Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Book Review: Protestants

August 26, 2019

Protestants: The Birth of a Revolution by Steven Ozment

I was loaned this book, and enjoyed it.  It’s popular currently (and perhaps always) to interpret the past in the light of present.  Perhaps it’s impossible to truly do otherwise to at least some extent, since historians are products of their time even when examining a very different time.

In our current Western culture that devalues and is highly skeptical of Christianity (ironic, given how many people claim to be spiritual), historians have taken to reinterpreting the Reformation not so much as a spiritual matter but a political, social, or economic one.  And while all of those certainly have roles to play, Ozment’s main intent is to demonstrate that it really was first and foremost a spiritual revolution.

To do this Ozment draws from primary source documents – woodblock prints that were popular at the time to quickly summarize and drive home key points, as well as excerpts from letters and other materials written by ordinary people rather than the political and religious movers and shakers.

At times the book can bog down in these references, but overall it moves well and is accessible to a broad range of readers and interests,  whether cultural, historical, or theological.  Ozment’s writing style is engaging throughout.

 

 

 

Acts 16:6-10 and Change

July 23, 2019

By all  accounts it was a successful trip so far.  Wonderful reunions with congregations Paul founded on his first mission trip.  Congregations in Derbe.  Lystra.  Iconium.  Psidian Antioch.  How the Holy Spirit was at work!  How much more might be accomplished!  Plans were made to build on these successes by further mission work in the area to the north.  But such plans came to nothing.

What does it mean to be forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia (v.6) ?  Was it clear to Paul and his associates that this was the case?  Did the Holy Spirit reveal the divine will in this matter?  It would seem not.  They attempted to go to Bithynia and were unable to.  Confusion.  Frustration.  They had the will and the ability, why couldn’t they make good on their plans?  Why did they reach nothing but dead ends despite all the good work accomplished thus far?

More time should probably be given to considering verses six and seven, to the simple statements that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus prevented Paul and his companions from sharing the Gospel in certain areas.  What a strange thought to us today, who are so certain that we control evangelism, we make our plans, we execute them!  Confident that the Holy Spirit desires all to hear and be saved, how can we make sense of the possibility that for the purposes of God, and without conflicting with the reality of a good God who desires that all would be saved, God the Holy Spirit might for his unrevealed reasons frustrate the plans of faithful Christians to share the Gospel with certain others?  I’d argue we can’t, and we don’t even try any more.  But that’s a secondary consideration for me right now.

In the midst of confusion and frustration comes a vision.  More than a dream, perhaps.  Something visible, and something with supernatural overtones.  Paul can see this man.  Perhaps he can hear him as well.  He understands him despite an accent perhaps.  He sees the different clothing.  Somehow Paul understands where this man is from, where this man represents.

Morning comes.  Paul reports his experience to his associates.  Silas.  Timothy.  And based on the sudden change of pronouns in v.10, many presume also Luke himself was there, the author  of the book of Acts.

What to make of it.  The message is clear – an appeal for help in Macedonia.  Moving from the Asian continent to the European continent.  An entirely different arena for sharing the Gospel.  The vision was clear, but what to do about it?

I imagine that the men were hesitant at first.  After all, they’d had such success in the area of what we call Turkey today.  Thriving congregations!  Certainly, they hadn’t been able to travel north as they intended, but surely that would resolve itself in short order and they could continue with their plans.  Surely there were other opportunities closer to hand.  They weren’t doing anything wrong, but what they were doing wasn’t working the way it had previously.  Was it clear to them this vision came from God?  I presume not necessarily, as we’re told in v.10 they concluded it was.  There was some level of analysis, consideration, prayer.  And the result of all those things was a determination that God was behind this and it was time to follow.

Change is hard.  It isn’t what is expected.  It isn’t what is familiar.  Yet small changes can yield incredible results.  A diversion from Asia to Europe – such a small matter in the moment and yet the history of the world is changed no doubt as part of that change.  Would the Holy Spirit still have worked through Paul and his associates if they came to the conclusion that while the vision was interesting, they really were better suited and preferred to stay in Asia?  Of course.  They might have been mistaken, but that certainly wouldn’t have made them bad or evil.  Perhaps the Holy Spirit would have sent a clearer indication of the proper path.  Perhaps He would have worked with them where they were.

It’s good to remember ultimately that the Church claims that God the Holy Spirit is behind everything we do.  That doesn’t mean we aren’t prone to error, it doesn’t mean we don’t interfere.  It doesn’t mean that things are always clear and simple and easy.  But we have to trust the Holy Spirit to work in and through and at times despite us.  And this should foster a level of humility, a willingness to acknowledge our limitations and brokenness and therefore the very real possibility that we might be mistaken.  And it should drive us to hear in others the possible voice of the Holy Spirit, even if we don’t like or agree with what they say.

Change is difficult.  So is staying the course.  Such forks in the road are an opportunity for faith to work itself out in surprising ways.  Not necessarily pleasant ones, but surprising ones, with the trust and confidence that the Holy Spirit is working things out to the glory of God regardless of what is motivating us and our decisions.

Humbling indeed.  But comforting as well.  Sola dei gloria.  Always and in all situations.

 

Book Review: The Best We Could Do

July 8, 2019

The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir  by Thi Bui

I received my first graphic novel in late high school or early college, a gift from my best friend.  As a literature junky, I found it interesting, but difficult to consider it literature.  The artwork was good, the story was interesting, but it felt too compacted, too  sparse.

My interest in Vietnam and it’s history began years ago when I was tasked with taking over teaching a course on the Vietnam conflict from a fellow faculty  member.  I did a lot of reading and grew fascinated by the curious role of this country in the larger Cold War maneuverings of China, the United States, and the Soviet Union.  During seminary the field work congregation I served was in the process of attempting to merge with a Vietnamese Lutheran congregation, and I was able to spend time with the several Vietnamese families, second generation folks who came over when their parents fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon.  Then in 2016 my wife and I were privileged to visit the country on business and pleasure purposes, and it deepened my appreciation of the beauty of the country and people as well as the complexity of their history, of which the US was only a very small part.

And Vietnamese cuisine is amazing – something that has been on my radar for  the last 20+ years!

So this book was a mixture of interests, memories, and impressions.  While I think it’s a great work, I still don’t know what to make of the graphic novel format.  If I don’t try to think of it as literature, but its own unique  thing, it’s much simpler.  Thi Bui tells a wonderful and at times overwhelming family story, and does so in a way that is compelling both visually and textually.  It is not an easy story, and she doesn’t attempt to reduce it to one, but rather to find a way to live with and in the complexity that is her family and her two countries.

If you’re interested in memoirs, family dynamics, Vietnam or history, this is a very worthwhile read.

 

Socialism and Sin

June 24, 2019

I’m not a socialist.  Not because I don’t think that this model isn’t attractive, but because of my understanding of human nature and the issue of sin.  Contrary to the popular optimism of socialism in general and particularly current advocates for socialism in America, history is one long description of humans wracked with sin.  Some of them wealthy, some of them not.  Some with good intentions and some not.  Utopian ideas rest on the idea that we will eliminate or overcome these traits so that socialism can function properly, otherwise it is doomed to failure.

This is a fascinating and brief article on how people who do like the idea of socialism see things.  Or at least how some of them see things.  I’ll just comment briefly on some of the assumptions I see inherent in this mindset.

The article is spawned by the split between the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos, and his ex-wife, Mackenzie Bezos.  Since there was no pre-nup agreement, she is now in her own right a multi-billionaire, and has pledged to give a great deal – perhaps all – of that wealth away.

The author of the article thinks that this ought to be standard operating procedure for billionaires, and that this should be achieved both through taxation as well as changed social expectations for  billionaires.

It’s interesting to me that ultimately the goal of this author isn’t simply to increase philanthropic giving by the richest people in the world, but to actually reduce their overall net worth and prevent them from maintaining or increasing their net worth.  In other words, it isn’t enough to give some of your money away – you should give it away until you’re no longer a billionaire.  Since there are only 2000 or so billionaires in the world, this seems like a manageable process, I suppose.  But it also strikes me as arbitrary.

As the author states in the fifth paragraph of  the article, the goal is not philanthropy but the elimination of wealth inequality.  Philanthropy is merely one mechanism – along with higher taxes and altered societal demands/expectations – by which to accomplish this.  But why just billionaires?  Presumably, when we have eliminated billionaires through these mechanisms, the attention will then shift to multi-millionaires.  Anyone with a net value of over $500 million perhaps.  But then when that is accomplished, the focus will shift lower, to $100 million or more.  And where after that?  What will wealth equality look like?  When everyone has a million dollars in the bank?

It may sound easy and reasonable to demand that billionaires divest themselves of their money, but how low can you go before people begin balking at the demands made of them?  Frankly, the average middle-class family in America is vastly more wealthy than a stunning percentage of the rest of the world.  When do we start forcing them to divest themselves of their wealth?

I think a better articulation of the author’s real goals would be helpful here.  What is the expectation in terms of wealth equality, and how is it sustainable over time?  What are the mathematical models that demonstrate it is both possible and sustainable?  Alas, mathematical models are not so good at accounting for human nature and sin.

Also, let’s define what the author means by giving away nearly all of their wealth.  Is $900 million acceptable?  $100 million?  $1million?

It’s interesting that this process is to be vigorously monitored.  Watchdogs are to be responsible for insisting that such a divestment of wealth is not simply undertaken, but that it is undertaken well.  And here I’m confused.  If wealth equality is the real goal, then why is the concern over ensuring that well-vetted humanitarian programs are the recipients of the monies?  What if J.K. Rowling decided to just write out checks to individual people for one million dollars (or whatever the assumed amount of wealth equality will be)?

I assume that’s unacceptable because many people wouldn’t know how to handle that sudden windfall.  There would need to be support services and mechanisms to help them.  To prevent them from falling back into an inequal wealth situation.  More watchdogging and regulation etc, etc, etc.

I also find it interesting that the author feels that there is no need to invent new philanthropic organizations or  mechanisms, and those that choose to do so are castigated for this.  Wouldn’t you think that someone capable of inventing Amazon or Facebook might be equally skilled at coming up with new ways of doing philanthropy and addressing humanitarian issues?  Again, a curious insistence on regulation rather than recognizing that someone who amasses billions of dollars might be rather good at other things as well.

None of this addresses the issue that millions of dollars are donated annually to very good causes.  Yet despite high-profiling and large amounts of money, malaria is still a very real threat to much of the world and poverty does not seem to be appreciably abated in most of the neediest places.  How is throwing additional money at these problems going to fix them to a point where wealth equality then becomes feasible?

Good intentions can be derailed by sin.  Dishonesty, greed, envy – these are deeply woven into our human natures.  Hence the need for constant vigilance in the socialist future envisioned by this author.  But such vigilance seems ultimately to be inadequate.  I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try to improve the human condition, but simply forcing people to give up their money to other people hasn’t – historically – been very effective for very long.  Politics and economics alone are inadequate to dealing with our human situation.  Until we take seriously the theological aspects, we are doomed to continued failure.

Rebuilding What?

April 18, 2019

Like many of you I watched in horror as the images and live-feeds of Notre Dame de Paris engulfed in flame flickered across my computer screen.  I’d last been there in 2016, and that was my third visit in my lifetime.  It’s an amazingly beautiful architectural achievement.  The crowds are lamentable but, since I’m part of them, it’s hardly reasonable to complain.  Each visit I stood in increasingly long lines to march up the steps to the twin towers.  Last time I snapped a Facebook photo of one of the rose windows that miraculously survived the recent conflagration.

Now it has been grievously damaged by the fire, and will require substantial rebuilding.  But the question becomes whether it should be rebuilt as it was, the reflection of nearly 1000 years of changes and additions?  Or should it be made into something new, something representative not of its past but rather today or the future.  A reflection not of Christianity and the God of the Bible, but rather some undefined representation of a now mostly undefined French or even European culture.

It may sound strange that people would want to reimagine a Christian house of worship – particularly one so famous – into something not a Christian house of worship.  But there are those who are promoting exactly such an idea, as this article describes.

There would indeed be a bitter irony if this beautiful place of worship was recreated into something atheistic or secular.  While numbers have undoubtedly dwindled in recent times, worship is still something that occurred in Notre Dame each day, the last service about an hour before the fire broke out.  But with houses of worship – even great cathedrals  – falling into disuse and subsequent disrepair as the European exodus from the Christian faith nears completion, it’s hardly surprising that many people see them as nuisances rather than useful places for continued Christian worship.

 

 

ANF – The Epistle of Barnabas

April 10, 2019

Authorship of this work is generally disputed.  It  is believed to have been written sometime after 70 AD (because it mentions the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem), but no later than mid 2nd century.  It is included in the Codex Sinaiticus in the 4th century, and for some years was treated by some Christians on the same level as Scripture while others rejected such a status.  This makes it part of the antilogomena – Christian writings that are disputed in terms of their authority.  Clement and Origen both assume it to have been written by the Barnabas mentioned in Acts, a traveling companion of St. Paul.  However Eusebius refused to see it as such.

I had the idea when I embarked on this effort that I would discover gold mines of biblical explication in the ancient writings of the Church Fathers.  While that may still well be the case, I wouldn’t say that this is such an example.  The majority of this epistle (letter) is dedicated to refuting Judaism and exalting Christians as the true chosen people of God.  To do this the author quotes a great number of Old Testament passages – oftentimes incorrectly or in paraphrase – and mixes this with apparent references or quotes from lost, non-Biblical texts.  He uses these texts in metaphorical ways to demonstrate the failure of the Jewish people to remain faithful to God and therefore their exclusion from his good graces as the Gospel passes to Gentiles.

Several very interesting tidbits come at the very end of the epistle, in the second section that enumerates the positive behavioral characteristics of  Christians as well as the negative characteristics of those who reject Jesus as the Messiah.  Included with these is the exhortation that Christians do not “slay the child by procuring abortion; nor, again, shalt though destroy it after it is born.”  Once again testimony, along with the Didache, that the Christian faith has historically rejected abortion and infanticide, something the modern church in Europe and America would do well to take heed of.  This text also refers to the Christian practice of worshiping on Sunday rather than the traditional Jewish Saturday Sabbath, in deference to Jesus’ resurrection on Sunday morning.  This is perhaps the earliest reference to the Christian practice or worshiping on Sunday and anchors the practice deep in history, perhaps within a few decades of the life of Jesus.

History is Fascinating

March 28, 2019

At least at times, and in unexpected ways and connections.

 

Sad But Not Surprised

March 13, 2019

So scandal has broken loose again.  The rich and famous have been found using their status and money to set their children up with admissions to top universities.  People have been paid to take tests.  Lies have been told.  Money has been paid.  And former starlets have been arrested.

Most of the people I’ve heard talking about this are shocked and outraged.  I can understand the outrage, but shock?  Really?  Are we that naive?  Or are we that convinced that our sinful human natures have been sufficiently remedied by our rule of law?  C’mon, people!  You shouldn’t believe everything you hear, and you should assume that somewhere, in some manner, money is talking and people are listening and systems are compromised.

This is how it’s always been.  Money buys influence.  The rich have access to myriad options that the rest of us don’t.  It’s not fair or right, it just is.  It can and should be illegal but people will still find ways around it.

This is not justifying the behavior and saying we shouldn’t care.  Sure, go ahead and care.  Allow justice to do its work when it gets the chance.  But don’t imagine it has solved the problem or eliminated the practice.  Some people got caught.  Others haven’t and won’t.

Nor is this another argument for redistributing the wealth.  Fiery politicians seem to think they can just take money away from rich people and end all of our problems that way.  This won’t work either.  Corruption conducts business in all sorts of currency, whether monetary or  related to prestige, influence, beauty, etc.  Once again the sinful human temptation won’t be erased, you just change what it looks like and how it plays itself. out.

It’s a shame.  It’s unfair.  But, despite the insistence of some folks, life isn’t fair.  Hasn’t been since Adam and Eve got booted from the garden for pilfering fruit.  It won’t be fair again until God restores it to that status.   In the meantime, be outraged, but don’t be surprised.

On Ashes

March 6, 2019

A colleague posted a question on Facebook the other day asking about why or why not we should or should not engage in the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday, particularly in light of Jesus’ teaching Matthew 6:16-18.  There were a great many responses – around 40 the last I checked.  Predictably they ran the gamut of ideas and theological ponderings.  Folks who poo-poo’d the idea because it was just a church tradition, as well as those who made a point of doing the ashes precisely because it is a church tradition.  Those who felt ashes on the forehead are pretentious and therefore a violation of Jesus’ teaching, and those who disagreed.  People who prefer to allow individual conscience to dictate and those who see value in the communal practice.  People shared their various practices – including one I really like of including Holy Communion on Ash Wednesday.  The ashes are imposed at the start of the service, and after confession and absolution and Holy Communion they are then washed off using the water from the baptismal font.  Definitely an idea for next year!

If you want to read to opposing (LC-MS) views on the subject, this is a great summary of two articles.  Another perspective is here.

Traditionally people refer back to the Old Testament as a support for the practice of noting repentance or sorrow with ashes and sometimes fasting.  I thought back to Leviticus 16 (and verse 29 particularly)  which stipulates that every 10th day of the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar is to be a day of solemn fasting and repentance.  Jews today know it as Yom Kippur.  Leviticus stipulates fasting but not ashes.  But it seems a strong starting point with our Old Testament consideration.  God’s people for a long time have shown grief in some particular ways, ways that continued even among believers with a different cultural background from the one it originated with.  And the idea of  a communal day to acknowledge personal and corporate sin goes back to God himself.

Jesus and his disciples undoubtedly followed this command.  What that meant, however, is not clear to me.  The earliest written instructions regarding how to observe the Day of Atonement – other than Scripture itself – are contained in the Mishnah, which was compiled in the early 200’s AD by Yehuda HaNasi, realizing that the Temple wasn’t going to be rebuilt any time soon and that God’s people needed the oral traditions to be written down as they were increasingly dispersed.  In the Moed section of the Mishnah which deals with holy days, in the Yoma section, there are five things prohibited on the Day of Atonement – eating & drinking, wearing leather shoes, anointing oneself with oil, washing, and sex.

Presuming these regulations were in place in Jesus’ day  then, is Jesus in Matthew 6 instructing his disciples not to follow the five prohibitions above, but rather to violate at least two of them?  That seems like a stretch.  Jesus was well known for clarifying Jewish customs, their traditional practices and interpretations of Scripture.  But I can’t think of another place where Jesus is critical of the Day of Atonement practice in particular.  Most of his emphasis seems to be on Sabbath traditions and stipulations.

I’m  comfortable presuming – using an argument from silence – that Jesus and his disciples followed the five prohibitions for the Day of Atonement, and therefore Jesus in his teaching in Matthew 6 does not rule out the idea of public forms of penance or  repentance or the observance of a special holy day.  I presume his teaching to deal with personal, private fasting, aside from public, prescribed days of communal fasting.

How does all of this relate to Ash Wednesday?

Potentially, not at all.

Ash Wednesday is not commanded in the Bible or referenced even in passing anywhere in Scripture.  The closest relative in my opinion is Yom Kippur but they are separated by a rather impressive chasm in Christian perspective.  So Ash Wednesday is not a divinely commanded observance with particular traditions we’ve innovated that may or may not be helpful or correct.  Rather, it’s a tradition.  A tradition steeped in Old Testament language about ashes and sorrow and repentance, (Genesis 18:27, 2 Samuel 13:18-20, Esther 4:1, Job 2:8, Isaiah 58:5, Jeremiah 6:26, Lamentations 3:16, Ezekiel 27:30, Daniel 9:3, Jonah 3:6 – to name a few). to be sure, but only steeped.

Interestingly, there are no New Testament references to the use of ashes for sorrow or repentance.

Roman Catholics trace the tradition of Ash Wednesday (dies cinerum) back to roughly the eighth century and Gregorian versions of  the Roman Missal. FYI, a missal is a book of prayers used by an officiating priest, not something you shoot at someone to blow them up.  Into ashes.  Get it?

Ahem.

There should also be recognition that – likely based on the Old Testament references above – there has existed a long-standing tradition of associating ashes with public penance.  Someone caught or admitting to serious sin of a public nature would adorn themselves with ashes publicly as a sign of their repentance – their repudiation of their sin and their avowal to strive to live by God’s Word.  Some see this as primarily a clerical practice – for church professionals, as it were.  But an Anglo-Saxon priest by the name of AElfric bishop of Eynsham in England, probably born around 955 AD suggested the practice was more widely practiced and not limited to churchmen.

So, to say the least, there is at least a 1000 year tradition of associating ashes with repentance and sorrow, with doing so in a public way, and with doing so particularly on Ash Wednesday.

Do we have to keep doing this, then?  No, of course not.  A tradition is not made anything more than a tradition simply based on how long it’s gone on.  But that being said, there is a depth and richness to long-standing traditions.  There are benefits that can be gleaned from them, even in our day of iPhones and smart watches and self-driving cars.  Are we ever so certain that this tradition of ashes has nothing to do with us, nothing to offer us, and so can be relegated to the ash-bin of history, ecclesial or otherwise?

In a culture where death is so greatly feared and hidden away, might there be something to be gained by someone telling you to your face that you are going to die?  An existential certainty (barring Jesus’ return or another similar miracle on the scale of Enoch or Elijah) we all need to come to grips with, and should do so on a daily basis rather than in a rush at the last minute sitting in the waiting room of the doctor or breathing in the anesthesia before surgery?

I like to think that God gave us senses for a reason, to know things about ourselves and the world around us, and for him to tell us things and remind us things about ourselves and even him.  Our senses were given to us before the Fall.  They’re good, though now corrupted by sin and not nearly as reliable as  before, just like the brain they’re connected to.  Protestants, in moving away from the Roman Catholic Church 500 years ago, lost a lot of the sensory aspects of worship.  Not surprising, happening in the midst of the Renaissance and not long before the Enlightenment.  No surprise that the mind should push itself to the forefront and the other senses be pushed down.  Primitive.  Animalistic.  Lesser.

Maybe not.

Just as we adore music and the visual arts in worship, perhaps there is something to drawing in the other senses as well.  Perhaps this is why baptism uses water and the Lord’s Supper is something you can taste.  More of our senses engaged again in this life of faith rather than just our mind or that less definable aspect of us, the spirit/soul.

I make the ashes each year.  Following the tradition of using a palm from the previous year’s Palm Sunday.  Not because I have to or because it makes Jesus love me more.  But because it is beautiful to me to do this, knowing that children of God have been engaging in a similar practice for nearly a thousand years.  That I, sitting on the bench outside under the shelter of our arched entrance to the Church, protected from the rain a few feet away but able to smell it and feel it  still, using a small gas lighter to turn the palms of celebration into the ashes of mourning, am not so very different from the monk a thousand years ago, sitting outside some monastery listening to the rain drip as he sought to burn palms to  ash as well.  As Normans were making preparations to launch the last successful invasion of England.  As the tribes of Europe fashioned themselves into countries.  As bombs rained down in the world wars.  As the Tesla dealership across the street starts the morning litany of test drives.  Bound together by a simple practice.

Not just individuals doing whatever I personally feel like because that is what my particular culture tells me is more important than anything else.  Doing it with other people.  For other people.  To other people.  The cult of individualism will one day come crashing to the ground into ashes, and from those ashes will arise, I hope, a new sense of the power and need and purpose of community.  Of limiting the self, of seeing membership in the whole as more beautiful than my own personal preferences.

I enjoy the ashes because they are a reminder to me, as I mix and crush the larger pieces into a finer powder before adding oil – this year nard but in previous years myrrh or frankincense – that my sin is my death, but my death is not the end.  That in going to the cross, Jesus took my sin and exchanged it for his righteousness.  Life from death.  Beauty from ashes.  Righteousness from sin.  Change from the past.

These things are what have to be, not the ashes.  I’m free to take or leave the  ashes, and so if you disagree so be it.  Just make sure you know why you’re passing them up.   And be sure you aren’t looking down on those of us who get something from them, a la Romans 14.  And I’ll try not to think less of you as well, as per the same chapter.  Because that, too, is more important than the ashes themselves.  It is part and parcel of the season of Lent that we begin today.

To God be the glory.

 

New Apologetic Tidbit

March 5, 2019

Thanks to Doug for sending me a newsletter with some apologetic tidbits about Lent and Holy Week.  Most of the newsletter was information I was already familiar with encouraging Christians not to doubt the Bible’s data so easily.  Oftentimes ‘scholars’ have attacked the Bible’s credibility on certain details due to an absence of evidence, an argument from silence, which basically says that if there is no additional historical or archaeological corroboration of a detail contained in the Bible, the Biblical detail should be assumed to be incorrect.

However this tactic has proven fallacious over and over again.  Examples include insistence from scholars at one point that Pontius Pilate never existed, until archaeology proved them wrong in 1961.  Or how some scholars didn’t believe the Bible’s mention of Caiaphas as High Priest in Jerusalem during Jesus’ ordeal, until archaeology again proved them wrong (or at least weakened their argument considerably) again in 1990.

But there was one tidbit that was new to me.  The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion describe how there was a pervasive darkness from noon till about 3pm (Mark 15:33, Matthew 27:45, Luke 23:44).  It’s obviously an important detail of the event, but are there any historical references outside of Scripture to this?  Turns out there is – the Greek historian Phlegon of Tralles.

Phlegon sounds like an interesting guy, for a historian.  No only did he write a multi-volume history of the Olympiads, he also wrote a book focusing on marvels- paranormal events, as well as a book on people with extraordinarily long lives.  We don’t have copies of most of his writings, but rather references to his writings from historical figures closer to his day.  One such person is the Christian Origen, who references one of Phlegon’s books where Phlegon indicates that there was a massive eclipse during the reign of Tiberius.  Not only was there an eclipse around the 6th hour of the day, there were also reports of earthquakes in various places, something Matthew mentions in his Gospel as well (Matthew 27:51-54).

Objections might be made.  What if Origen was lying?  What if we can’t trust his reference to Phlegon?  Origen was a well-educated man who wrote a great deal.  Apparently Phlegon’s writings were well-enough known that Origen would be familiar with them and would find them reasonable to quote from, and that others would know of them as well.  It wouldn’t make sense for him to simply lie about something that anyone of his day with an education could verify for themselves by referencing Phlegon’s works.

Thanks Doug, and thanks Phlegon and Origen!