Was Eusebius a Liar?

Did the father of church history lie? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

“Bishop Eusebius, a close ally of the emperor, was instrumental in crystalizing and defining the version of Christianity that was to become orthodox, and he is the first person known to have quoted this paragraph of Josephus. Eusebius once wrote that it was a permissible “medicine” for historians to create fictions–prompting historian Jacob Burckhardt to call Eusebius “the first thoroughly dishonest historian of antiquity.” (P. 255 of Godless by Dan Barker.)

So says Dan Barker about Eusebius. Now this is naturally a serious charge if it is true, but is it in fact true? Well, not really. For one thing, the description comes from a chapter heading. The heading could have come from Eusebius, but not necessarily. It could have been a summation by a medieval copyist of what Eusebius wrote. Still, even if we grant it, do we have a dangerous case? Well no. In fact, if you just spend a few minutes looking up quotes, you can see what’s going on.

Let’s go and see what Eusebius said in the chapter in entirety.

CHAPTER XXXI

[PLATO] ‘But even if the case were not such as our argument has now proved it to be, if a lawgiver, who is to be of ever so little use, could have ventured to tell any falsehood at all to the young for their good, is there any falsehood that he could have told more beneficial than this, and better able to make them all do everything that is just, not by compulsion but willingly?

‘Truth, O Stranger, is a noble and an enduring thing; it seems, however, not easy to persuade men of it.’

Now you may find in the Hebrew Scriptures also thousands of such passages concerning God as though He were jealous, or sleeping, or angry, or subject to any other human passions, which passages are adopted for the benefit of those who need this mode of instruction.

Yes. That’s the entire chapter. Note that this is not at all about creating history. Eusebius writes about the Old Testament and I don’t know any skeptic who thinks Eusebius created that. (But hey, give it time and I’m sure someday some crazy skeptic will say that.) So what is going on?

Eusebius is writing about the use of anthropomorphisms in the Old Testament and saying that although these descriptions of God aren’t literally true, they can be helpful for those who need to be instructed in this way. Note that this does not mean it is a lie. It means it’s being explained in terms that can be understood. We should not expect the Old Testament to be the Summa Theologica for instance.

In fact, we have a parallel to this saying. That shows up in the Contra Celsum of Origen.

Others, then, may concede to Celsus that God does not undergo a change, but leads the spectators to imagine that He does; whereas we who are persuaded that the advent of Jesus among men was no mere appearance, but a real manifestation, are not affected by this charge of Celsus. We nevertheless will attempt a reply, because you assert, Celsus, do you not, that it is sometimes allowable to employ deceit and falsehood by way, as it were, of medicine?

Could this then be a sort of saying at the time? It’s possible. We don’t have enough evidence. Note in all of this, we’re not likely talking about lies, but talking about fictions. That is, it is beneficial to tell things that might not be true but serve for edification. Think of the parables of Jesus that don’t necessarily tell of true events, but are edifying, or of Aesop’s fables.

So again, we have an example of how modern day atheists too often do not check the original sources. Instead, most of them get in second hand from people who probably never checked either. (Jacob Burckhardt lived in the 19th century for instance.) The church fathers weren’t infallible and they needed a savior like we do, but always ask the person who gives a quote where it comes from and find it in its original context.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

 

Apostles’ Creed: Conclusion

What have we learned looking at the Apostles’ Creed? Let’s dive into the Deeper Waters and find out.

As Christians, we’re people of Scripture, but it’s not as if the canon was closed and then lo and behold, everything just popped into place here centuries later. We have a rich tradition that we came from and we need to look at that tradition. Too many Christians really have no knowledge whatsoever of church history. They do not know who great thinkers were, what great problems the church faced, great events that shaped the church, and how their own Bibles came down to them.

How can it really hurt your Christianity, if it is true, to know its history?

The look at the Apostles’ Creed has been a start for that. I specifically chose this creed due to it being shared in my own church on a regular basis, which is one of the reasons I think my church is so wonderful. I listened to it regularly and repeated it regularly and started wondering how many of us have really thought about the creed.

As we’ve gone through it, I hope I’ve impressed on you a deeper meaning of what has been said. Naturally, I’m not claiming a perfect interpretation, but I’m hoping that I have given you a thought-provoking interpretation. Even more than that, I hope that I have ended up giving you a life-changing look at the creed and furthermore, I hope I have given myself one.

We Christians are actually people of creeds. Much of our Christian lifestyle focuses on right living, and indeed it should! We should be living a certain way if we are said to be Christians, but much of that should be based on right doctrine. What you live should be a direct outworking of what it is that you really believe.

Consider if you are your average middle-class person living today and lo and behold, you receive undeniable proof from your bank that a rich relative passed away and left you millions in your bank account. Is your lifestyle going to change somehow? You bet it will! Even if you say “I don’t really care for buying a lot of fancy things”, you will probably at least care for getting your children through college and if you don’t have those, you will hopefully care for giving away money you don’t really need to charities that you think deserve that money.

If you go to see your doctor and he tells you you have a disease and it will be terminal unless you do X, Y, and Z, then chances are you will end up doing X, Y, and Z. That is, you will do them if you want to live. In both of these cases, it is your knowledge that is affecting how you live and in the case of Christianity, it is the claim to have the knowledge of the revelation of God. That should change everything.

Pay attention to the creed and pay attention to what it is you believe and especially let the creed drive you back into the Scriptures, the ultimate authority we have for what we believe today. From there, spend some time studying what has happened in the life of the church and how it is that you got that Bible that you value so greatly.

The creed is a statement that connects you with those Christians from the past, Christians that lived in a world where their lives were on the line regularly and being a Christian carried a serious cost. They often also did not have the luxury of the fine resources for study you and I have. We have centuries of Christian though, a gold mine of knowledge, that we can draw from. What a waste on our part if we do not learn from it and benefit from it.

I encourage you to do be benefiting from it. This is your heritage. Some of you might enjoy going to a web site like ancestry.com and learning about your family history. How much more should you be interested in learning about the history of your spiritual family?

Let that journey begin today.

In Christ,

Nick Peters

Book Plunge: Why Church History Matters

What do I think of Robert Rea’s book? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

Let’s be blunt. For many of us, history isn’t always the most exciting topic, which is quite really a shame since it impacts our lives so much. If we’re Christians, we love the Bible and we think it’s important to know what happened in it, but aside from perhaps something like the Reformation, many of us don’t know what happened in church history. Go to your average church and ask the people who know their Bibles well to name a single early church father. Most likely, you’ll get blank stares and some might say “Martin Luther? John Calvin? John Wesley?”

It’s a shame that those of us who have such a great love of Scripture so often do not bother to understand how our own history that went before us turned out. We act as if Jesus came and then perhaps something like the Reformation happened and lo and behold, we are here now and now we must live our lives.

Part of this is the individualism in our culture that places each of us in our own little vacuum of existence where what went before us doesn’t matter and what’s happening outside of us doesn’t really matter. It is our personal universe that is of the supreme importance. What difference can the Donatist controversy make? How can I be repeating the errors of the Gnostics today, whoever they were? Why should I care about those old arguments Thomas Aquinas put forward for God? Do I really need to care about how John Chrysostom interpreted Scripture?

Rea tells us that in fact church history does matter and if we are students of Scripture, we should be students of that history. We should be learning about the great men and women who came before us and realize that the lessons we learn from them in the past can be highly influential in our day and age and keep us from repeating their errors and help us to repeat their successes.

C.S. Lewis years ago gave the advice to read old books because when you do, you read another time and place that critiques yours and can see blind spots in your position that you do not see because of the unspoken assumptions you accept in your culture. Meanwhile, you too can see blind spots in the work that you are reading that they would miss for the same reasons.

In fact, the author suggests we read outside of the circle of our own faith tradition, our own time, our own location, and our own culture. In doing so, we will interact with areas we would never have considered before. If we are wrong, we can correct our view. If we are right, we are still the better for getting to see why others think differently.

The first part of the book is about tradition. How is it understood? The reality is Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox (By orthodox, unless stated other wise, I mean branches of the church such as Eastern Orthodox) all place some value on tradition. Some place it on the same level as Scripture. Some don’t, but they see it as important to consider and insofar as it agrees with the Scripture, should be accepted. Bible-Focused Christians, as Rea prefers to call them regardless of where they land on the church spectrum, would all tend to accept statements like the Nicene Creed for instance.

Regardless of your position, tradition should not be ignored. Even if you think it is wrong in a certain place, it is helpful to learn how it is that that tradition came about, why it was held to in its day, and what the reasons were for believing in it. It would not be as if people just woke up one day and said “Hey! Let’s believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary!” There would be reasons for holding to it, rightly or wrongly, and a context that it was discussed in.

This part also includes a little bit about church history and how we got to where we are. As stated earlier, too many of us really have no idea even though we claim to be Bible-focused. This is interesting in an age where many of us like sites like ancestry.com where we want to see where our families came from, and there is no wrong in doing so of course, but our very Christian faith does not get the same treatment.

The second part is about the way we interact with the past. Can you form friendships as it were with those who went before. I am thinking of a debate I had with an atheist not too long ago where I stated that we do have the works that we can read by the past and we should critique them today and learn from them today. We can interact with the philosophers and others who went before us rather than leave reality up to only people today who happen to get a voice just because they’re conveniently alive at the time. There is a well of wisdom before us and we need to drink from it.

This includes finding mentors and accountability partners. No. You can’t communicate with them the same way you would with a friend, but you can still learn from them and let their lives be a blessing to you. I think of Aquinas for instance whose arguments I use today. When properly understood, they are incredibly powerful in our day and age. Too often, we have dismissed ideas just because they are old. Some ideas will stand the test of time and we will find we have just reinvented the wheel when we are done if we ignore them.

Finally, we have a section on how this affects us today. Can we bring the past into the present? What this deals with is how to interpret Scripture, such as by learning from the methodologies used in the past to interpret Scripture, and also how learning history affects our practices of worship and compassion and missionary service.

I will say I was a bit disappointed that despite being academic, when it came to this last section, nothing was really said about apologetic approaches. It would have been good to see how those of us who are in the apologetics ministry could look to the past for valuable mentors and friends in the field. Other important areas were mentioned, but this one was left out. I hope a future edition will include that as well as we can learn from great defenders of the faith in the past such as Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas.

Still, this is a recommended read and got me thinking about the importance more of learning from the past and learning how to interpret Scripture as they did. You won’t find out much about church history per se, but you will find out much about why you should find out about it.

In Christ,

Nick Peters

Book Plunge: The Myth of Persecution

What do I think of Candida Moss’s book? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

A friend took a photo of this book in a bookstore and sent it to me asking if I’d review it. Naturally, I said I’d see if I could find it and fortunately, I found it at the local library and ordered it eager to find out just how exactly Candida Moss had found out something that no other historian had found out in all these years. What I found out rather was that like many other revisionists, Moss sees all the evidence in favor of her position as ironclad and everything contrary to it as reason to be skeptical.

Moss actually plays her hand throughout the book saying how she wants there to be more constructive dialogue and that can’t be had as long as one side is saying that they are persecuted. Now if all Moss had said had been that the persecution card is played way too easily by both sides, there would have been no complaint. Indeed, Christians have too often played the persecution card. If you’re told to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” when you work at a department store, that could be silly and irrational and anything else, but it is hardly worth calling persecution when other Christians are losing their lives elsewhere.

But if Christians can play the card too lightly, Moss’s problem is she only plays it in one situation. If people are being killed, then that’s persecution, but if the government is not actively killing Christians, then she says persecution wasn’t going on. Much of the persecution going on would have been social  It could occur in being ostracized from society, being treated as shameful and deviant, loss of property, not being given basic rights in society, etc. This would have resulted in killing in severe cases.

Now Moss to an extent does recognize that there was a reason the Roman Empire did not like Christians, but she doesn’t really paint the full picture of it. Religion and politics would have been inseparable in the days of the Roman Empire and to go against the religious cult of the day, which would not include Jesus, would mean going against the political system. In short, being a Christian would be seen as being a rebel against the Roman Empire, especially if what you were saying was that your god, Jesus, was King.

Moss also at times in the book says statements that she does not back with sources. For instance, on page 16, she says “Scholars of early Christianity agree that there is very little evidence for the persecution of Christians.”

Perhaps they do. What would have been helpful is to see this claim which could in fact be a central point to her book be backed by naming some of these scholars. The reader who is wanting to know who these scholars are however will be disappointed. Moss doesn’t list them. The unaware reader will be caught off guard by such a statement. The aware one wants to see a statement backed with evidence.

Moss also tries to show a history of martyrdom, yet quite interestingly, sometimes the facts don’t really go that way, but she’s willing to show martyrdom anyway! For instance, consider Daniel and his three young friends. Do they count as Christian martyrs? Moss tries to show that they would have fit into a culture of martyrdom yet on page 48 says

Apart from the fact that Daniel and the three young men don’t die, these are exactly like Christian martyrdom stories. A pious individual refuses to perform some action because it goes against religious law and is condemned to death. This idea is linked to the expectation that the person will be rewarded for piety and the opponents will be punished. Everything we need for martyrdom we can find in Daniel.

Why yes! We have a perfect story of martyrdom here! You just have to ignore the fact that Daniel and three young men DID NOT DIE. Yes. That’s a minor little detail but aside from them dying for their beliefs, everything else is like they did die for their beliefs.

When she gets around to the claim of Tacitus, she uses many of the kinds of arguments we would expect from Christ-mythers. For instance, she says that it is anachronistic for Tacitus to use the term “Christians” since at the time of the great fire, the followers of Jesus would not be known as Christians. This is something that could be disputed, but let’s accept that it’s true purely for the sake of argument.

At the time Tacitus is writing this, the people who would read his book would know exactly who he was talking about. What would be problematic about him using a name like Christian to refer to a group that was the same in the content of their beliefs in the past? Is there a problem with using a term that would be a modern understanding of a group if it in fact identifies that group?

Also, she says that the writing takes place fifty years after the events. To this, the reply is “And?” Most of the writings of Plutarch take place that much later. Much of the other events described in Tacitus’s writings also occurred 50+ years later. Does Moss want to equally extend doubt to other writings of ancient history because of a time gap that is really small by the standard of ancient history?

Moss also tells of how Polycarp was made to be like Jesus. In a sense, this is true. Polycarp would want to act like Jesus in how He died. This is common. Yet when she does this, she twists the story. On page 63, she says Polycarp is betrayed by someone close to him. Indeed, he was. We could think that this would fit in perfectly with the Judas image, but let’s look at what the account actually says:

CHAPTER 6

6:1 And when those who sought him continued in the pursuit, he departed unto another villa, and straightway they who sought him came up. And when they found him not, they apprehended two lads, of whom the one, when put to the torture, confessed.

6:2 For it was impossible for him to escape their notice, since they who betrayed him were of his own household. For the Eirenarchus, which is the same office as Cleronomus, Herodes by name, hasted to bring him into the arena, that he indeed might fulfil his proper lot, by becoming a partaker of Christ, and that they who betrayed him might undergo the same punishment as Judas.

Yes. The similarities are right there. We all remember in the Gospel accounts how Judas was captured by the Sanhedrin and then tortured until he fessed up to Jesus’s whereabouts and….wait. What’s that? Judas wasn’t tortured but gave the information on his own so that Jesus could be arrested? Hmmm. That does change things a little doesn’t it?

Like I said earlier, Moss too often accepts evidence easily that agrees with her and disregards that which doesn’t. If a text could have any editing or theological addition in it or anything that Moss just doesn’t understand, then we should consider it absolutely worthless as a historical account. If instead there is something that goes with her theory, we should accept it wholeheartedly without much in-depth looking.

For instance, Moss on page 144 writes about how the Christians presented themselves to C. Arrius Antoninus and desired to be executed in 185 A.D. This governor told them all to just go home. Moss sees this as Christians seeking martyrdom. Could it not just as well be a response to martyrdom going on and the Christians saying “Hey. If you want to deal with us, come here and get us!” It could be they would also be aware how problematic it would appear to the populace for the governor to go after a group of people like that. Consider it a challenge.

Moss also writes about a Christian monk named Shenoute in the fifth century who reportedly said “There is no crime for those who have Christ” in order to explain the destruction of a pagan temple. Did he says this? It would be nice to know, but in the endnote, all Moss has is a reference to an author who used that as the title of his book. It would have been better to have had a source of the original quotation itself. Perhaps Gaddis, who shes get it from, did get it from an original source. Should I not have that cited instead? What if I want to see the quote in its original context?

Now Moss is certainly right that too many people do look at treatment they consider persecution and say “I must be doing something right!” This is not the case. Biblically, if you are living a godly life in Christ Jesus, you expect to be persecuted, but because you are persecuted, it does not mean that you are doing something right.

The best way I can think of to conclude this is with the work of Dr. Michael Bird.

I’ve taught Christians from persecuted churches in Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sudan, China, and Egypt. Persecution is no myth. These Christians, average men and women like you and I, have either seen or experienced some of the most unspeakable and inhumane evils one could mention. There is no myth here, only a cold and brutal evil that is faced by innocents.

Moss is obviously a religious academic superstar in the making. She did a great job on the Bill O’Reilly show giving his “Republican Jesus” a good going over. The Yanks will love her pommy accent. However, I can’t help but think that a few weeks visiting churches in Juba, Karachi, Alexandria, or Lebanon might give her some life experience to better inform her own career for a life in academics and the media. It’s one thing to write about the myth of persecution from the safety of a professorial chair with minions chanting for more tweets to bash the religious right; but it might be a harder myth to perpetuate after listening to a mother in Juba telling you what a Muslim mob did to her eighteen month year old son.

Yes. It would be interesting to see if Moss and her fans would be willing to go to these countries and see this going on and write the same thing. (Keep in mind as I write this that ISIS is the major threat right now and I know of no place where a site like “Voice of the Martyrs” was interacted with in the book) For now, I must conclude that Moss has shown instead that if you ignore everything opposed to you and emphasize everything that works in your favor, it’s easy to make a historical case. The problem with it is just that it won’t be true.

In Christ,

Nick Peters

Book Plunge: The Myth of Christian Beginnings

What do I think of Robert Wilken’s book? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

Recently someone suggested on Facebook a book called “The Christians as the Romans Saw Them.” Naturally, seeing a book mentioned like that, I went straight to the library web site. I also saw listed “The Myth of Christian Beginnings” which seemed like a curious title so I went and ordered that as well.

This is an odd book in how it reads. One gets catapulted early on into the 4th century to read about the history that Eusebius wrote. This was the first official history of the church and Wilken says that it is in fact not a history at all. It is because Wilken says Eusebius treats all dissent from the traditional path as heresy and therefore, there is not any real opposition the way we’d think. There is not progress so much as just a straight line as the church remains faithful to the teaching of the apostles.

Wilken says that this has been done throughout church history. When the Reformation started, the Reformers claimed that the Catholic Church had moved away from the traditions and they wanted to remain true to the teaching of the apostles. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church wanted the reformers to show that they had a teaching that was with the apostles. They were insistent that they were holding on to the tradition of the apostles. It was the Reformers who were the innovators.

As I’ve said often, in the ancient world, novelty was viewed with suspicion. In fact, in many ways, it still is. Novelty in technology can be seen as a good thing, but when it comes to that which is traditional, we can often just as much view it with suspicion. This is especially so in the church. How often do we hear “We’ve always done it that way!”?

When N.T. Wright started his teaching on justification, someone I knew sent me a video of Al Mohler speaking on the topic with some other leaders. One of them gave a line that has always stuck with me where he said “N.T. Wright may think that he’s found something new in the Scriptures, but he’s going against the tradition!”

For those of us who are Protestants, isn’t that what the Reformation was about? Wasn’t it saying we were holding on to traditions that didn’t come from the apostles?

The downside with Wilken’s book is that it doesn’t really argue the case the way that I’d think. It more just asserts with just-so stories. To be fair, this was written in 1971 so there has been more research done since then, such as early Christian creeds being shown more often. Wilken instead gives a kind of just-so story about two people going separate ways and starting churches and having radically divergent paths of what a Christian should be.

The problem is that these ideas are more just asserted. Evidence is not given. Wilken says that there was no Christian beginning. There was never a pure golden age. Now of course, I don’t think the apostles walked in lock-step on everything, but they were certainly unified on several matters and the oral tradition would have made sure that these teachings were preserved. Now of course, it could be the case that I am mistaken in that, but Wilken does not make the case that I am not or that his view is correct.

Of course, I do think some doctrines have had their understanding focused more over time. I would not say Christ taught the Trinity for instance, but rather left the seeds of the doctrine for us to work out, and we did. That is the role of a disciple after all. The disciple gets the student started on the path of learning and the student is to go and work out the rest of the way how he is to learn.

Still, Wilken’s book does provide a good service. It will get us looking at history and wanting to make sure we are being true to history. While I do think there was an apostolic teaching that was agreed to by all, that too must not be assumed and we must be willing to look at the evidence. Church history really does matter to those of us who are Christians. To know where we are today, we need to know where we came from.

In Christ,
Nick Peters