January 6, 2018
(Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12)
An Advent homily given by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger back in 1964 had these words: “I believe the real temptation for someone who is a Christian, as we experience it today, does not just consist in the theoretical question of whether God exists; or even the question of whether he is three in one; or even the question of whether Christ is God and man in one person. What really torments us today, what bothers us much more is the inefficacy of Christianity: after 2,000 years of Christian history, we can see nothing that might be a new reality in the world; rather, we find it sunk in the same old horrors, the same despair, and the same hopes as ever. And in our lives, too, we inevitably experience time and time again how Christian reality is powerless against all the other forces that influence us and make demands on us.” Here we are 54 years and few weeks later, and this statement couldn’t be more true now than it was then.
Society has less and less regard for religion. I wonder at times, however, if his thought is true in totality. What if we all knew without even an inkling of a doubt that Jesus did exist and is truly God? Would we have so many who have stepped away from church or not enter one at all? The day of Epiphany is a perfect day to explore this.
What is Epiphany? One dictionary says, “The manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi. The festival commemorating the Epiphany on January 6. A manifestation of a divine or supernatural being.” From a Christian point of view, these are all correct. So, can we have an epiphany? Did Jesus really exist? Obviously, I cannot do an entire expose’ today, so I will touch on a couple thoughts.
First, let’s explore what the Gospels have to say as to who Jesus is. Some scholars claim that Jesus did not claim to be God. However, there are verses in the Gospels that prove this theory wrong. We will explore just a few.
“I and the Father are one.” (John 10:30)
“He who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9)
At this they exclaimed, “Now we know that you are demon-possessed! Abraham died and so did the prophets, yet you say that whoever obeys your word will never taste death. Are you greater than our father Abraham? He died, and so did the prophets. Who do you think you are?” “Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds. (John 8:52-53, 58-59)
“I and the Father are one. Again, his Jewish opponents picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus said to them, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these do you stone me? We are not stoning you for any good work,” they replied, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.” (John 10:30-33)
It is clear from these passages who Jesus claimed to be. Yet, this next passage is one in which some use to “prove” that Jesus did not claim to be God. However, even this attempt to prove Jesus didn’t claim to be God is wrong.
As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life? Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’ ”Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. (Mark 10:17-22)
Okay, so first let’s tackle the “Why do you call me good?” “No one is good—except God alone” statements. Jesus is not claiming he isn’t God. This is a typical coy remark like many Jesus makes to test the faith of those whom he meets. He wants to know the man’s faith. He is challenging the man to see if he believes that Jesus is indeed the Christ. So, basically, Jesus is saying, “So, you know I am God, because you are calling me good! You know that only God is good, therefore by you calling me good, you thus must believe I am the Messiah!” Then after he makes his declaration about the goodness of God, he adds a command to follow him to the obligation to keep the Ten Commandments! In first-century Jewish context, this would have been very shocking.
Now, let’s go a step further. According to ancient Jewish tradition, before the Temple was destroyed in AD 70, the blood of the sacrifices used to be poured into a drain that flowed down the altar of sacrifice to merge with the spring water that flowed out the side of the mountain on which the Temple was built.
According to the Jewish Mishnah Middoth, “At the south-western corner [of the altar] there were two holes like two narrow nostrils by which the blood that was poured over the western base and the southern base used to run down and mingle in the water-channel and flow out into the brook Kidron (3:2).”
The Mishnah Middoth is somewhat of a double piece. Published at the end of the second century CE, the Mishnah is an edited record of the complex body of material known as oral Torah that was transmitted in the aftermath of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. The Middoth is Jewish hermeneutics or biblical interpretation, methods or principles used to explicate the meaning of biblical words or passages to meet the demand of new situations. I explain this to you, merely to give some background for another statement by Jesus.
Now at the time Jesus lived, if you were approaching the Temple during the feast of Passover from the vantage point of the Kidron Valley, one would see a stream of blood and water flowing out of the side of the Temple Mount.
The Gospel of John and his emphasis on the blood and water flowing out of the side of Jesus suddenly become clearer when thought of in the context of the Temple and the blood and water mixing. This seemingly small detail about Jesus’ death reveals something very significant about who Jesus really is. He is not just the messianic son of God; he is the true Temple. He is the dwelling place of God on earth!
In Matthew 12:5-6, Jesus says, “Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests serving in the temple violate the sabbath and are innocent? I say to you, something greater than the temple is here.” Anyone in the time of Jesus would have thought this blasphemous, for nothing could be greater than the Temple in which God dwelled! The only thing greater would be God himself in the flesh!
Now, what about historical?
Flavius Josephus was a Jewish politician, soldier, and historian who lived around AD 37-100. He was born in Jerusalem shortly after Christ’s crucifixion. As his father, Matthias, was a highly respected priest, Josephus was born into a family that would have been acutely aware of the early Jesus followers, a movement that would have been viewed as a threat to Judaism.
Scholars view Josephus as the single most important Jewish historian of the ancient world. Among his works, Josephus penned Antiquities of the Jews, to explain the Jewish people and their beliefs to the Romans, in an effort to reduce anti-Jewish bigotry.
Josephus writes about the death of James, at the instigation of the Jewish high priest Ananus. Josephus clearly labels James the brother of Jesus “who was called Christ.” By including these details, he offers us a clear, non-Christian attestation of the historicity of Jesus.
Cornelius Tacitus, another important Roman historian, lived approximately between AD 56 and 120. Modern historians view his Annals (which covers Roman emperors Augustus to Nero) to be the best source of information about this period in Roman history.
It is from Tacitus, that we know that Nero blamed a devastating fire that happened in Rome in AD 64 on Christians. Wrote Tacitus: “Therefore, to squelch the rumor, Nero created scapegoats and subjected to the most refined tortures those whom the common people call ‘Christians, Nero fastened the guilt ... on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of ... Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome.”
Notice, first, that Tacitus reports Christians derived their name from a historical person called Christus (from the Latin), or Christ. He is said to have "suffered the extreme penalty," obviously alluding to the Roman method of execution known as crucifixion.
Tacitus’ writing confirms the New Testament accounts that Tiberius and Pilate were in power when Jesus was crucified. Tacitus also points to the continued growth of Christianity in the years shortly after Jesus died, as reported in the New Testament book of Acts. His report clearly demonstrates the remarkable resolve of Jesus’ earliest followers, and the growth of the movement Jesus founded.
Professor Casey Elledge of Gustavus Adophus College holds this view of early non-Christian sources, including Tacitus, Josephus, and Seutonius:
“The testimonies of ancient historians offer strong evidence against a purely mythical reading of Jesus. In contrast to those who have denied the historical evidence of Jesus altogether, judging him merely to have been a mythological construct of early Christian thought, the testimonies of the ancient historians reveal how even those outside the early church regarded Jesus to have been a historical person. It remains difficult, therefore, if not impossible, to deny the historical existence of Jesus when the earliest Christians, Jewish and pagan evidence mention him.”
Another important source of evidence about Jesus and early Christianity can be found in the letters of Pliny the Younger to Emperor Trajan. Pliny was the Roman governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor. In one of his letters, dated around A.D. 112, he asks Trajan's advice about the appropriate way to conduct legal proceedings against those accused of being Christians. Pliny says that he needed to consult the emperor about this issue because a great multitude of every age, class, and sex stood accused of Christianity.
At one point in his letter, Pliny relates some of the information he has learned about these Christians:
They were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of food – but food of an ordinary and innocent kind.
This passage provides us with several interesting insights into the beliefs and practices of early Christians. First, we see that Christians regularly met on a certain fixed day for worship. Second, their worship was directed to Christ, demonstrating that they firmly believed in His divinity. Furthermore, one scholar interprets Pliny's statement that hymns were sung to Christ, "as to a god", as a reference to the rather distinctive fact that, "unlike other gods who were worshipped, Christ was a person who had lived on earth." If this interpretation is correct, Pliny understood that Christians were worshipping an actual historical person as God! Of course, this agrees perfectly with the New Testament doctrine that Jesus was both God and man. Strikingly, there was never any debate in the ancient world about whether Jesus of Nazareth was a historical figure. In the earliest literature of the Jewish Rabbis, Jesus was denounced as the illegitimate child of Mary and a sorcerer. Among pagans, the satirist Lucian and philosopher Celsus dismissed Jesus as a scoundrel, but we know of no one in the ancient world who questioned whether Jesus lived.
There are a few clear references to Jesus in the Babylonian Talmud, a collection of Jewish rabbinical writings. In the case of the Talmud, the earliest period of compilation occurred between A.D. 70-200. The most significant reference to Jesus from this period states:
On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald ... cried, "He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy."
Let's examine this passage. You may have noticed that it refers to someone named "Yeshu." So why do we think this is Jesus? Actually, "Yeshu" (or "Yeshua") is how Jesus' name is pronounced in Hebrew. But what does the passage mean by saying that Jesus "was hanged"? Doesn't the New Testament say he was crucified? The term "hanged" can function as a synonym for "crucified." For instance, Galatians 3:13 declares that Christ was "hanged", and Luke 23:39 applies this term to the criminals who were crucified with Jesus. So, the Talmud declares that Jesus was crucified on the eve of Passover. But what of the cry of the herald that Jesus was to be stoned? This may simply indicate what the Jewish leaders were planning to do. If so, Roman involvement changed their plans!
The passage also tells us why Jesus was crucified. It claims He practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy! Since this accusation comes from a non-Christian source, we should not be too surprised if Jesus is described somewhat differently than in the New Testament.
Interestingly, both accusations have close parallels in the canonical gospels. For instance, the charge of sorcery is similar to the Pharisees' accusation that Jesus cast out demons "by Beelzebul the ruler of the demons." But notice this: such a charge tends to confirm the New Testament claim that Jesus performed miraculous feats. Apparently, Jesus' miracles were too well attested to deny. The only alternative was to ascribe them to sorcery! And, the charge of enticing Israel to apostasy parallels Luke's account of the Jewish leaders who accused Jesus of misleading the nation with his teaching. Such a charge tends to corroborate the New Testament record of Jesus' powerful teaching ministry. Thus, if read carefully, this passage from the Talmud confirms much of our knowledge about Jesus from the New Testament.
Now, one last set of thoughts and then you can make what you will of an “epiphany” for yourself.
While we can have more confidence in the martyrdoms of Apostles such as Peter, Paul and James the brother of John (and probably Thomas and Andrew), there is much less evidence for many of the others. This may come as a disappointment to some, but for the sake of the resurrection argument, it is not critical that we demonstrate that all of them died as martyrs. What is critical is their willingness to suffer for their faith and the lack of a contrary story that any of them recanted.
Historian Michael Licona writes in his book The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach: “After Jesus’ death, the disciples endured persecution, and a number of them experienced martyrdom. The strength of their conviction indicates that they were not just claiming Jesus had appeared to them after rising from the dead. They really believed it. They willingly endangered themselves by publicly proclaiming the risen Christ.”
Here are the key facts:
First, the Apostles were eyewitnesses of the risen Jesus. When a replacement was chosen for Judas, one necessary criterion was that the person had seen the risen Lord (Acts 1:21–22). Paul and James the brother of Jesus were also eyewitnesses (1 Cor. 15:3–8). Their convictions were not based on secondhand testimony, but from the belief that they had seen the resurrected Christ with their own eyes.
Second, early Christians were persecuted for their faith. John the Baptist was imprisoned and beheaded (Matt. 14:1–11). Jesus was crucified. Stephen was stoned to death after his witness before the Sanhedrin (Acts 6–8). And Herod Agrippa killed James the brother of John (Acts 12:12), which led to the departure of the rest of the Twelve from Jerusalem. The first statewide persecution of Christians was under Nero (AD 64), as reported by Tacitus (Annals 15.44:2–5). Although persecution was sporadic and local, from this point forward Christians could be arrested and killed for proclaiming the name of Jesus. And many of them were.
Third, the Apostles were willing to suffer for their faith. This is certainly true of Paul, who recounts the suffering he endured, which included being whipped, beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, near starvation and in danger from various people and places (2 Cor. 6:4–9). Speaking for the Apostles, after being threatened by the religious leaders, Peter and John say, “For we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). The Apostles are then thrown in prison, beaten for their faith, but they continued to preach and teach the Gospel (Acts 5:17–42).
While the evidence of martyrdom is far better for some of the Apostles than others, the evidence for Peter is particularly strong. The earliest evidence is found in John 21:18–19, which was written about 30 years after Peter’s death. Other evidence for Peter’s martyrdom can be found in early church fathers such as Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Dionysius of Corinth, Irenaeus, Tertullian and more. The early, consistent and unanimous testimony is that Peter died as a martyr.
This does not prove that the resurrection is true. But it shows the depth of the Apostles’ convictions. They were not liars. They truly believed Jesus rose from the grave and they were willing to give their lives for it. One has to ask; would we be willing to be martyred for our beliefs today?
There is sufficient evidence to prove that Jesus existed. Apparently, he not only existed, but he must have been crucified and rose again to warrant his followers to willingly accept martyrdom. This far removed from the events of Jesus, I suppose, make it hard for people in modern times to have that much faith, but we are not, under normal circumstances, put to death for our beliefs, so we should have no fear in proclaiming them and practicing it. Maybe that is the epiphany we need.
Let us pray.
For a spiritual renewal and empowerment on our personal journeys of faith. We pray to the Lord.
We pray that the Spirit, who led the Wise Men to the side of the new-born Jesus, will guide us also so that we too can come to know and love Him. We pray to the Lord.
Just as the Wise Men sought Jesus and found him in a manger, we too can find Jesus in the Eucharist. We pray that we may have a full appreciation of that wonderful gift bestowed on us by our loving Savior. We pray to the Lord.
That we be granted the time and energy, the foresight and the wisdom to review how we each live our life – with our family, our friends, our community, our work and most importantly, with our God. We pray to the Lord.
We pray for all those in our country and community who long for meaning in their lives and that in this New Year of 2019 they may find that meaning in your divine love. We pray to the Lord.
For people of all faiths and of none, that in this New Year they may grow in peace and love. We pray to the Lord.
We bow our heads and remember in silence our own personal intentions and the intentions of those who have asked for our prayers. (Pause) We pray to the Lord.
Father God, enlighten us, we pray, as we celebrate the manifestation of your Son to the world. May the splendor of your majesty shed its light upon our hearts, that we may pass through the shadows of this world and reach the brightness of our eternal home. We ask that you make yourself known to those who do not know you; to those who struggle with doubt. As we anxiously await your kingdom, we ask all these things through your son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA