Tag Archives: Christmas

A Fake-News Jesus? Why “Jesus Myth-ers” Should Take a Trip to Rome … (for Christmas)

After Thanksgiving, I was greeted by the following Tweet message being passed around from Harvard psychologist, Steven Pinker:

Pinker is a brilliant cognitive psychologist, linguist, and popular science author, but apparently he needs some help with his history. This new book by R. G. Price is hoping to popularize the notion of “Jesus Mythicism,” namely that Jesus of Nazareth never existed. Perhaps such “Jesus Myth-ers” should consider taking a trip to Rome, and dig a little through history.

This idea that Jesus never existed has really taken off over the past few years, picking up a lot of intrigued interest among atheists, that apparently now includes Steven Pinker, even as early as two years ago!  If professor Pinker has no opportunity to go to Rome anytime soon, say in time for Christmas, he might want to consider reading material from Tim O’Neill, a fellow atheist, who gets his history right, as discussed months ago here at Veracity. The details are too much to go into here, but O’Neill’s series on “Jesus Mythicism” is simply fantastic, where he basically argues that “Jesus Mythicism” is roughly the atheist equivalent of the belief in a “Flat Earth,” being promoted by some conservative Christians.

I guess we all have our embarrassing, crazy family members to deal with at holiday family gatherings.

But why is Rome important when it comes to talking about “Jesus Mythicism?” (… and why Christmas?)

Price’s self-published book is a revisionist reading of the Gospels, but “Jesus Myth-ers” more commonly make a different, yet just as historically convoluted, argument. Long time Veracity readers would know that those who promote “Jesus Mythicism” often say that Christianity stole much of its belief system from the Roman cult of worshipping Mithras, popular among Roman soldiers during the first centuries of the Christian era. For example, “Jesus Myth-ers” typically contend that the Christian claim, of Jesus being “born of a virgin,” at Christmas, was actually taken from the Mithraic religion, which supposedly claimed that Mithras was also “born of a virgin,” on December 25th.

Tim O’Neill has a great (yet long) post about the cult of Mithras, that should effectively dismantle such spurious claims (O’Neill has another great post that critiques R. G. Price’s own, even more peculiar version of “Jesus Mythicism,” that does not address the Mithras religion). The evidence to support the claim, that Mithras was “born of a virgin” on December 25th, is either non-existent or terribly “stupid” at best (“stupid” is how Price’s “fellow” atheist, Tim O’Neill, describes it!).

So, when my wife and I had the opportunity to go visit Rome earlier this year, I was determined to find out more about Mithras myself…. just to make sure.

The Mithras cult was a big deal in ancient Rome, and there are several places in Rome where archaeologists have found Mithraic temples buried well below buildings from the later Christian era. The closest modern equivalent to Mithraism might be the Masonic movement. Imagine a fraternity of like-minded, Roman soldiers coming together to perform sacred rituals, with all of their secret handshakes, and whatnot.

It helps to have an idea of what Mithras looked like. I was able to get this snapshot below of Mithras stabbing the cosmic bull, at the Vatican Museums. It was hard to get a good, front-on shot, due to the crowds, but this is what I saw: That is a dagger in his right hand, being thrust into the right shoulder side of the bull:

Mithras slaying the cosmic bull, at the Vatican Museums (from Clarke Morledge’s Android phone)

Tours to see the archaeological remains of these Mithraic temples were hard to get, as the spaces to get into these underground areas were pretty tight. Thankfully, we were able to go to the Basilica of San Clemente, a church in the Lateran part of Rome, which has a unique, multi-layered architecture. At the main entrance (see photo below), of the church, you enter the main sanctuary, built in the 11th century.

Entrance to the Basilica of San Clemente, in Rome, Italy (my wife has her back to me, as she is reading the entrance sign to the far right of the door).

From the sanctuary, I was able to walk to the church’s courtyard to get a better outside look, facing the entrance to the sanctuary:

Basilica of San Clemente courtyard, on a beautiful day in Rome (October, 2018)

Below that level is a 4th century church, which itself was built out of a home temporarily used for Christian worship, dating back to the 1st century. In the basement of this home, was a Mithraic temple, that was in use briefly in the 2nd century A.D.

Apparently, the Christians were here in this house first, before the Mithras worshippers got to the basement. The docent we had was pursuing graduate studies in Italian history, and she was a wealth of information about all things Mithras. Not one word about the supposed parallels between Christianity and Mithraism came up. We were not allowed to take photographs inside the church or underground, but this photo comes from the guidebook you can buy from the church’s bookstore:

Basement Mithraic temple, underneath the Basilica of San Clemente (from the church guidebook). Note the relief image of Mithras stabbing the cosmic bull, on the altar.

Once you do a little “digging” (pun intended!), you get the idea that far from being a copycat faith that stole from Mithraism, Christianity is actually quite different. Neither Mithraism nor Christianity lines up anything like what the “Jesus Myth-ers” imagine them to be.

Sure, the fact that Mithraism and Christianity are very different, does not necessarily mean that Christianity is true. A strong consensus of scholars is convinced that Jesus indeed did exist, even if many of these scholars reject the idea of God becoming Incarnate at Christmas. There are atheists, like Stephen Pinker, R. G. Price, and the more historically astute, Tim O’Neill, who do not “buy into” the Christian claim of Jesus being risen from the dead. I pray that God might touch their hearts and minds in a manner that they might see the Risen Jesus clearly.

But at the very least, the trip to Rome that my wife and I took helps to confirm that when someone says “Merry Christmas,” it is not just a clever way of saying “Merry Mithras” instead.

 

Listen to Nick Peters’ Deeper Water’s apologetics podcast, where Nick interviews Tim O’Neill discussing Jesus’ Mythicism. Tim O’Neill wrote a short review of Steven Pinker’s 2011 best-selling book, Better Angels of Our Nature, that should cause any Pinker enthusiast to pause. Steven Pinker and Nick Spencer debate one another, on the Unbelievable podcast, hosted by Justin Brierley, earlier in 2018, on the topic, “Have Science, Reason and Humanism Replaced Faith? (Youtube)” New Testament scholar N.T. Wright responds to Steven Pinker’s claim, that human rights were not derived from Christianity (Youtube).

 


Andy Stanley, and Critics Who Shoot First, and Ask Questions Later

Megachurch pastor Andy Stanley. Promoter of Biblical truth... or compromiser?

Atlanta Megachurch pastor Andy Stanley is in trouble again with a number of his fellow evangelical leader friends… or have his “friends” succumbed to a “Shoot First, Ask Questions Later” approach to evaluating his preaching?

Do you “fact check” what you read on social media, or any other source of news and information, particularly when it involves a controversial matter of grave concern?

I had just come back from a Christmas trip to visit family, when I ran across a Patheos blog article with the alarming title, “Andy Stanley: Please Relent or Step Down from Pastoral Ministry.” Mmmm…. Yet another scandal among God’s people? A megachurch pastor gone astray? What embarrassment for the Christian faith is it this time?

In this article, the author compares Andy Stanley, a megachurch pastor in Atlanta, and son of popular Bible-teacher Charles Stanley, with the mid-20th century liberal minister, Henry Emerson Fosdick, and a modern-day prosperity doctrine guru, Joel Osteen. Wow! If you know anything about evangelical theology, these are serious charges to lay against any evangelical pastor.

Andy Stanley’s preaching faux pas, per the Patheos blogger, was taken from an early December 2016 sermon delivered by Andy Stanley, regarding Christmas and the difficulty that many people in our secularized culture today have believing in the Virgin Birth of Jesus. Our scientific world has tested the credibility of such miracles, and so, many wonder if the Virgin Birth is not some type of man-made fiction. In responding to the doubts of many, Stanley was partially quoted in a Washington Post article as saying, “If somebody can predict their own death and resurrection, I’m not all that concerned about how they got into the world.”

What does that mean?

The Patheos blogger I was reading, along with a wide variety of other Internet bloggers and Christian media outlets, since early December, took this to mean that Stanley believes that the Virgin Birth is not an essential matter of Christian faith. Others interpret this by saying that Stanley was “questioning the significance of the virgin birth.” Even the venerable president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Al Mohler, took exception to Stanley’s statement as quoted by the Washington Post, on a recent “The Briefing” podcast (though it should be noted to Dr. Mohler’s credit that he did not name Stanley directly):

If Jesus was not born of the virgin then the Bible cannot be trusted when it comes to telling us the story of Jesus, and that mistrust cannot be limited to how he came to us in terms of the incarnation. The fact is that biblical Christianity and ultimately the Gospel of Christ cannot survive the denial of the virgin birth. Because without the virgin birth, you end up with a very different Jesus than the fully human, fully divine savior revealed in scripture.

Now, I agree with folks like Al Mohler that the Virgin Birth is an essential doctrine to Christian faith. It is one of the historic, fundamental beliefs of Christianity, not to mention the entire foundation for the Christmas story. But is it accurate to say or imply that pastor Andy Stanley is now denying the essential doctrine of the Virgin Birth?

Upon reading and hearing these things, I harkened back to another controversy that pastor Andy Stanley had earlier in 2016, a story covered here at Veracity (part #1 and part #2).  In that controversy, Stanley was accused of denying Biblical inerrancy. Yet strangely enough, Stanley made his own defense by appealing to one of Stanley’s teachers and mentors, Norman Geisler, who was glad to offer support for Stanley. Norman Geisler was one of the primary architects behind the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy, articulated in the 1970s. So, it really is strange to imagine that Andy Stanley, an enthusiastic student of Geisler’s, would find himself accused of denying Biblical inerrancy, then defended by Norman Geisler, and then still be accused by some of his fellow evangelical leaders as being “dangerous.”

Strange. Very strange indeed.

It reminds me of something Yogi Berra might have said: It is like “deja vu all over again.” Continue reading


The Incarnation in Three Minutes

Merry Christmas, from your friends at Veracity, and enjoy the following video. If you have a friend who is skeptical about the supernatural aspect of the Christmas miracle, and its implications, encourage them to read this exchange by pastor Tim Keller and an agnostic New York Times journalist, and discuss.

 


When Did Advent Celebrations Start?

Have you ever wondered where and when the season of Advent started? Reformed Theological Seminary history professor, Ryan Reeves, puts together some really helpful videos on church history related topics, and the following 5-minute video introducing Advent is really good.

My only quibble with the video is professor Reeves’ statement that “no one, by the way, believed that Jesus was actually born on December 25,” at the the 1:20 mark in the video.  Actually, there was quite a bit of speculation in the early church as to the correct date of Jesus’ birth, as I learned in researching an early Veracity post on the topic. In the early 200s, roughly 150 years before the Western church officially designated December 25, as the celebration feast for Jesus’ birth, the church father Hippolytus calculated December 25 as the correct date for Christ’s birth, from his Commentary on Daniel (Reeves is primarily an historian of the Reformation, and not the early church, so I will give him a pass). But Reeves’ larger point stands, centuries later, that we simply do not know when Jesus’ birthdate was with any firm degree of certainty, once you examine the Bible, and other arguments made by other commentators.

The celebration of Advent is not contingent on the exact date of Christmas. Rather, it is about encouraging the community of believers to dedicate some time to spiritually prepare for the coming of the Christ. Syncing the birth of Jesus with one of the shortest days of the year has great symbolic importance, in that as the days just begin to get longer (in the Northern Hemisphere, at least, where Christianity grew the most in the early centuries), it corresponds to the idea that Jesus is the light that has come into the world, and thus overturning the darkness of the present age.

Come, Lord Jesus!


Nunc Dimittis, As Sung By Natalie Dessay

Worship the coming Savior…

Simeon, an elderly Jew, had received a promise from the Holy Spirit that he would not die before laying eyes on the Messiah. So when Mary and Joseph bring the child Jesus to the Temple for the purification, specifically the Jewish consecration of the first born male, pidyon haben, Luke 2:22-28, Simeon took Jesus into his arms and uttered the Nunc Dimittis, named after the first phrase in Saint Jerome’s Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate (Luke 2:29-32), translated here by the English Standard Version:

“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
    according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation
    that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
    and for glory to your people Israel.” 

Johann Sebastian Bach wrote a cantata, Ich habe genug, meaning in English, “I have enough,which was first performed in Leipzig in 1727. Bach’s text is only loosely based on Luke’s text, but it conveys the meaning intended by Luke rather well: God had kept His promise to Simeon.

I have enough; I have taken the Savior,
the hope of the Gentiles, into my yearning arms.
I have enough; I have seen him, my faith has held Jesus to my heart;
now I desire but even today to depart with joy from here.
I have enough!

French opera soloist, Natalie Dessay, sings the Aria from Bach’s classic work, from the German:

Ich habe genug.
ich habe den Heiland, das Hoffen der
Frommen, auf meinen begiergen Arme genommen;
ich habe genug!
Ich hab ihn erblickt, mein
Glaube hat Jesum ans Herze
gedrückt, nun wünsch ich noch
heute mit Freuden von hinnen zu scheiden.
Ich habe genug!

Behold, the Messiah, the Savior, has come! Merry Christmas, from your friends at Veracity.

Jesus’ purification in the temple serves as a Scriptural model for the increasingly popular practice of “baby dedication” in many of today’s evangelical churches. Other posts in this blog series, based on the “Gospel in Song” preaching this year during Advent in the local church where I worship, include the Magnificat, the Benedictus, and the Gloria.


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