The YouTube channel InspiringPhilosophy, certainly the most excellent channel on any study of Christianity or theism on the website and quite a large channel for its topic at that, just released what may be its best video yet: Does God Send People To Hell? My mind seems to have shifted in biblical interpretation on quite an important topic since I simply was unaware of the scholarly material here. This is probably a deeply important video, in my perspective. Here it is, and enjoy — I don’t often share any videos here. Consider the video to be my blogs solution to the question in the title.
In the last month or so, I’ve encountered a tiresome series of two posts on Bob Seidensticker’s atheist blog that got my attention in a peculiar way. People well-read in ancient history are aware that, as is the consensus of all modern historians, the modern university evolved out of the Christian cathedral in the 12th and 13th centuries, and that the second medical revolution in human history is also a result of Christianity (see my earlier post here). So yes, Christianity is essentially responsible for the modern university and hospital. Bob, in what can only be termed his sheer lack of historical knowledge, tries to launch a full-out assault on these propositions. Normally, random blogs can be ignored, but if you type in something like “Christianity and university origins”, Bob’s posts are one of the first things that pop up. So strap yourself in, because this is going to be a full-lengthed complete refutation of Bob’s two posts. I engaged him at length in his own comments section, and after demonstrating his countless errors there (as well as those of his many fan readers), I’m gathering all of it here. So, let’s begin with the Christian origins of the university in the Christian cathedral — more specifically, what scholarship says about it. Edward Grant, arguably the worlds leading historian of science, writes;
The cathedral school was an evolutionary step on the path to the formation of the university, which was a wholly new institution that not only transformed the curriculum but also the faculty and its relationship to state and church. (God and Reason in the Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press, 2004, 29.
Jacques Verger, Professor of Medieval History at the University of Paris, also writes;
But at the same time, in the field of teaching, the early decades of the thirteenth century were marked by serious mutations and ruptures, which must also be considered. Of these, the first and most visible was the appearance of an institutional structure which was completely new, without any real precedent and with an exceptional historical destiny: the university. (“The Universities and Scholasticism,” in The New Cambridge Medieval History: Volume V c. 1198–c. 1300. Cambridge University Press, 2007, 257.)
Although there were other educations of higher learning in the ancient world, starting with institutions like the Lyceum and Plato’s Academy in ancient Greece, and the madrasas in the Islamic empire, none of these were modern universities, as we’re about to see. Jacques Verger writes elsewhere;
No one today would dispute the fact that universities, in the sense in which the term is now generally understood, were a creation of the Middle Ages, appearing for the first time between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It is no doubt true that other civilizations, prior to, or wholly alien to, the medieval West, such as the Roman Empire, Byzantium, Islam, or China, were familiar with forms of higher education which a number of historians, for the sake of convenience, have sometimes describes as universities. Yet a closer look makes it plain that the institutional reality was altogether different and, no matter what has been said on the subject, there is no real link such as would justify us in associating them with medieval universities in the West. Until there is definite proof to the contrary, these latter must be regarded as the sole source of the model which gradually spread through the whole of Europe and then to the whole world. We are therefore concerned with what is indisputably an original institution, which can only be defined in terms of a historical analysis of its emrgence and its mode of operation in concrete circumstances. (A History of the University in Europe. Vol. I: Universities in the Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press, 2003, 35)
Oddly, Bob, in his own post, admits that Harvard University, itself, was founded as a Christian missionary school. Harvard writes on its own website that “Harvard University was founded in 1636 with the intention of establishing a school to train Christian ministers”. Harvard goes on to note its original motto, adopted in 1692, was “Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae” (or “Truth for Christ and the Church”).
So, historians clearly agree that the modern university emerged in 12th and 13th century medieval Europe, evolving from the Christian cathedral schools. This was not the only role Christianity played, though. The church would go on to personally establish a number of the earliest modern universities, including the University of Toulouse (1229), Macerata (1290), Sapienza (1303), Perugia (1308) and others. The papacy developed the studium generale that they could grant universities (which also marks the invention of accreditation), and this title meant the following. If your university was checked out and made sure that it was good by the Church, they could endow you with the title of being a studium generale. Once your institution received this title, its teachers would have the ability to go on and teach at any other university without needing to undergo re-examination every time. Verger explains the significance of this concept;
This dimension of universality was well demonstrated by the idea of the studium generale which, emerging from the practical experience of the first universities, became commonly accepted, notably in pontifical documents, in the middle of the thirteenth century; as a studium generale, the university was from that point onwards defined as an institution of superior teaching of pontifical foundation (or imperial foundation, as the case may be), whose members enjoyed privileges and titles which were valid in all of Christendom precisely because of the support of the papacy. Consequently, the university represented, in the manner of the papacy itself, a kind of power at the heart of Christian society, an intellectual authority of a superior nature. Naturally, outside Paris and Bologna, this pretension to universalism was often rather theoretical. Nevertheless, it was an expression of the essential spectrum of high culture during the Middle Ages, which the universities, with the support of the Church, took over during the thirteenth century. (The New Cambridge Medieval History, pg. 264)
Although the Holy Roman Emperor could also exercise the right to grant the title of Studium Generale to a school, the practice was developed by Pope Honorius III in 1219 and mostly exercised by the Church. The Church, therefore, was clearly central to establishing and enabling the existence of the modern university. By the time of the Reformation, there were some 81 universities, 53 of which had a papal charter. The medieval universities were also centers of conflict, and the Church played a major role in their protection; university students were granted the benefit of the clergymen, which means it was a considerable crime to attack any of them, and furthermore, that they had the right to appeal any court case to a more lenient ecclesiastical court rather than an imperial one. Throughout the medieval period, the Church was the protector of the university, and universities would often appeal to the Church to help settle their disputes. The Church also granted universities legal independence. So yes, Christianity was the progenitor of the modern university. How does Bob get around all this? Well, he just claims that they aren’t really modern universities at all because … some of them had faith statements and requirements. Imagine my shock. It’s incredible how one can make up the most absurd excuse to get around conclusions that they’re uncomfortable with. Of course, history doesn’t owe you comfort. Many modern universities still have faith requirements, like Biola and Liberty, and yet no kook would claim that they aren’t modern universities or deny that they’re accredited institutions.
So, why are the universities around 1200 considered the first modern universities? They had degrees, standardized curriculum, distinctions between graduate and post-graduate degrees, lectures, theses, they had developed the idea of defending your doctoral thesis, etc. Furthermore, crucially, these schools, unlike educational institutions before them, had things like accreditation, the licentia docendi — the right to teach, the universities had developed into legal corporations, the universities had gained independence and privileges, and the studium generale had developed allowing for the universities — allowing scholars who had a degree in such an accredited institution to teach in any center of learning without needing a re-examination. In these universities, students would study essential subjects — grammar, logic, and rhetoric (the trivium), as well as arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music (the quadrivium). Then, a number of institutions would offer advanced courses in medicine, civil and canon law, and theology. These are clearly modern universities. Which explains why historians agree that they’re the earliest modern universities. See quotes above.
What about the hospitals? Here, Bob does no better.
We can look to the Bible to see where Christian contributions to medical science come from.We find Old Testament apotropaic medicine (medicine to ward off evil) in Numbers 21:5–9. When God grew tired of the Israelites whining about harsh conditions during the Exodus, he sent poisonous snakes to bite them. As a remedy, God told Moses to make a bronze snake (the Nehushtan). This didn’t get rid of the snakes or the snake bites, but it did mean that anyone who looked at it after being bitten would magically live. So praise the Lord, I guess.
According to Bob, God miraculously healing people in Numbers 21:5-9 is magic. Earlier, I refuted the idea that there’s magic anywhere in Christianity — in fact, the Old Testament places the death penalty for people who claim to practice magic. Historians rigorously define magic as the idea that, through the practice of a series of ritualized steps, you can bend the divine will (of spirits, demons, etc) to doing an action for you accompanying the performed ritual (Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 212). In Numbers 21:5-9, none of this happens, rather God just miraculously heals some people. Bob also falsely claims that Jesus thought demon possession was the cause of disease. He doesn’t cite any verses, but through experience, I’m already aware of the ones being alluded to;
Matthew 4:24: News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them.
Mark 1:34: And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
It only takes a few seconds of reading to realize that these verses never say that demon possession is a cause of disease, rather, it only lists people having various sorts of problems (seizure, disease, paralysis, demon-possession) in the same list and yet clearly distinct categories, as in, they are different things and don’t cause each other. Which means Bob is wrong.
Finally, we get into the history. Bob starts off with a red herring that the father of medicine is Hippocrates. And yet, not a single person that Bob’s article is hypothetically responding to has claimed that medicine itself has origins rooted in Christianity. The first medical revolution (that is to say, the beginning of the study of medicine itself) certainly comes from Egyptian, Roman and Greek civilization. The second medical revolution, however, is entirely owed to Christianity. Something our friend Bob never bothers to address (since, in all likelihood, he has little understanding of anything to do with the history of medicine). Albert Jonson writes;
The second great sweep of medical history begins at the end of the fourth century, with the founding of the first Christian hospital at Caesarea in Cappadocia, and concludes at the end of the fourteenth century, with medicine well ensconced in the universities and in the public life of the emerging nations of Europe. (Albert Jonson. A Short History of Medical Ethics. Oxford University Press, 2000, 13)
What, exactly, was the second medical revolution in history? Pretty simple, actually. There were virtually no hospitals in Greece and Egypt, and in the Roman empire, the only people who had any access to hospitals were soldiers. That’s because Rome only ever bothered to build hospitals in military fortresses. Not a single civilian hospital has been discovered anywhere in the Roman empire before the Christian era. Once Christianity comes along, however, everything changes. Starting with Basil of Caesarea founding the first Christian hospital in the end of the 4th century, and by the 5th century in the Christian east, civilian hospitals became ubiquitous due to the actions of private Christian individuals. See Vivian Nutton’s Ancient Medicine, pp. 306-307. Christianity, as Jonson says, is the progenitor of the second medical revolution in history — the reason why, almost anywhere you live, you can reasonably expect to find a nearby hospital in times of trouble, is because Christians made them common. Oddly, Bob never addresses this, rather just talks about medieval hospitals which I’ve never seen cited when it comes to Christianity’s contributions to medicine. Hospitals were obviously not just “places” to die like Bob ignorantly claims, rather hospitals would supply food, water, and care for the needs of the patient. Basic care to ill patients, by itself without even the requirement of modern medicine, has significant positive effects on the health outcome of the patient.
Did Christian medicine advance past Galen? It did, obviously, with the revival of dissection in the 11th/12th centuries (after a thousand year European hiatus since the pagans in Rome decided to stigmatize it). One important contributor, Mondino de Luzzi, made a number of important contributions to the study anatomy and procedures of dissection. That helped out quite a bit, and the culture the medieval world placed around medicine lead to the medical progress of Renaissance men such as Vesalius. But, of course, Bob, to prove otherwise, cites a random blog entry by some random guy named ‘Jim Walker’ to claim otherwise. Even noted historical quack Richard Carrier thinks Jim is a moron. Bob claims that Christianity set medicine centuries behind — besides the fact that I can’t even think of a more nonsensical claim if I tried, historian Nancy Girisai writes “But the emergence of Christian society of the early medieval West did not result either in the abandonment of such ancient medical knowledge as was available or in the disappearance of secular medical practitioners” (Medieval & Early Renaissance Medicine: An Introduction to Knowledge and Practice, University of Chicago Press 1990, 7). Bob, to try to take away the credit from Christianity and try to set it on just Christian individuals, writes;
but because in Europe at that time, pretty much everyone was Christian.
And yet that fails to explain why there were no civilian hospitals in the entire pagan era of Roman history, and once Christianity comes around, it takes a few decades for them to become ubiquitous. The worst section in this entire article is “Christianity’s poor attitude toward learning.” To prove Christianity’s hatred for reason, Bob produces a fictional quote from Martin Luther where he writes “Whoever wants to be a Christian should tear the eyes out of his reason.” According to Bob’s source, this quote comes from Luther’s Table Talks, “Works 22”. Anyone who actually bothers to check the reference, however, finds out that it doesn’t exist. It’s just as fictional as the quote misattributed to Tertullian where Tertullian supposedly says “I believe because it is absurd.” Just last year in an excellent 2017 paper, Peter Harrison traces the origins of the misattribution of this Tertullian quote. You can read a summarized version of Harrison’s work here on Aeon. Non-existent quotes, like the one Bob uses, have a long pedigree in being utilized in anti-religious polemics.
Bob goes on to cherry-pick the words of Peter Harrison’s, where Harrison writes that “curiosity” was discouraged from the patristic period until, basically, the 17th century. It brings a proverbial tear to my eye to see the work of Peter Harrison, possibly my favorite historian of science (along with Lawrence Principe) having his views misrepresented to support the notion that Christianity, according to Bob, “might have set modern medical science back centuries” (refuted earlier with a reference to Nancy Girisai’s work). Harrison writes elsewhere in his work that;
When examined closely, however, the historical record simply does not bear out this model of enduring warfare [between science and religion]. For a start, study of the historical relations between science and religion does not reveal any simple pattern at all. In so far as there is any general trend, it is that for much of the time religion has facilitated scientific endeavour and has done so in various ways. Thus, religious ideas inform and underpin scientific investigation, those pursuing science were often motivated by religious impulses, religious institutions frequently turn out to have been the chief sources of support for the scientific enterprise and, in its infancy, science established itself by appealing to religious values. (The Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion. Cambridge University Press, 2010, 4)
In the same chapter, Harrison goes on to explain that Christianity was the patron of the early universities, peacefully co-existed with science and even sponsored it throughout its history, and writes that “we might regard this period as one that saw Christianity set the agenda for the emergence of modern science” (pg. 6). Surely, Bob, not knowing the actual history, would be flabbergasted to read such heretical things. Not surprising. Medieval scholasticism originated out of Christian theology in the medieval period as a reasoned method to defend Christian doctrines and the scholastic method got so far (reaching its height with Aquinas’s Summa Theologica) that it laid the foundations for the establishment of natural science (Colish, Marcia L. Medieval foundations of the western intellectual tradition, 400–1400. Yale University Press, 1999, 317–351). Christian churches were the biggest sponsors for the study of astronomy for six centuries, in fact, their sponsorship of astronomy in these centuries probably exceeded that of all other institutions combined. John Heilbron writes;
[T]he Roman Catholic Church gave more financial and social support to the study of astronomy for over six centuries, from the recovery of ancient learning during the late Middle Ages into the Enlightenment, than any other, and, probably, all other, institutions. (The Sun in the Church: Cathedrals as Solar Observatories. Harvard University Press, 1999, 3)
Historian of science Noah Efron writes that, for more generally science itself, Christianity was the leading patron of science for a crucial millennium (“Myth 9. That Christianity Gave Birth to Modern Science,” in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion. Harvard University Press, 2009, 81). As Efron observes, it would be an obvious error to claim that Christianity was the sole cause of the rise of modern science, and yet, he also notes how historians have increasingly noted the ways that Christianity was crucial for its rise. It appears to me that Christianity, in human history, though clearly not the sole cause (lest one ignore the contributions of India, Greece, the Islamic world, etc), was the single largest factor for the rise of modern science. Perhaps by a large margin. Finally, let’s end with Bob’s only reasonable point throughout the entire post.
Christianity had an uneasy relationship with any ideas that didn’t directly support the Church. The 1559 Index Librorum Prohibitorum listed books by 550 authors that were prohibited by the Roman Catholic Church, though prior lists had prohibited books almost since the beginning of Christianity. The list is a Who’s Who of Western thought and included works by Sartre, Voltaire, Hugo, Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Hobbes, Spinoza, Kant, Hume, Descartes, Bacon, Milton, Locke, and Pascal. The List was abolished only in 1966.
Yes, an Index of Forbidden Books once existed that discouraged the reading of various works. Bob, unsurprisingly, doesn’t bother to mention the near absent impact that the Index made on learning. To balance out these perspectives, here’s the context that historian of science John Hedley Brooke provides for the Index;
It is important not to exaggerate the oppressive effects of Index and Inquisition. The Counter-Reformation did not prevent Italian scholars from making original contributions in classical scholarship, history, law, literary criticism, logic, mathematics, medicine, philology, and rhetoric. Nor were they isolated by the Index from European scholarship. Prohibited books entered private libraries where they would be consulted by those prepared to break the rules in the interests of learning. One such collection was in the hands of Galileo’s Paduan friend, G. V. Pinelli. One can lose a sense of perspective if the condemnation of Galileo is taken to epitomize the attitude of Catholic authorities toward the natural sciences. Relatively few scientific works were placed on the Index. The attempt to put a stop to the moving earth stands out because it proved so tragic an aberration – a personal tragedy for Galileo and, in the long run, a tragedy for the Church, which overreached itself in securing a territory that would prove impossible to hold. (Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives. Cambridge University Press, 1991, 145)
Brooke then goes on to note the Church’s major contributions to the progress of science through the Jesuit order. So yes, Bob, Christianity built the universities and the hospitals. Which, by the way, is a good thing.
As one develops their understanding of ancient history, they realize that loose threads from here and there tend to get tied up in a nicely coincidental way. Now, in a rather lucky way today, this happened to me as well, and because of its relevance to this blog … here we are.
So I happened to be aware that Christians had done very good work in world history when they (starting with Basil of Caesarea) built the first Christian hospital in the late 4th century AD — one of the most important events in the world history of medicine. In case you aren’t convinced of how good this all is, read on;
The second great sweep of medical history begins at the end of the fourth century, with the founding of the first Christian hospital at Caesarea in Cappadocia, and concludes at the end of the fourteenth century, with medicine well ensconced in the universities and in the public life of the emerging nations of Europe. (Albert Jonson. A Short History of Medical Ethics. Oxford University Press, 2000, 13.)
The establishment of the first Christian hospital in the 4th century, Jonson tells us, marks the beginning of the second medical revolution in human history. I’ve known this for a while, however, I didn’t know why. Well, I do now, and it really animates this achievement of the Christian religion. The ancient Roman empire built hospitals. However, the public had zero access to any of these hospitals as civilian hospitals simply didn’t exist until Christianity came along (Smith, Virginia. Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity. Oxford University Press, 2008, 142), and the only people who had access to Rome’s hospitals were the military (not a big coincidence since the Roman empire poured half of its annual revenue into the military). Rome only had military hospitals — known as the valetudinaria. The hospitals would be built in military camps, tending to soldiers who had been injured — such as in Julius Caesar’s camps during his war in Gaul, forts in Britain (such as around Hadrian’s Wall), and Rome’s northernmost border at the Rhine-Danubian rivers that separated Rome from the barbarians. All this, I learned from a chapter titled ‘Roman Medicine’ in Blackwell’s A Companion to the Roman Empire (2006, 492-523) — the author being Ann Hanson, a world-class papyrologist and distinguished historian of ancient medicine at Yale University’s Department of Classics. However, as I read along Hanson’s nice chapter, something came out that struck me in all the proper ways;
The general public was not serviced by hospital facilities until the empire had become Christian and charity for the sick and dying was considered part of the Christian’s duty. (pg. 505)
In other words, what exactly was the second medical revolution in history that Jonson was talking about? Well, it appears to be this — starting with Basil of Caesarea, the Christian extension of the hospital, previously only for soldiers in military camps and gladiators, was now, at least beginning to, having been extended to the general public. Indeed, there was not a single civilian hospital in the entire history of Rome’s empire until the Christian era. By the 5th century, they may have even become ubiquitous in the Christian east (Vivian Nutton, Ancient Medicine, 306-307). Nowadays, at least here in Canada, there are quite a lot of hospitals — I have at least one well-known hospital within an hour of walking from me (and probably a few minutes driving). However, we didn’t always live in a world of abundant hospitals, and the first step was taken towards this, where we are today, was established by Christians pursuing their Christianity in the 4th century AD.
Well, hasn’t Jesus really given us a wait, eh. That doesn’t really matter, though, since there’s finally a solution that I’ll gladly endow you, dear reader, with, to knock over the annoying accusations of Jesus being a “failed prophet” because He predicted that the end of the world would come within the lifetimes of His disciples and yet He didn’t. Now, this has probably been the biggest challenge to Christianity in human history, and finally, with modern scholarship, it can be toppled over. I was plowing through the lovely forums of BioLogos — this is an institution established by Francis Collins, one of the greatest scientists in the world (who needs to finally receive his Nobel Prize for being one of the main guys to decode the human DNA), a former atheist convert to Christianity after reading C.S. Lewis for promoting Christianity with science.
Sam Harris, when he wasn’t busy spreading enormous cohorts of misinformation about the history of the Roman Empire, the history of early Christianity, Galileo, and science and rationality in the medieval Islamic world — as was wonderfully demonstrated by the atheist medievalist Tim O’Neill — or getting lopped by William Lane Craig in a debate (and, perhaps, thinking that this took place because Craig had the opening speech or that Craig tried to require him to respond to his major critical points in the debate), said that Francis Collins, who he admits has impeccable credentials, maybe should not lead the National Institute of Health (and therefore controlling tens of billions of dollars) because … he thinks Collins got some religious questions wrong (irony maximally achieved) .. in fact, Sam tells us, these errors are so bad that they “repudiate” the scientific worldview. Collins has now lead the NIH for over a decade and it’s clear Harris’s quack concerns have been unwarranted. Harris claims that Collins, the nicest guy in the hemisphere, engages in dishonesty on every page of his book The Language of God (or perhaps Harris is too much of a child to realize people can honestly come to Collins’ conclusions). Harris ridiculously claims it’s “taboo” to criticize religion in the U.S. (perhaps in certain social circles, but that’s true of any topic in “certain social circles”) and makes numerous other absurd errors — the idea that miracles involve a violation of scientific laws — in fact, this is a rookie philosophical mistake that professional philosophers are usually quick to rebuke. Just a few months ago, in the July of 2018, Cambridge published a short book titled Miracles by David Basinger, where Basinger quickly explains, in the first few pages, that this doesn’t work; rather, a miracle is simply a circumvention of natural events;
At least since the time of David Hume, miracles have often been deﬁned by proponents and critics alike as violations of natural laws… As we will discuss in Section 2, many have challenged the coherence of this understanding of miracle. Also, as we will discuss in Sections 3 and 4, even if coherent, this concept of miracle raises epistemological and moral concerns… [a]n event that is in part the result of non-natural causation is best viewed as a circumvention (overriding) of the natural order rather than as a violation of this order. (pp. 6-7)
Anyways, this is all besides the point — one can endlessly question Harris’s views on history or philosophy (I’ll commend him for his work on opposing radical Islam). Anyways, I was reading through the BioLogos forums (yes, we’ve gone a far way off) and, on the topic of original sin, someone referred to an article by biblical scholar Pete Enns (who I’ve heard of before but hadn’t read into) about how original sin was shaped by Augustine in the 4th century and isn’t in the Bible (despite Augustine’s mistranslation). Quite important to know. So, I went through Enn’s blog, and whatdoyaknow, a three-part explanation on how Jesus’ prophecy didn’t fail, as recently figured out by some young scholars in Oxford (as young scholars in Oxford tend to do). As my personal research into scholarship would go on to show (coincidentally, at that) they were right, and so now I’m going to write about it.
A few clear points need to be made, first. In the 1st century, a major branch of Judaism was apocalyptic, prophesying the soon coming end of the world. This is, indeed, certainly true, and scholars figured out Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet — Albert Schweitzer is the author of the theory, I think. This was closely related to Jesus’ doctrine of the nearness of the kingdom of God, and how we should repent due to its coming. Jesus, just as the Gospels say, prophesied His return within the lifetimes of His disciples — see; “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2); “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” (Matt. 16:28). This was a prominent Jewish belief and Jesus held it, and the prophecy is talking about the Second Coming, not just the destruction of the Jewish Temple, and it is talking about this “generation”, not “nation”, and N.T. Wright’s explanation is wrong. No one should resort to harmonizations and gymnastics to explain this away because remember, Occam’s Razor is always waiting at the door.
The young scholars areWhat happened when a prophecy in the Old Testament went unfulfilled for the Israelite’s? Well, we don’t need to worry about that because Jeremiah told us exactly how prophecy works. Just read and try to come up with an alternate explanation that Occam’s Razor doesn’t make quick work of.
Jeremiah 18:5-11: Then the word of the Lord came to me:6 Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.7 At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it,8 but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it.9 And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it,10 but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it.11 Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.
This text shows, beyond a reasonable doubt, that prophecy of judgement in the Bible is conditional on how we act in response to that prophecy — God may prophesy the destruction of some kingdom and if that kingdom repents, God will respond by not destroying them. And this is the view of the entire Bible. Somehow, centuries later, it was forgotten (somewhere after the church fathers who knew and held it). As I was doing research on the scholarly meaning of Deuteronomy 18:18-22 (since some Muslim apologists try to squeeze the passage in absurd ways to get it to mean some sort of prophecy of Muhammad in the Bible), I acquired a 2001 commentary on Deuteronomy by Walter Brueggemann (one of the major scholars of our day, and since the commentary is so good we can agree to forgive Brueggeman for being a postmodernist who thinks the Bible is “an act of faithful imagination”).
As he’s explaining Deuteronomy 18:20 — a verse that says that if a prophecy fails, the one who made it will be executed on terms of being a false prophet — he explains regarding the interpretation that some people derive from this, that the future is fixed by God;
This approach to the future assumes that the future is fixed, stable, and settled, that is, that persons, communities, and world are all subject to a fate that is once for all decreed. From the angle of covenant, such a perspective is completely mistaken, for the future under the rule of YHWH is a zone of freedom. The future is not a settled fate but an open destiny partly given and partly chosen, still to emerge. The entire weight of Deuteronomy is to insist that Israel may indeed choose its future (30:15-20). Techniques that presume a settled fate, if embraced by Israel, would lead to a collapse of the theological premise of covenant. (pg. 193; also see pg. 196)
And if you question Brueggemann’s exegesis in the slightest, try squaring it with the passage he cites, Deuteronomy 30:15-20, which also has this explicit explanation of conditional prophecy. Sorry, but calling anyone a biased fundy (I’m not of course) won’t help you get around this — maybe one can resort to the tactics of Edward Babinski in the comment sections of blogs — not someone noted for accuracy — on how this all doesn’t count because, apparently, Christians have done bad things in the past or that scholars can’t give a percentage (really) of the number of people that need to be Christian before the conditions of the prophecy are met (Babinski leaves unexplained how he determined that the percentage of population adhering Christianity is the condition for the fulfillment of prophecy). I also remember, from my own research, encountering a long time ago and quickly saving a verse from Isaiah in the assumption that it will become relevant to the question of the Second Coming in the future. How right I was.
Isaiah 56:1: This is what the Lord says: Maintain justice and do what is right, for my salvation is close at hand and my righteousness will soon be revealed.
As early as Isaiah, the Old Testament was saying that judgement and salvation is coming soon. Centuries before Christianity. And yet no reader in 1st century Israel found this a troublesome idea or wondered why it was taking so long despite Isaiah clearly saying that it was coming soon, in fact, they, along with Jesus, continued to say that the end was coming soon. Conditional prophecy, the explicit teaching of the Old Testament, doesn’t leave us with any questions for the Old Testament — the end didn’t come, despite us being told it’s coming “soon”, because of how the Israelite’s acted in response to the prophecy. I wonder if any other view can make sense of this Isaiah verse and its reception to me like the explicit Old Testament teaching of conditional prophecy. Anyways, dear reader, there’s more we must look at.
Acts 3:19-21: Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, 20 so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, 21 who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets.
So repenting is the cause of God sending Jesus to return from heaven. So if we don’t repent, the cause won’t take place, and so the Second Coming, therefore, will not take place. Conditional. Our actions, if we live righteously and as good Christians, can hasten and quicken the Second Coming, and this is the condition of the conditional prophecy. If we continue to act in an evil way, it will take longer. So Jesus didn’t fail to return. Our response to the warning of His return in our lifetimes resulted in the date being pushed. And an obvious clinch for this point of argument is that the (religious) Jews still believe, today, that if they just got their act together, God will finally send the Messiah to rule in Israel for the rest of time. The more we look under our nose, the harder it seems for anyone else to come up with a real, alternate explanation.
In the publication of these findings, the monograph When the Son of Man Didn’t Come, the conditional view of prophecy is demonstrated throughout the Bible, church fathers, rabbinic literature, and other ancient near eastern texts. Important scholars (sadly this category excludes Babinski) such as Paul Fiddes and John Barton (who wrote an excellent commentary on the Bible that is freely accessible here) at Oxford, Anthony Thiselton at Nottingham, Ian McFarland at Cambridge, Edward Adams at King’s College (scroll down to the endorsements on the publishers page), and Morna Hooker (also Cambridge) in the journal Theology, have praised this work by the young Oxford scholars as the most original research on such a topic available. Absolutely incredible how, in the last few years, such amazing findings are being made in scholarship. It’s the time to be alive (notwithstanding the suffering that is life). And it’s as simple as that. A simple explanation for why Jesus didn’t return yet.
I haven’t been writing many of these as of late, but I’ve been recently doing a lot of looking at the Islamic arguments for the supposed prophecy of Muhammad in the Bible. It turns out, dear reader, that the Qur’an actually claims Muhammad is prophesied in the Bible. Well, this is what it precisely says;
Those who follow the messenger, the Prophet who can neither read nor write, whom they will find described in the Torah and the Gospel (which are with them). He will enjoin on them that which is right and forbid them that which is wrong. He will make lawful for them all good things and prohibit for them only the foul; and he will relieve them of their burden and the fetters that they used to wear: Then those who believe in him, and honour him, and help him, and follow light which is sent down with him: they are the successful” (Quran 7: 157)
And I consider this to essentially be one of the most clear refutations of Islam — the fact that Muhammad is prophesied nowhere in the Bible (or, as the verse in the Qur’an specifically says, in the Torah and the Gospel). The most clear demonstration of the fact that Muhammad is nowhere in there is to simply look at the Muslim arguments for this being the case. So I found Jamal Badawi’s 45 page paper (which I used for the translation of the Qur’anic verse above), written for the purposes of promoting inter-faith dialogue between Muslims, Christians, and Jews — a very good goal — and arguing that Muhammad really is in the Bible after all, we just have to look! Badawi’s first evidence, one that’ll convince “any unbiased mind” is Genesis 12:2-3, where God promises to Abraham that his descendants will make a great nation and will become a blessing to the world.
Genesis 12:2-3: And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and those shalt be a blessing And I will bless them that bless thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.
Badawi’s argument is pretty simple. Abraham had several sons, including both Ishmael and Isaac. Isaac’s descendants were the Israelite’s, where we gained men like Moses, David, and Jesus, whose efforts clearly fulfill the prophecy, and Ishmael’s descendants include Muhammad, who fulfills the prophecy through Ishmael’s end. Makes perfect sense, Badawi tells us, except for … the part where the Bible tells us that the covenant only belongs to Isaac’s descendants. Badawi finds himself in a tricky situation here, because Genesis has such problematic verses for his thesis like these …
Genesis 17:21: But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year.”
Genesis 21:12: But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you.
(Badawi accidentally confuses Gen. 17:21 with Gen. 17:2 and Gen. 21:12 with Gen. 21:21.) So, how does Badawi explain away these inconvenient verses? Well … Biased Israelite’s just added them in later! Badawi quotes a biblical scholar saying that the injunction to conquer the Canaanite’s in Deuteronomy is there because Israelite’s wanted God to belong to them only, and essentially reasons that “Well, if Israelite’s were biased towards having God only for themselves, these verses must be additions to exclude Ishmael from God’s covenant!” Of course, Badawi is obviously making this up to explain away an obvious refutation of his claim. Badawi shies away from admitting that there isn’t really the slightest bit of evidence that would suggest to “any unbiased mind” that these verses ever added on. As the Latin proverb goes, quod grātīs asseritur, grātīs negātur — or more commonly said today, that which is asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.
Another passage Badawi tries to use is Isaiah 11:1-2.
Isaiah 11:1-2: Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse, And a branch from his roots will bear fruit.2 The Spirit of the Lord will rest on Him, The spirit of wisdom and understanding, The spirit of counsel and strength, The spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
Jesse, Badawi ensures us, is really Ishmael, which shows that God promised in the Bible that Ishmael and his descendants (===== Muhammad) would bring blessings to the earth. The obvious problem is that Jesse isn’t actually Ishmael at all, in fact, Jesse is the father of David, and they were both Israelite’s (as in descendants of Isaac) and none of this is relevant to Ishmael or Muhammad. Badawi, just like before, has a little trick to get around these inconvenient points. He cites the Encyclopedia Biblica which says that the name Jesse is actually a contraction of Ishmael, which solves everything — this Jesse isn’t actually the Israelite Jesse at all, the father of David (which is the only Jesse, as it turns out, ever mentioned in the entire Bible), but rather Ishmael! So everyone should convert to Islam. Not so fast. Since I was pretty skeptical of this claim, I actually decided to go and check the Encyclopedia Biblica myself — it wasn’t easy since Badawi’s citation was so vague (probably because he never read it himself and was just carrying off the citation from somewhere else).
It turns out that the Encyclopedia Biblica was published in four volumes in 1899 by biblical scholars Thomas Kelly Cheyne and J. Sutherland Black. All four volumes are accessible through Archive. I tracked down Badawi’s citation to pg. 2434 of the second volume of the encyclopedia (something I had to do because, again, Badawi’s citation is amazingly vague), which says that the name Jesse is either a contraction of the name Ishmael or Abishai (Badawi doesn’t mention the second one). But it’s a contraction and therefore a different name. Ishmael, as in the actual son of Abraham, is never referred to as Jesse anywhere, and the idea that this must be a special exception is a plain special pleading fallacy. Badawi also fails to mention that the authors of Encyclopedia Biblica — his own source — refers to Jesse in Isaiah 11 as the one that’s the father of David on pg. 1944 (as in not Ishmael), and they also say that Isaiah 11 is a messianic prophecy (surely Badawi knows that, according to Islam as well as Christianity, Jesus is the Messiah, not Muhammad). Badawi also claims that Isaiah “would” have referred to David alongside Jesse (or even David alone) if he was really referring to Jesse, the father of David (the only Jesse in the Bible I might add), but Badawi is also making this up — there’s absolutely no reason why a prominent figure like Jesse couldn’t be mentioned alone — Paul clearly had no trouble with this when he quoted Isaiah 11 in Romans 15:12 as a reference to Jesus (which also shows that no actual Jew in the time of Paul even had the idea that this was somehow a different Jesse). Later in Isaiah 11, referring to the same descendant of Jesse, we’re prophesied that this descendant will gather the Jews back into Israel and bring a kingdom of complete peace — two things Muhammad totally failed to do.
And not only that, but according to the Qur’anic verse above, Muhammad is prophesied in the Torah and the Gospel. Isaiah 11 is not in the Torah or the Gospel. So how can this even be an option for a prophecy of Muhammad according to Islam? The types of gymnastics someone would need to do in order to jump over all these amazingly big problems for these claims is just more evidence that there are no prophecies of Muhammad in the Bible, which means Islam is false. The arguments for Muhammad being prophesied in Deuteronomy 18, Isaiah 42, or the Advocate in the Gospel of John are equally, even oddly absurd and ones I’ll address in the future (hint: Deuteronomy 18 and Isaiah 42 aren’t even prophetic texts and only refer to Israelite’s, whereas John is talking about the Holy Spirit, not Muhammad, and if we were to interpret the Advocate as Muhammad rather than the Holy Spirit, it would have the funny effect of making the verse mean that Jesus is the God of Muhammad, the last thing a Muslim would want to admit).
I’ve already written two posts about some of the great good that was caused by the Christian religion. Another one of the recent things I’ve come across as I’ve increasingly studied medieval history is the fact that the first peace movement in the history of the West, or the world in general, was a Christian-based movement that was caused by the evolving violence against Christian monasteries (you know, places where monks reside, very important in the middle ages and for guys like Saint Benedict).
The Frankish Carolingian dominion was a vast one, reaching its zenith with the first Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne (AD 742-814). Charlemagne’s realm nearly reached the extent of the Western Roman Empire, mostly with the exception of the British Isles and Spain (known as Al-Andalus, ‘land of the Vandals‘ during the middle ages). Soon after Charlemagne’s death, and with the loss of such a competent administrative, military and respected leader along with the Frankish practice of dividing up your kingdom to all your sons, the world of the Carolingian dynasty quickly fell apart, starting during the reign of Louis the Pious and ending with the total fracturing of the territory into countless petty kingdoms. As warlords carved up Charlemagne’s kingdom into countless pieces, violence shot up and the multiplying borders made the occupation of being a merchant (and trade) increasingly impossible, and the economy, with it, fell apart. As violence rose and wealth declined, one major target during this period became the Christian monasteries. These monasteries generally contained many valuable assets in them and were basically sitting ducks for any warlord that could bust down the door (which is also why they were some of the primary targets of both the Vikings from the 8th-11th centuries as well as the Magyars). This all happened as the year on the calendar was approaching AD 1000, so many apocalypticists elevated the theological mood of the masses with their expectations of the coming of the end of the world.
Out of this emerged the Pax Dei (the Latin name for this movement meaning Peace of God in our dear language), an evangelical revival that originated as early in the late 10th century (especially in Aquitaine) and widely campaigned to “protect peasants, pilgrims, clergy, women, and children from baronial attack” (Worlds of Medieval Europe, 2003, 180). In 989 at Charroux in France, as part of the Peace of God movement the Frankish bishops declared “an anathema upon all who violate churches! . . . an anathema upon all who steal from the poor! . . . an anathema upon anyone who harms a clergyman!” (pg. 151). The ideals of the Peace of God also helped influence the idea of chivalry during the middle ages, helping to assist peace and stability in the time.
This movement (of which the principal source we have from the ancient world is Adhémar of Chabannes in the early 11th century) was able to gain success through its large numbers in the manors under baronial control, invoking of holy relics against violence-doers and support from bishops, and “was promoted at a number of subsequent [church] councils, including important ones at Charroux (c. 989 and c. 1028), Narbonne (990), Limoges (994 and 1031), Poitiers (c. 1000), and Bourges (1038)”. By the 11th century it had encompassed all of France (with the exception of Normandy). The movement, at one point, tried to gather warriors together to confront the violent warlords, though they suffered a major defeat. Nevertheless, they pressed on and allowed much legal change to be undergone. It allowed major precedent for further peace movements in European society (and in fact the next such movement, the Truce of God, evolved from it –a movement that attempted to restrict the number of days where warfare could take place), helped spread word regarding aiding the poor, and helped stabilize the chaotic society of the time. The Peace of God movement from the 10th-12th centuries is another fantastic example of the enormous good that was caused by the Christian religion throughout world history, and something that Christians should find power in.
An interesting development came about in my recent research and conversations, as I was talking with others and the accusation of child sacrifice in the Bible popped up again (see here where I showed earlier that the Old Testament rejects this). This new argument was based off a passage that I hadn’t considered, and all of a sudden it was being used to show that the Old Testament commands us to sacrifice our firstborn son to God on the altar.
Exodus 22:29-30: You shall not delay to make offerings from the fullness of your harvest and from the outflow of your presses. The firstborn of your sons you shall give to me. 30 You shall do the same with your oxen and with your sheep: seven days it shall remain with its mother; on the eighth day you shall give it to me.
This text is talking about sacrificing all firstborn sons of our livestock and our sons to God. There’s no doubt that sacrifice is the topic of the verse. So, to figure this all out, I googled it. And so appeared a useful article titled God Didn’t Command Child Sacrifice by some Christian named Amy Hall (which also pokes many holes into the attempt to twist Ezekiel 20:25-26 into supporting some sort of child sacrifice interpretation of Exodus). As Hall points out, in Exodus 13:12-13, and later, in Exodus 34:19-20, God also stipulates about the sacrifice of the firstborn sons to God.
Exodus 13:12-13: you shall set apart to the Lord all that first opens the womb. All the firstborn of your livestock that are males shall be the Lord’s. 13 But every firstborn donkey you shall redeem with a sheep; if you do not redeem it, you must break its neck. Every firstborn male among your children you shall redeem.
Exodus 34:19-20: All that first opens the womb is mine, all your male livestock, the firstborn of cow and sheep. 20 The firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, or if you will not redeem it you shall break its neck. All the firstborn of your sons you shall redeem. No one shall appear before me empty-handed.
These two passages say that all the firstborn males of our livestock, cow and sheep, are sacrificed to God. But then it mentions donkeys, and suddenly an option appears. We have the option to, instead of sacrificing the firstborn male donkeys, instead redeem them by substituting a lamb instead. But we also have the option to not redeem it and break its neck. But then the passage says we must redeem our firstborn son, without any other options available. So that topic is closed, the Israelite’s don’t have to sacrifice their children during the time of the Old Testament, because their sacrifice is made up for through substitution.
The debate didn’t end there, though. I was reminded of something in a condescending way — that it was laughable to “assume” the “univocality” of Exodus — the point being that the Book of Exodus was not a single text in the beginning, rather it was a weaving together of several different sources (i.e. the documentary hypothesis). And it is the case that, like the Psalms, the Exodus is composed of different sources by different authors that were gathered together later on that we now consider one document. So, was it possible that Exodus 13:12-13 and 34:19-20 are simply later texts that sought to explain away 22:29-30, the earlier command of child sacrifice, someone suggested to me? Well, no. I grabbed my copy of Richard Elliott Friedman’s The Exodus (2017) since I knew he had a nice summary of only a few pages at the end of the book where he explained which parts of the Torah belong to which source of the four source documents (known as J, E, P or D). Both Exodus 13:12-13 and 22:29-20 belong to the E document, whereas 34:19-20 belonged to the J document — even earlier than E. So there was no getting around these verses.
And yet, it wasn’t over yet. The person I was talking to had a PhD in Theology and Religion and wasn’t about to fall over. Catching me off guard yet again, I was reminded that Friedman himself points out that Exodus 22:29-30 is part of a larger text known to scholars of the Old Testament as the Covenant Code, which spans Exodus 20:22-23:19. And the Covenant Code is an earlier text, in fact, one of the earliest parts of the entire Old Testament. — predating any of our documentary source documents. Of course, our PhD friend was still wrong since I pointed out that Exodus 34:19-20 itself is part of an earlier text, the Ritual Decalogue (one of the three sections where the Torah lists the Ten Commandments, the other two being in Exodus 20:1-21 and Deuteronomy 5:4-21). The Ritual Decalogue is also one of the earliest texts in Israelite history and, in fact, many scholars think that the Covenant Code either developed in parallel with it or that it was actually an expansion of the Ritual Decalogue itself (see Michael Coogan’s The Ten Commandments: A Short History of an Ancient Text, pp. 45-47 and John Van Seters’ A Law Book for the Diaspora: Revision in the Study of the Covenant Code, pg. 9).
So there’s simply no way to get around the fact that the Old Testament nowhere advocates for child sacrifice, our PhD friend certainly had to submit the argument. Once again, see my other article on this topic where I look at the topic of child sacrifice in the rest of the Old Testament.
This will be a quick post. I was reading Clifford Backman’s The Worlds of Medieval Europe (Oxford 2003) and I came across a quite stunning quote from Pope Gregory the Great, one of the most influential figures of the medieval period. The medieval period is imaginatively thought of as a period of barbarism in our society, and the tremendous progress that happened in it is never appreciated or otherwise completely unknown. During kinesiology in high school, as the teacher was briefly going over the history of the subject, he skipped right over the entire middle ages suggesting that nothing medically important happened in this period. Such a stunning fiction can be cleared up with a quick check on Wikipedia (not that this is a reliable source anyways) with people who advanced medicine on their own as much as any Greek on the level of Hippocrates or Galen, such as with little-known figures like Hildegard. Apparently, tolerance must also have been an imaginary thing in this period.
And yet, as I was reading through Backman’s book, a stunning quotation from Pope Gregory was provided regarding his method on converting pagans on pp. 65-66. It’s good to quote it in full.
I have decided that the peoples’ temples to their false gods should not be destroyed, not on any account. The idols within them should be destroyed, but the temples themselves you should simply purify with holy water; moreover, you should set up [Christian] altars in them and place sacred relics in them. If the temples are solidly built, they should be purified from demon worship and re-dedicated to the service of the true God. This way, I hope, the people, seeing that we have not destroyed their holy sites, may abandon their erring ways: by continuing to congregate regularly in their accustomed site, therefore, they might come to know and adore the true God. Since they now have the tradition of regularly sacrificing numbers of oxen to their false gods, let some other ritual be substituted in its place—a Day of Dedication, perhaps, or a feast of the holy martyrs whose relics are enshrined there…. They should no longer sacrifice their oxen to devils, but they certainly may kill them for food, to the praise of God, and thank the Giver of all gifts for the bounty they are thus enjoying. In this way, if we allow the people some worldly pleasures they will more readily come to desire the joys of the spirit. For indeed, it is not possible to erase all errors from stubborn human minds at a single stroke, and if anyone wishes to reach the top of a mountain he must advance step by step instead of in a single leap.
Wow! You’ll never hear anything like this from Christians mentioned by those who detest basic history that may perhaps suggest Christianity was not bad at all overall, but rather fundamental to the progress of modern civilization. Remember, Pope Gregory the Great was as important to the middle ages as almost any other legendary thinker from this period and is singularly most responsible than any other person for the authentic conversion of the Germanic pagans to Christianity. I’ll certainly write about this topic more fully in the future. This is not to say persecution of various sorts was not rife throughout the Middle Ages, though it’s always little mentioned how the witch hunts and inquisition met their heights during the 16th century, a glorious time we call the “Renaissance” (well, not historians) or how whatever violence happened during the Middle Ages certainly was no weaker throughout the Roman era.
Let’s not forget the great thinkers of our Christian history, lest we let the surely unbiased unbelievers concoct the rest for us.
Christopher Hitchens was quite a famous atheist until he died, and a form of nostalgia for his activity remains in atheist circles constantly decrying how much they miss the guy. In the first decade of the 2000’s, a slew of atheist books were getting launched and reaching incredible amounts of people and sales, among Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennet and, of course, Christopher Hitchens. In a way, you can consider these guys (and many others alongside them) as the “fathers” of the activist-type movement we call ‘New Atheism’. One of them, our dear Hitchens, is often attributed a quote that’s more well known than any others among the ‘New Atheists’ — “that which is asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” It’s perfectly accurate and even has it’s own Wikipedia page with the title ‘Hitchens’s Razor’. Unfortunately, though, Hitchens never came up with it. He probably got it from the Latin proverb well-known in the 19th century, quod grātīs asseritur, grātīs negātur (“what is freely asserted, is freely dismissed”). Some atheist website has even found a use of this principle as early as 1704 by theologian Johann Georg Pritius in his work title Introductio in lectionem Novi Testamenti (Introduction to the New Testament) arguing against a non-trinitarian 3rd century theologian.
How can you prove it, Artemon? Because you asserted it without cause, therefore also it may be denied without cause.
Very interesting to see that such a quote may well have originated from the field of theology. So too does the more popular razor, Occam’s Razor, which states that the simplest rational explanation should always be accepted (so we shouldn’t accept tangled explanations if much more concise, self-explanatory ones are at hand). Occam’s Razor comes from William of Ockham, a brilliant theologian and philosopher living in the 13th and 14th centuries. So ideas and principles like this certainly don’t have any foundation in the current air of atheism. Though placed on a pedestal by people who appreciate breathing in the air, these principles are often not acted out in practice. Christopher Hitchens was, of course, a promoter of conspiracy theories like the idea that Constantine, the first Christian emperor of the Roman Empire, didn’t really convert to Christianity, despite the fact that, well … Constantine, once he defeated Maxentius in the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312, the very next year he produced the Edict of Milan which promulgated freedom of religion, with an emphasis on Christians being able to practice their Christianity without the persecutions of the past, and demanded the return of confiscated Christian property that largely took place during Diocletian’s rule. Constantine took away taxes that clergy members had to pay, raised Christians to the highest levels of government, composed an entire speech spanning hundreds of pages long in book form defending monotheism and Christianity that was collected by Eusebius in his Oration of Constantine and now, for half a century of scholarship, has not been questioned by scholarship in authenticity. After Constantine defeated Licinius in 324 and became the sole ruler of the Roman Empire, the very next year under his reign Christians banned the practice of gladiatorship and Constantine called the Council of Nicaea to resolve the internal disputes of the church. Constantine also built the city of Constantinople over the site of Byzantium (hence why the later empire emerging out of the east of the formative Roman Empire is known as the Byzantine Empire), and this city, though not incorporating a total absence of paganism, was overwhelmingly Christian. Adrian Goldsworthy writes;
Christian claims that there was no trace of pagan cults in the city were exaggerated. There was a large nude statue of Constantine as the sun god on top of what is now known as the Burnt Column, and there were a few temples, mostly on existing foundations. Yet it is fair to say that it was an overtly and overwhelmingly Christian city. (Goldsworthy, Adrian Keith. How Rome fell: Death of a superpower. Yale University Press, 2009, 186)
Constantine commissioned the production of over fifty highly expensive Bible’s and constructed churches at an unprecedented rate. In fact, some of the greatest Christian sites in the world to this day have their roots in Constantine’s religious reforms. Constantine’s mother, Helena, is responsible for the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, built over where she believed was the burial site of Jesus Christ, and this church remains the most popular Christian pilgrimage site in the world to this day. Constantine also built Old St. Peter’s Basilica in what is today Vatican City, which was demolished in the 16th century and over it built the new St. Peter’s Basilica which is the largest church in the world and one of the greatest representations of Renaissance Architecture. Constantine is also responsible for the great Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
Constantine did all this for his personal, Christianity. Just like common Christian practice of his day, he waited until the end of his life to get baptized in the Jordan River (the same place Jesus was baptized), and he made his Christian move despite it being perhaps the best thing he could have done to commit political suicide. At the time, only between 5-10% of the Roman population was Christian, including virtually no one in the aristocracy and no Senators. This is common information amongst modern Roman historians, and the fact that there is even the myth of Constantine converting for political reasons is concerning when it comes to how abrogated the popular understanding of history is in our society. Hitchens, never having read a shred of evidence for this conspiracy theory, asserted it nonetheless. Hitchens’ ignorance of history was something disproportionately atrocious to his other, well, blunders. David Bentley Hart in an excellent review of his book God is Not Great writes;
To appreciate the true spirit of the New Atheism, however, and to take proper measure of its intellectual depth, one really has to turn to Christopher Hitchens. Admittedly, he is the most egregiously slapdash of the New Atheists, as well as (not coincidentally) the most entertaining, but I take this as proof that he is also the least self-deluding. His God Is Not Great shows no sign whatsoever that he ever intended anything other than a rollicking burlesque, without so much as a pretense of logical order or scholarly rigor. His sporadic forays into philosophical argument suggest not only that he has sailed into unfamiliar waters, but also that he is simply not very interested in any of it. His occasional observations on Hume and Kant make it obvious that he has not really read either very closely. He apparently believes that Nietzsche, in announcing the death of God, literally meant to suggest that the supreme being named God had somehow met his demise. The title of one of the chapters in God Is Not Great is “The Metaphysical Claims of Religion Are False,” but nowhere in that chapter does Hitchens actually say what those claims or their flaws are.
Hart then goes to list off numerous clumsy historical errors Hitchens makes that even a student of historiography could have avoided, including conflating the first and fourth crusades, repeating the historical fantasy myth that Christians burned the Greek works of Aristotle or Lucretius or ever really engaged in some form of widespread pagan book-burning (in fact, it was Christian arguments by those like Augustine and Origen that lead to their preservation of today). Hart just continues listing them …
He speaks of the traditional hostility of “religion” (whatever that may be) to medicine, despite the monastic origins of the modern hospital and the involvement of Christian missions in medical research and medical care from the fourth century to the present. He tells us that countless lives were lost in the early centuries of the Church over disputes regarding which gospels were legitimate (the actual number of lives lost is zero). He asserts that Myles Coverdale and John Wycliffe were burned alive at the stake, although both men died of natural causes. He knows that the last twelve verses of Mark 16 are a late addition to the text, but he imagines this means that the entire account of the Resurrection is as well. He informs us that it is well known that Augustine was fond of the myth of the Wandering Jew, though Augustine died eight centuries before the legend was invented. And so on and so on (and so on).
Not a problem at all. Someone will definitely inform me that it’s not productive to castigate the work of a dead man like Hitchens, although that argument might hold more credibly if Hitchens didn’t continue exerting such influence and, well, he was the master of such an art himself, spending half his career attacking the post-mortem Mother Teresa. It all eventually ended in perhaps one of the most unfortunate ways. Hitchens, after a long-life of drinking and smoking, he was hospitalized after contracting esophageal cancer and then contracted hospital-acquired pneumonia, dying in 2011.
Hitchens, in one way, is an embodiment of modern new atheism (but perhaps not quite the archetype of Richard Dawkins). A few years before meeting his demise, he was totally demolished in debate on the topic of religion by William Lane Craig in perhaps Craig’s most famous performance — a debating opportunity he almost didn’t take up because he thought Hitchens was so ignorant of the issues, but did so anyways because of his popularity. Especially good is this video where William Lane Craig demolishes Hitchens’ attempts to use evolution to thwart Christianity, something Hitchens didn’t respond to in the rest of the debate since … he couldn’t (in fact, Hitchens even ended up conceding his concluding speech at the end).
I can go on but I think I’ll have to conclude here. In the end of the day, Hitchens’s anti-theistic career is shredded by Hitchens’s Razor.
The title isn’t perfectly accurate — Christians should continue following the Old Testament, so long as the message hasn’t been superseded in the New Testament. Everything that has been superseded, however, is no longer something that needs to be practiced. Jesus was the final and absolute sacrifice for our sins, which means the Old Covenant practice of sacrificing animals and certain crops has been self-evidently superseded, and no memory of such a practice anywhere in the New Testament is provided.
Nevertheless, Matthew 5:17-18 has often been cited by, you guessed it, atheists, to claim that Christians have really just gotten it all wrong for the last several thousand years and that the original biblical message in the New Testament clearly puts it out that the Old Covenant should be continuously followed! In this video of Sam Harris’s dialogue with Hugh Hewitt (timestamp 10:30-40) these verses get pulled out from under the rug as a proof of the sheer cruelty of Christianity. Of course, Sam has a long history of misconstruing the Bible whenever he gets a chance, so just a few seconds after saying this he claims Paul calls for the execution of homosexuals in Romans, something that only happened in his imagination. He’s claimed that Jesus says in Luke 19:27 that unbelievers should be slain before him, which resulted in David Wood wiping the floor with him (the verse is just in a parable where a king says this), and other misrepresentations of his (like claiming so many times that Jesus says slaves should obey their masters, a verse nowhere in the Gospels at all but in Ephesians 6 — how Harris bungled this up is anyone’s guess). This is not to totally discredit Harris, though, I highly enjoyed his four live debates with Jordan Peterson. Anyways, back to the point. Here’s what Matthew 5:17-18 says.
Matthew 5:17-18: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.
So Jesus did not come to abolish the law or prophets, rather, to fulfill their meaning in its maximum extent. Heaven and earth would pass away, but these two elements will sustain. There was a problem, of course. I was well aware of verses in the Bible like Mark 7:18-19 abolishing the dietary Torah law;
Mark 7:18-19: He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, 19 since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.)
Paul also argues repeatedly that the Torah law of circumcision, for example, is not necessary to be followed (such as in Galatians 5:2). Paul has a conflict with Jews keeping the law in Galatians 2 (Christianity was originally a sect in Judaism like the Pharisees and Sadducees but ended up slowly diverging from Judaism in later decades), but a consensus eventually is reached in Acts 15 that Paul was right. So what’s going on in Matthew? Does Matthew think we should keep circumcision, the dietary laws and sacrifice? Well, to find the solution, I checked what the academic literature has to say on this topic — something very useful to do when you don’t understand something in the Bible. Here, I found Douglas Hare’s paper How Jewish is the Gospel of Matthew (CBQ 2000) incredibly helpful.
The primary text is Matt 5:19, “Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” This verse is one of a complex of four sayings which together constitute the programmatic introduction to the Sermon on the Mount. The preceding verse, which proclaims the continuing validity of every letter of the Torah, must not be interpreted as one requiring the literal observance of every precept of the Law. Such affirmations of the sanctity of scripture were accompanied by many departures in practice in all forms of first-century Judaism known to us. Jesus himself is represented a few verses later (5:31-32) “loosing” the provisions for divorce in Deut 24:1. Like modern fundamentalists, Jews and Christians could conscientiously affirm the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture while at the same time supporting significant departures from its literal requirements by means of interpretation. (pg. 270)
Jesus declaring the preservation of the iotas clearly needs to be understood in the context of the loosing of the provisions of divorce in Deuteronomy 24, and the fact that in Matthew 5, Jesus goes on to completely reinterpret many of the iotas, since this is the chapter with many of the famous “You have heard it was said … but I say to you …” sayings of Jesus. As Hare continues to explain, it’s unlikely that Matthew believed in an even more literal observance of the Torah, and on pg. 271 even notes Jesus essentially breaking a purity law by touching a leper (v. 8:3) (see n. 28). Then, Hare notes another important paper by Mark Allan Powell (Do and Keep What Moses Says (Matthew 23:2-7), JBL 1995) who argues for the claim that Matthew 23:2-3 commands not against the teaching authority of the scribes but refers to the public reading of the Torah (reading the paper is quite important).
In Matthew 24:20, Jesus says “Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath”. This doesn’t mean that no travel is allowed on the Sabbath. Hare points out on pg. 272 that it means we should, even though we may still travel on the Sabbath day, hope our travels don’t actually fall on it (for the self-evident reason that it could otherwise be devoted to God). In fact, Matthew even subordinates the Sabbath to Jesus by calling Him the “Lord of the Sabbath” in Matthew 12:8. Hare also points out that some scholars have argued that Matthew believed in the literal interpretation of all the iotas based on Matthew 15:10-11, which is Matthew’s parallel to Mark 7:
Matthew 15:10-11: Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: 11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”
Did you catch it? Matthew, who was using Mark as his source for this narrative of Jesus, omits the part where Mark says that Jesus, therefore, declared all foods to be clean! Which means Matthew disagreed! Not exactly, as Hare shows (pg. 273), the implications of the verse is still that foods don’t defile, and in fact it is Matthew who draws attention to this implication by saying that the Pharisees were totally shocked by what Jesus said (Matt. 15:12). Now what could have possibly shocked them? As Hare shows in his paper with the abundance of evidence, it’s absolutely clear that Matthew believed the Torah should not be observed literally, but as it is interpreted by Jesus, which puts everything in the Gospel into perspective — Jesus reinterpreting the iotas, saying that you can still travel on the Sabbath though it isn’t preferable, Matthew drawing attention to the implications of Jesus’ saying that all foods are now clean, Jesus touching the leper and loosening the provisions on divorce from Deuteronomy. So we Christians were right after all. Coincidence?