Was the Medieval Church Anti-Science?

The popular myth says science and Christianity have always been at each other’s throats. Now – despite the fact that many people today promote that narrative – the truth of the matter is quite different. And historically speaking, the war thesis is simply a myth. The myth supposes that it was early scientists who represented unbiased scientific objectivity, while the Medieval Catholic church stood for ignorance and superstition.

Here’s an example of the statement of this myth:

“[The Catholic Church had been] torturing scholars to the point of madness for merely speculating about the nature of the stars.”[1]

This quote, and many others like it, conjures up the picture of theologians resisting the early scientists as they urge them to look thru a telescope at the stars. The myth says – Christianity was anti-science, anti-progress and very aggressive.

Well – it is true that the Medieval Church did incredibly cruel and un-Christ like things to people who promoted anti-Christian doctrines from within the ranks of the church. An example of this is seen in the life of Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake in 1600. His crime wasn’t a scientific one, however. It was a theological one. He tried to turn the church towards pantheism.

So what evidence exists that the Medieval Church was not anti-intellectual and anti-science? A proper look at what happened in the life of Galileo Galilei shows us that science and Christianity were viewed as complementary fields in discussion with each other. Not at war.

Who Was Galileo?

He was a well respected church official who loved God and cared deeply about the Bible. He was also passionate about astronomy. Through his telescope, he found the moon surface was not, “perfectly smooth, free from inequalities and exactly spherical (as a large school of philosophers believes concerning both the moon and the other heavenly bodies).”[2] This discovery overturned centuries of Greek Aristotelian thought. He also observed Jupiter’s moons.

Galileo was a convinced heliocentrist. That meant he subscribed to the ideas of Copernicus, who said the earth was not at the horrible bottom of the universe. Rather, it was an elevated planet in the solar system. Further, the other planets did not orbit earth, but rather they orbited a stationary sun at the centre of the solar system. Galileo was convinced of these ideas.

How Did the Church React to Galileo’s Ideas?

Was the church scared and aggressive to these ideas? Not at all. This is part of the myth that Sam Harris has fallen for. Why do we know the church was open to cosmology in the Middle Ages?

1 – Tychonic Cosmology Already Existed

At that time, Tycho Brae’s Tychonic system of cosmology competed with Galileo’s favourite Copernican system. Tycho’s observational science resulted in a cosmology that was subscribed to by the Jesuit astronomers of the Roman College. In general, the church felt Tycho’s scientific system was more likely to be consistent with observations, the statements of scripture, and long standing Greek ideas which involved a static Earth rather than the Copernican idea of a static Sun. In short – the church was onboard with the scientific discussion of the time.

 

2 – The Inquisition Was Potentially Open to Copernicanism

The head of the feared Inquisition, Bellarmine, was interested in the competition between the Tychonic and Copernican cosmologies. It was unclear to Ballarmine that a Copernican system was provable, but without this uncertainty, Ballarmine would have gone with Copernicus, and this shows he was not anti-scientific progress.[3] His uncertainty eventually led to the church deciding that Copernicanism was “altogether contrary to Holy Scripture,”[4] but was not heresy. The door was open to rethinking these ideas. But Bellarmine instructed Galileo not to pursue Copernicanism, but stay with the Tychonic system and it’s apparent consistency with their understanding of scripture.

 

YET – history records that Galileo was put thru a trial by the church. Why did that happen? The myth says it was because of Galileo’s scientific ideas. As we have found, this is clearly not the case because the church was open to and interacted with different scientific ideas. So why did Galileo face the Inquisition?

 

What Led to Galileo’s Trial?

1 – Galileo sought the Pope’s permission to write a book engaging Copernican ideas, and the Pope agreed.

2 – In his book, Galileo proceeded to insult the Pope by putting his favourite anti-Copernican arguments into the mouth of his character Simplico, meaning simpleton, who was ill informed and rude. The Pope, who was facing political turmoil in a contracting Holy Roman Empire, saw Galileo’s book as a betrayal and so Galileo was called to trial.

3 – Galileo was not tortured or put in prison before or after the trial, showing the respect that the church maintained for him.[5] He lived a comfortable existence under house arrest in his home environment overlooking Florence.

4 – During the trial, Galileo admitted to Bellarmine’s warnings not to hold or defend Copernicanism. He failed to convince the court his book did not attempt to defend or refute Copernicanism. This led to a plea bargain. “They promised not to press the most serious charge (violation of the special injunction) if Galileo would plead guilty to [a] lesser charge (transgression of the warning not to defend Copernicanism).”[6] Galileo agreed and he was found guilty of a lesser, “vehement suspicion of heresy.”[7]

5 – After his conviction, Galileo proceeded to write further important scientific works unhindered.

 

The Church Was Not Anti-Science

So – does the Galileo incident give evidence of a Medieval war between religion and science? Not at all. The church was very much engaged with scientific cosmological ideas. This incident speaks not of a war between church and science, but a battle of ideas between church tradition, and dual cosmologies, Copernican and Tychonic. Galileo’s rude and pushy insistence on the Copernican one in spite of general uncertainty, put him in conflict with the church. They required a conservative approach, leaning towards the Tychonic cosmological system. Galileo chose instead to both pursue Copernicanism, and insult the Pontiff. This led to his trial and his humiliating defeat.

The Medieval church was not anti-science. But it did violently punish some heretics within its ranks.

 

 

[1] Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (2004), 105 quoted in

[2] Galileo Galilei, “Neither Known Nor Observed by Anyone Before,” in Dennis Richard Danielson, ed, the book of the cosmos, (Perseus Publishing, 2000), 147.

[3] Michael Newton Keas, Unbelievable 7 Myths about the History and Future of Science and Religion, (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2019), 81.

[4] Keas, 82.

[5] Keas, 84.

[6] Finocchiaro, “That Galileo Was Imprisoned and Tortured for Advocating Copernicanism,” 7, quoted in Keas, 85.

[7] Ibid.

Challenging the “Dark Ages”

Science populariser Neil deGrasse Tyson, like Carl Sagan before him, makes much of the claim that Christianity held back science in the Middle Ages, marking it a dark time for enlightened and critical thinking.

“Ancient Greece – inferred the Earth’s shadow during Lunar Eclipses. But it was lost to the Dark Ages.”[1]

“Those afraid of the universe as it really is, those who pretend non-existent knowledge and envision a Cosmos centred on human beings will prefer the fleeting comforts of superstition.”[2]

The problem with all this is – these claims are evidentially false. The notion that Christianity held back science, causing a time of darkness for humanity, does not square with the evidence from history. The Dark Ages is simply a recent myth, suggested in the last hundred years or so.

Going all the way back to the first few centuries, the early Christians happily accepted elements of the Greek natural philosophy and built upon it. They realised all truth was God’s truth, and so natural observations were seen as a “handmaiden” to observations about God.

Tertullian (155 – 220) harmonised natural philosophy with Christian theology and promoted the science of medicine.

Boethius (477 – 524) identified the laws of nature in poetry, which are foundational to science.

Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430) said that “knowledge of nature acquires value in so far as it serves a higher purpose.”[3] In his commentary on Genesis, he applied Greek thinking about cosmology and nature in his understanding of the meaning of the Bible text. His influence on later medieval scholars was massive, and Augustine transmitted a “rich source of cosmological, physical and biblical knowledge,”[4] about the earth, its shape, its relation to the cosmos and so much more.

Development of the Academy

Critical to the development of science were the first universities. They started with Bologna in 1088 and by 1450, over fifty universities existed. The Catholic church resourced and supported the formation of the academy, giving those who worked there special privileges. The church didn’t oppose learning, it cherished it. “If the medieval church had intended to … suppress science, it made a mistake … supporting the university … [where] science found a home.”[5] The universities were self-governing and set their own syllabus. Greek and Arabic science texts were translated into Latin and taught. The church supported the development of the sciences financially, giving “more financial and social support to the study of astronomy [and the other scientific fields] for six centuries … more than any other medieval institution.”[6]

Medieval Flat Earthers?

But what about Columbus? Didn’t he prove to the narrow minded church that the earth was round and not flat? No – the spherical shape of the earth was argued by the Greeks long before the church, and the first Christian scholars carried this argumentation forward. It was not seriously challenged by anyone, taught consistently, and part of common literature from the 13th century. Medieval Christianity did not teach a flat earth. The issue for Columbus wasn’t battling narrow minded Christian theologians. And it’s a myth that the crew feared falling off the edge of the earth. Rather, they were concerned about how large the earth was, and the size of the ocean in comparison to the land.

Conclusion

The assumption that Christianity held back the development of science during the supposed Dark Ages is – a modern mis-retelling of history. Probably propagated to mischaracterise modern Christian believers as anti-intellectual. The truth is the opposite.

 

 

 

[1] https://twitter.com/neiltyson/status/692939759593865216.

[2] Carl Sagan, Cosmos, (New York: Random House, 1980), 332, quoted in Michael Newton Keas, “Unbelievable 7 Myths About the History and Future of Science and Religion,” (Wilmington: ISI Booke, 2019), 27.

[3] Gary B. Fengren, editor, Science & Religion A Historical Introduction, second edition, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), 41.

[4] Fengren, 42.

[5] Keas, 37.

[6] Keas, 38.

1917 as a Metaphor for Christian Commission

This hits me hard. The unwavering commitment shown by Schofield and Blake to get the truth thru to the right people in time. If you are a Christian who has ever felt inadequate in the face of the task of sharing the Christian good news…this story presents a useful analogy.

 

There is truth.

Truth is real. If we say, “There is no truth,” then we are contradicting ourselves because we are making a truth claim even as those words leave our mouths. No – truth is a daily human experience. These soldiers received the truth in the form of army intelligence and the consequences it has on the lives of others.

Christianity is about receiving truthful intel from the person who is responsible for putting people in this universe in the first place. The ultimate General. If we are people who deal in the currency of truth, then he made us that way. So truth exists and must be grounded in him. God.

 

They don’t doubt how vital the truth is.

When the soldiers hear the vital news, these guys buy it. Why? Because it’s their General that’s speaking to them. Their commanding officer’s commanding officer. There’s a look of utter resignation and horror in the officer’s face as he gives them their mission. And the stakes are high. They could not be higher. There’s an urgency in the truth. And these guys are the only ones tasked with acting on it.

What’s happening is – they are being trusted as carriers of the truth. And – if they don’t get the truth through – then a lot of people are going to suffer and die. The General trusts them with this truth – this causes them to grasp the message tightly. Whether or not the General actually believes they will succeed in the mission or not – is irrelevant for them.

That’s not to say Schofield and Blake have doubts. What’s the best way to embark on this mission? What happens if there are details we have been told aren’t quite right? Should we wait for more favourable conditions, or go now?

This is like a metaphor for the truth claims of Christianity. Truth is grounded in Jesus Christ. If the Jesus-message is true, then all people’s eternal lives are at risk. Whether the conditions are favourable or not, those of us commissioned to carry the truth need to get there to explain what is really going on, and what the truthful message is. When he was teaching, Jesus was like a General. Commissioning his friends with the vital truth.

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14, NIV)

We’ve only got a narrow margin for error here, guys. We need to tell people to aim for the narrow safe gate. It’s the only safe way through for everyone! The stakes are high here.

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6, NIV)

 

They don’t allow the chaos of war to make them doubt the relevance of the truth for their audience.

As soon as Schofield and Blake leave the General’s bunker, they are faced with distractions. The film beautifully captures the chaos and horror of war. I use the word beautiful not to describe what it shows, but how it does it which looks and sounds exquisite to me. War is seen as moments of boredom punctuated with periods of utter terror, hope and despair. Periods where progress is made, and times when the pain is so raw that all one can do is weep.

But the machine of war is complex. All these different teams working hard on their assigned duties. Chains of command and reporting structures between people. Yet these two young guys are commanded to cut across all of it. They are told to ignore the machine of war and get to one person who is making the bad strategic decision. Because they accept that whatever is going on, their message is RELEVANT for the survival of many people. And this means they have to do two things.

First – ignore much of the activity around them. The voices that tell them to go a different way or even stay behind and do something else. No – as much as they do work to help other people, and do what they can, they cannot stop. They have a singular mission and they must achieve it or the results will be catastrophic.

Second – they must confidently engage the right people with the right questions. They need to ask the right questions to succeed on their mission. And they’ve got to be selective about who they speak to.

There is so much churn in life around about us today. We have jobs, mortgages, and the planet is in uproar about climate change, political upheavals and the impact of terrorism. It all matters. And yet – there’s a particular truthful message that has got to get through about Jesus. The narrow way. He is the only one that will ultimately get us through. So – we’ve got to avoid letting the complexity of life confuse or distract us. Maybe there is one person who really needs to hear this vital news in our life. Today. Yes we’ve got to be sensitive to the current needs of people in our lives, and we have tasks to perform now. But the ultimately important message about Jesus has to get through to that particular person. It just has. And maybe we are involved in getting the message to them.

 

They don’t allow the confusion of the people around about to cause them to lose a grasp on the truth for themselves.

One of the characters in this story has real skin in the game. His brother is bound to die unless this message gets through. So this message has relevance. Not just for people … but for family. And there are moments in their journey that could rightfully cause them to stop and to give up. To go back the way they came and stop carrying the message. But – they don’t stop. They keep going. Because this truth isn’t just about saving others. It is vital for their own lives and futures too.

Christianity is similar. Being a follower of Jesus is about being the carrier of vital news. Whatever happens around us – this remains true. However much life has tried to blow the stuffing out of us, we remain carriers of the good news. It is in us. God himself lives within us. And so yes, we may need to rest and heal, but then afterwards we must continue our mission. It is of utmost importance that we do this.

 

They keep going even though they feel inadequate to the task.

The whole point of this mission is that it is a launch out into the unknown. No one would feel adequate in these circumstances.

Jesus Christ commissioned his friends in a similar way to the General commissioning Schofield and Blake.

“Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then instruct them in the practice of all I have commanded you. I’ll be with you as you do this …” (Matthew 28:18-20, The Msg)

No one would feel adequate for this task. But Jesus is better than a military General ever could be. Because he joins us on our perilous journey.

Jesus isn’t just a great teacher trying to add useful helpful ideas that people can benefit from. He has a lifesaving message that needs to get thru.

“This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again.” (John 3:16-18, The Msg)

Best of 2019

Hope you had a great holiday period, and I warmly wish you all the best for 2020. May this be a decade that is full of exciting new opportunities for you.

 

This year, I continued submitting content and my readership grew. Thanks to everyone who helped me there! I also further refined the purpose of Respond blog.

 

The Purpose of Respond blog

My aim is to present compelling arguments that support the Christian worldview. In as much as people wish to discuss aspects of these arguments, I’m very happy and willing to do so. It is one of the reasons I invest my time in this blog, in fact.

For those who simply wish to “shout down” my blog, then my response is – “Okay. God bless you. Feel free to move along now.” My goal is absolutely not to shout louder than these folks. Quite the opposite. I am confident in the cogency of these arguments. I do not need to shout louder.

Please feel free to discuss the arguments and associated conclusions in a congenial manner … I wish to talk in this way, thank you.

 

The Top Four Blogs

Of the 67 blogs I published this year, my most popular posts are:

#1 DNA and an Argument for God

I’m arguing that biology isn’t simply like highly engineered artifacts of engineering, biology really is a highly engineered artefact in its own right.

 

#2 Couldn’t God Create a World Where Evil Doesn’t Exist?

I’m arguing that God cannot create a world of genuinely freely willed creatures, where there is no evil present in that world.

 

#3 Why Doesn’t God Save People From Natural Disasters?

Apart from the story of my own one time – seemingly miraculous rescue, here I’m arguing that it would not do us any good if God miraculously rescued everyone all the time.

 

#4 “Evolution” Doesn’t Get You to Human Morality

Despite what many people think, I’m furthering the argument that evolutionary arguments don’t get you to human morality. They don’t even get us to truth, because they are only about survival.

 

Most Influential Books

I’ve read lots this year. And I’ve grown as a Christian believer. Here’s are my top four. I heartily recommend all of them to you.

Surprised By Joy, C. S. Lewis

I used to view C S Lewis as a distant and brilliant academic. He is still both of these things. But, he’s also a man after my own heart. His journey from childhood belief to hardened and cynical atheism thru to full devotion to Christ and the life of the Christian mind…is truly breath taking to me. I am so grateful to Lewis for writing his autobiography. And I’m also grateful to Jerry Root for opening it up to me this year in a fresh and compelling way.

Pierced for Our Transgressions, Steve Jeffery, Mike Ovey and Andrew Sach

Often, I find people’s understanding of how the Bible presents the crucifixion of Christ to be simplistic and one dimensional. I’m aware that often I treat it in simplistic ways myself. But in Pierced, I’ve seen a wonderful treatment of the issues and the implications of the death of the Son of God, his punishment in our place.

The Soul, J. P. Moreland

I have made further advances in understanding “substance dualism” this year. And I am indebted to the beautiful soul who is J. P. Moreland for teaching me. Both in the classroom at BIOLA University, and this glorious yet accessible treatment.

Scientism and Secularism, J. P. Moreland

It is – quite simply – a myth that Christianity is at war with 21st century science. It isn’t. They are complementary. My thumb and my forefinger might point in different directions. But used together, I can grasp things. Well, J. P. lays out the real enemy of the Christian faith today. It’s called scientism, the idea that only the application of the scientific method is capable of attaining real truth and truthful discovery. Apart from the fact that this statement is self-contradictory, it is also highly noxious and dangerous for people. Whether we realise this or not!

Is the Reported Birth Place of Jesus Fictional?

Bethlehem. Skeptics have sometimes rolled their eyes at the claim that Jesus was born there … in Bethlehem. “There’s no good evidence,” they say.

 

What’s their argument? Well, Dickson lays out a common skeptical argument that goes like this.[1]

 

The Argument Against Bethlehem

First – the gospels of Mark and John do not claim that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.

Second – one Old Testament prophecy declares that the Jewish Messiah will come from Bethlehem.

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,

    though you are small among the clans of Judah,

out of you will come for me

    one who will be ruler over Israel,

whose origins are from of old,

    from ancient times.” (Micah 5:2, NIV)

Surely the gospels that do mention Bethlehem as Jesus birthplace HAD to place him there to fit with the old prophecy in Micah?

Think of this like an example of first century “retcon.” Movies and books do this all the time, bringing in new information to impose a different interpretation on previously described events. If you’ve ever watched a prequel to an established movie, you’ve probably experienced retcon.

So the skeptic is claiming that gospel writers were just bringing in a new but false piece of evidence to retcon Jesus’ real birthplace so that his birth would seem to fit with Micah 5:2, he would appear more linked to the Davidic line, and therefore he would look more Messianic!

 

I don’t buy it. Why?

 

The Argument For Bethlehem

First – because just as important as the fact that Mark and John do not mention Bethlehem, Matthew and Luke absolutely do! The silence of two gospels cannot be louder than the clear statements of the other two. For example:

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea…” (Matthew 2:1, NIV)

 

“So Joseph also went … to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David… While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.” (Luke 2:4 – 6, NIV)

 

Second – if Mark and Luke didn’t feel it was important to retcon the story and “place” Jesus in Bethlehem, then what is the evidence that Matthew and Luke DID retcon the story of Jesus’ birth? There is no evidence. If this was a manufactured, rather than a true incidental detail in the gospel account, you would expect all of them to follow each other in the retcon. They don’t. So this tends to neutralize the sceptical argument.

Herod Killing the Male Children in Bethlehem

Here’s a bonus point.

Sometimes skeptics also roll their eyes at the claim in Matthew’s gospel that King Herod tried to kill the baby Jesus by slaughtering all the new born male children in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16) “There’s no historical evidence,” they say.

Well – Matthew’s gospel is giving you historical evidence. But why do you expect this event to be recorded by anyone else, like the Roman historian Josephus? He doesn’t mention the killing of the male babies. But so what?

Bethlehem was a little hamlet in the first century. Why do you think any historian would have such a small, localized and minor atrocity on their radar? Particularly given the much bigger atrocities that King Herod is reported to have committed, like killing a group of dignitaries to make sure that people grieved at the time of his death, and did not give a sigh of relief![2] Surely you would only expect a writer who is particularly focussed on the birth of a single child – Jesus – to think it important to record this event? That’s what Matthew was doing.

Conclusion

It is very reasonable then just to take Matthew and Luke at face value, and accept that Jesus was born in the little town of Bethlehem.

 

[1] John Dickson, 12. First Noel, Undeceptions Podcast.

[2] Josephus, Antiquities, 17.6.174–175.

 

An Astrophysicist Talks About the First Christmas Star

Christmas is all about twinkling lights. It’s one of the special things that makes this season so magical for little ones. And – of course – every year, it means we adults need to untangle the Christmas lights again from our box of decorations. Hey – I put these away so carefully back in January. Why are they in such a tangle now?!

Matthew’s gospel describes a star … a particular aspect of Jesus’ birth that is recorded in a curious way. He records that Magi (wise men from a King’s court) arrived in Jerusalem from the East. “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” (Matthew 2:2, NASB) Clearly they were putting 2 + 2 together here? Both an astronomical sign … and probably prophetic promises from the Jewish scriptures (our Old Testament). For example, Numbers 24:17 says,

I see him, but not now;

I behold him, but not near.

A star will come out of Jacob;    

    a scepter will rise out of Israel.[1]

But as these Magi continue their journey, the star is said to guide them. “…they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was.” (Matthew 2:9, NASB)

It seems like an odd way of describing what was going on. But, like the other details we read in the Christmas story, it is very specific. It’s described from the perspective of people on the ground, but  how could a star be seen to lead these Magi?

Astrophysicist Luke Barnes observes that the great thing about cosmology is that you can wind time back and predict what was going on in our night sky at a point in history. So, we should be able to determine what was going on at the time of Jesus’ birth (around 5 BC, described here.) Luke says there are three main theories about what the “star” recorded by Matthew could have been.[2]

 

First – it could have been a triple conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. When this occurs, from our vantage point on earth, we see the two planets cross over each other and so they appear much brighter in the sky and can be mistaken for a star. A triple conjunction is named this way because the crossover happens 3 times over a period of a month, or so. Appearing at different points in the night sky.

But did this happen at that time? There was one that occurred around 7 BC. But that seems a little early for Jesus birth.

 

Second – it could have been a nova or supernova, a vast nuclear explosion in space which is visible to us on earth. Astrophysicists are able to examine the remains of the star to work out when it blew up, so they can date the nova. Historical record and astro-evidence agree that a nova was visible in the sky in 1054 AD. We are not aware of one dated 5 BC (when Jesus was born), though Barnes admits we may simply not have found it yet.

 

Third – it could also have been a comet. The word for “star” is understood to be used by the ancients to refer to comets. Roman historians Josephus and Pliney both refer to them as signalling good or bad omens.

The thing about a comet is that it is indeed moving, and we can observe that from our vantage point on earth. So, over a period of weeks and months, it could conceivably be seen by the Magi from their perspective in the East, then the West and the South.

Of course, the thing about a comet is that it also has a visible tail caused be dust and gas being given off by the object as it travels thru space. Perhaps if the tail was seen as pointing upwards, then it could look to people like a pointer pointing down at a particular point, and so “standing over” Bethlehem. Also, the star and sceptre in that prophecy from Numbers 24 sounds like it could describe how a comet might look to the naked eye.

But are there any good candidates for this comet in history?

Haley’s comet was visible around 12 BC, which would be too early. However, Chinese astronomers claim to have evidence of a visible comet around 5 BC. The record is not very complete tho. There’s no record of it moving across the sky, although it would be reasonable to assume that it could have done that from the perspective of our planet.

 

Summary

While this subject has been debated for a long time, there seem to be reasonable candidates for the astronomical event described in Matthew’s account for the birth of Christ. But does a natural account of the star empty the story of any supernatural quality? After all, Jesus birth is described as being very special indeed. This wasn’t just any birth, it was the event when God came to earth to live as a person. Well, it seems to me that miracles aren’t just about God stepping into the physical universe at a point in time. They are also about God giving particular and special meaning to natural occurrences in the normal course of events. Surely, that could describe what was going on then in the night sky?

[1] Numbers 24:17, NIV.

[2] John Dickson, 12. First Noel, Undeceptions Podcast.

 

When Was Jesus Born?

If Jesus wasn’t born on the 25th December (see here), then when WAS Jesus born? Or, to put the question another way, when did BC turn to AD (Anno Domini, in the year of our Lord)? Surely a Christian believer would shrug and say, “He was born in AD 1.”

Well – not so fast! Scholars don’t think Jesus was born in AD 1.

Why?

There is some historical data to refer to here:

FIRST – Matthew and Luke’s gospels were written independently, and they agree that Jesus was born during the reign of the Roman appointed King, Herod the Great.

SECOND – the Roman historian Josephus places the dates of Herod’s rule from 37 BC to 4 BC. So, Jesus must have been born before 4BC.

THIRD – Matthew places Jesus birth around Herod’s reign. [1]

FOURTH – Luke says during the 15th year of Tiberius Ceasar, Jesus was about 30 years old.[2] Tiberius was Ceasar between AD 14 and AD 37, so the 15th year was about AD 28. Counting backwards 30 years or so, we reach 6 BC.

 

Scholars today have reached a consensus that Jesus was probably born in 5 BC.[3]

 

SO – the question then is – how can Jesus be born 5 years BEFORE CHRIST (BC)? That seems to make no sense at all!

 

Dickson points out that the reason for this is pretty straightforward. In AD 525, Pope St. John asked mathematician and theologian Dionysius Exiguus to create a chronology of events based on the limited historical records available at the time. He dated Jesus’ birth as accurately as he could, and then the Western church decided to use his chronology for the purpose of dating.

Today, we simply have more accurate historical dating of both Herod the Great and Emperor Tiberius than the ancients had. So – this lets us confidently place Jesus birth 5 years earlier than Dionysius originally thought.

 

It seems to me that, like before, it’s less important exactly when Jesus was born. The important thing to grasp is that he was born in the first place. Because that means we have to then grapple with the reports of his claims about himself (I can do what God does), and the reports of the miraculous things he did at that time in the first century. Crucially – his reported resurrection from the dead.

 

 

[1] Matthew 2:1.

[2] Luke 3, summarised.

[3] John Dickson, 12. First Noel, Undeceptions Podcast.

Was Jesus Actually Born on 25th December?

December 25th has, for so many people on the planet, been the date when the celebration of Christmas happens. The celebration of the birth of Christ. BUT – was Jesus actually born on the 25th of December?

 

In the first century, the day we now know to be 25th of December (on our later Gregorian calendar) was a big party in the Roman empire. Dies Natalis Solis Invicti was a celebration of the return of the invincible sun god. This was an opportunity for folks in the northern territories to celebrate the point in winter when the days begin to get longer again.

 

Christianity became the dominant religion in the Roman empire, so why celebrate Christ’s birth on 25th December? Did the Christians try to compete with the Roman celebration? Did they copy it?

 

John Dickson recounts two possible theories for why Christmas lands on the 25th December.[1]

 

One – the date is just a coincidence! Some people in the early church actually thought Jesus might have been born on 25th December. They based that on the assumption that he must have been conceived on the date of his crucifixion, and they put that at 25th March. So – nine months later would be 25th December. Yet – to be honest – this all seems a bit tenuous to me.

 

Two – the Church reclaimed the pre-existing Roman party on 25th December. The Christians decided not to cancel the party that so many people had grown up with and looked forward to each year. They didn’t want to stop the celebration of the “return of the sun.” Instead, they decided to RECLAIM the party as a celebration of the coming of “the SON of God.” They weren’t saying that Jesus was actually born on December 25th. They were saying his birth was worth throwing a party about…and the pre-existing party seemed a great time to do it.

 

And so – those in the Western Church have celebrated Christmas on 25th December ever since. It’s not his actual birth date. It’s the date when the fact of his birth is celebrated.

 

By the way – Dickson reminds us that the Eastern Church (everything East of Greece) celebrates Christmas on 6th January, not 25th December.

[1] John Dickson, 12. First Noel, Undeceptions Podcast.

 

Are the Gospels Trumpian – Getting Some Details Right, But the Story All Wrong?

At Christmas time, the Christian churches return to the gospel accounts of Christ’s birth and re-read the events as they are described. In a recent conversation between Peter J Williams and sceptical theologian Bart Ehrman, there was an exchange of views about the reliability of these Gospel accounts. This was a discussion around the question, “How reasonable is it to accept the Gospels as history?” [1]

It’s important to recognise that the Gospels present themselves as historical accounts. Many scholars think they present as a first century literature form of biography, which was sometimes written in a particular form about important public figures. Jesus certainly qualifies as one of those.

It’s also important to realise that I am talking about using reason as we examine the Gospels, not some form of blind acceptance. There are good reasons to believe that, even though the Gospel writers sometimes give a different perspective on some events, that they were qualified to record these historical events.

First, they wrote them very quickly after the events occurred. The average person on the street might assume they were written hundreds of years after the fact … like legends. Yet the evidence points to a few decades after the fact. In historical terms, writing an account a few decades later is incredibly early, and few historical events we assume to be reliable have such excellent documentary support.

An important line of evidence towards the accuracy of the Gospels that Peter J Williams presented is the consistent correctness of the minor details. For example, geographic details about first century Palestine, names of people and places and the distances between these locations. So…

  • the writers clearly know the area
  • this suggests they must have been there
  • they get the small details correct in their account

Given these points, why should we believe that the bigger details around Jesus and his life were fabricated?

In response, Ehrman reminded Williams about President Trump’s inauguration ceremony in Washington DC. If you remember, there was some controversy surrounding Trump’s claims on the number of attendees at this ceremony. He claimed a high number of people attended, while photographic evidence at the time points to a much much smaller representation. So what? Well, Ehrman says that Trump got the details right. There was a ceremony, and people attended and he was there. But just because these things are true does not automatically result in accurate reporting. Not at all. He clearly misrepresented the important issue of how many people attended! He is not a reliable witness.

You could apply this argument to the Gospels. Just because they got the small details right doesn’t mean they are reliable witnesses. Or can you? The reason people were sceptical of President Trump is that he is prone to exaggerate when he talks. Documented evidence of his exaggerations is easily available to us. So, this put his claims around his inauguration under sceptical scrutiny.

Yet no such precedent exists for the New Testament Gospels. K. Albert Little points out that there are no first century accounts that contradict the Gospel narratives. If they were manufactured, it would not have been difficult for the historians at the time (Josephus, Tacitus, etc) to set the record straight. Wouldn’t we expect to find this contrary evidence if the Gospel accounts were fabricated? Yet no such first century evidence exists. [2]

In the case of President Trump, we have experience of his exaggerations and we have photographic evidence of the event in question and this raises scepticism at President Trumps claims. Yet no such data exists on the Gospels. We cannot reasonably doubt the Gospels in the way we can doubt President Trump.

Albert Little goes further and points out that In 1 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul points to hundreds of people who could verify the stories about Christ’s life, death and resurrection. If you don’t believe me, Paul is saying, speak to them! If Trump had made this claim, he would have been found to be a bad witness. He could not do so. Yet Paul could easily do so because his account was solid and reliable.

Getting the small details right lends credence to the Gospel claims, and given that there are no contemporary voices disagreeing with their claims and no outside sources giving alternative version of events, we have no alternative data to cause us to doubt their claims. Remember that the likes of Josephus and Tacitus were writing towards the back end of the first century and they could have set the record straight if it needed to be done. And the early second century Church Fathers quote the Gospels liberally, showing that they were in heavy circulation well before then. There are good reasons to accept the Gospels as history.

[1] Peter J Williams & Bart Ehrman, The story of Jesus: Are the Gospels historically reliable?, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZuZPPGvF_2I.

[2] K Albert Little, Did the Gospel Writers Get Facts Right But Their Stories Wrong?, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/albertlittle/the-gospels-are-reliable-and-ehrman-is-wrong/

Was the New Testament Canon Assembled Hundreds of Years After Jesus?

Often folks think the New Testament was written and assembled hundreds of years after the fact. I have been responding to the Newsweek article from 2014 that makes this claim, and so rejects the Christian church’s understanding of the Bible. You can find previous posts here and here and also here.

But in this blog, I’m talking specifically about the New Testament canon. Newsweek say that life in the first century Christian church was pretty chaotic. The claim is, there were “no universally accepted manuscripts that set out what it meant to be a Christian, so most sects had their own gospels,”[1] and these sects argued amongst themselves about what was true Christianity.

In fact, Newsweek say, it was not until the fourth century when the sociopathic Roman Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official Roman religion, that Christianity became clear. Writings that met Constantine’s standard were compiled into the New Testament canon and the ones that didn’t meet the standard were destroyed. So – Newsweek say – who knows what Christianity actually was. We will never know, because the only writings we have were chosen hundreds of years after the fact.

Let me respond to their claims by saying the following.

We DO know very clearly what first century Christianity was. First century Christian beliefs are not confused and historically impenetrable at all. And – the New Testament canon was NOT imposed in the fourth century, rather, it emerged in the first century to guide the growing Christian Church. How do I support these claims?[2]

Evidence from the First Century

1 – The early Church were Jews, and so their beliefs were rooted in the original Hebrew scriptures (our Old Testament) which meant their belief system was not open to anything at all. Rather – they were Jewish monotheists, so this cuts out the majority of supposed uncertainty in belief right there.

2 – The first Christians believed Jesus fulfilled the promises of the Hebrew scriptures. The Israelite nation worked in the contest of Ancient Near Eastern covenant, a written agreement between parties. The Hebrew scriptures were the written treaty between God and Israel. The Jewish Christian people were therefore waiting for an additional written document to explain the terms of this New Covenant. So – they were already thinking in terms of Canon in the first century.

3 – There is evidence from 2 Peter 3:16 (dated to first century) that the Apostle Paul’s letters were already being gathered up and treated by the church as scripture, the terms of this New Covenant.

4 – In 1 Timothy 5:18 (dated to first century), Paul refers to both Deuteronomy (a book from the original Hebrew scriptures) and also appears to quote Luke’s gospel. This suggests Luke’s gospel already existed in the first century and was held in high esteem, just as the Hebrew scriptures were.

5 – In 2 Peter 3:2, Peter holds up the first century apostles to be just as authoritative as the prophets from the Hebrew scriptures. This supports the notion that apostolic writing was forming the terms of the written New Covenant documentation in the first century. Can was already forming.

6 – Paul insisted his letters were read in public in 1 Timothy 4:13, just like the Hebrew scriptures were. This practice is further evidenced by Justin Martyr in the second century.

7 – The first Christians were Jews and that made them highly literate, bookish people.

 

So – in the first century alone, there is substantial evidence for an emerging New Testament canon composed of apostolic documents that were held by the churches to be as authoritative as the Old Testament Hebrew scriptures.

 

What about After the First Century?

When we widen the time period to include the second century, even more evidence of an early New Testament canon emerges in the writings of the Church Fathers such as Polycarp, Ignatius, Clement of Rome, the Didache, etc. They all appeal to and quote a canonical body of text that we recognise as the New Testament even today.

Also after the first century, we see evidence of early book publishing technology, the codex. Codex may actually have been a Christian invention for holding the New Testament writings together – much more portable than scrolls. And in these early writings, we find sophisticated scribal techniques. Nomina sacra involves scribal abbreviation of the sacred words Jesus, Christ, Lord and God.

Further, the Muratorian Fragment[3] is (so far) the oldest surviving document that defines the contents of the New Testament canon. This shows that, by AD 180, the church had received and had already been using the following books for decades of time:

  • all four Gospels
  • all thirteen epistles of Paul
  • Acts
  • Jude
  • at least two Johannine epistles
  • Revelation

“The Muratorian Fragment does not appear to be establishing or ‘creating’ a canon, but is expressly affirming what has already been the case within the early church.”[4]

 

Summary Response to the Newsweek article

Did the early Christian church lack documents that documented what Christianity was? No they didn’t.

Did many sects exist with their own gospels? No. Although isolated cases of heretical teaching is challenged in the New Testament, the major challenges to the church (like Marcion) did not emerge until the second century and beyond, well after the core canonical books were established.

Did Constantine define the Christian canon? No he didn’t. This is just false. While later ecclesiastical authorities recognised the New Testament canon officially, and decided upon fringe books that were not part of the core, the core of the canon had emerged in the first century and was already being used as the terms of God’s new covenant.

[1] Kurt Eichenwald, The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin, Newsweek, published 23rd December, 2014, accessed 10th October, 2019, https://www.newsweek.com/2015/01/02/thats-not-what-bible-says-294018.html.

[2] These points summarised from Andreas J. Kostenberger and Michael J Kruger, The Heresy of Orthodoxy, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010),

[3] The Muratorian Fragment, Wikipedia, accessed 23rd October, 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muratorian_fragment.

[4] Andreas J. Kostenberger and Michael J Kruger, The Heresy of Orthodoxy, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 150.