Tag Archives: Dewayne Bryant

Did Christianity Plagiarize The Mystery Cults? — Dewayne Bryant, Ph.D.

Plagiarism is serious business in academia. When most people hear the term, they might equate it with “copying” or “borrowing,” thus overlooking the seriousness of the offense. In truth, plagiarism involves not only the outright theft of intellectual property but passing off someone else’s ideas as one’s own.

Some critics today argue that Christianity plagiarized existing beliefs of the time, taking ideas from other religions and stitching them together in what we now call Christianity. These individuals, called “mythicists,” believe that early Christian writers created a fictional Jesus, drawing upon pre-existing pagan elements found in ancient mythology. Some of these ideas, they claim, came from the mystery cults popular at the time.

The term “mystery cult” was not one that the ancients used for their religions. Modern scholars created the term, which accurately captures the sense of the secrecy that governed the lives of those involved in these ancient religious groups. (Note: the word “cult” here means a system of religious belief associated with a specific figure, such as the cult of Attis, the cult of Cybele, or even the imperial cult which involved devotion to the Roman emperor.) These religions provided an alternative to the more institutionalized expressions of worship. Formal religious worship to the gods was part of public life. The mystery cults restricted participation to those who had gone through a secretive initiation process.

Mythicists frequently claim that nothing in Christianity is original. Indeed, the parallels they offer startle many believers unfamiliar with the issue. They claim that other divine figures—such as the Egyptian god Horus or the Persian Mithras—were born of virgins, had twelve disciples, died for the sins of the world, and resurrected after three days in a tomb. Figures as diverse as Attis, Krishna, and Thor supposedly suffered crucifixion. Further, most of these figures served as great teachers of wisdom who healed and performed other miracles. Christians must understand any close reading of the original myths will reveal these claims as patently false.

One of the most significant problems involved in this issue is the fact that critics of Christianity often adopt biblical language to describe pagan practices. This gives the illusion of similarity when Christian terminology would have struck pagans as quite foreign. We can see one example of this in descriptions of the taurobolium—the sacrifice of a bull or ram in which an initiate would stand under the animal and allow its blood to wash over him—which mythicists frequently call a “baptism.” Some writers have gone so far as to claim that the initiate was “washed in the blood.” This alleged parallel seems irrefutable if the reader does not understand that the ritual had nothing to do with baptism or washing away sins. Instead, it was a purification custom with only temporary benefits, unlike Christ’s sacrifice (Hebrews 10:1-4, 10-14).

Mystery cults had several features that differed sharply from Christianity. Only initiates received the secret teachings of the cult and were given strict orders to share them with no one else. By way of contrast, Christians have always believed that the gospel message should be preached to everyone freely (Matt. 24:14; 28:19-20; Lk. 24:47). Further, mystery cults did not expect exclusive membership. A person could join more than one of them, contrary to the expectations of Jesus (John 14:6). Finally, mystery cults also expected a monetary contribution for joining, which was steep enough to exclude some people from participating. Genuine Christianity does not discriminate against the poor, nor does it offer privileges available only to the wealthy (Jas. 2:1-15).

Scholars see virtually no connection between Christianity and the mystery cults in the early Roman Empire. Only two of these cults seem to predate Christianity (the Eleusinian and the Dionysian Mysteries), while evidence of the others postdates the founding of the church. Some scholars believe that if any relationship existed, it is likely Christianity that influenced the mystery cults instead of the other way around.

Christians can evaluate mythicists’ claims for themselves by asking several simple questions. First, do they refer to alleged parallels in the original myths, or do they merely describe or summarize them? Numerous connections vanish upon close inspection of the ancient literature. Second, do they cite the work of recognized scholars? We can count on one hand the number of mythicists who have terminal degrees in the fields relevant to the discussion. Finally, do they use precise descriptions? The keys to mythicists’ arguments hinge upon using Christian terminology to refer to pagan practices and obscuring vital differences between biblical and mythological concepts.

Christianity provided a new and exciting way to look at the world and interact with its Creator. The suggested similarities between it and the other religions practiced in the first century cannot withstand scrutiny. Believers may rest assured that the biblical writers did not plagiarize pagan beliefs.

Dewayne is a minister at the New York Ave. congregation in Arlington, TX.

Militant Atheism And Revisionist History — Dewayne Bryant, Ph.D.

Many have said that history is written by the victorious. This usually means that the record of the past is merely used to suit an agenda. While many exceptions to this rule exist, the age-old saying does point to an important truth: history can be abused for nefarious purposes. This may take the form of propaganda in which the winner reshapes the past to achieve present-day goals. History can also be manipulated to either defend or attack a particular point of view.

In an era where feelings often matter more than facts, the historical record has become a wax nose for militant atheists who criticize the Christian faith. (I am using “militant atheist” here in the same sense as Richard Dawkins and other atheists have used it of themselves, to describe aggressive, confrontational atheism or anti-theism.) This often takes a predictable form: an anti-Christian author or speaker presents a severely distorted version of historical facts to either extol atheism or casts aspersions on Christianity.

History in the Wrong Hands

Virtually everyone recognizes that objective history does not exist. No one can be perfectly impartial. Even professional historians fall prey to the same biases that affect us all. Partiality is particularly common in journalism, where reporting the facts is replaced by offering an interpretation (or reconstruction) to support a narrative.

For the most strident atheist apologists, history is not a field of study to be examined with dispassionate objectivity. Though they often appeal to history, these writers rarely have any training in the discipline. Consequently, they produce materials commonly accepted by their fan base but rejected by professional historians.

One of the most prominent examples of historical abuse is the notion that religion and science have been locked in mortal combat for centuries. This idea first appeared in two books published in the late 1800s: John William Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874) and Andrew Dickson White’s History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). These two authors wrongly—and, some might say, deceitfully—argued for the conflict model, which did not exist before the 19th century. Historians of science today rightfully view Draper’s and White’s assertions as heavily-biased misrepresentations of the facts, but their claims persist in the public mind nevertheless. Sadly, this is not an isolated example, as we shall see.

The History of Science

A favorite weapon in the militant atheist’s arsenal is twisting historical facts to aid in the criticism of religion. One of the most famous examples involves the alleged anti-scientific nature of faith. For example, Sam Harris has bemoaned Christianity’s supposed habit of “torturing scholars to the point of madness for merely speculating about the nature of the stars.”Carl Sagan lamented that religious authorities threw Galileo into a “Catholic dungeon” for daring to teach that the earth revolved around the sun.2 Daniel Dennett has claimed that the Roman Catholic Church has an “unfortunate legacy of persecution of its own scientists.”3

This claim that Roman Catholic authorities persecuted scientists such as Galileo for being thinkers ahead of their time is demonstrably false. A close look at church history reveals that many of the most accomplished scientists in history were devoutly religious. As for Galileo, a combination of his opposition to the church and papal politics led to his detention. Yet even under house arrest, he continued to pursue his research.

Another common myth is that Christians have taught the earth is flat. “Flat-earther” has become synonymous with scientific ignorance arising from religious commitment. Daniel Dennett warns believers, “If you insist on teaching your children falsehoods that the earth is flat … those of us who have freedom of speech will feel free to describe your teachings as the spreading of falsehoods, and will attempt to demonstrate this to your children at our earliest opportunity.”4 Christians do not teach the earth is flat, and this belief appears nowhere in the Bible. The charge arises from critics who frequently misinterpret phenomenological language in Scripture.

Even in antiquity, the ancient philosophers such as Aristotle knew the earth was round. The Greek philosopher Eratosthenes arrived at a relatively close estimation of the earth’s circumference in the 3rd century BC. In the Medieval period, every educated European knew the earth was not flat. Unfortunately, this old canard makes too tempting a target for irresponsible critics to resist.

Political History and Religion

The historical record can be unforgiving, regardless of the personal beliefs held by its most noteworthy contributors. Both atheists and professing Christians alike have harmed others and ruled with iron fists. However, Christians rightly point out that atheism has by far the highest body count, with many tens of millions murdered in the 20th century alone. Further atrocities have continued into the 21st century in countries like communist China. In attempting to avoid this uncomfortable fact, militant atheists usually try to defend their position and insulate themselves from criticism for crimes committed by fellow unbelievers.

The attempt to exonerate atheism from the guilt of the atrocities committed by its subscribers often fails spectacularly. One tactic is to excuse the dictators responsible for millions of deaths in atheistic states, claiming that these rulers considered themselves “gods.” For instance, Daniel Dennett argues that Joseph Stalin was not an atheist, despite his professed disbelief. He says that Stalin “wasn’t an atheist at all. He believed in god. Not only that, he believed in a god whose will determined what right and wrong was. And he was sure of the existence of this god, and the god’s name was Stalin.”5 Dennett’s sophomoric claim would be humorous if he were not serious.

Another popular argument is that Adolf Hitler was a Christian because some of his speeches included references to God. In truth, he followed the same course as other political figures before him who used religion as a tool for control, such as Karl Marx and Niccolo Machiavelli. The Nazis showed their true colors when they sought to destroy Christianity and replace it with a state church committed solely to promoting Nazi ideology. They planned to de-Christianize Germany, a goal betrayed by the fact that Hitler’s government confiscated church property for government use and sent thousands of clergy to concentration camps.

One of the most recent examples of historical revisionism is the portrayal of the Northern Ireland troubles as a religious conflict. Richard Dawkins claims that without Christianity, there would have been no conflict.6 Sam Harris says this battle is “deeply rooted in religion.”7 While the hostilities are often described as being between Protestants and Catholics, the actual causes had virtually nothing to do with religion. The root cause centered upon the constitutional status of Northern Ireland and was a territorial and political battle waged between two ethnically different groups of people.

Historians correctly recognize the terms “Protestant” and Catholic” in the context of the Troubles as convenient political labels. A popular joke underscores this fact. An Irishman approaches a tourist visiting Belfast and asks, “What religion do you practice?” The tourist states that he is an atheist. The Irishman says, “But are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?” Those who rush to use the Troubles as an example of religious violence miss the fact that the origin, circumstances, and goals of the conflict were almost purely secular.

Any point of view has subscribers who will resort to half-truths, fallacious arguments, and underhanded tactics to defend themselves and criticize the opposition. In a matter as important as the question of God’s existence, we have the right to expect that participants in the debate will conduct themselves with thoughtfulness and integrity. Often, militant atheists have lacked both. This can be seen quite clearly in their attempts to revise the historical record to promote atheism and demonize Christianity. Thankfully, facts tend to resist such abuse.

Dewayne is a minister at the New York Ave. Church of Christ in Arlington, TX. He serves as a staff writer for Apologetics Press and the Apologia Institute, and as a professional associate for the Associates for Biblical Research.

Endnotes

1Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004), 105.

2Carl Sagan, Cosmos, (New York: Random House, 1980), 54.

3Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (New York, NY: Penguin, 2006), 274

4Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster,

1995), 519.

5Stated during a debate with Dinesh D’Souza, Is God (and Religion) a Man-Made Invention?

6Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 24.

7Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), 81.

Those Who Insist There Is No God — Dewayne Bryant, Ph.D.

Atheism has been one of the most unpopular points of view throughout Western history. For years, an atheist could not hold a seat in the English Parliament. Even today, there is a significant level of distrust when it comes to unbelievers. For instance, most people in the United States would not favor voting for an atheist in a presidential election.

Unbelief is not monolithic – many different types exist. Perhaps the most easily identifiable is its most militant form. This “muscular atheism” combines a variety of qualities often seen as unsavory: arrogance, condescension, and antagonism. All three appear in a story told about Madalyn Murray O’Hair. A chaplain came to visit her in the hospital and asked if he could do anything for her. She replied, “Drop dead.”

Most atheists do not spout venom and vitriol. They may disagree with their religious neighbors but are content to live in peace and harmony. Christians and atheists have many more points and agreement than not. But one important remains: how do we tell the difference between militant atheists and the garden-variety unbeliever, and how should Christians respond?

Characteristics of Militant Atheism. Exercising discernment is key to understanding any point of view, including unbelief. Atheists differ widely concerning their certainty about God’s supposed non-existence, how accepting they are toward religious viewpoints, what political views they advocate, and what actions they feel are necessary concerning the presence of religion in society. An atheist may even practice some form of religion without having any belief in the divine (such as Buddhism). Whether Christendom, Islam, Hinduism, or any other world religion, any sufficiently popular system of thought will have many different kinds of adherents. Atheism is no different.

Militant atheism features a level of aggression that goes far beyond the normal behavior of a garden-variety unbeliever. Militant atheists bristle at the mention of the term, decrying it as a pejorative used to insult, denigrate, and even dehumanize unbelievers. A 2011 Psychology Today article titled, “The Myth of Militant Atheism” called the phrase “slander” in spite of the fact that noteworthy public figures such as biologist Richard Dawkins and actor Daniel Radcliffe have applied the terms to themselves.

Perhaps the most obvious characteristic of militant atheism is a pronounced intolerance toward all things religious. While most atheists are good-hearted people—many of whom have no problem with Christianity as long as believers leave them alone and do not try to evangelize them—the most militant unbelievers want no compromise with Christianity. Anything spiritual is considered offensive and intolerable. They condemn belief in a higher power as dangerous, delusional, and a threat to the well-being of humanity.

Second, militant unbelievers usually demonstrate a lack of interest in understanding the religious viewpoints they oppose. Regardless of personal beliefs, most people rarely spend adequate time understanding the opposition, whether political, philosophical, ideological, or spiritual. This is undoubtedly true for atheist apologists, who very rarely have any background in either theology or philosophy and often openly admit to having no interest in learning anything about these subjects. They usually operate on the assumption that the field of religious studies is not one worthy of serious inquiry, and that it is harmful (something easily seen in the title of the NT Times bestselling book God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything).

Third, militant atheists frequently distort history either to disparage Christianity or to redeem the activities of infamous nonbelievers. For example, militant atheists argue that Hitler was a devout Catholic because some of his early speeches contained religious language and he never officially left the Roman Catholic Church. Likewise, they claim Stalin was a devout Christian because he trained briefly in seminary to be an Eastern Orthodox priest. Never mind the fact that these two leaders led regimes that either confiscated the property of or destroyed thousands of churches, and murdered tens of thousands of clergymen. Hitler planned to replace Protestant and Catholic churches with a state-operated Nazi church stripped of any vestige of Christianity. Stalin followed his mentor Vladimir Lenin in forcing atheism onto the Russian people. For many militant atheists, details such as these seem irrelevant.

In the harshest material available, whether in recorded interviews or published books and articles, atheists like Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens offer criticism that is biting, sarcastic, and peppered with insults and offensive language. High-profile atheists such as Dawkins, P. Z. Meyers, and others argue that faith and religion are inherently nonsensical and should be mocked, scorned, and ridiculed. In the view of these thinkers, religion does not deserve any respect and should be stripped of whatever honor it has been accorded.

It is important to note that most atheists do not espouse these hostile views and believe it important to live in harmony with their religious neighbors. Further, the outrageous behavior of militant unbelievers has been denounced even by their fellow atheists. Moderates have often pointed out that some of the most severe denunciations of militant atheism have come from atheists themselves.

Problems with Militant Atheism. Militant atheism is rightly seen as reactionary and undignified. The unbelief of generations past had confidence without condescension, with writers who could engage their opponents with philosophical arguments. This is not the case with the aggressive atheism of the 21st century, which often relies on insults, caricature, and fearmongering.

Perhaps the most apparent problem of militant atheism is the hypocrisy in some of its most outspoken adherents. For instance, numerous writers will denounce the supposed horrors of religious violence, claiming that the Crusades, Spanish Inquisition, and Salem witch trials combined have a body count in the millions (which is demonstrably false). Yet they will neither recognize nor denounce violence from atheistic movements in the last two or three centuries. The French Revolution sparked a reign of terror that violently sought to de-Christianize France in the late eighteenth century. Along with the efforts of Lenin and Stalin, the League of the Militant Godless did something similar in Russia in the mid-1920s to the 1940s in their attempt to eradicate Christianity. Currently, Communist China places strict controls on religion, and its government has increased efforts to curtail Christianity in the 21st century. The government has confiscated Bibles, demolished churches, and replaced posters of Jesus with those of the Chinese president.

A common tactic is the attempt to whitewash history and disconnect atheism from violence and destruction. A popular objection offered is, “But 20th-century dictators didn’t kill in the name of atheism!” This is both true and false. Mass murderers in history did not stand up in front of their nations and credit their unbelief as the specific cause for the policies they implemented. But only a person either very biased or very foolish could believe that atheism was not a primary motivating factor in the horrors perpetrated upon believers.

The Christian Response. Perhaps the Christian response to militant atheism should be the same as our response to any fundamentalist point of view. Militant atheists would take offense at the notion that they have any similarities to radical religious fundamentalists, but even a cursory glance reveals distinct parallels between the two. Both seek to have everyone accept their point of view and work to undermine or eradicate opposing ideologies and see that their worldview becomes the only acceptable one.

Every human being needs the saving grace of God. The common ground between the godless and the religious (including Christians) is that all have sinned and fallen short of his glory (Rom. 3:23). No human being can stand before God on his or her merit. In this sense, both Christians and atheists stand on common ground.

Peter wrote that Christians should be ready to tell others about the hope in Christ that each of us has (1 Pet. 3:15-17). Not only should we be prepared enough to answer questions regarding the faith, but Peter also says that we must do so with gentleness (Prov. 15:1). Christians must be able to tell the difference between those genuinely looking for a real conversation about spiritual matters and others only looking for a fight. In a sense, encounters with militant unbelievers allow the faithful to exercise patience, understanding, and discernment.

Dewayne preaches at the New York Ave. congregation in Arlington, TX.

Christianity As A New Way To Live — Dewayne Bryant, Ph.D.

People today often think of religion as a list of requirements with things to do and other things to avoid. If we surveyed the typical person on the street, they might say that religion is concerned with a person’s behavior. If we were to travel back two thousand years, the average person would give a very different response. Religion in the ancient world focused mainly upon responsibilities involving rituals and religious observances. It had very little to say about a person’s everyday behavior. Interestingly enough, neither definition accurately describes the Christian’s faith.

Christianity represented a bold new way of life built upon the same moral precepts as Judaism. Unlike religions of the time, the teachings of Christ and his inspired apostles prescribed an ethical code normally found only in the work of philosophers. Because of this fact, some scholars believe that Christianity only loosely fits the definition of religion when considered in its first-century context. Simply put, it was a new faith with a revolutionary perspective on the meaning of living.

The Value of Human Life. Compared to those who followed pagan religions of the time, Christianity offered an elevated view of human life. Indeed, Christianity was the world’s first system of belief (or philosophy) that advocated the inherent value of human life. Thus, for the ancients, slaves would be tortured when giving evidence in a trial under the assumption that they would only tell the truth under such conditions. Orphans, slaves, prisoners of war, and anyone with a congenital disability had no claims to human rights.

An especially noteworthy concern was infant exposure. Usually caring people seem to have felt little reluctance about ridding themselves of an unwanted newborn. Around 1 BC, a Roman soldier named Hilarion sent a letter to his pregnant wife. He expresses his tender affection for her, yet also tells her to keep the child if it happened to be a boy, but “cast it out” if it happened to be a girl. It is even more striking when we consider that the fate of these discarded children was often to be picked up by those who would sell them as slaves, many of whom would be put to use as prostitutes in brothels. A few Roman writers argued against infant exposure but made no attempt to stop it. Christian and Jewish writers universally condemned the practice.

Violent Sport. Combat sports are among the earliest in the history of human civilization. Evidence from ancient Sumer indicates the popularity of wrestling in both art and literature. This continued in Greece in various games in the Olympics, where competitors fought with a brutality that would shock most moderns. Boxing matches regularly resulted in serious injury. Pankration—a particularly violent combat sport with almost no rules—ended when one of the combatants either submitted or died.

In the Roman Empire, spectators enjoyed gladiatorial combat. These contests often used slaves captured and trained to fight. Crowds packed ancient arenas to watch gladiators battle one another. While not always lethal, gladiatorial combat featured the violent death of at least some participants. Participants—many of whom were prisoners of war—did not use Roman equipment, but wore armor that signified them as foreigners. This is unsurprising when considered in light of ancient attitudes against those from foreign cultures (contra Lev. 19:33-34; Ps. 146:9; Gal. 3:14, 28).

Human sexuality. One of the most striking concerns of Christianity was an emphasis on the holiness of human sexuality and the expectation of a consistent standard for men and women (1 Cor. 7:2-4). Ancient society held wives to a strict standard of sexual behavior but permitted men in general—including husbands—a great deal of latitude. One famous example of this double standard appears in the fourth century BC Greek orator Demosthenes, in which he says that men have concubines for pleasure, female slaves for daily needs (to express it rather crudely), and wives to produce “legitimate children” and manage the home.

The apostle Paul demands that husbands treat their wives, as well as those of other men, honorably (1 Thess. 4:3-8). He makes this an essential qualification for elders. If his reference to a “man of one woman” (1 Tim. 3:2, 12; Tit. 1:6) is understood in light of the cultural background, then leaders in the church were forbidden to behave as their pagan neighbors, seeking sexual experiences with women other than their own wives (Gen. 1:27; Heb. 13:4). This insistence upon a single standard for sexual behavior both elevated the status of women and underscored the sanctity of the marriage relationship in a culture that gave little thought to men having extramarital sex with slaves and prostitutes. Of all the religions of the ancient world (excepting Judaism), Christianity empowered women with the right to expect fidelity from their husbands.

Christianity’s Universal Standards. Some Roman writers argued for a moral standard that resembled Christianity in many ways. We should expect this to be the case. Every person loves friends and family, admires discipline and charity, and hopes to see justice prevail when injustices occur. The important difference here, however, is that ancient writers did not argue for universal acceptance of the principles they advocated. This expectation seems to have applied to their students specifically. Christians expected everyone to be treated equally as every person, regardless of the culture in which they live, serves as an image-bearer of God.

The New Testament prescribes a life of distinction. The Christian life must be characterized by moral excellence and in a way that noticeable to others. Jesus made this clear when describing believers using the metaphors of salt and light (Matt. 5:13-16). Christians should conduct themselves so that they not only reflect the glory of Christ (1 Cor. 10:31) but so that they attract others to live the same glorious life.

Dewayne is a minister at the New York Ave. Church of Christ in Arlington, TX. He serves as a staff writer for Apologetics Press and the Apologia Institute, and as a professional associate for the Associates for Biblical Research.

A Bookish Faith — Dewayne Bryant, Ph.D.

Christianity demonstrates many distinctive features when compared with other world religions. One of those features is its “bookish” nature (a term frequently used by New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado). Early Christians valued texts more highly—and used them much more often—than any other religion at the time except Judaism. It is perhaps because of Christianity that we tend to identify religions according to their sacred texts, which was virtually unheard of in antiquity.

Roman religions focused on activities or performances, usually consisting of making offerings or sacrifices to the gods. People liked receiving divine favors, and they thought of their gods as enjoying gifts provided by their worshippers. If people wanted to express thanks for something the deity had done, they might leave a gift (such as a votive object) in the temple to show their thanks. Religions also featured temples, altars, shrines, sacred places, and images of the gods. Texts made little if any contribution to the worship of the Roman gods.

Early Christians emphasized texts. This has caused some scholars to question whether Christianity could even be called a “religion” by Roman standards. While they practiced religious activities such as baptism and the Lord’s Supper, they did not have other items traditionally used by other religious groups. Biblical Christianity has no altars, temples, shrines, and the like. Unlike their pagan counterparts, Christians regularly read texts as part of worship. The only other group to do so were Jews in the synagogue (cf. Luke 4:16-21; Acts 13:14-15; 15:21).

The production of texts can only be described as impressive. Other religions had myths concerning their gods, but virtually nothing we would call “scripture.” Mithraism, for example, is a Roman mystery cult which appears in the historical record shortly after the founding of the church. It has almost no textual or inscriptional evidence, leaving scholars to wonder about a great many things the early worshippers of Mithras believed and taught. In contrast, Christians wrote voluminously. In the first three centuries of the church, believers had authored over 200 different compositions. Only a select portion produced by the inspired writers would be counted as Scripture, but it does highlight the textual nature of early Christianity.

The production and dissemination of texts further show the interconnectedness of Christians. While different versions of gods might be worshipped in various locations, the early Christians seem focused on the importance of consistent belief (2 Tim. 1:13-14; 2:24-26; Tit. 1:9-11; 2:1). The apostle Paul required faithful Christians to transmit sound doctrine accurately (2 Tim. 2:2). Not only did it properly equip the faithful (2 Tim. 3:15-17), it communicated the means of salvation (Eph. 1:13; 1 Tim. 4:16). Further, the biblical authors instructed their fellow Christians to earnestly contend for the faith (Jude 3), because any tampering with the truth would lead to dire consequences (Rev. 22:18-19; see also Deut. 4:2; Prov. 30:6).

The books of the New Testament were given to many different churches for reading. Paul tells the church in Colossae to share his writings with the church in Laodicea and vice versa (Col. 4:16). He sends his epistle to the Galatians not to one congregation but the “churches of Galatia” (Gal. 1:2). Paul may have intended his letter to the Romans to include more than one congregation (Rom. 1:7). Most famously, the book of Revelation was meant to be read by the seven churches of Asia (Rev. 1:4). This emphasis upon sharing texts seems to have been intended not only to foster a sense of community but to ensure that Christians had a consistent doctrine.

A particularly interesting feature of the New Testament books is their sheer size. Letters in the ancient world could be quite short. The longest letter composed by the Roman orator Cicero’s is 2,350 words, while the Roman philosopher Seneca’s longest is 4,134 words. Both of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians exceed these lengths, with his letter to the Romans consisting of an impressive 7,101 words. Even the relatively short letter to Philemon was quite long by Roman standards. This probably explains Paul’s comment about others considering his letters to be “weighty” (2 Cor. 10:10)—it was probably a comment more on their size than their contents. While philosophers did use letters to communicate their teachings, no other individual or group did so like Paul and the other New Testament authors.

Finally, passages in the New Testament make it clear that the books carried authority. Paul intended his letters to serve as authorities when he could not be present himself (1 Cor. 14:37-38). The apostle Peter included a reference to the authority of Paul’s letters, placing them in the same category as “the other Scriptures” (2 Pet. 3:15-16). When using this term, New Testament authors generally refer to the books of the Hebrew Bible. In other words, within his lifetime Paul’s writings had been accorded the same status as the books that God-fearers had considered inspired for many centuries.

Unlike other world religions of the time — and even some today — Christianity has always been a faith concerned with Scripture. The value that Christians ascribed their texts is indicated by the massive number available in light of the time, effort, and expense involved in copying these documents. In spite of the substantial cost, believers reproduced these texts because of their central importance to the faith. This should impress upon modern believers a sense of awe at the very fact that Bibles are so readily available to Christians in the West. It should also concern us whenever someone emphasizes opinions or feelings over the Word of God. Christians considered their Scriptures indispensably precious for life and faith. So should we.

Dewayne is a minister at the New York Ave. Church of Christ in Arlington, TX.

Christianity And The History Of Human Dignity — Dewayne Bryant, Ph.D.

Moderns in the West often take the inherent dignity and worth of human beings for granted. We assume that recognizing the value of another person is intrinsic to humanity—or believe that it should be. We are shocked and outraged by human rights violations in nations around the world and crusade for fundamental rights for every individual. After all, the Founding Fathers enshrined the “unalienable rights” of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in America’s consciousness through the Declaration of Independence. Not everyone realizes that this perspective is largely the product of a Christian worldview.

Before the emergence of Christianity, recognition of human dignity was incredibly uncommon. The devaluation of foreigners, women, and different ethnic groups occurred with a frequency that might surprise many moderns. Even in the 20th century, some groups living in nations whose governments were mostly non-Christian or anti-Christian enjoyed far fewer rights than those living in nations influenced by the Judeo-Christian tradition.

The value of human life in Scripture stems from mankind’s creation by God. Not only is humanity the apex of God’s creative activities, but we are also the only creations who bear his image (Gen. 1:27). Elsewhere, Scripture states that humanity was created with status only slightly lower than that of angels (Ps. 8:5). Unsurprisingly, the Bible’s view of humanity is often quite higher than that of other worldviews both ancient and modern.

Partiality and Favoritism

Using unequal standards in the treatment of others is nearly as old as time itself. In the ancient world, social status was often a determining factor in punishments for criminal behavior. In the ancient Near East, various law codes prescribed different consequences for the offender based on the social status of the victim. To commit a crime against someone of high-ranking status brought more severe penalties than one committed against a slave. Elsewhere in history, the creation of ranks of nobility and aristocracy have often led to the differing treatment of individuals under the law. Money and power have long been used to either purchase or avoid justice.

In Christ, God revealed himself to mankind in the form of a Jew at a time when anti-Semitism was present in the Roman world. He took the form of someone of relatively low social standing, instead of the triumphant monarchial figure his contemporaries expected. He served not as a ruler but as a slave, washing feet when his disciples refused to do so (John 13:1-17) and setting the standard for service for all who would follow him (Matt. 23:11).

Early church history continued the same focus. For example, the third-century work Didascalia Apostolorum forbade a bishop to interrupt the service to greet a person of high social standing, yet also commanded him to see that a pauper would not have to sit on the floor. This echoes the insistence of James that favoritism due to social or economic status is forbidden (Jas. 2:1-13).

Infanticide

Infants were considered expendable under certain conditions in the Roman Empire. After its birth, a midwife would lay the child at the feet of its father. By picking up the child, the father signaled its acceptance into the family. If he did not—likely because it had some visible deformity or was female—the child would be left outside in a remote place or on a trash heap. The child would either die from exposure or wild animals or be taken by slavers for sale. Roman writers such as Cicero and Seneca noted physical weakness or deformity as the deciding factor in whether to keep a child (De Legibus 3.8 and De Ira 1.15, respectively).

Jesus taught the value of children. When the disciples tried to wave away children wanting to see Jesus, he told them, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:14). In a time where children had secondary status, Jesus uses them as a model of faith.

The early church viewed abortion as murder. The Didache instructed Christians not to procure an abortion or kill a newborn child (2.2). Justin Martyr also prohibited the exposure of children (Apology 1.27). Minucius Felix also forbade infanticide, stating that some exposed children to wild animals, while others strangled newborn infants or took abortifacients to kill them in the womb (Octavius 30.1-3).

The Greco-Roman world did not have a monopoly on infanticide. It appears throughout history in many cultures. The modern form of this is, of course, abortion. Countries such as China, India, Pakistan, and other nations throughout the Middle and Far East, have an extremely high male-to-female ratio in the population, with sex-selective abortion thought to play a significant role in this discrepancy (the same spirit was common in antiquity, where families typically kept only one female child). Some estimate that there are more than 100 million “missing” women from the combined populations of these areas today due to female infanticide. Nearly 60 million babies have been aborted in the United States since Roe v. Wade in 1973.

Misogyny

Although it is fashionable among critics to claim that Christianity is an inherently misogynistic religion, a comparison with the Greco-Roman culture of the first century shows clear differences between the two. Roman writings often refer to the infirmity of the female sex (infirmitas sexus) and the fickleness of the female mind (levitas animi). It seems that women’s testimony in court was viewed as unreliable, and Roman society held wives to a double standard concerning marital fidelity (cf. 1 Tim. 3:2). The culture expected unflagging faithfulness from wives. While philandering husbands could have mistresses and hire the services of prostitutes, women in the time of emperor Augustus could be banished for marital infidelity.

In contrast, the Bible view women as having a worth equal to men. Paul eliminates cultural/racial, socio-economic, and gender qualifications concerning who may be a follower of Christ (Gal. 3:28), which may have been prompted by a particular Jewish blessing that possibly dates to the first century AD. This prayer thanked God that the one praying was not made a Gentile, ignorant, or a woman (Tosefta Berakoth 7:18). We cannot miss the fact, however, that many Christian men have not been as quick to adopt a biblical view of women in history.

Later religions, such as Islam, hold a far dimmer view of women than people in ancient Rome. The Qur’an states, “Allah permits you to shut them in separate rooms and to beat them, but not severely. If they abstain, they have the right to food and clothing. Treat women well for they are like domestic animals and they possess nothing themselves. Allah has made the enjoyment of their bodies lawful in his Qur’an” (Sura 9:113). No matter how we interpret this passage, we cannot come away with much that is positive by comparing women to livestock who may be beaten into submission and whose existence is to serve the pleasures of their husbands.

Unbelievers and Outsiders

Humanity has always struggled with “the other.” Historically, the division between races has been a significant problem for various religions. Particularly noteworthy is Islam’s historic call for the destruction of Jews (Sahih Al-Muslim Book 41, Number 6985; cf. Sura 5:51, 54), a mantra often repeated in the Middle East today. It is not difficult to find examples of Muslim authorities teaching that Jews are the descendants of apes and pigs—a charge which does not appear in the Qur’an but can be found in Muslim writings dating back to the Medieval Period.

Other faiths have also espoused less enlightened views. After the death of Joseph Smith, Jr., the Mormon church barred anyone of African descent from the Mormon priesthood. This decision was reversed — conveniently enough — at the same time as the Civil Rights Movement. The Nation of Islam makes it clear that anyone of Jewish or Caucasian ancestry is a wicked creation of an evil scientist named Yakub just over 6,000 years ago. Some smaller fringe religious traditions and cultic movements sometimes have similar beliefs, such as identifying the mark of Cain (Genesis 4:15) or curse of Canaan (Genesis 9:25-27) as darker-colored skin.

In the New Testament, we see Jesus’ willingness to seek out individuals such as the Samaritan woman and Zacchaeus the tax collector (John 4:1-26; Luke 19:1-10), and his willingness to make the same kinds of individuals into righteous figures worthy of imitation in some of his parables (Luke 10:30-37; 18:9-14). Other examples appear in the Hebrew Bible (1 Kings 17:8-24; 2 Kings 5:1-14). Jesus’ ministry involved calling not the righteous, but sinners, to repentance (Luke 5:32), which included no qualifications regarding culture or ethnicity.

For Christians, one of the distinctive features of the gospel is its availability to all. The Bible recognizes no inferior human beings based on criteria commonly employed in discrimination against others. While this may have been an evil from the beginning of civilization, it has no place among God’s people. We celebrate the church’s rich diversity and see every human being as a unique living sculpture crafted by the Master Artist.

Dewayne is a minister at the New York Ave. Church of Christ in Arlington, TX. He serves as a staff writer for Apologetics Press and the Apologia Institute, and as a professional associate for the Associates for Biblical Research.

A Different Kind Of Faith — Dewayne Bryant, Ph.D.

The uniqueness of Christianity sets it apart from other world religions. At times, believers have received ill treatment ranging from simple ridicule to outright persecution. In the first century, Christianity appeared as a faith different from anything the Roman Empire had ever seen. Although many differences emerge upon close examination, Christians differed from their religious neighbors in three significant areas: their worship of one God, the promotion of morals, and religious practice.

Exclusive Worship of One God. Christians differed sharply from their pagan neighbors in worshiping only one God at the exclusion of all others. The Romans had no problem with Christians worshipping God as long as they paid respect to the gods of Rome. Pagans saw early Christians’ refusal to do so as both bizarre and intolerable. Christians acquired the reputation of being seditious, divisive, and dangerous to the well-being of the empire.

The Romans tolerated Jew’s insistence upon worshipping Yahweh alone because of the antiquity of the Jewish faith. As a recent development with no ties to any particular ethnicity or nation (Gal. 3:28b), Christian beliefs found little sympathy. The Romans saw the exclusive worship of one God as unprecedented and unjustifiable.

Promotion of Morals and Ethics. Christianity is not merely a religion of theological tenets and beliefs but prescribes distinctive ethical teachings. The typical person in the ancient world made little if any connection between religion and morals—this was the domain of philosophy. The religious were interested in placating the gods and warding off unwanted attention from vengeful spirits. Christianity offered a moral and ethical system of belief designed to imitate God’s holiness and righteousness (Eph. 5:1-14). Indeed, ancient religion had little interest in emulating the gods, whose behavior was often deplorable if not criminal.

Religious Practice. Religious activities made up a significant part of the fabric of daily life. Christianity differed from paganism in that it had no altar, sacrifices, depictions of God, shrines or temples, or priesthood (at least, not how pagans understood them; cf. 1 Cor. 6:19; 1 Pet. 2:5). Temples could often be found in the heart of the city, and shrines and altars could be seen throughout (e.g., Acts 17:16). Rome expected its citizens to worship the gods, which Christians in good conscience could not do.

With an abundance of opportunities for showing the necessary reverence to the gods, Christians must have had a difficult time navigating society. In the modern world, concealing one’s Christian faith is relatively simple; in the Roman Empire, such a thing would have been almost impossible. Living out the faithful Christian life was not only a matter of choice but of consistency. New Testament writers commended the perseverance of the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 1:2-7) and the Ephesians (Rev. 2:2-3) for their resolute faith under challenging circumstances.

The behavior of the early Christians must have left their neighbors befuddled. The disdain and even hostility of the Romans toward early believers is proof of the distinctiveness of the Christian faith. It differed from both the traditional religions of the classical world and the mystery cults. In spite of the consequences they suffered for their faith, Christians lived their lives as a “peculiar people” (1 Pet. 2:9). They weathered the efforts other others in their day to compromise their distinctiveness and conform to popular attitudes toward religion. They serve as a model for those today who still seek to imitate Christ and bring the light of life to a darkened world (2 Cor. 4:6-11).

Dewayne is a minister at the New York Ave. Church of Christ in Arlington, TX. He serves as a staff writer for Apologetics Press and the Apologia Institute, and as a professional associate for the Associates for Biblical Research.