Bible History, Church History, and Ancient Times

January 3, 2018

Although reading about the history of the Bible and Biblical figures is certainly not helping my anxiety about questions about my faith……it is nevertheless fascinating. It’s also really important not to hide from the truth. Zealot, The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan, is an absolute must-read for believers and non-believers alike. I could not put it down. 

The book is written in lay-language, so it’s not overly “text-booky.” That said, it is well-researched, well-thought, and powerfully argued. Although I was raised in a strictly Evangelical Christian Church, I was never taught the history Jesus, or the history of the Bible, nor about the contradictions and inaccuracies contained within it. Some of this isn’t new to me any more (see my previous post about Bart Ehrman’s book about the New Testament which shook me to my core.) However, I can’t believe all that I learned in this book. Just a few tidbits: 

  • The birth narratives: The stories in the Bible about the Virgin Birth, location in Bethlehem, etc. were never intended to be historically accurate (nor are they.) The gospel writers added these stories in to their writings to solve “problems” that early believers believed existed, namely that “prophecies” contained in the Torah indicated that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. This was clearly a problem, because everyone referred to Jesus as “Jesus of Nazareth” so he was clearly not born in Bethlehem. So they “created” these stories to solve these (and other) problems. Whether or not you believe them is simply a matter of faith. 
  • Pontius Pilate: His depiction in the Bible is most certainly at-odds with his historical self. He was notoriously cruel, violent, and downright murderous. Depicting him as conflicted over the death of Jesus is not historically plausible. Apparently, he sent droves of Jews to be crucified and otherwise tortured all the time – Jesus would have simply been another Jew accused of sedition, and thus sent to his death. He wouldn’t and didn’t have any moral qualms about it. 
  • “Messiahs” were a constant in Ancient times. There are historical documents about a number of people claiming to be Messiahs in this timeframe, as well as those claiming to see an upcoming apocalypse and so forth. Also, the phrase “son of God” was used often in Ancient times – in the Torah and in society oftentimes to describe Emperors and Pharoahs. (Jesus referred to himself as “Son of Man.”)
  • The Apostles after the death of Jesus were completely at odds with Paul. As a matter of fact, they were completely distraught that he referred to himself as an Apostle at all, because he did not know Jesus during his lifetime, as they all did. James, the brother of Jesus, oftentimes called “James the Just,” was particularly vexed by Paul’s influence over new “Christian” communities. At one point in their history, the original Apostles who were still living at the time forced Paul to come to the Temple to renounce his teachings and perform a ritual bath – which he did. Other documents outside the Bible depict this interaction as an actual physical altercation – they basically came to blows over their differences. The original Apostles really felt that you needed to be Jewish and follow the Jewish laws, as Jesus said over and over again during his lifetime.
  • Paul’s influence over modern Christianity cannot be ignored. After Nero came through Jerusalem and basically slaughtered every living thing, Paul was able to exert a lot greater influence on the burgeoning Christian community outside Jerusalem because all the great influential Jewish leaders (and most of the community) was dead. 
  • Marytrs: This was one area that gave me a glimmer of hope that the resurrection actually occurred. After the events depicted in the Bible occurred (crucifixion of Jesus and a resurrection 3 days later) the Apostles legitimately preached what they saw and were willing to die for it. It’s compelling to think about someone being so convinced of what they actually saw that they are willing to die for it. That is different than being willing to die for something you were only taught happened. 

My favorite thing about this book is the history. Dr. Aslan goes into great detail about the Roman empire, cultural norms at the time, and the early Church. Paul’s letters were written before any of the Gospels and the Gospels were based on oral tradition. The first written record of someone named Jesus who people said was the Messiah was almost 100 years after his crucifixion.  

The book is incredibly compelling and thought-provoking. The history is amazing.  

In the end, whether or not you choose to believe in the Resurrection, or Paul’s conversion experience, or Peter’s visions is completely and utterly a matter of faith. That said, this book is well worth your time.

Joshua 1:9 (NRSV): I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.

Serve all with love.

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