Friday, December 5, 2014

What We Believe Versus What We Know

(I originally wrote this as an afterward in my first book, THE TESTIMONIUM. It got cut due to concerns about the length of the book, but I thought I would share it here.  While it contains no spoilers, it does make more sense if you have read the book.)

First of all, I would like to thank all those who proofread, commented on, and criticized this work in progress.  This is the first novel I have ever completed (after two woefully incompetent starts when I was much younger!), and it has been a labor of love from start to finish.  Where did I get the idea?  To tell the truth, several things came together at once that brought this story to fruition.

As a pastor and a Christian schoolteacher, it is my job to make the Bible stories come alive for my students and my congregation.  One of the time honored ways to do this is to do the occasional costumed monologue, speaking as one of the characters from the story.  About five or six years ago, I did one such monologue as Pontius Pilate, dictating his report to Tiberius Caesar about the trial of Jesus and the events which followed.  Having read some of the works of the Apostolic Fathers (second generation Christians who wrote between 96 and 180 AD), I knew that such a document did once exist.  Justin Martyr actually appealed to Pilate’s report in his work, The First Apology, dated around 140 AD.  I also knew that a forged report by Pilate, known as The Acts of Pilate, had been written in the early medieval era.  As I looked through these accounts, I found myself wondering – what happened to Pilate’s original report to Caesar? Could it account for the story related to Tertullian about Tiberius’ interest in Jesus of Nazareth? And how would the world react today if such a report were uncovered?

This brings me to my second reason for writing this work.  There are a plethora of recent thrillers centered on the theme of Biblical archeology.  The Da Vinci Code is probably the best known of these in recent years, but many famous authors have created imaginary archeologists and historians and sent them scrambling the globe in search of ancient Biblical treasures.  As a believer in Christ, where most of these works fall short is not in execution – they are, for the most part, well-written and compelling – but in their message.  Almost invariably, their underlying theme is “Guess what? The Church and/or the Bible have been lying to you all these years about who Jesus was! Here is the REAL truth!!”  And then they give us their vision of the mortal Jesus, the space alien Jesus, the mystic Jesus, the dead prophet Jesus, the pretender Jesus, or whatever. And, as a degreed historian, I will say that they usually do so with an absolutely callous disregard for historical accuracy.  I know it is a novel, but come on! If you are going to call it a historical novel, get your history right!

Then there is the annual parade of dubious archeological discoveries, trumpeted on The Discovery Channel or on the cover of TIME, always purporting to show that this or that aspect of the Gospel narrative is untrue.  Then, invariably, under the light of scholarship, we find out that the discovery was a hoax (the James Ossuary), an exaggeration of secular wishful thinking (the Jesus Family Tomb), or at best, a document written a century or more after the time of Jesus and falsely attributed to one of his disciples (the Gospel of Thomas or the Judas Gospel).  The fact is that the four Biblical Gospels have pretty vigorously resisted all attempts to “debunk” them over the years, and we know now that they present a remarkably unified narrative that gets all the little details of Jesus’ world right.  And if they are correct in so many small historical details, is it not safe to assume that they are correct in their most important and central claim?

So what I set out to write is a (hopefully) readable and enjoyable thriller, with a dash of danger and romance, and at the same time raise a very important, indeed fundamental question: What if the Gospels got it right?  To that end, I have done my best to make sure that all the arguments Josh and his Dad employ to defend the Gospels are sound and accurate.  For example, while most modern scholars would date the three Synoptic Gospels around AD 70, the “defense brief” theory for Luke and Acts still makes more historical sense than any other explanation posed for the abrupt ending of the Book of Acts.  And if it does hold true, then that would also place Mark and Matthew a decade or more earlier than 70 AD.  So if Jesus was crucified in 33 AD, and Luke completed his Gospel in 62 AD or so, that means a gap of less than 30 years between the events he chronicles and the time of his writing. That means that many of the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life would still have been alive at the time these accounts were written.  And some of Paul’s letters are quite a bit earlier than the Gospels! So if the arguments presented in this fictitious tale make you reconsider what you believe about Jesus and the Gospel stories, I would strongly encourage you to read some of the great Christian apologists out there, especially Josh McDowell and Lee Strobel (whose arguments I have shamelessly plagiarized!), or, for a bit more scholarly coverage, some of Donald Guthrie’s works on the New Testament.

Last of all, as a voracious reader, I consume a lot of fiction, both Christian and secular.  Sad to say, there isn’t nearly as much quality Christian fiction out there as there should be.  More than once I have picked up a popular best-seller from the Christian bookstore and lamented that it was really nowhere near the quality of writing that is produced by some of my favorite writers of mainstream historical fiction or thrillers.  I thought, perhaps, that I could do better.  I will let you be the judge of whether or not I did.


Lewis Smith

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