Sunday, June 14, 2020

Historical Context of Christianity

Many assert the Christian's belief is based on "blind faith" in what the bible says. Christianity has been sensationalized to the point that it's become merely an option to pick off the religious shelf at a store, obscuring the plethora of history and evidence that Christianity is based on. However, Jesus Himself emphasized both evidence and eyewitness testimony. In Luke 24:48, after rising from the dead, speaking with the disciples, Jesus tells the disciples they are "witnesses" of the things that took place while He carried out His ministry — and Jesus' fulfilling of old testament prophecy. The disciples then carried the evidence-based gospel of Jesus Christ to their student contemporaries and the world. However, the bible is not the only source of evidence of Jesus' ministry, death, and resurrection.

Looking at a slightly broader context of the origins of Christianity will reveal that the new testament of the bible is not required in order for Christianity to be true. The only thing that needs to be true is Jesus' resurrection from the dead. The new testament of the bible was written over a period of roughly 60 years, recording first-hand witnesses' biographies of Jesus, the beginning of Christianity, instructions to Christians, and prophecy. The early Christians did not have what we call a "new testament." They had the old testament which is still relevant today, creeds, and eventually, copies of manuscripts written by eyewitnesses of Jesus or someone who knew an eyewitness; centuries later consolidated into a book we now call the "new testament." The historical context of Christianity begins with Israel's history and the Jewish people, who have a profound historical and archaeological profile in world history. The Jews were a race of people set aside by God to represent Him while waiting for the promised Messiah, Jesus Christ, who would once and for all come and die for the sins of mankind, reconciling us to God.

The ancient Jews centered their belief around God (one God who created the universe including all life) and the sacrificial system used to foreshadow the coming of Jesus Christ. The key to highlighting this contextual point is the specific place where Jews carried out their recognition that the Messiah was coming. The slaughtering of lambs was done, foreshadowing the coming of Jesus (one of the reasons Jesus was called the Lamb of God), and it was done originally in a uniquely constructed tent, and later an elaborate temple. The first temple was constructed by King David's son, Solomon. After it was destroyed, a second temple was constructed that lasted until 70 AD, when Rome destroyed it. There are remnants of the second temple in Israel in which the destruction thereof was written extensively about by Josephus, a 1st-century Jewish historian. In order for prophecy, written by the prophet Daniel and John (Revelation) to come true, the temple must be rebuilt. At this time, a sect in Israel is working to do just that. Since the 1980s, they have built all the items necessary to perform the ancient temple sacrifices — at this point, the only thing they need is the cooperation of the Islamic people whose Dome of the Rock temple sits in the general area where the Jews' temple must be built — the site believed by the Jews to be the site of the previous temples. The fact that this is taking place should invoke awe. To help make the existence of this temple more realistic, read this cut-out from the writings of the historian Josephus wherein he describes the destruction of the Jewish temple in 70 AD:

"So Titus retired into the tower of Antonia, and resolved to storm the Temple the next day, early in the morning, with his whole army, and to encamp round about the Holy House; but, as for that House, God had for certain long ago doomed it to the fire; and now that fatal day was come, according to the revolution of the ages: it was the tenth day of the month Lous, [Av,] upon which it was formerly burnt by the king of Babylon; although these flames took their rise from the Jews themselves, and were occasioned by them; for upon Titus's retiring, the seditious lay still for a little while, and then attacked the Romans again, when those that guarded the Holy House fought with those that quenched the fire that was burning in the inner court of the Temple; but these Romans put the Jews to flight, and proceeded as far as the Holy House itself.  At which time one of the soldiers, without staying for any orders, and without any concern or dread upon him at so great an undertaking, and being hurried on by a certain divine fury, snatched somewhat out of the materials that were on fire, and being lifted up by another soldier, he set fire to a golden window, through which there was a passage to the rooms that were round about the Holy House, on the north side of it. As the flames went upward the Jews made a great clamour, such as so mighty an affliction required, and ran together to prevent it; and now they spared not their lives any longer, nor suffered anything to restrain their force, since that Holy House was perishing, for whose sake it was that they kept such a guard upon it."

The instructions God gave to the Jews on how to use the temple is recorded in the Old Testament of the bible in which the contents thereof have preserved for over 2000 years, since before the coming of Jesus Christ. Manuscripts of the old testament were found preserved in clay jars in the 1950s — dated to before Christ's time — later the manuscripts were called the Dead Sea Scrolls. They exhibit the exact old testament writings included in bibles that we can buy in stores today. Why are the old testament and the preservation thereof important? The answer is because therein lies the foundation for Christianity — the use of the temple and sacrificial system to foreshadow the coming of Jesus (Granted the old testament is important for a variety of other reasons but they are outside the scope of this blog). If you've ever wondered if the bible has been accurately copied over the centuries, the Dead Sea Scrolls put an end to that question, at least with respect to the old testament — although it's accepted by both liberal and conservative scholars that the original new testament writings can be reconstructed using ancient manuscripts found in various countries. When Jesus came and carried out His ministry, died on the cross, and rose from the dead, the temple sacrifices were no longer required by God — Jesus was the final sacrifice that the old testament temple animal sacrifices foreshadowed.

Without even looking at the new testament of the bible which I happen to believe to be true, we can deduce from a number of facts that Christianity is true — that Jesus rose from the dead. After all, the resurrection of Jesus is the foundation for Christianity, which did away with the old testament laws of worship under the stewardship of the Jews, bringing both Jews and gentiles (non-Jews) together under one body which the Apostle Paul calls the body of Christ. It's critical to understand how strict the Mosaic law was and how ancient Jews were required to follow it. A reading of Exodus through Numbers would help one understand this, but in general, it would take something extremely miraculous to get Jews to forsake the strict covenant they had with God, to follow a different way. If Jesus was crucified, buried, and left to rot away in a tomb, the Jews would have no reason whatsoever to deviate from their covenant with God and accept Jesus as the Messiah prophesied to come in the old testament. In the first century, something miraculous did happen. The Jews and Gentiles united together in one body for one purpose. This is discussed in the book of Acts in the New Testament of the bible — the biblical account of the beginning of the church. But the 1st-century historian Josephus also describes this advent. “At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. And his conduct was good, and [he] was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive. Accordingly, he was perhaps the Messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.

There is a lot that one can take away from this passage, but I want to point out is the bold text where he mentions both Jews and others becoming disciples of Jesus. Again, this is written by a historian of the first century who was alive when the Jewish temple was destroyed in 70 AD. What happened in the first century that compelled Jews to deviate from their covenant with God and unite with non-Jews under one body? Let's recount some facts. The Dead Sea Scrolls prove the old testament was perfectly preserved. The old testament tells of the stone temple used by Jews while waiting for the Messiah, Jesus. 1st century Jews deviate from their covenant with God (the Mosaic law and temple usage) to follow a man named Jesus. Josephus records the destruction of the temple in 70 AD which proves the temple did indeed exist, proving the old testament to be true. Jesus MUST have risen from the dead. There's no other explanation for thousands of Jews deviating from that strict old covenant law, accepting Jesus as the fulfillment of the old testament law and prophecies, beginning a new covenant. To their downfall, Israel as a nation did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah even though thousands of individual Jews did. For this, God allowed Israel to be dispersed throughout the nations, with their temple destroyed in 70 AD. In 1948, just as prophecy has said (look up the dry bones of Ezekiel), Israel became a nation again and God has been bringing the Jews back to their homeland, Israel. In the first century, the Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 15 "Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written..." This "partial hardening" of Israel refers to the fact that thousands of Jews accepted Jesus Christ as Messiah, while the nation as a whole rejected him. For the time being, both Jews (the ones who accept Christ) and Gentiles (non-Jews) work together under one body to bring the gospel of Jesus to the world — that He is the final sacrifice for sins prophesied in the old testament, and that we can trust Him as our savior as the way to Heaven. Eventually, the nation of Israel will recognize Jesus as Messiah, hence "until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in."

The fact that thousands of Jews converted from their old covenant with God is strong evidence that Jesus rose from the dead. A Jew would not have forsaken the covenant with God to follow a man who claimed to be God (Jesus) and was crucified, buried in a tomb, and never seen again. Furthermore, there are other extra-biblical facts and historical documents that corroborate what is written in the new testament of the bible.

If Josephus' statement above is recounted, one can see that he mentions Pilate as the one who authorized the crucifixion of Jesus, just as is written in the new testament account of what happened. “At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. And his conduct was good, and [he] was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive. Accordingly, he was perhaps the Messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.” Also corroborated here are the new testament accounts that Jesus' disciples reported (and believed) seeing Him alive.

Here is another extra-biblical account corroborating the new testament, written by the Roman historian Tacitus, regarding a fire set in Rome blamed on the 1st century Christians: "Nero fastened the guilt ... 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 ... Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome...." Here, the one who authorized Jesus' crucifixion, Pilate, is again corroborated. The fact that Christians got their name from "Christus" (Christ), is corroborated. The resurrection of Christ, furthermore, seems to be corroborated as well, alluded to as "a most mischievous superstition" — the resurrection of Jesus was rejected (by some people) just as much back then as it is today.

Pliny, who wrote to Emporer Trajen around 112 AD, asked about how to handle Christians of the time. At one point in his letter, he writes: "They were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of food – but food of an ordinary and innocent kind." This somewhat resembles the creeds I mentioned earlier before there was a new testament compiled and sold where anybody could purchase one, although many local assemblies likely had copies of the original manuscripts written by Jesus' original disciples.

I've found bethinking an outstanding source for bible research that yields more extra-biblical corroboration than what I listed in this blog. If Jesus has not risen from the dead, then there is a tremendous DARK MYSTERIOUS HOLE in history given the circumstances — that is, the Jews converting from their ancient covenant with God to accept Jesus as the Messiah promised in old testament scripture, Jews disregarding the law to not mingle with gentiles, the mass Christian martyrdom that took place, and many other recorded first-century events.