruins…, but ruins were destroyed with him. The various reactions to the crime and atrocity are understandable and expected.

The worldwide reports emphasized a common theme: the harsh clash of religious fundamentalism in the nature of the destruction and violence. “ISIS did not merely blast apart old stones—it attacked the very foundations of pluralistic society” (The Rubble of Palmyra by Leon Wieseltier in the Atlantic Sept. 4, 2015). Indeed, ISIS displayed the worst of religion – the worst of humanity.

And the recent destruction of ancient historical artifacts and buildings is nothing new.

“In this iconoclasm – literally, the destruction of religious icons and other images or monuments for religious or political motives – Isis has its place in a rich history of destruction. Moses reduced the Golden Calf, made from Israelites’ golden earrings, to dust. Centuries later, the 93 carved relief sculptures of the life and miracles of the Virgin Mary in Ely Cathedral’s lady chapel, were hacked off during the Reformation. In between Moses and the mutilation of Ely was something called the Iconoclastic controversy in the history of the Eastern or Byzantine Christian church. Between AD 726 and 843, the then emperors of Byzantium believed icons were not only a reversion to the pagan idolatry of the ancient Greeks and Romans, but that their existence was the chief obstacle to the conversion to Christianity of Jews and Muslims, to both of whom the image was anathema. Iconoclasm, then, is by no means only an Islamic thing.” (quoted in Isis’s Destruction Of Palmyra: ‘The Heart Has Been Ripped Out of the City’ by Stuart Jeffries in the Guardian Sept. 2, 2015)

www.yourmiddleeast.com 660 x 390
www.yourmiddleeast.com

As tempting as it is to reel in sadness and righteous anger (something the irreligious seem to have learned well from the religious in recent times) over the destruction of such significant ancient preserves, there is a greater loss.  Ross Burns, adjunct professor of ancient history at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, whose life is devoted to the preservation, study and appreciation of antiquity, appropriately recognized,

“[T]here are more important considerations in Syria in 2015 than the preservation of ancient monuments. ‘The physical damage to monuments has to be assessed against the scale of the human tragedy….’” (Id.)

Continue reading “Remembering Palmyra: a Call to Enter Through the Narrow Gate”

Of Church Heretics and Heroes

Who are the William Tyndale’s in modern culture?

The Tyndale Monument, Gloucestershire, UK was built in honor of William Tyndale, a translator of the Bible, who was born nearby.

I listened recently to the Unbelievable podcast on the subject of William Tyndale. (Unbelievable? Why William Tyndale’s Bible changed the world: Melvyn Bragg and Ben Virgo) Tyndale lived from 1494-1536, during a time in which illiteracy was the rule, not the exception. The Bible was read only by the educated elite.

The 1600’s was also a time of great corruption in the church itself. The church was the largest employer in the land. It had great power, and it was corrupt. The vast majority of people, including clergy, were ignorant of Scripture. According to the experts on the Unbelievable podcast, many clergymen didn’t even know the 10 commandments. This was a very dark period in church history, the culmination of centuries of church/state alliance that twisted the Gospel to serve the power of kings and popes who lived like kings.

Tyndale was influenced by Martin Luther who also a rebel that opposed the church consensus and power structure of the day. Tyndale was influenced by John Wycliffe who a century before had translated the Bible into middle English, but the church opposed the “unauthorized” translation and rejected it. The church even declared Wycliffe a heretic after his death, and many of the Wycliffe Bibles were burned and not widely distributed.

Tyndale made it his life’s mission to translate the Bible into English for the common man. Though Wycliffe had already done that, the Bible was still virtually inaccessible to the vast majority of people, and even clergy were ignorant of it. He suffered exile for his efforts and was eventually arrested, jailed, convicted of heresy, executed by strangulation, and his body was burned at the stake.

We celebrate Tyndale now as a martyr for the faith who took up his cross and followed Christ even unto death, a leader of the reformation that led believers out of the corruption of the organized religion of his day.

He and other “rebels” paved the way for the Bible to be made available worldwide in every language spoken on earth. Tyndale now is the name of a major Christian publishing company. Luther is the namesake of a major church denomination. Wycliffe is the name of the organization that translates the Bible into the rarest languages of the farthest flung tribes of the world.

Just as Jesus opposed the Pharisees and Sadducees in the 1st Century, Tyndale opposed the popes and bishops in the 16th Century. Just as the Pharisees and Sadducees sought to stop Jesus and had him arrested, tried, convicted and executed for spreading the Gospel, the popes and bishops tried to stop Tyndale, had him arrested, tried, convicted and executed for translating the Bible including the words Jesus preached into English.

The main opposition to Jesus, and Tyndale, came from the religious leaders. Those religious leaders employed the power of the state to oppose the spread of the Gospel (in Jesus’s case) and the spread of the translation of the Bible into English (in Tyndale’s case).

When Pilate asked, “Shall I crucify [Jesus]?”, the chief priests said, “We have no king but Caesar!” (John 19:15) I think about these things in light of the current religious and cultural climate.

Tyndale was viewed as a rebel and, a renegade, a heretic. He opposed the status quo, including the status quo within the church. He was despised. He was opposed by the church. He could not even return to his homeland, England, for fear of his life, and he eventually lost his life to the church and state authorities of his day

Today, the church and state are no longer joined in power as in Tyndale’s day. Many modern Christians in the United States rue the loss of power and advantage, while modern secularists would like to negate completely all influence of religion on society. If Hilary Clinton had been elected, instead of Trump, most Christians feared an incremental loss of power and influence in the affairs of our nation. Christians have embraced Trump as the man to fight the tide of growing secularism and maintain Christianity in that position of power and influence.

But is that a good thing? We all know of the challenges, difficulties and even persecution of the church that result from state government that is opposed to the church, but history suggests that the confluence of state power with church governance leads to corruption of the church. Would we rather accept corruption in the church to avoid challenge, difficulty and persecution?

Listening to Tyndale’s story, makes me wonder, “What about the church today is like the church in Tyndale’s time?” What influence lingers or has crept in to modern Christianity that will cause future believers to look back and wonder at the corruption of the 21st Century church?

Who are the heretics of our time who will be hailed as heroes in future generations?