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In the last Big Questions article we saw how well established Jesus is in the historical record. History indeed shows Jesus as a man whose life and death had a huge impact on the communities, governments, and religions around him. So what was it about Jesus that produced these momentous tremors on the historical seismograph? The answers can be found in the four accounts of the life of Jesus: the gospels.

The May-June edition of Sorted Magazine is available in W.H. Smiths now
The May-June edition of Sorted Magazine is available in W.H. Smiths now

Now the four gospels of the New Testament claim to be based on eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus. The thing is, as far as historians can tell, none of the four gospels were written in the location they were set in. Countries like Syria (Matthew) and Egypt (Mark) are thought likely locations for the origin of these texts, so also is the Greek city of Ephesus (John). The Gospel of Luke may well have been written in Rome or Antioch and yet in the opening of his book Luke says that his writing is based on accounts, “handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses.”

Well it is all very nice claiming eyewitness testimony you might say, but isn’t it a far simpler explanation to conclude that actually the origins of these books show that these so-called accounts are fabricated stories, made up far away from where the events supposedly took place?

To begin to answer this objection we must first take into account the style of writing of the gospels. Scholars agree that the gospels are presented to us as straightforward historical account. That is, they are full of facts such as names of places and names of people etc. Tom Clancy may fill his novels to the brim with every last detail but historical fiction didn’t bother with such exactitude. It just wasn’t the way it was done. The story was much more important that than the finer points. However, historical account was very much concerned with the facts.

Well, of course, showing that the style was historical account in no ways shows that what we have is a faithful account. What is does show however is that the authors were presenting their accounts to their readers as history. In that age historians thought that history had to be written during the time when eyewitnesses of the historical events were still available to be cross-examined. Polybius – a 2nd C. BC Greek historian – said that the role of the historian was “to believe those worthy of belief and to be a good critic of the reports that reach him.” The obvious benefit of this is that names, dates, people involved etc. – these could all be corroborated or disputed by the eyewitnesses themselves. In this way, the gospels leave specifics to be examined.

In the film Ronin, there’s a great scene the where CIA agent Sam, played by Robert De Niro, confronts Spence (Sean Bean) who claimed to be have been in the SAS. Spence is defending his tactics and Sam isn’t buying it so he pushes him on his story. “What’s the colour of the boathouse at Hereford?”, he demands. Spence falters, his story crumbling as a detail that would have been known to him if he had ever been around the SAS training base caught him out. Spence wasn’t in Hereford, he didn’t train with the SAS, he didn’t know the details.

Jesus and the Eyewitnesses is available to buy on Amazon
Jesus and the Eyewitnesses is available to buy on Amazon

Richard Bauckham published a book in 2006 called Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. One brilliant piece of research highlighted in this book looks at the difference between Jewish names in Palestine in the 1st Century, and Jewish names in Egypt in the 1st Century. The popular names were different for the two countries despite common culture and language.  An author writing in 1st Century Egypt, who had no knowledge of Palestine, would simply not know this information. Yet, when we read the Biblical accounts we see two things. Firstly, the frequency of the names used throughout the Gospels correlates extremely well to the names recorded by wider history from Palestine at that time.

Secondly, and quite incredibly, the popular names are well qualified. Let me explain. In my GCSE maths class there were four Jonathans in the room, and we all sat next to each other on purpose. To our 16-year old minds it was hilarious when our teacher would shout “Jonathan!” and we would all simultaneously express complete innocence. But it didn’t work when our surnames were snarled at us from the front.

Similarly, when we see a popular name mentioned, like Simon (most popular in Palestine at the time) we see a qualifier e.g. Simon Peter or Simon the Zealot. That is how a guy called Simon would have been known to his friends, because there were many Simons around. But someone with a less popular name wouldn’t need a qualifier, and indeed, the gospels show this too.

The fact is that the gospels are full of precise details that scholars have since verified as authentic. We see place names, distances, and the names of people involved all matching up. The four gospels were presented and accepted in the 1st Century as true historical accounts. 2000 years on after much research our studies still continue to show how incredibly trustworthy these documents are. The court has admitted the evidence and now it is up to each of us to decide if we will accept Jesus for who he, and history, says he is.

This article appeared in the May-June edition of Sorted Magazine.

2012: A Review

January 11, 2013 — 3 Comments

2012: A reviewAs if all of a sudden, the church bells across the little village began to ring out in the cold, dark night. They were heralding in the new year and at the same time marking the passing of the year gone by.

2012 was a year of completion and of new beginnings for me. From an initial nudge towards Oxford in February of 2011 opportunities have blossomed. Here are some of the things I got up to last year:

Additionally I found myself enjoying periods of travel, which even brought me back to Maui where I was able to share with the School of Biblical Foundations and Missions. That trip was one of those coming-full-circle moments. It was in 2004 when I first studied Apologetics and Worldviews at this little Pacific island base, thousands of miles away from England.

All of this stemming from a coffee with a friend in an ice cream parlour in Oxford.

Some times life can seem confusing, the future unknown and unmapped. In these times it can be of benefit to pause, reflect, and look at the track that your life has been moving down. God’s hand of providence and guidance is more easily observed retrospectively.

Observing all that 2012 and before brought me, I have every confidence moving in to 2013 in the plans that God has for me, whatever they may be!

“Ladies and Gentleman, the captain has just switched on the seatbelt sign in anticipation of upcoming moderate turbulence.” A string of words never followed by a cheery, “enjoy it!” When the bumps start I instinctively look out the window, just to make sure the wings are still there. I’m suddenly rudely aware of the extent that I’m not in control. Additionally, the thought occurs to me that if airplane disasters are simply statistics then every flight is a reduction in my odds.

Sorted Magazine - November/December 2012
Nov/Dev 2012 edition of Sorted is on sale now in newsagents in the UK. Get your subscription online.

So just how dangerous is turbulence? To answer that question, I turned to that master of knowledge, the Discovery Channel. Three words: airplane disaster documentaries. I was hooked. Human error, mechanical failure, unpredictable weather – I soaked it all in. You may think it an odd way to deal with undesirable high-altitude stress. Maybe so. My rationale was that the more I understood the more I would feel OK (as if my knowing that human error was the number one cause of airplane crashes was going to help me when I was strapped in to seat 49J with as much command over the elements as an Englishman with his BBQ hoping for that “perfect summer evening”).

My obsession with these re-enacted disasters did however bring some consolation. Through these dramas I learnt that airplane crashes are taken very seriously. They are investigated at great depth with the knowledge gained from the studies used to make future flights safer. As I learnt about the resulting developments in airplane technology my fascination with the complexity of airplanes grew and grew. I am in total awe of how advanced these modern vehicles are.

Men have sat in rooms and thought and schemed and sketched and calculated and come out with things like Concorde. Absolutely incredible. Airplane designers have my total respect. Airplane economy-section planners on the other hand … I digress.

As with my marvels at airplane technology I am profoundly in awe and wowed by scientific discoveries. As I write, NASA’s Martian rover, aptly named ‘Curiosity’, is scrambling around the Red Planet at the beginning of its two-year mission to see if conditions were ever suitable for life. Utterly fascinating.

Science describes the world we live in. It unravels mysteries that stun us with their complexity and beauty. Now, some have said, that with all of our acquired collective scientific understanding there is no need today for God to explain things. We can comprehend our world now in ways we couldn’t possibly fathom a century ago and therefore science and knowledge have replaced faith and superstition.

But science is what science is, a description of the way things are. Science relates theories and laws and provides a deeper understanding of what is physically there. Science enhances my understanding of the greatness of the makeup of the world but to conflate my knowledge of the way things work with the question of the existence of God, who explains why things exist, is to make a serious category mistake.

Being in increasing wonder of the way it all works only serves to enhance my utter awe of God. John Lennox, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, writing in the Times put it this way, “The more Newton understood of the mathematical structure of the universe, the more he admired the creative genius of God, not the less.”

Science is the poetry we use to articulate the genius of God expressed in the creation of the universe. It is a language to explain what exists, not an explanation to the question of why it exists.  Just as understanding how a well-designed plane keeps me safe at 36,000 feet goes no way to understanding what I’m doing in the plane in the first place.

This article first appeared in the Nov/Dev 2012 edition of Sorted Magazine. Pick up your copy today at WH Smith or get your subscription online.

Sorted Magazine
Sep/Oct 2012 edition of Sorted is on sale now in newsagents in the UK. Get your subscription online.

“Christianity? There are some good points to it, but I just can’t believe that one faith is superior to others. That view is intolerant.” You know the idea, it has been said in many ways. Christianity, it is understood, is basically unfair because it says that everyone else is wrong. Oh, the arrogance of this, the intolerance to other ideas and people!

In Britain today there are many people of different backgrounds, from all types of races and people groups. We can enjoy just about any food from around the world and explore just about any belief without ever leaving these fair shores. The world has come to this country and along with it has come a wonderful variety of customs, traditions, and of course, religions.

Unity in all of this diversity is greatly prized. Ideas which threaten the peace are pounced upon quickly. We can of course agree, discrimination against individuals can and should be fought against. We applaud the efforts of organisations such as FIFA to eradicate racism, a horrible and cruel practice. We celebrate equality for women in the work place as noble and worthy. But does it mean that we have to accept all religions as having equal weight? Is it discrimination to say that just one religion is correct?

Essentially this argument boils down to truth claims. When someone says that they don’t like Christianity because it is intolerant they are making a claim about truth. “I don’t like your exclusivity. I don’t like that you say that Jesus is the only way.” But as we examine those very statements being made we realise that the person making them is asserting an exclusive view too! The person who doesn’t like Christianity’s truth claims is in fact saying that their view of truth – that many viewpoints are equally valid – is the right way, the only way, to proceed. In fact, exclusivity is OK – it just must be this type of exclusivity. But hold on, within this belief this person must grant Christianity’s view too. It all starts to unravel somewhat.

The question in fact reveals that Christianity – or any religion – can’t be written off simply for making exclusive claims. All religions and ways of thinking hold some kind of exclusivity at some point. What we must do is investigate the claims that Christianity makes. Do they stack up? Does the evidence fit? Does Christianity make more sense of the world than other religions and belief systems? What we really need to do is investigate, as Alister McGrath says, what Christianity is all about. This is what we will begin to look at in future columns.

This article first appeared in the Sep/Oct edition of Sorted Magazine. Pick up your copy today at WH Smith or get your subscription today.