Monday, April 16, 2018

WHO WAS JOSEPHUS? And Did He Really Write About Jesus?

     During my recent online debates with atheist friends about the historical existence of Jesus, one source comes up again and again - the writings of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus.  Since many Christians may not know much about him, I thought I would take the time to share a little bit of what he wrote and why one passage in particular is so controversial.  So let's go in order.  First:



                                                        WHO WAS JOSEPHUS?

    Flavius Josephus was born around 37 AD - four years after Jesus was crucified.  His Jewish name was Yosef bin Matityahu, and his father was of priestly descent.  He was a Pharisee by religion and a Jewish nationalist.  During the great uprising against Rome that began in 66 AD, he fought with the Jewish rebels trying to overthrow Roman rule.  He was captured and brought before the Roman general Titus Flavius Vespasianus, more commonly known as Vespasian.  When he saw the general, Josephus (the Latin form of his name) greeted him by saying "Hail Caesar!"
    Vespasian replied: "I am no Caesar, for it is Nero who rules in Rome."
    Josephus responded: "Aye, but in a year's time you will become Caesar and rule Rome."
    Right around that time, a thousand miles away, the Roman Senate, sick of Nero's insanity, stripped him of all honors and titles and ordered his arrest. The Emperor killed himself, and civil war broke out as a series of well-connected Senators and generals tried to elevate themselves to the throne in what was called "The Year of the Four Emperors."  Finally, Vespasian and his armies marched on Rome and defeated the forces of his rival Galba, and Vespasian became the next Emperor.  He remembered the Jewish prisoner who had foretold his triumph and ordered Josephus released. 

         Eventually Josephus moved to Rome and became a member of the Emperor's household.  Regarded by his own people as a turncoat and traitor, Josephus nevertheless tried to explain to a hostile Roman audience what the Jewish revolt was all about in his lengthy history, THE JEWISH WAR, published around 75 AD.  About 20 years later, Josephus wrote a lengthy history of the Jewish people, from the time of Creation until the fall of Jerusalem.  This book is called THE ANTIQUITIES OF THE JEWS, and it includes the history of Jesus' lifetime.
     That leads us to the $64,000 question - did Josephus write about Jesus of Nazareth?

                                                 THE TESTIMONIUM FLAVINIUM

     In THE ANTIQUITIES OF THE JEWS, Book 18, Chapter 3, verse 3, we find this narrative:
 "Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct to this day."
     Now, this passage, IF authentic, is a slam-dunk testimony as to the historical reality of Jesus.  It is buttressed by the fact that, later on in Book 18, Josephus describes the death of "James the brother of Jesus the so-called Christ."  Although there were many men named Jesus in First Century Judea, only one claimed to be the Christ.  This single verse from ANTIQUITIES is called the Testimonium Flavianum - the "Testimony of Flavius."  Since this passage comes after the reference to Jesus, the mention tying James to Jesus seems to follow naturally.
      Yet - Josephus was an observant Jew to the end of his days.  Would he have called Jesus "the Christ?"  This leads us to the next big question - really the most important of them all: 

                                 IS THE TESTIMONIUM FLAVIANUM AUTHENTIC?

      Obviously, atheists - especially the "Jesus Mythicists" who deny that Jesus ever existed as a real, historical person - cannot afford to admit that this passage is authentic.  However, most of these folks have very little understanding or education in the history of the ancient world, Roman or Jewish.  Bart Ehrman, an atheist who is no friend of Christianity, points out that there is not a single professional historian of the era in the ranks of the Jesus Myth movement.  Among real scholars, there are three schools of thought, as follows:

1.  The Testimonium is authentic in its entirety.  Very few scholars still try to argue this point.  The reference to Jesus is far too favorable to have come from the pen of a Pharisaic Jew, since that sect opposed Jesus during his lifetime and dismissed him as a false Messiah afterwards.  Even though the Temple priesthood was destroyed along with the Temple itself, to hail Jesus as the true "Christ" would have led Josephus to be even more shunned by his own people than he already was.

2.  The reference to Jesus is authentic, but it's been edited (interpolated, to use the scholarly term) by Christian copyists to make it more favorable towards Jesus.  This makes a great deal of sense; it also explains the comment about James being the brother of the "so-called" Christ.  The fact is, nearly every available copy of Josephus has come to us through Christian copyists, and the earliest reference to the Testimonium is from the fourth century church historian Eusebius.  Many scholars have studied the original Greek and come up with a list of words that seem to not flow with the others in this short passage.  To quote Wikipedia (not as unreliable as it once was, and a great place to begin research on any topic): "The general scholarly view is that while the Testimonium Flavianum is most likely not authentic in its entirety, it is broadly agreed upon that it originally consisted of an authentic nucleus, which was then subject to Christian interpolation and/or alteration."

3.  The entire Testimonium is a Christian forgery inserted into the text of Josephus, probably by Eusebius as he was composing his "Ecclesiastical History" in the Fourth Century.  This view is held by a minority of scholars, but touted endlessly by Jesus mythicists.  Church historian Peter Kirby tallies up the supporters and detractors as follows:  "4 scholars regarded the Testimonium Flavianum as entirely genuine, 6 as mostly genuine, 20 accept it with some interpolations, 9 with several interpolations, and 13 regard it as being totally an interpolation."  So it was, as of the 1980's, a 39-13 balance of opinion in favor of the Testimonium as being at least partly authentic. 

    So what did Josephus originally write?  There are two variant manuscripts that may preserve something close to the original wording of the passage.  An Arabic copy from the 10th century AD records the passage thus:   "At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus.
His conduct was good, and [he] was known to be virtuous. and many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion, and that he was alive; accordingly he was perhaps the Messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders."

This reading certainly reflects a different tradition than the better known Greek version, and sounds closer to what a Jew like Josephus might have written.

There is also a Syriac copy of the Testimonium Flavianum that preserves a very similar text, with one slight change in wording: "Pilate condemned him to be crucified, and he died" instead of "to be crucified and to die."

     So did Josephus write about Jesus?  The majority of scholarly opinion today argues that he did, but that the original text was interpolated to reflect a more Christian view of Jesus than the original. What did Josephus originally write?  No one can know for sure - barring the discovery of a text that predates Eusebius, which is always a distinct possibility - but one Josephus expert thinks the original may have read like this:

      "Now about this time arose an occasion for new disturbances, a certain Jesus, a wizard of a man, if indeed he may be called a man, who was the most monstrous of men, whom his disciples call a son of God, as having done wonders such as no man has ever done.... He was in fact a teacher of astonishing tricks to such men as accept the abnormal with delight.... And he seduced many Jews and many also of the Greek nation, and was regarded by them as the Messiah.... And when, on the indictment of the principal men among us, Pilate had sentenced him to the cross, still those who before had admired him did not cease to rave. For it seemed to them that having been dead for three days, he had appeared to them alive again, as the divinely-inspired prophets had foretold -- these and ten thousand other wonderful things -- concerning him. And even now the race of those who are called 'Messianists' after him is not extinct." - R.Eisler, THE MESSIAH JESUS

     Modern scholarship may never completely unravel the question of what Josephus wrote about Jesus, but it seems as if the preponderance of opinion is that Josephus did write SOMETHING about him.  And there the debate rests.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 


Friday, April 6, 2018

SEVEN SIMPLE STEPS TO BELIEVING THAT JESUS WAS A MYTH

   For the last decade or two, a growing body of opinion in atheist/agnostic circles has taken the approach that Jesus of Nazareth never existed as a real, historical figure.  The rational objections to this point of view are innumerable, but IF you want to adopt this perspective, here are some things that you simply HAVE to do.  Follow these easy steps and you can join the "Jesus Mythicist" crowd, no problem!

1.  IGNORE traditional rules of historical interpretation.  Usually, when a person is mentioned by 17 separate sources within 150 years of his alleged lifetime, all of whom regard him as a real, flesh and blood person, historians will concede that the person in question did, in fact, exist.  This kind of rationality is fatal to accepting Jesus was a myth, so you will have to impose a completely different set of historical standards and raise the bar of proof higher than it is for any other figure of antiquity!

2.  DISREGARD scholarly expertise.  This is especially true if you want to embrace the popular "Jesus was based on other dying and rising Messiah figures" position as so many mythicists do.  You see, not a single person with an advanced degree in Bible history, classical Greek and Roman history, Middle Eastern archeology, or Egyptology, buys into this theory.  NO serious Egyptologist believes that the character of Jesus was based on Osiris or Horus, NO Greco-Roman historian believes that Jesus was based on Dionysius, and not one member of the International Congress of Mithraic Studies believes that Jesus was based on the legends of Mithras.  So forget the eggheads with their years of study and advanced degrees in the relevant fields of history.  What do they know, anyway?

3.  DON'T EVER FACT-CHECK!  The internet is full of videos and memes that make naked assertions of parallels between Jesus and other ancient deities that will absolutely confirm your bias towards Jesus being a fairy tale - as long as you don't try to trace them to their source!  Osirirs, Mithras, Dionysius, and Horus are all credited with being "born of a virgin on December 25th," even though A.  Not one ancient source claims this; and B. even if they did, NOWHERE in the New Testament does it say that Jesus was born on Dec. 25th!

4.  QUESTION ESTABLISHED HISTORY.  So what if the Gospels are universally dated, by scholars both skeptical and faithful, as having been written in the First Century AD?  So what if there is physical, literary, and archeological evidence that Christianity originated in Jerusalem in the first half of the First Century?  After all, all those ancient texts were probably written or else copied and altered by Christians in the Middle Ages, so we can just reject them out of hand!  This method is also favored by Holocaust Deniers, 9/11 Truthers, and many members of the political fringes in America, both left and right.  Just assume everybody whose conclusions disagree with yours is lying, mistaken, or else "in on the fix"!!

5.  IGNORE ALL DISSENTING OPINIONS.  Obviously, everyone who disagrees with you is wrong, so why bother listening to or reading what they have to say?  Everyone knows that all Christians everywhere are gullible morons who pray to a magical flying carpenter in the sky, so who cares if they can produce archeological site reports, ancient papyri, historical references, and physical artifacts that seem to back up their case?

6.  MEMORIZE The Da Vinci Code!  Dan Brown is obviously a genius who unraveled a two thousand year old conspiracy, even though virtually every historical claim in his book has been proven false, especially his accounts of Christianity originally being a sex cult (ZERO evidence), Jesus being married (NOT ONE First or Second Century source mentions this!), or the Council of Nicaea. Who cares if his central plot was shamelessly plagiarized from a discredited Jesus conspiracy book written in 1977?   What do professional historians know?

7.  ASSUME all Christians are stupid.  So what if many Christians hold multiple PhD's in subjects ranging from advanced mathematics to biochemistry to history and classical studies?  So what if many of the greatest statesmen, scholars, and philosophers in history were Christians?  Obviously, anyone who accepts the divinity of Christ is not as smart as you. and therefore their opinions are not worth reading!

  There you have it.  Ignore history, archeology, textual studies, standard analytical methods, and a boatload of physical and literary evidence, as well as the conclusions of respected scholars and historians from all around the world, and you can join guys like Bill Maher and Richard Carrier to proudly claim that Jesus was a MYTH!

   Yes, this whole post is a bit tongue-in-cheek, but even atheist scholar Bart Ehrman dismissed the Jesus Myth movement as "pseudo-scholarship."  If you want to read further on this subject, here is an excellent article from a site  I highly recommend:


http://reasonsforjesus.com/22-reasons-all-scholars-agree-jesus-is-not-a-copy-of-pagan-gods/

Monday, March 26, 2018

A SHORT STORY FOR EASTER - THE LEGIONARIES

I first wrote this story about three years ago, not long after I finished THE REDEMPTION OF PONTIUS PILATE.  Set in the same time and place, those who have read the story will recognize some of the characters and situations.  Travel with me now to the night after Passover in Jerusalem, 33 AD . . .



THE LEGIONARIES

A Short Story by

Lewis Smith

 

          It was April in Judea, and the nights were still cool in the foothills around Jerusalem.  Three Roman legionaries, each a veteran of ten years or more, sat by a small fire under the shade of a grove of olive trees.  It was dark and quiet, and they talked quietly among themselves to fend off sleepiness.  At dawn another trio of soldiers would come to relieve them, and none of them wanted to face the flogging that sleeping on watch would cost.  Pontius Pilate was a good prefect, who had whipped the Judean Legion into shape when he arrived several years earlier - but he was also a strict disciplinarian, and since being wounded in a battle with Zealots earlier in the year, he had developed a wicked temper.

          A short distance away, a larger group of men were camped in front of a sealed cave.  Members of the elite Temple Guard that worked for the High Priest, they had been given the primary duty of guarding the tomb of the eccentric preacher who had been crucified that Friday.  Caiaphas had detested Jesus of Nazareth and seemed convinced that someone was going to try and steal his body if the tomb was left unguarded.  He had approached Pilate and asked for a guard, but the Prefect was still in a foul temper over being manipulated into crucifying the strange Galilean. He had told the High Priest to see to the matter himself. But then Pontius Pilate had second thoughts, and told his primipilus centurion, Gaius Cassius Longinus, to dispatch a few legionaries to keep an eye on the tomb and its Jewish guards in case anything untoward happened.   Decius, Tiberius, and Carmello were given the thankless task of staring at a tomb all night.

          So now the three soldiers sat and stared at the fire, occasionally standing and walking to the edge of the light to stare at the Jews, who were numerous enough to rotate shifts, so that five or six could remain awake while the others slept.  The two groups did not acknowledge each other in any way; the Romans regarded the Jews as uncouth, fanatical barbarians, and the Jews regarded the Romans as a brutal occupying force in the employ of a foreign government that they hated.

          “I’ve been here five years,” said Carmello Antonius, “and this was the strangest Passover I’ve ever seen.  I know that this Jesus wasn’t a bloodthirsty Zealot like Bar Abbas, but he scared me.  I’ve never seen anyone that could draw bigger crowds.  If he had ever given the word, he could have had all the Jews in the province out for our blood.”

          “I think that is why he had such a huge following,” Decius said.  “I went with Longinus when Pilate ordered us to go hear this Jesus last year and make sure he was not a threat.  Anyone can scream ‘Kill the foreigners!’ around here and get a few people to listen.  Jesus challenged the Jews to love each other and love their enemies.  It was a much different message from the usual rabble-rousing tirades they are used to.”

“But what about the miracles?” Lucius Tiberius asked.  “I keep hearing these stories about lame men walking and blind men receiving their sight.  Was there anything to that?”

“I know that Stichius, Longinus’ manservant, was at the point of death and this Jesus supposedly just said a few words from miles away and the man was back on his feet again the next morning,” Decius replied.  “All the other stuff I don’t know about, but I know Longinus was convinced Jesus had performed a miracle.”

“I knew that old beggar that used to sit by the pool of Siloam,” volunteered Carmello.  “He’d been paralyzed for years, legs like little sticks, completely useless!  But I saw him after that Jesus fellow healed him, and his calves were as big and strong as mine!”

“That’s impossible!” snapped Tiberius.  “I can’t believe you would fall for that!”

“I didn’t fall for anything; I saw it with my own eyes.  I knew the old man; his legs were withered and useless one day, and as strong as mine the next!” Carmello insisted.

“If you insist,” Tiberius said, his tone still disbelieving.  “But here is what I don’t understand – how could the Jews turn on the Galilean so quickly?  When he rode into the city a week ago, they were ready to crown him as their king.  I was near the city gate, and I have never seen a crowd so worked up!  Then, by Friday, the same crowd was howling for his blood!”

Decius snorted in derision.  “Who knows why Jews do anything?” he asked. “We’ve had this province for nearly a hundred years, and they are no closer to being civilized than they were when Pompey Magnus decided the Republic needed this gods-forsaken place.”

Carmello nodded.  “They are a fickle lot, true enough.  I don’t know what Longinus sees in them, to be honest,” he said.

“Longinus is a good soldier, but he ain’t been right ever since he married that Jewish girl,” said Decius.  “And Cornelius is just as bad!”

“How long until dawn, you think?” Tiberius asked to no one in particular.  “I want to get back to the barracks and get some sleep.”

“Another hour at least,” Carmello said.  “So, what did you make of all the goings-on Friday when they nailed this Galilean up with those two Zealot bandits?”

“An earthquake and an eclipse the same day,” said Decius.  ‘Ill omens, according to all the ancients.”

“That was no eclipse,” Carmello said.  “The sun wasn’t obscured a bit at a time – the whole thing grew dark all at once.  I’m telling you, I think it was related to this Jesus’ death.  The gods were not happy to see him killed!  I was out there on the crucifixion detail with Longinus, and I don’t mind telling you I was scared.  I thought the earth was going to tear itself in two right there at the foot of the cross!”

“One of the Jewish merchants I know – fellow by the name of Asher, a decent sort as Jews go – told me that the big veil in the Temple that hides their Holy of Holies from prying eyes, was torn in two from top to bottom at the same instant!” Decius interjected.

“An earthquake could do that naturally,” Tiberius said.  “But some of the other stories – why, I heard people saying they had seen men who died years ago up and walking around Jerusalem!”

“That’s what you get for listening to these superstitious barbarians,” Decius said.  “It was an earthquake, nothing more.”

“Yet it started at the moment that Jesus character died,” Carmello said.  “He threw his head back and hollered ‘It is finished!’ at the top of his lungs, then slumped down dead.  Then suddenly the ground was shaking so hard I couldn’t stand up, and lightning was striking everywhere, even though there wasn’t a cloud in the sky – the sun was black, but I could see every star, just like we can right now.  Old Longinus was even more scared than I was – he’d been keeping tabs on this Jesus for a while, and I think he more than half believed some of the stuff Jesus said about himself.  He started sobbing that we had killed the Son of God!”

“Well, he is killed, that’s the main thing,” Tiberius said.  “Whatever or whoever he was, he’s food for the worms now.  You fellows did make sure he was dead, didn’t you?”

“I drove my spear clean through his heart before we let his friends take the body for burial,” Carmello said.  “He didn’t even twitch, and the blood that came out was all mingled with water.  No doubt he was dead.  I don’t even know why we are out here.  Is old Caiaphas really afraid he might come back?”

“He thinks this man’s disciples will steal the body, and then say that he’s come back – which would be just as bad, from the priesthood’s point of view,” said Tiberius.

“Since when are you privy to the Jewish High Priest’s council chamber?” asked Decius.

“I was in the Prefect’s office when Caiaphas’ messenger asked for a guard,” Decius said.  “Those were his exact words.”

“Is that a shooting star?” asked Carmello suddenly.  A bright ball of light was streaking down from the heavens, growing larger and brighter as it drew near. The Jewish soldiers near the tomb saw it too, and were pointing and jabbering in their native tongue.  The ball of light didn’t flicker out, like most shooting stars – it grew bigger and brighter, lighting the entire garden in an eerie whiteness.

“It’s going to hit us!” shrieked Decius, covering his eyes.

Over their heads, the ball slowed down, and then suddenly split in two.  Instead of a blinding white globe, two oblong shapes slowly lowered to the earth at the tomb’s entrance.  When they touched the ground, they began to assume manlike forms.  As the two sets of guards watched in wonder, one of the white figures reached out and touched the massive stone that covered the entrance to the Galilean’s tomb. A pulse of light so bright that it obscured all else shot outwards from the tomb, and all the guards – Jews and Romans alike – collapsed to the ground like dead men.

The garden was silent.  The stone now lay flat, ten feet from the entrance to the tomb, and the figures, now resolved into tall men wearing robes of blinding white, positioned themselves at either side of the door, like an honor guard. As the sky began to lighten in the east, a third figure emerged blinking into the garden.

Decius, Carmello, and Tiberius lay still on the grass, unmoving, breathing softly.  A pair of bare feet, deeply scarred above the instep, stepped over them as the owner of those feet stepped forth into a new day – and a new age.

Monday, March 19, 2018

How Can We Trust the New Testament When It Is Full of Errors?

  I run a little weekly column in the local newspaper called ASK THE PREACHER.  Sometimes people send me questions, sometimes I repost questions I have encountered elsewhere and try to answer them to the best of my ability.  This was a good question I encountered earlier this week - and yes, others have answered it in more depth and detail than I have here - but for a short column I tried to cover as much as I could.

Q:  How can the New Testament be considered "inerrant" when there are so many errors in the manuscripts?

A:  The first thing that needs clarifying is the term "inerrant." Theologically, what this means is that the New Testament contains God's revelation through His Son Jesus Christ, and that its teachings on matters of faith and morals are complete, authoritative, and without mistake.  It does not necessarily mean that every word of every verse has been passed down precisely in each hand-written copy across twenty centuries of time!

  Bart Ehrman made a big splash about a decade ago with a book entitled MISQUOTING JESUS, in which he described that the Greek manuscripts contain over 400,000 variant readings from each other - in short, 400,000 "mistakes."  Since the original copies of the Gospels and Epistles that make up the New Testament were lost long ago, how can we possibly trust a text that has so many mistakes in its transmission?  Well, first of all - Ehrman didn't say anything that New Testament scholars have not known for the last two centuries.  When you are dealing with thousands of texts hand copied over a period of centuries, of course there are going to be variant readings.  In fact, these variations are useful for textual analysis, since they help us tell which texts were copied from which.  Secondly, Ehrman really fiddled with the figures to arrive at that total of 400,000 "errors."  For example, a single misspelled word that was copied into twenty different manuscripts made from the one containing the original error - most people would count that as a single error.  However, Ehrman would count it as twenty-one - the original, plus the twenty copies!  Over 70% of the errors he cites are simple misspellings by copyists, easily detected and easily corrected.  Another 25% or so are word reversals - switching the order of two words in a sentence.  Of those reversals, 80% of them were a single phrase - "Jesus Christ" in place of "Christ Jesus," or vice versa.  In other words, neither misspellings nor word reversals significantly effect the actual meaning of the passage wherein they occur!  A very small percentage of the variations are paraphrase - where a later copyist used a simpler or more modern word meaning the same thing in place of an earlier term that was more complex, or perhaps simply outmoded.

  What does that leave us with?  A small handful of passages, like the ending of Mark's Gospel, where the exact wording is unknown. All the "doubtful passages" combined comprise less than 1% of the New Testament text, and none of them change a single major doctrine of the Christian faith.  Most modern translations put these verses into brackets and include a footnote explaining what the problems associated with them are.  In short, the New Testament has been transmitted for two thousand years, being copied exclusively by hand for the first fifteen hundred of those years, with at textual accuracy in excess of 99%.  No other work of the ancient world comes anywhere close.

Monday, March 12, 2018

THE GNOSTIC LIBRARY IS COMING!!! (and you're gonna love it!)

    May 1, 2018.  Mark the date on your calendar!  My new novel, THE GNOSTIC LIBRARY, is coming out that day, and it is a doozy!  I wrote this one in 2016, finishing it right after I returned from my trip to Israel.  That summer I read through it again, made my finishing touches, and sent it off to my publisher.  After I signed my contract, I went on to work on other projects and hadn't really thought about the story that much since then. 

   But as the publication date looms closer, and I begin to get ready to work on cover art, I decided to pull out the story and read it again, for the first time in nearly two years. I read the whole thing in two days. This is going to sound incredibly vain when I say it, but I am going to say it anyway:


                                                       WOW!!!!!!!!!!
    Simply put, I think this may be the best thing I have ever written. Fast paced, dynamic, and packing a powerful emotional punch, this story grabs you quick and never lets go.  Set in the Black Desert of Egypt, THE GNOSTIC LIBRARY is the story of a remarkable discovery: an ancient library, buried in the dunes, exposed by a sandstorm in Egypt, and found by a Bedouin shepherd not long after the fall of the Morsi government.  Anxious for some positive coverage in the world press after a long season of violence and anarchy, the new Egyptian government hires two foreign archeologists to excavate the site and curate the hundreds of ancient scrolls it contains.  But a group of radical jihadists, on the run from the Egyptian army, are hiding in the hills on the edge of the Black Desert - and they don't appreciate having an archeological excavation led by infidels on their doorstep!  Terrorism, mayhem, and hostage drama ensue as the members of the Capri Team race from the other side of the world to help rescue their friend and colleague, Vatican archeologist Father Duncan MacDonald.

   Here are a few things you need to know about THE GNOSTIC LIBRARY before it comes out:

   First, this is the third volume in a trilogy that began with THE TESTIMONIUM and continued in MATTHEW'S AUTOGRAPH.  Each story features the same cast of characters, a group of archeologists specializing in the Roman Empire/Early Christian era.  The first story was set on the Isle of Capri in Italy; the second took place in Israel's Negev Desert. The trilogy covers roughly a six year time period, following the team on their three separate adventures.

   Second, each of the Capri Team books is a stand-alone story.  You don't have to read the first two to understand the last one, although the latter two books contain some spoilers for their predecessors. But you can certainly purchase and enjoy THE GNOSTIC LIBRARY without having read THE TESTIMONIUM or MATTHEW'S AUTOGRAPH.  However, you will get a fuller picture of these characters and their personalities by reading the stories in order.  Read one or all - flip a coin, take your choice!

   Third, yes, these are Christian stories - by which I mean, they are written from a Christian perspective, and most (though certainly not all) of the main characters are Christians.  That being said, however, my first and foremost goal with each of them was to write a good story.  Message and morals don't do a bit of good if you write a dry, boring, or preachy novel that no one wants to read.  My goal in this series was to create fun, fast-paced adventure stories, gritty enough to be real but clean enough that I am not embarrassed for my Mom to read them!  If people pick up on and want to know more about the Christian themes I have woven into the story, that's fine.  If they want to simply enjoy a compelling adventure, that's fine too.  Writing something fun and readable and sharing a spiritual message at the same time are not mutually exclusive goals.

   Fourth - This newest book matters a great deal for me personally.  I have been writing novels since 2012, and this is my fifth published book.  I have enjoyed being a published novelist, and I want to go on writing.  However, I'll be honest, my stories have not sold as well as I would like.  I get great reviews from the people that do read them, but not enough people are reading them!  I'm going to pull all the stops out this time in terms of promotion and personal appearances, but I REALLY need people to buy this book. I promise, it is worth your money and time.

   Last of all - THANKS to all of you who have read my books and reviewed them, recommended them to friends, or just enjoyed them.  You are the ones who make this worth doing, and I hope my latest tale of faith, archeology, romance, and terrorism will be a fun reading experience for you.

    Now, if you would like to read the first two Capri Team adventures before diving into this latest one, here are the links for THE TESTIMONIUM and MATTHEW'S AUTOGRAPH.  Give them a read, but hurry!  May 1 is just around the corner.

https://www.amazon.com/The-Testimonium-Lewis-Ben-Smith/dp/1632130440/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1411331078&sr=8-1&keywords=THE+TESTIMONIUM



https://www.amazon.com/Matthews-Autograph-Lewis-Ben-Smith/dp/1632131757/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1449113739&sr=1-1

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Some Tips on Writing Historical Fiction

     All of my published works are tied in, somehow, to the history of the ancient world.  Two of them are directly set in the First Century Roman Empire, and the other two (about to be three) involve archeologists discovering relics from that time period.  I am also a historian by trade (Master's Degree from East Texas State University in European History) and a history teacher by profession. So being both a producer and a consumer of historical fiction, I've become rather picky over the years about some of the flaws I see in that genre.  That being said, I also recognize my own works aren't free of such mistakes!  But I have tried to improve as I have gone along, and I am a big believer in sharing lessons learned.  So here are some pitfalls you might want to avoid and habits you might want to cultivate in the field of historical fiction:

ONE:  This is the single most important point - know your history!  Know the time period you are writing about.  Read some of the primary sources, but be aware of what modern scholarship says about them also. Study historical maps and artworks.   If major historical figures show up in your work, take the time to read a biography of them - more than one, if you can.  Know the political structure of the time, and portray it accurately. (I am still smarting that I had Pontius Pilate elected Urban Praetor at age twenty-six when he should have been running for Aedile at that young age!) Immerse yourself in the world you want to write about -  I read multiple histories of ancient Rome as well as some of the better historical novels set in that period before I ever began writing my first book.

SECOND: Change your mindset!  People in the ancient world did not think like people in the 21st century.  They operated by a different values system, one that often did not place the same value on human life and dignity that we do.  A medieval character would not likely be appalled by brutal capital punishments; in fact, he might well take his children to watch the next hanging.  A Roman of the First Century AD is unlikely to be opposed to the concept of slavery, because it was a part of the very fabric of every culture of the ancient world.  The slave might resent losing his freedom, but he was not likely to question the morality of the institution itself.  Their attitudes towards gender were also very different from ours.  As tempting as it might be to create a "liberated woman" in the 1100's, the fact is, unless her name is Eleanor of Aquitaine, she probably won't ring true!  Many talented writers of historical fiction still manage to produce characters with modern mindsets in otherwise correct historical settings, and it always rings false when they do.

THREE: Avoid anachronisms!  Make sure the technologies and instruments your characters use are appropriate to their time.  For example, in THE REDEMPTION OF PONTIUS PILATE, my second novel, one of Pilate's prized possessions is a Greek telescope.  I wanted to use it in the plot of the story, but at the same time, I wasn't sure such instruments existed in Pilate's lifetime.  A simple Google search showed me that a brass telescope was found in a Greek ruin dating to the first century BC, so such instruments would have been known (but rare) in the time period I was writing about.  Google is your friend, use it to find information, but also be sure to check the source the information comes from and make sure it is dependable.

FOUR: Watch your dialogue!  I was reading a work set in the New Testament era in 2012 and the author had the Apostle Paul, speaking to one of his companions, say "OK!" Now, I realize that Paul and his companions likely spoke Greek to one another, and that rendering their conversation in English is going to make use of words that did not exist in Paul's time.  But seeing that bit of American slang in the middle of a conversation taking place in the Roman Empire two thousand years ago just took me right out of the story and slapped me in the face!  Make your dialogue fit the time period you are writing about; you don't have to write in Elizabethan English, but at the same time, don't use ghetto-speak between two characters living in Elizabeth's time.  One other note here: If you decide to render something in an ancient language, Google Translate is a good initial source, but you really ought to get it checked by someone who is proficient in that language before publication.  In THE TESTIMONIUM, I wanted to render the first three paragraphs of the ancient Pontius Pilate scroll in Latin, so I simply typed it out in English and then translated it using Google.  For 95% of my readers, that looked pretty impressive, but the handful that could actually read Latin caught a couple of real groaners in there, and did not hesitate to let me know about it!

FIVE:  Artistic license is one thing, but wholesale fibbing is another! Dan Brown's monstrous stretching of the truth regarding the origins of the New Testament is a prime example of this offense.  Wherever your story touches real history, try to render that history as accurately as possible.  A little bending of events is fine, but unless you want to label your work as "alternative history" - a cool genre in and of itself! - stick to the script of the events as they really happened.  If your story requires you to diverge from real events too widely, then include an explanation within your story itself.

SIX:  Have fun!  In the end, not many of us will make a living from our literary efforts (not that I have given up trying!).  So don't waste time and patience and pages trying to please your critics.  Write a fun historical novel or short story that you will enjoy, and chances are your readers will enjoy it too.  People can tell when someone takes pleasure in their work, and your joy will be contagious.  Now, sit down, open up that hole in the keyboard, and fall through to another time and place, where your story can begin . . .


AND - if you'd like to check out some of my own historical fiction, here's my Amazon link.  All purchases are greatly appreciated!

https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=dp_byline_sr_book_1?ie=UTF8&text=Lewis+Ben+Smith&search-alias=books&field-author=Lewis+Ben+Smith&sort=relevancerank

Sunday, February 18, 2018

SO YOU WANT TO BE A WRITER?

   I started writing my first book, THE TESTIMONIUM, in March of 2012.  I finished it in November of that year, and it was published in August of 2014. Since then I have published three more novels, with my fifth, THE GNOSTIC LIBRARY, coming out this May.  I still haven't hit that big break - my novels sit around on Amazon, selling a copy or two a week most of the time, and I still lug boxes of books to civic groups, bookstores, and churches, giving talks and trying to gin up a few sales.  I dream about that big endorsement or review that will boost my sales into the thousands, or of that elusive movie contract that will let me retire to a life of luxury.  Those are my dreams, but in real life I've made a little money and learned a good bit about the trade, and I thought that I would share some things I wish I had known when I sat down and started writing THE TESTIMONIUM way back in 2012.  Here are the ground rules of writing in the 21st century:

1.  A WRITER WRITES, ALWAYS!  (Yes, that line comes from "Throw Momma From the Train,"
a great little film about two aspiring writers, among other things.)   Let NOTHING that I've written below keep you from putting your words down.  If you have a story to tell, tell it!  Hop on board that beast and see where it takes you.  It's OK if you don't know how the tale ends when you begin it - stories have a way of spinning themselves out.  If you like poems, write poetry.  If you like short stories, write them!  If you have issues with spelling, get someone who has a strong English background to proofread for you.  If your first story sucks, write another one!  If you can't figure out how to finish your novel and it just grinds to a halt, start another project.  You can always come back to it later, or realize that maybe that story just wasn't that great to begin with (I started one novel in high school and another during my Navy years, and didn't finish either).  The bottom line is simple: You will NEVER become a writer if you give up on writing!

2.  DON'T GIVE UP ON GETTING PUBLISHED!  It took me about a year and a half from the time I typed THE END at the conclusion of my first book until I finally found a traditional publisher willing to take a chance on it.  I shopped it around to agents, and had zero luck getting one to rep my story.  Then I started going down the list of publishers who accepted works in my genre (Christian-based adventure stories).  These days, most of them won't even send you a rejection slip.  Their website simply says something to the effect of: "If you don't hear from us in six months, then assume that your work does not fit our present publishing criteria."  It's a bit hard not to take that personally, but remember, there are thousands and thousands of people out there dreaming of becoming writers.  Publishers see a ton of manuscripts and most of them stink.  Keep plugging!  And, if you can't find a traditional press to take an interest in your work, that brings me to

3.  AVOID VANITY PRESSES!  There are hundreds of publishing firms out there that will publish your book for a fee.  Most of them try to tell you that they are actually publishing your book for free, and that the $3000-5000 that they want you to spend is for promotional purposes, to help market your book.  DON'T BUY THAT FOR A MINUTE!  They will give your book an ISBN and get it listed on Amazon (something that you can do for free if you self publish), and maybe give your book a mention on their website or social media page, and then pocket your money.  One of the most predatory vanity presses, Tate Publishing, went out of business last year.  But one of their favorite hooks was that they would fully refund your $3500 "publicity fee" as soon as your book sold 1000 copies.  The problem is, their books were badly edited, overpriced, and not stocked in stores.  From what I read on several authors' forums, even those writers who did manage to sell a thousand copies of a book published by Tate had a hard time collecting their money.  You should never have to pay a third party to publish your book for you! Vanity presses are vultures who feed on the hopes of aspiring writers.  Don't become their next victim!
 
4.  SELF PUBLISHING IS ALWAYS AN OPTION.  Fortunately, I had a traditional publisher take an interest in my works, so it wasn't an option I had to resort to.  But Amazon and a number of other sites offer self-publishing services that are inexpensive and give you the basics: access to professional editing, an ISBN and listing on the major online platforms, and cover art design.  Honestly, it is easier than ever before to publish your own book, and that leads me to

5.  GET USED TO COMPETITION.  Amazon lists over 100,000 new titles every MONTH.  There are LOTS of aspiring writers out there competing with you for sales, and you aren't going to break into the top 100 or the top 1000 or even the top 10,000 sales rank just because you wrote a book.  If you just write your book and stick it out there online and wait for people to buy it, you're in for a long wait!  That's why #6 is SO important.

6.  HUSTLE YOUR BUTT OFF.  I cannot emphasize this enough.  There is no silver bullet, no magic formula, other than simple self-promotion.  Radio ads don't sell that many books, neither do TV ads.  What sells books is name recognition, and name recognition comes from putting yourself out there.  Schedule book signings - that can be hard, brick and mortar bookstores are going away at an alarming rate.  B. Dalton, Walden Books, Hastings, and Family Christian have all gone belly up in the last decade or so.  But find what bookstores you can and get yourself in them.  Jump through whatever hoops they place in front of you.  Fill out forms, keep on pestering the book managers, simply walk in with a copy of your book and ask to talk to someone.  Above all, do personal appearances and social media.  Those are the two main venues that move books.  Start a blog, do a podcast, start your own YouTube Channel, accept every friend request you get on FB (except hot girls in bikinis who write English with a foreign accent and ask you to come visit their webcams!), and keep it up!  Speak at banquets, at libraries, at civic groups, any place that will let you come in the door and set up a book table.

7.  This is the hardest lesson of them all. IT DOESN'T MATTER HOW GOOD YOUR BOOK IS.  I have four novels that have all gotten marvelous reviews from their readers.  I will stack them against any novels in their genre, but the fact is that I see a lot of books that are not as good as mine reach the bestseller list because they were by established authors.  "The enemy of the new author is obscurity," I forget who told me that but it is a tough lesson I've had to learn.  You want sales?  Build your brand.  Especially, I will add this - if a traditional publisher accepts your work, then it's good.  They have LOTS of submissions, and if they picked yours out of them all, it's because your book IS  worthwhile.  But that being said, it doesn't matter how good your work is - if you just stick it out there and expect people to buy it, you are going to be disappointed. This brings me, last of all, to this -

8. Don't quit your day job.  Writing is fun, and being able to say that you are a published author is a source of great pride.  I hoped (and still hope) to turn my novels into a retirement income.  But the truth is, right now they are bringing me about $2000-3000 a year in profits, no more.  I am still working all the time to establish my brand and get my name out there, but it's an uphill climb.  So relax, have fun, enjoy the little bit of extra income your books bring you, and keep on plugging.  The dream is still out there.  Obscure writers today become famous writers tomorrow.  One of you - or maybe it is me, who knows? - is the next John Grisham, the next J,K. Rowling, the next Stephen King.  Keep chasing that dream, and remember, a writer writes - always!

So, if ANY of this has helped you in any way, and you would like to do a small favor for the blogger who encouraged you - or if you would simply like to read a stirring historical novel about the Roman Empire and the dawn of Christianity, or perhaps a moving tale of faith, archeology, romance, and terrorism - well, here is the link to my books on Amazon.  Please, go buy one, read it, review it, and recommend it to friends!!

https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=dp_byline_sr_book_1?ie=UTF8&text=Lewis+Ben+Smith&search-alias=books&field-author=Lewis+Ben+Smith&sort=relevancerank