Ancient Documents

Myths & Monsters

Why do myths from centuries and even millennia in the past still fascinate us? Why does the quest of the Hero find its way into so many stories? Can these legendary tales still help us find our purpose? The new 6-part documentary series, Myths & Monsters explores these questions and the myths that have endured for countless generations. Check the trailer out here:

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From Arabia to the New World

Most people love some sort of fiction whether it film, television or books. Yet, there are adventures to be had in the real world amidst all of its chaos and strife. We already took a look at some fantastic travels into Latin America where the ancient world still hides. Here are some more tales of authors who went on their own adventures to explore lost histories of our past:

Few love stories can claim to have endured centuries, but that of Solomon and Sheba has done just that. Nicholas Clapp set out in Sheba: Through the Desert in Search of the Legendary Queen to uncover the truth to what is only briefly mentioned in biblical chronicles and some other sources. Traveling through unstable Yemen in Arabia, to ancient sites in Ethiopia and to the Jerusalem, the city of Solomon, he uncovers clues to the lost empire of Sheba that tantalize us with potentially much more hidden in the sands.

Legend has it that Venetian brother Antonio and Nicolo Zeno arrive in North America a hundred years before Columbus. Is it only a legend? Andrea di Robilant tracks them across Europe and to the fringes of the New World to uncover the truth in Irresistable North. Given a recent, new discovery of vikings, should we not take a little closer look at the Zenos?

The Zenos may not be the only ones to beat Columbus as Paul Chiasson writes in The Island of Seven Cities. Ruins on Cape Brenton in northeast Canada, not all that far from Viking sites, could be the remains of a Chinese outpost. If this wasn’t interesting enough, the Zeno brothers had mentioned encountering some sort of non-native settlement in the region. Vikings or Chinese or one of these intermixed with natives?

I’m thinking real life adventures like these beat television any day. So where do you want to go?

Categories: Ancient America, Ancient Documents, Ancient Sites, Bible, History | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Jesus, Real and Imagined

There’s seems to be a wave of folks of redefining Jesus: Some wandering hippie, a good guy, hobo, this-or-that-retinterpreted-through-modern-cause or just someone that someone else made up. No, I’m not getting into a religious discussion here, but a historical one. This is also a case study in rooting out bias and agenda. In today’s 24/7 Internet, there’s a demand for a constant flow of articles. We should keep our baloney detector on, no matter what the topic we are reading (whether we like the author’s overall position or not).

Take the article by Chris Sosa, journalist, entitled “Historical Jesus, Not so Fast.” It starts out as if he is going to do what journalists do: A careful examination of an important subject. Very quickly, however, it becomes apparent we have nothing of the sort. Rather it is a repeating of common skeptical claims, not really new to anyone versed in such studies. An agenda emerges quickly.

Especially to anyone who spends 5 minutes looking up the author’s claims.

Claim 1: The Quirinius census (Luke 2:2) was too late to coincide with Herod the Great’s reign (Mathew 2:1) (thus Jesus birth story all out of whack). A couple things Sosa leaves out: Some serious; scholars believe Quirinius was twice governor as implied in Lapis Tiburtinus; inscription.  Others have suggested the translation should be, “this census was before the census which Quirinius, governor of Syria, made.” Not all issues have clear cut answers, but nor is there lack of answers, as implied by the article.

Claim 2: Sosa claims the Gospel of Mark “does not say that Jesus resurrected” stating this was “added at a later date.” Actually, as the translation he references clearly marks, the disputed portion starts at Mark 16:9. The resurrection is mentioned before this in Mark 16:6. The author hasn’t followed his own advice of, “Grab a bible and read along.”

Claim 3: Then there this old stand-by, “…not a single [gospel] agrees with the others on who actually saw [the resurrection].” A cursory review of the gospels reveals that none claim who first saw the empty tomb. That’s an important point (or omission on Sosa’s part). All of the gospels choose different details to focus on of the same events, which is clearly not the same as disagreeing.

Claim 4: Okay, he doesn’t claim anything, only defaults to quoting Bart Ehrman, (infamous) New Testament scholar. Ehrman is a fave among Jesus-debunkers and their go-to guy. Problem is that those who actually test his claims find that he isn’t all that scholarly. In fact, his arguments fail quite spectacularly. That all is beyond the scope of this essay, but finding someone who affirms your view and not testing their claims is not the same as actually proving it. (And Ehrman, scholar he may be, likes to sell his books under tabloidish titled books like Forged).

Claim 5: Sosa then discounts extrabiblical mentions of Jesus, which, obviously, “disintegrate under close examination” when consulting only scholars that agree with predetermined view. Interestingly, though, he doesn’t list all the known references, only ones some people debate.

I’m sure Sosa can “go on for hundreds of pages about the contradictions and historical problems of the Jesus narrative” just as Ehrman has by ignoring thousands of pages — and years — of contrary scholarship. Among other things, they neglect the eyewitness issues and rapid spread of Christianity in face of persecution. Or, very importantly, few Jews ever denied Christ’s existence. By history’s standards, there is far more documentation for Christ than most others we accept as real in the ancient world.

Note here that I didn’t resort to “faith” or talking points or emotion, only history and looking at the documents. Sure, I haven’t gone into a lengthy scholarly dissertation here either, but that wasn’t the point. The point is that we shouldn’t get mad reading an article, or automatically agree with it, without basic verification. Tone can indicate an agenda. A brief article claiming to unseat two millennia of scholarship needs some scrutiny, to say the least.

Regardless of what you think of the New Testament, it is arguably one of the most important documents to come down from antiquity. We have more ancient copies of it than any other document from the ancient world. Even the most revisionist of skeptics and Jesus-debunkers see no reason to claim Jesus was a “myth.”

Earth is flat. Jesus wasn’t real. Aliens traveling light-years in little saucers to abduct humans and make circles in corn fields.

Sometimes we just need to think. Just a little.


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Missing Letters from Antiquity

Unknown thousands of writings from mankind’s past have been lost through the centuries, so it’s always impressive when finds are made, as with these Dead Sea Scrolls this month.

One has to wonder, what else is out there?

We know of some missing works, such as at least four letters that the Apostle Paul wrote (referenced in his other letters) that have no known remnants. He also wrote of a journey to Arabia and the intention to go to Spain (no one is sure if he made it). Did the prolific missionary-writer leave no records of these?

Finding these writings would be most interesting — or should I say historic?. Most consider the Bible closed — and any contrary suggestion unthinkable — but wouldn’t these letters be canonical? After all, the epistles state they exist. It would be quite the event, or circus, if such a discovery was made. Not a great disappointment like pseudo-gospels like the Gospel of Judas much ballyhooed a few years ago until scholars took a close look at it. Not that those types of documents don’t have any value, just not the religion-changing headlines often claimed.

Scholar and novelist Paul L. Maier explored the idea of the discovery of a missing part of the Bible in his novel The Constantine Codex. Another example of how it can take fiction to explore ideas some may not like.

And that is why fiction will never die.

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Noah’s Ark Lands in Hollywood

Expensive biblical epics haven’t been a staple of Hollywood for decades, but this week saw the release of the first trailer of Noah which will hit theaters in early 2014.

Enter controversy.

Some like J.W. Wartick have written on concerns over possible “divergence from the Biblical story.” Fair enough, but I don’t have a problem with divergence, if it is in the sense Brian Godawa describes:

…there is nothing wrong with engaging in creative license, whether it is magical seeds or six-armed Watchers, or even Noah as a warrior. I don’t even think there is a problem in using non-biblical sources like the Book of Enoch or the Sumerian version of the Flood story, where unlike in the Bible, Noah receives dreams about the coming Deluge. The question is, does it support the spirit or meaning of the original story, or the original author’s intent. Bible believing Christians do not necessarily own this category of Biblical interpretation. The Bible doesn’t say what vocation Noah had before the Flood, only what he was afterward (a tiller of the soil). So if a Christian attacks the notion of Noah as a warrior shaman, he may really be illustrating his own cultural prejudice of the notion of a white bearded old farmer which is not in the Bible either…[bold mine]

However, Godawa does discuss quite a few concerns he had with an earlier draft of the script. Having only seen a brief clip of the movie, and not knowing how the script evolved or was edited, I’m not going to add or subtract from his analysis other than this: I do like how the film trailer does not depict Noah as a pastoral old man leading cute, Narnia-like animals into an ark. This Sunday School-fantasy version ignores the terror — and ultimately the point — of the account: Horrible evil is occurring in the world and mankind will be wiped out because of it. The actual story — an adult one — has been co-opted by preschoolers. Perhaps the film will spark debate on how shallow our take on Noah has become.

Hopefully, the filmmakers chose not to put modern agendas into an iconic account from the ancient world. There’s enough historical contextual sources to draw from, as Godawa does in his own novel on Noah. In a film of this budget, studios try not to be too offensive to anyone. It is a business after all. Then again, many big budget films failed in 2013.

Time will tell if Noah emerges under a rainbow or washes out.

Update [3/2/14, 3/17/14]: After continuing controversy over a film not released, Jerry A. Johnson, president of the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB), discusses Five Positive Facts and Five Negative Facts about the film. Johnson and the NRB were behind the recent press release from Paramount Pictures which states, “the feature film is a dramatization of the major scriptural themes and not a line-by-line retelling of the Bible story.”

Apparently the NRB thinks the Christian world is not intelligent enough to figure that out on their own. On the other hand, the “Sunday School-fantasy version” of Noah I discussed above that many envision in their minds is not “a line-by-line retelling of the Bible story” either.

And here, Dr. Hugh Ross looks at the biblical Noah account here and here. Or check out his new book that explores this and other issues of Genesis.

Update [4/3/14]: Here’s an interesting debate: Is Noah a Gnostic interpretation or not.

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The Jesus “Myth” Myth

Recently, I ran across someone claiming Jesus was a myth. This, at first, made me laugh. Not from a religious perspective (though these claims seem to crop up during Easter like clockwork), but from the perspective of ancient history. I also shook my head on the realization that more and more people don’t test such claims. People are way too trusting. That’s another story altogether, but what does history tell us about this “Jesus didn’t exist” theory? Why has the evidence from history has compelled most scholars, regardless of their religious beliefs, to believe Jesus was real? First, this:

There are more ancient documents attesting to Jesus than any other individual from antiquity.

“So what?” says the skeptic. “Most were written by Christians.”

True, but since the writers were Christians (or what we would now consider such), does that automatically mean we should suspect deception? By that logic (or lack of), we should also be suspect of any non-christian writing about Christianity.

More importantly, the Gospels were all written relatively close to the time of Jesus. So people who had seen, known or encountered Jesus were still alive to verify the writings or serve as sources. Verses in Paul’s epistles have been recognized as coming from early creeds that date within a few years (the first two), if not months, from the death of Jesus. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 there are various clues that indicate Paul is repeating an early creed, both in the language and style he uses and the underlying Aramaic. This is also why some of Paul’s writings predate the writing of the Gospels.

Also note that other sources do not deny Jesus existed. Jewish writers, who had more reason than anyone else to show Jesus didn’t exist, did not do so. Instead, they argued he wasn’t the Messiah. This brings us to the next important point:

The New Testament is not the only collection of ancient documents writing about Jesus.

Many Christians don’t even know this. Some examples: Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus in Annals; Suetonius, chief secretary of Emperor Hadrian; Flavius Josephus, Jewish historian in Antiquities; Julius Africanus in Extant Writings refers to the lost works of Thallus who describes the darkness and earthquake at the time of Christ’s death; in Pliny the Younger’s Letters; in letters from Emperors Trajan and Hadrian; Jewish documents the Talmud and the Toledoth Jesu; writings by Lucian, second century Greek satirist.

Understand that most of these writers were not “pro-Jesus” by any stretch. Even if some of the Josephus references were added later, as some claim, we are still left with a large body of undisputed writings. Nor have we mentioned the large body of apocryphal books that appeared in those ancient times.

And for those who claim the New Testament is unreliable, I’ll briefly state this: Pseudoscholars claim there are hundreds of thousands of variants between New Testament manuscripts. In reality, most of these variants are spelling variations, using different synonyms or language-to-language translation issues. What you are left with are a few verses like John 7:53-8:11 that are not in early manuscripts and Bibles denote them as such. These verses, and none of the variants, impact the orthodox beliefs of Christianity.

Claiming Jesus is a “myth” is nothing more than a futile attempt to rewrite history.

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What was the Star of Bethlehem?

Planets, stars, novas or even UFOs, all have been presented as the source of the account in the Gospel of Matthew. He was the only gospel writer who felt it necessary to include the star, which make many wonder if it really happened. Like many of these topics, one can choose to be quickly dismissive or delve deeper.

The latter is what Michael R. Molnar does in his book The Star of Bethlehem. It’s one of the most complete studies of the topic I have run across and draws out many overlooked details in the biblical account and from history. Some additional studies from a science-faith think tank can be found here, but Molnar’s book would be a great study for this Christmas season.

If you want more Christmas lore, try Revelation of the Magi by Brent Landau. This is a translation of a once popular, now largely forgotten, apocryphal Christian story. It’s a fascinating account for students of early Christian history and Christmas traditions. Does it add any truth to the gospel account? Maybe, maybe not. It has the style of fiction rather than historical reporting.

Now Landau’s speculations about the story and the biblical account are, at times, poor theology. He thinks the infancy accounts have no value and supposedly the “majority” of scholars agree. It didn’t take me long to find many who disagree with that. He also seems to be promoting some sort of pluralistic variety of Christianity by somehow concluding this Magi text points to all religious beliefs coming from Christ. It’s sad that some “scholars” seem to ignore scholars who don’t agree with them and try to dumb down Christianity (I’m not saying other religions don’t have any truths in them, but pluralists like to pretend everyone is the same). So don’t buy Landau’s book for the theology. If ancient texts interest you, his translation of the Magi text is a good read.

Instead of non-stop rushing around this month, take some time, sit by the Christmas tree, and learn about the history and traditions that surround us this time of year.

Categories: Ancient Documents, Bible, Mysteries, Traditions | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Media’s Jesus-Wife Myth

Recent years have seen fiction writers and pretend scholars make claims about Jesus having a wife. People who have bothered to examine such claims a little deeper have found that they don’t hold up very well. If you think the media is going to do the fact-checking for you, think again. Check out this post which compares a poor, sensationalist media report compared to the actual academic study. Is it any wonder why many people trust the media less and less?

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Ancient Texts: Non-biblical – but Biblically Related – Writings

Some fear or deride the reading of any biblical pseudepigraphical or apocryphal works, especially the obviously mythological-themed ones. However, reading them and declaring them inspired are entirely two different things. Writings that paralleled the Bible can inform on the cultural and historical context of the times. Even the more fantastic books could have a truth here and there. Some biblical writers thought so.

Jude found enough truth in I Enoch quote directly in Jude 1:14-15 (and Jude refers to the lost Assumption of Moses). Peter makes some allusions to Enoch as well. Another example are the phrases “the account of” and “the written account of” found in Genesis 2:4, 5:1, 6:9, 10:1, 11:10 and 11:27 are thought to be references to previously written material.

Frank Crane, in the classic collection of apocryphal books, The Lost Books of the Bible and the Forgotten Books of Eden, writes:

No great figure appears in history without myths growing up about him. Every great personage becomes a nucleus or center about which folk tales cluster. There are apocryphal tales about Napoleon, about Charlemagne, about Julius Caesar and other outstanding characters.

It is impossible that a man representing so great a force as Jesus of Nazareth should appear in the world without finding many echoes of His personality in contemporary literature…It is interesting to know what forms of stories and speculations about Him took place in the early period of the Christian era.

Indeed, this reasoning applies to all biblical eras. Some of the fear of these books may trace back to the debate on a small group of books Roman Catholics consider part of the Bible and many Protestants do not. More likely, the constant attempts of skeptics to find “alternate” or “contrary” versions of Christianity in “lost” or “forgotten” (and often supposedly “suppressed”) writings has probably become irritating. Such attempts have failed horribly. Contradictorily, skeptics like to leave the impression that there are no works outside of the Bible that parallel or converge with it. In ignoring the vast canon of the writings that obviously do exist, Christians have unwittingly supported the skeptics.

There is much more on these ancient documents that can be said. Brian Godawa in his Chronicles of the Nephilim has drawn from some of these books for a spectacular adventure and alludes to what these works might contain. For now, keep in mind that simply because many of these books were never intended to be completely historical (or inspired) documents does not mean no value exists in them.

Or no forgotten bits of our past.

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Sheba’s Gold

The Guardian reports:

A British excavation has struck archaeological gold with a discovery that may solve the mystery of where the Queen of Sheba of biblical legend derived her fabled treasures.

Almost 3,000 years ago, the ruler of Sheba, which spanned modern-day Ethiopia and Yemen, arrived in Jerusalem with vast quantities of gold to give to King Solomon. Now an enormous ancient goldmine, together with the ruins of a temple and the site of a battlefield, have been discovered in her former territory.

Louise Schofield, an archaeologist and former British Museum curator, who headed the excavation on the high Gheralta plateau in northern Ethiopia, said: “One of the things I’ve always loved about archaeology is the way it can tie up with legends and myths. The fact that we might have the Queen of Sheba’s mines is extraordinary.”

An initial clue lay in a 20ft stone stele (or slab) carved with a sun and crescent moon, the “calling card of the land of Sheba”, Schofield said.

Many scoff at the existence of the Queen of Sheba because the Bible is the main source of our knowledge of her. Yet, the places and people of the Bible have routinely and consistently appeared in archaeological discoveries. Often they are like Sheba and have little or no precedent outside the Bible.

Most non-religious individuals will at least admit the Bible is a valuable ancient document (one that we have more copies than anything else in antiquity) with much history within it (more on its place among other Near East writings here). However, there will always be people with an ax to grind and will push their agendas regardless of facts.

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