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All Christian History Studying the Bible

The Taxman Cometh: Why Did Jews in the Bible Hate Tax Collectors?

Author: Andrew Sargent Ph.D., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM

 

If you had to nominate a group for “Most Hated People in Scripture,” tax collectors would probably be the first to mind. In fact, tax collectors are singled out for scorn directly or indirectly over 30 times in the gospels. 

In democratic societies, the tax collector plays an important, but annoying role in sustaining a system that ultimately benefits the citizenry. In the gospels, however, the tax collector is a whole different animal and Jewish hatred for them is palpable. Thus, people do not respond well when Jesus embraces them in repentance as followers and even makes one as His close disciple.

 

The Question

So a natural question would be: “Why do the Jews of the gospel era feel such a profound hatred for tax collectors?” 

The answer to this question is a bit of a history lesson. So, bear with me while I tell you a story. The tax collectors don’t come in until the end, but when they do, perhaps you will hate them just as much.

 

The Story Answer

The Jewish self-consciousness of Jesus’ day is intimately bound up with the lost glory days of the Davidic kings and the centuries of struggle under foreign rule following their exile. 

David himself establishes as free of a society as one might hope for in the ancient world. It is like a proto-constitutional republic. The people covenant with the house of David to be their kings. The sons of David are sworn to rule by Torah, and by principles of shepherd leadership, as spiritual equals with the people. Given the corruptive nature of power, this doesn’t always work out so well, but between exodus and exile, they are at least ruled by brothers and not foreigners. Throughout these years they are fed spiritually through the prophets on the promises of a reestablished Davidic rule, where Messiah will restore all things to proper order. 

After being in exile, the Jewish people are allowed to return to their homeland, but they remain under foreign control. They are kicked about like a soccer ball for a few centuries between competing empire builders. Life is not too terrible when these foreign rulers leave the Jewish people to their own devices in exchange for tribute raised through taxes. 

During the days of Antiochus Epiphanes, however, things take an ugly turn. Antiochus hates the Jews and is determined to crush them through various means. He seduces Jewish youths to the dark side of Hellenistic life. He also bans Torah, interferes in Jewish religious practices, and defiles their sacred sites. 

The Jews push back hard against Antiochus and win their freedom, living under their own brother rulers for the first time since the exile. This is no Davidic Messianic reign, but it does seem to the Jews to be an important step in that direction. When Messiah comes, surely their Jewish rulers will hand over power to Him.  

Not surprisingly, Jewish power struggles get messy and some 60 years before Jesus’ birth, hard-won Jewish freedom is lost to Rome. The Jews find themselves yet again under foreign rule. Rome begins by working with existing Jewish leadership, but the level of Roman control and interference grows steadily as the decades pass. 

Herod the Great, a pseudo-Jewish Roman representative, proves despotic in psychotic ways. Upon his celebrated death, Rome divides power between Herod’s surviving heirs, and, eventually, appoints purely Roman prefects over various parts of old Davidic territory. Dreams of Messiah never seem less likely, and are, for that very reason, most pronounced. If ever the Jewish people needed Yahweh to fulfill His Messianic promises, it is then. 

 

The Taxman Cometh

So what do we have? We have a people nurtured on unprecedented levels of freedom, nursed on great Messianic hopes for a divine peaceable kingdom, raised in the great light of Torah, who descend into the madness of pagan domination for centuries. They have been abused, bullied, tormented, tortured, and murdered. They are daily prevented from being the people they believe God has called them to be, and the oppression of it weighs heavily upon them. 

It gets worse. Taxes under the Roman Empire are complicated and layered. Companies buy the right of taxation for regions, guaranteeing Rome a certain income into their coffers, and receiving in exchange a free hand to pick the pockets of the people. It is a thoroughly corrupt system greased and protected with bribery. The lowest men are appointed at the bottom rung to do the dirtiest job; the actual confiscation of funds. These are men who take special pleasure in exercising power over others and pressing every advantage they have over them to the full. 

There are crown taxes, income taxes, property taxes, produce taxes, bridge taxes, road taxes, harbor taxes, import taxes, export taxes, town taxes, special taxes on certain goods, some as high as 12 ½ %. Any attempt to move goods to market involves constant harassment. On command, farmers have to unload their goods, allow them to be searched, assessed, and taxed at the discretion of the tax collector. 

Common people are always vulnerable to false accusations and the penalties for nonpayment by cash-poor farmers can be extreme. Jesus’ parable in Matthew 18:21-34 tells it true, saying, “…since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made,” and we find, “seizing him, he began to choke him, … and put him in prison until he should pay the debt.” 

It gets worse still. Many Jewish people throw in their lot with the oppressors. The common Jewish person might not be able to say much about their leaders whose power and wealth was largely dependent on continued Roman support of their leadership, but another class of betrayer is ready at hand for their ire—the Jewish tax collector. They are the greedy, smug, sneering, mocking face of Roman oppression worn by fellow Jews, who, but for their abandonment of faith in the promises of God, would have been brothers in arms. They are ranked with murderers and the grossest of sinners. 

 

Good News, Bad News

It is just too much to bear. In the complex experience of this betrayal, frustration boils over. It is important, as we read the gospels, to feel the depth of it. We must know their crimes, and look on knowingly with the crowds and Pharisees as Jesus says to one of the chiefs of these wicked men, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today,” and then, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham.”  (Luke 19:5-9)  We must feel what it was for the people to look on as these turncoats come to Jesus, like prodigal sons fattened upon the stolen wealth of their brothers, and to find Jesus accepting their repentance and rejoicing, He claims, with the angels. 

It should affect us deeply. Jesus’ forgiveness does not diminish their crimes, rather, it exalts the grace and mercy of God. Indeed, no class of sinner is beyond the reach of the Holy Spirit’s conviction or the Father’s forgiveness.

And that is good news for you and me, the Chief of Sinners. 

 

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All Christian History

Happy New Creation!

Author: Andrew Sargent Ph.D., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM

 

Happy New Years!!!

How nice. Whoop-de-doo. The calendar went back to January 1st. Alert the media. Break out the fireworks. Dance in the streets. Bring coats and mittens, it’s cold outside. 

Why do we make such a big to-do over New Year’s Day? Isn’t it just a random date marking one more trip around the sun on a cosmic speck with no innate purpose other than breaking up the monotony of our days? 

Quick Answer: No. New Year’s Day is much more than that and always has been. 

Let’s look today at one of several important things that the idea of a New Year’s Day has provided over the ages: A point of assessment, repentance, and renewal… what many ancients regarded as a New Creation.   

 

The Cosmic Reset Button

The Ancient peoples of the Biblical world viewed New Year’s Day as a cosmic reset button on creation and life. Each cycle of seasons, however, defined from place to place, is a cycle of life, and there is wisdom not only in hoping for a renewal of that cycle but also for self-assessment in one’s place in the pattern. 

For me, born and raised in New England, school started with Fall’s ‘death,’ was exciting through to Christmas Holidays, including New Year’s Day, and then droned on through winter’s ‘languish.’ In March the world sprouted hope with spring’s ‘newness,’ and June delivered us to freedom in summer’s ‘bounty,’ until we had our fill of it, and looked forward again to school friends and change in Fall’s ‘death’ again. 

Our relationship to the world and many of our cultural values were shaped by this cycle as it was lived out in that region. New Year’s Day, for us, was established at the first of a fresh month after the winter solstice; the turning of the days from increasing darkness to growing light. It came in the quiet between harvest and planting when our minds were free to consider our ways from the last cycle and to plan our processes for the next. It is a time of evaluation of ourselves, to ask honestly in the doldrums of winter, “How am I doing?” and “What do I need to change about myself and my life?”

 

Creation and New Creation

Far from being stories about where all the stuff came from, Ancient stories of creation were designed, in one way or another, to educate the community about the WHO (worship), the WHAT (right pattern), and the WHY (reason for being) of life in the existing created order. The idea is plain, if you know how things work and discipline yourself to maintain fundamental principles of life, you radically improve your chances of surviving and thriving. 

Thus, ancient people sought to understand the way of things, the way God (or the gods) made the world function so that they could function well within it. They tried to discern and replicate life-sustaining patterns in society so that they could survive and thrive in perpetuity.  They sought patterns that would make society healthy, and allow their people to go on living and reproducing for generation after generation after generation. 

So creation stories were a kind of wisdom literature, and New Year’s Day was a Re-creation day when the sacred pattern of creation was rehearsed, when the sins of the past were recognized and cleansed, and when the patterns of life-sustaining creation were ritually energized for another year. 

 

The Christian Answer to New Creation

The ancients understood something about the cycle of life that is often lost on modern folks. It is something that is important for us to recover and to intentionally hang on to through holiday remembrance—the very idea of recreation, of overcoming the sins of the past, of clearing the slate and starting out again to make ourselves and our world conform to God’s best intentions for us. 

For the pagan, unfortunately, “sin” and “cleansing” had little to do with morality and ethics. They were fixated most on exploiting the rules of ritual to manipulate the power of the gods to fulfill their own human purposes. And they worshipped gods that are not gods. 

In Scripture, we find similar processes of creation and recreation and New Year’s, with more successful patterns, that demanded something deeply personal from the worshipper. This is the natural result of the fact that Biblical creation and recreation pictures are founded on the inspired prophetic revelations of those who came under the authority of the One True Creator of all and not the self-aggrandizing hubris of human leaders and their perverse imaginings about creation.

For the biblical worshipper, time was not merely about keeping the human life cycle going. The One True Creator of all had a plan for His creation and revealed man’s place in this plan in His inspired Word. He made man in His image, to be His representatives in the world. He gave them His Torah to teach them what kind of people they needed to be in order to do the work that He called them to accomplish. Each person is called to wake up to Him and to be transformed into His likeness as they walk through life with Him in a personal relationship of faith and trust. 

There is wisdom, therefore, in establishing a liturgical life cycle that includes time for New Year’s reflection: “This is the path of life revealed by God in His Word. This is how God made things to work. This is God’s purpose for me in His World. How am I doing with God? How am I doing with others? Am I the person He has called me to be? Am I doing what God has called me to do?” 

Pause and reflection are vital components of a healthy life, especially a healthy spiritual life. Rather than continuing unabated on an impulsive life of action and reaction, take a hiatus from life and evaluate. Set your determination that this time things will be better. This time, you will be better.

Happy New Creation!

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All Christian History

Is the Date of Christmas Pagan?

Author: Kevin Richard Ph.D., Managing Editor for Foundations by ICM

 

Every year around Christmas time, a post will inevitably appear on social media claiming the celebration of Christmas on December 25th is pagan in nature. The post will likely be suggesting either one of two things: 

  • There was a pagan festival around the Winter Solstice and Christians established December 25th as a date of Jesus’ birth to co-opt the festival away from the pagans. This claim is meant merely as a courteous fyi; a history lesson for the church. Or…
  • That Christmas has pagan roots and has been infiltrated by all manner of pagan rituals and decorations. This latter intention subtly suggests that the church do away with Christmas and purge itself of pagan influence altogether. 

Both claims are interesting but, as is often the case with internet pop history, things typically are not exactly as they seem. In fact, we will see that neither of the proposed options above are historically accurate. In this blog, we will look to answer these questions related to the timing of the Christmas holiday:

  • When was Jesus born?
  • Is Christmas a co-opted pagan holiday?

 

When was Jesus Born? 

Central to this larger question of Christmas and paganism is the date of Jesus’ birth. Was he born on December 25th? The answer is both “yes” and “probably not”… Let me explain. In the early church, calendar keeping was a complicated task. In the first century, there were two major calendar models – the Julian and Jewish calendars. The Julian calendar was based on the solar cycles and was the official calendar of the Roman Empire. The Jewish calendar is a lunar model that follows the phases of the moon. Because the Sun and Moon cycles do not align perfectly, the days and months of particular events were hard to keep track of between the two models.

For early Christians, the problem of date keeping emerged when the church was collectively trying to determine the exact date on the calendar to celebrate Easter (or Pascha). They wanted to celebrate Easter on the exact date of Jesus’ resurrection. But what day was that specifically? Even though the church was separating from the lunar calendar, in order to figure that date out, they had to figure out which day Passover fell in the Jewish calendar the year Jesus died. Oh and to add another wrinkle, what year was Jesus crucified – was it AD30 or AD33? 

Uncertain of whether it was AD 30 or AD 33 – there are arguments made for either – two dates emerged as possible candidates for the Easter celebration – the Western church adopted March 25th and the Eastern church April 6th.

 

Is December 25th the Date of Jesus’ Birth?

At this point, you may be asking what does this have to do with Christmas? The answer: ”it doesn’t…at least not yet.” You see, for early Christians, the date of Jesus’ birth was not as important to the liturgical calendar as was the Easter celebration. Nonetheless, there were those who did suggest a date for the birth of Jesus. 

There was a tradition, not supported by the Bible that great Prophets died on the same day they were conceived. This was known as the idea of the “integral age.” According to William Tighe, it seems this idea was widespread in Judaism at the time of Christ and was adopted by early Christians.1 Applying the notion of integral age to Jesus, if he died on March 25th or April 6th then he must have been conceived on either date. Human pregnancies are generally 9 months…what is 9 months from either date? December 25th and January 6th.

It should be noted before moving on that the date of December 25th is likely not the real date of Jesus’ birth. The reason is simple: in AD 30 or AD 33, the accepted dates of Jesus’ death, the Friday before Passover did not fall on March 25th. Also, there is no evidence to suggest the notion of “integral age” is accurate. It appears to be merely symbolic. Nonetheless, this is an accurate historical account of how the date for Jesus’ birth was determined, but notice that only answers part of the question for us. Yes, the church had a date established but was it also a date they celebrated in the liturgical calendar? To answer, let’s look at the next question. 

 

Is Christmas a Co-opted Pagan Holiday?

The claim that Christmas is either a pagan holiday or was selected as a date to co-opt a pagan holiday, centers around the festival of Sol Invictus – the celebration of the unconquered Sun. It is true that there was ritual worship of the Sun in Roman times. But it should be noted that the connection of any festival to the winter Solstice – the time of year where the sunlight begins to lengthen in the day – did not occur until the Roman Emperor Aurelian instituted it around AD 274. Cult worship of the Sun reached its zenith under Aurelian and it was he who established the date for the festival as December 25th. It should also be noted that Aurelian was no fan of Christianity and it seems very likely that he chose that date because it was significant to Christians – not the other way around.

We know the date for Jesus’ birth was determined very early on in the church’s history but it was not necessarily celebrated until later. Tighe notes that the first reference connecting Jesus’ birth to a feast comes from around AD 380 from a sermon of St. John Chrysostom.2 If we were relying on this evidence alone, then it would be difficult to say Christmas was not established as a response to the pagan festival. However, regardless of when it began to be more formally celebrated in the church, it is safe to assume the date of December 25th as the birth of Jesus was set long before that same date was chosen as the festival of Sol Invictus. When it began to be a more formal celebration in the church is not known. But December 25th was a date determined by the Church very early on because they were more concerned with when Jesus died, not because they were trying to co-opt pagan worship of the Sun. 

 

Conclusion

So was Jesus born on December 25th? “Yes” in the sense that it is evident the early church came to accept Jesus was born on December 25th very early on. But “probably not” in the sense that we can also be fairly certain it wasn’t the actual day he was born. Also, it is quite evident that the church did not establish this liturgical date in order to co-opt a pagan festival of the Sun. The dating of December 25th existed long before Sol Invictus became an official Roman festival. Thus, it is safe to say the celebration of Christmas, at least the timing of it in the calendar year, is free from pagan influences. This still leaves the question of “how” we celebrate Christmas on the table of the pagan/Christian debate. But this question will have to wait for another time.

1William J. Tighe, “Calculating Christmas: The Story Behind December 25th.” https://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=16-10-012-v

2Ibid.

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All Christian History

Matthew’s Christmas Bells

Author: Andrew Sargent Ph.D., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM

 

Matthew’s Use of the Old Testament

One of my favorite things to study in the Bible is the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament. I say USE because the New Testament writers do many things with the Old Testament, only one of which is to interpret it for us. They apply it, draw comparisons with it, use it to illustrate or prove, or simply shade our perceptions with the foreshadows cast by Israel’s sacred history.

As we enter the Christmas season, I’d like to give Matthew his due as a creative and brilliant handler of Old Testament materials by taking a walk through the biblical wonderland of his Christmas narrative in chapter 1:18-25. There, Old Testament references and allusions fall around us like snow, light up our perceptions of Jesus with the vibrant colors of the heroes of faith, and ring the bells of prophetic hope. 

 

The Birth of Jesus

We open the scene with Joseph discovering that his bride-to-be is pregnant. Knowing that he himself is not the father, and being, like the great patriarch of faith, a righteous man, he thinks to divorce the girl quietly to spare her public shame. We hear the soft dinging of Genesis 15:6 as Joseph takes on the luminescence of Abraham.

Being the namesake of the great Old Testament dreamer, who was despised and rejected by his brothers, but sent ahead of them by God’s grace and providence to save many lives, this new Joseph has his own fateful dream. Joseph, the great dreamer, lends his own light for us here, as Genesis 37 chimes in the distance.

 

The New Testament Joseph

This new Joseph, like his forebear Jacob, beheld an angel of God in his own divine dream. Jacob beheld the angels ascending and descending heaven on the cusp of his first great adventure with God, and earned the name Israel upon his return as he wrestled a divine blessing from the very Angel of Yahweh. Jacob shines in Matthew as the knelling of Genesis  28:10-12 and 32:22-32 splits the air.

The angel greets Joseph with a messianic epitaph of hope from a host of prophetic cathedrals ringing in the coming angelic promise. He hails him, Joseph, Son of David. As David’s descendant, Joseph himself is a messianic hopeful for the fulfillment of the promises of eternal divine rule rising from the house of David. The valleys echo with the reminiscence of 2 Samuel 7; Psalm 2, 110, 132; Isaiah 11, 16, 22; Jeremiah 23, 30, 33, 34, 37; Hosea 3; Amos 9; Zechariah 12 and 13. The starlight of David’s grandeur glitters brightly over the scene.  

Like his father Abraham, Joseph is met in this vision with the words, “fear not.” Indeed, here and now, the Lord is preparing Joseph to play his role in fulfilling the very promises given to Abraham on that fateful day. The ultimate inheritor of the promises to Abraham, the blessing poured out to the whole earth is coming into the world through Mary. And this one, born of woman, has been conceived through the Holy Spirit. Genesis 15:1 lends its voice to the chorus of bells.

 

A Miraculous Birth

Indeed, this is a miraculous birth, greater even than those of Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah. Their stories, as well as the great promise of Immanuel’s birth, are intoned at several points of Matthew’s tale. Mary is “found to be with child.” Joseph’s doubts are met with “Behold, an angel of the Lord appeared.” Of Mary, the angel says, “She will bear a son,” and, “you shall call his name Jesus.” The chime of Genesis 16, 17, and 30, 1 Samuel 1, and Isaiah 7-9 answer the rest. 

As a true son of Abraham, Joseph too is commanded, “You shall call His name…” And what a promise attends that command! The Lord declares, “I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.” Genesis 17:19 goes ding dong ding!

And what is Joseph commanded to name the child? He is Jesus, which is Greek for Joshua. Here, the Spirit-empowered, prophetic heir of Moses lights our path. This heir is prayed for in Numbers 27:16-17, promised in Deuteronomy 18:15ff, and typified in the first Joshua in Deuteronomy 34. He becomes part of the last days’ hope of Israel and is met in this new Joshua as referenced in several New Testament passages: Matthew 17:5; Mark 9:7; Luke 9:35; Luke 7:16; John 1:21, 25, 6:14, 7:40. The hills go wild with the melodious tintinnabulations of hope no longer deferred.  

 

A Promise Fulfilled

All this, says Matthew, is to fulfill the equally layered promise of the virgin born Immanuel from Isaiah 7:14… a sign as high as heaven and as deep as Sheol. Indeed, the earthly son from Isaiah 7 is a marker of hope for the house of David, born to Isaiah himself in Isaiah 8 as a sign of God’s deliverance. He morphs in Isaiah 9 to one who truly fulfills the name’s promise—Immanuel, God with us—a Divine King comes to rule an eternal kingdom, seated on the throne of David. 

From town to town, from distant mountains and out across the fields where shepherds keep their flocks by night and Magi read the starry lights, Matthew lets the Old Testament flutter around us like feathered rain. He illuminates the scene with reflections of the heroes of faith. He rings in the meeting of prophetic hope with the chiming of a host of Christmas bells. And he does it all in only 161 Greek words. It is truly a biblical wonderland of joy.

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All Christian History

Feasting with a Thankful Heart

Author: Patrick Krentz Th.M., Managing Editor for Foundations by ICM

 

For hundreds of years, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob lived in bondage as Egyptian slaves. Then, in a miraculous event that served as the very foundation of developing Israelite culture, God freed His people to bring them into their own land. Through Moses the deliverer, God sent plague after plague against His enemies until, finally, His people were released. God showed up in spectacular form, appearing as a pillar of cloud and fire, and led His people through the Red Sea on dry land. Notice, immediately after these amazing events, how the people respond to their God and Rescuer. Exodus 16:2-3 tells us: 

And the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, and the people of Israel said to them, “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt…”

 

The Israelites Complain

Did you catch that? Miracle after miracle, spectacle after spectacle, with the presence of God visible in their midst, the first thing the people do is complain. And their complaining didn’t end there. When God provided food from heaven, the people complained. When God gave them water out of a rock, the people complained, and when God finally led them to the edge of the Promised Land, the people refused to enter, complaining about the size of its inhabitants. In fact, they had rejected God’s kindness so often that He decided to teach them a lesson they and their descendants would never forget. He taught them, among other things, how to be grateful. For this generation of ex-slaves, this lesson would take 40 years to learn.

It’s easy to sit back and judge these people. Certainly, I would have made better choices. I wouldn’t complain… But ask yourself; how do you respond to the goodness of God in your own life? How long after God blesses you with something amazing do you wait before grumbling about His blessings? When you are blessed with an education, do you complain about teachers or assignments? Or when you are blessed with a job, do you complain about the work you do, your boss, or your co-workers? When you are blessed with a child, do you complain about the late nights and dirty diapers? You see, it is so easy to become like the rebellious generation of Israelites who perished in the wilderness. 

So, what is the remedy to this problem? How do we keep from grumbling? While future generations of Israelites that we read about in the Old Testament don’t have the best track record, they did institute practices to help guard against an attitude of rebellion. Perhaps the biggest part of this was the Feast Days. 

 

Feasting with a Thankful Heart

Feast days, or festivals, were yearly opportunities to remember and give thanks for the goodness and kindness that God had displayed in the past. By celebrating festivals annually, the people would never forget what God had done for them. During these feasts, the people would come together and recite their history, giving thanks to God. To a lesser degree, the weekly Sabbath day of rest also served this purpose as it reoriented the worshipper to have a heart of praise and gratefulness toward God.

And what better way to celebrate than with food? Of course, we do this all the time. Try to think of a celebration that doesn’t involve food. Typically, the happier the occasion, the more it revolves around eating. It is a great way to establish gratitude in our hearts with good memories of friends, family, and feasting.

 

Our Feast: Thanksgiving

In the United States, we have a holiday that accomplishes this explicitly. It is even called Thanksgiving. Like the Jewish feast days, Thanksgiving is a time when we join together with our community and remember the goodness and kindness of God. We do this historically, remembering what God did in the lives of our ancestors. We do this in our community, recognizing what God has done and is doing in our nation. And we do this personally, cultivating thankfulness in our hearts toward God for His faithfulness. 

This Thanksgiving, as you look out over the holiday feast, or even as you microwave a single serving of frozen turkey, take the opportunity to remember and give thanks to God. Take the opportunity to guard your heart against grumbling. Remind those around you of the great things God has done in history and in your life. Practice thankfulness and see how remembering God’s goodness impacts your faith in a positive way. 

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All Can You Trust the Bible? Christian History Studying the Bible

Can You Trust the Bible?

Author: Andrew Sargent Ph.D., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM

 

Is the Bible Reliable?

One of the questions I get asked the most about the Bible concerns some element of its trustworthiness. “Can you trust the Bible?” 

In fact, I was asked to speak at a philosophy conference many years ago, in which my question for the evening was, “Is the Bible Reliable?” In the weeks leading up to the event, I asked the moderator for a few more specifics on what he meant by reliable, qualifying “reliable for what?” He laughed and told me to take it where I felt inclined. 

He was less than pleased when I opened the lecture part of my discussion with a list of things that we could absolutely rely on the Bible to accomplish. For instance, your Bible will hold up one corner of your couch if its leg is broken. It may be a sacrilege, but it will work. I have a friend who once used a bible to defend us against a street gang intent on robbing us. It was efficient. Indeed, a good Bible will even stop most bullets… assuming it’s not a digital one on your smartphone. 

 

What Can’t You Rely on the Bible to Do?

I followed with a list of things that one could NOT rely on the Bible to do. You cannot rely on all of Scripture to be easy to understand or to give up all its secrets to the casual observer. You cannot rely on the Bible to reflect your own cultural or personal sensibilities back to you, or to use all your own categories for understanding the world. Scripture is neither a math text, nor an encyclopedia, nor dictionary, nor a comprehensive history of the world written with modern standards of what does and does not constitute history. It is not a manual on psychology, philosophy, economics, nor is it a textbook on biology, archaeology, linguistics, physics, chemistry, anthropology, or medicine. 

This does not make its literature primitive babble, nor insist that the Bible is utterly useless when discussing these matters, but it does mean that the authors’ orientation to the world, their vocabulary, and categories will not replicate our own. It does mean that the intention of the writers is not to satisfy inquiring minds, but is to impart a specific body of understanding and wisdom to the diligent student. 

 

The Cosmology of Scripture

While we categorize the animal world with mammals, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and the like, it is perfectly acceptable for the inspired writers to present a world organized around different categories, like swims, crawls, or flies. In that case, a whale can be called a great fish, a bat can be classed with birds. My inability to trust Scripture to organize reality as my modern mind does is NOT a testament to its frailty, but to the important distinction between wisdom and knowledge. 

The cosmology of Scripture, for instance—the vision of the structure and nature of the world—has the disadvantage of being almost entirely presented in poetry, making their beliefs about material world forces difficult to discern with precision. For instance, it is plain from the historical texts written in prose—normal talk—that the ancients understood quite well that rain came from clouds and that clouds were made of water, but that does not keep their prophets from recording God’s poetic challenge to Job and his friends saying, “Have you entered the storehouses of the snow, or have you seen the storehouses of the hail…?

Just so, sailors have known for ages that the earth is round, witnessing at sea as the hulls of ships disappeared from view before their sails, exposing the curvature to view. In fact, the Greek mathematician Eratosthenes discovered the circumference of the earth with a stick and a shadow almost three centuries before Jesus walked the shores of the Mediterranean. 

There is a big difference between what the arrogance of modern souls imagine about the ignorance of the past and what the ancients actually knew. We can trust the Scriptures to present to us the divine wisdom of the ages in an ancient husk if we are wise enough to wrestle our way to it. Hubris will sabotage us.

 

Is Scripture a Science Book?

Let’s finish with one more. You cannot rely on Scripture to be a science book. The scientific method was articulated millennia after the writing of even the newest Scriptures. Our particular way of thinking about and talking about the world as scientific-minded readers (however poorly we do at it) will not be reflected back at us. This does not make Scripture untrustworthy or wrong, rather it qualifies the kinds of discussions we can and cannot have with the Biblical text. 

For example: The Creation story of Scripture, which in truth stretches from Genesis 1 through Genesis 11 is not interested in our modern ontological curiosities about the origin of the material world. The Biblical Creation story is more interested in functional ontology than material ontology. Scripture tells us not about the origins of all the stuff, beginning its tale with the material world in place, unformed as it was, but does tell us about the nature of divine order in creation as God takes that material and turns it into a functional world. 

We want to know “when” and “how,” but the author of Genesis wants to talk about “Who,” and “Why,” and “What.” Who made the world? What did He make the world to be? Why did He make the world? How did He make it function? The ultimate question then becomes a wisdom question: How can I function best in the world that Yahweh made and that man has influenced? This is the Bible’s bailiwick. 

 

The Truth of the Bible and Our Holy Creator

The inspired descriptions of creation are made within the bounds of interest for the inspired writer, dealing with the realities of a world drowning in paganism. Therefore, I cannot rely on him to dazzle me with a scientifically definitive answer to questions of “when” and “how,” but I CAN rely on the prophetic writer to tell me the truth about life before the one Holy Creator of all. I can trust him to tell me the truth about the fundamental problem in the world’s systems. I can trust the Bible to speak the truth about the hope that we have for redemption and restoration in the salvation plan of that Holy Creator. 

This does not mean that the inspired writers are ignorant clods on all matters we would regard as scientific. They lived and prospered in their world far better than most of us would if magically transported there. True, we understand many things that they do not. We know how far the moon is from the earth. We know what the bottom of the ocean looks like. We even know the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow. But we don’t know many things that they understood intuitively and that they learned by lived experiences so different from our own. 

It reminds me of the punch line in the majestic poem in Job 28, which after detailing all the then-modern accomplishments of man, asks the more meaningful question. We find boasts like those in verses 3 & 4, saying, “Man puts an end to darkness, And to the farthest limit he searches out. The rock in gloom and deep shadow. He sinks a shaft far from habitation, forgotten by the foot” But, the poet turns to the important counter in verses 12 & 13, “But where can wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding? “Man does not know its value, Nor is it found in the land of the living.

 

Can You Trust the Bible?

We can put an astronaut on the moon, but living peaceably with our fellow man is often beyond us. We can map the human genome but do not know how to cultivate truth and integrity. We may rightfully boast the former, but it is Scripture that will guide us in the mastery of the latter. 

As we continue to unpack the question, “Can you trust the Bible?” let us escape the simple-minded approaches to Scripture common to modern readers who have not learned to think reasonably or wisely about their own questions and expectations. Instead, let us articulate exactly what we mean (and don’t mean) when we ask, “Can I trust the Bible?” and continue the investigation in coming posts. 

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All Can You Trust the Bible? Christian History Studying the Bible

When Was the Bible Written?

Author: Patrick Krentz Th.M., Managing Editor for Foundations by ICM

 

Bible Timeline

(all dates are approximate)
BC
1900-1600 – Job
1445-1405 – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy
1405-550 – Psalms
1405-1375 – Joshua
1150-900 – Judges, Ruth, Song of Solomon, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, 1-2 Samuel
900-800 – Obadiah, Joel
800-700 – Jonah, Amos, Hosea, Micah
700-600 – Isaiah, Nahum, Zephaniah, Habakkuk
600-500 – Ezekiel, Lamentations, Jeremiah, Daniel, Haggai
500-400 – 1-2 Chronicles, Zechariah, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Malachi

AD
40-50 – James
50-60 – Matthew, Mark, Romans, Galatians, 1-2 Corinthians, 1-2 Thessalonians
60-70 – Luke, John, Acts, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1-2 Timothy, Titus, 1-2 Peter, Hebrews, Jude
90-96 – 1-3 John, Revelation

Most of the books you and I will ever read were written within the last century. Perhaps certain classics of literature date back two centuries. It is remarkable to realize, then, that the Bible is not just old, it is truly ancient. What is more, no other book in the history of the world can claim even a tenth of the span of years over which the individual documents in the Bible were written. Still, as long ago as that was, understanding these details is more than just an exercise in abstract history. Learning when, how, and why the Bible was written helps us to understand what God is doing. Looking back through the lens of history can teach us a great deal about what the Bible meant to its original audience, and, therefore, what it means for us today.  

The very simplest answer you can give to the question “When was the Bible written” is to say, “a very long time ago.” Even this seemingly useless answer can be helpful. You see, when we read the Bible as if it were written during our own time, we will read it wrongly. Knowing that it is an ancient text will help us to take a step back and think about details like, ‘to whom was this written?’ ‘What was happening at the time?’ ‘What did that mean in their culture, place and time?’ and so on. These are important questions to ask as you study the Scriptures. The Bible itself provides enough information to give context to the stories it tells. 

Now, if we stop with the simple answer, we will miss a great depth of truth. Therefore, we will spend some time among the details, answering the question specifically for each section of the Bible. 

The Old Testament

Let’s begin with the oldest book in the Bible. Perhaps you will be surprised to find out that it is not Genesis. No, the book of Job was written half a millennia before any other book in the Bible, making it the oldest by far. The events of Job take place somewhere around 2000 years before Christ. Unlike the rest of the Old Testament, we must use our best guess to come up with a date for Job, but it is likely that it was written between 20th and 17th century BC. 

With the details that God provides in His Word, we can reliably date the books of Moses, Genesis through Deuteronomy, to around the middle of the 15th century BC. The last books to be written are known as the post-Exilic books, written around the middle of the 5th century BC. So, we can say that most of the Old Testament was produced over the course of 1000 years, between 1445-400 BC, with Job being the lone outlier. 

The book of Psalms is also an interesting exception in that it has many authors who lived at different times. The Psalm of Moses, Psalm 90, was written during Moses’ lifetime in the 15th century. Most of the Psalms were written by David in the 11th and/or 10th century. Some may have been written as late as the 6th century BC. So the writing of the Psalms spans nearly the same length as of the Old Testament itself. 

Now, there is considerable debate about these dates, with two significant views emerging. The main difference between these views is whether Scripture itself is historically reliable. The dates given above assume that the events of the Old Testament happened in the way that the Bible says they happened. The other view relies on something called the Historical-Critical Method. It assumes that the stories in the Bible were written long after they happened through a process of gathering and compiling ancient source materials. According to this view, the stories of the Bible did not necessarily happen the way they are told, but they are included in Scripture to teach important lessons. It dates the final compositions of the Old Testament books to a much later time, asserting that the majority of it was produced during the 5th century, and assigning Daniel to a mere century and a half before Jesus. 

This is an important debate, but it is one that will have to wait for another time. For the purpose of the Foundations course material, we believe that the Bible is historically reliable. The older dates we provided up front are trustworthy. We also believe that, when the Bible attributes a book to a certain author, and discusses the lives of particular characters it is giving accurate information. 

For most books in the Bible, this means we can know when they were written if we know when the author lived. Moses, for instance, wrote during the 15th century. David wrote during the 11th century BC, followed by Solomon in the 10th. Many of the Prophets’ lives can be dated by their proximity to the Exile, with most writing between the 8th and 6th centuries. The post-Exilic books (those written after the Exile of Israel), including Ezra, Nehemiah, and Malachi, among others, were written between the 6th and 5th centuries, BC. The Bible gives us clear historical markers by which we can date nearly every book in the Old Testament. Take a look at the chart at the end of the page for a complete listing.

The New Testament

While dating the books of the Old Testament is not difficult, dating the New Testament writings is remarkably simple. This is because every book of the New Testament was written within the first century AD. If you go on to study this in greater detail, you will find that there is considerable debate over the exact year that many of the books were written, but these are most often differences of 1 or 2, maybe up to 5 years. 

Furthermore, we know that almost every book of the New Testament was written after Christ ascended to heaven, but before the year AD 70. This latter date marks an extremely significant event in the history of the Church: this is when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. No book in the New Testament makes references to the destruction of the Temple or any of the events that followed, save for Revelation alone. So, we can date the writing of every book other than Revelation and John’s letters to between the years AD 35 and 70. In fact, the great majority were written in less than a 20-year time span, between the years 50 and 68. 

John is the one outlier. John, the Apostle wrote Revelation and his three letters when he was an old man. We also know from multiple early sources that John wrote Revelation while he was in exile near the end of the reign of emperor Domitian, who died in AD 96. With these bits of information, along with details from within the texts themselves, we can say that John wrote 1, 2, and 3 John, along with Revelation, between AD 90 to 95. 

As we conclude, let’s answer our original question; “When was the Bible written?” The Bible was written over the span of 2000 years, between the 20th century BC and the 1st century AD. As you read and study the Bible, take a moment to recall this information, and be amazed at the remarkable unity of a book that was written by around 40 different people through multiple millennia. Indeed, this book must be the Word of God.

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All Can You Trust the Bible? Christian History Studying the Bible

Who Wrote the Bible?

Author: Patrick Krentz Th.M., Managing Editor for Foundations by ICM

 

There is no question that the Bible is a literary masterpiece. It is the most sold, most translated, most influential book in the history of the human race. This raises an important question. Who wrote such an important book? 

Most books list their author on the cover, but the Bible doesn’t make it this easy for us. While attempting to answer the question, “Who wrote the Bible?”, we will need to keep several important considerations in mind. 

First, we call the Bible the Word of God. What does that mean, and how does that relate to its authorship? 

Second, the Bible claims that many different people wrote the Bible. If so, how can we call it the Word of God? 

Third, if many people wrote the Bible, who decided to put it all together into a single book that is accredited to God Himself? How can we trust that they got the right books? 

Of course, each of these considerations deserves far more attention than we can give here, but let’s think of this as an introduction to these issues.

The Word of God

When we say that the Bible is the Word of God, we mean that the words we see on the pages of Scripture actually come originally from God Himself. The Bible attests to this, saying in 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is inspired by God…” The word “Inspired” literally means “breathed-out.” The Greek word translated as ‘inspired’ is theopneustos. This combines two Greek words into one. We find theo meaning ‘God’, and pneustos meaning ‘to breathe.’ Thus, Paul, who penned 2 Timothy, believed that Scripture is the Word of God in a literal sense. 

So, we could answer the question, “Who wrote the Bible?” by saying, “God did!” 

If we stop there, however, we will run into some problems. How, exactly, did God write Scripture? Did a finger appear to write the words on a wall, as it did in Daniel 5? Or perhaps God carved it into tablets, as He did for Moses in Deuteronomy 10

Of course, He could have done those things, but God had a more specialized instrument in mind when He decided to write. Just as God uses people to accomplish His mission and build His Church, God used people to write His book. As an artist wields a paintbrush or an author a pen, God wields men as instruments to record His words. This process is known as “Inspiration.”

The Inspiration of Human Authors

As God inspired men to write the Scriptures, He empowered them by His Spirit to write the words that He wanted them to write. This task, however, was far more complex than simple dictation. God worked with His human instruments, allowing their experiences, personalities, and even attitudes to come across on the page. As we dig deeper to determine who wrote the Bible, we find that there are around 35 to 40 human authors. They came from almost every imaginable walk of life. There were kings, princes, priests, warriors, musicians, farmers, shepherds, fishermen, carpenters, housewives, tent makers, medical doctors, and even a once despised tax collector.

Indeed, it is not an insignificant fact that the greatest, most influential literature in the history of man did not come from the world’s great philosophers or even rise from its great civilizations. Rather, from the least likely of places and the least likely of people at the least likely of times, these people came forward from all walks of life claiming to have had a prophetic encounter with, and a divine message from, the creator of all.

Now, each of these backgrounds shaped the content of their writing. David’s interest in music greatly impacted his writing of the Psalms, whereas Luke’s career as a physician led him to include many details that other writers would leave out. God did not simply turn the authors of Scripture into puppets so that He could say He wrote it through human agents. So, the question is, if each of these authors wrote the words they wanted to write, how can we say that God was writing through them? Perhaps an analogy will help.

Have you ever seen an orchestra playing a piece of music? If not, just imagine any group of musicians coming together to play a song. Each member has an instrument which they have individually learned to play. Not only that, but they play it with a certain style or flair all their own. Yet, the composer dictates where and how each musician plays. Thus, the final composition is under the ultimate control of the composer; and yet, each individual musician contributes his own unique personality to it. In a similar way, God is the composer of Scripture. He is ultimately in control of everything that is written, yet each individual author contributes something unique and personal. Understanding this, we call Scripture a Divine-Human work. God brings free human agents into the process, but it is accomplished through His supervision and by His power. 

The Bible as We Know It

Now, it is one thing to believe that God wrote the Bible through men, but that happened a long time ago. How can we be sure that the Bible we have today is the actual Word of God? There are many other books written by some very holy people, but they are not considered Scripture. Who decided which books got in and which ones did not? 

While there is a great deal of depth to the discussion of how we got our Old Testament, the simple answer is that it was assembled by prophets, kings, and leaders over many centuries. The Pentateuch, which comprises the first five books of the Bible, were well established as Scripture from the very earliest days of the Hebrew nation. Through the centuries, other prophetic works of history, prophetic oracles, and poetry were added. The final collection of the books Christians label “the Old Testament,” came some 400 to 500 years before Christ. When Ezra the priest and prophet returned from exile to find that the Jewish people had forgotten the laws of God, he led a national revival. Part of this revival included the rediscovery of the Jewish scriptures and efforts to organize, expand, and preserve them. 

The New Testament, on the other hand, appeared suddenly. While the Old Testament recounts the entire history of the world from Creation through the Jewish return from exile, the New Testament is about the life and works of Jesus and His disciples. These events span years rather than centuries. The books that make up our New Testament are those written by men who were directly taught by Jesus or His inspired Apostles. These books were used as Scripture by the church almost immediately. We can see that, even while the New Testament was being written, the Church was recognizing the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. In 2 Peter 3:15-16, we see Peter refer to Paul’s letters as “Scripture,” placing them on equal footing with the entire Old Testament. Thus, our New Testament came together organically as God directed men to write. 

In A.D. 325, Church leaders held a council where they recognized and canonized Scripture. The Council of Nicaea, as it was called, did not make editorial decisions about which books to include or exclude; rather, it made official and forever unalterable what the church had been practicing since its earliest days. They affirmed that these are divinely inspired works. 

As we conclude, remember: if we believe that the Bible is the Word of God, then it is ultimately God who we should trust to deliver His Word to us faithfully. God has gone to a lot of trouble to make sure that His Word has been written precisely the way that He wants it. Jesus says in Matthew 5:18 that “Until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the law until all is accomplished.” So, we should not look to men like Ezra or the council of Nicaea to know whether Scripture is reliable. God has seen to it that it was faithfully written, faithfully collected, and faithfully preserved. If we can trust the God of the Bible, then we can certainly trust the Bible that is from God.

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