The Book of History

What happened?

The story of Jesus of Nazareth only fills about 20 pages. The Bible says that he was miraculously born to a virgin in Bethlehem, a farming village in Israel. (We used to say that was the year 0 CE, but today we place the date at about 4 BCE.) When he was born some foreigners arrived and asked, “Where is he who was born King of the Jews?” This made the current ruler of Israel, Herod, paranoid enough to have all the baby boys in Bethlehem killed. However, the Bible says that an angel warned his father of this threat and told him to move the family to Egypt.

Before Jesus was twelve they returned to Israel. Then the next 18 years of his life go unrecorded. At the age of thirty, Jesus began a teaching and healing ministry in Israel. He performed many miracles while he taught people how to love God and love people. About three years later the Jews arrested him on charges of treason because he claimed to be the Son of God and the King of Israel. They convicted him and then executed him by crucifixion. The Bible says that three days later he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. But before he left he commissioned his followers to go make more disciples and to plant churches. He promised to return someday to rescue his church and bring justice to the earth.

Jesus’ followers obeyed him with great zeal, and within 50 years Christianity was spreading rapidly across the Roman Empire. We have over 10,000 fragments from which we verify the historical consistency of the Biblical manuscripts. Scholars have studied these various scrolls, parchments, and manuscripts for variants, and every known discrepancy is cataloged here and here.

From day one a competing religious sect, called Gnosticism, began offering competing versions of the life of Christ. Later Muhammad offered his account, followed by many others. This could easily be one of the most controversial historical issues on the planet. Many wars have been fought due to religious convictions.

Nevertheless, only Christianity looks at history without any presuppositions. We are not making any value judgments here (many will boast about having blind faith), but are just observing the facts. Now although the Christian faith likewise rejects the claims of these other religions, it still does not do so on the basis of presuppositions. On the contrary, it looks at the claims and asks, “What evidence is there to support these claims—not just the claims about other historical leaders (such as Gautama or Muhammad), but also the claims about Jesus of Nazareth? Are there any eyewitnesses or does this demand blind faith?” Now although the Bible does contain many mystical revelations given through visions and angels, those are always, only about the future, never the past. When it comes to history (with the exception, of course, of Genesis 1-2), the Bible lays claim to God interacting with people directly. For he says that he is God with us, Immanuel.

Of course, it still takes faith to believe the accounts, but as with any other beliefs about history, it is not blind faith. And the Bible makes it clear that the wisdom and discernment required not just to believe the accounts (for even the demons believe) but to embrace the gospel—that faith can only come from the Holy Spirit. So we can pray, “If this is true…if you are there, God, would you give me ears to hear.”

Apart from presuppositions, is there any good reason not to ask that question? We don’t need to see spectacular miracles; instead, we need to see clearly what is going on. Consider, for example, that 500 years ago most people believed that the sun, moon, and stars all revolved around the earth—that the universe centered on us. Then the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus offered a reasonable theory that the earth revolved around the sun, and physicist Galileo Galilei offered evidence to support his theory. Their ideas contradicted the presuppositions made by many, yet eventually proved to be true.

Today, due to pollution, few people can see the skies the way Copernicus and Galileo saw them in all their spectacular wonder. Indeed many of us seldom ever notice the stars. Back then people could stand transfixed in awe, and be so enthralled they would even ascribe all kinds of religious ideas and superstitions to them. But we have something much, much better: we understand what they are. And we understand much more about how the universe works. Understanding is truly better than seeing.

Similarly, we don’t need to see spectacular signs and wonders from God, though he does also provide those at times. But he will give us something much better: understanding. We can know (by faith) what happened in the past, and why. That will give us peace of mind about the future. Ask good questions, listen, and be amazed.

Let us start with Gnosticism’s question.

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