Advent 4 -Thomas and the Historical Jesus

24 Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” 26 Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him,“Have you believed because you have seen me?Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” – John 20:24-29 (ESV)

Columbus Day is one of my favorite holidays.  Not that I enjoy the celebrations (what celebrations?).  I get a kick out of the fact that our post offices, government and banks take the day off to commemorate the man who did not discover America.  And then there is George Washington and the cherry tree.  “I cannot tell a lie,” the young future general and president is quoted as saying.  History and myth so often intertwine that, over the years, it can be hard to discern the two.

Even Christmas itself is an inaccuracy.  Historians claim that Jesus was, most likely, not born in December, let alone December 25.  The day we celebrate Christmas is, according to some historians, the Christian adoption of Saturnalia, a week-long Roman celebration of the god Saturn that was held from December 17 to 23 each year.

Historians even managed to get the year of Christ’s birth wrong.  Allegedly.  Which is a shame because our calendar is based, in large part, on the year of Jesus’ birth (originally 1 A.D., with all years before marked B.C. [before Christ] and after noted as A.D. [Anno Domini, “the year of our Lord”]).  Historical birth date claims vary.  Some think Herod died in 4 B.C., which would historically place Jesus’ death around 6 B.C.  Some historians try to tie the Star of Bethlehem with certain astounding astronomical anomalies that would date the birth of Jesus as either October of 7 B.C., or June of 2 B.C. – two dates that do not jive with Herod’s 4 B.C. death date.

In the end, does any of this amount to a hill of beans?  We view history from a much different point-of-view than people did 2000 years ago.  We are much more involved in the data – facts, figures, documentation, proof, artifacts, carbon-dating.  In Jesus’ time, the facts were important.  But far more important was the story.  History was recorded with an eye toward getting the meaning right.  It didn’t matter that Matthew may not be chronologically perfect.  He was making a point about Jesus, and the scenes recorded in the Gospels are arranged to make that point.  It doesn’t make them inaccurate or wrong.  It just makes them more narrative.

Humans like assurance.  We need the false sense of security that information provides.  We want to know all the facts, exactly and accurately. Otherwise we will tend to doubt what is being presented to us.  Essentially, we have the same problem Thomas had.  “Unless I see Him with my own two eyes – see the nail holes on His hands and stick my hand in the pierced wound in His side, I will not believe.”  Jesus response: “Blessed are those who have not seen and still believe.”

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1, ESV).  And faith – not data – is the base for understanding.  Take a moment and read Hebrews 11 to get a better of grasp of how – and why – it is better to base our beliefs on what God – you know, The Great I AM THAT I AM, Existence Himself – has to say as opposed to what educated humans “discover”.

And God, in His infinite understanding, kindness and mercy – doesn’t just leave us hanging with a simple “trust Me, I am God”.  He gave us His Word.  In the Bible, we are told all we need to know (and we live on a need to know basis).

So, how can we trust the Bible to be right?  Well… it takes faith.  Believing is knowing based on what God says, not what we think we have figured out.  And, as for the trustworthiness of the Bible… well, there’s our cliffhanger.  We’ll pick this up again next time.

In the meantime, if some historian somewhere could just find Jesus’ birth certificate, we could get an awful lot of confusion straightened out.  Or it could just stir the pot even more.

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