Onward Christian Socialist
By Terry Wynn
The easiest way to illustrate the historical record is to reprint a section of "Groundwork of Biblical Studies" by W. David Stacey, printed by Epworth Press, part of Chapter 28, entitled "Evidence from outside the Gospel":
“There are just a few references to the beginnings of Christianity in the writings of Roman authors who were by no means sympathetic to what one of them called 'the new superstition'. Tacitus, who was born before Paul was martyred and who himself died around AD 115, was a Roman historian. In his Annals (XV 44) he explains how Nero, finding himself suspected of setting fire to Rome in AD 64, put the blame on the Christians and began a furious persecution of them. Tacitus continues: ‘The name of Christian comes from Christ who, during the principate of Tiberius, was put to death by the procurator, Pontius Pilate. Checked for the moment, this detestable superstition broke out again, no longer simply in Judea, where the evil took its birth, but even in the city (of Rome) where every kind of shameful frightfulness fetches itself and wins many followers.’
“Tacitus seems to be depending on hearsay. Nonetheless, he has a number of facts right, or shall we say that he confirms what the New Testament says? He confirms the date and place. He confirms the name Christ (to the pagan Gentile, 'Christ' was nothing more than a name). Above all, he confirms the execution under Pontius Pilate.
“Another Roman historian, a decade or two later than Tacitus, was Suetonius. He chronicled the lives of various Roman emperors. His ‘Life of Nero’ confirms that Nero made the Christians scapegoats for the fire of Rome. He describes Christianity as 'a new and mischievous superstition'. In his ‘Life of Claudius’ he refers to the expulsion of the Jews from Rome about the year AD 50. This is consistent with the statement in Acts (l8:2) which also mentions that Aquila and Priscilla were among those expelled. It is interesting to note, however, that Suetonius gives as the reason for the expulsion the fact that the Jews were squabbling with each other over one 'Chrestus'. It is a reasonable guess that Suetonius had made a slight mistake in the name and that he was in fact referring to disputes in the Jewish community about Jesus Christ. If this is so, then it follows that Christian preachers had arrived in Rome by AD 50.
“A letter written by Pliny the Younger, around the year AD 110, also gives interesting information about early Christians and their worship. Pliny, who was asking for advice on how best to deal with Christians, mentions an early morning assembly, at which Christians sing a hymn to Christ 'as to a god'. Pliny is unsure whether there is anything treasonable in this conduct. It is fascinating that a pagan observer should see so clearly where the centre of Christian faith lay.
“The clearest of all references in Roman sources comes from the Jewish historian, Josephus, who fought in the war of AD 66-70 and then went to Rome to write a history of the Jews. In Ant. 20.9.1. he refers briefly to the death by stoning of James, 'brother of Jesus, who was called Christ'. A few pages previously (Ant. 18.3.3) there is a far more explicit statement.
“One paragraph refers to Jesus, his miracles, his teaching, his crucifixion and his resurrection. But this is just the trouble. It is only one paragraph.
“If Josephus was a Christian, and only a Christian could have written this paragraph, then it is amazing that other indications of his faith do not appear in his voluminous writings.
“It seems clear that Josephus was not a Christian and that this passage was added to his work by an unknown, Christian hand. Nobody knows when this might have been, so the value of the passage as evidence is slight.
“Apart from Roman sources, useful information comes from the Talmud, a collection of rabbinic writings completed in the fifth or sixth century AD. Various references to a Jesus ben Panthera imply that Jesus was the son of Mary and a Roman soldier, Tiberius Panthera. This is probably the origin of the rather crude suggestion that the tradition of the Virginal Conception conceals the illegitimacy of Jesus. A further passage states: ‘On the eve of the Passover Jesus was hanged. For forty days a herald went before him crying, "He must be stoned, because he has practised sorcery, seduced Israel and enticed her into apostasy. Let anyone who has anything to say to justify him, come forward and do so." As nothing was said in his defence, he was hanged on Passover Eve.’
“The details of the herald need not worry us. The author may be referring to some custom about which we know nothing and he may or may not have been correct. If the passage has the
date right, then it contradicts the Synoptic Gospels which record that Jesus ate the Passover before he died. On the other hand the passage confirms the fourth Gospel which puts the crucifixion a day earlier.
“Most important is the description of Jesus as a sorcerer. It recalls the Beelzebub controversy in Mark Chapter (3:22). The enemies of Jesus do not say that the rumours of his cures were false, but that they were carried out by an evil power.
“This confirms that the ministry of Jesus was attended by 'wonderful works' though it does not, of course, give support to any particular miracle story.
“The most important material, however, comes from Christian sources. There is a large collection of early texts that were never included in the New Testament. Their value varies enormously and they represent a complex study in their own right.”
"The Cross Behind Bars" by Jenny Cooke, extract by permission of Kingsway Publishing:
When Graham found out Noel was leaving, he asked permission to talk to the men in the chapel one Sunday morning. Noel was silent for a minute and the huge prisoner waited quietly.
"Graham, I'd like to say yes and certainly over the last fifteen months you've stuck wonderfully to your promise to be a Christian, but,” Noel looked him straight in the eye, “I don't usually allow it.”
"In case the other lads start taking the mickey out of you afterwards. They could make your life a misery."
Graham smiled. The light in his eyes spread out over his whole face and Noel couldn't help smiling back.
"Well, Mr. Proctor. I’m not scared of a few little fellas. I don't think they'll bother us."
Noel could well believe it. He'd heard the hush fall on the other prisoners as 'Graham the Killer' walked past. He'd seen them edge back to give Graham room.
"Well, er, since you are such a big chap - with a big heart - why not? I'll give you a chance."
Graham stood up and his enormous shoulders seemed to fill the room. "Thanks, Mr. Proctor", he said and then turned and eased himself through the door. They'd called him 'Graham the Killer' at first but recently the change in his life had become so obvious that people couldn't help noticing it. Now they called him 'The Gentle Giant'.
The Sunday morning service came and it was thronged with prisoners. Word had got round that Graham was going to speak. At first Noel had wondered if the Chief would give permission, but he'd whistled between his teeth and said, "Yes, provided the officer on duty that morning agreed". Noel looked at the officers on duty in the chapel. They stood, arms folded, faces impassive, with the silver chain that ran from their belts to their pockets, thick with hidden keys. Only their eyes were never still as they darted glances to and fro amongst the prisoners.
Everyone sang and then, as the music died away, Noel came forward to introduce Graham. Over a hundred pairs of eyes fastened on Graham as he clambered to his feet and went and stood at the front.
He cleared his throat, "Well lads, Mr. Proctor's given us permission to give yer a quick estimate of my life. In l954 I got married and the wife had two or three kids. But in 1960 things started to go wrong. I went and got a gun and robbed a few places and got money. I got a few thousand pounds. But then one time the police came and I shot a few of them. They got George Medals for capturing us. But in l960 my life came to an end."
His thick Geordie voice filled the room. Many of the men were leaning forward. He drew breath and went on, “Ell, I was very hostile. I wouldn't accept the system. I was usually on my own in the 'Block', and,” his voice trembled but he carried on, "I've been in Wakefield, Hull, Parkhurst, now here. I've been inside for nineteen years. But my family stuck by us. My mam visited us every week. She never turned away from us. She gave us hope."
"Then I went on a visit to Durham to see her and on the Monday they told us I was coming to Dartmoor." He raised his voice, "No ways was I coming. I didn't want to. My mam was old and I knew I might not see much more of her, so I said no. Then", his voice dropped, "at four o'clock that afternoon she went and died."
Noel looked at the men who were rapt with attention. He noticed Marcus Blake nodding sympathetically. Graham went on, "Well, it were a big shock to us. I loved my mother. Then I came down here. They kept saying, ‘You can't do this!’ ,’You can't do that!’ So I blew up the reception". A ripple went round the prisoners, a silent snigger, as they remembered the shadow of the old Graham.
Graham paused and then he said, "Well, this bloke, Mr. Proctor, came and told us about the mission. I'd never been to a church before in all the prisons I'd been in. But I thought, is there anything in this? So I read my Bible and every night I came to the mission." A hush fell on the men and they stopped fidgeting.
"Well, I decided to give us life to God. I couldn't do any worse. No one else wanted it, and He's given me peace of mind; I've new hope for the future. I know I've got a future now; I didn't before. My eldest son says to me, ‘Dad, there's a change in you and I know there is a change in us.’ My burdens and sins have gone. I know I'm a sinner at the Cross. But I'm more happy in my mind. He'll see me through if I carry on with the teaching of Jesus. I love Him. And I can love my enemies. I have a few of them. I only hope my enemies can forgive me... the people that I shot... and the people that died... I can only hope my Lord can forgive me what I've done."
Into the hush Graham shed a few tears, wrung as it were from his very heart. Noel glanced quickly round the room, but the men sat still. No one whispered. No one fidgeted. The officers stared at Graham, as he quickly turned his head away and wiped his face with his sleeve.
He sighed and then struggled on, "I know I can take us troubles to Him. Don't get me wrong, I don't like these buildings and I don't like Dartmoor, but I like to come to chapel and to the prayer meetings..." As abruptly as he had begun, he finished and swung back into his seat.
But before he had time to sit down, the men began to clap. They clapped and clapped and then, in a final burst of solidarity, they all stood to their feet, pulling Graham up with them. The clapping went on and on and on. And Noel joined in. Finally it died away and stillness descended. At the end of the service Noel shook hands with every man as he left.
Soon he had about a dozen names of prisoners written down in his notebook. "Can you tell me how to get like Graham, please?"
"Can I become a Christian?"
Then, almost last out, came Graham. Four officers were near him, one to escort him back to his cell. Suddenly one of the officers stuck his hand out to Graham. Graham stared at the hand and then looked down at the officer. For a moment their eyes met and then Graham lifted up his hand and grasped the officer's. As Noel watched the other three officers each came up to Graham and shook him by the hand.
Then they all turned away quickly and left, taking Graham with them. Noel gazed after them. In all his years in the Prison Service he'd never seen officers shake hands with any prisoner before - least of all when that prisoner was a “lifer.”
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