A Preterist Responds to ‘Four Views of Revelation’

I have just read Pat Zukeran’s article “Four Views of Revelation.” I believe he has done a rather good job in presenting the four different views as they are regarded by most scholars today. I do know that Probe is a general apologetics ministry and as such does not take an official stance on end time prophecy. However, as a former Probe intern and preterist who has done a great deal of research over the last several years on the first century fulfillment of end time prophecy, I am excited to share some of what I have learned by addressing some of these common objections to the preterist perspective raised by Pat in his article. It is my intention to use the objections raised in this article to illustrate just how formidable the preterist perspective perspective, when properly understood, can be in answering what is seen by C.S. Lewis and many other Christians as the greatest challenge to Christianity: the delay of the second coming of Christ.{1}

There are half a dozen verses in the Bible in which Jesus seems to explicitly promise to return within the lifetime of his generation. One such example is Matthew 24:34. In this chapter, Jesus promises that the temple will be destroyed, the abomination that causes desolation will be set up, and He will return on the clouds of heaven within that generation. The temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. at the same time that the abomination that causes desolation was set up on the wing of the temple. But did Jesus return as he had promised? There are four major interpretations for the Book of Revelation. This is because there really seem to be only four conceivable ways to interpret this text. If that is true and the Bible and the Book of Revelation are entirely correct, then some variation of one of these views must be true.

Most Christian preterists, like myself, started out as dispensationalists or futurists because this default perspective requires the least amount of background knowledge and as such is by far the most popular view. Most people are simply not sufficiently interested in end time prophecy to research alternative perspectives. There is an immense amount of research and historical knowledge necessary in order to understand the Book of Revelation from a preterist perspective, and I believe this fact alone accounts for its undeserved obscurity as well as the great deal of diversity of interpretations of various verses in the Book of Revelation. This diversity of interpretations should not be construed as evidence against preterism as Mounce and others suggest since similar divergence in opinions is found in all other views of this book. Because of the wealth of historical sources that must be perused, preterist apologists each seem to grasp different aspects of Revelation better than others and as such there are a number of differing opinions on different verses; thus, many false and tenuous views and interpretations have been put forth throughout the last two thousand years. I believe the more one learns about first century Roman history, the more difficult this perspective is to deny while remaining intellectually honest. I would like to try to illustrate this belief by addressing some of the common objections to preterism raised by this article. I will begin with Matthew 24:27:

“[A]s lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man” (Matt. 24:27).

I would agree with Pat that tying this event to the advancement of Rome is a stretch and if true, a major weakness to the preterist view. In this verse, Jesus likens His return to a lightning bolt that is visible from great distances. Perhaps Jesus is describing a literal event linked with His return? After all, lightning often appears to originate from dark storm clouds and Jesus did say he was to come on the clouds of heaven at His second coming. The fullness of the miracle that is the second coming of Christ can be found in the writings of three different first century historians: Tacitus, Suetonius and Josephus. When most people think of the second coming they get an image of Jesus riding on the clouds of heaven. A detailed description of the second coming can be found in Revelation 19. Here Jesus is seen in the sky riding a white horse at the head of the armies of heaven. This event is actually recorded in the writings of both Josephus and Tacitus. Here a specter is witnessed in the sky over Israel which marked the start of the Jewish revolt in AD 66. In his history of the Jewish War, Josephus writes:

On the one and twentieth day of the month Artemisius, [Jyar,] a certain prodigious and incredible phenomenon appeared: I suppose the account of it would seem to be a fable, were it not related by those that saw it, and were not the events that followed it of so considerable a nature as to deserve such signals; for, before sun-setting, chariots and troops of soldiers in their armor were seen running about among the clouds, and surrounding of cities.{2}

In the above verse, an army is witnessed in the clouds over Israel. It is not a stretch to imagine Jesus at the head of this phantom army as God often appears to men in the presence of the heavenly host. According to the New Testament, Jesus was expected to return in the presence of the holy angels. This fact is made clear in Mark 8:38 though this is certainly not the only verse.{3} In Deuteronomy 33:2, Moses revealed to the people that when God descended on Mount Sinai and Mount Paran he came with a myriad of his holy ones. Christ’s return is modeled after this prestige. Like his father before him when he had descended on Mount Sinai, Christ also came on a cloud in the company of the heavenly host.

I believe the second coming of Jesus is described in a couple different verses in Revelation since the prophecies of Revelation frequently repeat themselves.{4} I believe the second coming is described again in Revelation 12:7. Here this angelic army is described fighting the armies of Satan. This war in heaven fits the chronology of the second coming nicely and is recorded in the writings of a first century secular historian, Tacitus:

In the sky appeared a vision of armies in conflict, of glittering armour. A sudden lightning flash from the clouds lit up the Temple. The doors of the holy place abruptly opened, a superhuman voice was heard to declare that gods were leaving it, and in the same instant came the rushing tumult of their departure.{5}

In this event one can see the literal fulfillment of Matthew 24:27: “For just as lightning comes from the east and flashes even to the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be.” Possibly linked with the appearance of the heavenly host in the sky, Tacitus records a flash of lightening striking the temple followed by what may be the departure of the seven angels from the temple with the seven trumpets and bowls. The subsequent fulfillment of these plagues spans the next several years, culminating with the seventh plague resulting in the fall of Jerusalem, the whore of Babylon.

The next objection concerns the abomination that causes desolation initiated by Titus:

Second, General Titus did not set up an “abomination of desolation” (Mt. 24:15) in the Jerusalem Temple. Rather, he destroyed the Temple and burned it to the ground. Thus, it appears the preterist is required to allegorize or stretch the metaphors and symbols in order to find fulfillment of the prophecies in the fall of Jerusalem.

The abomination that causes desolation mentioned in Matthew 24:15 refers back to Daniel 9:27:

He will confirm a covenant with many for one ‘seven.’ In the middle of the ‘seven’ he will put an end to sacrifice and offering. And on a wing of the temple he will set up an abomination that causes desolation, until the end that is decreed is poured out on him.

Fitting the context of this chapter, the seven mentioned in the above verse refers to a seven year period. The Jewish War stretched across seven years and six months from the arrival of the Roman army in A.D. 66 to its conclusion at the fall of Masada. Between three and a half and four years after the start of the war, “in the middle of the seven,” Titus set up the abomination that causes desolation. This event is recorded in The Wars of the Jews:

Upon the burning of the holy house itself, and of all the building roundabout it, [the Roman army] brought their ensigns to the temple, and set them over against its eastern gate; and there did they offer sacrifices to them, and there did they make Titus imperator, with great acclamations of joy.{6}

The Roman ensigns were symbolic images of Caesar and Rome, the beast of Revelation. Upon these ensigns were often hung a cast image of the reigning Caesar.{7} Therefore it is likely that the ensigns worshipped on the eastern wing of the temple contained an image of Caesar Vespasian, the beast whose wound had been healed.{8} These ensigns were objects of the cult and were often worshipped by the Roman army. This is one such example. In an outward display of worship, the Roman army offered blasphemous sacrifices to these images of the beast on the wing of the temple, specifically its eastern gate. The fact that it was on the eastern gate is highly significant since the Messiah was to enter this gate in fulfillment of Ezekiel 44:2-3. As a side note, the entrance of a supernatural entity through this gate is recorded in Wars 6.5.3.293.{9} After this abominable act, the Romans destroyed the temple and went on a mass killing spree, hence Jesus’ warning to flee in the following verses.{10} With the temple destroyed, all sacrifices and grain offerings had permanently come to an end in fulfillment of Daniel 9:27.

The third objection is about the identity of the 144,000:

Another example of allegorical interpretation by preterists is their interpretation of Revelation 7:4. John identifies a special group of prophets: the 144,000 from the “tribes of Israel.” Preterist Hanegraaff states that this group represents the true bride of Christ and is referred to in Rev. 7:9 as the “great multitude that no one could count from every nation, tribe, people, and language.” In other words, the 144,000 in verse 4, and the great multitude in verse 9 are the same people. This appears to go against the context of the chapter for several reasons. First, throughout the Bible the phrase “tribes of Israel” refers to literal Jews. Second, John says there are 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. This is a strange way to describe the multitude of believers from all nations. Finally, the context shows John is speaking of two different groups: one on the earth (the 144,000 referenced in 7:1-3), and the great multitude in heaven before the throne (7:9). Here Hanegraaff appears to be allegorizing the text.

I agree that Hank Hanagraaf is putting a square peg in a round hole by equating the 144,000 with the innumerable multitude from every nation, tribe and language before the heavenly throne. The 144,000 are Jewish Christians. In my opinion, the 144,000 where the Jewish Christians referred to by Eusebius that fled to Pella before the war.{11} These Christians seem to fit the 144,000 well because they were preserved from the ravages of Israel’s war with Rome. These saints then returned to Israel after the war with Rome.

The fourth criticism of preterism has to do with a perceived lack of victory of good over evil:

Robert Mounce states,

The major problem with the preterist position is that the decisive victory portrayed in the latter chapters of the Apocalypse was never achieved. It is difficult to believe that John envisioned anything less than the complete overthrow of Satan, the final destruction of evil, and the eternal reign on God. If this is not to be, then either the Seer was essentially wrong in the major thrust of his message or his work was so helplessly ambiguous that its first recipients were all led astray.

I absolutely agree with Mounce, the overthrow of Satan and the eternal reign of the Messiah is certainly presented in the seer’s vision. However, this is primarily a heavenly event because God and his messiah rule earth from heaven since earth is merely God’s footstool. Christ was not to reign eternally on earth, his throne, like that of his Father, is and was in heaven. Paul writes, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”{12}The final casting out of Satan and his forces of evil from heaven is a consequence of the war in heaven mentioned in Revelation 12:7. Interestingly, this war was seen in the skies over Israel as mentioned by the Roman historian Tacitus, whom I have quoted above.{13} This war resulted in the destruction of heaven prophesied in the Bible. One clear example of the anticipated destruction of heaven is found in 2 Peter 3:12: “That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire…” The prophet Isaiah looked ahead to the aftermath of this destruction in Isaiah 65:17: “See I will create a new heaven and a new earth.” The new Jerusalem mentioned in Revelation 21 and 22 is the new heaven and the new earth. The earthly Jerusalem had been destroyed after the war with Rome in the same way that the heavenly Jerusalem had been destroyed as a result of the war between Christ and His rival, Satan. The last two chapters of Revelation describe the rebuilding of the Jerusalem on earth in such a way as to mirror the Jerusalem that is in heaven after it was destroyed with all its grandeur and glory. The destruction of both the Jerusalem on earth and the Jerusalem in heaven would seem to be concurrent events evidenced by the war seen in the skies over Israel at the start of Israel’s war with Rome as well as the frequency in which these two events are linked in prophecy.

This great victory in heaven also has an earthly shadow. In the same way that the wicked angels were cast out of heaven at the return of Christ, the earthly victory attained at the end of the Jewish War resulted in the expulsion of the wicked out of Israel. Jerusalem with its temple on earth was to represent heaven symbolically and thus the inhabitants of this nation were expected to be righteous. In Deuteronomy 28, God promised to destroy and expel the inhabitants of Israel if they ever rejected him and his law. God made good on this promise a couple times throughout the Old Testament and the final culmination of this curse took place amidst the Jewish War with Rome and the subsequent Bar Kochba rebellion. Each and every curse mentioned in Deuteronomy 28, even as far as the return to slavery in Egypt, is recorded to have been fulfilled throughout the course of these two wars most of them several times over. The Bible is clear that the nation of Israel, especially its leadership, had become hopelessly corrupt. This is why Jesus was perpetually angry at the scribes, Pharisees and teachers of the Law.

One of many prominent examples of Jesus’ feelings about the Jewish leadership can be found in Matthew 23. But it was not just the Jewish leadership that had fallen away, a great percentage of the common people had rejected God as well. In Luke 11:29 Jesus laments, “This generation is a wicked generation.” Jesus was not the only Jew to note the wickedness of his first century contemporaries. The author of The Wars of the Jews which outlines the fulfillment of much of the events detailed in the Book of Revelation, was also a first century Jew. The outstanding wickedness of first century Israelites is a recurrent theme throughout Josephus’ account of the Jewish War. In this text, Josephus writes concerning the destruction of Jerusalem and the perceived wickedness of its occupants, “Neither did any other city ever suffer such miseries, nor did any age ever breed a generation more fruitful in wickedness that this was, from the beginning of the world.”{14} Over the next 1000 years, until the first Crusade, Gentile Christians had migrated into Israel until Jerusalem had become 95% Christian. Christians were an overwhelming majority during this millennium–even after the Muslim conquest. During this 1000 year period, Israel had experienced unprecedented peace–much more so than any other time period in all of Israel’s history. Few people know much about events in Israel during the first thousand years of the Common Era, and there is a good reason: virtually nothing bad ever happened.{15} The great victory achieved at the end of Revelation is the destruction and exile of the wicked people of Israel, the whore of Babylon, to make way for the new Jerusalem, a Jerusalem occupied by the faithful of God. This earthly victory of the saints is a shadow of the final victory illustrated at the end of Revelation which ultimately points to the aftermath of the destruction of heaven and the establishment of the New Jerusalem therein. There is a lot that can be said about this heavenly and earthly victory and everything else I have mentioned thus far. The rest of which is far beyond my original intentions in writing this essay.

The last argument against preterism has to do with the fact that the majority of scholars believe that Revelation was written during Domitian’s reign. This of course presents a problem to this view as virtually all predictions detailed in Revelation are believed to have already occurred before Domitian had become emperor. A detailed and compelling rebuttal of this commonly held view can be found in Before Jerusalem Fell by Kenneth Gentry. In this book, Dr. Gentry presents the multifaceted internal and external evidence in favor of an earlier date of composition: specifically during Nero’s reign.

Reading through the works of Eusebius, Josephus, Tacitus, Cassius Dio and Suetonius one can find a multitude of recorded natural and supernatural events that fit the vast array of Biblical predictions concerning the end time like a glove. There are few instances in which the fulfillment of end time events is not recorded somewhere in the writings of the above mentioned historians and thus when properly informed there is really no need to “excessively allegorize.”

My intention in commenting on the objections raised to the preterist perspective mentioned in this article was to illustrate the fact that there are compelling answers to perhaps any question that can be raised concerning the end of the age. I strongly believe the more one studies the Bible alongside first century Roman history, the more amazed one will be upon finding just how remarkably well the information found in these sources matches up with the detailed predictions concerning the end time. Because many of the predictions concerning the end of the age found in the Bible were written hundreds of years before their fulfillment, I see preterism as one of the greatest tools an informed Christian can use to defend the divine inspiration of the Bible. The delay of the second coming is seen by many as Christianity’s Achilles heel. The fact that there are not just answers to this dilemma, but extremely compelling ones is a testimony to the infallibility of the word of God, and it is my hope that someday in my lifetime good answers from the preterist perspective will be in every great apologetic tool kit.

Notes

1. www.preteristarchive.com/StudyArchive/t/theory_parousia-delay.html

2. Josephus, The Wars of the Jews 6.5.3.

3. Luke 9:26; 1 Thessalonians 3:13; Jude 1:14; Revelation 19:11-14.

4. One example of this repetition is the seven trumpets and the seven plagues. When read side by side, these seven plagues and trumpets seem similar enough to suggest the possibility that they are actually describing the same tragedies. This view is solidified much further when examining their historical fulfillment over the latter half of the first century.

5. Tacitus, The Histories 5.13.

6. Wars 6.6.1.

7. Suetonius, Lives of the Twelve Caesars 3.48, 4.14; Tacitus, The Histories 4.62,1.41.

8. The beast of Revelation is a metaphor to describe an empire in the same way that the four beasts in Daniel 7 symbolized four great empires. The fourth beast was Rome. In Revelation 13, Rome is described in greater detail as a seven-headed dragon also known as a leviathan. The leviathan was a mythical seven-headed sea monster of ancient Canaanite lore. It is believed by some scholars that the myth of the leviathan may have given rise to the Greek myth of the hydra with its ability to grow back wounded heads. The seven heads of the leviathan represent seven Caesars. The sixth Caesar, Nero, killed himself in the middle of the Jewish War with Rome by stabbing himself in the neck; thus, Nero represents the wounded head of the beast in Revelation 13:3. At his death, Nero had not named his successor which left a power vacuum that pitted the Roman elite against each other in an epic succession struggle that seemed almost certain to topple the empire. During the year after Nero’s death, Rome was in the middle of two wars in addition to a three-way civil war which had left three dead Caesars in its wake. Ultimately control of the empire rested on Caesar Vespasian, the lead general of the Roman army during the Jewish War. Shortly after Vespasian rose to power, Jerusalem fell and peace resumed throughout the empire. Rome miraculously had not fallen and was seemingly stronger than ever; therefore, Vespasian represents the healing of the sixth head of the beast.

9. The eastern gate of the temple was to remain shut at all times. The only time it was to be opened was when the prince would enter it to offer sacrifices in the temple. According to Wars, the gate of the temple was seen to have opened on its own accord during Passover. Josephus suggests that at the sixth hour of the night, the eastern gate of the temple opened on its own and at the ninth hour a light shone round the altar and the temple. So bright was this light that it appeared to be daytime in the city of Jerusalem. There are several interesting things to note about this miracle: First, Passover was the holiday in which Jesus was crucified. Furthermore, according to Matthew 27:45, during the crucifixion darkness was over the land from the sixth hour to the ninth hour of the day. Here thirty-three years later on the anniversary of Jesus’ crucifixion, the opposite occurs: the eastern gate of the temple opened on the sixth hour of the night and at the ninth hour Jerusalem was bathed in a mysterious light so bright that it appeared to be daytime in the middle of the night. In this miracle, we find the literal fulfillment of Zechariah 14:7.

10. Matt 24:16-22.

11. Eusebius, The History of the Church 3.5.

12. Ephesians 6:12.

13 Tacitus, The Histories 5.13.

14. Josephus, The Wars of the Jews 5.10.5, 6.8.5.

15. Other than the Bar Kochba rebellion, a couple instances of Roman persecution of Christians, and one or two brief skirmishes, Israel was peaceful and prosperous. Israel and especially Jerusalem was very wealthy and the standard of living was exceedingly good.

© 2011 Probe Ministries




Did Christianity Borrow From Pagan Religions? – Early Christianity and Other Religions

The Da Vinci Code and related contemporary non-fiction books make the claim that Christianity was a hodge podge of beliefs taken from other pagan religious traditions.  Morais and Gleghorn take a long hard look at this claim and determine that it has very little basis in fact.  They demonstrate that the theory that early Christianity was borrowed from other religions does not stand up to rigorous examination.

The Da Vinci Code Deception

In Dan Brown’s bestselling novel, The Da Vinci Code, Leigh Teabing, the fictional royal historian, makes the following claim: “Nothing in Christianity is original. The pre-Christian god Mithras—called the Son of God and the Light of the World—was born on December 25, died, was buried in a rock tomb, and then resurrected in three days.”{1} Is there any truth to all this?{2}

The Da Vinci Code claims that Christianity is not rooted in a unique, historical Jesus who claimed to be the Son of God, was born of a virgin, died, and was resurrected in three days. Instead, it says that early Christians borrowed these ideas from pagan mystery cults like Mithraism, and attributed these characteristics to the historical Jesus who never really said or did any of these things. Did Christianity borrow its history and theology from Mithraism or any other mystery religion?

From about 1890-1940, critical Bible scholars suggested that early Christianity may have borrowed some of its ideas from pagan mystery religions. However, after a barrage of criticism this theory has been largely abandoned in the field of religious studies. Despite its current lack of acceptance by experts, however, this theory continues to be set forth in popular books like The Da Vinci Code and other publications.{3}

What is Mithraism, and what are the mystery cults? The mystery religions were called such because of their use of secret ceremonies and beliefs that were thought to bring their participants salvation.{4} Ceremonies were usually held in secluded places, at night, away from the public eye.{5} Different parts of the Mediterranean spawned their own mystery religions. Greece had the cults of Dionysus and Demeter as well as the Orphic mystery cults. Out of Phrygia in Asia Minor came the Cybele and Attis cults. The cult of Isis and Osiris arose in Egypt. Syria and Palestine had the cult of Adonis, while Mithraism originated in Persia, or modern day Iran.{6}

Dr. Ronald Nash wrote, “One frequently encounters scholars who first use Christian terminology to describe pagan beliefs and practices and then marvel at the awesome parallels they think they have discovered.”{7} However, the theory that Christianity borrowed its beliefs from paganism has now been discarded in large part because it seems likely that if any borrowing of beliefs occurred it would almost certainly have been the other way around. One could be a participant in the mystery cults of Isis or Mithras without giving up his or her previous beliefs, but not so with Christianity. With its roots in Judaism, Christianity, even in its earliest form, was an extremely exclusivist religion with deep disregard for all that was pagan.{8}

The Myth of Mithras

Mithraism was probably the most significant of the mystery religions. Mithras was the twin brother of the Zoroastrian god Ahura Mazda. Mithras was born when he emerged from a rock. He battled with the sun and then with the primeval bull. When Mithras slew the bull, this became the first act of creation as it created the ground of life for humanity. Like Zoroastrianism, Mithraism believed that the world was a battleground between good and evil and mankind must pick sides. Mithras was the mediator who would assist humans in their struggles with darkness. If man passed his tests, he would eventually be reunited with the good god, but if he failed he would be thrown into a realm of eternal punishment. The Romans associated good and evil with light and darkness, and because of this fact, Mithras became known as the Sun God—not the Son of God.{9}

The Mithraic religion was constantly changing and adapting itself to the culture. This being the case, the most likely explanation for the myths about Mithras’ miraculous birth and his becoming a “savior god” were in all likelihood borrowed from Christianity.{10} Though the cult started long before Christianity in Iran, there’s no evidence of its presence in the Roman Empire during the first century when the original New Testament documents were being written. So this pagan cult could not have influenced the original New Testament manuscripts. But could later copies of the New Testament have been tainted with Mithraism?

Our oldest intact fragments of the New Testament are virtually identical with the Bible we have today and it seems clear that though we don’t possess any of the original writings, what we do have are quite accurate representations of the originals. Sir Frederick Kenyon wrote, “The interval, then, between the dates of original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written now has been removed.”{11}

In conclusion, Mithras was the Sun God, not the Son of God, and given the exclusivist nature of Christianity and the fact that Mithraism and Christianity did not overlap during the first century, any similarities between the two religions were most likely due to a later Christian influence on Mithraism and not the other way around.

The Da Vinci Code Dissected

In the novel The Da Vinci Code, the Holy Grail expert, Leigh Teabing, claims that the pre-Christian god Mithras was also called the Son of God and the Light of the World. He then goes on to say that Mithras also died, was buried in a rock tomb, and rose again in three days. Brown also claims a parallel with Krishna mythology, according to which the newborn Krishna was, like Jesus, also given gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.{12} Is there any truth to these pagan/Christian parallels?

As noted earlier, the Romans came to understand the pagan god Mithras as the Sun God (not the Son of God).{13} If Mithras was understood to be the Sun God, it wouldn’t be a wild idea to call him “The Light of the World.” However, that specific title does not appear to have been given him in the ancient Roman world.{14} Also, experts in the Mithraic religion like Franz Cumont and Richard Gordon both assert that there was no death, burial, or resurrection of Mithras.{15} Dan Brown’s source for this misinformation about Mithras being called the “Light of the World” and the “Son of God,” as well as his alleged death and resurrection, has eluded many of his critics. It’s not certain where he got this information, though it’s possible that his source may have been a discredited nineteenth-century historian who also provided no documentation or support for these claims.{16}

It seems that Dan Brown may have also used this same historian for his allegation that at Krishna’s birth, he was presented with gold, frankincense, and myrrh. There is no story in Krishna mythology to support this claim.{17} The Bhagavad-Gita does not mention Krishna’s childhood, and the other sources that do were written hundreds of years after the Christian Bible.

Even if all these Mithras/Christ similarities were true, since these two religions hadn’t yet overlapped in Rome during the time when the New Testament was being written, Mithraism couldn’t have influenced Christian theology. One Mithras expert asserts that “no Mithraic monument can be dated earlier than the end of the first century A.D., and even the more extensive investigation at Pompeii, buried beneath the ashes of Vesuvius in A.D. 79, have not so far produced a single image of the god.”{18}

Most critical Bible scholars no longer believe that Christianity borrowed its core beliefs from the pagan mystery religions like Mithraism. Due to the lack of good evidence this theory has been largely abandoned.{19}

Sunday or Son Day

Early Christianity and the Bible have been relentlessly attacked on many different levels in the fast-paced thriller The Da Vinci Code. In the novel, Langdon claims that “Christianity’s weekly holy day was stolen from the pagans. Christianity honored the Jewish Sabbath of Saturday, but Constantine shifted it to coincide with the pagan’s veneration day of the sun.”{20}

More than two hundred years before Constantine, some of the earliest Christian writings, which later became part of the New Testament, made it clear that there was a Sabbath on Saturday and a separate “Lord’s Day” on Sunday. The reason Christians had a separate “Lord’s Day” in addition to the Sabbath was because early Christians wanted to celebrate on Sunday, the day that Jesus had risen from the dead.{21}

There are many references in the New Testament, written hundreds of years before Constantine, that illustrate the difference between Sunday and the Sabbath day. Shortly after Christ’s death, in Acts 20:7 Luke writes about “the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, . . .” This quote from Luke makes it clear that Christians during the first century were already worshiping together on the first day of the week which was Sunday. The apostle Paul refers to making a collection for an offering on Sunday in 1 Corinthians 16:2. And the last book in the Bible, the Book of Revelation, makes reference to Sunday being called the “Lord’s Day” in order to distinguish it from the Sabbath (Rev. 1:10).

There are also early Christian writings outside the New Testament that confirm that Christians celebrated the “Lord’s Day” on Sunday. The church father Justin Martyr wrote, “And on the day called Sunday there is a gathering together to one place of all those who live in cities or in the country, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits.”{22} Justin Martyr lived during the second century, and had died long before Constantine was born.

The Sabbath has always been Saturday. That has never changed. But Christians usually attend church services on Sunday because that’s the day of Christ’s resurrection. In other words, Christians didn’t “move” the Sabbath to Sunday. They simply chose to gather for corporate worship on Sunday.

Finally, with regard to the claim that Sunday was tied to the worship of a pagan god, it’s important to note that all the days of the week—whether Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, or Sunday—were tied to the worship of one pagan god or another.{23}

Christmithras

Previously we mentioned that the pagan god Mithras was not called the “Son of God” or the “Light of the World”. He also never died and rose again in three days. But was he born on December 25? According to the myth of Mithras, his birthday was in fact celebrated on December 25. According to this myth, Mithras sprang up full-grown from a rock, carrying a knife and a torch. Shepherds watched his miraculous birth and greeted him with their first fruits, their flocks and their harvests. The cult of Mithras spread throughout the Roman Empire during the second century. In A.D. 274, the Roman emperor Aurelian declared December 25 the Birthday of Sol Invictus (the Unconquerable Sun).{24}

The Bible never indicates when Jesus was born, and no one today knows with certainty the day of his birth. Since the most likely time for taxation was in the fall or spring, some biblical scholars have suggested that he may have been born then rather than in the winter.{25} Prior to the fourth century, the Eastern Church celebrated Epiphany (which included the birth of Christ) in January. In the fourth century, the Church in Rome also began celebrating Christ’s birth, and the practice quickly spread throughout Christendom. Eventually, December 25 “became the officially recognized date for Christmas.”{26}

But why did the church choose to celebrate Christ’s birth on the same day as the pagan Feast of the Unconquerable Sun? One scholar explains it this way:

When Christianity became the religion of the Empire, the church either had to suppress the festivals or transform them. The winter solstice seemed an appropriate time to celebrate Christ’s birth. Thus, the festival of the sun became a festival of the Son, the Light of the world.{27}

The theory that Christianity borrowed its beliefs from paganism has now been largely discredited. If any borrowing of beliefs occurred it was almost certainly the other way around. Unlike Christianity, which claims to be the sole source of truth, one could be a participant in many of the mystery cults without giving up his or her previous beliefs. Even if all the Mithras/Christ similarities were true, nevertheless, since the two religions hadn’t overlapped in Rome during the time when the New Testament was being written, Mithraism could not have influenced Christianity’s primary sources. The Bible has withstood the test of time and still today stands strong in the face of continued critical scholarship.

Notes

www.probe.org/paul-and-the-mystery-religions/.
3. Ronald H. Nash, The Gospel and the Greeks: Did the New Testament Borrow from Pagan Thought? (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1992), 9,10.
4. Ibid., 115.
5. Ibid., 132, 133.
6. Ibid., 116.
7. Ibid., 126.
8. J. Gresham Machen, The Origin of Paul’s Religion (New York: Macmillian, 1925), 9.
9. Nash, The Gospel and the Greeks, 143-146.
10. Ibid., 147.
11. Josh McDowell, The Resurrection Factor (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1981), 25-26.
12. Brown, The Da Vinci Code, 232.
13. Nash, The Gospel and the Greeks, 146.
14. Josh McDowell, The Da Vinci Code: A Quest for Answers (Holiday: Green Key Books, 2006), 38.
15. Ibid., 38. See also www.aboutbibleprophecy.com/davinci.htm.
16. Carl E. Olson and Sandra Miesel, “Christ, the Early Church, Constantine, and the Council of Nicaea” at www.envoymagazine.com/PlanetEnvoy/Review-DaVinci-part2-Full.htm.
17. Ibid.
18. M. J. Vermaseran, Mithras: The Secret God (London: Chatto & Windus, 1963), 29, cited in Nash, The Gospel and the Greeks, 148.
19. Ibid., 9-10.
20. Brown, The Da Vinci Code, 232-233.
21. McDowell, A Quest for Answers, 40.
22. James Donaldson and Alexander Roberts eds., First Apology in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol.1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 1.67.
23. See www.aboutbibleprophecy.com/davinci.htm.
24. See www.schooloftheseasons.com/xmas.html.
25. Ibid.
26. O. G. Oliver, Jr., “Christmas,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984), 220.
27. Fred A. Grissom, “Christmas,” in Holman Bible Dictionary, gen. ed. Trent C. Butler (Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 1991), 253.

 © 2006 Probe Ministries




Did Jesus Really Perform Miracles?

Former Probe intern Dr. Daniel Morais and Probe staffer Michael Gleghorn argue that Jesus’ miracles have a solid foundation in history and should be regarded as historical fact.

What Do Modern Historians Think?

“I can believe Jesus was a great person, a great teacher. But I can’t believe He performed miracles.” Ever hear comments like this? Maybe you’ve wondered this yourself. Did Jesus really perform miracles?

Marcus Borg, a prominent member of the Jesus Seminar{1}, has stated, “Despite the difficulty which miracles pose for the modern mind, on historical grounds it is virtually indisputable that Jesus was a healer and exorcist.”{2} Commenting on Jesus’ ability to heal the blind, deaf, and others, A. M. Hunter writes, “For these miracles the historical evidence is excellent.”{3}

Critical historians once believed that the miracles attributed to Jesus in the Bible were purely the product of legendary embellishment. Such exaggerations about Jesus’ life and deeds developed from oral traditions which became more and more fantastic with time until they were finally recorded in the New Testament. We all know how tall tales develop. One person tells a story. Then another tells much the same story, but exaggerates it a bit. Over time the story becomes so fantastic that it barely resembles the original. This is what many scholars once believed happened to Jesus’ life, as it’s recorded in the Gospels. Is this true? And do most New Testament historians believe this today?

The answer is no. In light of the evidence for the historicity of Jesus’ miracles in the Gospels, few scholars today would attempt to explain these events as purely the result of legend or myth. In fact, most New Testament scholars now believe that Jesus did in fact perform healings and exorcisms.{4} Even many liberal scholars would say that Jesus drew large crowds of people primarily because of his ability to heal and “exorcise demons.”{5} But because many of these liberal scholars don’t believe in spiritual beings, they also don’t believe that these healings should be attributed to the direct intervention of God in the world. Instead, they believe that Jesus’ miracles and healings have a purely natural explanation. Many of them think that Jesus only healed psychosomatic maladies.{6} The term psychosomatic means mind-body, so psychosomatic maladies are mind-body problems. The mind can have a powerful impact on the health of the body. Under extreme distress people can become blind, deaf or even suffer paralysis. Since psychosomatic problems typically go away on their own, many liberal scholars think that faith in Jesus’ ability to heal might help to heal some people suffering from these conditions. But is there good reason to believe that Jesus could cure real sicknesses?

Could These Miracles Be Legendary?

Often, historians who tried to explain away stories of Jesus’ miracles as purely the result of legendary developments believed that the “real” Jesus was little more than a good man and a wise teacher. The major problem with this theory is that legends take time to develop. Multiple generations would be needed for the true oral tradition regarding Jesus’ life to be replaced by an exaggerated, fictitious version. For example, many historians believe that Alexander the Great’s biography stayed fairly accurate for about five hundred years. Legendary details didn’t begin to develop until the following five hundred years.{7} A gross misrepresentation of Jesus’ life occurring one or two generations after his death is highly unlikely. Jesus was a very public figure. When He entered a town, He drew large crowds of people. Jesus is represented as a miracle worker at every level of the New Testament tradition. This includes not only the four Gospels, but also the hypothetical sayings source, called Q, which may have been written just a few years after Jesus’ death. Many eyewitnesses of Christ would still have been alive at the time these documents were composed. These eyewitnesses were the source of the oral tradition regarding Jesus’ life, and in light of his very public ministry, a strong oral tradition would be present in Israel for many years after his death.

If Jesus had never actually performed any miracles, then the Gospel writers would have faced a nearly impossible task in getting anyone to believe that He had. It would be like trying to change John F. Kennedy from a great president into an amazing miracle worker. Such a task would be virtually impossible since many of us have seen JFK on TV, read about him in the papers, or even seen him in person. Because he was a public figure, oral tradition about his life is very strong even today. Anyone trying to introduce this false idea would never be taken seriously.

During the second half of the first century, Christians faced intense persecution and even death. These people obviously took the disciples’ teaching about Jesus’ life seriously. They were willing to die for it. This only makes sense if the disciples and the authors of the Gospels represented Jesus’ life accurately. You can’t easily pass off made-up stories about public figures when eyewitnesses are still alive who remember them. Oral tradition tends to remain fairly accurate for many generations after their deaths.{8}

In light of this, it’s hard to deny that Jesus did in fact work wonders.

Conversion from Legend to Conversion Disorder

It might be surprising to hear that Jesus is believed by most New Testament historians to have been a successful healer and exorcist.{9} Since His miracles are the most conspicuous aspect of his ministry, the miracle tradition found in the Gospels could not be easily explained had their authors started with a Jesus who was simply a wise teacher. Prophets and teachers of the law were not traditionally made into miracle workers; there are almost no examples of this in the literature available to us.{10} It’s especially unlikely that Jesus would be made into a miracle worker since many Jews didn’t expect that the Messiah would perform miracles. The Gospel writers would not have felt the need to make this up were it not actually the case.{11}

Of course, most liberal scholars today don’t believe Jesus could heal any real illnesses. But such conclusions are reached, not because of any evidence, but because of prior prejudices against the supernatural. Secular historians deny that Jesus cured any real, organic illnesses or performed any nature miracles such as walking on water.{12} They believe He could only heal conversion disorders or the symptoms associated with real illnesses.{13} Conversion disorder is a rare condition that afflicts approximately fourteen to twenty-two of every 100,000 people.{14} Conversion disorders are psychosomatic problems in which intense emotional trauma results in blindness, paralysis, deafness, and other baffling impairments.

Many liberal scholars today would say that Jesus drew large crowds of people primarily because of his ability to heal. But if Jesus could only cure conversion disorders, then it’s unlikely He would have drawn such large crowds. As a practicing optometrist, I’ve seen thousands of patients with real vision loss due either to refractive problems or pathology. But only one of them could be diagnosed with blindness due to conversion disorder. Conversion disorders are rare. In order for Jesus to draw large crowds of people He would have had to be a successful healer. But if He could only heal conversion disorders, thousands of sick people would have had to be present for him to heal just one person. But how could He draw such large crowds if He could only heal one person in 10,000? Sick people would have often needed to travel many miles to see Jesus. Such limited ability to heal could hardly have motivated thousands of people to walk many miles to see Jesus, especially if they were sick and feeble. If Jesus was drawing large crowds, He must have been able to heal more than simply conversion disorders.

Did Jesus Raise the Dead?

“Did Jesus ever raise the dead? Is there any evidence to back this up?” Many secular historians, though agreeing that Jesus was a successful healer and exorcist, don’t believe that He could perform nature miracles. Due to prior prejudices against the supernatural, these historians don’t believe it’s possible for anyone to raise the dead, walk on water, or heal true organic diseases. These historians believe Jesus’ healings were primarily psychological in nature.{15} Is there any evidence that Jesus had the power to work actual miracles such as raising the dead?

Yes. It almost seems that the more fantastic the miracle, the more evidence is available to support it. In fact, the most incredible miracle recorded in the Gospels is actually the one which has the greatest evidential support. This miracle is Jesus’ resurrection.{16} Is there any reason to believe that Jesus may have raised others from the dead as well?

There is compelling evidence to believe that He did. In John 11 there’s the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.{17} A careful reading of this text reveals many details that would be easy for anyone in the first century to confirm or deny. John records that Lazarus was the brother of Mary and Martha. He also says that this miracle took place in Bethany where Lazarus, Mary, and Martha lived, and that Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem. John’s gospel is believed to have been written in AD 90, just sixty years after the events it records. It’s possible that a few people who witnessed this event, or at least had heard of it, would still be alive to confirm it. If someone wanted to check this out, it would be easy to do. John says this took place in Bethany, and then He tells us the town’s approximate location. All someone would have to do to check this out would be to go to Bethany and ask someone if Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, had ever been raised from the dead. Villages were generally small in those days and people knew each other’s business. Almost anyone in that town could easily confirm or deny whether they had ever heard of such an event. If John just made this story up, he probably wouldn’t have included so much information that could be easily checked out by others to see if he was lying. Instead, he probably would have written a vague story about Jesus going to some unnamed town where He raised some unnamed person from the dead. This way no one could confirm or deny the event. John put these details in to show that he wasn’t lying. He wanted people to investigate his story. He wanted people to go to Bethany, ask around, and see for themselves what really happened there.

What Did Jesus’ Enemies Say?

“Sure, Jesus’ followers believed He could work miracles. But what about his enemies, what did they say?” If Jesus never worked any miracles, we would expect ancient, hostile Jewish literature to state this fact. But does such literature deny Jesus’ ability to work miracles? There are several unsympathetic references to Jesus in ancient Jewish and pagan literature as early as the second century AD. But none of the ancient Jewish sources deny Jesus’ ability to perform miracles.{18} Instead, they try to explain these powers away by referring to him as a sorcerer.{19} If the historical Jesus were merely a wise teacher who only later, through legendary embellishments, came to be regarded as a miracle worker, there should have been a prominent Jewish oral tradition affirming this fact. This tradition would likely have survived among the Jews for hundreds of years in order to counter the claims of Christians who might use Jesus’ miraculous powers as evidence of his divine status. But there’s no evidence that any such Jewish tradition portrayed Jesus as merely a wise teacher. Many of these Jewish accounts are thought to have arisen from a separate oral tradition apart from that held by Christians, and yet both traditions agree on this point.{20} If it were known that Jesus had no special powers, these accounts would surely point that out rather than reluctantly affirm it. The Jews would likely have been uncomfortable with Jesus having miraculous powers since this could be used as evidence by his followers to support his self-proclaimed status as the unique Son of God (a position most Jews firmly denied). This is why Jesus’ enemies tried to explain his powers away as sorcery.

Not only do these accounts affirm Jesus’ supernatural abilities, they also seem to support the ability of his followers to heal in his name. In the Talmud, there’s a story of a rabbi who is bitten by a venomous snake and calls on a Christian named Jacob to heal him. Unfortunately, before Jacob can get there, the rabbi dies.{21} Apparently, the rabbi believed this Christian could heal him. Not only did Jews seem to recognize the ability of Christians to heal in Christ’s name, but pagans did as well. The name of Christ has been found in many ancient pagan spells.{22} If even many non-Christians recognized that there was power to heal in Christ’s name, there must have been some reason for it.

So, a powerful case can be made for the historicity of Jesus’ miracles. Christians needn’t view these miracles as merely symbolic stories intended to teach lessons. These miracles have a solid foundation in history and should be regarded as historical fact.

Notes

1. Gary R. Habermas, “Did Jesus Perform Miracles?,” in Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus, by eds. Michael J. Wilkins and J.P. Moreland (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995), 124.
2. Marcus J. Borg, Jesus, A New Vision: Spirit, Culture, and The Life of Discipleship (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1991), 61.
3. A.M. Hunter, Jesus: Lord and Saviour (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 63.
4. Wilkins and Moreland, Jesus Under Fire, 124.
5. See Borg, Jesus, A New Vision, 60.
6. Wilkins and Moreland, Jesus Under Fire, 125.
7. Craig L. Blomberg, quoted in Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998), 33.
8. Grant R Jeffrey, The Signature of God (Nashville: Word Publishing, 1998) 102, 103.
9. Wilkins and Moreland, Jesus Under Fire, 124, 125.
10. Smith, Jesus the Magician: Charlatan or Son of God? (Berkeley: Seastone, 1998), 21.
11. Graham H. Twelftree, Jesus, The Miracle Worker: A Historical and Theological Study (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 247.
12. Ibid.
13. Wilkins and Moreland, Jesus Under Fire, 125.
14. See the National Organization for Rare Diseases’ official Web site at www.rarediseases.org/nord/search/rdbdetail_fullreport_pf (5/04/2006).
15. Wilkins and Moreland, Jesus Under Fire, 125.
16. William Lane Craig, “The Empty Tomb of Jesus,” in In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History, by eds. R. Douglas Geivett and Gary R. Habermas (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 247-261 and Gary R. Habermas, “The Resurrection Appearances of Jesus,” Ibid., 261-275.
17. John. 11:1-44.
18. See Alan Humm, “Toledoth Yeshu,” at ccat.sas.upenn.edu/humm/Topics/JewishJesus/toledoth.html (2/17/1997).
19. Ibid.
20. Twelftree, Jesus, The Miracle Worker, 255.
21. Smith, Jesus the Magician, 63.
22. Ibid., 83.

©2006 Probe Ministries