Tertullian’s Letter to His Wife

TertullianWhen we think of the Church Fathers, we often forget that they were real human beings. Beyond being extraordinary people in extraordinary times, they were people with emotions who were in relationships.

I have been reading through the works of Tertullian (155-240). Tertullian is important for many reasons, including coming up with the term Trinity.

As I was reading his works, I came across his letters to his wife. I thought this would be interesting. It started off promising enough.

I have thought it meet, my best beloved fellow-servant in the Lord, even from this early period, to provide for the course which you must pursue after my departure from the world, if I shall be called before you; (and) to entrust to your honour the observance of the provision.

You can see some affection for his wife there. However, as the letter continues, it becomes more of a theological treatise on marriage. You can read it here.

I can say with confidence that if I was living in dangerous times and had an opportunity to write to my wife, my letter would look much different.

However, this letter tells a lot about Tertullian, not just his theology but his personality. He lived an intellectual life and even when he writes to his wife, he can not unplug from that mode of thinking.


The Plot to Kill Hitler

BonhoefferAt a recent book fair at my children’s school, I was surprised to find the book, The Plot to Kill Hitler. I was not surprised to find a book on World War Two, I was surprised to find a book on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The story of a man whose most prized possessions was his Bible and his cigarettes is not what you would expect in a public elementary school.

This book by Patrick McCormick is the story of Bonhoeffer but packaged for a younger audience. However, it is not juvenile in content as it wrestles with the difficult parts of his story.

If you are not familiar with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, he was a German pastor who came into conflict with the Nazis during World War Two. He opposed the German church’s capitulation to Hitler and set up an underground seminary to train pastors for the confessing church.

Although this book is titled, The Plot to Kill Hitler, that is not the most important thing Bonhoeffer did nor is it the main point of this book. Bonhoeffer was a brilliant theologian and church leader. He opposed evil in his own way long before he became involved in a plot to kill Hitler. Even when he was involved in that plot, he was the ethicist who guided the others more active in the plot. Unfortunately, this failed plan ultimately led to his execution.

One of the things that I appreciated about this book is that it really wrestled with the problem of Bonhoeffer’s pacifism and his involvement in the plot to kill Hitler. He never gave up on the principles of pacifism but felt that he needed to betray his own principles and face God’s judgment by helping to end the violence caused by Hitler.

If you know a young person who might be interested in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Plot to Kill Hitler, is a great introduction for a younger audience. Even adults will be inspired by this short book and its important story.


Who Were the Huguenots?

I have an interest in the French protestants known as the Huguenots. My family (on the Bedard side) are originally from La Rochelle, one of the Huguenots strongholds in France.

While the Bedards were all Roman Catholic by the time they arrived in Canada, I suspect some were Huguenots. It was common for Huguenots to convert to Roman Catholicism after the St Bartholomew’s Massacre in 1572.

Here is a helpful documentary by Ryan Reeves. I have shared other of his videos and they are very good.


What is the Infancy Gospel of Thomas?

One of the highlights when I teach New Testament introduction courses is to have “story-time” with a reading from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. Why would I read from such a book? Critics attempt to cast doubt on the New Testament canon by suggesting that there were plenty of other books that could have been in the canon but were left out, for either theological or political reasons.

I believe that the best response is not to hide these other gospels from Christians but rather to bring them out of the shadows. Read the canonical Gospels and then read these other books and compare.

What exactly is the Infancy Gospel of Thomas? It is not to be confused with the Gospel of Thomas or the Acts of Thomas. This is an infancy gospel, meaning it is about Jesus when he was a child. Other than Luke 2:41-51, the canonical Gospels do not give any information about Jesus between his birth and the beginning of his ministry. It is understandable that people would be curious about this period of his life and so authors used their imaginations to fill in the gap.

You will notice that this infancy gospel assumes that Jesus had his “powers” during his childhood. While the Gospels do not specify, it is my understanding that Jesus did not start to perform miracles until he received the Holy Spirit at his baptism.

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas was written sometime between 140-170 AD. This is another reason, as if it needed more, while it was not included in the canon.

Here are a couple of passages from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.

2 When this boy, Jesus, was five years old, he was playing at the ford of a rushing stream. (2) He was collecting the flowing water into ponds and made the water instantly pure. He did this with a single command. (3) He then made soft clay and shaped it into twelve sparrows. He did this on the sabbath day, and many other boys were playing with him.

This passage is significant in that this story also appears in the Qur’an.

He will say: “I bring you a sign from your Lord. From clay I will make for you the likeness of a bird. I shall breath into it and, by God’s leave, it shall become a living bird.”  (Sura 3:49)

Here is my favourite passage:

4 Later he was going through the village again when a boy ran and bumped him on the shoulder. Jesus got angry and said to him, “You won’t continue your journey.” (2)And all of a sudden, he fell down and died.
(3)Some people saw what had happened and said, “Where has this boy come from? Everything he says happens instantly!”
(4)The parents of the dead boy came to Joseph and blamed him saying, “Because you have such a boy, you can’t live with us in the village, or else teach him to bless and not curse. He’s killing our children!”

Yes, young Jesus does not mind killing other children who bump into him. Why is this not in the canon again?

You can find more about the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, including a variety of English translations, at this page.

Recommended Book: Bart Ehrman’s Lost Scriptures. (USA) (Canada)

This post originally appeared here.

Update on the Podcast

It has been a while since the last episode but I have not given up on the podcast. I am busy with a couple of projects but am also working on an episode on Polycarp. I will try and get that out as soon as possible.

In the mean while, check out these other podcasts that I do:

Paul and Gender – Review

Paul and GenderOne of the most controversial issues in the Christian church today is the role of women in leadership. The phrase “women in ministry” is not very helpful in that the New Testament expects all followers of Jesus to be ministering in some way.

The challenge for this topic is that the New Testament seems to offer mixed messages. On one hand, it describes women in leadership roles, including teaching. On the other hand, there are some passages that seem to limit the role of women, possibly excluding them from teaching men.

For some, this is not just a historical question but a question of vocation. What does a Christian woman do if they feel called into a pastoral role but that role is not recognized by their congregation?

While this is not just a historical question, historical inquiry can help to shed light on this. And that is what Cynthia Long Westfall does with her book, Paul and Gender.

It is Paul’s teaching that seem to be the stumbling block for full inclusion of women in leadership, even though he did recognize the leadership gifts of certain women.

Westfall looks at these passages in a careful way, not to explain them away, but to look at them in historical context. Paul was writing in a specific Jewish and Greco-Roman culture and we need to read his letters in that context.

Westfall examines Paul’s teaching in all of its contexts, looking at how gender was understood in terms of power in the ancient world. She often pulls from modern Middle Eastern examples that have similar attitudes toward gender.

Westfall argues for the ontological equality of men and women, one that leads to equal opportunities for ministry, leadership and teaching. The passages that seem to deny these opportunities have been misunderstood and have been read in isolation of other texts.

For those who already affirm the role of women in leadership, Paul and Gender, will feel like the nail in the coffin of male dominance. Those who affirm a complementarian position may not be convinced.

Still, it is hoped that everyone will read the familiar texts with a fresh perspective. Instead of just holding one interpretation of two or three texts as having the final word, students of the Bible need to read the full message in its historical context.

A fresh reading may threaten comfortable and traditional ways but biblical Christianity should be based on the text and not familiar ways.

I recommend Paul and Gender for all students of the New Testament, no matter what side of the issue they are coming from.

The Relationship of History and New Testament Studies

New TestamentMy training is in New Testament studies and not history. However, I see a very close relationship between the two. I come at New Testament studies from the perspective of history.

How does one go about history in any other area? People who study Alexander the Great, the Han dynasty in China or the Napoleonic wars all go about it the same way. They look at the primary sources and examine the other historical forces surrounding those events.

When I study the New Testament, I do it the same way. I look at the New Testament texts as historical documents. I don’t mean looking at them as inerrant and inspired religious Scripture. I have Christian faith but I come at the New Testament as a historian first.

I then look at the surrounding context, including Hellenism, the Roman empire and early Judaism. I look at both the events that are described and what the texts say about the authors. This is exactly what historians do with other events.

That is not to say that New Testament studies is fully the same as other historical endeavours. Many New Testament scholars (including me) have religious beliefs and introduce theological ideas into the process. A historian of 19th century German philosophy may be inspired by the ideas they encounter but not in the same way as a New Testament scholar with Christian faith.

My basic conclusion is that New Testament studies can be more than history but it is definitely not less.

Judaism Before Jesus – Review

Judaism Before JesusI am a firm believer that understanding the New Testament requires some understanding of its Jewish context. I don’t mean that Judaism is only Christian context, it has great value as a major faith. But the New Testament was written in a Jewish context by (mostly) Jewish authors.

I’m always looking for good resources in this area and was pleased to come across Judaism Before Jesus by Anthony J. Tomasino.

Too many Christians think all they need to know about Judaism is found in the Old Testament. The truth is that the Old Testament is only one influence on first century Judaism and it is so much more complex than that.

Tomasino takes readers on a journey of the development of Judaism. Judaism, like all religions, did not develop in a vacuum. It was shaped by the surrounding historical and cultural forces. In the case of Judaism, these include how the Jews responded to the Hellenistic and Roman influences.

Tomasino introduces readers to the major texts and events that those only familiar with the Old and New Testaments may not be aware of. We can see how Judaism grew from the Old Testament faith to what would become Rabbinic Judaism. It is a fascinating story.

Anyone interested in the origins of either Christianity or Judaism will find Judaism Before Jesus to be a valuable resource.

Historical Timeline of Religion in the 19th Century

I am especially interested in the development of new religions in the 19th century, including the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. I taught a course on this for Tyndale University College.

As a part of the background, I put together a bit of timeline of the major religious figures from the 19th century (and early 20th century). Some of these are sectarian leaders, some orthodox Christians and some critical scholars. I include also some philosophers who were influential on religious thought. I found it helpful for understanding how everything fit together.

I would suggest that the three most influential figures on the new religious movements were Charles Finney, Alexander Campbell and William Miller.

  • 1782-1849 – William Miller
  • 1788-1866 – Alexander Campbell
  • 1790-1840 – Second Great Awakening
  • 1792-1875 – Charles Finney
  • 1800-1882 – John Nelson Darby
  • 1801-1877 – Brigham Young
  • 1802-1866 – Phineas Quimby
  • 1805-1844 – Joseph Smith, Jr.
  • 1805–1871 – John Thomas
  • 1808–1874 – David Strauss
  • 1809–1882 – Bruno Bauer
  • 1809-1882 – Charles Darwin
  • 1818-1883 – Karl Marx
  • 1821-1910 – Mary Baker Eddy
  • 1825 – American Unitarian Association
  • 1827-1915 – Ellen G. White
  • 1830 – Book of Mormon
  • 1830 – Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
  • 1831-1891 – Helena Petrovna Blavatsky
  • 1832 – Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
  • 1832-1914 – Joseph Smith, III
  • 1834- 1892 – Charles Haddon Spurgeon
  • 1835 – Doctrine and Covenants
  • 1837-1899 – Dwight Moody
  • 1843-1921 – C. I. Scofield
  • 1844 – Great Disappointment
  • 1844-1900 – Friedrich Nietzsche
  • 1845–1931 – Myrtle Fillmore
  • 1848 – Christadelphians
  • 1851 – Pearl of Great Price
  • 1852-1916 – Charles Taze Russell
  • 1854–1948 – Charles Fillmore
  • 1856-1939 – Sigmund Freud
  • 1859 – On the Origin of Species
  • 1863 – Seventh-day Adventist Church
  • 1865-1935 – Arthur Drews
  • 1868 – First Vatican Council
  • 1869-1942 – Joseph Franklin Rutherford
  • 1870-1922 – William J. Seymour
  • 1872 – Church of Christ, Scientist
  • 1873-1929 – Charles Fox Parham
  • 1875 – Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures
  • 1875 – Theosophical Society
  • 1881 – Zion’s Watch Tower Tract Society
  • 1889 – Unity School of Christianity
  • 1892-1966 – Hebert W. Armstrong
  • 1906-1915 – Azusa Street Revival
  • 1914 – Oneness Pentecostalism
  • 1934 – Worldwide Church of God

If you are interested in the Jehovah’s Witnesses, you might like my books:

The Watchtower and the Word

Was Peter the First Pope?

My intention is not to make a theological critique of Peter as pope but rather a historical one. Having said that, I am a protestant Christian and so I do have some theological opinions on the matter. I am just putting my bias on the table.

Roman Catholics and protestants debate the meaning of Matthew 16:18.

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

PeterI actually do not see the question of whether the rock is Peter or the confession he gave in the preceding verses as being relevant to the question at hand.

Even if Peter the individual was the rock on which Jesus would build his church, that does not mean that Peter was the first of many popes.

Of course, there was nothing like the modern idea of a pope then or for many years after this. The most we could discuss would be if Peter was the first bishop of Rome, as that is what a pope really is, the bishop of Rome.

I believe there are good traditions placing both Peter and Paul in Rome at some point and that they were both martyred in that city. But was Peter considered to be the bishop of Rome? No doubt, Peter was considered a man of authority, being one of the pillars of the church (along with James and John). See my podcast episode on the Pillars.

But that does not mean that Peter was the bishop of Rome. That type of idea does not appear to some time later. We start to see this thought developing with Irenaeus. Two passages are relevant.

[T]he very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. …

The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate.

You can read these passages in context here.

When it comes to Irenaeus’s claim that Paul and Peter founded the church at Rome, he is simply wrong. It is clear at the end of Acts, when Paul arrives in Rome that there is already a Christian community. When Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, he had not yet visited Rome. Nor is there any indication that Peter was already there.

Most scholars believe that the Roman church began when Jewish visitors from Rome became followers of Jesus on the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem (Acts 2). They brought back their faith and the Roman church began as predominantly Jewish, only later adding a Gentile component.

What role Peter had at Rome cannot be said. There may have been someone in the role of a bishop before he got there. There is no contemporary evidence that Peter was a bishop. His role as an apostle, which generally was based on the itinerant model rather than the settled bishop model, may have been enough.

Did Peter and Paul appoint Linus as bishop of Rome? Perhaps. We cannot know. But there is no contemporary or even near-contemporary evidence that special authority was being passed on from Peter to Linus. Surely Peter had appointed many leaders over his ministry. Why would Linus have a special role?

This is not meant to be an attack on the papal system. But we should be aware that the concept of Peter as the first pope is a theological statement and not one based on good historical evidence. People are welcome to accept this on faith if they so choose.