Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Resurrection of Jesus - Fact or Myth?

            This Easter Sunday, I wanted to briefly address a question that often comes up: Did Jesus really exist, and did he really rise from the dead, or is the whole story a myth?
            I will most likely discuss the proof of Jesus' life, death and resurrection in detail in a later blog post, but I wanted to briefly summarize proof we have that the story is true.  First, we have a wealth of texts that verify Jesus' existence.  We have the four Gospels, written by eyewitnesses and their companions, which all tell the story of Jesus, his life and teachings, and his death and resurrection.  The letters of early church fathers (such as Papias, Polycarp and a document known as the Didache), written between 95-150 CE, quoted extensively from all four of the Gospels and said that they contained the words of Jesus.  We also have an early fragment of John's Gospel (known as Papyrus P52), dated roughly to the first half of the second century CE.  The four Gospels were in circulation and being quoted by 100 CE, which means that they were written within 70 years of the death and resurrection of Jesus (which occurred circa 30 CE).  In addition, we have the letters of Paul, Peter and James, who all were martyred prior to 67 CE.  All of these letters testified to the existence of Jesus and his death and resurrection, and all were written within 40 years of the events.
            Besides the Biblical texts, we have extra-Biblical documents that testify that a man named Jesus lived and was executed during the governorship of Pontius Pilate (whose existence has been confirmed by archaeological evidence; see my earlier blog on The Pilate Stone).  Tacitus, a first-century Roman historian, mentioned "Christus" being executed during the reign of Tiberius, and Emperor Nero's persecution of Christians [1].  Suetonius, another Roman historian, mentioned the same events [2].  Josephus, a Jewish historian, mentioned Jesus, James and John the Baptist in Antiquities [3].  The Babylonian Talmud mentioned a man named "Yeshu" who was accused of sorcery and apostasy, and hanged on the eve of Passover [4].  There are quite a few other examples, but these are among the most prominent.
            As for evidence of the resurrection, we have several clues that point to the fact that Jesus actually, bodily rose from the dead.  Witnesses saw his body laid in the tomb, a seal was placed over the entrance and guards were present (Matthew 27:57-66).  After Jesus rose from the dead, he appeared to his disciples and many others, including 500 people at one time (1 Corinthians 15:3-8).  The empty tomb was explained away by the religious officials, who conspired with the guards to say that the disciples stole the body while the guards were asleep (Matthew 28:11-15).  This theory is very faulty, however - how would the disciples have been able to break the seal and remove the body without waking the guards?  Why would all of the disciples have suffered torture and gone to their violent deaths proclaiming a risen Jesus if they had just stolen his dead body and hidden it?  Why would they die for a lie?  Had that been the case, at some point the truth of their deception would have been exposed. 
            The empty tomb attests to the resurrection of Jesus.  To end the spread of Christianity, all that the religious leaders and Romans would have had to do was produce Jesus' body and present it publicly as proof that he did not rise from the dead.  They could not, however, because the body was gone.
            One of my favorite parts of Scripture is the original ending of the gospel of Mark, just after the women who went to the tomb found it empty and an angel told them that Jesus had risen: "Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid" (Mark 16:8, NIV).  The gospel ends very abruptly, with women running away from an empty tomb.  It is almost as if the author was posing a question to the reader: "The tomb is empty.  Now, what do you think happened?"

[1] Tacitus, Annals 15.44 (written circa 116 CE)
[2] Suetonius, Life of Nero 16.2
[3] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews Books 18 and 20 (written circa 93-94 CE)
[4] Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 43a

Saturday, March 23, 2013

War Against The Amalekites (Deuteronomy 25:17-19; 1 Samuel 15)

The following quote is taken from

"Mass Murder - "This is what the Lord of  hosts has to say: 'I will punish what Amalek did to Israel when he barred his way as he was coming up from Egypt.  Go, now, attack Amalek, and deal with him and all that he has under the ban.  Do not spare him, but kill men and women, children and infants, oxen and sheep, camels and asses."   (1 Samuel 15:2-3 NAB)

To get a better sense of what is going on in this passage, it would be helpful to read what the Amalekites did to the Israelites earlier on in their history.  You can read the story here:

            The Hebrew word used in 1 Samuel 15:3 is charam, meaning "the complete consecration of things or people to the Lord, either by destroying them or by giving them as an offering" [1].  Only God could decide when this type of devotion occurred, and it was always in response to a grievous sin that the person or people had committed against the Lord.
            For example, when the Israelites were travelling out of Egypt, the Amalekites attacked the weakest and most vulnerable people among them:Remember what the Amalekites did to you along the way when you came out of Egypt. When you were weary and worn out, they met you on your journey and attacked all who were lagging behind; they had no fear of God. When the LORD your God gives you rest from all the enemies around you in the land he is giving you to possess as an inheritance, you shall blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!" (Deuteronomy 25:17-19, NIV). 
            In response to the Amalekites murdering the weakest of the Israelites who had fallen behind the others (the text seems to indicate that these included the elderly, the sick, and those with young children, although this is not specified), God determined that the Amalekites would be destroyed (1 Samuel 15).  He was, in essence, sentencing them to death for their crime.
            There was another reason that God ordered the elimination of the Amalekites; they were a nation hostile to Israel, who were constantly at war against them, seeking their destruction.  Because Saul did not carry out God's command to destroy them, they continued their raids against Israelites, at one point burning towns and carrying off women and children as plunder before being stopped by David (1 Samuel 30).  Centuries later, Haman, a descendant of an Amalekite king named Agag, plotted to wipe out all of the Jewish people living in Persia (Book of Esther).  God knew that the Amalekites were determined to completely destroy the Israelites, which is why he issued the command for them to be killed.
            As in previous passages, the command to kill the women and children is a difficult issue.  We must remember that the children would have grown up following the same customs and practices as their parents; they would have been taught to hate Israel and seek their destruction, and would have been lost for eternity.  God took their lives in childhood to prevent this from occurring.

[1] Footnote in the Holy Bible, New Living Translation (NLT).  This term (charam) occurs in the following verses: Exodus 22:20; Leviticus 27:21, 28-29; Numbers 18:14; 21:2-3; Deuteronomy 2:34; 3:6; 7:2, 26; 13:15-17; 20:17; Joshua 2:10; 6:17-21; 7:1, 11-15; 8:26; 10:1, 28, 35, 37, 39-40; 11:11-12, 20-21; 22:20; 1 Samuel 15:3, 8-9, 15, 18-21.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11)

The following quote is taken from

"Peter Kills Two People -  There was also a man named Ananias who, with his wife, Sapphira, sold some property.  He brought part of the money to the apostles, but he claimed it was the full amount.  His wife had agreed to this deception.  Then Peter said, "Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart?  You lied to the Holy Spirit, and you kept some of the money for yourself.  The property was yours to sell or not sell, as you wished.  And after selling it, the money was yours to give away.  How could you do a thing like this?  You weren't lying to us but to God."  As soon as Ananias heard these words, he fell to the floor and died.  Everyone who heard about it was terrified.  Then some young men wrapped him in a sheet and took him out and buried him.  About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened.  Peter asked her, "Was this the price you and your husband received for your land?"  "Yes," she replied, "that was the price."  And Peter said, "How could the two of you even think of doing a thing like this – conspiring together to test the Spirit of the Lord?  Just outside that door are the young men who buried your husband, and they will carry you out, too."  Instantly, she fell to the floor and died.  When the young men came in and saw that she was dead, they carried her out and buried her beside her husband.  Great fear gripped the entire church and all others who heard what had happened."   (Acts 5:1-11 NLT)

You can read the full story of what happened here:

            To quickly summarize, these events took place not long after Jesus' death and resurrection, at the very beginning of the church.  The first believers freely shared all of their possessions with each other, and some sold possessions and property to give to those who were needy.  We are given the example of a man named Joseph (aka Barnabus), a Levite from Cyprus, who sold a field that he owned and gave all the money from the sale to the apostles, for distribution among the poor (Acts 4:32-37).
            Unfortunately, an instance of hypocrisy occurred not long after - the incident with Ananias and Sapphira.  We must keep in mind here that no one in the church was forced or coerced into giving; people did it of their own free will (Acts 5:4).  Ananias and Sapphira saw that others were selling property and giving the money to the apostles, and this caused them to participate, not because they wanted to help, but because they wanted to display their righteous acts before others, to receive prestige and honor for themselves.  God does not reward good works when they are only done for show (Matthew 6:1-4).
            Also, the two of them conspired to lie about the price that they received for the land (Acts 5:1-2).  They showed great contempt for God by doing this - they assumed that he would not see or know what they were doing, and they disrespected him and the apostles who represented him.  Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, saw through the lie and said, "Didn’t it (the land) belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God” (Acts 5:4, NIV).  Ananias and Sapphira paid for their lie with their lives.
            Why did God take their lives for this lie?  It served as a powerful warning to the early church, and to all of the believers that would come after.  It exposed Ananias and Sapphira as unbelievers in the midst of the church, who were trying to exploit the church for personal gain, and had no fear of God.  It proved that Peter, one of the early leaders of the church, was filled with the Holy Spirit, because he saw through their lie and exposed it immediately (it should be noted that Peter did not take their lives; God did).  It was a warning that God is a holy and just God, who hates sin and does not tolerate those who show him contempt (Proverbs 6:16-19; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43).  God sees our hearts, and will reward us based on our motives (1 Corinthians 4:5).