I’ve been particularly interested recently in Ancient Near Eastern history, and in particular how the Old Testament interacts with its context. I have been repeatedly told by academics and intellectuals – including some Christians! – that the Old Testament is just a collection of myths and fictions with no connection to what really happened. This seemed fishy to me. So I’ve been digging over the past few months, and found many more connections even than I expected to find. One, which illustrates the challenges and the possibilities, is the question of the wife of the Achaemenid Persian shah Xerxes I (r. 486-465). (more…)
Last month’s decision by the US president to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel brought out the full range of responses, as usual. Such responses always dismay me as to how poorly both sides understand what the Bible says about Israel, land, and the Church today. Here are some notes for a discussion I led on the subject, specifically for Christians; the notes have been somewhat edited since the original version. (more…)
Amid the commemorations and celebrations of Martin Luther nailing several Latin points for disputation upon his local bulletin board, there has been some discussion about whether the Reformation “failed” or “succeeded.” The answer, of course, depends on what you think the Reformation’s goal was. But to enable you to reach your own conclusions, I thought a scorecard might be helpful. (more…)
In my previous post I discussed Harley Talman’s argument that Christians ought to entertain the notion that Muhammad might have been a prophet (though not a very good one). Other critics have pointed out biblical and scriptural flaws with his argument. But since very few Christian bloggers have specific training in Islamic studies (the academic study of Islam), I thought it might be useful if I pointed out some criticisms of Talman’s argument from the perspective of Islamicists (experts in studying Islam). In addition to a few outright errors, Talman provides historically ignorant interpretations of the available sources. In particular, the crux of my disagreement is that Talman argues that the Qur’an is not in fact anti-Trinitarian, as accepted by almost all Islamicists (regardless of their religious views). Instead, he claims that the Qur’an only criticizes unorthodox Christian views which orthodox Christians ought also to reject. I think this assertion is untenable, and this flaw is fatal to his entire argument. (more…)
For almost a millennium and a half, Muslims (and almost exclusively Muslims) have said yes. Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and polytheists said no. This was a sharp enough distinction that saying “Muhammad was God’s messenger” (i.e. prophet) was the defining act of converting to Islam. That assertion is the second half of the Shahada (the Testimony), the first half of which (“There is no god but God”) is shared with Christians and Jews, and even some Zoroastrians. The second half of the Shahada is distinctively Muslim, and it is the assertion that Muhammad was a prophet.
But I recently came across a Christian missiologist who argues that we Christians should re-think our negative answer. Writing under what is apparently a pseudonym, “Harley Talman” has proposed that a Christian committed to the sole efficacy of Jesus Christ for salvation can cautiously and conditionally affirm that Muhammad may have been an actual prophet. Unsurprisingly, this approach is controversial and has occasioned rebuttals. My goal in this post is simply to lay out a brief consideration on the subject. (more…)
Now is a good time to pray for America. I have never seen American democracy as weak as it is now. In order for this country to survive, its leaders and its people need to defend its core democratic institutions, and yet I see many leaders and public figures, both Republicans and Democrats, ignoring or even demanding challenges to those institutions, in ways that they think will serve their partisan goals. Partisanship itself can become a threat to the country when it escalates into factionalism. In order to understand this, we might consider a slice of history, that of the longest-lived empire the West has ever known.
Many people have compared the United States to the Roman Empire, but perhaps a more apt, and more sobering, comparison would be with the later Eastern Roman Empire, better known to westerners as the Byzantine Empire. The Roman Empire in the West was quickly overrun by barbarian invasions from the north, and we are simply not in that much danger from Canadians (nor from Mexicans, since that border is well-defended). The Eastern Roman Empire survived the Germanic barbarian invasions just fine. Like the United States, it had much greater military and population resources than its western partner. But it fell in stages, losing large areas of land in the seventh, the eleventh, and the fourteenth centuries, so that it spent the last century of its existence as little more than a city-state. And each of these territorial losses was preceded by factionalism and civil war. If Americans would like to avoid the fate of the Byzantines, we must not let our partisan loyalties escalate into factionalism. (more…)
The problem with prolegomena is that they are out of place.
Prolegomena are the things that must be said at the very beginning, before anything else. They are the intellectual throat-clearing before meat of the matter, the logical foundations upon which later assertions will be based. Karl Barth defined prolegomena as the explanation of the path to knowledge (in his case, in the field of dogmatic theology, but it could be taken more generally). The prolegomena explain how the study of a subject ought to proceed, with what method, on what assumptions, in order to succeed at its intended task. But the problem, with due apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein, is that we never do start at the very beginning. (more…)
As a historian, I am struck by how much of the Old Testament consists of historical narrative, over a third of the total (and it’s a big volume!). On the other hand, I am also surprised at the lack of historical method (as distinct from the methods of textual scholarship or archaeology) applied to these biblical narratives. It seems that most Old Testament scholars have concluded that there is nothing historical in the text to which historical methods might be applied. Yet I wonder whether the experts have not too quickly pre-judged the matter (always a dangerous conclusion for a non-expert such as myself to come to). Indeed, I find myself in the rather unenviable position of distrusting the experts, and this post is an attempt to explain one portion of why I think that is, and to suggest an alternate approach to the issue. (more…)
Many arguments about the reliability of the New Testament documents hinge on when they were written. This makes sense: documents written shortly after the events they describe might be reliable, while texts written centuries after everyone described is dead are more likely to be legendary than accurate. Fortunately, biblical scholars are (almost all) very confident about when the books of the New Testament were written, dating some of them within a year or two. But should we believe the dates the experts propose? Some might be inclined to do so based on the greater training of NT scholars, but as a historian, I wish to explore some of the reasons given for the dates, and evaluate for myself how valid those reasons are. My conclusion from doing so is that we know a lot less about when New Testament documents were written than the scholars claim. This claim is neither for nor against the truth of the Christian faith as reported in the New Testament; the documents might as easily be older than scholars claim as newer. It is simply a statement of the lack of evidence, leading to a more humble and open view of the past. (more…)
Teleology is both the hope of Christians and the bane of historians. As a professional historian, I have publicly railed against teleology for the edification of my students. As a practicing Christian, I have publicly thanked God for his teleology and used it to comfort those who are hurting. That sure looks like a contradiction. It struck me as odd recently, as I was buried under a mountain of undergraduate papers and final exams to grade. I don’t think it’s a contradiction, but exploring why not has clarified for me what historians are trying to accomplish, and the basis on which Christians formulate their understandings. (more…)