How can we be sure the four Gospels weren’t just made up?

Simon Gathercole, Dirk Jongkind and Peter J Williams in Edinburgh

(Photo by Andrew Robertson from the ‘Tapes From Scotland’ website)

We may be convinced that the New Testament documents are based on reliable sources – that we have what was originally written from an early date – but do we know that what they contain is reliable? How do we know they weren’t just made up?

Dr Peter J Williams, Warden of Tyndale House, Cambridge University, attempts to answer the question of the reliability of the Gospel record by looking closely at both non-Christian sources and detailed material within the Gospels themselves.

He draws on research which strongly suggests the implausibility of a claim that the four canonical gospels were clever fakes.

Were these stories made up at a later time or written from a different place, or do they include such a wealth of incidental information that was available only to the ‘close-up’ gospel writers, and which points to their authenticity?

Peter presents the material with wit and precision and we’re left with an extremely convincing case that the four gospels were indeed comprised of genuine eyewitness accounts. You’ll enjoy this!

NEW! UPDATED video link. Click on the image below:

Peter Williams

 

© Church History / Lex Loizides

Miracles, Morality and the Power of the Local Church

We’ve been enjoying Edward Gibbon’s references to the Christian church in the latter years of the Roman Empire. We’ve seen that he emphasised three factors which assisted the growth of the Church and the influence of Christianity through the Roman world.

Firstly, he mentioned their zeal, their passion. They were on a mission to reach the world. Secondly, he emphasised that their confidence in their eternal security made them courageous even in the face of danger. Thirdly, he noted that these Christians were not only zealous and bold, but that they also prayed for the sick successfully, moved in the gifts of the Holy Spirit and were able to evangelise not with persuasive words of wisdom but in a demonstration of the Spirit’s power that clearly showed to a pagan world that Jesus Christ was indeed ‘Lord’. (see 1 Cor 2:4)

Before we leave Gibbon I want to draw on his further two observations as these will serve as a safeguard to us. Having shown us the impressive nature of their gifts and works, he also mentions the morality of the believers. He notes that there was a harmony of charismatic passion and personal integrity. Indeed, in beautifully quaint language he points to ‘the reformation of manners which was introduced into the world by the preaching of the Gospel.’ (Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Penguin Classic edition ibid. p.283)

This process began, obviously, in evangelism: ‘The friends of Christianity may acknowledge without a blush that many of the most eminent saints had been before their baptism the most abandoned sinners.’ (ibid. p.284)

But the conversion of a person to the Christian faith produced not only an immediate moral impact in their lives but an ongoing one, so that they turned from their past sins, sought to support the social and economic structures of the society of which they were a part, became reliable workers, fair in business, honest in labour, modest in behaviour and faithful to both spouse and family. This notably different Christian lifestyle commended itself to those who were living close to them.

Lastly, Gibbon mentions the unity and discipline of the local churches as a factor in the sustained growth and spread of the Christian faith. The believers were locally organised under spiritually qualified elders, who cared for them, teaching them and supporting them in their new found faith. There were miracles but there were relationships and pastoral oversight.

Interestingly, Gibbon notes, ‘Independence and equality formed the basis of their internal constitution.’ (ibid. p.293) Somewhat different from the view that a single ecclesiastical power-structure oversaw all the churches, it seems that the churches were led by their own elders who drew on the wisdom of those who were apostolically or prophetically gifted.

Indeed, as we will later see, the local church has always been a key in the spread of the Christian faith in a nation or time period, and a sustainer of those powerful impulses in revival that have so impacted the world.

But, before we get there, we must look at some questions around the relationship between church and state. Just imagine if you were a Christian living in those days, wouldn’t you have prayed for the conversion of those in authority – and even the conversion of the Emperor himself? Well, early in the fourth century, after so many years of persecution, it happened!

The conversion to the Christian faith of Emperor Constantine brought a sudden and much longed-for release from persecution and an elevation and respect for the Christian faith. This was indeed an answer to prayer – but was it all good? And, what was the nature of his ‘conversion’?

We’ll see next time.

© 2008 Lex Loizides

The Missional Impact of Knowing your Sins are Forgiven

We are examining reasons that 18th century historian Edward Gibbon gives for the impressive and somewhat surprising spread of the Christian faith through the Roman Empire in the first 3 centuries.

His first suggestion is quite simply the passion of the early generations of followers of Christ. They were zealous. They were unapologetically on a mission to bring the message of the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation to God through Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth.

A Secure Salvation
His second suggestion lies in the fact that these Christians believed that their salvation was absolutely secure. They did not fear that they would lose their forgiveness, or that they could somehow be ‘unsaved’ after coming to Christ. They believed they were eternally saved by the work that Jesus did for them on the cross. This belief in their eternal security in Christ enabled them to persevere in the face of difficulties, displacement, hostility and even the threat of death.

Their eternal security made them courageous. Just as the persecution in connection with Stephen (Acts 7) had the opposite effect of silencing the church, so later persecutions caused the church to multiply and grow! This seemingly unshakable faith enabled them not only to endure but even to triumph in the face of severe persecution.

The updated version of A.M. Renwick's 'Story of the Church'
The updated version of A.M. Renwick’s ‘Story of the Church’

Historian A.M. Renwick writes:

‘The Christians refused to conform to many accepted customs.  They would have nothing to do with idolatry, and condemned the public games where gladiators fought in mortal combat to make sport for the spectators…

They refused public office and certain public duties such as the burning of incense to the gods, or the pouring of libations…The result was that they were regarded as a morose and intolerable people.  Matters came to a crisis when, in 64 A.D., the emperor Nero accused the Christians of setting fire to the city of Rome.

The public feeling against them was such that they were universally reviled.  Even a writer of the eminence of Tacitus, who disliked Nero intensely, writes of Christianity as a ‘most mischievous superstition’.  He accuses them of ‘abominations’, and declares that ‘they were put to death as enemies of mankind’.

The cruelties perpetrated at Rome in the Neronic persecution were unspeakable, and a vast number of Christians perished.  Some were wrapped in the skins of wild beasts so that they would be more savagely attacked by dogs.  Some were crucified; others were placed in barrels of pitch, or smeared with pitch and set on fire, and these living torches were used by Nero to illuminate his gardens as he drove about, enjoying the dreadful spectacle.’i

Nevertheless the good news continued to spread. What was intended to silence the followers of Jesus, seemed to have the opposite effect, and multitudes were won by their gracious and godly example, by the miracles that accompanied them and by the message itself.

Next time we’ll look at the example of the zeal and assurance one of the great Christian leaders of the 2nd century, Polycarp.

i Renwick, The Story of the Church (Leicester: IVP) p.17

© 2008 Lex Loizides

Radical 2nd Generation zeal – the gospel spreads

Historian Edward Gibbon in his famous work ‘The decline and fall of the Roman Empire’, gives several reasons for the amazing triumph of Christianity in the first centuries. In this post we’ll look briefly at the first of these: The zeal of the early generations of Christians.

The early church were definitely zealous – all were committed to preaching the gospel far and wide. Christ’s command to ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.’ (Mark 16:15) was never considered to be an optional task for particularly keen church members, but was the commission over the whole church. The Book of Acts is a testimony to the zeal of the first generation of believers. And the next generation of believers were the same!

Eusebius writes:
‘These earnest disciples of great men built on the foundations of the churches everywhere laid by the apostles, spreading the message still further…far and wide through the entire world.
Very many of the disciples…first fulfilled the Saviour’s command by distributing their possessions among the needy; then, leaving their homes behind, they carried out the work of evangelists, ambitious to preach to those who had never yet heard the message of the faith and to give them the inspired gospels in writing.

Staying only to lay the foundations of the faith in one foreign place or another, appoint others as pastors, and entrust to them the tending of those newly brought in, they set off again for other lands and peoples…[and] many miraculous powers of the divine Spirit worked through them, so that at the first hearing whole crowds in a body embraced with whole hearted eagerness the worship of the universal Creator.’i

E. Glenn Hinson, writing in Christian History Magazine, says,
‘Churches were founded in almost every way possible. Sometimes a bishop, presbyters, or deacons were sent to evangelize and organize a new church. For example, in the mid-third century, Cornelius of Rome was reputed to have sent seven bishops to Gaul (modern France) to plant churches. Other times, churches that had spontaneously formed through lay evangelism asked for a bishop to instruct them. Most churches had the same goal: evangelism…

Some converts learned about the faith through friendship with church members. Others saw or heard about exorcisms or healings. Some witnessed the arrest of a Christian or even a martyrdom. Others lived in Christian households as slaves or indentured servants. By the end of the third century, Christians had built formal churches near pagan temples across the empire.’
(cited in Christian History Magazine)

Next time we’ll see how the early believers’ assurance of their eternal security made them unstoppable in service and in risk taking in a dangerously hostile environment.

Read more here

i. Quoted in Eusebius, The History of the Church (Leicester: Penguin Classics, 1981) p.148

© 2008 Lex Loizides

Factors that assisted the spread of the gospel throughout the Roman Empire

The Gospel in the Roman Empire

A map of the Roman Empire circa 150AD
A map of the Roman Empire circa 150AD

A number of factors helped the somewhat surprising spread of the Christian Faith across the Roman world which began in the first century.

1.    The political unity of the Roman Empire did produce a certain economic and political stability, notwithstanding its many faults. This encouraged trade between large cities and regions
2.    The military and trade routes meant relatively easy access to large numbers of people (both by land and sea). Joel Kotkin writes, ‘Rome allowed considerable self-government to individual cities; the empire itself, notes the historian Robert Lopez, functioned as a ‘confederation of urban cells.’ Europe would not again see such a proliferation of secure, and well-peopled cities until well into the nineteenth century. People, products, and ideas traveled quickly through the vast archipelago of ‘urban cells’ over secure sea-lanes and fifty-one thousand miles of paved roads stretching from Jerusalem to Boulogne…Christianity’s rapid growth could not have taken plave without the empire’s expansive urban infrastructure.’ [i]
3.    The universal use of Greek as a result of former conquests aided communication
4.    The cosmopolitan atmosphere of the Empire – mixed cultures – enabled easier cross-cultural evangelism e.g., Jews who were culturally Greek (Barnabus from Cyprus, Paul the Roman citizen) were able to bridge cultures
5.    The very real and lasting impact of the ministry of Christ and the earliest apostles

To cite one illustration of the impact of the many miracles that Jesus and the early Christians performed,  Quadratus, writing very early in the second century, says:

“Our Saviour’s works were always there to see, for they were true – the people who had been cured and those raised from the dead, who had not merely been seen at the moment when they were cured or raised, but were always there to see, not only when the Saviour was among us, but for a long time after His departure; in fact, some of them survived right up to my own time.” [ii]

Those healed in the gospel accounts, as well as others, continued to be witnesses of Christ’s power for many years. The spread of the gospel through the Empire was assisted by these various factors, but the central message was consistent, and centred on Jesus Christ, His compassion, His power and His Lordship.

Gibbon’s Top Five
Historian Edward Gibbon, in his classic, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,  lists several characteristics of early Christianity that enabled this amazing expansion to take place (click the links for more info):

1. The zeal of the early Christians
2. The confidence they had in communicating their faith on account of the forgiveness of their sins.
This illustrated by Polycarp
3. The miraculous happenings that occurred wherever they went
This illustrated by Iraneaus
4. The good character of the Christians – their behaviour was attractive
5. The unity and discipline of the local churches – peoples’ lives got better as a result of believing in Christ

You can also read about the Roman Emperor Constantine and how his conversion both helped and hindered the health of the early church.

i. Joel Kotkin, The City, A Global History (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005) p.33 & p.36
ii. Quoted in Eusebius, The History of the Church (Leicester: Penguin Classics, 1981) p.155

© 2008/2015 Lex Loizides – Church History Review

Highlights from Church History

INTRODUCTION

The study of the history of the progress of the Christian Church is one of the most rewarding, challenging and life changing adventures.  We see God’s sovereign ability to honour His Son among the nations and reconcile multitudes to Himself by His grace. We will enjoy just some of the many examples of God’s triumphs through the centuries. We also see the continual battle between genuine faith and spiritual opposition, traditionalism, worldliness and sin. These studies are intentionally biographical in order to connect history more immediately to our own hearts and lives. As we catch some brief glimpses of heroes and heroines of previous generations let’s allow God to challenge us afresh and stir us with passion for the glory of His Name and for the blessing of many in our own day.

I do hope you will enjoy these posts as they go up. It’ll be great fun and hopefully we’ll be learning together. We’ll begin at about where the Book of Acts ends and ride the great and powerful wave of grace through the centuries to our present time. I hope you’ll bookmark this page and join me for an uplifting look at Christ’s Glorious Achievements!

Lex