Unapologetic Christianity from Chris Sinkinson: Missing towns of Jesus


Unapologetic Christianity

Bethlehem and Nazareth are the places most associated with the life of Jesus prior to his public ministry.

Therefore, what better way to dismiss the Christian faith than claim that these towns never existed at the time of Jesus? They are the product of later, fanciful legends and promoted as a way of making a fast shekel out of religious tourism. James Randi, a popular American magician and atheist, boldly declares: ‘There simply is no demonstrable evidence from the Nazareth site that dates to the time of Jesus Christ’.

No donkey

A similar claim is made regarding Bethlehem. Though occupied in earlier times, some say it was abandoned during the time of Jesus. Israeli archaeologist Aviram Oshri has identified a different Bethlehem, nearer Nazareth, as thriving at the time of Jesus. Oshri comments: ‘It makes much more sense that Mary rode on a donkey, while she was at the end of the pregnancy, from Nazareth to Bethlehem of Galilee which is only seven kilometres than the other Bethlehem which is 150 kilometres’ (NPR News). The fact that the Gospels nowhere mention a donkey does not instill confidence in Oshri’s research. But what about the facts? Were Bethlehem and Nazareth inhabited during the early years of Jesus?

Bethlehem is sometimes dismissed because the Church of the Nativity that tourists visit only dates from 327 AD, long after the time of Jesus. But the question to ask is why was a church to venerate the nativity built here? The history of association with the nativity is much older. Justin Martyr (c.100-165 AD), who only lived 40 miles away from Bethlehem, identified a cave in the town as the site of Christ’s birth. Origen (c.185-254 AD) describes visiting the cave himself. Over 200 years of tradition, before the church was built, identify the site and give it authenticity. Furthermore, Bethlehem has revealed evidence of first century occupation, including pottery from that time.

The hamlet of Nazareth

What about Nazareth? In some ways, the first-century evidence is quite similar to that of Bethlehem. There is no evidence of a large city, monumental buildings or wealthy citizens at the time of Jesus. But there is evidence of an agricultural community. Pottery, a winepress and burial caves have borne witness to this period of habitation. In 2009 archaeologists revealed the remains of a stone -built house dating to the time of Jesus. It is estimated that Nazareth was a hamlet of about 50 houses during the first century.

First-century Nazareth and Bethlehem were the kind of locations that leave little evidence in the archaeological record. Little wealth means no monumental buildings and few coins or durable goods. However, new material continues to come to light. A discovery of an ancient bathhouse in 1993 may yet prove that Nazareth was more significant at the time of Jesus than previously thought.

What scale?

Critics dismiss the Gospels because there is no evidence for the ‘cities’ of Nazareth or Bethlehem at the time of Jesus. This objection arises from a misunderstanding of the Greek word polis, often translated ‘town’ or even ‘city’ (Matthew 2.23; Luke 2.4). But what is the difference between a hamlet, village, town or city? A textbook on town planning would need a precision over words like village or town that need not apply elsewhere. Matthew and Luke are not using this term in some technical sense. Their concerns are not with town planning but with recording history.

Historical Saviour

There is no reason to doubt the existence of Bethlehem and Nazareth, but there is reason to think again if we imagine them as large, wealthy cities. The reason to think again is because of what the Bible itself says. Of Nazareth, Philip asked: ‘Can anything good come out of there?’ (John 1.46). Of Bethlehem, prophecy already indicated its obscurity at the time of Christ’s birth. As the New Living Translation puts it: ‘But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, are only a small village among the people of Judah’ (Micah 5.2). Jesus did not hail from a great city like London, New York or even Jerusalem, but from obscurity. Which leaves us the question, why do we still know so much more about this one man than his home towns? We don’t worship sacred sites, but we do worship an historical Saviour.

Chris is lecturer at Moorlands College and pastor of Alderholt Chapel. His books include Confident Christianity and Time Travel to the Old Testament published by IVP.

This article was first published in the February 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.

http://www.e-n.org.uk 0845 225 0057

Unapologetic Christianity from Chris Sinkinson: An immoral Bible?


Unapologetic Christianity

Did you watch the epic TV mini-series The Bible during December?

If you did you will have been reminded of just how much violence the Old Testament records. For the average non-Christian viewer it may reinforce their suspicion that the God of the Old Testament is a God of anger and malevolence, unsuited to our modern morals.

What can we say in response?

It is important to maintain that God is a judge who has the right to dispense judgement. He is the creator, and we are the creation. His judgements are fair and wise by definition. Whether the flood at the time of Noah or the day of judgement when Christ returns, history displays the justice and sovereignty of God.

But many of the so-called ‘terror texts’ still need some explanation. Why did God command the Israelites to destroy the Canaanite towns? Do the laws of the Old Testament seem harsh in our modern world?

We do not read the Bible without giving proper attention to context and genre. Many of the most violent passages in Scripture are descriptive rather than prescriptive — they describe what went on rather than prescribe how we should behave. The book of Judges is particularly representative of this. It is hard to find a good moral example in its pages. But the book itself tells us that: ‘In those days Israel had no king and everyone did as he saw fit’ (Judges 21.25).

In the book of Joshua we read of God’s judgement on the entire Canaanite population through the Israelites. This can be harder to interpret. It is a divine decree. It reflects God’s judgement on a wicked people when their sin had reached ‘full measure’ (Genesis 15.16). However, we may still be perplexed at the judgement falling upon children and animals.

Creating a space

It helps to pause and read these stories a little more closely. The description of total destruction is normal ancient near-eastern warfare language. In practice, Israel did not totally destroy the Canaanites. Many lived on in the land and Jerusalem would remain in the hands of the Jebusites until the time of King David. Also, the destruction brought about by the Israelites fell upon the cities, essentially fortress strongholds. Many people would have lived and worked on the land and fled long before. A city like Jericho would have been more like a castle standing against the Israelites. It was a military target.

But we still question why God brought about destruction of all its inhabitants. The theological answer is that God cared about the purity of his people in their new land. As they settled in the land they were tempted by the local religious practices, like child sacrifice and prostitution. In order to create a space for any hope of a dedicated people of Israel, God had to destroy what was there. This is not ethnic cleansing. Some of these ethnic groups joined the Israelites (like Rahab and her family). The Israelites also formed alliances with other ethnic groups. It is a religious cleansing. Some things matter so much that they cannot be contaminated by false ideas.

World War II

Before modern critics dismiss this period of ancient Israel’s history, let us remember events in the modern age. In 1945 the decision was taken to drop atomic weapons on Japan. 200,000 people died as a direct result – men, women and children along with all the animals. This destruction dwarfs anything that happened in ancient Israel. Was this justified? Christians will disagree but certainly those who have argued in its favour were moral people. The leaders and soldiers are not considered wicked as they weighed up the reasons for carrying out these bombings. Even if we disagree with those decisions, we recognise that they were moral people with a justification for their actions.

How much more should we assume that God, the source of moral goodness, had reason for the more limited devastation of the Joshua conquests? And, as we look to the future, we know that God will yet bring the whole world into judgement. Not only is God able to take such decisions but he knows the thoughts of every heart and acts accordingly. Far from being an immoral book, the Old Testament provides a moral framework that enables us to know what is right and wrong, to condemn ethnic cleansing and to trust in God’s final judgement (1 Corinthians 4.5).

Chris is lecturer at Moorlands College and pastor of Alderholt Chapel. His books include Confident Christianity and Time Travel to the Old Testament published by IVP.

This article was first published in the January 2014 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.

http://www.e-n.org.uk 0845 225 0057

Unapologetic Christianity from Chris Sinkinson: Defending Daniel


Unapologetic ChristianitySome Bible books have a harder time being accepted as historically reliable than others.

Among the Old Testament books, Daniel often takes a beating. The critical reaction frequently reflects a skeptical attitude to miracles (did Daniel really spend a night in a den of lions?) or to predictive prophecy (was Daniel really able to predict the rise and fall of later empires?). As a consequence, many critics date these books late and suggest they are Jewish legends with prophecies of events that had already taken place included to make them sound authentic.

We may be tempted to sidestep these criticisms. But that evasion is short-sighted. If we reject something as spurious because it contains miracles or accurate predictive prophecy then eventually that attitude will undermine the gospel. What is left of the ministry of Jesus if we reject miracles? What is left of the gospel if we reject prophecy of future events?

It is ironic that all the accumulating archaeological and material evidence supports the reliability of Daniel, while nothing has been found to undermine it. S.R. Driver (1846-1914), professor of Hebrew at Oxford, wrote one of the most influential commentaries on Daniel and dated its final form to what is called the Maccabean period (c. 165 BC). This was long after the Babylonian exile (c. 609-536 BC), in which the book claims to be set.

One reason Driver gave is the book’s use of Aramaic which we know would come into fashion closer to the time of the New Testament. However, another reason must surely be the presence of predictive prophecy. Daniel predicts a succession of kingdoms following the Babylonians. If he wrote these around 580 BC then his vision of the future proved remarkably accurate. If they were written in 165 BC then there is no miraculous element!

As a matter of fact, Driver’s redating of Daniel still fails to deny its predictive content. Daniel predicts four empires of which the fourth is clearly a description of Rome. Even placing Daniel in the time of the Maccabees still puts it a century prior to the rise of Rome in the region. To get around this, critics had to include an extra empire between Persia and Greece. The bizarre result is that they denied Daniel the ability to accurately predict the future but attributed to him a very clumsy recording of the past.

However, what do we know since the work of Driver that has helped us to date Daniel? Quite a lot — and nothing that would support Driver’s theory.

Dead Sea Scrolls

Most importantly, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls from 1947 onwards, has provided a vast number of ancient biblical texts that enable us to have much greater confidence in the reliability of the copying of the Bible. The Dead Sea Scrolls include eight copies of Daniel, along with several related writings that use material from the book. Prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls the earliest complete text of Daniel in Hebrew dated to the tenth century AD. The earliest Dead Sea texts of Daniel are dated to 125 BC. As these are copies of copies they point to a much earlier date for the original.

Furthermore, the Dead Sea Scrolls have turned the presence of Aramaic in the book from the supposed late dating into additional evidence for the early date of the book.

Aramaic scripts and vocabulary of the Dead Sea copies demonstrate a much earlier form than those of other second century BC examples. In other words, far from indicating a late date, the Aramaic used in Daniel now suggests a much earlier date than critics like Driver could have known. In fact, scholars now suggest that the Aramaic used in Daniel is of a form originating in Babylon rather than Judea. The origins of the book lie in a period much earlier than Driver guessed and a location far from Jerusalem.

Recommendations

The evidence of the Dead Sea Scrolls bolsters our continuing confidence in Daniel and consigns more recent commentaries to the dustbins of history! Of course, this brief article only scratches the surface of the value of the Dead Sea Scrolls for apologetics. For much more detail I would recommend Randall Price’s Secrets of the Dead Sea Scrolls(Harvest House, 1996) or, at a more scholarly level, Christian Beginnings and the Dead Sea Scrolls, edited by John J. Collins and Craig A. Evans (Baker Books, 2006).

It is also worth noting that there is a wealth of nonsense written on the Dead Sea Scrolls. Much of this was a result of the air of conspiracy that surrounded the slow publication of scroll translations. Since all the manuscripts are now publically accessible in translation, books making outlandish claims about the Dead Sea Scrolls are gradually disappearing. However, the desert region around the Dead Sea remains a favourable location to preserve ancient manuscripts and so there is a good chance that more will be discovered in the years to come!

 

Chris Sinkinson is pastor of Alderholt Chapel and lectures at Moorlands College

This article was first published in the September 2013 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.

http://www.e-n.org.uk 0845 225 0057

Unapologetic Christianity from Chris Sinkinson: Hoaxes and hogwash!


Every now and then there is a buzz of excitement.

When teaching Old Testament a student will ask me if I have heard that Pharaoh’s chariot wheels from the exodus have been located in the depths of the Red Sea. It is thrilling stuff, and often based on grainy photographs passed about on the internet and on Christian DVDs. Sadly, however, it is a hoax, which has undermined the credibility of evangelical engagement with archaeology and other disciplines.

Shaky evidence

The problems with the evidence are manifold. We ought to be unsettled by the fact that no academic, objective scrutiny of the claims has ever been made. The central evidence itself is based on the personal testimony of the late Ron Wyatt who took some photographs of what look like coral encrusted ship debris and made lavish claims for their significance without any rigorous testing. On investigation, every element of his evidence looks decidedly shaky! Perhaps we should not be too harsh on Wyatt. He was a busy man. Travelling in his vacations, he also claimed to have discovered Noah’s Ark, the Ark of the Covenant, and a number of other important biblical relics. I have no hesitation in turning students away from this kind of sensational but unsubstantiated hokum.

Undermining credibility

However, underlying these claims is a more important issue. Our evangelical churches can become an undiscerning haven for fraudulent ideas and untested rumours. Such threadbare evidence is woven into sermons and youth talks. Unlikely proofs become a church equivalent of an urban legend, sounding more plausible for frequent retelling. Does it matter? Yes, because we undermine our credibility and our integrity. If friends discover that we have slipped one hoax into our evangelism then how will they know they can trust any other piece of historical or archaeological information? If photographs of chariot wheels are demonstrably spurious then does that undermine the exodus itself? What about the reliability of the Old Testament? Can we trust the Bible at all?

Solid scholarship

We must double-check our facts in evangelism. A Google search is not enough! There should be a healthy distrust of the first thing we read and a careful weighing up of what evidence we use with our friends. Eternal matters are at stake. With this in mind I have just published an introduction to the Old Testament that draws on some of the latest discoveries as well as more well known finds. My intention in Time Travel to the Old Testament (IVP, 2013) is to affirm the historical reliability of the Bible and show how background information can help bring further light to the meaning of the text. These things really happened, and we can be confident in our faith. While writing it, I have had to tread a careful path to avoid bogus claims and wild speculation. There is plenty of it about! But we do not need the hogwash. There is a wealth of solid scholarship that supports the essential historical credentials of the Bible. It is this kind of scholarship that we should be circulating in our evangelical circles.

Chris Sinkinson is pastor of Alderholt Chapel and lectures at Moorlands College

This article was first published in the August 2013 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.

http://www.e-n.org.uk 0845 225 0057