Athanasius and the hand of Arsenius

In the fourth century a man lived in Alexandria, in Egypt, whose name was Athanasius. He was a leader in the Church, eventually becoming bishop of Alexandria. Athanasius defended the Christian faith from heretics who wanted to change the Church’s teachings. However, his leadership was controversial, and four times he was expelled from Alexandria by decree of the Emperor.

Alexander was bishop in Alexandria before Athanasius. At that time, a presbyter in the same city, a man named Arius, reasoned his way to a new understanding of God. Arius concluded that only God the Father is eternal and almighty; he taught that the Father created God the Son and then created everything else that exists through the Son. “There was a time,” Arius taught, “when the Son did not exist.” This teaching was condemned by Alexander, but Arius persuaded many Christians to believe his teaching, which led to contention in the Christian Church.

When the Emperor Constantine heard of this trouble, he called for a meeting of Christian leaders to study the Bible and resolve the issue. More than 250 bishops attended (the traditional number is 318, but other numbers are also published), along with other church leaders. Athanasius was at the time the leading deacon from Alexandria, and he was one of the chief speakers at the meeting. After being exhorted by the Emperor to come to an agreement, and after praying and studying the Bible, the meeting produced a statement that described Jesus as “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.” All but two bishops in attendance agreed with this statement, and many Christians still speak these words today when they gather to worship and to learn about God.

When Alexander died, Athanasius was named bishop in Alexandria. But Arius still had many supporters who hated Athanasius. They went to the Emperor, complaining that Athanasius had collected a high tax in Egypt and had given the money to a man plotting to overthrow and replace Constantine as Emperor. Constantine commanded Athanasius to appear before him and questioned him about the charge, but Athanasius was able to prove his innocence. This only angered his enemies further, and they accused Athanasius of other severe crimes. This time Constantine called for a church council; but Athanasius, hearing that the council would be held in Caesarea—where he had many enemies, including the bishop—refused to attend. His enemies used this to persuade Constantine that Athanasius must be guilty of some crime, and so the Emperor called for another council, this time in Tyre, and Athanasius was directly commanded to be present.

In Tyre the enemies of Athanasius presented a woman who claimed that Athanasius had lodged at her house and had raped her. When he arrived, Athanasius entered the meeting accompanied by a friend named Timotheus. When Athanasius was called upon to reply to the charge, he remained silent and Timotheus spoke. He said to the woman, “Have I, O woman, ever conversed with you, or have I entered your house?” She pointed her finger at Timotheus and screamed, “It was you who robbed me of my virginity; it was you who stripped me of my chastity.” Athanasius and Timotheus revealed their rule, and Athanasius was thus vindicated.

The two men wanted to question the woman further to learn who had paid or persuaded her to accuse Athanasius. Before they could do so, however, another charge was raised against Athanasius. His enemies said that he had murdered a bishop named Arsenius, removed his hand, and used it to work magic spells. These opponents had earlier persuaded Arsenius to go into hiding. They even had a box with a mummified hand which they claimed to have taken from Athanasius. Arsenius remained hidden for a while as the rumor was spread about his magical hand, so many people had heard this rumor before the hearing in Tyre. But by this time Arsenius had gotten bored with hiding, had left his hiding place, and had been found and recognized by friends of Athanasius. They therefore spoke up during the council, asking if anyone was present who would recognize Arsenius. Several people said they could, and Arsenius was produced. To add to the suspense, Arsenius was wearing a robe with long sleeves that concealed his hands. Athanasius asked him to show his hands, and Arsenius slowly showed the group first one hand and then the other. Athanasius then asked if Arsenius had a third hand which Athanasius could have stolen from him; the answer, of course, was no.

Even after all this, the enemies of Athanasius further accused him of threatening to cut off the grain shipment from Egypt to Rome. At this charge, Constantine ruled that Athanasius had to be exiled from Alexandria and take up residence in Treves, a city now called Trier, in Germany. This Athanasius did. After Constantine had died (about two years after the sentence exiling Athanasius), his son Constantinus recalled Athanasius, revealing that his father had exiled him, not as punishment, but as protection from his enemies. Athanasius returned to Alexandria, to the great joy of most of the Christians there. But on three more occasions he was exiled by decree of the Emperor. The final occasion, the order was not merely exile, but execution; this order was given by Julian the Apostate. Athanasius found a boat and began traveling by river away from the city. The officer appointed to execute the bishop followed in another boat. Somehow one of the friends of Athanasius got to him and warned him that he was being chased. Athanasius turned his boat around and began to head back toward the city. He approached the boat of the officer, who called to him, asking, “How far off is Athanasius?” “Not far,” the bishop answered. The officer continued the pursuit, and Athanasius returned to the city, where he hid safely until Julian died in battle against the Persians.

Athanasius was bishop of Alexandria for forty-five years, including the seventeen years that he was exiled from the city. He died peacefully in bed in his own home, roughly seventy-five years old. His feast day is observed May 2. J.

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Let’s talk about the Golan Heights

“After 52 years it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which is of critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel and Regional Stability,” President Trump tweeted earlier this week. As with everything else the President has said and done over the past two years, Trump has been greatly criticized for those words. But is he right or wrong in what he tweeted, and how much does it matter?

Golan is mentioned four times in the Bible. It is in the region of Bashan, east of the Jordan River. Under Moses the Israelites captured Bashan, and the land was allotted to the tribe of Manasseh. Golan was designated a city of refuge, where a person guilty of manslaughter (but not of murder) could live in safety according to God’s law.

As the kingdom of Aram (ancient Syria) grew in strength, the Golan Heights became contested territory between Aram and Israel. Even before the development of modern weapons, the Heights had significant strategic military value. Like much of western Asia, the land eventually became part of the Assyrian Empire, then moved through the hands of the Babylonians, the Persians, the Macedonians, the Romans, and the Byzantines. Eventually the land was captured by Muslims, under whom it was ruled first from Baghdad, then from Egypt, and finally from the Ottoman Empire. When the Ottoman Empire fell apart after the First World War, Syria (including Golan) was made a French protectorate, although the British seem to have been more involved than the French in developing the modern state of Syria. The country first declared its independence in 1941, but over the next thirty years several Syrian governments rose and fell before the Assad family rose to power in the 1970s.

After World War II, European governments gradually gave full independence to their Asian protectorates. The British divided the land along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea between Israel and Palestine, basing ownership of each section upon whether the residents were primarily Jewish or Muslim. (They had previously done a similar division of land between India and Pakistan, based on whether the residents were primarily Hindu or Muslim. Neither division has worked well for the residents of those countries.) Almost immediately war broke out between Israel and its neighbors. The result of that war was the end of Palestine as an independent nation: some parts were captured and claimed by Israel, and other parts were assimilated by Jordan. In 1967, almost twenty years later, a second war broke out between Israel and its neighbors. During that war, Israel captured two-thirds of the Golan Heights, recognizing their strategic value. After a third war in 1973, Israel and Syria were persuaded to negotiate their borders in the Golan Heights region and elsewhere. The negotiations, overseen by American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, involved a detailed study of the region. Kissinger spent nearly the entire month of May 1974 working with both governments. He describes the process as “grueling,” adding that “the long shuttle produced an accord that, with all its inherent complexity, fragility, and mistrust, has endured….”

Shortly after he wrote those words, in 1981 Israel announced that it was annexing its occupied portion of the Golan Heights. Syria protested, and the United Nations deemed the annexation null and void, without international legal effect. Until this week, all people speaking for the United States government on this topic have agreed with the United Nations ruling.

The involvement of the United States in the wars of 1967 was largely—but not entirely—conducted with an eye aimed at the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. The United States was one of the first nations to recognize Israel in 1948, and the Soviets tried to draw Muslim countries in Asia and north Africa into the Soviet sphere of influence. Syria and Egypt particularly benefited from Soviet military equipment and advisors. When they nearly overwhelmed Israel’s forces in 1973, President Nixon did all he could to resupply Israel. One result of his action was an Arab boycott of petroleum sold to the United States and its allies, followed by a massive increase in the price of petroleum. This threw the United States into an inflationary recession for the rest of the decade. But Israel survived the war, and shortly thereafter Egypt threw out Soviet advisors and welcomed the United States as an ally.

The Iranian revolution of 1978 demonstrated that more is involved in foreign relations than a cold war between two superpowers, as the new government in Iran was equally opposed to both the United States and the Soviet Union. Of course, the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet government in 1991; but terrorist attacks on the United States ten years afterward demonstrated that America still had powerful and determined enemies. In response, President Bush announced a war on terror, one which included attacks upon Afghanistan and Iraq. The primary goals of those attacks were to confront terrorists on their home ground and to eliminate their access to weapons of mass destruction. Another hope was that governments could be established in those countries that would include western values of freedom and democracy. It must be noted that Israel, during all these years, remained the only true democracy in the region; all its neighbors, even allies of the United States, were under dictatorships.

Years later, while the United States was still struggling to build democratic governments in Afghanistan and Iraq, citizens of Tunisia and Egypt took to the streets and effectively overthrew their dictators. In what was being called the Arab Spring, it seemed at first that a wave of freedom was moving through the Muslim world. When the people of Libya rose against their dictator, Khadafi used his armed forces to try to remain in control. In response, the United States intervened with military force to keep Khadafi from killing his own people, and he was overthrown and killed. Assad in Syria seemed to be the next tyrant to topple, but the United States did not help the people of Syria as it had helped the people of Libya. Even when it was demonstrated that the Syrian forces had used chemical weapons against citizens, they received from the United States little more than a frown and a scolding.

What makes Syria different? One difference is that Assad has maintained ties to Russia in spite of the change in government there since the 1970s. Vladimir Putin does not want the Russian people to hear of dictators being overthrown, so he has provided much support and help to Assad’s government in Syria. While the United States under Barack Obama temporized over Syria, pro-American forces were weakened and an Islamic State was declared. Problems also arose in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, as western freedom and democracy did not emerge as expected.

Donald Trump promised that he was going to do things differently. He showed this after the election but before his inauguration when he spoke with the President of the Republic of China (Taiwan). Ever since Mao’s revolution in the 1940s, American leaders and diplomats have joined the rest of the world in maintaining the fiction that China is one country and has only one legitimate government. From Truman to Nixon, the Communist government was treated by the United States as the illegitimate government, but Nixon opened communication with the Communists, and President Carter recognized the Communist government as legitimate. (All American Presidents, including Nixon and Carter, have made it clear to the Communists that a military taking of Taiwan would not be permitted.) President Reagan once spoke of “two Chinas,” but backpedaled from that position. Not speaking to the President of Taiwan was part of that diplomatic fiction which Trump chose to eschew.

Now he has recognized the reality that the Golan Heights belong to Israel and not to Syria, something which has been practically the case since 1981 (and since the occupation of the Heights began during the 1967 war, fifty-two years ago). As he does on many matters, President Trump has openly recognized reality rather than clinging to polite fictions. After all, the United States has no reason to appease Syria; its government is no friend of our government. Describing reality in blunt terms sometimes is the beginning of solving problems between nations. About the only reason to protest Trump’s statement about the Golan Heights is the reflex assumption some people make that, if Trump did it, it must be wrong. J.

Can Trump be defeated?

CNN wants to be known as the child who observes that the emperor has no clothes. Instead, CNN is increasingly acting as the boy who called wolf. Every week we receive shrill warnings about the end of the Trump administration. Investigations will reveal terrible things that happened in the White House over the last two years, or that happened during the presidential campaign in 2016. Those who have left the administration have secrets to share, and those secrets will topple Trump’s government. Congress will Impeach him and convict him, or else he will resign before that happens. President Trump has no future.

So many Democrats believe this that those in Congress are prepared to open new investigations. They are eager to question every former Trump advisor and assistant. Meanwhile, dozens of Democrats are opening campaigns to run for President. Each of them is convinced that he or she is the one who can defeat Donald Trump in a one-on-one election. They are prepared to battle each other for that privilege. They are convinced that, by November 2020, the country will be so tired of Donald Trump that they will accept any replacement.

“Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.” Richard Nixon was very unpopular in the early months of 1971. Many people, even in the White House, assumed that Nixon would be a one-term President. This, of course, was before he visited China and the Soviet Union. More important, it was before George McGovern was nominated by the Democrats. Nixon won the electoral college votes of forty-nine states in one of the most one-sided elections in American history.

Ronald Reagan was unpopular in the early months of 1983. The country was still struggling from inflation and unemployment. Many blamed Reagan’s economic policies for the nation’s woes. But by the summer of 1984, the economy was strong again. This time the Democrats nominated the bland former Vice-President Walter Mondale, and Reagan repeated Nixon’s accomplishment of winning forty-nine states.

Bill Clinton was unpopular in the early months of 1995. The Republicans had just taken control of both houses of Congress. Clinton’s efforts to change the national health care system had been defeated. The White House appeared to be ready for a Republican to move in. But once again, a strong national economy and an uninspiring opponent gave the incumbent President a second term in the White House.

Democrats thought that the narrow election of George W. Bush would make it easy to defeat him four years later. They failed. Republicans thought they could make Barack Obama look like Jimmy Carter and limit him to a single term. They also failed. In the 1970s, due to the turmoil following the Vietnam War and Watergate, voters resisted the reelections of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. But Carter was largely overturned by the popular appeal of Ronald Reagan. The elder George Bush was held to a single term in spite of his popularity in early 1991. That popularity was due to victory in the Persian Gulf conflict, but by the end of 1992, the struggling postwar economy and the centrist policies of Bill Clinton denied President Bush his second term.

If, in the next fifteen months, the Democrats are able to identify a candidate with the personal charm and middle-of-the-road politics of Bill Clinton, they might remove Donald Trump from the White House. But if the voters in the Democratic primaries favor a left-wing candidate, they will lose the general election. If they choose the candidate who promises the most from government, the candidate who offers to tax the rich in order to take care of everyone else, Donald Trump will repeat Richard Nixon’s comeback of 1972. President Trump has positioned himself well to maintain his base. He can say that he has tried harder than any recent President (indeed, than any recent politician) to keep all his campaign promises. When he failed to deliver, it was not his fault. So long as Trump can point to a strong economy, to improved trade agreements with other countries, and to similar successes, he will have the support of enough voters to keep his job.

Congressional investigations and shrill news stories about suspected corruption will not overturn this presidency. Americans are already bored by these stories. We are ready to move on. So long as opposition to the President keeps playing the same tune, fewer and fewer American citizens will join them on the dance floor. History says so. And some people have forgotten to study their history. J.

Conspiracy theories about Christianity: #7: Did the Council of Nicaea invent the Trinity in the year 325?”

A great amount of information about the Council of Nicaea (325) is easily available on the Internet and in many books. Given that fact, it is surprising that conspiracy theories about the Council continue to be shared and believed. Dan Brown’s character Teabing manages to make more false statements in one page of The Da Vinci Code than I have included in entire true-false quizzes used in my college history classes.

The Roman Emperor Constantine had a vision which led him to become a Christian. He delayed his baptism until the day of his death, not because he was insincere in his faith, but because he wrongly thought that Baptism would remove only past sins and was therefore best delayed to the end of life. Constantine made many public confessions of his Christian faith. He was well-informed about the doctrines of Christianity, and he supported all the teachings of the Church.

Constantine was appalled to learn of a controversy among Christians in Egypt over the divinity of Christ. Arius held that Jesus was created by God the Father and therefore a lesser being to the Father. Athanasius held that the Father and the Son were equally God with the Holy Spirit, all three eternal and unchanging and divine, equal in power and authority and glory. Arius had a pleasant personality and good rapport with other Christians; Athanasius was a bit more unlikeable, but he happened to be right. To clear the air of this controversy, Constantine summoned a council to meet in the town of Nicaea. He invited all the bishops of Christianity to attend. At least 250 arrived. (The traditional number is 318, but 250 is the lowest estimate.) The Emperor, the bishops, and their assistants prayed, studied the Bible, and discussed what it says about the Father and the Son. The Council wrote a document, the Nicene Creed, which was approved by all but two of the bishops in attendance.

The Council did coin new words to summarize what the Bible says about God, but it was determined to stick to what the Bible teaches and not to create new doctrine. The most controversial word at the time was not Trinity (meaning three in one), but homoousios, translated into English as “being of one substance.” The entire phrase that contains that word identifies Jesus as “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.”

Was this idea new? Even the Torah identifies the Trinity, consisting of the Lord, the Angel of the Lord, and the Spirit of the Lord. In passages such as Genesis 22 and Exodus 3, the Angel of the Lord speaks of God in both the third person (he, him) and the first person (I, me). In the creation account at the beginning of Genesis, God speaks to himself in the plural (“Let us make man in our image”). Many messianic passages in the Hebrew Bible identify the Messiah as God or as the Son of God. (Psalm 2 is a good example of this.)

The New Testament is not shy about declaring Jesus to be the Son of God. Paul uses that phrase about Jesus many times (Romans 1:4, for example). John beings his Gospel by writing, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Later he quotes Jesus as saying, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father… I am in the Father and the Father is in me…” (John 14:9-10) Much of the letter to the Hebrews was written to assert the equality of Jesus with his Father.

Why, then, does Jesus say, “the Father is greater than I”?(John 14:28)? The most succinct explanation comes from another document, written well after the Council of Nicaea. Jesus is equal to the Father in regard to his divinity and less than the Father in regard to his humanity. It took several Church Councils to sort through the language needed to talk about Jesus. He is one Person but has two natures—a divine nature and a human nature. The human nature is part of creation and subject to the will of the Father, but the divine nature is equal to the Father in every way. Because Jesus is without sin, his two natures are in complete agreement with each other.

“God is love” (I John 4:16). A Unitarian God can only possess love; He/She/It could never be love. But the Trinitarian God has love as the very basis of his being. The Father loves the Son and the Spirit. The Son loves the Father and the Spirit. The Spirit loves the Father and the Son. This God who is love created the universe as a gift of love. Into this universe he placed individuals whom he could love; individuals who could love him and could love each other. True love makes one vulnerable. By giving humans the freedom to love, God also allowed the freedom not to love. Humans have taken that path. But the love of God has not failed. God the Son entered creation to be a Ransom; to pay the price that frees humans from their failure to love. The Son became human—the Father and the Spirit did not. The Son was required to obey the commands of his Father, and he did so. The Son exchanged places with each human, clothing sinful humans in his perfection while taking the punishment sinful humans deserve on himself. The Son died on a Roman cross—the Father and the Spirit did not die. Human death separates the spirit from the body. The body of Jesus was buried; his spirit was in the hands of his Father in Paradise. But that spirit returned to his body on Easter, promising a resurrection to eternal life for all who trust in him.

The Council of Nicaea invented none of these teachings. They found all of them in the Bible and they summarized them in the Nicene Creed. Eighteen centuries later, Christians still use that Creed to summarize what we believe. We believe it because God said it through his prophets and apostles. The message has never changed. It will never change. The Word of God stands forever. J.

Conspiracy theories about Christianity: #6: Has the Church changed the Bible since it was first written?

Around the end of 1946, three Bedouin shepherds discovered a cave near the Dead Sea. In the cave they found jars, and in the jars they found ancient scrolls. During the following years more caves with more scrolls were discovered nearby. Although most of the scrolls have crumbled into fragments, it has been possible to piece together nearly one thousand scrolls. They were written between the second century B.C. and the first century A.D., and they are a library used by a Jewish community that had left the cities to live in the remote desert. About forty percent of the scrolls were portions of the Hebrew Bible, known among Christians as the Old Testament.

At that time, the oldest complete copy of the Old Testament (in the original Hebrew) known to exist was one thousand years old. Now scholars had access to versions of the Bible twice as old. Close comparisons have been made, and—aside from a stray letter here or there—no differences were found between the two sets of documents. None of the differences represents a change in teachings among God’s people. The Bible has been preserved through the centuries without human interference.

This should have come as no surprise. The Jewish scribes who make hand-written copies of the Scriptures are meticulous in their work. After one scribe has copied a text, another inspects it. If more than one mistake is found, the faulty copy is destroyed. To assure accuracy of the inspection, these scribes count letters, knowing what the thousandth letter should be and what the two thousandth letter should be and which letter is at the exact center of the Torah.

The history of the written New Testament is more complex. Generally one leader would read from a New Testament text to a room of scholars, and each scholar would write a copy. More errors were likely in this method—skipped phrases, repeated phrases, misheard words, and the like. But thousands of copies of the New Testament, or parts thereof, have been found by archaeologists, dating to the early centuries of Christianity. Using a science called textual criticism, experts can compare divergent texts and determine what the apostle had originally written.

Anyone capable of reading the common Greek of the first century can pick up a New Testament and be reasonably certain that he or she will read the same words, sentences, and books first written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, James, and Jude. Of course everyone else has to depend upon translations. A translator—especially a paraphraser—may have a theological bias which leads to misrepresentations in the translation, whether intended or not. But the most common English translations are reliable, and a person concerned about bias can check several different translations to get a surer sense of the original message.

Contrary to rumor, the Church has not changed the Bible over the years. J.

Conspiracy theories about Christianity: #5: did the Church hide other Gospels to bury the truth about Jesus?

 

In Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code, a character named Sir Leigh Teabing makes a number of assertions about the history of Christianity, nearly all of which are completely wrong. At one point he says that “More than eighty gospels were considered for the New Testament, and yet only a relative few were chosen for inclusion.” A bit later he adds, “any gospels that described earthly aspects of Jesus’ life had to be omitted from the Bible.”

A large number of Gospels from the early centuries of Christianity have been found, in whole or in part. Only four Gospels are in the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. When and how were these four selected, and why were the other ones omitted?

Conspiracy theories aside, the Church in those centuries had a simple process of selecting the books of the New Testament. It was not done quickly, nor was it done by a small secret group. The criteria for books of the New Testament were threefold. Each had to come from an apostle. Each had to agree with the doctrines that were being taught in the churches. And each had to be known in most of the churches, rather than just a few of them, or only one.

Matthew and John were apostles of Jesus. Mark was not, but he wrote what Peter taught, and so his Gospel was accepted. Luke also was not an apostle, but his badge of authority came through the apostle Paul, along with the likelihood that—as he researched for his writing—Luke spoke with other apostles.

Doubts were not expressed in the early Church about these four Gospels. Around the year 185, a Christian named Ireneaeus wrote, “It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principle winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the ‘pillar and ground’ of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars….” We can question his reasoning, but historically we see that the Church had settled upon Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as the four authentic Gospels long before Constantine and the Council of Nicea.

Other books in the New Testament required greater discussion. Christians had doubts about the unsigned Letter to the Hebrews. II Peter and Revelation were also questioned. Additional books were considered: a letter from Clement, one of the first pastors in Rome was highly regarded, as were the Shepherd of Hermas and the Didache. In the end, the twenty-seven books of the New Testament were selected because they passed the tests of apostolic authority, agreement with the proper doctrine, and familiarity to all Christians.

The apostles received their authority directly from Jesus. They were messengers, not like mail carriers, but like corporate vice presidents authorized to negotiate and sign documents for the company. They recognized the authority of each other, as Peter wrote, “And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (II Peter 3:15-16). So, when they were first received, the four Gospels and the other books of the New Testament were already regarded as the Word of God.

The many other Gospels failed the Church’s test. They did not agree with the teachings accepted throughout the Christian congregations of that time. But Teabing was wrong when he said that the rejected Gospels described a more earthly Jesus. Quite the opposite: they described a more spiritual Jesus, a Jesus who was not at all human but who took on the appearance of humanity to bring a spiritual message to spiritual people.

The people who wrote those other Gospels and the people who read and believed them are now collectively called Gnostics. Only a few of them used that label in their own time, but it implies possession of a secret knowledge. Modern discoveries have uncovered various versions of the secret knowledge that was hidden in their extra Gospels. For the most part, they were trying to change the Christian message into something that matches Greek philosophy. That change requires rejecting the physical world, including the human body, and preferring the world of mind and spirit.

Douglas Adams wrote, “In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.” The Gnostics would have agreed. They taught that the physical world was made by an inferior god. They further taught that specks of divinity, pure spirit, had fallen into the world and had become trapped as human beings. They said that Jesus was a messenger from the higher gods to rescue those specks of divinity and to tell them how to return to pure spirit. For the Gnostics, Jesus never became flesh and dwelt among us. He could not be killed; and if he did die, he certainly would not choose to raise his body back to life again.

One Gnostic Gospel depicts the body of Jesus hanging on the cross, and his disciples stand at the cross, mourning at his suffering. But then they look above the cross and see the true Christ, unharmed, laughing at his enemies for the thought that they could harm him.

Missing from the Gnostics is the goodness of creation, the Incarnation of the Word, forgiveness through his sacrifice, and a resurrection to life in a new and perfect creation. Instead of those key teachings, Gnostics were to deny the body—most by living ascetic lives, although a few said you could do anything you want in the body, since it doesn’t matter. They were spiritual without being religious. They looked forward to leaving the body, not to be in Paradise with Jesus awaiting the resurrection, but to be free from contamination from the physical world.

No conspiracy led to the selection of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John for the New Testament. Those books are the clear Gospel which conforms to Moses and the prophets and to the other apostolic writings. The Church did not hide the other Gospels; it merely set them aside as valueless. Now that they have been rediscovered, they are easily available to researchers. And anyone who troubles to read the Gospel of Thomas, or any of the other Gnostic writings, will see clear difference between their sayings and Christian truth. J.

Conspiracy theories about Christianity: #4: are the four Gospels unreliable since they are based on oral tradition and were written long after the events they describe?

When I was in elementary school, the teachers would sometimes have the class play this game: the teacher would whisper a short message to one student, that student would whisper it to another student, and the message would pass through a classroom of thirty students, one by one. When the last student heard the message, he or she was supposed to repeat it for the entire class. Invariably, the message had changed along the course of thirty transmissions.

One time a classroom wag added a dirty word to the message. He or she must have been thrilled to witness the vulgarity being repeated by all the rest of the students in the class. That was the last time we were ever invited to play that game.

Oral traditions are not highly respected in our society. They are treated as very unreliable. However, anthropologists have found that civilizations which do not depend on printed or digital sources for memory are highly successful in preserving narratives unchanged from generation to generation. These scientists have had enough decades to study oral traditions in Africa, the south Pacific, Siberia, and other nonliterate societies to be convinced that their professional storytellers learn the accounts delivered from previous generations and pass them unaltered to the next generation.

No doubt much of the Bible was oral tradition before it was written. The accounts in Genesis must have been passed from generation to generation before Moses put them into writing. Likewise, the four Gospels bear signs of being derived from oral tradition. Their brief narratives of events, their pithy teachings attributed to Jesus, and their use of keywords to build a framework for the entire account all show that these writings were originally designed to be spoken and to be heard.

Indeed, the custom among Jews of the first century was to have rabbis teach their disciples to repeat the rabbi’s messages. Committed disciples stayed with the same rabbi, hearing the same teachings repeatedly until they could speak them to others; then they were sent out to share the rabbi’s message. The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is an example of teaching via oral tradition. The verses recorded by Matthew probably were memorized by Matthew through repeated hearings. Even before the death and resurrection of Jesus, Matthew and the other apostles had learned these lessons well enough to be sent to share them with others (Matthew 10:1-42). After his death and resurrection, Jesus again authorized his apostles to be his witnesses (Acts 1:8). Clearly, they met together and devised a common framework so that, as they shared the message, the entire world—first the Jews and then the Gentiles—heard the same message from the twelve apostles and from those who learned from those apostles.

Therefore, Peter writes, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (II Peter 1:16). John also writes, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the Word of life—the life that was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard, we proclaim also to you” (I John 1:1-3).

The New Testament is based upon eyewitness accounts! Why, then, do the skeptics insist that the four Gospels could not have been written within forty years of the events they describe? One basic presupposition of the skeptics is that Jesus could not have known the future. His prophecy of the fall of Jerusalem, found in Matthew 24 and Mark 13 and Luke 21, was fulfilled around the year 70. The words of Jesus match the history of the Roman siege and capture of Jerusalem so accurately that skeptics insist that those words must have been written after the events they describe. Without this presupposition, there is little reason to doubt that the Gospels were written a mere twenty to thirty years after the events they describe, rather than the more than forty years required by the skeptics.

Fourth century Church historians were far closer in time to the writing of the Gospels than we are. Moreover, they had access to full documents which we have now only in fragments. Those historians say that Matthew wrote the earliest Gospel in the Hebrew language or idiom. Indeed, Matthew’s intended audience clearly consisted of Jewish Christians, familiar with Moses and the prophets, and not needing any explanation of Jewish customs. Mark and Luke wrote for Gentile Christians. Both were indeed second-generation Christians, but Luke tells us that he researched his subject before he wrote. (Since he frequently mentions, in the first two chapters of his Gospel, the thoughts and feelings of Mary the mother of Jesus, it seems likely that she was one of his sources. He probably also interviewed several of the apostles, as well as other eyewitnesses to the work and teaching of Jesus.) Mark is said by the fourth century historians to have written the lessons that Peter taught about Jesus, so Mark’s Gospel is indeed based on an eyewitness account.

John’s Gospel differs significantly from the other three, which may indicate that he was aware of the circulation of those three Gospels and wanted to supplement them rather than repeating them. He includes some of the benchmarks of the oral tradition: the baptism of Jesus by John, the feeding of the five thousand, the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus, and his resurrection. But John recalls longer discourses from the Lord. He departs from the oral tradition, not to deny its accuracy, but to share additional information. And even if John wrote fifty years after he saw and heard and touched Jesus, he was repeating lessons he had taught repeatedly over those fifty years. His position as an eyewitness is solid.

Many Christians feel no need to question the accuracy of the Gospels because they hold to the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture: “All scripture is breathed out by God” (II Timothy 3:16); “No prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (II Peter 1:21). But one does not have to accept the doctrine of inspiration to consider the New Testament accounts about Jesus to be reliable. During the time of oral tradition, the spoken accounts of the apostles could easily have been challenged and corrected by other eyewitnesses to Jesus. Even as the first written accounts appeared, people were alive who could have set the record straight. The Bible is trustworthy, not only because of inspiration, but also because of its historic track record. J.

Conspiracy theories about Christianity: #3: Did Jesus claim to be God?

C.S. Lewis observed that a person has only three choices when it comes to identifying Jesus: he is a liar, he is a lunatic, or he is the Lord. There’s no room for calling Jesus a great teacher, a prophet, a good man, when one must add, “but he has one small problem—he thinks that he’s God.” Consideration must be given to the identity of Jesus before one evaluates his teachings. Either he is God, or he is not God—in which case, he must be either a liar or a lunatic.

The easiest escape from this challenge is to say that Jesus never claimed to be God. Most Muslims, and even some people who call themselves Christian, use this argument. They say that Jesus was a great teacher, even a prophet, but that the Church later added to his resume the statement that he is God. Their go-to verse for this argument is Mark 10:18. When a man said to Jesus, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responded, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”

Notice that Jesus does not say in this verse, “I am not God.” Instead, he asks the other man why he calls Jesus good. Jesus knew what was in the mind of that man. He was not approaching Jesus with the belief that Jesus is God; he was flattering Jesus in order to get a favorable answer—to be assured that he was good enough to inherit eternal life. The words of Jesus were a challenge to that man’s beliefs, not evidence that Jesus did not consider himself God.

How do we know this? We see throughout the Gospels that Jesus regarded himself as God. When tempted by the devil, Jesus quoted Deuteronomy: “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.” Yet on several occasions Jesus allowed himself to be worshiped. In Revelation, when John began to worship an angel, the angel said, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book. Worship God” (Revelation 22:9). We do not hear Jesus speak such words to those who bowed down to worship him.

When Jesus challenged his disciples with the question, “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). Jesus did not correct Peter, but he affirmed the truth of Peter’s words. In the Greek and Roman culture, people believed in many gods, and those gods had many sons. But the Jews believed in only one God. Calling someone the Son of God was the equivalent of saying that person was God. The leaders of the Jews said as much themselves when they told Governor Pontius Pilate, “We have a law, and according that law he ought to die, because he has made himself the Son of God” (John 19:7).

In fact, the entire question of the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin hinges upon his identity. They accused him of blasphemy, of insulting God. If Jesus never said (or thought) that he was God, this would have been the time to set the record straight. Instead, when Caiaphas put Jesus under oath and asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:61-62). Jesus was convicted by the Sanhedrin and condemned to die on the basis of these words.

“I am” is the meaning of the name Yahweh (or Jehovah) that is used of God in the Old Testament. In Exodus 3 God stresses to Moses that his name does in fact mean “I am.” By the time of Jesus, observant Jews were so concerned about not misusing the name of the Lord that they refused even to pronounce it, substituting “Adonai” (meaning the Lord) whenever they encountered it. Jesus firmly associated himself with that name of God. Not only did he say “I am” at his trial; he also said “I am the Bread of Life” (John 6:35), and “I am the Light of the world” (John 8:12), and “before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). These statements firmly associate Jesus with the God of the Old Testament, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Skeptics question the reliability of these quotes in the four Gospels. They suggest that these words were invented by the Church long after Jesus died. In the coming days I will address conspiracy theories about the four Gospels and their message. J.

Conspiracy theories about Christianity: #2: are accounts of the miracles of Jesus (especially his own resurrection) only retelling older myths and legends?

Many cultures and religions have produced stories than contain elements like those which skeptics regard as unbelievable in the Bible. There are talking animals, miraculous healings, control of the weather, even the death and resurrection of the hero. Why do Christians regard the Bible’s accounts as reliable and true when we do not accept similar stories from other sources? How is the story of Jesus different from that of King Arthur or of Robin Hood?

These questions are not new. Skeptics noticed such similarities already in the 1600s, a time period they called the Enlightenment. Thinkers in Europe were willing to accept the moral code of the Bible even while they discounted all the miracles it describes. Out of this approach came a philosophy called Deism. Deists say that God is responsible for creating a world, for giving it natural laws and moral laws, but they insist that God is no longer involved in his creation. Like a watchmaker, he assembled the pieces and started the machinery, and he has since stepped away. From Deism only a single step was needed in the nineteenth century to advocate the idea of evolution, that living things gradually change over time, adjusting to the environment, and that no belief in God is required to explain everything that exists.

The study of biology includes the idea of evolution, and so does the study of religion. Since the Enlightenment, a few scholars have suggested that religion began in primitive humanity out of awe toward the natural world and a desire to explain things that happened. Beginning with a sense of spirits in every tree and river and mountain, humanity began to develop stories about gods. The first monotheistic religions, Zoroastrianism and Judaism, were further steps away from primitive thought, only to be further enhanced by Christianity and Islam. Deism and atheism are viewed as the final steps on that road of progress.

Far more people believe that the earliest people knew the true God and that the many religions of the world grew out of distortions and devilish manipulations of that one true religion. Conservative Christians and observing Muslims share that belief in a primal true religion and in many paths of de-evolution. Neither approach is more scientific or more reasonable; each of them has many loyal adherents.

One of the most famous works describing the evolution of religion and the similar accounts found in various religions is James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough. First published in 1890, Frazer’s book describes many stories and ceremonies from all over the world. He presents numerous examples of human sacrifice, either done in reality or feigned to act out a story. Many Christians, Including C.S. Lewis, have responded to Frazer’s suggestion that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is one of many versions of the same ancient story.

First, to say that the earlier versions of a hero who dies and returns to life cancels the truth of Christ’s death and resurrection is equivalent to saying that ancient accounts of travelers such as Jason and the Argonauts and Odysseus disprove the accounts of Columbus’ four trips across the Atlantic Ocean. The existence of the earlier stories does not speak against the truth of a similar historic event. In fact, the many versions of the story of death and resurrection of a god or a hero might confirm the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection, since it appears that people all over the world expected such an event to occur at some time.

Second, we see Old Testament accounts of what Jesus would do being shared since the day of the first sin, when Adam and Eve were told that a descendant of Eve would crush the serpent’s head. It comes as no surprise that distorted versions of that promise would appear all over the world as religion de-evolved among various cultures. C.S. Lewis presented this thought—that the promise of a killed and risen Savior was hidden in the hearts of people everywhere and appeared in various forms and appearances all over the world. One could go further and suggest that when Abraham and Isaac acted out the sacrifice of a son by his father (Genesis 22), they were preparing their own family to believe in the coming Savior. Their Canaanite neighbors, however, got the wrong idea from this event and began sacrificing their own children to gods.

Third, the death and burial and resurrection them is often associated with agriculture. Persephone disappeared into the underworld, prompting autumn and winter; when she returned, she brought spring, and summer followed. The common religious themes of a hero who dies but then returns to life could be drawn from the life of the land, planting and tending and harvesting the crop each year. One could argue that the image of Jesus dying on a cross and rising to life again echoes these ancient agricultural stories. One could also argue that the natural and agricultural pattern was set by a God who already knew what he must do to redeem sinners and to reconcile them to himself. He planned the death and resurrection of his Son to happen in the springtime precisely so nature would be telling the story in its own way while the center truth of the story—the sacrifice of Jesus and his return to life—were happening in Jerusalem. (And the annual celebration of this sacrifice and resurrection likewise correspond to the change in seasons, not by coincidence, but by divine plan.)

As I wrote yesterday, the career of Jesus is linked in its earliest descriptions to historical times and figures. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians some twenty years after Jesus died on a cross and rose again from the dead, Paul gave a list of witnesses to that resurrection, most of whom were still alive. (For cultural reasons, Paul omitted the women who first saw Jesus but included the men.) His assertions could have been disproved at that time, and Christianity would have been stomped out before it had started. If Christianity had arisen in the British Isles or in Persia, describing events in Jerusalem, we would have much reason for doubt. But the first Christians gathered in Jerusalem, the very place where Jesus was killed. If the account of his resurrection was false, the evidence would have been easy to produce. The inability of enemies of the Christian faith to counter its key event with proof of the lie proclaims the truth that Christ indeed has risen from the dead.

Later this week, I will discuss the historical documents that describe this resurrection. J.

Candlemas (Groundhog Day)

The day began bright and sunny, which according to tradition signals six more weeks of winter. The birds, however, did not get the message. Their singing indicated their confidence that spring has already arrived. Today’s temperature, and the forecast for the coming days, seems to say that the birds are right and the groundhog is wrong.

Most people, whether believers or unbelievers, are familiar with the Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter. Far fewer are aware of the minor festivals of the Christian calendar, such as Candlemas, which is observed every year on the second day of February.

As Christians in the Roman Empire chose to celebrate the Incarnation of Jesus (that is to say, his birthday) at the same time that Romans and Celts and Germans were celebrating various Yuletide observances, so Christians also chose to celebrate the Presentation of Jesus at the same time that Celts were observing a holiday they called Imbolc. This holiday falls halfway between the winter solstice near the end of December and the spring equinox near the end of March. In Ireland, some of the old customs of Imbolc have been blended into St. Brigid’s Day on February 1, but for most other European Christians and their descendants around the world, Candlemas has received the attention formerly given to Imbolc.

The second chapter of the Gospel according to Luke describes the birth and childhood of Jesus. The familiar account of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, including the announcement by the angel to shepherds and their visit, comes from Luke. Luke also wrote that Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day from his birth and was presented to God on the fortieth day from his birth. Celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25 puts the anniversary of his circumcision on January 1 and his presentation on February 2.

What is the significance of the presentation of Jesus? As at his circumcision, Jesus was fulfilling the Law for the benefit of all his people. The Law of God, given through Moses, required every firstborn son to be offered to God and purchased from God with a sacrifice. This presentation and purchase of the firstborn son reminded God’s people of the tenth plague upon Egypt, when God’s angel killed the firstborn son of every family in Egypt except for those who obeyed God, marking their houses with the blood of a lamb. The details of the plague, the Passover, and the remembrance are filled with images of Jesus and his sacrifice—the death of a firstborn son picturing the death on the cross of God’s only-begotten Son, the substitution of a lamb for some sons (and the use of the lamb’s blood to identify those who were protected) showing Jesus as the Lamb of God taking the place of sinners, and the purchase of the firstborn son in following generations showing the price Jesus paid on the cross to cover the debt of sinners. Because Jesus, on the fortieth day from his birth, was already obeying the commands of God, Christians are credited with his righteousness. We are free to approach the throne of God and even to call him our Father. Jesus took our place in this sinful world so we can take his place in God’s Kingdom.

Bonfires were lit in Europe on Imbolc night as part of the celebration of the holiday. Christian churches chose to replace the bonfires with many candles, filling the church with light to remember Jesus, the Light of the world. From that custom comes the name, Candlemas. I first encountered that name in the stories of King Arthur, for he and his knights would gather on Candlemas, as they did on Christmas and Easter, to celebrate and to await the beginning of new adventures. The king would not allow his court to eat the feast until some odd event had taken place, sending at least one knight off on a mission to rescue some victim or defeat some enemy.

Before the establishment of the National Weather Service or the invention of Doppler Radar, European Christians often trusted traditions about the holidays to make long-term forecasts of the coming weather. St. Swithin’s Day (July 15) in the British Isles was thought to set the pattern for the next forty days—either it would remain dry for forty days or it would rain for forty days, depending upon whether or not it rained that day. In Hungary the weather on St. Martin’s Day (November 11) predicted the kind of winter that was coming: “If St. Martin arrives on a white horse, it will be a mild winter—if he arrives on a brown horse, it will be a cold and snowy winter.” In other words, snow on November 11 promised a mild winter. So also, the weather on Candlemas was thought to predict the next forty days of weather: a clear and sunny Candlemas meant winter was only half over, but a cloud-filled sky on Candlemas morning meant that winter was over and spring was about to begin.

In Germany bears often took a break from hibernation around the beginning of February to check out conditions and get a bite to eat. The weather tradition for Candlemas became associated with the emergence of the bear and the question of whether it cast a shadow. German settlers in North America adapted the tradition to local wildlife, and thus began the tradition of Groundhog Day.

Ironically, more Americans are aware of Groundhog Day than of Candlemas. The fame of Groundhog Day increased in 1993 with the release of the movie Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray. The movie has little connection to Christian beliefs. It is more suited to explaining the idea of samsara, found in Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. Samsara is the cycle of lifetimes in which one’s atman (roughly analogous to spirit or soul, but not exactly the same thing) keeps returning to this world until it has learned all it needs to know and is fully enlightened.

Christians do not have to worry about the trap of samsara. We have one life now, and a resurrection to eternal life on a Day known only to the Lord. Our place in that new creation is earned, not by our good deeds, but by the sinless life of Christ lived in our place, and by his sacrifice on the cross which pays for all our sins. While we do not know how many days or years remain before the Day of the Lord and the new creation, we have every day between now and then to rejoice in the Lord’s promises and to imitate his goodness.

There may be six more weeks of winter. Or perhaps spring has already arrived. Either way, a new world is coming according to the Lord’s plan and on his schedule. His people can hardly wait. J.

This is a slightly revised version of a post first published on February 2, 2016, and then reposted a year ago.