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My Original Passion for the Bible

I have been talking about the areas of New Testament studies that were emphasized in my Masters and PhD programs at Princeton Theological Seminary, back in the late 70s and early to mid 80s.  It was a long program, even though I sped through it a couple of years faster than most of my colleagues.  The Masters program was three years (that is typical for a masters of divinity degree); my PhD was four years (most of my friends took five to seven).   That’s full time work, for all those seven years.   It’s a lot! Most of the training that most of my friends/colleagues had was in New Testament exegesis and theology, as I’ve described.  My passions lay elsewhere, and my plan is to talk a little about them.  But it just occurred to me this morning that my *original* interest in the New Testament was in fact exegesis and theology, even though I would not have used those terms for it. I had been mildly interested in the Bible even as a child.  Very [...]

Two Versions of Constantine’s Vision

In this thread I am discussing the conversion of the emperor Constantine to Chrsitianity.  I have already given the political and military background to his conversion, and said something about his religious affiliations prior to converting.  Now I can begin to address what we know about the conversion itself. We have three principal sources of information for the vision(s) of Constantine that led to the conversion.  The first comes to us in a flattering speech – known as a panegyric – delivered by an anonymous orator in 310 CE, before Constantine had initiated his final actions against Maxentius.  The speech was occasioned by a military victory in a skirmish with Maxentius’s father, brought out of retirement, Maximian.  As was always the case with panegyrics, the speaker had himself written his address and made it entirely sycophantic.   Such speeches were designed to praise the recipient as one of the greatest human beings the universe has ever seen, as revealed by the subject’s activities and experiences.  It is in the context of celebrating Constantine’s marvelous character that [...]

2020-04-03T03:29:23-04:00July 20th, 2016|Constantine, Fourth-Century Christianity|

Constantine Before His Conversion

We have comparatively excellent sources for Constantine’s adult life, including his own writings, laws he enacted, a biography written about him by the fourth-century Christian bishop of Caesarea and “father of church history” Eusebius, and other contemporary reports.  But we are handicapped when it comes to his life prior to his accession to the throne, including his religious life.  For this we have very slim records.  We do know he was born in the northern Balkans, and so it can be assumed that he originally participated in local indigenous religions that would have included such deities as the Thracian rider-gods, divine beings astride horses.   As was true of all citizens in the empire, he would also have participated in civic religious festivals, including the cults worshiping the deceased Roman emperors. The Roman army too had its deities of choice, and as a soldier and then commander Constantine would have worshiped these as well. What we don’t know is how well informed he was of Christianity in the years before his conversion.   His mother, Helena... THE [...]

2020-04-04T15:24:45-04:00July 19th, 2016|Constantine, Fourth-Century Christianity, Public Forum|

Constantine and the Battle at the Milvian Bridge

As I indicated in my previous post, when Constantine had been acclaimed emperor by his troops in Britain (at the city of York) in 306 CE (upon the death of his father Constantius), it was taken as a license for Maxentius to assume power in Rome.   The reason is this.  Diocletian, as we have seen, had tried to move the empire to a new system of governance, the Tetrarchy, in which four leaders, all chosen for their experience and skills, would rule.  When a senior member in the East or West retired or died, the junior Caesar serving under him would be elevated and the senior A Augustus would choose, then, the new junior replacement. But Constantine was acclaimed – or so it was thought or claimed – not because he had been appointed but because he was the son of the outgoing Augustus.  In other words, his accession came not because of a decision of the Augustus but because of birth.  It was succession by the dynasty principle, precisely what Diocletian had tried to [...]

2020-04-03T03:29:51-04:00July 18th, 2016|Constantine, Fourth-Century Christianity, Public Forum|

More on Numbers of Converts

In case you didn’t read the post of yesterday, I include the final two paragraphs here.  Skip them if you remember what I said.  The issue I’m dealing with is how much and how fast did the Christian church grow over the first four centuries.   I would very much like your feedback, and if you’re a numbers person, I would love it if you would check my calculations to see if I’m making any egregious errors.   All of this is lifted, again, from a rough draft of ch. 6 of my book on the Christianization of the Roman Empire ****************************************************** Thus it appears that the beginning of the Christian movement saw a veritable avalanche of conversions.  Possibly many of these are the direct result of the missionary activities of Paul.  But there may have been other missionaries like him who were also successful.   And so let’s simply pick a sensible rate of growth, and say that for the first forty years, up to the time when Paul wrote his last surviving letter, the church grew [...]

Back to the Question of How Many People Converted

I want to return to the question of how quickly the Christian church grew in the first four centuries.  This will be part of chapter 6 of my book on the Triumph of Christianity.   If you want a fuller background to what I say in this post and the one to follow, see my earlier musings on May 16 of this year, at In two posts I’m going to lay out what I think we can say both about how many people became Christian and at approximately what rate.  For those of you who are math whizzes, I would love for you to check my calculations to see if I’m making mistakes.  For everyone I would love to hear your comments on my claims and hypotheses.   This is a draft of that part of my chapter, with part two to come tomorrow.  As you will see, I begin in medias res. *************************************************************** As a result of these considerations, I want to suggest some minor tweaks in the way we understand the rate of Christian [...]

Paul’s Converted Vision of Himself

To make sense of how Paul’s conversion affected his actual life, not just his theology, it is important to recall what I said about how it did affect his theology.  I repeat the key paragraph from yesterday’s post before drawing the further even more far-reaching conclusion. To be members of God’s covenantal people, it is not necessary for gentiles to become Jews.  They do not need to be circumcised, observe the Sabbath, keep kosher, or any of the rest.  They need to believe in the death and resurrection of the messiah Jesus.   This was an earth-shattering realization for Paul.   Prior to this, the followers of Jesus – the first Christians – were of course Jews who understood that he was the messiah who had died and been raised from the dead.  But they knew this as the act of the Jewish God given to the Jewish people.  Certainly gentiles could find this salvation as well.  But first they had to be Jewish.  Not for Paul.  Jew or gentile, it didn’t matter.  What mattered was faith [...]

2020-04-03T03:33:15-04:00June 20th, 2016|Paul and His Letters, Public Forum|

What Paul’s Conversion Meant

In my previous posts I talked about Paul’s life up to his conversion and the conversion experience itself.  Now, for two posts, I want to talk about what the conversion actually *meant* to Paul, particularly in terms of how it affected both his thinking and his life (which, for Paul, were very closely related to one another).  His thinking involved his theology and his subsequent life involved missionary work as the newly minted apostle of Jesus with a distinctive message. It is easiest to understand Paul’s subsequent missionary activities and evangelistic message by realizing how an appearance of the living Jesus would force him from “fact” to “implications.”  (I’ve discussed some of this on the blog before, but indulge me for a bit: I’m trying to clarify in my own mind exactly how I’m imagining all this…) For him the “fact” was that Jesus was alive again (it was a “fact” for him because he had seen Jesus alive three years after he had died).   And from that fact Paul started reasoning backwards.  This backward [...]

2017-11-06T21:22:37-05:00June 19th, 2016|Paul and His Letters, Public Forum|

The Conversion of Paul

My book on the “Triumph of Christianity” will deal with how and why people converted to the Christian faith.   (As I think I’ve said, unlike some scholars I have no problem calling the earliest followers of Jesus who came to believe in his resurrection “Christian.”)   The best known and most important conversion was Paul.   Seeing how/why he converted is a key for understanding his own subsequent mission to convert gentiles to the faith.  Here is my current thinking on the issue To start with, it is impossible to know either what led up to Paul’s conversion or what exactly happened at the time.   We do have a narrative description in the book of Acts, and it is this description that provides the popular images of Paul seeing a blinding light on the road to Damascus, falling from his horse, and hearing the voice of Jesus asking “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me” (Acts 9:1-19).   The account of Acts 9 is retold by Paul in both chapter 22 and chapter 29.  The historical problems it [...]

2020-04-03T03:33:31-04:00June 16th, 2016|Paul and His Letters, Public Forum|
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