The Compassion of Early Christians

Eusebius of Caesarea (c. AD 263 – 339) was an early church historian. In AD 314, he was made bishop of Caesarea in Palestine.

The last few years have seen a fair share of books arguing that religion is the cause behind all that is wrong with the world. Although the Christian Church has undoubtedly had its hand in a number of morally dubious activities over the years, a more historical perspective suggests that this is only one side of the story.

Famine and war had recently afflicted the city of Caesarea, so when the plague hit in the early fourth-century, the populace was already weakened and unable to withstand this additional blow. The populace began fleeing the city, one of the larger ones of the Roman Empire, for safety in the countryside. However, in the midst of the fleeing inhabitants, at least one group was staying behind, the Christians. As bishop of the city and a historian of the early church, Eusebius, recorded in “The Church History” that during the plague,

All day long some of them [the Christians] tended to the dying and to their burial, countless numbers with no one to care for them.  Others gathered together from all parts of the city a multitude of those withered from famine and distributed bread to them all.

Eusebius goes on to state that because of their compassion in the midst of the plague, the Christians’ “deeds were on everyone’s lips, and they glorified the God of the Christians.  Such actions convinced them that they alone were pious and truly reverent to God.”  A few decades after Eusebius, the last pagan emperor, Julian the Apostate, recognized that the Christian practice of compassion was one cause behind the transformation of the faith from a small movement on the edge of the empire, to cultural ascendancy.  Writing to a pagan priest he said:

“when it came about that the poor were neglected and overlooked by the [pagan] priests, then I think the impious Galilaeans [i.e., Christians] observed this fact and devoted themselves to philanthropy.” *

“[They] support not only their poor, but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.”

In fact, Julian proposed that pagan priests imitate the Christians’ charity in order to bring about a revival of paganism in the empire.

Julian’s program failed because, among other reasons, the polytheism of ancient Rome was unable to sustain the kind of self-sacrificial love and compassion that Eusebius observed in Caesarea. Cynics might dismiss Eusebius’ account as mere propaganda, since he had an obvious bias as the Christian bishop of the city. However, such dismissal is not as easy with the witness of Julian, for, although he was raised in a Christian setting and thus knew the Christian faith well, he was passionate about his pagan beliefs and sought to undermine the Christian Church. Therefore, he certainly had no reason to present the actions of the Christians in a favorable light.

Christians throughout the centuries have failed terribly at times to live up to their high calling, providing ample ammunition for those wishing to take cheap shots at the Church’s legitimacy. However, alongside such failures are stories that tell how the followers of Jesus Christ went well beyond their non-Christian counterparts – and often still do today – to show compassion to others in imitation of the One who did not consider His own interests, but the interests of others. This side of the story needs to be told as well.

* Julian, Fragment of a Letter to a Priest, 337, in The Works of the Emperor Julian, II, trans. Wilmer Cave Wright (New York: The MacMillan Co., 1913). Julian is not referring to the specific instance that Eusebius cites, but is referring to Christian charity more generally.  Elsewhere, Julian stated regarding the Christians, “it is their benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase atheism” (To Arsacius, High-Priest of Galatia, 69; in The Works of the Emperor Julian, III, trans. Wilmer Cave Wright [New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1923]).  He went on to say that “I believe that we [i.e., the pagans] ought really and truly to practise every one of these virtues.”  Julian’s program of moral reform forbade priests from going to licentious theaters and to sacred games at which women were present.  He also encouraged priests to demonstrate hospitality by establishing hostels for travelers and distributing money to the poor.  As a former Christian, Julian knew the Christian ethic well.  Echoing the words of Jesus about the greatest commandment, Julian summarized the requirements for appointment to the pagan priesthood as love for (the pagan) gods and love for man (To Arsacius, 69-70; cf. Fragment of a Letter to a Priest, 336-37).

BibleMesh aims to help people understand the big picture as well as important facts of the Bible. The first BibleMesh resource is “The Biblical Story,” a course that presents Scripture as a cohesive narrative of God’s work in the world from Genesis to Revelation. It utilizes an interactive quizzing tool that helps people remember what they have learned. And finally, it includes a social networking platform which will allow pastors and church leaders to host their own online Bible studies and contribute their own resources. Forthcoming content will include courses in Biblical Greek and Hebrew.

My Song is Love Unknown

For many Christians, the effort to love the way the Bible commands is tiresome—like driving a car with square wheels. How do we keep from holding grudges? How do we love our enemy? How do we rejoice when our co-worker gets the promotion we deserve?

I don’t think we’ll know how to really love until we understand a verse like John 1:14:

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And we saw his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

A model of the tabernacle located in Timna Park outside of Eilat, Israel. (Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.)

You may not recognize the Old Testament allusion of God dwelling or “tabernacling” with his people, but for a Jew in John’s day, this text would bring tears to your eyes. And I’ll tell you why.

You see, the word “tabernacle” goes back in the history of Israel to the Exodus, where God’s presence would reside in a tabernacle or a tent. This is how God would “tabernacle,” pitch his tent with his people in the desert and he’d do the same in the temple of the Promise Land.

But as Israel began to abandon the Lord, going after false gods and breaking God’s commands, their disobedience would threatened God’s favor and soon, their rebellion would be complete and God’s presence would no longer dwell with his people.

Gone.

So when the apostle John writes that “The Word (God himself) became flesh and dwelt, tabernacled, among us,” for Jews and for all of us, it’s the best news in the world, that even if you didn’t believe it, you’d hope it was true.

But there’s more.

Later in his gospel, the apostle John will show how personal God’s love is. John 15:12-14, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends.” You begin to see that the love of God was a costly love.

For some, today, it’s tempting to believe that God is only loving, not wrathful against sin; only forgiving, not demanding a payment for our trespasses. But I wonder, did that love cost your god anything? Did he have to give up anything to love you in that way? You see, the Bible displays a God, a holy and just God, who will punish sin, but he made his way from heaven to earth in order to be punished on our behalf.

The love that doesn’t cost God anything, doesn’t cause us to sing. But the costly love of God makes music and causes Christians to sing that they have received what they don’t deserve. That God has come to earth and has exchanged his perfect and spotless standing for our cursed and sinful life. And he was crushed for it.

It’s only when you believe in this love, that you won’t hold your spouses’ sin against them, since God doesn’t hold your sin against you.

It’s only when this love makes you sing, that you’ll love your enemies, because Christ was crucified for us, his enemies.

It’s only when this love makes you weep for joy, that you can rejoice when your co-worker gets the promotion you deserve, since Christ, deserving the highest praise, made himself low, that we might be promoted to glory.

It’s only when this love is so precious, like the food we eat and water we drink, that we will stop looking down on others, because, as someone once puts it, we are all just beggars showing other beggars where bread is. Praise be to God for mercy.

 

BibleMesh aims to help people understand the big picture as well as important facts of the Bible. The first BibleMesh resource is “The Biblical Story,” a course that presents Scripture as a cohesive narrative of God’s work in the world from Genesis to Revelation. It utilizes an interactive quizzing tool that helps people remember what they have learned. And finally, it includes a social networking platform which will allow pastors and church leaders to host their own online Bible studies and contribute their own resources. Forthcoming content will include courses in Biblical Greek and Hebrew.

The Bible’s Linguistic Influence

In its December 2011 issue, National Geographic celebrated the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, noting the massive impact it has had on the English language (among other things). Consider the following:

The Holy Bible - 1611 King James Version

Most of us might think we have forgotten its words, but the King James Bible has sewn itself into the fabric of the language. If a child is ever the apple of her parents’ eye or an idea seems as old as the hills, if we are at death’s door or at our wits’ end, if we have gone through a baptism of fire or are about to bite the dust, if it seems at times that the blind are leading the blind or we are casting pearls before swine, if you are either buttering someone up or casting the first stone, the King James Bible, whether we know it or not, is speaking through us. The haves and have-nots, heads on plates, thieves in the night, scum of the earth, best until last, sackcloth and ashes, streets paved in gold, and the skin of one’s teeth: All of them have been transmitted to us by the translators who did their magnificent work 400 years ago.

We could add to that list other common phrases that originated with early English Bible translator William Tyndale and made their way into the King James Bible. Among them: “Eat, drink, and be merry;” “powers that be;” “fight the good fight;” “my brother’s keeper;” “salt of the earth;” and “a man after his own heart.” Indeed, the King James Bible is the bestselling English book of all time, with its language sprinkled through works as diverse as the Gettysburg Address, Moby Dick, and the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. In all, the KJV has sold hundreds of millions of copies in its storied existence.

So its linguistic influence should come as little surprise. If ever you hear someone refer to the Bible as antiquated or irrelevant, remind them that without it, our language would be less colorful, expressive, and rich.

The Four Gospels: Are Different Accounts of Jesus a Problem?

Sometimes Christians hear a skeptic point to the fact that there are four different accounts of the life of Jesus as some sort of embarrassing evidence that the early Christians couldn’t get their story straight, or worse, that these are the stuff of legend. I’ve known some believers to get very flustered when the issue is brought up.

The oldest surviving panel icon of "Christ Pantocrator", c. 6th Century AD.

Whenever someone raises a question about the truthfulness of the Bible, ask yourself first whether or not the same question would bother any other scholar about any other figure in history. How many biographies are there of George Washington, for example? Is this in itself a concern about the historicity of the life of a pivotal figure during the American Revolution or actual evidence of his greatness and importance?

Second, flip the question around and consider the results. Wouldn’t you be MORE bothered if there was just ONE, tidy historical sketch of Jesus’ life and sayings, like a puff, polished church-propaganda piece put out by the “state run” news agency?  Doesn’t the fact that the four gospels have differences in order, selection of events, and some ragged edges when laid side by side point to the fact that they sound a lot more like the truth? The Jesus of history was such a unique person, mighty in word and miracles, that no one clean summary could do justice to this powerful, dangerous, and inspirational God man.

Thirdly, the truth is that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were written to different audiences. Mark’s audience was skeptical Romans who believed only in state power, so his gospel is lean, compact, and designed to show that Jesus was the Son of God — mighty in power who came to build a new kingdom. Matthew’s version helped the Hebrew people see that Jesus was the promised Jewish Messiah. Variously, Luke’s version functioned more like a travelogue, with emphasis on the Lord’s teachings and parables, and John’s gospel was a more elaborate theological and literary masterpiece.

The point is that the historical Jesus was more than big enough to warrant these various approaches (John 21:25), because he was, in fact, Christ the Lord. And if you’re interest is in the historical reliability of the Gospels, there’s been so much scholarly work done to verify their authenticity, that the information on other figures in history (e.g. Plato, Homer, Julius Caesar) pales in comparison.

 

BibleMesh aims to help people understand the big picture as well as important facts of the Bible. The first BibleMesh resource is “The Biblical Story,” a course that presents Scripture as a cohesive narrative of God’s work in the world from Genesis to Revelation. It utilizes an interactive quizzing tool that helps people remember what they have learned. And finally, it includes a social networking platform which will allow pastors and church leaders to host their own online Bible studies and contribute their own resources. Forthcoming content will include courses in Biblical Greek and Hebrew.

Editor’s Intro to “Q&A On The Bible”

Welcome to the Q&A section of the BibleMesh blog.  During all of my years as a professor and dean, the most interesting questions inevitably come down to the following: “What does the Bible say about ___________?”  I think one of the reasons why this line of inquiry never ceases to fascinate me is that Christian Scripture is inexhaustibly rich and compelling.

During the time of Jesus, every faithful Jew would memorize vast portions of what is called the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible.  Everyday life was filled with Scriptural references and stories told to children about God’s faithfulness to his people through his mighty acts and deeds on behalf of Israel.

Today, most of us have to confess that the Bible is largely an undiscovered continent.  Teaching that a generation ago would have been met with nods of recognition are now met with raised eyebrows of interest and sometimes even incredulity.  It is for this very reason that the BibleMesh Biblical Story Course was produced – in order to give the big picture of the story of the Gospel from Genesis to Revelation.

In that spirit, this section of the BibleMesh blog is devoted to specific questions about the Bible from macro issues to more precise – but no less important – matter.  Questions like these:

“Does the Bible teach that everyone will eventually be saved?”

“Why did the Jewish people worship God in a temple?”

“How was the world created by God?”

“I’m really confused by all the kings in the Old Testament.  Which ones are the most important?

“Why were men in the Old Testament allowed to have so many wives?”

“Peter and Paul fought with each other? What’s up with that?”

“What is the difference between a ‘major’ and a ‘minor’ prophet?”

“Who are the angels?  What do they do?”

“Why did God choose Israel among all the nations of the world to be his people?”

“Where did the people of the Old Testament go when they died?”

“Where do WE go after we die and before Jesus returns?”

You get the idea.  We have lots of thoughts about what we would like to write about, but we’re also really interested in the kinds of questions YOU have.  While we can’t promise that we’ll get to every single item, but if enough people are asking questions on the same topic, we’ll move it up in the batting order. Send us an email. We want to hear from you.

 

BibleMesh aims to help people understand the big picture as well as important facts of the Bible. The first BibleMesh resource is “The Biblical Story,” a course that presents Scripture as a cohesive narrative of God’s work in the world from Genesis to Revelation. It utilizes an interactive quizzing tool that helps people remember what they have learned. And finally, it includes a social networking platform which will allow pastors and church leaders to host their own online Bible studies and contribute their own resources. Forthcoming content will include courses in Biblical Greek and Hebrew.

The Bible + Culture: An Introduction

Western civilization is indebted to the Judeo-Christian tradition for the ideas of human dignity and human rights, innovation in science and medicine, habits of humanitarian charity and universal education, and its rich contribution to the arts.  As the prodigious Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner has written:

“Religion has written much of the history of the West.” 

Or as Irish historian Christopher Dawson once put it in his book Religion and the Rise of Western Culture:

“Western culture has been the atmosphere we breathe and the life we live: it is our own way of life and the way of life of our ancestors; and therefore we know it not merely by documents and monuments, but from our personal experience.” 

Even the notorious atheist, the late Christopher Hitchens, agrees that Western culture makes little sense without attending to the contribution of biblical religion:

“You are not educated. . . if you don’t know the Bible. You can’t read Shakespeare or Milton without it . . . And with the schools now, they don’t even teach it as a document. They stay out of the whole thing to avoid controversy. So kids can’t quote the King James Bible. That’s terrible.”

The Bible + Culture will highlight some of the ways the Bible has shaped the West.

 

BibleMesh aims to help people understand the big picture as well as important facts of the Bible. The first BibleMesh resource is “The Biblical Story,” a course that presents Scripture as a cohesive narrative of God’s work in the world from Genesis to Revelation. It utilizes an interactive quizzing tool that helps people remember what they have learned. And finally, it includes a social networking platform which will allow pastors and church leaders to host their own online Bible studies and contribute their own resources. Forthcoming content will include courses in Biblical Greek and Hebrew.