RESPONDblog: Christianity’s Not As Mysterious As You Think

I found myself at Vasquez Rocks National Park this weekend. Actually – this was completely intentional. I was hunting for a shooting location used by the makers of the Original Series of Star Trek from the 1960s. What can I tell you…? I’m nerdy like that.

The episode I was thinking of is called “Arena”; Captain Kirk finds himself facing the war like Gorn creature on the surface of an asteroid with a suspiciously “earth-like” atmosphere. Which is handy. A superior race, the Metrones, have decided that Kirk must fight his adversary to the death. Not so superior, eh? In reality – William Shatner was acting his socks off with a poor guy sweating in a green rubber suit.

I wanted to find the spot where their iconic battle happened. After all…I remember watching the episode as a child.

My strategy on arriving at Vasquez Rocks National Park was to launch myself “Kirk like” into the mysterious and rugged countryside…to explore various trails and various rock formations in the 35 degree heat. “That looks kinda familiar…maybe they filmed it there? Oh no – hang on – maybe it was here? Man…I’m hot.”

After an hour or so trudging around in the oven like heat…I returned to the visitors centre for a rest. I sensed that I hadn’t really found what I was looking for. Walking back to the car…I noticed a big sign that I had driven past an hour ago when I first entered the park. It read, “To the Rocks” – with a big arrow pointing up a well built road to my left.

Genius that I am – I asked myself – “Hang on. Why don’t I follow that arrow…and just drive up that road? I wonder what’s up there?” I jumped into the car…drove up the signposted road…and eventually arrived at a large visitors car park. Exiting the car…I looked around. I was already hot…but I was getting warmer. I recognised these rock formations.

I began chatting on Twitter with my friend Alan. I explained what I was doing and – very helpfully – he sent me an image of the Star Trek episode that showed the location I was looking for. I gulped at the image on my phone screen. Raising my head, I looked again at the entrance to the visitors car park I had just driven through.

Would you believe it?

Star Trek had filmed the iconic Gorn battle scene HERE – within the visitors car park at the end of the road!! Of course. With so much equipment…the lights and cameras transported by truck…the film crew needed a wide space to set things up. It made perfect sense to use the car park. It’s slightly disappointing to me though that the scene was captured…in a car park. This Star Trek episode has lost some of its mystique to me now…

On reflection – I made this trip much much harder for myself than it needed to be. I hadn’t actually rewatched the episode on Netflix before travelling to the location…I was working from memories and assumptions in my head about what the location looked like. Life would have been easier…if I’d just googled a picture first. Worse – when I arrived at the park…I didn’t follow the clear and obvious signage that was provided and staring me in the face! I decided to purposefully wander off into the countryside instead.

In the end…finding what I was looking for was really easy and straightforward. It just required me to look at the source material…and follow the obvious instructions that were available.

It occurred to me as I reflected on these hilarious mistakes, that this might not be too different from how many people approach Christianity. One friend…sceptical of Christianity… said to me recently, “Why don’t I get it like you, Stuart?”

Well – maybe its like me hunting for the iconic Kirk vs the Gorn location without watching the episode first? We’re relying on our half remembered ideas about what Christianity is about…but why don’t we just go back and look at what it actually IS all about? The life of Jesus as documented in the New Testament. How about we actually read what, say, the Gospel of Mark actually records that Jesus said and did?

Further, so many people I’ve spoken to assume that the claims of Christianity are unreliable today. Their starting assumption is that the history of Christianity is very complicated…and so one needs to dig really deeply to work out what actually happened to cause the Christian church 2000 years ago. And frankly – that is too much work for most people. Well – perhaps we are missing the clear and obvious signpost that is staring us right in the face? We’ve dived off into the countryside…and come up with nothing useful as a result. And we’ve probably given up. Instead – why don’t we come back to the starting point and follow the clear signage that has been provided to lead us to what we’re looking for? Stop assuming its hard and complicated – and just follow the road and see where it takes us?

You know, historians have identified that the oldest and so the earliest description of Christian belief is recorded in 1 Corinthians 15. There’s an ancient creed written there in this letter that predates all of the layer gospel biographies of Jesus (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) by decades. The creed itself may date to just a few months after Jesus’ crucifixion…capturing what the first Christians stood for. This is the clear and obvious signage that I’m talking about. What does it say?

“that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas,[b] and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born”

1 Corinthians 15:3-8, NIV

It’s not complicated. Its laid out clearly. Just follow the signpost. Jesus was raised from the dead – this fact was widely accepted and assumed by both friends and enemies of Christianity during the 1st century. The first Jesus followers worked to help other people become friends and followers of this Jesus too. He was crucified on a cross, but he’s not a dead, ancient figure of history. He’s a vital and real person who is still alive today.

So why don’t we get this? Possibly because…we think we know better. Can I suggest to you…from experience…that we don’t know better. Christianity is worth “getting”. It really is. And it’s not hard to do. It just requires us to lay aside our wrong thinking…and follow the evidence provided.

As I drove away from Vasquez Rocks and pointed my car to home, I laughed out loud as I joined highway I-14. What did I find funny? You can actually plainly see the Star Trek shooting location as you drive up the highway! It’s SO obvious. It’s clearly laid out for all to see…it’s not mysterious..not hidden away in some obscure spot in the desert.

All you have to do to find what you need…is first not convince yourself that finding it is just too hard. And second, follow those signs that point to Jesus Christ.

RESPONDblogs: Did Jesus Exist? Tacitus thought so!

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Jesus of Nazareth was not a person of wealth or political influence. Yet details of his life and legacy are documented by ancient accounts found outside of the Bible; texts written by people without pro-Christian bias. These sources corroborate each other and support the New Testament Gospels themselves.

 

Now – it is true that there is more written about important political leaders like Caesar Augustus or Cicero…and Jesus is simply a no-one by comparison. Yet in spite of his obscurity, “if you limit yourself just to people at Jesus’ socio economic status … lower class peasant … there isn’t anyone from the ancient world that comes close to the amount of evidence we have for Jesus.”[1] And that quote comes from a sceptical scholar who rejects the supernatural claims about Jesus life!

 

I previously discussed Roman historian Suetonius’s reference to Christ. Now let’s turn to Cornelius Tacitus.

 

Cornelius Tacitus was governor of Asia and he documented Nero’s reign in the first century. Much of Tacitus’s Annals is lost, but what remains points to the historical Jesus. In Annals we read:

Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome[2]

This account gives valuable data supporting Jesus’ historicity.

First, Tacitus says that “Christus”, which is Latin for Christ, was responsible for the Christian class. Second, Tacitus gives extra-Biblical support for the account of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion under Pontius Pilate. Third, these events reportedly began in Judea[3]. Fourth, the Christian Church is describes as a “most mischievous superstition.” This phrase echoes something that Suetonius also says, when he describes Christian belief as a “new and mischievous religious belief.”[4]

 

Some sceptics will ask, “can we be sure the Christ Tacitus speaks of is Jesus?” Tacitus does not use Jesus’ name directly; Christ is the Greek form of Messiah, a Hebrew title meaning “a king, priest or prophet”[5], or could also refer to a specific, expected Jewish “Anointed One”[6] who would usher in God’s rule. Extra-Biblical sources show evidence of various first century Christ candidates. Jewish historian Josephus, writes about King Herod’s slave Simon who, “was so bold as to put a diadem on his head, while a certain number of the people stood by him, and by them he was declared to be a king.”[7] Having led a rebellion, Simon was killed by the Romans and his followers scattered. History clearly records that various Jewish rebel leaders thought of themselves as kings. Yet only one individual is recorded as being punished by Pontius Pilate, leaving more followers after his death than he had before, and known as Christ. Josephus mentions Jesus by name, “there was a wise man who was called Jesus. … Pilate condemned him … those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. … he was perhaps the Messiah.”[8] This corroborates Tacitus who also refers to the Christ who suffered the extreme penalty under Pilate, and whose teachings broke out after his death[9] possibly supporting the Christian preaching of Jesus’ resurrection.  Therefore, I conclude that our extra-Biblical sources only refer to one historical person with the title Christ who fits Jesus’ profile.

 

Richard Carrier is a sceptic who does not believe Jesus of Nazareth existed. Carrier suggests Tacitus’s original text documented the punishment of a Jewish rabble who followed someone named Chrestus. Decades later, Carrier says that a Christian scribe came along with his writing instrument and repurposed this passage by inserting a sentence mentioning Christ and Pilate, thus erasing the original Chrestus link, and bolstering a Christian myth about Jesus of Nazareth: “the suspect line was probably not written by Tacitus … More likely Tacitus was originally speaking of the Chrestians, a violent group of Jews first suppressed under Claudius, and not the Christians, and accordingly did not mention Christ.”[10]

However, there are problems with Carrier’s argument.

  • First, Tacitus never mentions Chrestus, but does mention Christians. In order to force his case, Carrier must himself re-write Tacitus and replace mention of Christians with “Chrestians.”
  • Second, Carrier’s suspect line does not just document Christ and Pilate, we also read a judgement on the Christian religion itself. Christianity is cynically described as a “most mischievous superstition.”[11] Wouldn’t a later Christian interpolator present an apologetic for Christianity instead? Licona comments, “the style of the text definitely belongs to Tacitus. … a Christian editor would not have had Tacitus call Christianity a ‘deadly superstition’.”[12]

Carrier further justifies his replacement of the word “Christians” with “Chrestians” by observing that while Nero blamed the Christians for arson, no Christian writer recorded this until the 4th century. Carrier states,

Given the immensity of the persecution Tacitus describes … and the injustice of it being based on a false accusation of arson to cover up Nero’s own crimes, what are the odds that no Christian would ever have heard of it or made use of it or any reference to it for over three hundred years?[13]

In other words, Tacitus cannot be referencing Christ or his church, Carrier says, because no early Christians complained about Nero’s accusation; arson was blamed on a different group.

 

But hang on a minute, Richard.

Tacitus would have known of Nero’s arson accusation because he had used official Government records when writing historical accounts. Perhaps Tacitus read privileged evidence of Nero’s private plot to blame the fires on the hated Christian sect?

Further, if we can show Tacitus’s report is typical of Christian persecution under Nero, this points to the passage’s authenticity, and helps to strengthen the case that Tacitus is also referencing Christ. While no record exists of Chrestian persecution, much evidence of Nero’s Christian persecution survives.

  • Acts, for example, shows Roman Christians being viewed with suspicion; this was surely due to Nero’s influence. The Roman Jewish leaders said, “We understand that people everywhere are against this new group.”[14] Perhaps Roman Jews would view Christian behaviour through the filter of anti-Christian Government propaganda. Acts lends weight to this.
  • Also, the second century Christian writer Tertullian records Christian persecution in his Ad Nationes. Tertullian’s account gives many reasons for the general hatred toward the Christian Church, but “no proof is forthcoming of any crimes, only rumour; the first persecutor was Nero, the worst of emperors.”[15] What rumour is Tertullian referencing? Alongside many documented accusations, he is most likely referencing Nero’s Christian arson rumour.

 

Yet sceptics will continue; since they cannot label Tacitus as a later interpolation, they will try to discredit his credentials as a historian. Sceptical New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman questions the quality of Tacitus’s research. Tacitus claims Jesus received, “the extreme penalty … at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus.”[16] Ehrman commented during a conversation on the Unbelievable podcast on this passage:

I wanted to show that Tacitus knew something about the historical Jesus. I also said he had not done research in archives in Rome. Pilate wasn’t that kind of Governor. He was actually a Prefect. We know this because there was an inscription discovered in Caesarea Maritima in the 1960s put up in honour of Pontius Pilate naming him Prefect not Procurator.[17]

Ehrman is saying, if Tacitus recorded Pilate’s job role incorrectly, could this count against the accuracy of his Jesus report?

I propose not. When Tacitus wrote Annals, he was a person of power with a reputation to maintain. Habermas demonstrates this by saying, “Tacitus had to receive his information from some source … It may even have been contained in one of Pilate’s reports to the emperor, to which Tacitus would probably have had access because of his standing with the government.”[18] Therefore it would seem unlikely that Tacitus would put his reputation at risk through poor research. Ironically, it is Carrier who leaps to Tacitus’s defence: “provincial prefects were often also imperial procurators … throughout the Annals Tacitus has a particular motive to emphasize that fact.”[19]

 

In summary, yes sceptics will try to dismiss Tacitus’s Annals as an independent reference to Jesus of Nazareth. But there are no good reasons for doing this.

  • Tacitus’s report is clearly an original unmodified record of the historical Jesus and his church.
  • It is unreasonable to dismiss the reliability of Tacitus’s account of Jesus’ execution by Pilate because of poor research.

 

Cornelius Tacitus gives us excellent, early evidence that Jesus of Nazareth existed. As does the much debated JOSEPHUS…

 

 

[1] Bart Ehrman and Justin Brierly, “Did Jesus Exist?”, Unbelievable Podcast Saturday 18th August 2012, accessed January 31st, 2015, http://www.premierchristianradio.com/Shows/Saturday/Unbelievable/Episodes/Did-Jesus-Exist-Bart-Ehrman-Q-A-Unbelievable.

[2] Clay Jones, “Prepared Defence”, Jones, DVD-ROM (version 2.2).

[3] New Testament Gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all record Jesus’ activity in the region of Judea.

[4] Gary Habermas, “The Historical Jesus Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ Select chapters by Gary R. Habermas”, Dr. Gary R. Habermas Online Resources, Information, Media, accessed February 4th, 2015, http://www.garyhabermas.com/books/historicaljesus/historicaljesus.htm.

[5] I. H. Marshall, “JESUS CHRIST, TITLES OF.” In New Bible Dictionary Second Edition (Inter-Varsity Press, 1993).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Peter Kirby, “Antiquities of the Jews – Book XVII”, Early Jewish Writings, accessed March 1st, 2015, http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/text/josephus/ant17.html.

[8] Habermas, “The Historical Jesus”.

[9] Jones, “Prepared Defence”.

[10] Richard Carrier, HITLER HOMER BIBLE CHRIST The Historical Papers of Richard Carrier 1995-2013, (Philosophy Press 2014), 391.

[11] Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb, “The Annals By Tacitus”, The Internet Classics Archive, accessed February 23rd, 2015, http://classics.mit.edu/Tacitus/annals.11.xv.html.

[12] Mike Licona, “A Refutation of Acharya S’s Book, The Christ Conspiracy”, Risen Jesus the Ministry of Mike Licona, accessed February 4th, 2015, http://www.risenjesus.com/a-refutation-of-acharya-ss-book-the-christ-conspiracy.

[13] Carrier, HITLER HOMER BIBLE CHRIST, 390.

[14] Acts 28:22 NLT.

[15] John Chapman, “Tertullian”, The Catholic Encyclopaedia, accessed 23rd February 2015, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14520c.htm.

[16] Habermas, “The Historical Jesus”, Dr. Gary R. Habermas.

[17] Ehrman and Brierly, “Did Jesus Exist?”, Unbelievable Podcast.

[18] Habermas, “The Historical Jesus”, Dr. Gary R. Habermas.

[19] Richard Carrier, “Ehrman on Jesus: A Failure of Facts and Logic” Richard Carrier Blog, accessed January 31st, 2015, http://freethoughtblogs.com/carrier/archives/1026.