Monday, June 30, 2008

PAGAN CHRISTIANTY: by George Barna and Frank Viola

PAGAN CHRISTIANTY: by George Barna and Frank Viola


First a word of disclaimer. I know Frank Viola, indeed for some years he has asked me loads of good and telling questions via email. I did not really know what his take was on various matters, but I gladly answered his questions. It is interesting to me that this book appears to take no notice of various of these answers which I have given, nor are any of my works found in the bibliography at the end of the book. Perhaps I have missed something in the minutiae of the truly minute footnotes at the bottom of each page, but now I am wondering why exactly I have answered all those questions over the years. It’s a pity.

Frank Viola is a sharp person, but neither he nor George Barna really interact in this book with the scholarly literature that would call into question their strident claims and theses. They are arguing a particular case, and so they largely cite sources that support their case, for example Robert Banks’ work on Pauline house churches comes in for heavy usage. Their claim to present us with bare historical fact and to stand always on the Biblical high ground needs to be seen for what it is from the outset--- good and powerful rhetoric meant to warm the cockles of the hearts of all who affirm Sola Scriptura, but when one actually examines some of the major claims closely, they will not stand close and critical scrutiny.

I am quite sure that the immediate reaction of some to this book will be “Just what we need—another lambasting of the institutional church, by grandchildren of the radical Protestant reformation, sometimes called the Restoration Movement!” But we should all abide our soul in patience and hear the gentlemen out before deciding.

I personally knew we were in for trouble even from the beginning of the 2008 edition of this book when early on we are told that Isaiah died by being sawed in two. This may be in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (an early example of Protestant hagiography complete with myths, legends, half-truths, and yes some truth), but it is not in the Bible and we don’t have any historical evidence to verify it. So much for presenting us with “just the facts Mam, just the facts.”

From the first of this study we are also led to expect that the authors will play the role of Socrates, asking probing and critical questions and taking radical steps to help us live out the implications of the answers. They warn one and all, giving the caveat emptor, that if you follow them and their wisdom, be prepared to be ‘slandered, libeled, called names you never heard in the Bible…’ as that prescient prophet Paul Simon once sang. A martyr complex is never far behind when one is an anti-institutionalist.

And of course the big bad guy in Pagan Christianity is not going to be sin, suffering, the Devil, or any of those things. The big bad guy is going to be what is loosely called the Institutional Church and that other famous whipping boy—‘church tradition’ and oh yes--- Greek philosophy. The particular animus is against the Roman Catholic Church for paganizing Christianity. Dan Brown would have liked this book.

But frankly there are no such thing as ‘institutional churches’. Churches have institutions of various sorts, they aren’t institutions. Furthermore, the Bible is full of traditions and many of those developed after NT times are perfectly Biblical. It’s not really possible to draw a line in the sand between ‘Biblical principles’ and traditions. The question is which traditions comport with Biblical tradition and which do not. And there is a further problem. It is ever so dangerous to take what was normal in early Christianity as a practice, and conclude that therefore it must be normative. It may have been normal in the NT era for non-theological reasons, for example for practical reasons.

To tell us that the church is really people, people united in Christ and serving the Lord, is to say nothing for or against the ‘institutional church’, or for that matter its institutions. Everyone agrees that the church is people, more specifically people gathered for worship, fellowship, and service. Everyone agrees that the church is a living thing and organism, not an organization. So what’s the beef here, and where is the real thrust of the critique?

Let us begin with a historical point made on p. 6 on the basis of old and weak evidence. The idea is that Christianity had become overwhelming Gentile and already was adopting numerous pagan practices in the last third of the first century A.D. Frankly, this is historically false. Not only did Jewish Christianity continue well into the fifth century in many forms and places and in considerable numbers, including in the Diaspora and not just in Israel and Syria, in fact all of our NT was written by Jewish Christians with the possible exception of Luke's works, but he seems however to have been a god-fearer. And in fact many of the NT documents were written for Jewish Christians including Matthew, Hebrews, James, Jude,1 Peter, and probably John, the Johannine Epistles, Revelation.

If you are wrong about the history of the early church, and wrong about the character of the canon as well, then it is no wonder you will make mistakes in your argumentation. It is interesting that documents like the Didache, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Ascension of Isaiah, the Protoevangelium of James, and other documents which came out of largely Jewish Christian circles are just ignored as well. These folks need to read a book like Oscar Skarsaune’s edited volume on Jewish Believers in Jesus. They will discover it is not possible to say either that Jewish Christianity waned after 70 A.D. nor is it possible to say that the dominate practice of the church was pagan, and became increasingly pagan in the first, second, third centuries--- wrong, and wrong.

They could have saved themselves a lot of trouble by reading sources more recent than Will Durant and Shirley Case, neither of which represent the state of the discussion on such matters in the last 50 years. They also need to read Paul Trebilco’s major study on Ephesus and the church in that region.

One thing about these folks--- Barna and Viola are very sure of themselves. They warn the reader early on (p. 7) that you will be confronted by unshakeable historical fact which will rock your world. If however it’s like the ‘facts’ on pp. 6-7 about the rise of pagan Christianity, we are not dealing with ‘facts’, unfortunately. We are dealing with a misreading of early Christian history.

One of the odder features of the book Pagan Christianity which surfaces immediately in the first real chapter is the attempt to see early Christianity as rather like Melchizedek (‘without antecedents, without succesors’), and so basically something entirely unique and different from either early Judaism or other sorts of ancient religions. Ttis conclusion involves not just an assertion about a difference in theology but a difference in praxis as well.

We are given the usual litany about Christians meeting in homes, and how they did not have church buildings. This is of course partially true, so far as we can tell, but frankly they didn’t just meet in homes, nor were there any mandates for them to do so saying “in order to be truly Christian thou shalt meet in cramped quarters.” They also met in Solomon’s Portico, which is to say in the Temple precincts as the early chapters of Acts informs us, and furthermore they went to synagogue services in purpose built buildings, and furthermore they occasionally rented halls, like the Hall of Tyrannus in Ephesus, and later in the first century, as the archaeological evidence makes clear, they met in caves, namely the catacombs in Rome, as well. I don’t see much of a movement in the church today to go back to cave dwelling J

The authors of this book are right to critique the modern western church for having an edifice complex, and spending too much money on buildings and too little on missions, evangelism, other forms of ministry. But there is absolutely nothing in the NT which either suggests or requires that Christians should only meet in homes. And furthermore, the major problem with these sorts of arguments are that they ignore the differences in social setting, then and now.

Christians met in homes so often and for so long because they were part of an ‘illegal religion’ a ‘superstitio’ as the Roman’s called it. They did not meet in public because they wanted to meet in peace, and in freedom. It isn’t because they thought ‘small group house church ministry is cool or Biblical’.

Nor is it true, that Christianity was the first non-Temple based religion in antiquity. There were plenty of tribal religions in the ANE that could not afford and did not have Temples, or priests. They did sometimes have ‘high places’ where they would offer sacrifices, as the OT mentions.

It is not enough to say that NT theology indicates that it was Christ who was the perfect sacrifice, who is our high priest, and who fulfilled the function of temples did away with all such things. What one would have to argue is that Jesus came saying “I came that you might not have buildings any more”. Church buildings are not, and frankly probably shouldn’t be called temples because literal sacrifices are not offered in them. Sacrifices of praise and self-sacrificial offerings yes, real sacrifices no. This however does not in any way suggest that bodies of believers should not have purpose built buildings. That’s an example of over-egging the pudding, as the British would say, or as I would put it, over reading the evidence by a lot.

And this brings me to another of their claims— that there is no evidence of church buildings before A.D. 190 when they are mentioned by Clement of Alexandria. Wrong and wrong. Here again archaeology helps. If one goes to Capernaum one can see, through the glass floor of the modern church there, the ‘house of Peter’, which was expanded into a Christian meeting place. It was no longer just a home, it was enhanced so it could be a better place of worship—house becomes church building, so to speak. How do we know this? Because of the Christian graffiti in the walls left by Christians, some of which goes back at least to the early second century, and probably back to sometime after 70 A.D. when both Jews and Christians relocated, and one of the places they went was Capernaum.

Then too, one should compare the recent news reports that in Jordan by the river they have found perhaps the very earliest church structure—associated with the 70 and possibly even dating from the late first century. My point is this--- early Christians did not have an allergic reaction to buildings, not even to purpose built buildings. It was the social situation which dictated what it was wise and prudent to do about housing Christian meetings in that era, not some theological principle. It is not helpful to say, “until 300 there were no buildings first built as churches”, unless you add “until the 4th century Christianity was illegal!”

What about the argument that early Christianity did not have a priestly class? This appears to be largely correct, but they did indeed have elders, deacons, apostles, overseers/episokopoi. There are several NT documents that talk about the priesthood of all believers—1 Peter and Revelation, for example. You will notice that in 1 Peter as well Peter does not say ‘I am just one of the priesthood of all believers’. No, he begins his letter by introducing himself in the same manner as Paul did—as an apostle of Jesus Christ. In other words, when he talked about his ministerial roles, he refers to himself as an apostle.

If you look closely at the priesthood of all believers material in the NT it becomes clear that this terminology was used in relationship to the new spiritualized way of looking at sacrifices as we see in Rom. 12 or Heb. 13.15. It has nothing to do with the leadership structure of those churches, so far as I can tell. Nowhere does the NT say “since we have a priesthood of all believers we no longer affirm the role of set apart ministers or as they later came to be called ‘clergy’”.

In other words the priesthood of all believers is in no way an argument against their being ordained leaders of various sorts in the church, leaders who are both anointed and appointed not from below but from above, appointed by leaders.

There is frankly no Baptist or low church Protestant ecclesiology to be found in the NT in regard to this particular matter. Paul for example instructs his co-workers Timothy and Titus to appoint elders. The elders do not appoint themselves, nor do congregations get together and ordain or appoint them much less vote on them. The ecclesial structure of the NT church was hierarchial, not congregational—it started with the apostles and the 12 at the top, worked its way down to the co-workers of the apostles who were also itinerant and over multiple congregations, then there were the local church leaders—prophets, teachers, elders, deacons etc. In the early second century the apostolate seems to have been succeeded by bishops, most especially monarchial bishops like Ignatius of Antioch (read his letters sometime from the first 2 decades of the second century. They are quite revealing.). In short, the priesthood of all believers neither rules out nor negates the fact that there was an ecclesial leadership structure in the early church which involved in various cases a process of ordination from higher officials. To say otherwise is to misread the NT evidence. Of course it is true that what determined who had which gifts and graces was the work of the Spirit, but the Church needed to recognize that work and affirm it, and this took place through leaders who saw the gift in people like Timothy, and did from time to time use a process of ordination to make clear whom the Spirit had gifted and graced.

On p. 14 we are told that when Christianity was born, it was the only religion that had no sacred objects, spaces, or persons. This actually ignores the fact that Christians continued to meet with Jews in synagogues, until and unless they were expelled. Even the apostle to the Gentile went and worshipped with Jews in synagogues until he was expelled. It does not appear that even Paul thought there was something inherently inappropriate when it came to Christians attending a synagogue service in a building.

I must admit I was also surprised by the bold claim that there were no sacred persons. Actually I would say there were no other kinds of Christians in the church. This is precisely why they are called hagioi or ‘holy ones’ repeatedly, even in Paul’s letters. One of the major mistakes made in this book repeatedly, is assuming that Pauline and Gentile Christianity and its various forms and functions was the only form of Christianity in existence in the middle and latter half of the NT era itself, along with which comes the corollary assumption that Pauline house churches must be the models for all churches today. This does not follow.

This brings up another oddity about the argument being made in the first main chapter of the book. Just because a building was not called a temple, would not mean to early Christians that it was not a sacred building. Jews of course called various of their sacred buildings synagogues, and what is interesting about this is that James, the very brother of Jesus, in James 2.2, as he writes to Jewish Christians all over the Diaspora refers to their meeting place as a synagogos. This is not a reference to a non-Christian meeting place, as James 2.1 makes perfectly clear. Could it be a reference to just the meeting itself, rather than the place of meeting? While this is not totally impossible, it is certainly unlikely since the term already referred to buildings in the first century A.D. in various places in the Holy Land where James lived. There were already synagogue buildings in Jerusalem itself whilst James was the head of the Jerusalem church.

At the bottom of p. 15 we are told that Christians began reverencing the dead in the late second or third century. Actually this practice is already in evidence in the fifties A.D. and is referred to by Paul in 1 Cor. 15 when he talks about proxy baptism for the dead (for more on this see my Conflict and Community in Corinth, ad loc). I would suggest that Paul knows he is dealing with partially socialized Christians coming from a pagan background, who simply brought such practices into the church already in the mid-first century. The so-called paganizing of the Church was not instigated by Roman Catholics. It came much earlier, and in fact it was largely rejected by the church.

Like Dan Brown’s novel, the Da Vinci Code, Constantine is painted as ‘Bad Bart’ the person who messed things up in Pagan Christianity. He is called on p.18 the father of the church building, which is giving him far too much credit. He did of course take Christianity off the illicit religion list, and he and his mother became the patrons of the building of various churches including in the Holy Land, but it is simply false to say that there were no church buildings long before Constantine. It will not do to make him the bad guy who ruined pristine and pure early Christianity.

On p. 19 we also have the suggestion that Constantine was the one who originated the idea of Christians having a holy day, or a day of rest, that day being Sunday. While Constantine certainly made it a legal holy day, Christian’s had been meeting on the Lord’s Day for worship for a long time prior to that time. We see this alluded to in 1 Cor. 16 when Paul refers to setting money aside ‘on the first day of the week’ which is when they would have gathered to do this, among other Christian activities. Even more importantly we hear about the Lord’s day on which John had a vision in Rev. 1.10. There is also the very telling reference to Christians meeting on the first day of the week, Sunday, in Pliny’s famous letter to the Emperor Trajan. But I need to emphasize again, many Christians well into the middle ages were Jews, and so far as we can tell, they continued to think that there were such things as holy days. Paul’s discussion of the matter in Rom.14.5-6 should be quoted: “some regard one day more sacred than another; others consider everyday alike. Everyone should be convinced in their own mind. Those who regard one day as special do so unto the Lord. In other words, while Christian practice varied on this matter in the 50s, Paul has no problems with the person who regards one day as sacred or special unto the Lord. Indeed he sees it as an appropriate form of worship.

Some of the critique of Constantine is of course warranted, especially when one begins to study in depth the theology of holy relics. But a theology of holy time and holy persons, and even holy space already existed, not only in the OT, which is of course part of the Christian’s Bible, but in NT Christianity as well. I have detailed a length what the NT says about the Lord’s Supper, and how it indeed was seen as a sacrament that had to be partaken of in a worthy manner, or one could actually fall ill as 1 Cor. 11 says. This can be seen in my Making a Meal of It, and so I will not belabor that point here.

One of the worst things that can happen to persons who are anti-institutionalists, and anti-sacramentalists, is that so angry are they about the excesses and bad theology that has sometimes come out of the ‘institutional church’ that they throw the baby right out with the sacramental baptismal waters. I understand this, but it is a colossal over-reaction. Desacralizing worship, the Lord’s Supper, and even persons is not something devout Christians should be about. The last thing the church needs is a more casual, less reverential approach to all these things which removes altogether the recognition that one is entering into the presence of the Holy One when one comes to worship, the One in whose presence we too become sanctified, something that happens through encountering God through prayers, praise, songs, sacraments, and of course the preaching as well. It is the living presence of God that we encounter in any and all true worship, whether through mediated means or directly.

Worship and a theology of worship which trivializes the sacred, the holy, is not the theology of worship offered in books like Hebrews and Revelation and 1 Corinthians in the NT. Mystery is not the same as magic, any more than miracle is the same as magic. Magic is when humans try to manipulate the divine for their benefit. Mystery and miracle is when God comes down, and we touch the hem of his garment and are healed, helped, sanctified, whether that touch comes through hearing the Word, or receiving the Lord’s Supper, or singing a meaningful hymn or song or offering a prayer. It can come in a myriad of means, and thank goodness it does often come in mediated ways, because like Moses at the burning bush, if we reach out to touch God directly, as an unholy person, we may well experience ‘burn out’ even ‘ministerial burnout’.

There is nothing wrong with, nor unBiblical about worshipping God in a way that strongly suggests the special nature of the occasion, the great mystery and majesty of God, and some of the things that help with that are candles, and stained glass windows, and organs, and processions, and all manner of things that proclaim—“I am coming into the presence of the holy one, and I should give God my best.” In fact, worship is the time when all of creation bows down before God, and all of creation should be offered up to God—including our best music, our best words, our best attitudes, our best art, and so on should be offered up to God.

It is a mistake to think that Jesus instituted some sort of pristine primitive religion, that was iconoclastic in nature. Jesus also worshipped in the synagogues. Jesus also worshipped in the temple (see Lk. 2.41-52). What Jesus despised was the corruption of the holy, not its representation in material form. It is no accident that it was the money changers and animal salesmen that he attacked in the outer courts of the Temple. These had been recent additions to the Temple precincts in his lifetime.

And notice what he says. He quotes the OT and calls the Temple “the house of God” which humans have corrupted and turned into a “den of bandits” (Mk. 11). Jesus does not say the Temple is not the house of God! He says that this particular Herodian temple is the ‘temple of doom’ because of its corruption, and in Jn. 2 he alludes to the fact that he himself will be the focal point of future worship, calling himself and his body the Temple (he is not referring to the body of believers in John 2). Nothing in any of this theology of Jesus suggests we should never have sacred buildings or spaces thereafter. What we are told is that Christians should focus on Christ who is both temple and sacrificial lamb and high priest. That, is a matter of Christology and worship focus, not a matter of architectural plan or policy.

I quite agree with the statement that space is never empty it always embodies a meaning, and also the remark that where a body of believers meets affects the character of the church. So let us think about that for a moment. Suppose the church met in the bathroom in homes. Well, it would probably be a very small meeting, and gender specific as well, unless the home had two bathrooms. At least one of the sacraments might happen during worship in that space J But it certainly wouldn’t make it anything special, indeed someone would protest that it was inappropriate. Why? Because of course a bathroom is not a holy place by and large. How about in the living room? Certainly better, and less unholy for sure. But what this whole line of thinking suggests is that there are indeed more and less holy spaces. And frankly, I find it much easier to worship where the space and place reminds me to take my shoes off, put away all unholy thought, because I have entered into the presence of a holy God. An ordinary space connotes an ordinary activity, nothing special. A casual space connotes a casual activity, nothing special. A special space connotes something else entirely.

Some time ago, I was in Rome ending a wonderful tour of Greece and Italy. We had been pilgrims going and seeing various wonderful Biblical and later Christian sites. We finished by worshipping 150 feet underground in a catacomb. In the barreled vault of an alcove there were niches all the way up where Christians had been buried. We sang “for all the saints who from their labors rest”, a great modern hymn of the church and it rang with an amazing echo. We took communion together in that sacred space, and it was one of the greatest worship experiences any of us had every had, before or since, I imagine. We sensed we were celebrating with the saints above in heaven who had been buried there, just as the saints in heaven are described as participating in worship in Rev. 4. God was glorified and we certainly were edified and sanctified.

Far be it from me to suggest this is the only way or place God can be glorified and the saints edified. But it is certainly one legitimate godly and non-pagan way. God of course can be worshipped in simplicity as well. I remember well the wonderful accapella singing at Abilene Christian worship time at Abilene Christian University. It was simple yet profound, and profoundly beautiful —indeed wherever and however God is worshipped in Spirit and in truth, it is true worship. In my view worship is where beauty and truth and goodness and holiness should all meet, and kiss.

My point in the above critique is simply this--- calling more high church worship ‘pagan’ is not only a tragedy which impoverishes the soul. It’s a travesty. And saying over and over again that there is not a shred of Biblical evidence for sacred buildings, particularly church buildings reflects both historical myopia and bad theological analysis of a theology of holiness and worship. Such a view is narrow where the Bible is not narrow, and it fails to grasp the great breadth of ways in which God can be truly, and Biblically worshipped and served, and is indeed worshipped and served around the world every single week. We do not need to be liberated from holy worship—we need to be liberated in and by it, in whatever form it may legitimately take. And that’s the Biblical truth.

Friday, June 27, 2008


First I have a confession. I am a sucker for anything Pixar does. It's almost gotten to the point where I feel like they can do little wrong. I'd go watch their version of a chewing tobacco or mortuary commercial. You catch my drift.

But there is good, and then there is better, and this little trip into outer space called WALL-E is better than good-- its Pixar Perfect. The animation is great, the sound effects are great, the story is fun, but has a message that is not too preachy but makes its point.

It's entertaining for children and adults, and it involves a love-story, AND it has a great new song by Peter Gabriel and the Soweto Gospel Choir! What more could you want for $5.00?

In a season of paltry and pathetic films, this one stands out like Venus the morning star. I even found myself shedding a tear now and then. If you don't like the character of Wall-E (stands for waste allocation load lifter-- earth class) by the end of the move you are a hard-hearted old son of a gun with spiritual hardening of the arteries. But I digress, a film synopsis is required, provided by our friends at

Synopsis: What if mankind had to leave Earth, and somebody forgot to turn the last robot off?

Academy Award®-winning writer-director Andrew Stanton (“Finding Nemo”) and the inventive storytellers and technical geniuses at Pixar Animation Studios (“The Incredibles,” “Cars,” “Ratatouille”) transport moviegoers to a galaxy not so very far away for a new computer-animated cosmic comedy about a determined robot named WALL•E.

After hundreds of lonely years of doing what he was built for, WALL•E (short for Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class) discovers a new purpose in life (besides collecting knick-knacks) when he meets a sleek search robot named EVE. EVE comes to realize that WALL•E has inadvertently stumbled upon the key to the planet’s future, and races back to space to report her findings to the humans (who have been eagerly awaiting word that it is safe to return home). Meanwhile, WALL•E chases EVE across the galaxy and sets into motion one of the most exciting and imaginative comedy adventures ever brought to the big screen.

Joining WALL•E on his fantastic journey across a universe of never-before-imagined visions of the future, is a hilarious cast of characters including a pet cockroach, and a heroic team of malfunctioning misfit robots.

Filled with surprises, action, humor and heart, WALL•E was written and directed by Andrew Stanton, produced by Jim Morris, co-produced by Lindsey Collins and features original and innovative sound design by Academy Award®-winner Ben Burtt (“Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones,” “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”). The film is due for release on June 27, 2008.


So then Wall-E falls for a girl who is, quite literally out of this world, and furthermore, her name is, not accidentally, Eve. The race of humankind is starting over-- by means of, and by the intervention of two robots! Wall-E as it turns out is a pack-rat and an old romantic. He reminds me of my mom, in the best sort of way. He saves all sorts of things. He's like Jeff Foxworthy's definition of a redneck-- someone who is attracted to shiny objects and brings them home and puts them up in the house! And its not an easy life for Wall-E, as besides compacting skyscrapers worth of trash, he has as his best friend some sort of cockroach. I ask you, if Pixar can make you sympathetic to the plight of a cockroach, obviously the sky is the limit with their powers--NO?

And indeed even the sky is not the limit in this movie, for suddenly after the first 20 minutes we blast off to the artificial realm of a space-station created by those wonderful folks at BUY N LARGE who want you to be buyin' and want you to live and be large, if you catch my drift. The whole race of humans, having trashed the earth, has turned into Pillsbury Dough Persons living in outer space.

Yet it is not too late. All is not lost. Love, and a good exercise program may yet conquer all. Some of the space-station scenes are so meticulously crafted it reminds you of the Star Wars CG effects at their best.

But what of Wall-E and Eve? Will true romance lead to robot joy or only 'Domo Origato, Mr. Roboto'? Will the earth ever be cleaned up and made fit for human habitation again? Will we ever get to see re-runs of 'Hello Dolly' and 'Guys and Dolls' again (which Wall-E has a special fondness for)? Or will we just be like those folks in the TV hit LOST-- alive, barely, and goin' nowhere? Inquiring minds want to know. So here's a tip--- DROP EVERYTHING AND GO TO THIS MOVIE AND BE SURPRISED BY JOY AND PATHOS. I promise, a good time will be had by all.

N.B. from BW3. Thus far the movie rates a 97% direct hit by the tough critics, who would not even give their own mother's cherry pie a 97% rating and gets the same G (as in goooooood) rating as cherry pie. Its running time is well under two hours, and so as usual we have the delightful short subject up front, this one being called PRESTO about a really hungry rabbit and his magician master who wants to pull him out of the hat--- BUT......


Thursday, June 26, 2008

Bishop Wright visits Stephen Colbert

My friend and colleague Bishop Wright has boldly gone where angels fear to tred--- onto the Comedy Central Show-- The Stephen Colbert Report--- You'll enjoy this one, and notice the reaction of the crowd.

or try this---

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30p / 10:30cStephen tells Bishop N.T. Wright his idea of heaven is getting a harp, drinking a mint julep and asking Ronald Reagan questions.


Bishop N.T. Wright, author of "Surprised by Hope," challenges Stephen to think differently about life after death.


Bishop N.T. Wright challenges Stephen to think differently about life after death.

Bishop N.T. Wright, author of "Surprised by Hope," challenges Stephen to think differently about life after death.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Here below you will find advance notice about our upcoming tour in May of 2009. Let me tell you now this tour is top drawer. You get two good meals a day, good hotels, airfare is included as are entrance fees, and you will get to see these sites in a way that is not like the cosmetic usual 'tourist' trips. This tour will go in depth into these Biblical sites, and the Bible will indeed become more real and alive for you in the process. But there is more. This trip is also a spiritual pilgrimage for those who want to take it. You will have a chance to get in touch with your Christian roots, and not merely walk in the footsteps of Paul and John of Patmos, but even go to places frequented by the Magi, and by persons who had been touched by Jesus himself. As usual, I will only be taking one bus load, no more. So the maximum on this trip is 40 persons, and people are already signing up. Here is the itinerary:

BEN WITHERINGTON – May 19-June 2, 2009


May 19 Depart USA

May 20 Arrive Istanbul - Fly Amman

Arrive Istanbul at 10:30 am. Visit Archaeological Museum and St Sophia Church. Fly from Istanbul to Amman at 23:40 by Turkish Airlines TK 1212. Arrive Amman at 01.50. of the morning of 21st of May. Transfer from Airport to 4 star Hotel for overnight. Jerusalem International Hotel or similar.

May 21 Amman

Leave the hotel after Breakfast / Proceed to Jerash / Visit Jerash /

Return to Amman for dinner and overnight.

May 22 Madaba - Petra

Leave the hotel after Breakfast / Drive to Madaba to visit church of St

George / Mount Nebo / Kerak via Kings Highway / continue to Petra for dinner and overnight.

May 23 Petra

Breakfast at the hotel. Full day visit to Petra including horse and fees.

Return to the Hotel for dinner and overnight.

May 24 Petra - Amman Airport

Transfer from Petra to Amman Airport for departure. Long Bus drive (no hotel).

May 25 Fly Izmir via IstanbulEPHESUS MEETING - Overnight Kusadasi

Fly to Istanbul by TK 1213 03:30/05:50am flight. Take connection flight to Izmir TK 312 08:00/09:05

Drive to Selcuk to visit Ephesus. EPHESUS MEETING on the evening.

May 26 Visit Pergamon – Overnight Izmir

Drive Nort to Pergamon to visit the Acropolis and Asklepion. Dinner and overnight in Izmir.

May 27 SardisPhiladelphiaHierapolis – Pamukkale

Drive East to Sardis, capital of Lydian Empire to visit the Gymnasium, the 3rd century Synagogue, and the Temple of Artemis. Continue to Alasehir to see the ruins of Philadelphia. Drive to Pamukkale to visit Hierapolis. Overnight Pamukkale.

May 28 Laodicea-Colossae-Psidian Antioch-Konya

Visit Laodicea in the morning. Drive to Colossae to see the unexcavated site. Continue to Yalvac to visit Psidian Antioch. Overnight in Konya.

May 29 Konya-Cappadocia

Drive from Konya to Cappadocia, afternoon sightseeing in Cappadocia.

May 30 Cappadocia

Full day Cappadocia tour; Visit the underground City, Goreme Open Air Museum, and Avanos.

May 31 Cappadocia – Iznik

Drive to Iznik, to visit the ancient Nicaea. Overnight Iznik.

June 1 Iznik – Yalova – Ferry to Istanbul

Take the morning car ferry to Istanbul. Afternoon sightseeing in Istanbul.

June 2 Departure

Group fly back to New York. Arrive back to New York same day afternoon. End.

We will be leaving from JFK in NY on the 19th. Unlike many other tours which spend most of their time on cruise boats, we will spend most of our time at the actual Biblical and ancient sites, learning and celebrating our heritage. A good time will be had by one and all. We have engaged the very top local guide in Turkey and in Jordan, and of course I will be lecturing at each of the sites as well. Come join us. For more information and all the financial particulars please contact my friend and agent in Turkey, Levent Oral at Start saving your shekels now.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Pew Forum's Revelations-- Do even a Majority of Evangelicals Believe Jesus is the Only Way of Salvation?

You can read the 200 plus page full report of an extensive religious survey taken last year by the Pew Charitable Trust at the Pew Forum website, which can be found here---

Below is their own summary of findings in their most recent very detailed survey:

Summary of Key Findings

Major Religious Traditions in the U.S.

An extensive new survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life details statistics on religion in America and explores the shifts taking place in the U.S. religious landscape. Based on interviews with more than 35,000 Americans age 18 and older, the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey finds that religious affiliation in the U.S. is both very diverse and extremely fluid.

Key Findings and Statistics on Religion in America

More than one-quarter of American adults (28%) have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion - or no religion at all. If change in affiliation from one type of Protestantism to another is included, 44% of adults have either switched religious affiliation, moved from being unaffiliated with any religion to being affiliated with a particular faith, or dropped any connection to a specific religious tradition altogether.

The survey finds that the number of people who say they are unaffiliated with any particular faith today (16.1%) is more than double the number who say they were not affiliated with any particular religion as children. Among Americans ages 18-29, one-in-four say they are not currently affiliated with any particular religion.

The Landscape Survey confirms that the United States is on the verge of becoming a minority Protestant country; the number of Americans who report that they are members of Protestant denominations now stands at barely 51%. Moreover, the Protestant population is characterized by significant internal diversity and fragmentation, encompassing hundreds of different denominations loosely grouped around three fairly distinct religious traditions - evangelical Protestant churches (26.3% of the overall adult population), mainline Protestant churches (18.1%) and historically black Protestant churches (6.9%).

While those Americans who are unaffiliated with any particular religion have seen the greatest growth in numbers as a result of changes in affiliation, Catholicism has experienced the greatest net losses as a result of affiliation changes. While nearly one-in-three Americans (31%) were raised in the Catholic faith, today fewer than one-in-four (24%) describe themselves as Catholic. These losses would have been even more pronounced were it not for the offsetting impact of immigration. The Landscape Survey finds that among the foreign-born adult population, Catholics outnumber Protestants by nearly a two-to-one margin (46% Catholic vs. 24% Protestant); among native-born Americans, on the other hand, the statistics show that Protestants outnumber Catholics by an even larger margin (55% Protestant vs. 21% Catholic). Immigrants are also disproportionately represented among several world religions in the U.S., including Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.

Although there are about half as many Catholics in the U.S. as Protestants, the number of Catholics nearly rivals the number of members of evangelical Protestant churches and far exceeds the number of members of both mainline Protestant churches and historically black Protestant churches. The U.S. also includes a significant number of members of the third major branch of global Christianity - Orthodoxy - whose adherents now account for 0.6% of the U.S. adult population. American Christianity also includes sizeable numbers of Mormons (1.7% of the adult population), Jehovah's Witnesses (0.7%) and other Christian groups (0.3%).

Like the other major groups, people who are unaffiliated with any particular religion (16.1%) also exhibit remarkable internal diversity. Although one-quarter of this group consists of those who describe themselves as either atheist or agnostic (1.6% and 2.4% of the adult population overall, respectively), the majority of the unaffiliated population (12.1% of the adult population overall) is made up of people who simply describe their religion as "nothing in particular." This group, in turn, is fairly evenly divided between the "secular unaffiliated," that is, those who say that religion is not important in their lives (6.3% of the adult population), and the "religious unaffiliated," that is, those who say that religion is either somewhat important or very important in their lives (5.8% of the overall adult population).

Even smaller religions in the U.S. reflect considerable internal diversity. For instance, most Jews (1.7% of the overall adult population) identify with one of three major groups: Reform, Conservative or Orthodox Judaism. Similarly, more than half of Buddhists (0.7% of the overall adult population) belong to one of three major groups within Buddhism: Zen, Theravada or Tibetan Buddhism. Muslims (0.6% of the overall adult population) divide primarily into two major groups: Sunni and Shia.

A Very Competitive Religious Marketplace

A Note on Defining Religious Affiliation

The survey finds that constant movement characterizes the American religious marketplace, as every major religious group is simultaneously gaining and losing adherents. Those that are growing as a result of religious change are simply gaining new members at a faster rate than they are losing members. Conversely, those that are declining in number because of religious change simply are not attracting enough new members to offset the number of adherents who are leaving those particular faiths.

To illustrate this point, one need only look at the biggest gainer in this religious competition - the unaffiliated group. People moving into the unaffiliated category outnumber those moving out of the unaffiliated group by more than a three-to-one margin. At the same time, however, a substantial number of people (nearly 4% of the overall adult population) say that as children they were unaffiliated with any particular religion but have since come to identify with a religious group. This means that more than half of people who were unaffiliated with any particular religion as a child now say that they are associated with a religious group. In short, the Landscape Survey shows that the unaffiliated population has grown despite having one of the lowest retention rates of all "religious" groups.

Another example of the dynamism of the American religious scene is the experience of the Catholic Church. Other surveys - such as the General Social Surveys, conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago since 1972 - find that the Catholic share of the U.S. adult population has held fairly steady in recent decades at around 25%. What this apparent stability obscures, however, is the large number of people who have left the Catholic Church. Approximately one-third of the survey respondents who say they were raised Catholic no longer describe themselves as Catholic. This means that roughly 10% of all Americans are former Catholics. These losses, however, have been partly offset by the number of people who have changed their affiliation to Catholicism (2.6% of the adult population) but more importantly by the disproportionately high number of Catholics among immigrants to the U.S. The result is that the overall percentage of the population that identifies as Catholic has remained fairly stable.

In addition to detailing the current religious makeup of the U.S. and describing the dynamic changes in religious affiliation, the findings from the Landscape Survey also provide important clues about the future direction of religious affiliation in the U.S. By detailing the age distribution of different religious groups, for instance, the study's statistics on religion show that more than six-in-ten Americans age 70 and older (62%) are Protestant but that this number is only about four-in-ten (43%) among Americans ages 18-29. Conversely, young adults ages 18-29 are much more likely than those age 70 and older to say that they are not affiliated with any particular religion (25% vs. 8%). If these generational patterns persist, recent declines in the number of Protestants and growth in the size of the unaffiliated population may continue.

Major changes in the makeup of American Catholicism also loom on the horizon. Latinos, who already account for roughly one-in-three adult Catholics overall, may account for an even larger share of U.S. Catholics in the future. For while Latinos represent roughly one-in-eight U.S. Catholics age 70 and older (12%), they account for nearly half of all Catholics ages 18-29 (45%).

Finally, the Landscape Survey documents how immigration is adding even more diversity to the American religious quilt. For example, Muslims, roughly two-thirds of whom are immigrants, now account for roughly 0.6% of the U.S. adult population; and Hindus, more than eight-in-ten of whom are foreign born, now account for approximately 0.4% of the population.

Other Survey Highlights

Other highlights in the report include

  • Men are significantly more likely than women to claim no religious affiliation. Nearly one-in-five men say they have no formal religious affiliation, compared with roughly 13% of women.
  • Among people who are married, nearly four-in-ten (37%) are married to a spouse with a different religious affiliation. (This figure includes Protestants who are married to another Protestant from a different denominational family, such as a Baptist who is married to a Methodist.) Hindus and Mormons are the most likely to be married (78% and 71%, respectively) and to be married to someone of the same religion (90% and 83%, respectively).
  • Mormons and Muslims are the groups with the largest families; more than one-in-five Mormon adults and 15% of Muslim adults in the U.S. have three or more children living at home.
  • The Midwest most closely resembles the religious makeup of the overall population. The South, by a wide margin, has the heaviest concentration of members of evangelical Protestant churches. The Northeast has the greatest concentration of Catholics, and the West has the largest proportion of unaffiliated people, including the largest proportion of atheists and agnostics.
  • Of all the major racial and ethnic groups in the United States, black Americans are the most likely to report a formal religious affiliation. Even among those blacks who are unaffiliated, three-in-four belong to the "religious unaffiliated" category (that is, they say that religion is either somewhat or very important in their lives), compared with slightly more than one-third of the unaffiliated population overall.
  • Nearly half of Hindus in the U.S., one-third of Jews and a quarter of Buddhists have obtained post-graduate education, compared with only about one-in-ten of the adult population overall. Hindus and Jews are also much more likely than other groups to report high income levels.
  • People not affiliated with any particular religion stand out for their relative youth compared with other religious traditions. Among the unaffiliated, 31% are under age 30 and 71% are under age 50. Comparable numbers for the overall adult population are 20% and 59%, respectively.
  • By contrast, members of mainline Protestant churches and Jews are older, on average, than members of other groups. Roughly half of Jews and members of mainline churches are age 50 and older, compared with approximately four-in-ten American adults overall.
  • In sharp contrast to Islam and Hinduism, Buddhism in the U.S. is primarily made up of native-born adherents, whites and converts. Only one-in-three American Buddhists describe their race as Asian, while nearly three-in-four Buddhists say they are converts to Buddhism.
  • Jehovah's Witnesses have the lowest retention rate of any religious tradition. Only 37% of all those who say they were raised as Jehovah's Witnesses still identify themselves as Jehovah's Witnesses.
  • Members of Baptist churches account for one-third of all Protestants and close to one-fifth of the total U.S. adult population. Baptists also account for nearly two-thirds of members of historically black Protestant churches.

About the Survey

These are some of the key findings of the Pew Forum's U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, which draws primarily on a new nationwide survey conducted from May 8 to Aug. 13, 2007, among a representative sample of more than 35,000 adults in the U.S., with additional over-samples of Eastern Orthodox Christians, Buddhists and Hindus. The study also takes advantage of the 2007 survey of American Muslims ("Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream"), which was conducted by the Forum in partnership with its sister projects, the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, the Pew Hispanic Center and the Pew Global Attitudes Project. In total, these surveys included interviews with more than 36,000 Americans.

Detailed data tables provide extensive demographic information on the 14 largest religious traditions, 12 large Protestant denominational families and 25 individual Protestant denominations in the United States.

Summary of Key Findings

A major survey by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life finds that most Americans have a non-dogmatic approach to faith. A majority of those who are affiliated with a religion, for instance, do not believe their religion is the only way to salvation. And almost the same number believes that there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of their religion. This openness to a range of religious viewpoints is in line with the great diversity of religious affiliation, belief and practice that exists in the United States, as documented in a survey of more than 35,000 Americans that comprehensively examines the country’s religious landscape.

This is not to suggest that Americans do not take religion seriously. The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey also shows that more than half of Americans say religion is very important in their lives, attend religious services regularly and pray daily. Furthermore, a plurality of adults who are affiliated with a religion want their religion to preserve its traditional beliefs and practices rather than either adjust to new circumstances or adopt modern beliefs and practices. Moreover, significant minorities across nearly all religious traditions see a conflict between being a devout person and living in a modern society.

The Landscape Survey confirms the close link between Americans' religious affiliation, beliefs and practices, on the one hand, and their social and political attitudes, on the other. Indeed, the survey demonstrates that the social and political fault lines in American society run through, as well as alongside, religious traditions. The relationship between religion and politics is particularly strong with respect to political ideology and views on social issues such as abortion and homosexuality, with the more religiously committed adherents across several religious traditions expressing more conservative political views. On other issues included in the survey, such as environmental protection, foreign affairs, and the proper size and role of government, differences based on religion tend to be smaller.

Religion in America: Non-Dogmatic, Diverse and Politically Relevant

Most Americans agree with the statement that many religions – not just their own – can lead to eternal life. Among those who are affiliated with a religious tradition, seven-in-ten say many religions can lead to eternal life. This view is shared by a majority of adherents in nearly all religious traditions, including more than half of members of evangelical Protestant churches (57%). Only among Mormons (57%) and Jehovah’s Witnesses (80%) do majorities say that their own religion is the one true faith leading to eternal life.

Most Americans also have a non-dogmatic approach when it comes to interpreting the tenets of their own religion. For instance, more than two-thirds of adults affiliated with a religious tradition agree that there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of their faith, a pattern that occurs in nearly all traditions. The exceptions are Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, 54% and 77% of whom, respectively, say there is only one true way to interpret the teachings of their religion.

The lack of dogmatism in American religion may well reflect the great diversity of religious affiliation, beliefs and practices in the U.S. For example, while more than nine-in-ten Americans (92%) believe in the existence of God or a universal spirit, there is considerable variation in the nature and certainty of this belief. Six-in-ten adults believe that God is a person with whom people can have a relationship; but one-in-four – including about half of Jews and Hindus – see God as an impersonal force. And while roughly seven-in-ten Americans say they are absolutely certain of God’s existence, more than one-in-five (22%) are less certain in their belief.

A similar pattern is evident in views of the Bible. Nearly two-thirds of the public (63%) takes the view that their faith’s sacred texts are the word of God. But those who believe Scripture represents the word of God are roughly evenly divided between those who say it should be interpreted literally, word for word (33%), and those who say it should not be taken literally (27%). And more than a quarter of adults – including two-thirds of Buddhists (67%) and about half of Jews (53%) – say their faith’s sacred texts are written by men and are not the word of God.

The diversity in religious beliefs and practices in the U.S. in part reflects the great variety of religious groups that populate the American religious landscape. The survey finds, for example, that some religious groups – including Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and members of historically black and evangelical Protestant churches – tend to be more likely to report high levels of religious engagement on questions such as the importance of religion in their lives, certainty of belief in God and frequency of attendance at religious services. Other Christian groups – notably members of mainline Protestant churches and Catholics – are less likely to report such attitudes, beliefs and practices. And still other faiths – including Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims – exhibit their own special mix of religious beliefs and practices.

The Landscape Survey also reveals that people who are not affiliated with a particular religious tradition do not necessarily lack religious beliefs or practices. In fact, a large portion (41%) of the unaffiliated population says religion is at least somewhat important in their lives, seven-in-ten say they believe in God, and more than a quarter (27%) say they attend religious services at least a few times a year.

The findings of the Landscape Survey underscore the importance of affiliation with a particular tradition for understanding not only people’s religious beliefs and practices but also their basic social and political views. For instance, Mormons and members of evangelical churches tend to be more conservative in their political ideology, while Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and atheists tend to be more politically liberal than the population overall. But the survey shows that there are important differences within religious traditions as well, based on a number of factors, including the importance of religion in people’s lives, the nature and certainty of their belief in God, and their frequency of prayer and attendance at worship services.

One of the realities of politics in the U.S. today is that people who regularly attend worship services and hold traditional religious views are much more likely to hold conservative political views while those who are less connected to religious institutions and more secular in their outlook are more likely to hold liberal political views.

The connection between religious intensity and political attitudes appears to be especially strong when it comes to issues such as abortion and homosexuality. About six-in-ten Americans who attend religious services at least once a week say abortion should be illegal in most or all cases, while only about three-in-ten who attend less often share this view. This pattern holds across a variety of religious traditions. For instance, nearly three-in-four (73%) members of evangelical churches who attend church at least once a week say abortion should be illegal in most or all cases, compared with only 45% of members of evangelical churches who attend church less frequently.

These are among the key findings of a major survey on religion and American life conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life between May 8 and Aug. 13, 2007, among a representative sample of more than 35,000 Americans. The first report based on the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey was issued in February 2008 and focused on the religious affiliation of the American people, including the impact of immigration and changes in affiliation. This report provides information on the core religious beliefs and practices as well as the basic social and political views of the various religious traditions in the U.S. as well as people who are not affiliated with a particular religion.

The report includes information on members of many religious groups – such as Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, atheists and agnostics – that are too small to be analyzed in most public opinion surveys. More detailed tables, provided in an appendix to this report, also summarize the basic beliefs, practices, and social and political attitudes of a dozen Protestant denominational families and 25 of the largest Protestant denominations in the U.S. These detailed tables also include information on what the survey classifies as “other Christians,” which includes such smaller groups as Spiritualists and other Metaphysical Christians, as well as on members of a variety of other faiths, including Unitarians and New Age groups.

To read the Summary of Key Findings in full, download the PDF (18 pages)

Sunday, June 22, 2008

When is a Text not a Text? When is a Reader not a 'Reader'?

We are a text driven culture. We are preoccupied with things like copyright infringement, and used to looking at computer screens. And so it is natural to assume, when one is part of a largely literate culture that ancient texts are like ours, and ancient readers just like us. We could hardly be more wrong on both counts. Consider for example this text here to the left from near Mt. Nimrud in Turkey. Here is a text with no punctuation, and for the most part no division between paragraphs, sentences, or even between words and all letters are capital letters. What sort of text is this? The answer is simple-- an oral text, one that can only be figured out if you sound out the syllables out loud, one by one. For if you are not already familiar with this text, there is no other way to decipher it. In a culture where the literacy rate is under 20% texts could only be read by a minority of the population anyway, and furthermore, literacy and texts were ways that the elite asserted their power and authority in an oral culture, especially when we are talking about the most important texts in any such ancient culture-- sacred texts.
If ancient texts are oral texts, meant to be heard, and never meant to be silently read, what then of readers? There has been a lot of loose talk about readers and the references to readers in the NT. And many of the usual deductions about such references are wrong, as we shall now point out.

Some scholars, on the basis of the occasional reference to ‘readers’ in the NT have thought that this signaled that Christians were some of the first to self-consciously be trying to produce books, or even literature meant for reading. For example, sometimes Mark’s Gospel has been called the first Christian book, in large part based on the reference in Mk. 13.14 where we find the parenthetical remark, “let the reader understand”, on the assumption that the ‘reader’ in question is the audience. But let us examine this assumption for a moment. Both in Mk. 13.14 and in Rev. 1.3 the operative Greek word is ho anaginōskōn a clear reference to a single and singular reader, who in that latter text is distinguished from the audience who are dubbed the hearers (plural!) of John’s rhetoric.

As Mark Wilson recently suggested in a public lecture at Ephesus, this surely is likely to mean that the singular reader is in fact a lector of sorts, someone who will be reading John’s apocalypse out loud to various hearers.[1] We know for a fact that John is addressing various churches in Asia Minor (see Rev. 2-3), so it is quite impossible to argue that the reference to ‘the reader’ singular in Rev. 1.3 refers to the audience. It must refer to the rhetor or lector who will orally deliver this discourse to the audience of hearers. I would suggest that we must draw the same conclusion about the parenthetical remark in Mk. 13.14, which in turn means that not even Mark’s Gospel should be viewed as a text, meant for private reading, much less the first real modern ‘text’ or ‘book’ Rather Mark is reminding the lector, who will be orally delivering the Gospel in some or several venues near to the time when this ‘abomination’ would be or was already arising that they needed to help the audience understand the nature of what was happening when the temple in Jerusalem was being destroyed. Oral texts often include such reminders for the ones delivering the discourse in question. So in fact it is not likely the case that the reference to 'a reader' in the NT functions like it would in a modern text. The reader in question is not the audience of the discourse or document, but rather its presenter who knows the text in advance and can appropriately and effectively orally deliver its content to the intended audience or audiences.

(The above is a brief excerpt from a chapter in my forthcoming textbook entitled NT Rhetoric-- due out in the fall).

[1] In a lecture delivered by him at a conference at Ephesus in May 2008 where we both spoke on the oral character of these NT texts.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Memento Mori-- Part Two

Grave steles, sarcophagi, and grave art teach us a great deal about what ancient peoples believed about the afterlife. In cultures where the spirits of the ancestors (called genius (singular, and genii plural-- from which we get the word genie) were believed to be alive and could inspire and affect the lives of their descendants, the dead were honored, often in lavish fashion. Christians are of course used to thinking in binary categories of people either going to heaven or hell, but in fact in earliest OT times there was the simple belief in Sheol, the land of the dead, and this belief still existed in some forms in the first century A.D. world. Hades was the land of the dead, and unless you were an immortal, or a demi-god like Herakles (Hercules) or perhaps an Alexander, you were simply going to the land of the dead, where your spirit existed in some sort of shadowy condition. Of course if you were a heroic figure you might make it to the beautiful Elysian fields, but not many were believed to make it there. The saying of Jesus about few entering the Kingdom and narrow the way, suits this belief system as well. And furthermore, in the Greco-Roman world, since there was no great hope of a positive afterlife (remembering the famous grave epitaph 'I was, I am not, I care not'), salvation was all about what happened to you in this life, and 'saved' meant materially blessed, or blessed with good health, or rescued from danger or slavery, or the like (see the Appendix to my Acts commentary). We see a form of this belief when Jesus says "your faith has saved you" by which is meant "your faith has healed you". Jesus was not suggesting the woman in question had either been converted or had accepted the four spiritual laws. In this post, you will see what was the initial impetus for the building of the Istanbul museum, namely they had obtained some remarkable, and remarkably huge sarcophagi, including the famous Sidonian sarcophagus of Alexander the Great. As it turns out, it is probably a very early copy of Alexander's which would have been in Alexandria, not Sidon, but still it gives us a clear picture of the lavish sarcophagi of the elite in that period. The first picture here is of the doors into the sarcophagi, meant to resemble the 'gates of Hades' (see Mt. 16). This is followed by two pictures of the Alexander sarcophagus in different lighting, and then detailed pictures of various of the panels. I have included a picture of a temple replica, because these sarcophagi with their elaborate story telling friezes were meant to be like mini-temples or shrines. The friezes on the Parthenon are of the same character, though they largely tell mythological tales. Alexander's friezes recount his mighty victories of various sorts, as the attempt is made to portray him as a god upon the earth. This was surely part of the background to the rise of the Emperor cult, since Alexander was indeed a real person who conquered most of the known world.

A bit further down you can see that originally these friezes were painted with a riot of colors of various sorts. This would have been true on the Parthenon as well. It would not have just been all white marble. The color sample replica frieze on the left depicts the famous scene of blond Alexander slaying his foes. More normal on sarcophagi on those who were just ordinary Romans or Greeks were scenes of mourning, such as the scenes below of the women. Normally mourning periods for someone who died with honor could last up to a week or more, and the Romans would have a plaster cast mold made of the face of the deceased, which would be put in a cabinet in the home, and when the Roman wanted to consult their ancestors, or venerate and honor them, they would open the cabinet and interact with the genii or spirits represented by the masks. They most certainly believed their ancestors were still alive, and when they were inspired they called it the affect of genius, that is inspiration by one's ancestor. So much was the honoring of the ancestors crucial, that it was a regular practice to celebrate the deceased's birthday by going to the sarcophagus, and pouring wine in a pour spout into the tomb so they could celebrate with you. And this brings us to the 'baptism for the dead' practice of the Corinthians. Paul acknowledges this is going on in Corinth, though he does not endorse it in 1 Cor. 15. Proxy baptism is not a Christian practice, since early Christians when they were thinking right, realized that as the parable in Lk. 18 suggest
once a person is dead and gone from this world, their fate cannot be changed. This life is the place deciding one's eternal destiny, as Paul makes clear. I have also included the grave art of a woman playing the lyre. Music was a regular part of ancient burial practices, and in fact the elite hired women to cry (I call them town criers) and musicians to play mournful music (see the story of Jairus's daughter. The one's who laugh at Jesus cannot be family surely). I have also included the interesting Roman relief of a woman with wings, presumably one of the gods, but a belief in angels and demons was not solely something those in the Judaeo-Christian tradition embraced.

Towards the bottom here I have included the statues of one goddess, and two Emperors who were being viewed as gods. Full marks if you can identify them on this blog. When one examines all of this, it becomes clearer in various ways how Christian practice both differed from, and in some respects seemed similar to ancient near eastern, Greek, and Roman practices. But what really distinguished Judeao-Christian religion was not only a robust belief in a positive afterlife, but a strong belief in life back from the dead-- resurrection.