Once upon a time, there was a season in the church year known as “Advent.” The word comes to us from the Latin for “coming.” The purpose of the season was to anticipate; the coming of Christ to earth; it was a season that focused on waiting.
Interested in apologetics and family ministry?
If so, then you’re likely to be interested in this upcoming conference.
God willing, I will be part of an experience in January 2018 that will bring together apologetics and family ministry in a way that will equip you and your church’s staff for far more effective future ministry. Continue reading.
Around twenty-seven thousand people racked up nearly one hundred thousand views of this blog in 2016. If you were one of them, thank you! Since there are no advertisements on my site, I don’t profit from any of the content. And so, if you’ve profited from what I’ve written, please consider purchasing a book (or two or three!) that I’ve written.
Here’s a quick breakdown of what happened on my blog this year:Continue reading.
This exploration of Iron Man 2 is the fourth in a series of posts exploring theological themes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. You can find the rest of the series here. I recommend using VidAngel to filter the content of this film for your family.
Every part of Tony Stark seems to have been forged in brokenness.
A fractured relationship with his father birthed the man known as Tony Stark. According to Tony’s recollection of his father,
He wasn’t my biggest fan. … He…never told me he loved me, never even told me he liked me. You’re talking about a man whose happiest day…was shipping me off to boarding school.
Tony Stark the machine was born in brokenness as well.Continue reading.
Ariel Sabar, writing for The Atlantic, has presented clear and convincing evidence that the so-called Gospel of Jesus’ Wife is a forgery. Dr. Karen King unveiled the fragment in 2012 and suggested that the Coptic text came from a fourth-century copy of an otherwise-unknown second-century Gospel. The clause that gave the fragment its name was found in the fourth line, which read, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife.'”
Sabar’s careful investigation of the fragment’s origins reinforced arguments presented earlier by scholars such as Andrew Bernhard and Francis Watson that the text on the scrap of papyrus was a forgery. Now, even King has admitted that the fragment is probably fake, though she has seen no need to retract her earlier paper.Continue reading.
In an earlier blog post, I explored the evidence that the four New Testament Gospels were linked with the names Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John from the time they first began to circulate in the churches. In this post, I want to dig a bit deeper into specific first- and second-century testimonies about the authorship of the Gospels.
So who really wrote the Gospels? How do we know that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John dictated the books that bear their names? According to skeptics, these four first-century personalities had little or nothing to do with the four New Testament Gospels. One scholar of the more skeptical sort has described the process in this way:Continue reading.
“The four Gospels that made it into the official canon were chosen,” Richard Dawkins declares in The God Delusion, “more or less arbitrarily, out of a larger sample of at least a dozen including the Gospels of Thomas, Peter, Nicodemus, Bartholomew, and Mary Magdalene. … The Gospels that didn’t make it were omitted by…ecclesiastics perhaps because they included stories that were even more embarrassingly implausible than those in the four canonical ones.”
A few months ago, a Newsweek columnist claimed the four New Testament Gospels were not universally embraced in the churches until “political and theological councils voted on which of the many Gospels in circulation were to make up the New Testament”—and, the columnist further claims, Emperor Constantine was one of the key voices in this decision.
A Huffington Post columnist refers to Gospels other than Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as “runners up” that were left on “the cutting room floor” when the books of the New Testament were finalized.
Such claims have multiplied in popularity over the past few years. The impression in certain segments of popular media seems to be that, at some point in the history of Christianity, church leaders were faced with a dozen or more competing Gospels. They selected the texts known today by the names of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—but they might just as easily have chosen a different set of texts.
The historical flaws in these popular claims are manifold. There is—for example–no hint of any moment in history when Christians did not embrace the four canonical Gospels as authoritative and true, even if other Gospels were circulating at the same time. What’s more, the four New Testament Gospels were being traced to eyewitnesses of Jesus no later than the late first century.
What I want to consider in this post, however, is simply the antiquity of the New Testament Gospels in comparison with other texts that have been identified as “Gospels.” What you’ll learn is that, as far as we can tell from the surviving texts, only the New Testament Gospels were written at a time when eyewitnesses of the life of Jesus were still alive and were traceable to eyewitness testimony.
So how can we know that the New Testament Gospels were most likely written during the lifetimes of the eyewitnesses?
These texts weren’t written as tweets or blog posts with time-stamps embedded in them, after all.
And yet, a broad range of evidence suggests that the four New Testament Gospels were received as authoritative in the first century—there are mentions of the Gospels in second century literature, for example, with clear links to individuals in the first century, and very early fragments survive from copies of the New Testament Gospels.
With this in mind, let’s take a quick look at when these fragments were copied, where they circulated, and what the earliest references to the Gospels say about their origins.[i] Then, we’ll look at some of the early reports about these Gospels.
Widely Circulated in the Second Century
One of the oldest surviving portions—perhaps the oldest portion—from any New Testament Gospel is a tiny scrap of papyrus, about two inches wide and fewer than four inches tall. This fragment, discovered in Egypt in the early twentieth century, is known as “Papyrus Rylands Greek 457” or more simply as “P52.”[ii] The Greek words on the front side of P52 come from John 18:31-33. The fragment’s back side records a few words from John 18:37-38. Despite its small size and few words, P52 is one of the most significant fragments of the New Testament. Its importance is rooted, however, not so much in what it says but in when it seems to have been copied.
Distinct styles of handwriting enable scholars to assign approximate dates to ancient manuscripts. To determine when the document came into existence, they might compare the handwriting style of the less-certain manuscript with the writing styles in manuscripts that have well-established dates—provincial records, for example, or dated letters. The idea is that manuscripts from similar time periods will have similar handwriting styles. If the writing style in the less-certain manuscript is similar to the style of a manuscript with a definite date, both documents were probably copied in the same time period.
Of course, since writing styles evolve slowly and unevenly, this process—known as paleography—can only assign a range of approximate dates to manuscripts.
The style of handwriting found in P52 is very similar to a bit of papyrus from Fayyum, a desert region in the northern reaches of Middle Egypt.[iii] This fragment, known as Papyrus Fayyum 110, is a personal letter from a farmer named Lucius Gemellus. In the letter, Gemellus shares some thoughts with his slave Epagathos about the fertilization and irrigation of the olive orchard.[iv] The content of this letter isn’t particularly exciting—unless, of course, you’ve been losing sleep over the precise mixture of water and manure to toss on those olive trees in your backyard. Yet the strong similarities between the handwriting in this fragment and P52 are extremely significant, because Gemellus dated this letter in the year that we know as “A.D. 94”—though, of course, that wasn’t what Gemellus called it. For him, it was the fourteenth year of the reign of Emperor Domitian. This places one of the papyrus fragments most similar to P52 near the end of the first century.
That does not mean P52 was copied in the first century. Paleographic dating doesn’t provide us with precise dates; in nearly every instance, it provides us with broad time frames when a manuscript might have been copied. Other manuscripts very similar to P52 include a second-century fragment of The Iliad (P. Berol 6845). All in all, P52 seems most likely to have been copied sometime in the second century.
So what does this suggest about John’s Gospel?
In the second century, the Gospel According to John was not only completed and being copied but also circulating far from its point of origin. Other second-century fragments from John’s and Matthew’s Gospels (P90, P104) have been unearthed in Egypt as well, about a hundred miles south of Cairo. That’s nearly four hundred miles from Jerusalem and more than a thousand-mile journey from ancient Ephesus. At the very least, these pieces of papyrus suggest that the Gospels According to Matthew and John were in wide circulation in the second century. Since Matthew’s Gospel seems to have used Mark’s Gospel as a source, the Gospel According to Mark must have been available as well.
Connected from the Beginning to First-Century Testimony
By the end of the second century, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were already being bound together in a single book (P4, P64/P67). Such wide circulation of these four Gospels in the second century supports numerous reports that these texts were penned in the first century. Papias of Hierapolis—writing in the early second century about first-century events in Asia Minor—attests to the first-century origins of Matthew and Mark; the second-century Muratorian Fragment does the same for Luke’s and John’s Gospels. Irenaeus of Lyon, writing in the second century from modern France, echoes these same origin stories.
What About the Other Gospels?
And what about all those other Gospels—the alleged “runners-up” that were supposedly excised and dropped the canonical cutting-room floor? There are a few of these that were most likely written in the second century but none that were clearly written in the first century. There is, for example, a second-century portion from an otherwise-unknown Gospel that parallels three New Testament texts and includes an additional fragmentary account as well. Other fragments that may have been copied in the second century come from a Gospel falsely ascribed to Peter and from a collection of sayings known as Gospel of Thomas. Yet, unlike the New Testament Gospels, there is no supporting evidence to link any text in this tiny handful of fragments to any first-century eyewitness. Even though certain segments in these other Gospels may be traceable to true traditions about Jesus, there’s little reason to think that any of these texts is traceable to eyewitness testimony from the first century. Other Gospels beyond these were written much later, with neither pretense nor probability of presenting accurate testimony about Jesus.
Canons, Councils, and Cutting-Room Floors
So what about the charge that “the four Gospels…were chosen more or less arbitrarily, out of a larger sample of at least a dozen”? Or that “political and theological councils voted on which of the many Gospels…were to make up the New Testament”? Such claims ignore clear evidence that
* the four New Testament Gospels were received as authoritative from the beginning,
* the New Testament Gospels were traced to testimony from apostles and eyewitnesses from the beginning,
* and that the alternative “Gospels” were not ascribed to apostles until sometime after the eyewitnesses had passed away.
The four Gospels were not randomly selected from a larger sampling of Gospels; they were the standard by which other texts were tested from the first century forward. The New Testament Gospels, written while eyewitnesses were still living and traced from the beginning to firsthand testimony, remain the most reliable surviving accounts of the life of Jesus Christ.
The Earliest Surviving Portions of the New Testament
(Papyrus Rylands Greek 457)
|Fragment from a copy of John’s Gospel (18:31-33, 37-38)||2nd century A.D.|
(Papyrus Oxy. 3523)
|Fragment from a copy of John’s Gospel (18:36—19:1; 19:2-7)||2nd century A.D.|
(Papyrus Oxy. LXIV 4404)
|Fragment from a copy of Matthew’s Gospel (21:34-37; 21:45)||2nd century A.D.|
|Portions from a codex of the four Gospels (Matthew 3:9-15; 5:20-28; 26:7-33; Luke 1:58—2:7; 3:8—4:2; 4:29-35; 5:3-8; 5:30—6:16). Demonstrates that the New Testament Gospels were being copied together very early.||2nd or 3rd century A.D.|
[i] It’s quite possible, though not certain, that Tertullian of Carthage referenced autographs of Paul’s writings when he mentioned the “authenticae litterae.” If so, original manuscripts of some New Testament texts survived at least until the late second century; if original manuscripts of the Gospels persisted until the end of the second century, it is conceivable that the earliest surviving Gospel fragments were copied from original manuscripts. See De Praescriptione Haereticorum 36.1: retrieved March 1, 2007, from <http://www.tertullian.org/ >).
[ii] B. Nongbri, “The Use and Abuse of P52,” Harvard Theological Review 98 (2005): 23-52. For the first references to P52 after its discovery, see C. Roberts, “An Unpublished Fragment of the Fourth Gospel in the John Rylands Library,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 20 (1936):45-55.
[iii] C. Roberts, Greek Literary Hands (Oxford, United Kingdom: Clarendon, 1955) 11.
[iv] <http://www.columbia.edu/cgi-bin/dlo?obj=columbia.apis.p387&size=300&face=f&tile=0>. See transcription of text at <http://perseus.tufts.edu>; for more information about the Gemellus correspondence, see N. Hohlwein, “Le vétéran Lucius Bellienus Gemellus, gentleman-farmer au Fayoum,” Études de Papyrologie 8 (1957): 69-91.
It’s an accusation that’s been around a long time.
Even in ancient times, critics of Christianity noticed some parallels between Christian beliefs and pre-Christian myths. In the late second century, a pagan philosopher named Celsus charged, “The Christians have used the myths of Danae and the Melanippe, of the Auge and Antiope in fabricating this story of virgin birth!” In more recent times, skeptical scholars such as Marvin Meyer and Robert Price have claimed close connections between the resurrection of Jesus and the myths of dying and rising deities that marked many pagan mystery religions.
In the simplest possible terms, here’s what these critics contend: The most marvelous claims in the Gospels—a miraculous birth, for example, as well as the idea of a deity who dies and rises again—are paralleled in pagan religions that predate Christianity; therefore, early Christians must have fabricated these miracles based on their knowledge of pre-Christian religions.
To be sure, there are some surface-level similarities between ancient myths and certain events in the Gospels. Long before the first century A.D., the myths of Egyptians deities such as Osiris, Adonis, Attis, and Horus included tales of death and rebirth. The Persians venerated Mithras, a deity who (according to some recent claims) was born of a virgin and who died and rose Fain. Sacramental bread and the fruit of the vine make appearances in a few mystery cults as well.
So why should anyone see Jesus as being distinct from the pagan gods? Could it be that the New Testament stories of Jesus represent the fictive myth of an ancient mystery cult that’s survived for two thousand years? Or is there something different about the accounts of Jesus’ time on planet earth?
:: The Pagan Parallels Aren’t Particularly Parallel ::
In the first place, it’s important to be aware that most of these supposed pagan parallels aren’t nearly as parallel as the skeptics suppose. When the actual sources behind the pagan myths are closely examined, the supposed parallels have little in common with the New Testament narratives.
For example, there are dying and rising gods in some earlier religions—but these deities died and arose each year, certainly not the same pattern as Jesus’s once-for-all sacrifice for the sake of others. And the pagan myths of miraculous births are closer to divine impregnation—a mortal woman conceives a child as a result of sexual relations with a god—than to the virginal conception described in the Gospel According to Matthew and Luke.
To exemplify how these supposed parallels aren’t nearly as parallel as the critics claim, let’s take a look at one particular mystery-cult myth that’s often presented as a predecessor to the New Testament, the myth of Mithras.
So what of Mithras’ miraculous birth? In the ancient sources that describe the birth of Mithras, Mithras was birthed from solid stone, and he got stuck on the way out. Some nearby persons in a field pulled him from the stone, which left a cave behind him. Yet some writers continue to connect this birth to the birth of Jesus in a stable with shepherds arriving soon afterward. A few critics even refer to this birth of Mithras as a “virgin birth”! I guess that birth from a rock is sort of a virgin birth. But how can you tell if a rock is a virgin, anyway? And how precisely do rocks lose their virginity? Parallels of this sort are too vague and too dissimilar to support the claim that Christians borrowed their beliefs from pagans of previous generations.
James Tabor, a professor at University of North Carolina, doesn’t believe in the virginal conception of Jesus, and he denies that Jesus could have risen from the dead. Yet even he sees how radically the birth of Jesus in the New Testament Gospels differs from the supposed pagan parallels:
When you read the accounts of Mary’s unsuspected pregnancy, what is particularly notable … is an underlying tone of realism that runs through the narratives. These seem to be real people, living in real times and places. In contrast the birth stories in Greco-Roman literature have a decidedly legendary flavor to them. For example, in Plutarch’s account of the birth of Alexander the Great, mother Olympias got pregnant from a snake; it was announced by a bolt of lightning that sealed her womb so that her husband Philip could not have sex with her. Granted, both Matthew and Luke include dreams and visions of angels but the core story itself—that of a man who discovers that his bride-to-be is pregnant and knows he is not the father—has a realistic and thoroughly human quality to it. The narrative, despite its miraculous elements, “rings true.”
:: Supposed Parallels and Significant Problems When Comparing Jesus and Mithras ::
Supposed parallel: Mithras had twelve followers.
Significant problem: One piece of ancient artwork depicts Mithras surrounded by twelve faces, but there is no evidence that these were “disciples” of Mithras. In fact, Mithras had only two companions, Albederan and Antares.
Supposed parallel: Mithras was identified as a lion and a lamb.
Significant problem: There is no surviving evidence for the connection of Mithras to a lamb. Mithras was identified as a lion. However that imagery for a royal ruler existed among the Israelites (Genesis 49:9) several centuries prior to the emergence of any Mithraic myth; the New Testament writers were using familiar Jewish imagery when they depicted Jesus as a lion.
Supposed parallel: Mithras initiated a meal in which the terminology of “body and blood” were used.
Significant problem: The earliest evidence of such terminology in the context of Mithraism is from the mid-second century—nearly one hundred years after the Gospels were written. In this instance, it is far more likely that Mithraism borrowed from Christian practice.
Supposed parallel: Mithras sacrificed himself for the sake of others.
Significant problem: Mithras is frequently depicted in the act of sacrificing a bull—but Mithras himself never becomes the sacrifice.
Supposed parallel: Mithras rose from the dead on the third day; his followers celebrated his resurrection each year.
Significant problem: There is no surviving evidence from the pre-Christian era for a resurrection of Mithras on the third day. Because of his association with the sun, it is possible that followers of Mithras celebrated a renewal or rebirth each year.
Supposed parallel: The resurrection of Mithras was celebrated on Sunday.
Significant problem: There is no surviving evidence from the pre-Christian era for a celebration of a resurrection of Mithras on the first day of the week, though the followers of Mithras—and of other sun-related deities—did worship their gods on Sunday. The reason for the emphasis on “the first day of the week” in the New Testament Gospels was, however, more closely tied to the fact that, in Genesis 1, God’s work of creation began on the first day. The implication was that, through the resurrection of Jesus, God was initiating a new beginning, a re-creation of his world.
:: Claims of Parallels in Pagan Sources Confuse the Historical Claims of the New Testament with Later Christian Practices ::
What’s more, proponents of these parallels consistently conflate later Christian traditions with what’s found in the Gospels. It’s true, for example, that pagan festivals occurred around the time when Christians later celebrated Christmas—but the New Testament documents never suggest a date for the birth of Jesus in the first place! The identification of a date to celebrate Christmas occurred centuries after the time of Jesus; Christians probably arrived at a date near the winter solstice because of an early tradition that Jesus was conceived on the same date that he died, and nine months after Passover landed the birth of Jesus in late December. In any case, since the New Testament makes no claims regarding the date of Jesus’ birth, the celebration of Christmas is irrelevant when it comes to a discussion of whether the New Testament description of Jesus’ birth is rooted in real historical events.
The same holds true when it comes to connections between pagan fertility festivals and later Easter celebrations. The term “Easter” comes from “Ishtar,” a Sumerian goddess who died, arose, and ascended, and several familiar Easter motifs originated in pagan fertility cults. Yet, except for a mistranslation in Acts 12:4 in the King James Version, no New Testament text even mentions Easter! The pagan roots of later Easter imagery have nothing to do with the historicity of the Gospels.
Likewise, later Christian art incorporated both Egyptian and Mithraic motifs, especially when depicting Jesus and his mother. Yet later imitations of pagan themes among Christian painters has nothing to do with whether the events in the New Testament actually occurred. It simply means that Christians artists could have been a bit more creative when choosing sources for their inspiration.
:: What If Some Pagan Parallels Did Exist? ::
Let’s suppose for a moment, though, that some patterns that were present in the life of Jesus could be pinpointed in some previous religion. Would this weaken the historical foundations of the Christian faith, as critics claim?
The real question isn’t, “Are there similarities between the New Testament’s descriptions of Jesus and some previous religious practices?” Perhaps there are—although I must admit that every ancient parallel I’ve examined has turned out to be vague and weak when examined in its original context.
The crucial question is, “Did the events described in the New Testament actually occur?”—and the answer to this question doesn’t depend on parallels in pagan practices.
Parallels in other ancient religions neither prove nor disprove the authenticity of the New Testament documents. They simply demonstrate the common expectations of people in the first century A.D. Even if some clear parallel did exist between the story of Jesus and previous religious expectations, this wouldn’t warrant the belief that the apostle Paul or the authors of the New Testament Gospels “borrowed” these tenets from other faiths. It would mean that, when God dropped in on the human race, he chose to reveal himself in ways that the people in that particular culture could comprehend. If that’s indeed the case, it would merely mean that the myths of dying gods and miraculous births are rooted in longings that run deeper than human imagination; although the pagan religions twisted and distorted these motifs, they are rooted in a God-given yearning for redemption through sacrifice that makes the world right and new. C.S. Lewis addressed this possibility with these words:
In the New Testament, the thing really happens. The Dying God really appears—as a historical Person, living in a definite place and time. … The old myth of the Dying God … comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens—at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We must not be nervous about “parallels” [in other religions] … : they ought to be there—it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t.
When it comes to parallels between the New Testament story of Jesus and the myths of pagan gods, the supposed connections are not sufficiently parallel to claim that Christian faith is borrowed. Even if some parallels were indisputable, the parallels merely mean that God worked out his plan in a manner that matched the context within which “the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us” (John 1:18).
So what should you do the next time someone pulls out a pagan parallel?
(1) Locate the primary source. With the rarest of exceptions, the primary sources—that is to say, the actual ancient texts that describe the pagan practices—do not include any real parallels to the New Testament.
(2) Determine whether the supposed parallel precedes or succeeds the New Testament. Every text in the New Testament was in circulation no later than the late first century A.D. If the pagan parallel is from a text that was written later than the first century A.D., the New Testament writers obviously couldn’t have borrowed their information from that text.
(3) Determine whether the supposed pagan parallel connects to the New Testament or to later Christian traditions. Connections between pagan practices and later patterns in Christian worship or holiday celebrations may be interesting—but these links have nothing to do with whether the New Testament accounts of the life of Jesus are historically accurate.
R. Beck, The Religion of the Mithras Cult in the Roman Empire (New York: Oxford, 2006) 209-210.
M. Clauss, The Roman Cult of Mithras (New York: Routledge, 2000) 68-165.
C.S. Lewis, “Answers to Questions on Christianity” and “Myth Became Fact,” in God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970) 58, 66.
Origen of Alexandria, “Contra Celsum,” ed. J.-P. Migne, Patrologiae Cursus Completus, Series Graecae 11 (Paris: Lutetiae Parisiorum, 1857-1866) 37.
T. Snyder, Myth Conceptions (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995).
Q: Why is the average person in the pew largely uninformed about church history?
A: I think there are at least a couple of reasons: 1) Particularly among American evangelicals, there has long been a tendency to seek and to value whatever is newest and trendiest, and to separate ourselves from the wisdom of the past. If there’s any reference to church history at all, it typically takes the form of decontextualized illustrations and quotations from those in the past. 2) In school, most church members have experienced history poorly taught – history that centers on isolated facts instead of focusing first on the stories that link us with people long-past. The result of poorly taught history is that people perceive history – all history, even church history – as boring, dry, irrelevant. History isn’t boring, of course, but it’s difficult to change people’s minds when they’ve experienced years of boring history in school.
Q: So you probably believe history is as exciting as a popular fiction book.
A: I think it should be, but if often isn’t presented that way.
Q: There are a lot of people who will say, “I had a history class back in high school, and it wasn’t as exciting as a fiction book.”
A: I think the reason that church history is not as exciting for many people as a good fiction book is because we don’t tell it the right way. We don’t tell it as a story; we tell it as isolated facts. And I think one of the things that we can do in teaching and telling church history is to tell the stories first and make the stories primary. Because that is where we are able to connect with earlier believers in our common humanness, in our common experiences as believers in Jesus Christ – the stories of how God works through them. And I think if we tell the stories first, we help people connect the stories to the names, the dates, the facts.
Q: How did the way you view history and how you want it taught affect how you wrote the book Christian History Made Easy?
A: It completely shaped it, because when I wrote the book, the way I structured it was I laid out the framework of all the names, dates, facts that had to be mentioned. I made that the skeleton, and then I thought, “What stories do I fit in to all of this?” So I could lead into the stories, so that the stories were primary in it.
Q: Why did you write the book, and how did you get interested in church history?
A: I thought church history was boring all the way until I was in my master’s degree, and I took some church history courses and I realized, “This really matters.” This was in the mid-1990s, and I was a pastor, and I wanted my people in the church to understand some of these really important things. I started looking for a church history textbook to use in a study, and I couldn’t find one that covered church history that wasn’t boring. And so I started writing it myself. I wrote it for my people at Green Ridge Baptist Church in Green Ridge, Mo. It started off as a course at this rural church in central Missouri. Rose Publishing, in 1999, published it as a black and white book. And even then, I envisioned a full-color version of this book, but Rose Publishing, budget-wise, couldn’t do it. And so finally, in 2009, they were able to go back to the drawing board of the book, and I was able to re-write significant portions of it and bring it up to date as a full-color book.
Q: How did it get into a DVD curriculum?
A: Rose Publishing has begun doing DVD curriculum, and I had always wanted to be able to teach this in a much broader format – in essence, do what I did back in that little church in the 1990s and do make it available to a broader audience.
Q: What’s the audience for the curriculum?
A: I and two Ph.D. students wrote the curriculum. We really wrote it with laypeople in mind, and we really tried to aim at an eighth-grade reading level. I want it to be used by high schoolers and adults, and laypeople with no theological education. Everything was written with a strong focus on: How can we make it interesting, enjoyable, spiritually deepening for people?
Q: Rose Publishing took great strides in making the curriculum more than just a lecture. They incorporated animation. It’s not just you standing at a podium talking for 30 minutes.
A: One of the things I wanted was animation. They did a great job. They went all out and did everything I wanted. The animations tell different episodes of church history in about three minutes in a really funny and fun way. Interspersed throughout the lectures are complicated subjects reduced in a fun animation that has a good sense of humor but is always historically accurate.
Click here for the rest of the interview.
Suppose that you became a Christian in the second century A.D. You’ve heard the story of a divine being who died on a cross and rose from the dead. Through baptism, you’ve openly identified yourself with his followers. Now, you want to learn more about this deity. Yet you quickly realize that some people who call themselves “Christians” understand Jesus very differently from the Christians in your congregation. In fact, one nearby group that claims the name “Christian” also says that Jesus wasn’t actually a human being—he was a spirit that only seemed human!
How would you decide who was right?Continue reading.
Easter is certainly a time for celebration, but it is also a time for solemn reflection. We fast and reflect during the season of Lent, then we celebrate the joy of the resurrection on Easter sunday. But what about after Easter? What then? The church has traditionally recognized the season following Easter as a time of considering the post-resurrection life of Jesus prior to Pentecost. It is a fifty day period within which traditional church calendars extend the celebration of the resurrection leading up to the ascension of Christ into heaven.
During this season and following, Christians remember the events which inaugurated our faith. So how did Christianity happen? I’ve given a brief overview of the beginnings of Christianity which might be helpful in helping you understand the early history of the Christian faith. As you reflect on the inaugural events of the Christian faith, I hope this historical sketch will help. Click here to read.
What factors actually formed the New Testament and the faith of the early church? Conspiratorial reconstructions suggest that church leaders selected texts that preserved and expanded their own political powers. If so, what shaped the early church were books and theological beliefs that were chosen with the goal of control. The problem is, the core beliefs of the earliest Christians—belief in a bodily resurrection, for example, and the existence of only one God—were well-established before the deaths of the apostles.
Were there some political intrigues in the early church? Certainly! Were certain texts excluded from the church’s authoritative books? Of course. And were some alternative Scriptures suppressed in the early church? In some sense, yes. But this “suppression” didn’t turn physical until after the early fourth century A.D., when Emperor Constantine began to use political power to influence the church’s policies. By this time, the core of the New Testament was already established. Were there times when people’s motives were not particularly pure? Most likely. Yet, throughout this process, the primary standard for truth wasn’t the word of powerful overseers, and it wasn’t anyone’s desire to preserve personal power.
The standard ran something like this: Testimony that could be connected to eyewitnesses of the risen Lord was treated as uniquely authoritative. That’s why The Shepherd of Hermas, Gospel of Peter, and Acts of Paul slipped into obscurity while the twenty-seven books in your New Testament stood the test of time. Over time, Christians came to the conclusion that these twenty-seven books could be reliably connected to apostolic eyewitnesses of the risen Lord Jesus. What’s most significant about this process is that twenty or so of the New Testament texts were never questioned. The eyewitnesses of Jesus were always known to have been the sources behind these books.
So what about the conspiracy theory that the early church’s political struggles were what molded our Bible as well as our most essential beliefs? I think that we can consider that conspiracy cracked. What molded not only the beliefs but also the Bible of the first Christians was an intense desire to know the eyewitness truth about Jesus.
“The Bible didn’t arrive by fax from heaven,” one character in The Da Vinci Code claimed—and, in this, he was correct. The Bible didn’t arrive on earth in a single transmission, sent directly from some divine facsimile device … but the New Testament didn’t come to us through Emperor Constantine or Athanasius of Alexandria either. The New Testament documents were inspired, written, and recognized as authoritative over several centuries. Yet a definite standard governed the entire process, and this standard wasn’t the word of a powerful emperor or bishop. It was a dogged determination to make certain that every authoritative text had its source in someone who witnessed the actual events.
Suppose that you hear about a book or a discovery that points to political intrigues in the early church. First, look carefully at when it happened. Chances are, the intrigues occurred long after the first century A.D. when Christians recognized certain crucial beliefs about Jesus. Even if the intrigues may have occurred in the first century, remember this: The central question is not, “Were there some political actions and motivations in the early church?” There were. The real question is, “Does reliable evidence exist to suggest that the truths taught among the earliest Christians reflected eyewitness knowledge of Jesus?” The answer to this question is a resounding yes.
Interested in learning more about this and other “Christ Conspiracies”? Click here.
March 25th marks the anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in Great Britain. In 1807 the British Parliament passed the Slave Trade Act, eradicating the inhumane export of African slaves throughout the Empire. About 25 years following that, slavery would be completely outlawed within the British Empire. The major contributor to this movement was William Wilberforce, an evangelical Anglican, who—upon encouragement from “Amazing Grace” hymn writer John Newton—saw it as his God-given calling to extinguish the sin of slavery in his land.
Chap Bettis, executive director of The Apollos Project, previously wrote on ways in which church members can participate in the task of helping pastors shepherd their children. In a recent post, he directly engages pastors and offers practical ways to help them guard their children from church burnout and instill in them a love for the gospel and the church. He concludes with these thoughts:
“Pastors, someday your young children will be adults. From what they see at home, would they say you love Jesus? Would they say you love them? ‘By this all people (including these children) will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another’ (John 13:35). God has called you to shepherd his flock. Your children are part of that flock. They are watching you and listening to you at home. Use that influence well.”
What Bettis writes, every pastor with children needs to read. One line from this article sums it up: “Passing the gospel to your children is vitally important—more important than being at every church meeting.” I invite you to read and absorb the seven ministry-altering practices he offers. Click here for more.
With the dawning of imperial favor in the early fourth century and the crumbling of the Roman Empire in the fifth, the primary locus of Christian practice drifted from homes to dedicated institutional structures. Especially in the early Middle Ages, there appears to have been a loss of the ancient model for discipleship in families. Generations grew less literate, and training in Christian traditions increasingly became the domain of professional clergy in ecclesiastical institutions. In the latter centuries of the medieval era, church leaders called anew on clergy as well as fathers and mothers to embrace more active roles in the Christian training of children; this training consisted primarily of memorizing prayers, creeds, and the Commandments. Prayer primers and catechetical books even became available to assist parents. However, feudal responsibilities frequently removed fathers from their families for long periods of time, especially in noble households. Even when children did learn commandments, creeds, catechisms, and prayers in their homes, the instructors were often mothers or perhaps godparents rather than fathers. Recognizing this movement away from previous practices, sixteenth-century leaders of the Reformation called fathers to recommence their role as primary faith-trainers in their children’s lives. According to Martin Luther,
If we would re-instate Christianity in its former glory, we must improve and elevate the children, as it was done in the days of old. … It is the chief duty of the father of a family, to bestow more, greater, more constant care upon the soul of his child than upon his body—for this is his own flesh, but the child’s soul is a precious jewel, which God has entrusted to his keeping.
Such a model for family ministry did not, however, exclude the possibility of age-organized classes for the discipleship of children, at least among the English Reformers. The 1549 Book of Common Prayer required pastors to spend one half-hour on Sunday afternoons, at least once every six weeks, instructing children in the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments. By 1552, this had become a weekly pastoral responsibility.
Interested in more about models of family ministry? Click here.