CHRISTIANITY AND HISTORY
by Doug Ward
On March 18, 2012, those attending the services of Oxford Bible Fellowship in Oxford, Ohio, were privileged to hear a stirring sermon by Dr. Paul L. Maier, Professor of History Emeritus at Western Michigan University. The title of his sermon was "No Myths, Fantasies, or Fables".
Dr. Maier began his message by relating that he had taught history at Western Michigan for fifty years, and that he had also served as university chaplain for forty of those years. The opportunity to hold both positions was a main reason that he passed up other job prospects to stay at Western Michigan for his entire academic career. He retired in 2011, he said, when people began to refer to him as an "ancient professor of history" rather than a "professor of ancient history."
His dual role as history professor and chaplain has led Maier to consider the religious traditions of the world from a historian's perspective. From that perspective, he asserted, the Judeo-Christian tradition stands apart from all others by being historical rather than mythological. As the apostle Peter stated,
"We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, `This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.' We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain" (2 Peter 1:16-18, NIV).
Here Peter refers to the Transfiguration of Jesus, described in the New Testament in Matthew 17, Mark 9, and Luke 9. Peter states that the Transfiguration wasn't a story concocted by disciples of Jesus. Rather, it was a historical event that he personally witnessed along with fellow apostles James and John.
While many religions are based on divine revelation said to have come to a single individual, Maier noted, the Judeo-Christian tradition is backed by a "cloud of witnesses" (Heb 12:1). Writing less than twenty five years after the crucifixion of Jesus, the apostle Paul claimed that over five hundred people had seen Jesus after his resurrection (I Cor 15:6). Moreover, in making the case that Jesus was the promised Messiah of Israel, the apostles drew upon the prophecies of multiple biblical writers, including Moses (Acts 3:22), David (Acts 2:25-28, 34), Isaiah (I Peter 2:8, 22-25), Joel (Acts 2:17-21), Micah (Matt 2:5-6), Hosea (Matt 2:15), and Jeremiah (Matt 2:18), among others. Peter stresses the value of inspired prophecies in 2 Peter 1:19-21.
Dr. Maier described ancient Israel as a "monotheistic island in a sea of polytheism." Although the contributions of the ancient Greece to modern culture have been enormous, Greek religious thought was of little lasting value. In creating their pantheon, the Greeks essentially projected themselves, with all their faults, onto a giant canvas. And the Romans, with all their practical expertise in engineering, warfare, and politics, simply let the Greek gods through Italian customs.
Maier observed that in today's religious marketplace, most of the products are no more impressive than the myths of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Meanwhile, the Judeo-Christian tradition stands up well to the tests of time. Simple geography provides one such test. The Bible is full of authentic place names, 93% of which are known and located. One can travel to modern-day Turkey, for example, and see Tarsus, where Paul was born, or Antioch (modern Antakya) and Ephesus, places where he spent significant time teaching.
The biblical record is corroborated by a number of historical sources. Most notable is the testimony of Flavius Josephus (37 AD-c. 100 AD), the first-century Jewish historian. Josephus mentions Jesus, John the Baptist, James the brother of Jesus, Pontius Pilate, and Herod the Great and his family, giving details consistent with biblical accounts.
Some Roman historians from the end of the first and beginning of the second century A.D. mention Jesus and the first Christians, including Cornelius Tacitus, Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, and Pliny the Younger. In particular, Tacitus (56 AD-117 AD), reports in his Annals that after the great fire of Rome in 64 A.D., the Roman Emperor Nero blamed the fire on "the Christians". He then explains, in accord with the Gospels, that "Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate."
Several centuries after Jesus, the Babylonian Talmud made several derogatory references to Jesus and his followers, including the charge that Jesus "practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy" (Sanhedrin 43a). Maier pointed out that this charge is an admission that Jesus performed miracles, since acts of sorcery are just miracles attributed to a demonic source. Apparently the oral tradition recorded in the Talmud could not deny the authenticity of Jesus' miracles, so it resorted to questioning their origin, as sometimes happened during Jesus' ministry (Matt 12:24).
Maier added that more and more evidence in favor of the Bible is becoming available all the time. Modern scientific archaeology has only been around since 1870, but already it has unearthed much data that illuminates and confirms biblical accounts. It seems that some significant discovery is announced in nearly every issue of the Biblical Archaeology Review. Notable discoveries related to the New Testament include the Pool of Siloam, the Pilate inscription, the Caiaphas ossuary, the Capernaum synagogue and house of Peter in Capernaum, and the Erastus inscription.1
Dr. Maier concluded that historically speaking, there is no contest between the Judeo-Christian tradition and other world religions. The Judeo-Christian tradition is well grounded in history, not in myths, fantasies or fables.
1For more on significant archaeological discoveries relating to the Bible, see the article "Archaeology and the Bible: Kaiser Surveys the Top Finds" in Issue 25 of Grace & Knowledge.
translated from TEX by TTH,
On 30 Mar 2012, 15:09.