Monday, December 22, 2014

Jesus: fictional or real?

Though I have no trouble believing that Jesus was an actual historical person, I know that some are inclined to disbelieve in Jesus simply because of all the amazing things the Bible says about him. For those who need some form of proof outside the pages of the biblical text, I am glad to be able to state that evidence can be found to point to a historical person named Jesus from the same time period and location as that presented in the pages of the gospel accounts.
What makes this extra-biblical evidence even more reliable is that it comes from historians who were not, themselves, Christian believers. These are men who lived and wrote shortly after the time of Christ's 33 year life dating from about 4 or 5 b.c. to about 28 or 29 a.d. The other thing to understand about these writers is that their purpose was not to write about Jesus himself, but in the process of writing histories about either the Jews , Greeks, or the Romans, they mentioned incidents involving the followers of Jesus and briefly pointing back to the person who was the originator of what they described as a cult-like group. Without getting into great detail, I will just mention these writers by name and tell something briefly about what they wrote and what they said about Jesus:
  • Tacitus was a Roman senator who was one of the best Roman historians. He lived from around 55 to 118 a.d. His final writing before his death entitled "Annals" included a biography of Emperor Nero who was suspected of burning a part of Rome and shifting the blame to Christians. In writing about this incident Tacitus, who despised Christians, wrote briefly about their founder "Christus" who had been executed by the procurator Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius. This brief statement inadvertently confirms the New Testament on certain details about Christ's death.
  • Josephus started out as a Jewish priest but wound up in Rome during the reign of Vespasian. He wrote about the Jewish war against Rome and also wrote a work on Jewish Antiquities. Both histories were written in Greek. His Antiquities mentioned Jesus twice. One account mentioned Jesus as the brother of James and wrote, "Jesus, who is called Messiah" in order to identify which James he was writing about. A second mention about Jesus is a paragraph describing him as a "wise man" and telling about his death by crucifixion and the large group of followers who had not died out at the time of that writing.
  • Pliny the Younger was a Roman governor who wrote derisively about people who worshiped Christ as though they were worshiping a god.
  • Lucian was a Greek writer of satire including a work called "The Passing of Peregrinus." In that work he referred indirectly to Jesus by calling him, "that crucified sophist".
  • Celsus was a philosopher who considered Jesus to be a magician.
We have five examples of historical writers who mentioned Jesus in one way or another, thus confirming that such a man existed in history. None of these writers were Christians. In fact, some of them were very derisive in what they wrote about Jesus or his followers. Still, this collection of writings confirms quite a list of details from the biblical accounts.  These extra-biblical writers may not confirm that Jesus is who he claimed to be in the gospels, but they help to eliminate the supposition that Jesus never lived. While the Bible is sufficient proof about Jesus Christ for me, it is reassuring to also point to the other proofs outside the Bible that Jesus was an actual historical person living during the first century.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Confessions of a Bibliophile

When I was ordained into the ministry, I began the process of collecting books of all kinds that are commonly used by preachers in preparation of sermons, lessons and Bible studies. Now, some 43 years later I have amassed quite a collection of ministry related books, magazines, and lesson materials. Though I haven't counted the individual books in my library, I have nearly 140 linear feet of shelf space in my office for books and an additional 50 linear feet in bookshelves at home. That's a pretty good collection of books, and it represents years of ministry related expenses probably representing thousands of dollars in purchases.
Now that I am nearing the end of my time in pastoral ministry, I am becoming increasingly aware of changes in attitudes among ministers about maintaining large libraries of books.  My younger cohorts at our church tend to cull their shelves of books on a regular basis. Occasionally, they give some of them to me, and I appreciate that gesture, but I also wonder why it is that the love I have for paper books doesn't seem to be shared by some younger ministers.
Naturally, I am aware that these days books are available in electronic formats on various brands of e-readers. I have my own first generation iPad with 5 different electronic readers loaded on it. I also have dozens of books not taking up shelf space anywhere. Furthermore, I've noticed that electronic books are cheaper than buying paper versions of the same book. But on the other hand, it is not as easy to loan out an electronic book purchased on line unless you share a certain brand of reader with another family member.
More recently, I've heard sad stories of retired ministers who can't give away their books to anyone and are forced to throw them away or donate them to charities. While I don't mind others inheriting my books, I admit to a sad realization that others may not be so likely to place the same value on my books that I have had over the years. Especially, the books I collected over 40 years ago are now looked upon in some literary circles as dated and out of touch with ministry issues of today.
So, what should I do? My wife has already warned me not to even consider bringing all those books home to take up space in our house. I must come up with a different plan than turning rooms in our home into storage shelves for old books. So then, what about this idea? In our church we have a couple of boys who aspire to enter the ministry. One of them is a junior in Bible college, and the other one will soon go to another preacher training school from which I graduated so long ago. I have asked the boy's parents If I could begin donating my books, a box at a time, to these boys so they can start out with ministry libraries of books I have found useful through the years. Thinking back to my Bible college training days, I know I would have been thrilled with such literary largesse. I love to read, and I plan to keep reading as long as my eyes can make out the words on the page. I remember hearing John Maxwell say, "Five years from now, You'll be the same as you are now except for the people you meet and the books you read." I plan to enrich my life on both counts and to do all I can to share my library with others who can see the treasure between the covers and reap the benefits of reading excellent and timeless books.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Guest Blog from Dr. Mark Berrier: The Magi and the Star of Christmas


            The Gospel of Mark has nothing at all about the birth of Jesus. The Gospel of John describes the birth in symbol—“word” and “light” entering the world. Luke’s Gospel has the story of the angels and the shepherds. But only Matthew writes about the Magi and the star.
            Several questions arise from Matthew’s record: 1) Where were the wise men from? 2) How could they know that the star meant a king was born? 3) What was the star? 4) When did the star appear?    
The word “Magos” (singular of “Magi”) comes from an Iranian word for “great one.” Magi were an upper caste in the Middle East—both Persia and Babylonia—for many centuries. They were the scholars who studied the stars and struggled to discern how events in the heavens might impact the earth. But they were not the first who saw the star of Christmas.
            Chinese star-gazers saw it first. For millennia the Chinese had kept close watch on comets and other heavenly phenomena. According to ancient Chinese records a spectacular comet with a very long tail appeared in 5 BC and was visible to them for over 70 days. This comet is the only celestial phenomenon recorded between the period 20 BC and AD 10, according to ancient Chinese records. This comet fits uniquely with the birth of Christ, because Luke 2:2 reveals that Quirinius was governor of Syria when Jesus was born. Quirinius was governor of Syria the first time from 6 BC to 4 BC. After the Chinese had tracked the movements of the comet, the Magi would have been able to see it, too, since it began its journey "in the east," just as Matthew said.       
            This one obvious astronomical object, and the only one, fits with the account of the star of Bethlehem that Matthew 2:9 records—a comet with a long tail. Comets are known to appear suddenly and to seem to travel slowly across the night sky at a typical rate of 1-2 degrees per day. Matthew says that the star "stood over" the place where the baby Jesus lay. A long-tail comet with its head pointing downward can seem to point to a place on earth. This would dramatically fit with the description in Matthew of the star. The Magi would have arrived several weeks after the birth of Jesus—at the house where the holy family then resided (Matthew 2:11).
            Several cities and villages in Persia (today’s Iraq and Iran) claim that the wise men came from there. We don’t know exactly where they were from or even how many of them there were.    
            Could those eastern wise men have known of Balaam’s fourth oracle back in Numbers 24? He predicted that “…a star will rise out of Jacob; a ruler’s scepter will rise from Israel.” Perhaps when Balaam returned to the Middle East, that story was spread, and the Magi may have heard of it. Tradition has given these Magi special names and even numbered them as three, since there were three gifts—gold, frankincense and myrrh. They have been called “three kings,” but there is no evidence for this. Also interesting is the fact that these gifts were unique. Gold is from the earth; frankincense is of the heavens, a symbol of prayer in the Bible. And myrrh is for the burial of the body, used in ancient times in Egypt and learned of by the Jews. Jesus was like these gifts—from heaven, from earth and would be buried, briefly.
Joseph was warned in a dream to leave Bethlehem and go to Egypt to escape the slaughter of the innocents. The three gifts are how the holy family was able to survive economically in an Egyptian city among other Jews. Then at the death of Herod the Great in 4 BC, the holy family returned to Israel, but being warned in a fourth dream, Joseph removed the family to Nazareth of Galilee. And so Jesus would be called a Nazarene.
            Either way, Jesus’ birth was actually in 5 BC, making our calendar, which was invented later on, inaccurate. This New Year would actually be 2018, rather than 2013, if it were based in the birth of Jesus the Messiah.