Wednesday, December 19, 2012
BA: Hello, this is Brian Auten of Apologetics 315. Today I interview Historian Paul Maier. Dr. Maier is the Russell H. Seibert professor of Ancient History at Western Michigan University, and much published author of both scholarly and popular works. His historical studies are in Ancient Near East, Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, Christianity and the Roman Empire, and the Reformation era. His scholarly works include Josephus, The Essential Works, that’s a new translation and commentary on writings of the 1st century Jewish historian, and Eusebius: The Church History. And that’s a similar book on the first Christian historian. He has also authored a number of books on Christmas and Easter including, In the Fullness of Time: A Historian looks at Christmas, Easter and the Early Church, The Very First Christmas, and The Very First Easter.
I’m interested in speaking with Dr. Maier today about the historicity of Jesus and the first Christmas. Well, thanks for speaking with me today Dr. Maier.
PLM: Glad to be on with you Brian.
BA: Now, before we get started talking about historical issues could you tell me a little bit more about your background as a historian?
PLM: OK, I’m a professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University, which is in the southwestern corner of Michigan; a place called Kalamazoo—believe it or not there is such a place. And I’ve been teaching here for 49 and a half years. And I’ll probably hang it up this coming April.
BA: You’re also a prolific author and you’ve written a lot of scholarly works but also popular historical fiction, from children to adults; so you cover things like Christmas, Easter, the first Christians and the early church. So would you mind telling me what is your main goal behind historical fiction and your overall purpose when you’re writing?
PLM: Well, I was so antagonized by the fact that so many historical novelists barely salute the facts and then ride off half-cocked in the direction of their own imagination and then history suffers so badly in historical novels. Like characters who never lived show up, people who actually lived are killed off too soon or whatever else so they make mayhem of history itself. Well, whoever said it first said it best, truth is stranger than fiction; there’s no question about it. So if you told what really happened it’s far more interesting and far more intriguing than trying to use creative transposition of the facts.
So, I did two historical novels that were extremely accurate. I laid down three rules for myself. The first is that every personality in the novel really lived and that was his or her name. Secondly, I never contradict known historical fact. Third, only where all the facts quit do I then provide presumptive, connective synthesized history, we might say. For instance, Pontius Pilate is one of the books. He was in Judea for ten years and I assumed during that time, since his wife was along, he would have talked to her. And so, OK, I supplied the dialogue so that’s why it has to be called a novel. But, 95% of that particular book is fact and so was its follow-up The Flames of Rome in which I finish off Luke’s wonderful story in the book of Acts, about what happens when Paul gets to Rome. He kind of leaves us hanging and so then I complete the story on the basis of the really very careful research into the catacombs in terms of the earliest Christian Fathers and so on. So really what I serve up in my historical novels are 95% fact.
BA: Well, that’s fascinating. Basically you’re saying that if you read one of your historical novels that you’re not going to be misled, you’re not going to come away with this distorted caricature or inaccurate picture of the events. You’ll have a reasonable idea of a lot of these blanks being filled in.
PLM: Well exactly and this is a way that the reader can learn history painlessly. You know, be entertained in the process and then learn history at the same time.
BA: Tell me a couple of the different books that you’ve written that take this historical novel approach.
PLM: Well, the first is Pontius Pilate, which is of course the story of the most important trial that was ever held in history and the judge who presided there. We have so many passion stories of course looking at the Roman tribunals of the Christian, or the view point as though we’re standing in Jesus’ sandals. And I thought that it was very important to try it the other way around and see what the Roman laws were governing such a trial as took place on Good Friday. And what about the punishment? There are all sorts of details that can be filled in from the other side. And that’s what I tried to do in the Pontius Pilate project. In the case of The Flames of Rome, again Luke breaks off. That’s the other book, The Flames of Rome. Luke breaks off with chapter 28 where Paul gets to Rome and he’s there for two years waiting for a trial before Nero, and it hasn’t happened yet so Luke doesn’t report it. So I really went into Luke’s story there. The first working title for that book was “Acts Twenty-nine.” Ha! But only biblical scholars like yourself would have figured that out. So those are the only two that I’ve written that are totally documented historical novels is the way I put it. Then I’ve also written popular novels too.
BA: Well, I want to hop right over to more of a hot topic right now. We’ll come back to some of your books and things a little bit later. Right away I want to talk about the historicity of Jesus because some people, notably those that are a new atheist bent, might say something along the lines of, “Well we don’t know that Jesus even existed.” Or they might say, “Jesus, if he existed…” and then they’ll go on and say something about him. But what do you as an historian specializing in this area have to say when you hear that sort of assertion?
PLM: Well anybody who is using that argument is simply flaunting his ignorance. I hate to say it but it’s about that bad. We have more documentation on Jesus Christ than anybody in the ancient world as far as that’s concerned. There is no question whatever in the mind of any serious scholar, anywhere in the world that there certainly was a historical personality named Jesus of Nazareth. Now you can argue about whether he was the Son of God or not, you can argue about the supernatural aspects of his life, but in terms of the historical character there is absolutely no evidence to the contrary and all the evidence is in the favor. And the evidence that I think is very important is the material outside the Christian sources, outside of the Bible, because if you wanted to get into a debate with people who doubt that Jesus existed you can’t simply wave the bible at them. You’ve got to begin where they are. And I have no trouble doing that. I know of quite a few places where the name is mentioned outside Christian sources in the 1st century after the death and resurrection of Jesus and they’re unimpeachable. And I just can’t stand the computer blogs and so many other would-be authorities trying to use this argument. It’s a wretched short-cut in terms of trying to demote Jesus and I guess the greatest insult of all is, he’s only a myth, he never lived. Well, that’s simply ridiculous on the face of the facts.
BA: Well, a lot of people are going to be watching television programs—and you know it comes on right at Christmas time or right at Easter time—and its always going to be all the stuff about Jesus that you didn’t realize, or kind of watering it down, or changing what we as Christians would normally see as the basic time line of his life and the things that he did. Many of us are not going to be historians and haven’t looked into this stuff very deeply. But how can someone who wants to be discerning when they’re watching programs like this put on some good critical thinking, and what sort of things should they be listening to? What sort of questions should they be asking when they’re hearing assertions and re-tellings if you will?
PLM: Well, first of all I would avoid the phrase “most scholars claim that” or something like that. Very often you have these fringe groups who try to get a broader support for their peculiar notions by invoking the idea that “the balance of critical scholarship today claims that…” Well, watch out for a phrase like that because it’s usually not true at all. What is true is the fact that we have an unimpeachable series of sources, both inside and outside the New Testament, which absolutely guarantees that there was a human individual named Jesus of Nazareth. I refer to six major sources outside the scripture that—I think I ought to list those Brian, because they’re very important for a Christians of seekers to know and then they can look it up themselves. May I?
BA: Yes please!
PLM: Okay. Well, first of all let’s consider the Roman sources. Tacitus. Cornelius Tacitus was a very important author of events in the 1st century in Rome. He gives a year by year account of what happened in Rome and it’s very very valuable to historians for getting timelines straight. For the year 64AD, Tacitus reports that the great fire of Rome broke out, and in the month of July, and it burned much of central Rome and it was a horrible catastrophe. Because they didn’t have TV reporters in those days, Nero got blamed for it, even though he’s probably innocent. He was giving a concert that night 35 miles away from Rome. But never mind, they blamed Nero and his throne is tottering. And so to save himself, he blames the Christians Tacitus writes. That’s the first time they show up chronologically on the Roman stage. So careful historian that he is, Tacitus tells us who the Christians are. They’re named for a Christ who is crucified by one of our governors Pontius Pilate. And he goes on to tell what happened to the Christians, how they were persecuted. So that’s one very famous reference.
Second, Suetonius his name is. S U E T O N I U S. Suetonius writes a history of the lives of the twelve Caesars running from Julius Caesar through Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero all the way up to the Flavian emperors the last one who was Domitian. And he very carefully gives us a full life story of each of these emperors and then under the reign of Claudius he says there was a riot in the trans-Tibur area region 14 of Rome where there was a big Jewish establishment. He says there was a riot in the Jewish quarter over the claims of Christ.
Pliny the Younger, he’s governor of Bithynia, this is northwestern corner of what is Turkey today. And he writes around year 110 to the emperor Trajan and he says, “what do I do about these Christians?” They get up early Sunday morning and they sing hymns to Christ as if he were a God! Well, there’s a third reference.
Then we have a reference to Jesus of course in the rabbinical traditions of the Jews. We would expect to find some reference to Jesus in writings by his own people. And then in the earliest section of the Talmud we have the section called the Mishnah. And then in a famous passage in the Mishnah Tractate called Sanhedrin, verse 43A, we have the arrest notice of Jesus. It goes like this, Wanted “Jesus of Nazareth” in Aramaic. “He shall be stoned because he practices sorcery and lured Israel into apostasy” and so on.
Then we have two very famous references to Jesus in Flavius Josephus. Now I hope your hearers know about Josephus because he’s so very, very important. He was born in the city of Jerusalem four years after Jesus’ crucifixion and he gives us a full history of the Jewish people from creation all the way to the fall of Jerusalem. And he was adopted by the imperial family of the Flavians in Rome, which underwrote his literary endeavors. And therefore he was abler to give us a record which is twenty eight times as long as a single gospel. And here we get all the delicious detail that we would love to know about biblical personalities and figures. And then he talks for example about Pontius Pilate, the governor on Good Friday. He gives us three or four major episodes in Pilate’s life and career that help explain what’s going on on Good Friday. We have the two references to Jesus, one is right in the middle of Pilate’s administration and I’ll talk about that one in a second. But then two books later he talks about what happened to James the Just of Jerusalem, Jesus’ half-brother. He was stoned to death by the Sanhedrin. That passage has never been disputed so that’s the sixth time now that we have a reference to Jesus in a major source outside the scriptures within a century of Jesus’ death.
Now back to that famous references to Jesus in Antiquities 18, of course immediately opponents of Christianity will focus on this one because it’s been interpolated. The passage claims that Jesus was more than a man, that he did miracles, that he was crucified, died and rose again, that he was the messiah and so forth… something that a Jew could never have written without converting to Christianity and so usually Christian pastors at seminary are told not to use that passage because it had been interpolated. Well the great good news is that we have now de-interpolated it, if there is such a word, because the manuscript tradition of Josephus that was discovered by a Jewish professor in Israel is the real version and it is not interpolated and is a very I think fair outside view of who Jesus was. And in my translation of Josephus I incorporate that right back into the text where it belongs. And it’s a very fair outside view of who Jesus was by somebody who doesn’t necessarily believe in him but nevertheless regards him as a historical personality.
And it goes something like this, “About this time there was a wise man whose name was Jesus and he was known to be good and do works of justice. Many people among the Jews and other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die, but those who would become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he appeared to them on the third day returned to life. Accordingly he was perhaps the messiah, concerning whom the prophets have reported wonders. And the tribe of the Christians so named after him have not disappeared to the present day.” So this is a very solid, restored version of what Josephus actually wrote. In other words, even from non-biblical evidence we have all the evidence we need there was a historical personality named Jesus.
BA: So, you could say that if there was someone who would say, raise the objection that Jesus didn’t exist, or we can’t know anything about his life, they’re basically out to lunch and we should play this audio for them?
PLM: Absolutely! Absolutely! And I’m willing to challenge anyone on earth in terms of whether there was a historical Jesus. There’s no question about that.
BA: One of the things you mentioned there was about when we’re watching programs and we hear phrases like, “historical consensus” or “most historians now agree” I can kind of feel red flags going up
from skeptics and also maybe from Christian apologists who would say, “Ahh, see William Lane Craig uses ‘most scholars agree that Jesus died by crucifixion’ so you can use scholarly consensus.” Or maybe Gary Habermas would use the Minimal Facts approach to certain facts that most historians agree upon that we can rebuild and make a case for the resurrection. And on the other hand I think there’s probably Christians who would say, “hey, you know I’m using these arguments…you say I shouldn’t be using consensus?” Can you clarify that just a little?
PLM: Okay, that’s a very important point. As a matter of fact, I thought of that myself as we were talking. Here’s the difference, when I say the overwhelming majority of all serious historians across the world agree there was a Jesus I can start naming them. The difference is when the other side says this I challenge them immediately to name names and they’re absolutely unable to do it except for odd people at the fringe who are not main stream historians at all, who are known only for their attacks on Christianity. They can name names too but none of them have any scholarly following in the scholarly community when it comes to history. That’s the difference.
BA: As sort of a related side note, there’s this classic debate that took place between yourself and Dan Barker of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. So you debated on, I believe, the historicity of Jesus, and unfortunately there are no known records in existence. But would you mind supplying your historical account of that event?
PLM: Well, it was very amusing. I couldn’t believe somebody wanted to debate me on the historical Jesus because it was like shooting ducks in a pond or something! I mean it’s just so obvious that I didn’t even prepare for the debate, simply because something so obvious is almost… I feel like Alice in Wonderland you know… and the wonderment and the puzzlement of it all. So, I enjoyed the debate totally and evidently Mr. Barker didn’t enjoy the debate as much. He told me afterword’s that I really gave him a hard run for his money and said, well I wasn’t really trying to be funny but I said, “well thank you, Dan. I appreciate your comment because I’ve never debated anyone before.” And it’s true. I didn’t take debate in high school. It just shows you how easy it is to defend the historicity of Jesus. You don’t have to prepare for anything. You don’t have to know how to debate. I’ve debated since then, but I just had a lot of fun at that point.
BA: Any plans for a rematch in the future at all?
PLM: There is somebody who’s trying to get us rematched and I’m trying to clear my calendar to do that.
BA: Alright well, looking forward to that. Now back to Jesus. Another person is going to come along and they have watched this movie on the internet called Zeitgeist and they’ll say, “Well, yeah there was a Jesus but he was just a myth, he and his twelve disciples, all these birth narratives in the Gospels, these are all just copycat writings that are adapted from pagan mythologies.” You know, that’s a popular objection and you know, tying more knots in the story. What are your thoughts on that? And you watch that and what is your perspective as a historian?
PLM: Well Brian, you hear this all the time, that Christianity borrowed everything from other religious systems in the near or middle east. It’s kind of a madness that I call ‘Parallelomania’ in which they always try to find parallels in other faiths. First of all, most of these parallels are rather derivative from Christianity, not that Christianity copied them from other religious systems. And again and again you find that when the so-called parallel is not a parallel at all but is bent into shape so it looks like a parallel. This is their favorite habit when it comes to vegetation cycles for example. Persephone coming back from the abode of Hades, whether because mother Demeter is weeping because she’s down in the abode of Hades you know in the winter time, and the seasons therefore explain it. “Well, this is a resurrection now, this is where Christianity got the idea for the resurrection!” You know, how pathetic is that?
BA: So, for the average Christian who takes the historicity at face value, what’s their reasonable response, then, to give when they encounter these sorts of objections like, “Well, we don’t know if Jesus existed.” What’s their best preparation?
PLM: What they would do in terms of my six famous places where Jesus is mentioned—and by the way, there are other allusions beyond those six. Believe me. Those are the six major ones. What they usually do is try to impugn the sources. They’ll say Tacitus didn’t really write this but somebody interpolated that in the Tacitian passage. Or Suetonius didn’t write that, or Pliny didn’t write that these are faked or something like that. Or, the latest I heard, the most amusing was that Tacitus probably read this in the Gospel records and then thought that Jesus was historical himself. Please, give me a break. Tacitus first of all doesn’t like the Christians at all. He considers them “so much sewage that flowed from the near east even into Rome, that common cesspool into which things hateful come from all over the world and find a vote.”(?) That’s to quote him directly. So, he regards the Christians as so much sewage, OK. Is he going to spend his time reading Christian literature? And if he were turned off by it wouldn’t he immediately say, “Hey, let me tell you about this great myth. There never was a guy named Jesus, though the Christians claim it.” He doesn’t do that simply because he knows there was a Jesus and he didn’t get it from the gospels.
So this is the kind of thing they do. They try to impugn the sources and of course we do have one faulty source, number five, in which Josephus was baptized, so to speak, in the original passage went “let me tell you about a man, if indeed he was only a man, who did wonderful things. He died, rose again” and so on and so forth. Notice, that’s not how the true Tacitus passage that I just read you before reads. And so because some Christian monk in the 3rd century, trying to do God a favor I guess, ruined that passage, we finally can rectify it now. But they say this is what happened to all those passages and there’s absolutely no proof for that whatever. I’ll be frank. I think the reason that Josephus has been preserved for us in twenty eight-book scrolls, every word virtually down to the present age is because of that original baptized passage. The monks of the Middle Ages realized how important it was to keep those manuscripts alive. And of course now there are critical tools in the 20th, 21st centuries we’re able to derail the interpolation and figure out what he really wrote.
BA: Well Josephus wrote a lot of history, but you know the common layperson won’t be able to read all of that and they won’t know really what to sift through. Do you know of any good works that have been written that would give all the essentials, if you will, that would be the “essential reading” of Josephus? Do you have anything you would want to recommend along that line?
PLM: Well it’s interesting that you should say that because one of my translations is indeed called Josephus: The Essential Works.
BA: No! (sarcasm)
PLM: Yeah it really is. I know, you’re quite surprised Brian. Yeah, it’s a neat book, published by Kregel in the U.S. and its available elsewhere as well, which what I do is I distill these twenty eight-book scrolls, which is the equivalent of about seven or eight modern books, a scroll is about one quarter of a book, and I distill an enormous amount of material down to one book, and I translate word of word all those passages that do refer to Jesus, or Pontius Pilate, or John the Baptist, of James the Just of Jerusalem. With all those key figures I absolutely go word for word because they’re so terribly important. That’s one way to get at it. And there’s a secondary work I wrote a book called In The Fullness of Time: A Historian looks at Christmas, Easter and the Early Church, and there I, on a modern basis as a historian and I will pull out all the tremendous points of tangency that can be observed when we compare the scriptural record with the secular record of Greco-Roman antiquity. First half of the book is on Jesus and the second half is on St. Paul. And it’s just such fun to see how those worlds interact and how beautifully the New Testament material is corroborated by the secular evidence out there.
And a lot of Christians don’t know that. I think a lot of Christians think that every last detail we’ll ever be able to know about the people and places and events that gave rise to our faith are locked inside the black leather covers of the Bible. Well that’s not true. We have far more evidence out there too that’s got to be worked in and when you do work it in, where you build bridges between the evidence, secular and sacred, you find you can not only demonstrate the reliability of the bible, but you also get neat additional data from the outside, data that actually ties down some threads that are left dangling in scripture. I know it sounds heretical to say that, but it’s not.
For example, the beheading of John the Baptist, where did it happen? Bible doesn’t tell us. But Josephus does. It happened in Herod’s fortress palace called Machaerus at the northeastern end of the Dead Sea. So what Josephus says about John the Baptist beautifully meshes with what we have in the New Testament. Here we got a nice outside source that tells us where it happened. And another occasional one I’ve thought of with audiences, nobody knows about Josephus but I simply point out, I’ll prove to all of you now that you’ve used Josephus, and they can’t believe it. So I ask them to tell me the story of the beheading of John the Baptist. And they’ll tell me all about Herod Antipas’s birthday party and how things were getting dull and how his dear second wife Herodius provides a special floor show which turns the party around, you recall. Her dancing daughter turned Herod’s head. And then I ask them, all together now, what is the name of the dancing daughter? And they all say Salome. Right! I said how did you know that? Because the New Testament calls her the daughter of Herodius. How do we know her name is Salome? Thank you, Josephus. You see again there are little details that fill in part of the puzzle from outside sources. This simply shows how incredibly, extraordinarily, historical the material is.
BA: Well excellent. I definitely want to commend that book as well as your other books to people. The funny thing that happened was that the same day I had scheduled this interview with you later in the day my father-in-law was looking for a book on the historical works of Josephus and he said, “can you get me the essential writings?” And the very day after I had scheduled the interview with you there he is asking for that!
PLM: O I love it! What a coincidence! Yeah, the Essential Writings is the same material but it’s all in black and white form where as the Essential Works is the same text but it’s beautifully illustrated in color along with commentaries at the end of each chapter.
BA: Moving on then, right along this same line. Some people would say, “Alright, Jesus existed. But, you know, I don’t believe this is true because, hey if he really did all of these things we would have all kinds more records. I mean if he really did healings and miracles and feeding of the five thousand we’d have all kinds of records.” And instead of seeing the sources outside the New Testament as abundant they would say, “That’s nothing! We should have all kinds more documentation for these sorts of things.” So, as a historian what sort of documentation should we expect for someone in that time period doing those sorts of things?
PLM: Well that’s a good question and it’s a very easy one to answer. We have archeology that is simply a wonder, a latter day gift of God I think because now we have a chance to see what the smoking gun looks like from antiquity. Now we have hard evidence, which does an end run around all the wondering of the critics. For example, in the last century, I still mean the 1800’s by that, one of the higher critics as he was called, those who attack the bible was Bruno Bauer his name was in Germany. He said Jesus of Nazareth was not only not the Son of God, he never existed historically and anybody who ever intersected with Jesus also vaporized into nothingness. Well, what about Pontius Pilate the Roman governor? And he said, well any reference to Pilate outside the bible is an interpolation. Well, too bad old Bruno wasn’t around in 1962 when an Italian archeological detail was excavating in Caesarea on the Mediterranean where Paul was in prison for two years and they found a two by three foot stone which was a corner stone of a building Pilate erected. Things like this. So the people of Caesarea, Pontius Pilate was the prefect of Judaea has presented the Tiberium, that was a building in honor of the emperor Tiberium. So we have Pilate’s name mentioned in Tacitus, in Josephus, in the four Gospels, now we have his name in stone, we have a corner stone, and then what about the other side of the tribunal on Good Friday? Who was the chief prosecutor? Joseph Caiaphas right, the chief priest of the Sanhedrin. Well, his bones have been discovered. Nobody seems to know about this. Brian, what is it? I can be talking to a pastoral conference of three hundred pastors and I’ll ask who knows about the first authentic biblical bone to be discovered and three hands will go up. One percent. What does it take? It was a thrilling discovery. Ten ossuaries were discovered south of the temple area in Jerusalem and one of these was accidentally discovered, so that’s even better, and one of these was beautifully inscribed. This one had fluting around the edges and giant rosettes cut into it and then on the other side, the owner of those bones, his name was inscribed twice in Aramaic, Yehosef bar Qayafa, Yehosef bar Qafa. They did a carbon 14 test on the bones. They were 1950 BP approximately, that is before the present. The bones were that of a 65-70 year old, and nobody else is named that way. It’s a lead pipe cinched, there we have the bones of a biblical personality. And how can anyone doubt the historicity of the Good Friday trial when we have these people, either their bones or their names in stone archeologically discovered? That’s hard evidence people!
Besides the evidence of the other historians in the ancient world, so. And there are so many like this. You know you talk about miracles, look at the Jewish Rabbinical tradition which has the arrest notice. “He shall be stoned because he practiced sorcery.” Hello! Look what we got there. Sorcery is only a miracle with a negative spin on it. What’s sorcery? Something extraordinary or supernatural accomplished with help from below. What’s a miracle? Something extraordinary or supernatural accomplished with help from above. But what is the common observable phenomenon, which is conceded even by a hostile source? That Jesus was doing something extraordinary or supernatural. Historians would say this now would kick in the criteria of embarrassment. Well what’s that? Even if you have a testimony how do you know it’s true? Historians have several ways of doing that. One is the criterion of multiple attestation. A lot of different historians from antiquity, they say the same thing about an event, and they’re not copying from each other, you can pretty well conclude that it really happened. Another is the criterion of embarrassment. Which means if you’re arguing in a given direction and you concede something that does not help your argument at all, in fact it hurts it but you got to concede it cause everybody knows it’s true two thousand years ago, then two thousand years later you know it’s true. So here you have a beautiful outside proof for the supernatural.
BA: Alright, great. Well, someone’s asking for lots, lots more saying well this isn’t enough, they’re basically setting the bar too high because we have sufficient evidence that shows that people at least thought these miraculous things were taking place
PLM: Oh, absolutely. By the way, another one is the name change of Bethany, you know where Lazarus was raised? Southeastern corner of Jerusalem, Bethany? The name in Arabic is Al-Eizariya meaning Lazarus’ Place. Why would you ever change the name of a city except for something extraordinary happening? And that name changed at least eighteen hundred years ago.
BA: Right along this line of miracles, obviously you can have evidence for people describing their testimony of miracles and stuff. I want to ask your opinion on how we can assess historical evidence for miracles when by definition that’s something that’s going to be rare, it’s going to be extraordinary and you wouldn’t typically just believe it on face value. So how does a historian typically assess miracle documentation, if you will?
PLM: Well all I can do is only go so far with the evidence. But the evidence that I have supplied, for example that arrest notice, very, very interesting you know that you have even opponents of what Jesus was doing in whose interest it would be to shut up about it, not only do they not shut up about what he was doing but they call them sorcery, this event. And sorcery is only a miracle with a negative spin. And by the way this correlates perfectly with the biblical record. Believe it or not, sometimes you can even have sympathy for the scribes and Pharisees and Jesus’ opponents. How are you going to knock somebody who gives sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, walking ability to cripples, how are you going to knock that person? The only way you can do it is call in your spin-doctors and spread the word. The devil made him do it. Ha! So, what do you know? Here you have in the hostile sources exactly what the Gospel said they would do. So there are beautiful correlations again and again. Look, I can’t categorically prove everything in regard to Jesus. If I did then we wouldn’t need faith at all would we, as Christians or non-Christians? If we had total proof for all this stuff well then the world would believe like a marionette who’s strings are being pulled. And God didn’t want that kind of reaction evidently. Or else He would have given us complete proof. That takes away faith. You’ve got to have faith in there to wrap yourself around the event.
BA: Well I think that’s very helpful and I need to move on for sake of time here so let’s say you’ve got your person who says, “OK, Jesus did live, but what about this Christmas idea?” There are atheist billboards going up with a nativity scene in the picture and it says “You know it’s a myth” —“American Atheists” down at the bottom. Is the first Christmas a myth? The claim that Jesus was born in a manger in Bethlehem, born of a virgin, are atheists being rational when they call this a myth? Are they correct here and how should the Christian respond to that?
PLM: Well the nativity is simply an obvious target for these people because two of the four Gospels are silent in regard to the nativity and all we have is of course Mathew and Luke who obviously do not copy from one another, you can tell that, but that’s enough because even there we have Luke invoking a very famous Roman at the time, so that the non-Jewish, Gentile audience would be able to identify and give interest in the account. Everybody knew about the great Augustus you recall, the census that he took. The census is historical. In Rome where Augustus was buried, I should say his ashes were interred, we have the Augustin mausoleum in which two bronze columns were set up in front of it and these were the thirty-six greatest accomplishments of the fine Augustus, as it was called. Point number eight, I took a census of the empire three times. So the idea of Rome taking censuses is very well known. Every fourteen years they took it next door in Egypt and we have an actual census document from somebody who registers himself and his family just two generations after Jesus’ birth. That’s at the University of Michigan library and they bring it out every Christmas. And the neat thing about that document is that’s it’s not a copy of a copy of a copy like everything else we have. It’s the original papyrus document. So it’s a real thrill to see this thing brought out. All the political leaders are accurate, Augustus in Rome, Herod the Great locally, Herod Antipas later on, his son, these are all real people. The whole setting is not in a time long, long ago in a place called Middle Earth, Jesus comes along and we know it’s a fantasy novel by the English, but not in the case of the nativity account.
BA: So how does myth as a genre differ from the Gospel accounts?
PLM: Well, myth can sometimes have a kernel of historical fact in, for example when Homer writes the Iliad about the great pan-Atlantic expedition to Troy and so forth that’s really historical but then of course the dialog and everything else is supplied in a mythical basis and when the gods and goddess get involved and the Greek pantheon and so forth we know that’s mythological. So you have very often a combination of myth and historical detail.
BA: So we have Christmas coming up right around the corner here, and so we’re celebrating the birth of Christ. People are going to be meeting with family members and things of that nature and they’re going to hear these things, “well you know it’s just a nice story.” Maybe the Christian has done a little bit of study and they’ve heard that these things can be rationally defended and they are historically credible that good reasons to believe these things are true, but on just a practical level when they’re interacting with someone they’re not going to be able to sit there and unpack that issue. How would you encourage someone to respond in a situation like that when someone says, “well it’s just a nice story.” Or, “these are just good things for the kids to read,” you know, and then open their presents, how should they respond to that?
PLM: Well, my thoughts would be, you’re right. It is a wonderful story and it’s more than a story and then go on from there. See, one thing we’re burdened with is that we always talk about the Christmas story, the Christmas story, story, story. And “story” immediately implies a bed-time story, a fairy tale or so forth and that one of the disagreeable parts of calling it the Christmas story. I usually refer to it as the nativity account, account, which is far more historical sounding than story. But you can begin with where they are and say yes it’s a beautiful story, let me tell you a little more detail about it and then go on from there. That’s the reason I wrote the Christmas section In The Fullness of Time book where in twelve chapters I interact between the secular and sacred evidence and point out how all of this is extremely logical and historically based against the background of everything that took place.
BA: Well, tell me about the book you wrote called The Very First Christmas.
PLM: Well, The Very First Christmas was for children. Every title like the Very First Christmas, The Very First Easter, The Very First Christians, those are all for kids. Another book I wrote called The First Christmas is for adults and that is the equivalent of the first twelve chapters in The Fullness of Time book. And remember again how the title goes. In The Fullness of Time: A Historian looks at Christmas, Easter and the Early Church. And I virtually do a lot of Jesus and St. Paul in that one in which I bring in all the extra new evidence we get from surrounding history and archeology and literature from that all-important 1st century. And so we analyze everything from who the shepherds might have been, what time of year it might have been, what about the star of Bethlehem, the Magi, how could they have heard about it, and so forth.
BA: Dr. Maier, now speaking to Christian apologists and those who would want to be better equipped to defend the faith, what sort of advice would you give them in their studies? If they’re reading along the lines of the historical Jesus and the early church, what kind of encouragement would you give them as far as its importance and it’s centrality and you know, encourage them to defend these things?
PLM: Well I’d say we certainly do need Christian apologists now more than ever before and deal with the wretched double standard we have in this world. It goes like this, you dare not attack anyone else’s belief, unless it’s Christianity then help yourself. You know that all the other religions are exempt and every time Christianity is the target. I think I know the reason why that is, because Christianity is the number one religious phenomenon in, not just religions… the holy Christian church on Earth is the statistically considered most successful phenomenon of anything that’s ever happened on this planet.
There’s no other religion, no other way of life, no other political party you name it, which has a loyalty of over two billion, hundred fifty million in the present generation alone. And for that reason it’s a target. Those who are second, third, fourth best always attack the front-runner, and this is the reason I think for the retched double standard. But then I would also advise any would-be Christian apologists first of all defend, and explain the term “apologist.” Because it almost sounds to the outside world like, “Don’t tell anybody. I apologize. I’m Christian.” Ha! That’s not what it means at all. Defending the faith is what it means. And I’ll say this, when you bring in all the evidence Christianity is the easiest religion to defend of any in the entire history of the world for anywhere on Earth but we have so much outside evidence that I think we should come armed with it. This is one of the reasons I wrote my book In The Fullness of Time. It’s just full of arguments from the secular world to back up what we find in the sacred world.
BA: Well excellent. Dr. Maier, I really appreciate your time it’s been really interesting and fascinating. Thank you.
PLM: Brian, have a blessed Christmas and thank you so much for the interview.