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.’”
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.
In this age in which fake news seems to dominate the public domain, how do we know what is really true? How can we trust any news? That is a legitimate question today, one that people in my generation didn’t ask as often as we have to ask now.
Skepticism that was once the esoteric tool of elite, fringe intellectuals is now, perhaps, as a hammer in the intellectual toolkit of the common person. What years of intellectualism was not able to accomplish has been achieved in less than a generation by the constant barrage of biased and untrustworthy “news outlets” in the Internet age.
Such an atmosphere of skepticism might cause despair of ever knowing, or being able to know, what is really true. Perhaps, the only thing we can trust is skepticism itself.
Many people have retreated to science and what can be known about the world that we observe with our five senses. It’s kind of a last bastion of truth in a world that can’t be trusted without concrete evidence.
Some people even hold to a position that science is the only way we can know the world: the five senses are the only way to know truth. These people discount philosophy, theology, psychology, sociology and “soft” sciences.
The people who take the position that science is the only way of knowing truth are actually proposing a philosophical position – one that can’t be proven by science – in making that statement. Not even science, then, is the safe harbor we wish it was.
Frankly, mathematics might be the only certain way of knowing things, if the truth be told, but mathematics doesn’t tell us anything about the most important questions that people ask. Why are we here? Where does life come from? Whether life is good? How to treat our fellow humankind, animals and the planet?
We try to rely on science, alone, to answer these big questions, but we can’t do that without sneaking philosophy, or theology or other “soft” sciences into the equation. What we observe with our five senses can’t answer those questions without help.
That leaves us with the more difficult talk of synthesizing and harmonizing all the ways we analyze truth and reality, including science, philosophy, theology, psychology, sociology, etc. It would be more convenient, and may seem like an easier task, to eliminate one of more of those disciplines from the mix, but we would be missing nuances of truth and reality in the process.
In the end, the best we can do is strive for honesty, integrity, objectivity, knowledge, understanding and humility in our efforts to understand the nature of reality and truth. Humility is important because it recognizes and factors into the equation the fact that we are finite creates with limited perspective and capacity.
With that introduction, I am providing a link to an interview with Dr. Hugh Ross who has spent his life trying to synthesize and harmonize what he knows about science, which is a lot, with philosophy and theology. I like him because of his humility and commitment to science, logic and understanding.
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.
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.
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)
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 Palmyraby 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)
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.)
When I was in college, the first class I took was World Religions. Though I graduated with an English Literature major, I also had enough credits to be a Religion major. I didn’t need the dual major. I only took the religion classes because they interested me.
I also became a believing Christian during my college years. It was a transition that took place between that World Religion class and the summer between Sophomore and Junior years. It’s a long story that I might tell in detail some time, but the point for now is that I did a lot of reading and thinking about these things in those years and in the decades since. It doesn’t make me a theologian, but I have more than a passing interest.
Early on I learned that the creation story and flood story in Genesis, among other things, have counterparts in other religions, including other religions in the same area of the world – the Ancient Near East. Phoenicians, Assyrians, Persians, and other people groups had similar myths that have been uncovered from that general time period.
Zoroastrianism, in particular, was said to share many attributes similar to the ancient Hebraic view of the world, including the idea a singular creator God, a dualistic cosmology of good and evil, the ultimate destruction of evil, judgment after death, etc. The scholarly understanding when I was in college was that Zoroastrianism may have predated Hebraic thought and influenced it.
It occurred to me at the time, not having any reason to doubt that speculation, that Abraham may have been particularly open to his encounter with God if, indeed, he had lived in an area of the world and in a time in which there was this kind of influence. It made some sense. He was the right guy in the right place with the right influences setting the table for an encounter with God, the Creator of the world.
Recently I did some research on Zoroastrianism. Wikipedia acknowledges that Zoroastrianism has “possible roots dating back to the second millennium BC”, though “recorded history” of Zoroastrianism only dates back to the 5th Century BC. (Wikipedia). Obviously, dating the roots of Zoroastrianism back to the second millennium BC is just conjecture if records of Zoroastrianism only date to the 5th Century BC.
If we date the accounts of Abraham and his descendants according the biblical chronology and references, that history goes far back into the second millennium BC, but a loose consensus of modern archaeologists and theologians reject that dating in favor of first millennium BC dating. (See Wikipedia, for example) Modern scholars don’t take the Bible at face value. In fact, they presumptively dismiss it for its face value.
Scholarly views are not universal on this issue, of course. Not by a long shot. Some notable evidence and analysis exists that the modern consensus is wrong about the timeline for the life of Moses, the Exodus and other things. (See for instance Patterns of Evidence: The Moses Controversy) The Patterns of Evidence conjecture is that historians and archaeologists who assume a particular timeline for certain events are not apt to see the evidence for those events if they occurred in a different timeline.
The Patterns of Evidence thesis is that evidence for the events described in the biblical narrative is there if we peer through the lens of the right timeline and look for them in the right time periods. Specifically, the biblical accounts of Moses, the Exodus and entry into the land of Canaan are apparent in the archaeological record and historical data on the biblical timeline (second millennium BC), not in the first millennium timeline applied by modern, skeptical scholars.
Certain archaeological finds, like the Ebla Tablets, also raise questions about the modern scholarly consensus. The importance of “looking” in the right places according to the right timelines is explored in Timing the Walls of Jericho.
Back to Abraham, though… he was reportedly from the area of Ur (southwest Iraq), which is quite a distance from the area of Canaan (later Judea) where he ended up – about 1600 miles in fact. In Ur, he may have come in contact with Zoroastrians and other influences. That intrigued me in college, and so I revisit that thought journey again today.
A friend of mine commented recently, “I don’t believe in religion.” I agreed with him, responding, “Religion is man-made.” But part of me flinched a little bit at my own comment.
Religion is what I left when I left the Catholic Church, but religion is what I studied in college. A World Religion class led me forward on a journey that ended in my commitment to Jesus as the Savior and Lord of my life, terminology I realize that smacks of religion.
That commitment made in a particular place and time began a life-long journey of faith, of attempting to know, understand and follow a living God. Not religion, but relationship with God, the creator of heaven and earth Who “knit me together” in my mother’s womb, Who can number the hairs on my head, Who knows the thoughts and intents of my heart.
I bristle at the word, religion, but I realize my friends probably consider me religious. Ironic isn’t it.
These thoughts are triggered by reading Colossians 2:8:
“See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.”
I realize this may seem like so much religious mumbo jumbo. All the more reason to unpack it if I can.
I have been “collecting” the stories of people who became followers of Jesus from all sorts of different backgrounds, including different religious backgrounds. Some of the more interesting and compelling stories are from former Muslims.
In addition, the same coercive practices that grew Islam in the previous centuries are in operation today. While conquest isn’t broadly practiced as it was in previous centuries, strong prohibitions exist in predominantly Muslim countries and areas that inhibit people from leaving Islam. Families disown former Muslims and, in extreme cases, kill them. Those same inhibitions extend even into the west where the same cultural influences discourage leaving Islam or denouncing Islam.
For that reason, the testimonies of Muslims who become followers of Jesus Christ are remarkable and poignant. Afshin Ziafat’s story is such an example. His father disowned him immediately when Afshin admitted that he has become a Christian as a young man in Houston. The decision cost him his father and his family.
One of the hallmarks of the Muslim turned Christian phenomenon of the 21st Century is the way in which so many former Muslims become Christians. A very high percentage of those stories include experiences like visions and dreams of Jesus. Even Islamic radicals and ISIS jihadists have had these experiences that changed their lives. You can watch them tell their stories in their own words on the Muslim testimony page and Muslim/ISIS testimony page.