The Church of the Resurrection, part 2

The Church of the Resurrection, part 2

In my last post, I talked about the construction of the original basilica and rotunda built on the site of Jesus’ burial and resurrection. Those buildings were built in 337 CE and stood unmolested until 614 CE. What happened next is probably one of the worst things you have never heard of.

In 476 CE, the last Roman emperor in the west was deposed. He was a child, a puppet really, and his overlord – a German army commander named Flavius Odoacer – chose to dispense with this entire idea of emperor. He sent the imperial purple to the emperor in the east, Zeno, and asked only that he be recognized as “King of Italy.” Zeno, weakened from internal conflict, could not oppose Odoacer’s will and recognized him as king. For a short time under emperor Theodosius I, the Roman Empire would rule Italy again, but western Europe was no longer the land of the Romans. It became the land of new, rising German powers, and both Romans and Germans would shortly have their hands full with another force – Islam.

Before the rise of Islam, however, the eastern Romans had to deal with the Sassanids of Persia. This rival kingdom had risen from the ashes of the Parthian Empire at about the time Constantine was consolidating his power, around 300 CE. The Sassanids had been the Romans only real rivals for three hundred years, and the two powers watched each other uneasily.

In 502 CE, a century of violence and border conflict broke out between the Sassanids and the eastern Romans. (Historians call the eastern Romans the “Byzantines”.) War raged until 591 when the Roman Emperor Maurice II negotiated a peace with the Sassanid Shah Khusrau II. Their peace was sealed with Khusrau’s marriage to Maurice’s daughter.

Just when things looked peaceful, however, one of Maurice’s generals named Phocus led a coup d’etat and assassinated him. Khusrau was enraged, and he launched a series of attacks on Roman holdings all over the eastern Mediterranean. The Jews, who had lived under Roman oppression for centuries, revolted and under the leadership of Benjamin of Tiberius and Nehemiah ben Hushiel, joined the Sassanid cause.

In 614 CE,  combined Persian and Jewish army surrounded the Christian city of Jerusalem which was not defended by an army but by civilians and clergy. After only twenty-one days, the city fell and the Persians handed the city to the Nehemiah ben Hushiel and the Jews.

Nehemiah was a heavy handed ruler, and he was not popular with the Christians. They rebelled after just a couple months, and they killed Nehemiah and his “council of the righteous”, dragging their bodies through the streets before throwing them from the city walls.

Khusrau’s general Sharhbaraz’s reaction was swift. He retook the city and he gave the Jews permission to kill the Christians on site. According to the historian Antiochus Strategios, a reign of terror ensued and 57,000 Christians were killed. Another 35,000 were captured and sold into slavery. The Jews, believing the relic of the True Cross to be the Staff of Aaron, tortured clerics until they revealed its location. They took the True Cross and sent it to Khusrau as a thank you gift.

The Jews’ barbarism mortified Khusrau. He abandoned his Jewish allies to the Byzantines, who sought out an alliance with a little known but rising force to the south, the city of Medina and its ruler – Muhammed. Muhammed dreamed of a journey to Jerusalem, and his forces joined the Byzantine Romans in expelling the Jews from Palestine.

The Christians swept down into Judea in 622 CE and retook the city of Jerusalem. They moved on and eventually laid siege to Khusrau’s capital. His son and successor surrendered the True Cross to the Roman Emperor Heraclius, who returned it to Jerusalem in 630 CE.

During these multiple battles, sieges and riots, the Church of the Resurrection had been severely damaged. Heraclius restored it, but he had to turn his attention quickly to another rising threat – Islam and the Arabs.

While Heraclius had been fighting the Sassanids, his ally Muhammed had been unifying the warring Arab tribes. With them unified, Muhammed led his armies against the Romans at the Battle of Mu’tah. This was the first of many engagements, and by 637 CE the Muslim armies sat outside an undefended Jerusalem. This time, they were not allies but conquerors.

The 10th century historian Eutychius of Alexandria writes that the patriarch of Jerusalem Suphronius surrendered the city of the Fatimid Caliph Umar Ibn Al Khattab. Islam offered the both Christians and Jews limited freedom of religion under the al-Dhimma, and so for the first time since 70 CE, both Christians and Jews lived and worshiped in Jerusalem.

According to the Muslim chronicler al-Waqidi, after surrendering the city, Suphronius took Umar on a tour of the city. Umar asked to see the holiest site of the city, and Suphronius took him to the Church of the Resurrection. While there, the call for noon prayer was heard. Suphronius invited Umar to pray in the portico of the church, but Umar refused. To show his respect for the Christian site, Umar crossed the street and prayed there instead. It is the site of the current Mosque of Umar.

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The Mosque of Omar, as seen from the courtyard of the Church of the Resurrection

In 691, the Caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan toured Jerusalem and was appalled to see that the Christian Anastasis was the tallest structure in the city. The Anastasis was constructed over the rock upon which Christ had been resurrected. On top of the temple platform, stood the rock that Muslims believe is the foundation stone - the place of both original creation and final judgment. Al-Malik ordered a dome like the Anastasis, to be constructed over the rock on the temple platform.

So, by the year 700 CE, Jerusalem was dominated by two domes – one Christian and one Muslim. The two would have stood above all other buildings in a city of probably no more than 10,000 people, surrounded by only light fortifications.

For the next 300 years, this was the state of things until the reign of Abu ‘Ali Mansur Tariq al-Hakim, known forever to Christians as “Hakim the Mad Caliph”.

But his story is for another day.

Flowing Water

Flowing Water

Psalm 42 pictures the world of the Banias River, one of the three sources of the Jordan River. The Banias rises in the Golan Heights, near the site of ancient Caesarea Philippi, and flows through what is now a National Reserve. It is possibly the most beautiful spot in Israel. The Banias has several beautiful cascades and the water moves swiftly. Because of this, it is both clean and cool.

Jesus spent at least a little time in this area (Matthew 16:13-20), and unlike many of us modern believers, he would have been familiar with the connection between this area and Psalm 42. The heart of this psalm was his heart as well.

If you take a few minutes to read Psalm 42, you will undoubtedly be struck by the beauty of its natural setting as well as its somewhat glum central verse: “Why are you downcast, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise Him, my salvation and my God. ” (vv 5-6, repeated in v 11)

It is the nature of flowing water to churn. What is cast down is once again brought to the surface. This is the nature of its continual movement and renewal.

Did Jesus go to Banias at a time of difficulty? Was it a spiritual retreat where he was able to renew his heart? We do not like to think of Jesus in these human terms, but the Scriptures beg us to do so.

Let us join our Lord in the retreat to the flowing waters which churn our souls and bring us back to the surface renewed and strengthened. Let us long for the moving work of God within us that teaches us to again hope in the Lord.

Eleven Things Pastors Should Remember about People

Eleven Things Pastors Should Remember about People

Last week, I reposted a list of eleven things you need to know about your pastor. I wanted to follow that list up with some things that pastors need to remember about the people of their congregations. As a pastor, whose vocation is the ministry of the gospel, it is easy to forget that not everyone has the priorities that you do.

  1. They are pulled in lots of directions.  We pastors like to believe the church is the most important thing in people’s lives, and it probably should be. The reality is, however, that church is just one of many things pulling on people’s lives.
  2. They make some decisions out of necessity.  Most people want to do and give far more than they can. They make good and bad decisions, but sometimes they have to make necessary decisions – things they don’t want to do but have to do.
  3. They are a little intimidated by you sometimes. You are their pastor. They see you as a spiritual authority over them. Sometimes you preach about things that impact them like you can see inside their head. That’s freaky.
  4. They like you, but they need Jesus to be the head of the church. They don’t always agree with you. They don’t need you to be the answer man. They need you to point them to Christ. They need you to make church about Jesus.
  5. They could have slept in. If they’re at church, they are probably tired. They probably have a lot to do; but they are here. They value this church thing and give it what they can.
  6. They are not as invested in your sermon as you are. You spent hours preparing. You’re inside it and the message is inside you. They just heard it. They need to digest it. Don’t get frustrated if people don’t respond as you think they should.
  7. They get attacked and ridiculed in ways you aren’t. Christians are sometimes under all kinds of pressures and attacks for their faith. Co-workers, family members, television, pop culture – there are elements everywhere putting pressure on them because of their faith. You don’t deal with that because you’re a pastor.
  8. They are struggling with something inside. People only talk about a very small portion of what goes on in their thought lives. Sometimes they are struggling with something that has nothing to do with you that makes them act in ways you don’t understand.
  9. They don’t know what’s going on inside your head either. Your thoughts are a matrix of lots of things they will never know about. Don’t assume they think like you. They need you to communicate clearly so they can understand.
  10. They don’t know what they can do. You see potential in people, but often they are too busy or too frustrated or too self-conscious or too hurt to see it in themselves. You need to nurture abilities through mentorship and encouragement.
  11. They are the Church. We forget this point, pastors. The Church is not you and the people to do stuff for you. The Spirit of God is at work in them as much as in you. The Church is a union of people with many different gifts.

These are things I need to be reminded of as much as anyone. Pastors, let’s make sure we are wise stewards of the congregations God has equipped us to lead.

Tom Wright on the Resurrection

That the disciple of Jesus taught his resurrection was a revolutionary concept. Here is Tom Wright, former Bishop of Durham and one of the foremost New Testament scholars of our day, explaining why the resurrection must be true.

“The only way you can explain why christianity began and why it took the very precise shape it was is – let’s say cautiously first – they really did believe he was bodily raised from the dead…the only way you can explain the rise of the early Christian belief that Jesus was raised is if there really was an empty tomb, and  they really did meet jesus alive again in a transformed body.”

Herod Antipater

There are a lot of Herodians in the Gospels and Acts. It gets pretty confusing if you’re not keeping a score card.

Herod the Great and His Kids

They all descend from Herod the Great, who the gospel of Matthew says was ruling as King of the Jews when Jesus was born. He died in 4-3 BCE, and he left behind a real mess for the Romans to sort out. He had originally been married to a Jewish princess, then he married a different one – both of whom where named Mariamne. He traded her for a Samaritan woman named Malthace and moved from her to another lady named Cleopatra. He also had a number of girlfriends on the side.

He had children with all of them, but to ensure the ascendancy of his children by Malthace, he had his sons by the first Mariamne killed. He married his son from the second Mariamne to his granddaughter from the first Mariamne. Then she (her name was Herodias), divorced that son and married Herod’s son by Malthace.

It is all very confusing. Have I said that yet?

Anyway, when Herod died, the Romans divided his kingdom between two of his sons by Malthace: Herod Archelaus received the title of ethnarch and ruled Judea and Herod Antipater received the title of tetrarch and ruled Galilee. Of course, the Romans had to make that decision because Herod the Great had left two wills, both naming a different son as tetrarch.

Archelaus ruled Judea until 6 CE when the Romans, unsatisfied with his conduct, deposed him and declared the region to be a province. They banished him to Gaul, and he was never heard from again.

Rule and Marriage(s)

Antipater on the other hand, catered to the Romans and built the resort town of Tiberias for them. He loved the Romans, and they allowed him to pretend he had power. Galilee was a populous place under Antipater, and it flourished. He spent time in Rome, where he met Herodias and persuaded her to leave his half-brother and marry him. This marriage was what enraged John the Baptist and led to his imprisonment and ultimate beheading.

(Antipater was a fascinatingly depraved guy. He beheaded John because of a request from Herodias’ daughter Salome after she “danced before him.” Salome was not only Antipater’s stepdaughter. She is also his niece, since her father was Antipater’s half-brother. AND since Herodias was also Antipater’s niece, there’s an additional level of incestuous lust involved. I’m still not convinced he wasn’t from the deep, dark recesses of Appalachia.)

Of course, when Antipater met Herodias, he was already married to the daughter of the king of Idumea, who was also a distant relative. It took so long for Herodias to get to Galilee that Antipater’s first wife had time to run home to her father, who promptly declared war on Antipater and Galilee. Had it not been for timely interference by the Romans in 26 CE, Antipater would have lost his kingdom over the affair. But the Romans did interfere, because Antipater’s former father-in-law, Aretas IV Philopatris, was a pain in their side and they needed an excuse to put him in his place.

Are you keeping track of all this, because to be honest, I’m not sure that I am!

His Downfall and Exile

Antipater’s downfall also came about because of Herodias. Her brother, Agrippa, ran into money trouble and she persuaded Antipater to cover for him. The two men quarreled, and Agrippa left in a huff. He went to Rome where he joined his friend Gaius, whom he had met when Gaius was in Antioch as a child. Gaius is a common enough Roman name, so you might know him better by his nickname Caligula.

When Caligula became emperor, he was in a position to help his childhood friend Agrippa. At first, Caligula made Agrippa the king of Lysanias (basically southern Lebanon), but in 39 CE Agrippa went to Caligula with complaints of treason against Antipater. The emperor deposed and exiled Antipater and made Agrippa king of Galilee and eventually Judaea as well.

Antipater died in exile in Gaul, ironically near the place where his brother Archelaus had died thirty years before.

Theories as Facts

Among students of the Scriptures, it is often hard to discern the theories from the facts. Someone in one generation develops an idea, and the next generation – who learned the idea in their college classrooms – teaches it as fact.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than the theory of the “historical Jesus” which fuels so many of the articles about Jesus that appear every year in mainstream magazines around the time of Easter. The same theory fuels almost every History Channel and PBS documentary about Jesus as well.

But the theory – which briefly states the that Jesus of history is very different from the Jesus of the Bible – is just that, a theory. It is a theory first clearly and plainly articulated around 1900, although it had been discussed at great length by German theologians at the close of the previous century. Two works – Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of Its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede, first published in English in 1910; and Albert Kalthoff’s The Rise of Christianity (1907) – made the idea somewhat mainstream. Both owed an enormous debt to an earlier book, The Life of Jesus Critically Examinedwritten in 1846 by David Friedrich Strauss.

The themes were taken up in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and then became a part of pop culture with the formation of the Jesus Seminar in 1985. Almost all of the mainstream authorities on the “historical Jesus” – Robert Bonk, John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg – first gained notice outside of academia because of it. Infamously, in the Seminar, members voted on the historicity of Jesus’ sayings by putting colored beads in a bowl – red meaning Jesus said it, black meaning he did not, and a range of colors between indicating various probabilities.

Although opposed by some of the greatest theological minds of the 20th century – Karl Bath and Rudolf Bultmann both opposed it – the idea has gained traction in popular culture and is taken as a given by almost everyone, including Christians. People just assume that the gospels present Jesus differently than he actually was in life.

But the theory hangs on the slender threads of assumptions. The assumptions are simple ones:

  • Jesus was illiterate because he came from Nazareth and therefore would not have
  • Jesus was poor because he came from Galilee and therefore resented the rule of the Romans

These two notions should bother the student of history. They are the Marxists ideals. Jesus is a poor, illiterate carpenter who rises up against his bourgeoisie Roman masters and is crushed for trying to lead a rebellion. They are not representative of first century Palestine, but they are representative of an ideal that existed in Europe at the time that the historical Jesus quest took root.

Everything about Jesus’ teachings is rephrased into a class struggle, and because it was convenient to the struggle of the day, people followed it. It should not surprise us that it gained popularity again in the 1960’s when Marxist ideals – repackaged as communal living and the oppression of “the Man” – became an academic norm again.

My purpose in all of this is not to critique the Jesus Seminar. I have done that elsewhere. It simply illustrates the weakness of the theory, which unfortunately is taught in even some of the most conservative colleges and churches.

For example, almost everyone who attends a basic Bible study or New Testament Survey class is told that Mark was the first gospel written. But why is this taught?

Because the historical Jesus people say so. Mark has the fewest miracles, reports events in the tersest terms; and since Matthew and Luke contain many of the same events, it became popular to conclude that it was the first gospel written.

This, of course, moves the core of the gospel out a generation from the life of Jesus and it makes Matthew and Luke derivative works.

In historical fact, however, most of the Church Fathers believed that Matthew was the first gospel written. It is 1) the most Jewish of the gospels and 2) reflects very little of later events. This is why Matthew appears first in the canon lists, and in your own Bible if you have one.

The argument that Mark was written first was created to justify dissecting the others, eliminating the miracles and the divinity of Christ. The Jesus Seminar people then decided that Mark was actually a composite of an imagined work called Q (from the German for source) and the Gospel of Thomas. They extrapolate Q from Mark by simply removing anything miraculous, supernatural or divine.

The theory, and it is was nothing more than that, became presented as fact and now, virtually everyone in Western Christianity adheres to it when in fact the Church has not adhered to that position for nearly 2,000 years.

All of this is just an illustration.

When something is presented to you as if it is facts, ask where the facts come from. Assume nothing. Alone, we won’t always catch everything; but as a community, we watch each other’s backs. We keep each other straight.

Don’t be afraid to question things, especially when those things are presented as undeniable fact without substantiation.

The Sad State of Biblical Literacy

I was once told by a fellow pastor, “I don’t teach deep stuff. I just preach Jesus.”

That sounds great on a surface level, doesn’t it? Let’s just preach Jesus because He is after all the Savior of mankind, right? If people believe Him, then they can sort everything else out eventually, right?


Jesus does not exist in a vacuum. The gospels occur within a massive supranarrative (many writers would say metanarrative but they would be using that word incorrectly). The Church is born and flourishes within a greater story, a symphonic movement of harmony, dissonance, leitmotif and crescendo. To dismiss the Scriptures as secondary to “preaching Jesus” is to do a poor job of preaching Jesus.

That is not to say that the Gospel is not, at its core, Jesus Himself. The apostle Paul wrote that in Corinth he “decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2) But before we use this as a proof text for a sort of “nothing but Jesus” philosophy, let’s not forget that this same Paul plumbed the depths of Hebrew Scripture, Greek philosophy and Roman culture. This is the same guy who wrote things that Simon Peter said were, “hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction.” (2 Peter 3:16)

Paul was not a simplistic preacher with a one note repertoire. He brought to bear some formidable knowledge of the Scriptures, and he was not afraid to teach it when necessary.

And here’s the thing. The Gospel is the culmination of the Hebrew Scriptures, and without them, it is not much of anything. While the Gospel of Luke certainly frames Jesus as the Messiah of all mankind and leans heavily on pagan culture, he cannot separate Jesus from the context in which He lived or the Scriptures which He fulfilled. Even Luke must place Jesus in context with the Hebrew Scriptures.

So a supposed Bible teacher who does not dive headfirst into the Hebrew Scriptures and saturate himself with the supranarrative will teach a shallow Jesus.

If you ask me for advice about pastoring, I will tell you that you must know the Bible. You must immerse yourself in it and have the intestinal fortitude and spiritual integrity to allow it to change you. The Revealed Scriptures must have your absolute, undying devotion. You must be willing to allow the Spirit of God to discipline, chasten, correct and encourage you. You must never have an opinion that cannot be altered by a deeper understanding of the Word of God.

You should bow to the ground before the authority of the Scriptures. They must be your schoolmaster and you must ever be their servant. You must be conformed by the written Word in order to be conformed to the image of the Living Word.

Acquire knowledge of history and language so you can understand the Scriptures. Read them in translation. Read them in the original languages. Read them silently and aloud. Teach them constantly and receive teaching from them. Heed the wisdom of those who have spent their lives immersed in them and reject those who handle them lightly.

The older I get the more I realize the foolishness of my youth – pursuing trends and methodologies under the mistaken belief that those things would “build” the church.  I have little patience for people who tell me they are too busy to “be deep.”

Get out of the ministry if you don’t have a passion for the beauty of the Scriptures. You are supposed to be ministering the Scriptures to people, not feel good sentiments and leadership strategies.

Preach Jesus. Yes! But preach Him from a place of deep, growing commitment to the Scriptures that reveal Him. Otherwise, you will preach a Jesus conformed to your image rather than being conformed to His.