Some Historical Thoughts

Those who know me well know that I am interested in history, and that, in particular, I have a passion for the Roman Empire. That actually links quite neatly to my beliefs as a christian, and I find it enlightening to think of scripture in the light of the little bit of ancient history with which I'm familiar, and to consider, sometimes, how one has affected the other.

I've been considering a couple of things lately. One is the infallibility (or inerrancy - I'm not about to dive into the difference here and now) of scripture. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says:

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

I feel a tug in at least two directions. My old Pentecostal self inclines to the view that scripture must all be absolutely true, every last word (at least as it was originally written - let's not get into whether it's possible to translate the ancient languages accurately into English), and that if I cast doubt on one part of scripture, the whole edifice is liable to come tumbling down around my ears. But I am a physicist and I find (for example) the creation story hard to reconcile with the physical evidence I seem to see before me. But what if the creation story in Genesis merely represents all of the 'truth' that mankind was capable of understanding when it was written? I certainly subscribe to the view that God created the world - I'm happy enough with the notion that, if the 'Big Bang' theory is correct (which it may or may not be!), God was the one who 'spoke the word' and set it all in motion, exploding and/or expanding. But that account is rather different from that put forward in Genesis. And that's only one example, and not really very important in the grand scheme of things - it's hardly fundamental to the christian faith.

A more important (at least in this day and age) example is that contained in Paul's first letter to the church in Corinth:

As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church. (1 Corinthians 14:33-35)

This passage has been used (and still is, in some parts of the church), to oppress christian women. For many years I myself held that it was an absolute - women must be quiet, and they must certainly never preach or lead services. And then along came a woman priest, Debbie Peatman, whose gentle ministry in our church blew that notion right out of the water - it was inconceivable that God wasn't behind her ministry, and that he disapproved of what she was (and is). So what was I to think?

If you read the first sixteen verses of Romans 16, it would appear that the early church was far more egalitarian than many since would like us to believe. It's hard to believe that the women referred to so affectionately by Paul were not allowed to speak in church, indeed some appear to be in positions of responsibility - Phoebe, for example, was a deacon.

I wonder whether Paul's insistence that women not speak in church was due, entirely, to the circumstances in Corinth at that time. The core of the Corinthian church seems to have been composed of Jewish believers, but as the church grew, many pagans were converted to christianity, including many women. Corinth at this time was home to a cult devoted to Aphrodite, the Greek Goddess of (sexual) love. There was a huge temple, and many cult prostitutes. It may well be that these women, even when converted to Christianity, were behaving in a disorderly manner, and that this passage in Paul's letter is, therefore, aimed fairly and squarely at them - and, by extrapolation, those like them in later times. Such a restriction could surely not, in all fairness, be aimed at my friend Debbie, or other godly women.

This is just one example of how a knowledge of history may inform how we read scripture and apply its lessons. It doesn't mean that I doubt scripture, or its authority, it's just that I believe that it was written in a particular time and place, and much of it was aimed at particular audiences, and that we need to be careful to consider this before applying what it says universally.

Becoming (I hope) slightly less controversial, have you ever considered why God sent Jesus when He did? It struck me a while ago, whilst indulging my 'Roman hobby' by tramping along a section of Roman road in the Bowland fells east of Lancaster, that Jesus came to earth just as the Roman Empire was expanding towards its greatest extent. By the end of the first century AD, just after Jesus' day, there was a network of roads from the Solway to Syria. Never before in history had communications been so easy. The perfect time then, to have sent Jesus to begin a work to redeem mankind. Yes, the Empire was (for most of its history) opposed to Christianity, but it unwittingly provided the means for the faith to spread widely and rapidly. Perhaps early Christians walked that very route, along which I was walking, bringing with them the Good News. There is evidence for Christians in the North of England - there is what seems to be a 'church' within the walls of the Roman fort at Vindolanda dating from the third century AD - and also as far East as the Euphrates - there was a church in the city of Dura Europos in Syria, right on the 'other edge' of the Empire.

Copyright Phil Hendry, 2022