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This blog is the third in a series of modified excerpts from Echoes of Jesus: Does the New Testament Reflect What He Said?

The fourth chapter of Echoes of Jesus examines the relationship between miracles and gullibility. I hope you enjoy this brief look inside:

Christian beliefs, miracles and gullibility

The other belief that I mentioned earlier, in relation to miracles inducing gullibility, also warranted investigation. This belief posits that the miracles performed by Jesus and his followers were simply clever deceptions. These hoaxes then caused otherwise discerning people to become gullible, which resulted in the rapid growth of Christian communities. Gullibility can be described as a state in which people can be easily duped. Theoretically, people may become so awestruck by a miracle, or seeming miracle, that they suspend their normal thought processes and uncritically accept what is being spoken to them or asked of them. Leaving aside the question of whether the miracles were authentic, I wanted to consider whether the alleged miracles always induced a profound level of gullibility among large numbers of the first Christians.

Jesus’ miracles

When examining the New Testament records of the reactions of some of Jesus’ first and most loyal disciples — the inner group of 12 — it soon became apparent that they did not permanently suspend their ability to think critically. This is evident even after they had followed Jesus for years and observed many of his miracles. For example, these first disciples would not believe the eyewitness accounts from the women who visited Jesus’ tomb after he had been crucified and found it empty. The women relayed to these disciples that two angels appeared to them and explained that Jesus had come back to life. But the disciples didn’t believe the women ‘because their words seemed to them like nonsense’ (Luke 24:11). Their disbelief is even more surprising when one considers that Jesus had told them many times that he would come back to life (Matthew 27:63, Mark 8:31). The reason for the disciples’ disbelief cannot be explained as them simply being critical of women’s testimony in general for the text explicitly states that they simply could not make sense of the story. It is likely that they could not accept the message because they had reasoned that it would be impossible for anyone to come back to life after such a gruesome and protracted period of torture and killing. Thus their critical-thought processes were still well and truly intact.

 

This level of ongoing questioning, despite many direct observations of what the Bible texts report as miraculous, was not confined to the inner group of disciples. One of the Gospels records that other disciples who had witnessed Jesus performing a miracle still deserted him in large numbers because of his teachings (John 6:66). Their desertion wasn’t based on suddenly disbelieving the miracles they had seen, but rather in consciously deciding his teachings were too demanding. Jesus’ miracles weren’t so overpowering as to cause people to then become gullible to other aspects of his teachings.

 

Even those who were the beneficiaries of life-changing miracles did not necessarily become followers of Jesus, let alone cease to think critically. In fact, at one stage Jesus healed 10 lepers and only one of these bothered to show any appreciation (Luke 17:11–19). This report counters the idea that many people at that time were very gullible and that all it took for them to become a follower of Jesus was to witness one of the reported miracles.

 

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This blog contains another modified excerpt from Echoes of Jesus: Does the New Testament Reflect What He Said?  Hopefully this will encourage even more people to read this book’s vital information.

In the second chapter of Echoes of Jesus, titled Literacy in the ancient world, I investigated the prevalence of literacy around the time of Jesus. It has often been stated that literacy was rare in the Roman Empire at that time, and that reading and writing were confined to the wealthier classes. As a consequence of this, some argue that Christianity flourished in the first few centuries only because the vast majority were illiterate and, therefore, gullible. Others, such as the author Reza Aslan, underpin much of their historical revisionism on the assertion that Jesus, his disciples, and the apostles were all illiterate peasants. 

The chapter revealed evidence indicating that literacy existed in all levels of society at that time, and that it was not rare. I hope you enjoy this brief look inside:

Literacy across the Roman Empire

To gain a better appreciation of literacy across the vast Roman Empire, I examined evidence for literacy in three geographically diverse regions: Greece, Egypt and Britain. Since this book is concerned with the ability of the first Christians to make accurate recordings of Jesus’ life, I’ve devoted a subsequent chapter to literacy in their lands (Judea and nearby regions), and among the Jews. After all, many of the first Christians were Jews and Jesus was a Jew.

 Literacy in Roman-occupied Egypt

Egypt, having already been occupied by the Greeks, surrendered to Roman control upon the death of Cleopatra in August of 30 BC. Roman rulers remained in control for over five centuries after this. Although the first word many people associate with Egypt is pyramids, it should perhaps be Oxyrhynchus. This Egyptian town has one of the most startling examples of the prevalence of literacy as it was 2000 years ago. The town still exists today, and is about 160 kilometres south of Cairo. The ancient rubbish dumps from around this town have furnished a massive number of papyrus fragments since their initial discovery in 1896. During one season of exploration, the chief explorers had to employ over 200 men and boys for nearly 14 weeks to carry out the excavation.[1] By 2008 it was reported that 5476 documents (such as letters) and 2918 literary manuscripts (such as excerpts of books) from Oxyrhynchus had been published.[2] Of course, many fragments remain to be published.

 By 1975 over 1060 published documents from Oxyrhynchus were available.[3] A list of document types sourced from only the period of the first two centuries AD furnishes a staggering diversity of topics. The following is a partial list of document descriptions: contract for marriage, complaint against a husband, complaint against a wife, deed of divorce, application for remarriage, agreements on the nurturing of a child, apprenticeship contracts including one to a shorthand writer and another to a weaver, examination of a slave before a sale, complaint of extortion from a weaver against a tax-collector, trials concerning inheritance, birth and death notices, promise to attend court, receipts for beer, accident reports, monthly meat bill from a cook, receipt of wages for nursing, order for household utensils and supplies, dinner invitations, reports on mummifying, wrestling rules and medical prescriptions. This long list certainly illustrates the breadth of literacy in that society! 

 



[1] A Luijendijk, Greetings in the Lord: Early Christian and the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, Harvard Theological Studies, Cambridge, US, 2008, pp. 7– 9.

[2] A Luijendijk, p. 9.

[3] RLB Morris, ‘A study in the social and economic history of Oxyrhynchus for the first two centuries of Roman rule’, PhD dissertation, Department of Classical Studies,  Duke University, 1975, pp. 6–7

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To encourage even more people to read the vital information contained in Echoes of Jesus, the next several blog posts will include modified excerpts from various chapters.

In this excerpt from Echoes of Jesus: Does the New Testament Reflect What He Said? I have sought to engage with the common assumption that people who lived around the time of Jesus were unable to write accurate history. As a consequence of this, the small amount of literature that was produced is probably very inaccurate. One New York Times best selling author went so far as to say that those living at the time of Jesus had no notion of history being about verifiable events. 

In the first chapter of my book, titled Writing history and creating libraries, I demonstrate that there existed people, during and before the time of Jesus, who were able to write reliable historical records. The research I conducted revealed that not only did such people exist, but that there were vast numbers of ancient historians. These historians were quite aware of the what was needed in order to write accurate history. In other words the study of how history is written, namely historiography, was already an ancient discipline by the time Jesus began teaching his disciples. 

I hope you enjoy this brief look inside.

 

Vast Numbers of historians

At least 856 names of ancient Greek historians whose works have been mostly lost have been compiled based on ‘fragments of their works, whether in quotation and paraphrase, or through testimonia: that is, comments about their lives and writings’.[1] For example, the Latin author Aulus Gellius (born c. 125 AD) wrote a series of books called Attic Nights, which supplies:

valuable information in many fields of knowledge, and it contains extracts from a great number of Greek and Roman writers (275 are mentioned by name), the works of many of whom are otherwise wholly or in great part lost.[2]

Only the writings of six of the top-10 well-known ancient Greek historians have survived.[3] We know of the other four based on the mentions they receive in ancient writings. Between 323 BC and 146 BC (the Hellenistic age) many histories consisted of 30 volumes or more.[4] The writing of history continued after the birth of Christianity, and in geographically diverse regions.

The books of Appian of Alexandria (c. 95–165 AD) in Greece can still be read today, as can the books of Cassius Dio (c. 163–235 AD) from the Roman province of Bithynia in present-day Turkey.[5]

These are a few examples of the history books produced in ancient times:

·    Polybius of Megalopolis (203–120 BC) wrote about the history of the Mediterranean. Although his publication only covered the period 264–145 BC, it consisted of 40 books.[6]

·    The Syrian called Nicholas of Damascus (born c. 64 BC) wrote a world history comprising 144 books.[7]

·    Livy (c. 59 BC to 17 AD) wrote a history of Rome called From the Founding of the City, which consisted of 142 books. It might be conjectured by some that these were small books. However, some simple calculations estimated that in book 10 alone there are over 24,600 words.[8] To help put this in perspective, the book you are reading now consists of about 105,000 words exclusive of the footnotes.

·    The Jewish historian Josephus (37 AD to c. 100 AD) wrote several books, The Antiquities of the Jews being his largest and containing approximately 360,000 words.[9]

·    The Roman historian Tacitus (c. 56 AD to c. 125 AD) wrote two major historical works, The Annals being his latest although in reality it was a prequel to his Histories. The two of them together comprised about 30 books. Although most of The Annals have been lost (four complete books and part of four others survive), this series originally consisted of at least 16 books and book 1 alone consists of approximately 13,000 words.[10]

 

I hope this extract entices you to purchase Echoes of Jesus. Check out Echoes of Jesus.com for where to buy ebook and paperback versions. Readers living in Australia can purchase paperback versions from Koorong bookshops spread throughout the country, and from Christian Supplies in Brisbane.

Jon

[1] TJ Luce, ‘Fourth-century and Hellenistic historiography’, in The Greek Historians, Routledge, London, 1997, p. 106.

[2] Gellius, The Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius: with an English Translation by John C Rolfe, vol. 1, William Heinemann, London, 1970, pp. xvi–xvii.

[3] TJ Luce, ‘Fourth-century and Hellenistic historiography’, pp. 105–6.

[4] TJ Luce, ‘Fourth-century and Hellenistic historiography’, pp. 107–8.

[5] Bithynia would now be part of central and northern Turkey.

[6] TJ Luce, ‘Polybius’, in The Greek Historians, Routledge, London, 1997, p. 123.

[7] S Bowman, ‘Josephus in Byzantium’, in LH Feldman & G Hata (eds), Josephus, Judaism, and Christianity, Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 1987, p. 367.

[8] This is based on the English translation edited by Rev Canon Roberts as found on Tufts University’s Perseus Digital Library (www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper), where I calculated the number of words in the first 10 chapters, and then noted that there were 47 chapters.

[9] This is based on The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged Translated by William Whiston, Hendrickson Publishers, Massachusetts, 1989. I calculated the number of words in the preface (excluding footnotes of the translator), noted that there were 515 pages and then subtracted 5% to be conservative in allowing for variable lengths of footnotes made by the translators.

[10] This word count based on The Annals by Tacitus: Translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb, accessed fromhttp://classics.mit.edu/Tacitus/annals.1.i.html on 6/04/2008.

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Posted by on in Look inside Echoes of Jesus
It has been an exciting week as the first batch of the paperback copies of Echoes of Jesus have arrived. It is a wonderful feeling seeing the book in the real world, and not just files on a computer. Matt and his team at Printcraft have produced a very high quality book with minimal fuss in a short period of time. The book looks great inside and out, and does justice to all the work involved in getting it completed.
 
Two separate processes are needed to make a book: the actual writing and then the publishing. Authors often comment that the writing stage is the easiest. My experience is that this phase was the most time consuming, taking about seven and a half years. However, the publishing process has taken longer than I ever expected, nearly a year having passed since the writing was completed. It is because the printed version of Echoes of Jesus represents this culmination of processes that it is surreal seeing the actual printed copies. 
 
I wrote Echoes of Jesus in the hope that its message will reach more people than if I simply continued to give seminars. Now that there are so many copies of the paperback, this dream looks that much closer to reality than ever before. 
 
For those who no longer read hard copies, the good news is that the ebook versions will be available in July. 
 
Jon
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