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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Showing posts with label history. Show all posts
Showing posts with label history. Show all posts

Friday, March 16, 2018

What Drives a Cult Leader like David Koresh?

Twenty-five years ago, the U.S. Government had surrounded the compound of David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, embroiled in a stand-off that would last 51 days and tragically ended in gunfire with 75 of the 84 people inside dead, including children.

I was recently interviewed by Brody Harness for a research project he was doing on the siege and I thought these questions were very poignant and valuable to better understand the cult leader and others like him. Here's a copy of that interview.

Briefly, the Branch Davidians were a group of religious believers whose version of biblical theology was explicated by David Koresh. Many of their important beliefs, and the reason they lived communally at a compound, Mt. Carmel, centered on Koresh's interpretation of the Book of Revelation. Can you shed light on this group directly (or perhaps generally) based on similar groups who focus on Revelations?

The Branch Davidians were an offshoot of the Seventh-Day Adventist movement. The emphasis on the Book of Revelation comes from their focus on the end times scenarios. The term “Adventist” stems from the word advent which refers to the coming of Christ. Just as we celebrate Christ's first coming before Christmas and call it the season of advent, advent can also refer to His second coming. Most modern Adventist groups, such as the Seventh-Day Adventists and the Jehovah's Witnesses find their origin in an early 1800's preacher named William Miller, who preached that Jesus would return in 1844. He became very popular and gained a wide following. The subsequent failure of Miller's prediction is known as The Great Disappointment.

When Jesus didn't return as expected, the “Millerites” (who preferred the name Adventists) started coming up with alternate explanations, such as Jesus had returned invisibly (Jehovah's Witnesses) or Jesus came into the heavenly Holy of Holies and ended the age of grace, and is now beginning his period of Investigative Judgment (Seventh-Day Adventists).

The Branch Davidians splintered off the SDA back in the 1930s when a leading Adventist in the Los Angeles area, Victor Houteff, began teaching the church wasn't being holy enough. David Koresh's mother was a member of a Texas SDA church and Koresh himself was also a member for a while, before being attracted to the Davidian sect. According to Apologetics Index,  Koresh claimed to be God's agent, (and ultimately taught his followers that he was divine) and instructed those that followed him to preparing themselves for Jesus's return.

Part of the governments “case” for treating the Branch Davidians as they did was the fact that David Koresh was legally married to a cult member when she was just 14 years old, and that he was fathering children with the wives of the other adult males, while banning all other sexual relationships within the church. The government felt children were endangered at Mt. Carmel by these practices which did not appear to be the case according to some sources close to the investigation; however, it did appear to reflect and elevate Koresh's psychological hold on the group. Can you discuss some of the dynamics of sex/family/religion practices? (Again, either specifically with the Branch Davidians, or generally in cults.)

Sex drove a lot of Koresh's desires. Even in the mid 1980s, Koresh began taking on multiple wives as he also started establishing himself as a leader within the Davidian movement. He was a polygamist and saw himself as taking a role akin to David in the Old Testament establishing the Davidic Kingdom of Israel (thus the Davidians portion of the name.)

Since David had multiple wives in the Old Testament, Koresh felt that justified him to also have multiple wives.  Of course, as his power and following grew, he became more and more self-absorbed, something that is typical of cult leaders. His doctrines “departed radically from the essential doctrines of the Christian faith”1 and he demanded total control over his followers, cutting off outside ties and subjecting them to various physical and mental abuses.2

There was a general belief by the FBI and ATF that the Branch Davidians had a suicide pact and this was part of the federal government's decision making process which led to a military rather than law enforcement approach with the Branch Davidians. From what you know, was this assumption rational? Would it have been more rational in the 1993?

There are two pieces that powered the concern by the authorities at the standoff. The first is that David Koresh had a known history of violence, since he and some of his early followers took control of the Davidian compound in a gunfight with then-leader George Roden. But the biggest spectre in everyone's mind was the Jonestown Massacre of 1978. There, another charismatic leader, Jim Jones, took a large group of followers from California to the jungles of Guyana and created a commune. He ultimately convinced his followers to commit suicide by drinking cyanide placed in Kool-Aid. Those that didn't or were too young were forcibly given the poison.

The loss of those 908 people, along with the prior shooting of U.S congressman Leo Ryan who sought to investigate Jones' alleged human rights abuses gave the public grave concern that a similar event would take place in Waco.

I don't think we are any more or less likely today to come to a different conclusion. Religiously motivated actions have taken on a deeper suspicion in our culture. The powers that be may not jump immediately to a suicide cult assumption; I believe the suspicion would still exist. It is the aftermath and criticism of the Waco siege itself that tempers actions now.

When the government attacked, surrounded, and eventually destroyed the compound in 1993, the Branch Davidians interpreted all of the government's aggression as fulfillment of prophecy. Koresh probably contributed to the destruction of his community by insisting that they were being “tested” and if they left the compound they would lose their place in the kingdom to come. Koresh also provoked the ATF and FBI by repeatedly promising and stalling surrender to complete writing his own revelation which would be released publically. Is there a psychological profile, maybe narcissism or delusions of grandeur, which characterizes charismatic leaders like Koresh?

Absolutely. Jim Jones, David Koresh, L. Ron Hubbard, David Miscavige, and even Joseph Smith all exhibit this kind of self-absorption. In all these cases, you have a single individual who tells others that he alone has the true and secret knowledge of God/salvation/eternity and everyone else needs to listen to him. As he gains adherents and adulation, it feeds his narcissism and for most groups one can see their doctrine devolve more and more.  With all the men above, their paranoia and desire for control escalated as well.

Finally, do you have thoughts about government (law enforcement) interference with the free practice of religion –like the Branch Davidians, or polygamists or other cults?
All rights have limits. Everyone recognizes one's right to free speech, but you cannot yell “fire” in a crowded movie house. Similarly, one's right to practice the freedom to worship does not include the physical abuse of children or child rape. The difficulty is in finding where that line begins and ends.
We all agree that keeping thirteen children half-starved in a shack with some chained to their beds is no longer simply exercising one's freedom of religion, but is homeschooling abuse? Is corporal punishment abuse? The questions get complicated pretty quickly.

For the most port, the government has given the benefit of the doubt to the religious organizations. Scientology is a good example of a modern day American cult who engages in psychological techniques and even imprisonment of its disobedient members that the government has not interfered with.

Any other ideas you would like to share on this subject?

The big thing to remember in Waco, Jonestown, and other cult situations is that these are fringe groups that were cults in both the religious and the sociological definitions. Those definitions are important, too, for one can be a cult sociologically but not have a religious basis. Charles Manson and the Manson family would be an example of a non-religious cult. Of course Manson used the Bible to try and justify his views, but he also used the Beatles and his followers were more concerned about race relations than become God's chosen.

Sociological cult leaders will use religion simply because it is easier to talk of mysteries where they can give their “inside knowledge” that gullible people will accept. Even Hitler used religion as a motivator.

For more on the making of a religious cult, see my articles:
Thanks for the interview! Let me know if I can be of any more help.

1. "The Branch Davidians." Christian Research Institute, 04 Mar. 2012. Web. 16 Mar. 2018.
2. Ibid.

Monday, January 01, 2018

Two Jan 1 Law Changes Show How Jesus Changed Everything

January 1 marks the beginning of a new year and with it the promise of new opportunities to better ourselves. Of course the beginning of the New Year means many new laws begin to take effect. This has been true ever since Julius Caesar changed the calendars back in 45 B.C. when January 1 first marked the beginning of the year. Just three years later following Caesar's assassination, it was on January 1 that he was posthumously proclaimed divine by the Roman Senate.

The move to make Caesar divine was a political one. Caesar's grand-nephew and heir Octavian wanted to capitalize on Caesar's popularity with the common people and leverage it in his favor as he engage in a power struggle for the empire against Caesar's enemies. After his success, Octavian became known as Caesar Augustus ("the venerable") which "had a religious significance as designating one worthy of reverence, and marked him as more than man."1

The act of declaring Caesar a god was a key moment in the history of Rome. The Romans, unlike the Greeks, Egyptians, and other eastern cultures didn't have a tradition that a ruler would be a descendant of the gods.2 They held Romans to be superior to all other groups, and like all other cultures of their day, believed the aristocracy was superior to the underclass. But they didn't see the Roman leadership as direct descendants of the Roman pantheon.3 It was Octavian's political maneuver that established the Roman Imperial Cult where the emperor would be worshiped as divine. Later Caesars actually began to believe their own propaganda, and grew even bolder in their proclamation of being from the gods.

Another January 1 Wathershed Law

January 1 marks the anniversary of another watershed law, this one more recent in history. On January 1, 1863 President Abraham Lincoln gave an executive order affecting more than three million people in the Civil War-torn United States south. The Emancipation Proclamation as it is known officially declared "all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons." While the Civil War wouldn't be settled for another two years, Lincoln's executive order legally marked the end of slavery in the United States of America.

The contrast between these two acts is interesting. Both of these laws affected the history of civilization. One sought to elevate a man above other men. The other sought to recognize the equality of all men. While both gave their proponents certain political advantages, one ultimately resulted in more human suffering and enslavement of other cultures while the other brought freedom and dignity to a previously repressed group. What changed? Why is there such a difference in the basic view of human beings?

The unifying force between these two is Jesus. The true God-man came into the world of one who claimed himself to be divine and leveraged it to spread His message that all men are equally valuable. Instead of demanding worship from others, He humbled Himself to the point of death on the cross so that all men of every race would be set free from the slavery of sin and death.

As we jump into a new year, you will certainly see many new laws take effect. Some of them are selfish in nature, seeking to bolster our personal pleasures without regard for the wider effects on society. Others are more magnanimous. But don't forget about Christmas just yet. Without the Emmanuel, without the God with Us, it might be that New Year's would only mark the beginning of another period of forced worship to one more of the various despots human nature has always produced. And that is nothing with celebrating.


1. Henry Fairfield Burton. "The Worship of the Roman Emperors." The Biblical World, vol. 40, no. 2, 1912, pp. 80–91., doi:10.1086/474622.
2. Burton, Ibid.
3. Burton, Ibid.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Yes Jesus Existed: Even Romans Outside the Bible Wrote About Him

It seems that given enough of a shine, any bad idea can gain traction. For most of history, scholars have debated the events of the life of Jesus recorded in the biblical accounts. However, the vast majority of New Testament scholars, both those who are of the faith and those who are critical of it, have held that it as historical fact that a man named Jesus of Nazareth lived in first century Palestine, had disciples follow him, and was eventually put to death. While a few fringe elements doubted the idea of a historical Jesus, not even most atheist New Testament scholars believe that Jesus never existed.

But with the advent of the internet and the ability to self-publish, that fringe has grown a much larger following. Now there are very popular atheists who hold that the entire account of Jesus's life, teaching, and death, are simply made up, setting a fictional stage for a fictional tale of a mythical messiah. They claim that if Jesus was such a big deal he would surely have been noticed and written about by more than just the biblical authors.

While that argument isn't valid—in comparison to the events of the Empire in circa 30 A.D., the goings on in Palestine wouldn't be considered newsworthy to those living in Rome—the fact is that Jesus does get mentioned in ancient Roman sources. In his book Jesus Outside the New Testament, Dr. Robert E. Van Voorst pulls together citations from Roman writers such as Thalles, Pliny the Younger, Seutonius, Tacitus, Mara bar Serapion, Lucian of Samosata, and Celsus, along with Jewish sources such as Josephus and other rabbinic writings. Of his Roman sources, Van Voorst underscores that this is a pretty diverse group:
The famous Roman writers on history and imperial affairs have taken pride of place: Suetonius, Tacitus, and Pliny the Younger. On the other end of the spectrum, the comparatively unknown writers Mara and Thallos have also contributed their voices. Philosophic opponents to Christianity such as Lucian and Celsus have also written about Christ. These writers have a range of opinion: from those perhaps sympathetic to Christ (Mara); through those moderately hostile (Pliny) and those fully hostile but descriptive (Tacitus, Suetonius); to those not interested in description, but who vigorously attack Christianity and in the process attack Christ (Lucian and Celsus). A variety of languages is also notable: Latin, the official language of Rome; Greek, both a common literary language and the language of trade; and Syriac, a main language of the eastern Mediterranean. Together, they speak of a variety of topics about Jesus' teachings, movement, and death. And they know that Jesus is worshiped by Christians, which they relate to his founding of a movement.1
Van Voorst is cautious not to make too much of these mentions, as he notes most of the outside accounts of Jesus's life are coming from Christians who do believe He existed. He even states "by the strictest standards of historical evidence we cannot use them to demonstrate the existence of Jesus. On the other hand, given the nature of the evidence on Jesus from classical authors, neither can one use them as conclusive evidence to disprove the existence of Jesus."2 But these sources cannot be counted out as of no value at all. After all, some of these sources were very hostile to Christianity and they would have motive to point out the fact that such a man as Jesus was mythical. Instead, Van Voorst sees them as secondary sources of historical accounts. After making the above points, he continues:
…Although independent confirmation by contemporary classical writers is excluded, we do gain a later corroboration of certain key elements in the life of Jesus. Corroboration of knowledge is important, in historiography as in the natural sciences. If classical writers had never mentioned Jesus, or especially if they had argued that he was a product of Christian myth­making, then it would be a different matter. They did treat Jesus as a historical person, the founder of his movement, and had no reason to doubt his historicity. It would have been easy (if Jesus never existed) to deliver a strong blow against Christianity by showing that it was based on a myth when it claimed to be based on history. But these writers accepted Jesus as historical, and all but one used the events of his life as arguments against Christianity: he began a movement that they called a pernicious superstition, and he was executed as a criminal.3
Van Voorst concludes that ultimately to do good history, we must do what scholars have done for centuries. We have to take the New Testament accounts themselves as what they are, documents of ancient history. The evidence there is very strong that the New Testament authors were writing in a specific genre of ancient biography, meaning they were writing about a real person. And given that both Jewish antagonists and Roman antagonists argued that the events of the life of Jesus proved he wasn't worthy of worship, it seems a much more reasonable to conclude that Jesus was a real person rather than that he never existed at all.


1. Robert E. Van Voorst. Jesus Outside the New Testament: an Introduction to the Ancient Evidence. W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 2000. 68.
2. Van Voorst. 73.
3. Ibid.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Myth of the Christian "Dark Ages"

In my college history class, I was assigned the book The Discoverers by Daniel J. Boorstin. It was an interesting and eminently readable tome, becoming a best-seller. In what is labeled "a personal note to the reader," Boorstin states that he is a champion of the discoverer and that "the obstacles to discovery—the illusions of knowledge—are also a part of our story. Only against the forgotten backdrop of the received common sense and myths of their time can we begin to sense the courage, the rashness, the heroic and imaginative thrusts of the great discoverers. They had to battle against the current 'facts' and dogmas of the learned.1"

I believe Boorstin is correct in that for us to properly understand the momentous changes that paved human advancement we must look at the truth of historical setting and detail. Unfortunately, one area where Boorstin himself succumbs to the "current facts and dogma" that plague us today is the claim that the medieval period, when Christendom became dominant in Europe, ushered in some kind of dark ages.

 In chapter thirteen of The Discoverers (not so subtly entitled "The Prison of Christian Dogma"), Boorstin writes that Christians in the medieval period abandoned the work of discovery in order to generate simple, theologically appealing frames that were divorced from, fact. He claims "the leaders of Christendom built a grand barrier against the progress of knowledge about the earth, "and that "we observe a Europe-wide phenomenon of scholarly amnesia, which afflicted the continent from A.D. 300 to at least 1300."2

The Explosion of Advancement in Medieval Europe

Boorstin's view is a popular one; the Middle Ages were a dark and regressive period for Europeans. The Church was supposedly a science-stopper and anyone who wishes to look for scientific leaps that would lead to human flourishing must at this point in history turn to the Muslims or the Orient.  But it simply is a false view. Rodney Stark, Distinguished Professor of Social Sciences at Baylor University, clarifies:
Granted, like the Muslim conquerors, the Germanic tribes that conquered Roman Europe had to acquire considerable culture before they measured up to their predecessors. But, in addition to having many Romans to instruct and guide them, they had the Church, which carefully sustained and advanced the culture inherited from Rome. What is even more significant is that the centuries labeled as the "Dark Ages" were "one of the great innovative eras of mankind," as technology was developed and put into use "on a scale no civilization had previously known." In fact, as will be seen, it was during the "Dark Ages" that Europe began the great technological leap forward that put it far ahead of the rest of the world. This has become so well known that rejection of the "Dark Ages" as an unfounded myth is now reported in the respected dictionaries and encyclopedias that only a few years previously had accepted and promulgated that same myth. Thus, while earlier editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica had identified the five or six centuries after the fall of Rome as the "Dark Ages," the fifteenth edition, published in 1981, dismissed that as an "unacceptable" term because it incorrectly claims this to have been "a period of intellectual darkness and barbarity."3
In his book God's Battalions, Stark notes there were tremendous advancements in the technology of the day, such as swivel-axeled wagons, shoes for horses, and better harnesses.  The plow was also redesigned and farming techniques, including the rotation of crops allowing fields to rest and not become nutrient-drained were adopted.

Making Life Better for the Average Man

Putting the ability of horses with their new harnessed together with the more efficient plow had a huge impact on lifespans. Stark notes "land that could not previously be farmed, nor not farmed effectively, suddenly became very productive, and even on thinner soil the use of the heavy moldboard plow nearly doubled crop yields."4

Adding this to the improved farming techniques, Stark concludes:
As a result, starting during the "Dark Ages" most Europeans began to eat far better than had the common people anywhere, ever. Indeed, medieval Europeans may have been the first human group whose genetic potential was not badly stunted by a poor diet, with the result that they were, on average, bigger, healthier, and more energetic than ordinary people elsewhere.5
Stark offers more and more varied examples of how during the Middle Ages that Christian Europe's "technology and science overtook the world" in his book The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success, but this will serve us for now. The idea that Christianity was a science-stopper in the Middle Ages is nonsense. Christianity not only taught that God's word was to be discovered, but it taught that all human beings are inherently valuable and both these key concepts made the Western world the leader it is today.


1. Boorstin, Daniel J. The Discoverers: A History of Man's Search to His World and Himself. New York: Vintage, 1985. Xv. Print.
2. Boorstin, 1985. 100.
3. Stark, Rodney. God's Battalions: The Case for the Crusades. New York, NY: Harper One, 2009. 66.Print.
4. Stark, 2009. 69.
5. Stark, 2009. 70.

Monday, May 01, 2017

Archaeology Topples Objection to Biblical Samson Account

Certainly one of the most fantastic characters in the Bible is Samson. Everything about his exploits reads like a comic book: killing a lion bare-handed, slaying 1,000 Philistines with the jawbone of a donkey, pulling up the gates of Gaza. He seems to be a man of steel living in the Bronze Age!

But, just like the modern day Superman (who was modeled in part from Sampson), the hero had his own form of kryptonite in pretty faces. Samson had a weakness for woman and no one can think of his name without also recalling the name Delilah, who prodded the source of his strength from him so she could then sell him to the Philistines. Even in this story we see a tragic climax, where Samson, blinded by his enemy is placed in the center of the temple of Dagon between two pillars to entertain his foes. He prays to God for strength one last time and collapses the pillars so the Philistines both inside the structure and on the roof were killed by the collapse, along with Sampson himself.

Of course, such as story strikes the modern ear as too fantastic to believe. How could such a character as Sampson have lived? Obviously, we don't have any way of testing whether he did beyond the record presented to us in the book of Judges. It's therefore not unexpected that the tales of Sampson's exploits would be met with skepticism from scholars like John L. McKenzie who writes:
…the historical quality of heroic tales is always low. This is easy to see in Samson. A palace or temple which could support several thousand people on its roof supported by two central pillars separated by an arm's length never existed.[1]
McKenzie is right in noting the detail of two pillars holding up a roof would be odd. In fact, Philistine temples that had been known to archaeologists didn't have such a design at all—until the 1970s when Amihar Mazar unearthed a temple at Tell Qasile from the exact same time period of Sampson and discovered a unique feature of its design was it had two central pillars in the center that supported the roof.[2] Nearly two decades later, while digging in another site some 20 miles away, archaeologist Trude Dothan found another Philistine temple with a similar structure:
On the north-south central axis of the main room, we discovered two pillar bases (and possibly a third), one located exactly in the center of the hall. This configuration resembles that in the Philistine temple at Tell Qasile, where two support pillars stood about 6 feet apart. These two pillars, of course, also recall the pillars in the Philistine temple mentioned in the famous Bible story in Judges 16. Chained and blinded, Samson brings a Philistine temple down on himself by pushing two pillars apart. The two pillars in the Ekron building were 7.5 feet apart.[3]
To be clear, I don't believe either of these temples is the one mentioned in the Samson story. However, the archaeological discoveries do show that such a design wasn't at all uncommon in Philistine architecture. It doesn't prove the Sampson story as true, but it definitely removes the claim that the two pillars are a fictitious invention of the author of Judges.

Further, it lends credibility to the author's reliability in getting certain details right, since Jewish architecture, definitely did not feature two central pillars. The author seems to have some real familiarity with Philistine temple construction, bolstering his reliability in the process. This is just one more way modern archaeology has lent support to the biblical accounts and why we continue to trust the Scriptures.


[1]. McKenzie, John L. The Old Testament Without Illusions. Chicago: Thomas More, 1979. 229, as quoted in Roskoski, John, PhD. "Between the Pillars: Revisiting 'Samson and the House of Dagon'". Associates for Biblical Research. Associates for Biblical Research, 24 July 2008. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.
[2]. Mazar, Amihai. "Additional Philistine Temples at Tell Qasile." The Biblical Archaeologist, vol. 40, no. 2, 1977, pp. 82–87.,
[3]. Dothan, Trude. "Ekron of the Philistines, Part I: Where They Came From, How They Settled Down and the Place They Worshiped In," Biblical Archaeology Review 16.1 (1990): 24–36.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Why the Gospels are History (podcast)

As we approach Easter, Christians will get inundated with media specials trying to proclaim the "lost" story of the real Jesus. But they have it wrong. Listen in to all four parts of this new podcast series  as we examine why the Gospel accounts are completely trustworthy as reliable sources of ancient history.

Subscribe to Come Reason's Podcast via iTunes or RSS feed.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Neil deGrasse Tyson Violates Rationalia's One Principle

I find it fascinating how blinded people can be to their own biases. One recent case in point is cosmologist Neil deGrasse Tyson and his imaginary country of Rationalia. Originally spawned by a single tweet, Tyson asserted "Earth needs a virtual country: #Rationalia, with a one-line Constitution: All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence."

It's pretty easy to see the glaring holes in such a proposition and several commentators were quick to point out a few of them. Practices such as eugenics, abortions for disability or population control, legislating against an unnatural ice age, and other disastrous consequences would have easily followed if Tyson's dream was a reality in prior decades. Several commentators for organizations like The Federalist, U.S. News and World Report, and New Scientist  pointed out the foolishness in his original tweet.

However, Tyson doubled-down on his proposition with a recent Facebook post. Linking to those articles before casually dismissing them out of hand, Tyson upped the ante for his proposition, maintaining that Rationalia would not only solve deep political divisions, but it would usher in a new panacea of prosperity for humanity:
Unlike what typically occurs between adversarial politicians, in scientific discourse, when we disagree with one another there's an underlying premise: Either I'm wrong and you're right; you're wrong and I'm right; or we're both wrong. The unfolding argument actually shapes the quest for more and better data to resolve the differences so that we can agree and move on to the next unresolved problem.

In Rationalia, the Constitution stipulates that a body of convincing evidence needs to exist in support of an idea before any Policy can established based on it. In such a country, data gathering, careful observations, and experimentation would be happening all the time, influencing practically every aspect of our modern lives. As a result, Rationalia would lead the world in discovery, because discovery would be built into the DNA of how the government operates, and how its citizens think.1

The Competitive World of Scientific Theory

Of course, Tyson's Pollyana-ish assumption that scientists are always objective about the data while politicians are simply adversaries is ridiculous. Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions lays out just how nonsensical such an assumption is. Kuhn argues that scientific consensus of a certain concept, such as the nature of light, can have "a number of competing schools and sub-schools"2 arguing for their own understanding even when they are all using the same data. Kuhn states:
"Each of the corresponding schools derived strength from its relation to some particular metaphysic, and each emphasizes, as paradigmatic observations, the particular cluster of optical phenomena that its own theory could do most to explain. Other observations were dealt with by ad hoc elaborations, ort they remained as outstanding problems for further research. (emphasis added)"3
These are not detached, non-emotional observations. Scientists are people and each has a dog in the fight, so to speak. It isn't surprising that they would want to see their own theories succeed, just as politicians would want to see their own legislation pass. It isn't malicious, it's being human. And in modern research, when you add research grant money into the mix, there's a potent motivator to really push to justify one's efforts.

Paradigms and Flaws

Kuhn goes on to tell of other problems that plague scientific discourse, such as the "body of evidence" that Tyson looks toward may itself be limited given the limits of technology. Scientists may not be able to see how their theories are flawed simply because they have to guess at what data they should measure, where to look for it. Maybe the instrument that proves their theory false hasn't yet been invented. Charles Darwin couldn't have realized the complexity of living cells since there were no microscopes capable of displaying the amazing molecular machinery that allow the cell to function in his day.

This "body of evidence" that Tyson references may also be deeply flawed.  Researchers at Open Science and at Bayer labs recently found 65 to 75% or more of results reported in some of the most prestigious scientific journals could not be repeated. There was a strong body of evidence for the researchers' conclusions, but no one had previously bothered to check and see if the evidence was good or not. In turn, we get biased polices such as the Food and Drug Administration's 60 year ban on dietary fat when it turned out the scientist pushing for the restrictions was more concerned with his legacy than the facts.

Some of the problem lies in the technicality and specialization of the scientific disciplines themselves. Kuhn notes that as one of the competing concepts gathers a majority, it becomes a consensus and ultimately a paradigm that closes out others.4 Then, as the field becomes more specialized, the paradigm is assumed by the practitioners and "his communiques will begin to change in ways whose evolution has been too little studied but whose modern end products are obvious to all and oppressive to many."5

Tyson Ignores This Body of Evidence

Kuhn's arguments are based on historical observation for how scientific paradigms have developed. He has quite a body of evidence from which to draw: the entire history of the scientific enterprise. Yet, Tyson seems to completely ignore this in his proposal for a country of Rationalia. I find that interesting. If Tyson won't even acknowledge the body of evidence against science being just as flawed as politics or other governing methods, then he is proving the very point his critics are making. Just because a scientist comes to the conclusion of X doesn't make it right, morally good, or unbiased.


1. Tyson, Neil deGrasse. "Reflections on Rationalia.", 7 Aug. 2016. Web. 10 Aug. 2016.
2. Kuhn, Thomas. "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions." The Philosophy of Science: An Historical Anthology. By Timothy J. McGrew, Marc Alspector-Kelly, and Fritz Allhoff. Chichester, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. 491. Print.
3. Kuhn, 2009. 491.
4. Kuhn, 2009. 492.
5. Kuhn, 2009. 492.
Image courtesy NASA Goddard Space Flight Center from Greenbelt, MD, USA (Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson Visits NASA Goddard) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, April 25, 2016

Another Way Christianity Changed Everything: Human Freedom

People want to be free. In fact, most of the battles now fought in the culture wars are about individuals who feel they have not simply a desire but a right to express their individual freedom as to who they are and how they are seen by others. The transgender bathroom fiasco is a prime example of this.

It is their right, they demand, to present themselves as they personally wish to be presented. They maintain that neither culture nor tradition should trump who they are as individuals and they're pursued various legal strategies to assert individual rights as real and inviolate. But where do those rights come from?

In one sense I agree with the battlers. Culture, tradition and even government cannot bestow rights (properly understood) upon people. Any right that is granted by an institution is not an inviolate right by definition. If the state can create and bestow rights upon an individual, then the state can take those rights away. Such "rights" amount to privileges that the state allows one to exercise.

In fact, throughout much of human history, the individual was subservient to the group. In his book Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, scholar Larry Siedentop outlines how all cultures prior to Christ were first built around the family unit which expanded to the city-state, the polis.1 He writes how the Greeks saw devotion to the welfare of the city as the highest virtue. Rome demanded devotion to the emperor and the empire. Conformity to the powers that be was the only thing that made one a worthwhile citizen.

So what changed? Where did this idea that the state should be respectful of the rights of the citizen more than the citizen must conform to the needs of the state come from? Siedentop states plainly, it is Christianity that declared such a radically new concept to humanity:
Paul's vision on the road to Damascus amounted to the discovery of human freedom—of moral agency potentially available to each and everyone, that is to individuals. This 'universal' freedom, with its moral implications, was utterly different from the freedom enjoyed by the privileged class of citizens in the polis.

In his conception of the Christ, Paul brings together basic features of Jewish and Greek thought to create something new. We can see in a famous passage from his letters, the letter to the Galatians, dating from about twenty years after Jesus' crucifixion. Paul uses Jesus' emphasis on the fatherhood of God to insist on the brotherhood of man and, indirectly, to proclaim his own role as apostle to the Gentiles. 'There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free; there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.' Paul's 'one' signals a new transparency in human relations. Through his conception of the Christ, Paul insists on the moral equality of humans, on a status shared equally by all. And his great mission becomes the salvation of individual souls, through sharing his vision of the Christ - a vision which makes it possible to create a new self.2
Paul grounds his view of humanity as valuable because each individual bears the image of God. People are not simply material beings. If they were, then they could be measured by their value to the group. But as individual image bearers "conventional social roles—whether of father, daughter, official, priest or slave—become secondary in relation to that primary role."3  This stands in stark contrast to how all other cultures saw themselves by either their position in the public sphere and their position within the domestic sphere, which Siedentop explains "was understood as the sphere of the family, rather than that of individuals endowed with rights. The domestic sphere was a sphere of inequality. Inequality of roles was fundamental to the worship of the ancient family."4

It is Christianity that makes any sense of individual rights at all. Without a very specific Christian theology of man, the assertion that human beings are equal and each person has rights is as meaningless as holding that individual cells have certain rights without respect to the body as a whole.  There is simply no other way to anchor the rights of human beings.

I don't agree on the bathroom issue. I believe it is ludicrous to think that one's desire can overrule reality. No matter how convinced an anorexic is that she is fat, the reality is her self-starvation is endangering to her person. The biology of her body is in conflict with her self-concept. Similarly, those with gender dysphoria are at odds with their biology. Restrooms serve a very utilitarian function, wholly built to serve human biological needs. Separating bathrooms by biological sex bathroom doesn't violate one's rights because it is our biology that makes us human. Sex is a real differentiator and shouldn't be ignored. But even more importantly, how can anyone consistently argue for their rights against Christian theology when it is Christian theology that provides the very foundation for having rights at all? The contradiction is striking.


1. Siedentop, Larry. Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism. S.l.: Penguin, 2014. Print. 25.
2. Siedentop, 2014. 60.
3. Siedentop, 2014. 62.
4. Siedentop, 2014. 18.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

How the Resurrection Changed Jewish Minds

This week is Holy Week, where Christians mark the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. No matter if you're a believer or not, it is clear that Easter changed history. Christianity was the most radically transforming movement in human history; and something started that cascade of transformation.

If we are to understand the transforming nature of Easter, we need to look no further than the very beginnings of the faith. Jesus's followers were Jewish and they held to standard Jewish beliefs. They expected a Messiah, a savior, to be a political or military leader who would deliver Israel from Roman oppression and restore the glory of David's throne. They expected to observe the Jewish Levitical laws unto death and that resurrection was an event reserved for the end of time.

All those beliefs changed the day Jesus rose from the dead. As N.T. Wright explains, his resurrection was a paradigm shift for both Jesus's followers and even Paul, who would consider himself an adversary:
The first and most obvious conclusion which the disciples would have drawn, as soon as they came to believe that Jesus of Nazareth had been bodily raised from the dead, was that he was indeed the prophet mighty in word and deed, and that he was, more particularly, Israel's Messiah. This would not be because they had already believed that the Messiah, when he came, would be raised from the dead, but because the Jesus they knew had been tried and executed as Messiah, and this extraordinary and unexpected event (as it seemed to them) had apparently reversed the verdicts of both the Jewish and the Roman courts. We can see at several points in the New Testament, not least in Paul and Acts, the way in which the church scrambled to pull together biblical texts to make the connection between Messiah and resurrection, a connection which nobody had thought necessary before but which suddenly became the key move in early Christology. The texts strongly suggest both that this was a new connection and that it was the first vital link in the chain.

From that point on, our best early evidence is Paul. He had, in the senses we have explored, a different kind of meeting with Jesus, but he quickly came to the conclusion which the others, too, had arrived at: that in this Jesus, now demonstrated to have been Israel's Messiah all along, Israel's one true god had been not merely speaking, as though through an intermediary, but personally present. [1]
The paradigm shifting nature of the Resurrection coupled with its quick adoption by thousands of Jewish converts argues against its story being fabricated. It is simply much harder to believe that a Jewish culture so steeped in monotheism and Jewish tradition would give up their beliefs so easily had there not been more than the tales of a few rural fishermen. Paul's conversion screams the loudest against fabrication.

The Resurrection has been changing minds and hearts ever since that first Easter morning. Its power rests in its truth.


[1] Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003. Print. 576.

Friday, March 18, 2016

The Gospels Had to Meet High Expectations as History

Apologists often make the claim that the resurrection is one of the most well-attested facts of ancient history. Some of this is due to the fact that the resurrection account is recorded in multiple independent sources which includes the Gospel accounts. Further, scholars have argued that the Gospel accounts count as a very specific kind of ancient historical genre; they are written as biography.1

Sometimes skeptics will grant the fact the Gospels were written to be taken as a historical record, but they don't believe that's enough. They will assume that history two thousand years ago meant a very different thing than what we mean today. History was basically propaganda where anyone could claim anything.

While it is true that those in power had the ability to shape events in a more positive light, it is far from the case that the ancient audiences didn't care about the truth in historical reporting. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Writings that claimed to be reporting historical events had very specific criteria of recounting what people who were there actually experienced and they should record those experiences as accurately. I'll take a look at each of these in turn.

History was supposed to report what people saw

Were ancient people more gullible and ignorant than people of today? Not necessarily. Just because cultures of the past may have had misinformed or perhaps what we would consider backwards views on matters dealing with science, it doesn't follow they would hold backwards view on everything. Such assumptions are a kind of chronological snobbery.

The fact is ancient historians held to their peers to high standards when recording historical events. Samuel Byskrog, whom Richard Bauckham quotes, explains how the people who were there and could personally recount the event being recorded were consider the most reliable sources, since they weren't hearing about events second or third hand. He writes:
The ancient historians – such as Thucydides, Polybius, Josephus, and Tacitus"were convinced that true history could be written only while events were still within living memory, and they valued as their sources the oral reports of direct experience of the events by involved participants in them. Ideally, the historian himself should have been a participant in the events he narrates"as, for example, Xenophon, Thucidides, and Josephus were"but, since he could not have been at all the events he recounts or in all the places he describes, the historian had to also rely upon eyewitnesses whose living voices he could hear and whom he could question himself.2

History was supposed to be accurate

Beyond looking for first-hand reports, historians would also police each other – just like today. While the peer review process wan't as developed, there was certainly n exchange between historians when one thought the other was being less than accurate or trying to push an intentionally biased account. Craig Keener states, "Historians harshly criticized other historians whom they accused of promoting falsehood, especially when they were thought to exhibit self-serving agendas." 3

One such example form ancient history is how the Greek historian Polybius dressed down Timaneus, another historian, on what Polybius shows as clear mistakes in his report of Africa. He writes:
No one can help admiring the richness of the country, and one is inclined to say that Timaeus was not only unacquainted with Africa but that he was childish and entirely deficient in judgement, and was still fettered by the ancient report handed down to us that the whole of Africa is sandy, dry, and unproductive. The same holds good regarding the animals. For the number of horses, oxen, sheep, and goats in the country is so large that I doubt if so many could be found in the rest of the world, 4 because many of the African tribes make no use of cereals but live on the flesh of their cattle and among their cattle. 5 Again, all are aware of the numbers and strength of the elephants, lions, and panthers in Africa, of the beauty of its buffaloes, and the size of its ostriches, creatures that do not exist at all in Europe while Africa is full of them. Timaeus has no information on this subject and seems of set purpose to tell the exact opposite of the actual facts.(Emphasis added.)4
Polybius goes on criticizing Timaneus' account simply because he offers a false report, but he wasn't the only historian to believe in standards. Even Pliny the Younger, who wrote at the same time the Gospels were being written, thought history should be done with "fidelity and truth"5

Dismissing historical records as unreliable simply because they are old is irrational. Ancient cultures well understood truth from a lie and they wrote history because they wanted to preserve what really happened. The Gospels fit into a genre where truth mattered. Certainly, that doesn't mean everything recorded in every ancient account is true; false perceptions, witnesses would color the truth, and interpreting events so Caesar looked good did happen. But one cannot simply waive one's hand and discount the Gospels because they are old and therefore they could pass fantastic stories on to an uncritical audience. That's simply not the world in which the Gospels were written.


1. See Craig Keener's discussion on this in The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, 74-84.
2. Bauckham, Richard. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2006. Print. 8-9.
3. Keener, Craig S. The Historical Jesus of the Gospels. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2009. Print. 96.
4. Polybius. "Fragments of Book XII." XII.3.3 Polybius • Histories. University of Chicago, 1927. Web. 14 Mar. 2016.
5. Pliny, Epistles 7.17.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

History is a Problem for Those Who Doubt Jesus Was Real

There are plenty of people who deny the existence of God or the resurrection of Jesus. They may hold that there was a sage teacher of morality named Jesus who lived in the first century who was eventually executed by the Romans. Usually, the story goes that his followers taught others about his exploits, embellishing them with legendary acts and miraculous flourishes until we have the accounts of his life we read in the Bible today. These claims have been with us for centuries.

However, today there seems to be a growing subset of people who hold that not only did Jesus of Nazareth not do the miraculous deeds recorded in the Gospel accounts, but he never existed at all. The entire account of Jesus of Nazareth is mythical; it's an invention of people looking for a messiah-figure. These "Jesus-Mythicists" have gained traction primarily because of their presence on Internet. Even hyper-skeptic Bart Ehrman has noted that no New Testament scholar or historian, including the most skeptical, would hold such a view.1

The Problem of Association

One big reason the Jesus-myth scenario is rejected by scholars is the incredible hole it creates in explaining history. How could the story of Jesus gain traction so quickly if he didn't exist? Thomas Cooper, in his book The Bridge of History over the Gulf of Time, explains the problem well:
Who can ponder on Paul's history without feeling that it must be regarded as part of the evidence for the truth of Christianity? Paul's existence and course of life, and the writing of his letters to the Christian Churches are held to be facts by all the German and French schools of skepticism; and that "Reverend" Robert Taylor that I mentioned to you who some fifty years ago was a favourite of the London freethinkers holds by the same facts But what a puzzling contradiction it seems for men to acknowledge the reality of the life and recorded acts of Paul as facts and yet to deny the truth of Christianity.

What! Paul a real man and Christ a myth? Paul a real existence; Paul, who wrote so much about Christ so soon after his death and resurrection; Paul a real existing man, and Christ's existence a fable? Paul, who held the clothes of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, while they stoned him to death? Then Stephen was also a real existing man, who died praying "Lord Jesus! receive my spirit!" Paul, the glorious half-missionary, half-mechanic, who crossed the Mediterranean and the Adriatic, and visited so many shores preaching Christ, and yet there never was any Christ to preach? Paul, a real living man, who had seen and conversed with Peter, and James, and John? Then they were all real living men. How came they to say what they did about Christ if He never existed? How came they to speak of His miracles to the people who must have seen Christ's wondrous acts, if ever He performed them? Must they not have expected the people to say, "You are impostors! no such miracles were ever performed!" Yet no one said this. Even the worst enemies of Christ did not deny His miracles, though they attributed them to Satanic agency.2
This problem of explaining events such as the conversion of Paul and his self-identification as one who martyred Christians immediately after the crucifixion of Jesus, the quick dissemination of Christianity by Jesus's original followers throughout the Roman Empire, along with the appeal over and over again to eyewitnesses becomes hopelessly strained and convoluted if Jesus wasn't a real, living person. All attempts to reconcile a real Paul with a mythical Jesus hold less explanatory scope, less explanatory power, and rely on ad-hoc assumptions when attempting to make any sense at all. Cooper saw this when writing in 1871!

If Paul was real, then his life and his conversion need to be explained. The most cogent way to do that is by believing what he himself testified: he had seen the Risen Christ (1 Cor. 15:8).

I want to offer a special thanks to Dr. Timothy McGrew for collecting Thomas Cooper's book and others at his site All the titles are in the public domain and free to everyone.


1. Ehrman, Bart D. "Did Jesus Exist?" The Huffington Post., 20 Mar. 2012. Web. 29 July 2015.
2. Cooper, Thomas. The Bridge of History over the Gulf of Time a Popular View of the Historical Evidence for the Truth of Christianity. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1874. Print. 154-155.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

There is No Freedom without Religious Freedom

This weekend marked two important dates in the advancement of freedom. The more widely known was Martin Luther King, Jr. day, celebrated on the third Monday in January. MLK Day is a federal holiday in the United States, set aside to remember not just the work of Dr. King, but his cause.

To view another human being as less worthy or less capable for no other reason than the color of one's skin or heritage is wrong, for all human beings should hold an "equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them" as Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of independence. MLK Day recognizes the concept enshrined in that document. Senator Jack Kemp, when voting for the holiday after rejecting it years prior, made the point well:
I have changed my position on this vote because I really think that the American Revolution will not be complete until we commemorate the civil rights revolution and guarantee those basic declarations of human rights for all Americans and remove those barriers that stand in the way of people being what they are meant to be.1
I think that's what makes MLK Day important. It makes Jefferson's belief that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights" consistent for our nation. Jefferson's ownership of slaves may make some question his beliefs on this subject, but living inconsistently does not mean the idea itself is wrong; it only demonstrates the person who seeks to follow that idea is flawed.

The Other Holiday for Freedom

The other day that marks the advancement of freedom is less well-known, but no less important, and it also involves the writings of Thomas Jefferson and he felt this document was just as important as his crafting of the Declaration. That document is the Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, otherwise known as The Virginia Statute on Religious Liberty and it became one of the sources for the First Amendment in the U.S. Constitution and it was passed on January 16th of 1786. January 16th has come to be known as Religious Freedom Day.

In the statute, Jefferson lays out why the state should not be able to compel only certain opinions or religious views. It not only argues against elevating a certain denomination or sect (such as the Church of England, that had been recognized as the official church of the state of Virginia), but it argues that government impeding any religious beliefs is a violation of the natural rights of men. Jefferson argues that "to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions, which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical." He then points out "proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence, by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages, to which, in common with his fellow citizens, he has a natural right" (emphasis added). 2

Jefferson finally argues that any civil official who wants to enforce his own understanding of what is allowable and what is not regarding religious questions actually robs all people of liberty:

To suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency is a dangerous fallacy which at once destroys all religious liberty because he being of course judge of that tendency will make his opinions the rule of judgment and approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or differ from his own3

Losing Religious Freedom Today

But in cases of Christians who seek to both exercise their professions and uphold their religious convictions, that's exactly what we are seeing today. Civil magistrates are trying to override the beliefs of Christian cake bakers, photographers, and county clerks with whom the magistrates' opinions differ. Even the Obama administration hailed Religious Freedom Day as honoring "one of our most cherished ideas" even while it pursued legal action against a group of nuns who hold that abortion is morally wrong.

Today, while racism is widely reviled both in public and in the media, the importance of religious liberty is being eroded. Much of that comes from the confusion over what religious liberty entails. But be certain that if religious liberty is eroded then there will be no check left against whatever opinions those in power wish to impose on the citizenry.

When signing MLK Day into law, President Ronald Reagan proclaimed:
Dr. King had awakened something strong and true, a sense that true justice must be colorblind, and that among white and black Americans, as he put it, "Their destiny is tied up with our destiny, and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom; we cannot walk alone."4
The same relationship exists with religious freedom. If we lose the ability to speak about our faith when legislation is debated, we lose our voice of conviction. If we must be compelled to a certain action even though it stands in opposition to our understanding of right and wrong, we are being denied our natural rights. Natural rights cannot be taken from people by governments. Our country is founded on this principle. To compromise on religious freedom would mean subjecting ourselves to the tyranny of the powerful. That's a future that even Dr. King would loathe for his children.


1. Jack Kemp Foundation. "Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday." Jack Kemp Foundation. Jack Kemp Foundation, 16 Jan. 2012. Web. 19 Jan. 2016.
2. "Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, January 16, 1786." Transcript.
3. "Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, January 16, 1786."
4. Reagan, Ronald. "Remarks on Signing the Bill Making the Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., a National Holiday." Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum. 2 Nov. 1983. Web. 19 Jan 2016.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Christian Bakers Forced to Pay Fines; Here's What We Can Learn

This morning, the lawyer representing Sweet Cakes by Melissa reported that the couple was paying the fine of over $135,000 levied against them by Oregon's Bureau of Labor and Industries for not baking a wedding cake for a lesbian couple. Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian doled out the heavy-handed fine, claiming the bakers were being immoral in their stance, inflicting emotional and mental suffering and violating the women's civil rights by discriminating on the basis of their sexual orientation.1 Avakian had prompted the payment by seizing every penny the bakers had in their bank accounts.2

It seems we live in a topsy-turvy world where wrong is called right and right is called wrong. But this shouldn't be a surprise to Christians. I understand that people have a tendency to think of the problems they currently face as new or unique. While for some things this may be true (substituting screen time for real relationships doesn't seem to be a problem of past generations), human beings are a remarkably consistent lot and the early believers faced many of the same trials we do today.

Athenagoras gives us one example. In the second century AD, Christians were being persecuted in various cities across the Roman Empire on trumped up charges. Different city official and citizens objected to Christians not bowing to their gods, which basically meant rejecting whatever morality they themselves deemed appropriate. The officials would put the Christians on trial under false accusations, such as being immoral or being atheists, condemn them in a kangaroo court, and use it as justification to persecute them and seize their belongings.

Charges of immorality are as old as Christianity

The injustice of this all disturbed Christian philosopher Athenagoras so much that in AD 177 he wrote a letter to Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, the Emperor of Rome himself and argued the case for the Christians. One of the charges brought against Christians was they were engaging in immoral sexual acts. Athenagoras writes, "they have further also made up stories against us of impious feasts and forbidden intercourse between the sexes, both that they may appear to themselves to have rational grounds of hatred, and because they think either by fear to lead us away from our way of life, or to render the rulers harsh and inexorable by the magnitude of the charges they bring."3

Athenagoras goes on to argue that Christians are not immoral at all; they are actually more moral than even the belief systems of their accusers, pointing out how gods the officials worship, such as Zeus, were adulterers and incestuous. He writes that Christians held to a high view of the sanctity of marriage. He then goes on to compare Christians and their accusers. Notice how modern the charges in this paragraph sound:
But though such is our character (Oh! Why should I speak of things unfit to be uttered?), the things said of us are an example of the proverb, "The harlot reproves the chaste." For those who have set up a market for fornication and established infamous resorts for the young for every kind of vile pleasure—who do not abstain even from males, males with males committing shocking abominations, outraging all the noblest and comeliest bodies in all sorts of ways, so dishonouring the fair workmanship of God (for beauty on earth is not self-made, but sent hither by the hand and will of God)—these men, I say, revile us for the very things which they are conscious of themselves, and ascribe to their own gods, boasting of them as noble deeds, and worthy of the gods. These adulterers and pederasts defame [people choosing to remain unmarried for life] and the once-married (while they themselves live like fishes; for these gulp down whatever falls in their way, and the stronger chases the weaker…), but it is incumbent on us to be good and patient of evil.

Two Lessons from Athenagoras

While the persecution of Christian bakers is not nearly as severe as what second century Christians faced, I think there are lessons to be gleaned from the parallels between this event and what Christians faced in Athenagoras' day. First, charges against Christians on grounds of morality won't go away. Christian values are not those of the world and no one should be surprised when those who are in charge come against Christians and successfully use the law as a hammer against them. Jesus himself warned us of this when he said, "If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you" (John 15:18-19. ESV).

Secondly, we must make certain as Christians that we consistently live up to our own moral standards. Athenagoras' argument is anchored on the fact that Christians really did value marriage. They held it in the highest regard and shunned things like divorce and adultery. He states Christians are opposed to immorality for entertainment, such as was common in the gladiatorial events.

How seriously do Christians take their entertainment choices? Do you hold your marriage in the highest of regards, seeing it as inviolable until death? Does your life help make the case against persecution or is it undercutting the contrast? We must live as Christ has told us to live, for we will certainly suffer if we bear his name.


1. Rede, George. "Sweet Cakes Owners Pay Damages While Continuing Appeal of $135,000 Bias Case." Oregon Live LLC., 28 Dec. 2015. Web. 29 Dec. 2015.
2. Starnes, Todd. "Costly Beliefs: State Squeezes Last Penny from Bakers Who Defied Lesbian-wedding Cake Order." Fox News. FOX News Network, 29 Dec. 2015. Web. 29 Dec. 2015.
3. Athenagoras. "A Plea for the Christians." Chapter 31. Translated by B.P. Pratten. Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 2. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. Web.

Monday, December 21, 2015

How Can We be Sure Where Jesus Was Born?

Most childhood plays of the Christmas story show a young Mary and Joseph wandering from house to house in Bethlehem, knocking on doors only to be met with a head shaking "no" no the other side. While there is conjecture as to whether they were turned away from an inn or simply couldn't fit in the main living quarters, the story is clearly that Mary gave birth in the town of Bethlehem.

But how certain are we that Bethlehem would truly be the location? Is it more likely Jesus was born in Nazareth and Bethlehem became a later invention? Like all historical facts, nothing is impossible but why would someone believe that Bethlehem wasn't the birthplace of Christ? The Gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke are both sources close to the time they record (within one generation), and they had direct access to Jesus's brothers and Jesus's mother. They could ask them directly, which Luke states he did (Luke 1:2).

Further, there are no competing accounts of Jesus's birthplace in any historical record. In fact, as Paul L. Maier notes, even Christian artwork depicting the Nativity shows a wide array of different scenarios that reflect the culture of the artist's day, but everyone seems to agree on some kind of stable or grotto or cave where the animals were kept, just as Luke reports.

The Church of the Nativity Adds Evidence

Interestingly, Maier also believes the Church of the Nativity that thousands of pilgrims visit every year offers good evidence for Bethlehem as the location of Jesus's birth. While the ostentatiousness of its current ornamentation may be off-putting to Western Protestants today, Maier explains that one must look past the modern adornments to the historical tradition of the location itself:
Did it all really happen here—at this spot? Though final proof is necessarily lacking, the surprising answer lurks closer to probably than possibly.

Where there is no direct archaeological evidence—and there could be none in the case of the birth of Jesus—nothing is more important in establishing the authenticity of an ancient site than antiquity: the place must have been regarded as such from earliest times. If the Church of the Nativity had been built here in 600 A.D., for example, its claims to mark the authentic site of the birth of Jesus would be almost worthless. But

Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor of Rome, erected the original Church of the Nativity at this place in 326 A.D., over the very grotto that had been identified as the true site by the early church father Origen and, before him, Justin Martyr, writing in 150 A.D. Justin stated that Jesus was born in a cave that was used as a stable-not the typical stone or wooden stable so familiar in Christmas art. Earlier still, in the 130's the pagan Roman emperor Hadrian tried to desecrate the Jewish and Christian holy places in Palestine, but, ironically, thereby preserved identity!

After he had put down an insurrection by the Jewish nationalist and would-be Messiah, Bar-Kokhba, in 135 A.D., Hadrian expelled the Jews Jerusalem and paganized all known holy places of Jews and Christians, erecting a temple to Venus at the site of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and a grove dedicated to Adonis over the Grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

After visiting the latter in the early 200s, Origen later wrote: "In Bethlehem the grotto was shown where Jesus was born .... What was shown to me is familiar to everyone in the area. The heathen themselves tell anyone willing to listen that in the said grotto a certain Jesus was born whom the Christians revere" (Contra Celsum, i, 51).1

What Other Accounts Count?

For the Bethlehem location to have been venerated in such a noticeable way that Hadrian would intentionally destroy them in 135 means it had been recognized as such for years or even decades prior. That puts the Bethlehem grotto, like the location of Jesus's crucifixion at what is now known as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, on very good historical grounds. While the tomb is much more likely to be specifically known by the disciples than his birthplace, there is still both archaeological and written support for these locations.

Give the tradition of Jesus's birthplace goes back to the early second century in respect to the grotto, and back to the first century in the Gospel accounts, holding that Jesus was born in Bethlehem as opposed to elsewhere is the most reasonable belief. Dr. Maier concludes similarly, noting "Some critics doubt that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and argue instead for Nazareth or elsewhere. Such opinions, however, are based only on scholarly conjecture, and no source has been discovered to date that disproves Jesus' birth in Bethlehem."2

Maier's point is interesting and one that happens often with those who wish to dismiss the accounts as given in the ancient sources. They offer a competing conjecture, but without a shred of evidence. Just as those who try to deny Jesus was buried in a tomb have no historical evidence for their claim, neither do those who doubt Jesus's birth at Bethlehem. It's all a lot of hand-waiving by people who wish to deny the fact that Jesus fulfilled the prophecy of Michah 5:2. But history argues against them.


1. Maier, Paul L. In the Fullness of Time: A Historian Looks at Christmas, Easter, and the Early Church. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991. Print. 38-40.
2. Maier, 1991. 32.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Christmas, the Solstice, and December 25th

Over the last two posts, I've explained how historical research is showing the date for celebrating Christmas was not chosen because of a Roman holiday like Saturnalia, but how the early church linked the date of Jesus's birth to the date of Jesus's crucifixion. That means Christmas is not a response to a pagan celebration such as Saturnalia but it has Christian roots.

However, Saturnalia is not the only candidate offered by critics as why December 25th was the focus of the coming of the Son of God. There is another holiday that actually occurred on December 25 mentioned in antiquity. This was the Dies Natalis Solis Invictus, translated as is the "Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun." It was celebrated on December 25 in 354 AD according to the calendar of Philocalus.1

The Sol Invictus cult followers worshipped the sun. Thomas Talley reports that while Emperor Aurelian did not first introduce Rome to the cult, he popularized it and the celebration day. Previously, local celebrations of Sol revolved around the dedication of the god's temples in August and/or November. In fact, the word Natalis can mean more than simply birthday, but it may also be used for the concept of an anniversary, as Roger Pearse notes:
There is also the question of what "natalis" means. It could mean birthday; but also it can mean "anniversary of the dedication of a temple". This seems to be the meaning for other "natalis" in the calendar. We know that Aurelian dedicated the temple of Sol Invictus. Thus we would get a festival on the anniversary of the dedication of the temple, and thus the idea that the festival was created at the same time by Aurelian.2
Tally tells us the "indigenous Sun cult at Rome does not seem to have been especially sensitive to the winter solstice or any other quarter days."3 Also, Steven Hijmans declares that while Aurelian set the feast, it may not have been set in December until much later:
there is no evidence that Aurelian instituted a celebration of Sol on that day [December 25]. A feast day for Sol on December 25th is not mentioned until eighty years later, in the Calendar of 354 and, subsequently, in 362 by Julian in his Oration to King Helios.4

The Roman Solstice and Who's Borrowing from Whom?

One mistake we must be careful of is placing too much emphasis on the similar sounding words "sun" and "Son." This is a common misstep for English speakers. While the Latin word for sun is "sol, the word translated son is "filius," breaking any ties to a play on words. Yet, Romans did hold to the idea that December 25 was the "birth of the Sun as the days began to noticeably get longer. Schmidt quotes Macrobius who states it was the Egyptians of the 4th or 5th century that developed the metaphor of the sun coming on the solstice as an infant and growing until the summer, where it would then shrink again as an aging man.5

Of course, all of this is well after the 202 to 211 AD mark where Hippolytus ties December 25 to Jesus's birth. If the Natalis was originally celebrated in August or October or November, why was it changed to December? One possibility is that Aurelian dedicated a new temple on that day and thus they celebrated that dedication as a feast day. Thomas Talley gives us an even more interesting possibility:
Halsberghe, without suggesting that there already was a Christian festival on December 25, presents the probability that one item in Aurelian's religious agenda was the provision of an authentically Roman alternative to the increasingly successful Christian mission.6
Of course, there's much much more, but I think you can see that the charge of Christians chose December 25 in order to "Christianize" or even just appease a pagan populous is weak at best. If you want to dig into more of the history, T.C. Schmidt's series is a great place to start, although it is only available via the internet Archive now. He summarized his findings thus:
  • Saturnalia did not occur on December 25 and had nothing to do with the birth of any god or anyone else.
  • A feast to Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun) did occur on December 25, but the earliest evidence for it dates from the mid to late 4th century. There is no evidence that Emperor Aurelian established a Festival of Sol Invictus (or anyone or anything else) on December 25.
  • Egyptians apparently presented an infant as a representation of the newborn Sun on the winter solstice, but this evidence also dates from the fourth and fifth centuries.
  • Hippolytus in 202-211 AD set the date for the birth of Jesus on December 25, because he thought Jesus was conceived 9 months earlier on the Passover, the day in which he also thought the world was created (5500 years earlier), the Vernal Equinox March 25.

    Clement of Alexandria (193-215 AD) quoted various anonymous sources about the birth of Jesus and roughly agrees with Hippolytus, claiming that Jesus was born in late fall to early winter. Clement's sources clearly seem to believe that Jesus was conceived on the Passover and was born roughly 9 months later; in fact the only difference between them and Hippolytus is that they differed on when the Passover actually occurred. However there is a significant possibility that one of Clement's sources was Hippolytus himself because of the preponderance of possible dates he gives that fall on the 25th of a month (He gives 4 of them and then another date on the 24th) which corresponds with Hippolytus' belief that Jesus was both conceived, born, and executed on the 25th of a month.


1. "Part 6: The Calendar of Philocalus. Inscriptiones Latinae Antiquissimae, Berlin (1893) Pp.256-278." The Chronography of 354 AD. Trans. Roger Pearce. The Tertullian Project, 2006. Web. 18 Dec. 2015.
2. Schmidt, T.C., "Antiochus of Athens and the Birth of the Sun-update." T.C. Schmidt. 28 Dec 2010. Web.
3. Talley, Thomas J. The Origins of the Liturgical Year. New York: Pueblo Pub, 1986. Print. 88-89.
4. Hijmans, S. E. Sol: the sun in the art and religions of Rome. 2009 Groningen: s.n. 588 quoted from T.C. Schmidt. "Sol Invictus evidently not a precursor to Christmas." T.C. Schmidt. 21 Dec 2010. Web.
5. Schmidt, T.C., "Christmas, the Winter Solstice, and the birth of the Sun." T.C. Schmidt. 19 Dec 2010. Web.
6. Talley, 1986. 89.
7. Schmidt, T.C. "Sol Invictus evidently not a precursor to Christmas." T.C. Schmidt. 21 Dec 2010. Web.
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