A Troubling Lack of Martyrdom

And this lack of martyrdom troubled the Irish, to whom a glorious death by violence presented such an exciting finale. If all Ireland had received Christianity without a fight, the Irish would just have to think up some new form of martyrdom – something even more interesting than the wonderfully grisly stories they had begun to learn in the simple continental collections, called “martyrologies,” from which Patrick and his successors taught them to read.

The Irish of the late fifth and early sixth centuries soon found a solution, which they called the Green Martyrdom, opposing it to the conventional Red Martyrdom by blood. The Green Martyrs were those who, leaving behind the comforts of and pleasures of ordinary human society, retreated to the woods, or to a mountaintop, or to a lonely island – to one of the green no-man’s-lands outside tribal jurisdiction – there to study the scriptures and commune with God. For among the story collections Patrick gave them they found the examples of the anchorites of the Egyptian desert, who, also lacking the purification rite of persecution, had lately devised a new form of holiness by living alone in isolated hermitages, braving all kinds of physical and psychological adversity, and imposing on themselves the most heroic fasts and penances, all for the sake of drawing nearer to God.

Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization

I am more sympathetic to these monastics than I used to be. After all, the motive for many was to draw closer to God and to see more of his glory, misguided though they may have been in trying to accomplish this by retreating from the world. A far better “martyrdom” would have been to endure the sufferings implicit in taking the gospel to the pagan peoples which had not yet been reached – as the later Irish were indeed to do. This Green Martyrdom, then, was perhaps was the result of Patrick’s limited knowledge of the world. He believed he had brought the gospel to the end of the world, beyond which there was nowhere else left. Perhaps he taught this to his disciples, so they looked around at the newly Christianized Irish tribes, and retreated into the woods.

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North Korea, Persecution, and Insider Movements

I listened to this podcast while driving to another city yesterday in order to attend a training. I thought it looked good. I had no idea just how good it would prove to be. Without exaggerating, this is one of the most thought-provoking, emboldening, and sobering things I have listened to all year.

Turns out the history of missions and the Church in Korea has a lot of lessons for those seeking to plant churches among unreached Muslim people groups today. James Cha, the man interviewed, himself draws these connections regarding compromise, persecution, and God’s purposes in even the worst kinds of suffering.

My American parents were supported by the second largest church in Korea when they went to the mission field in 1989. At that time, the pastor of that huge church told them that Koreans were not quite ready yet to send their own cross-cultural workers. But they were praying in order to get ready. Now, in 2021, they have over 16,000 foreign missionaries on the field. Listening to their spiritual heritage gives me a deeper appreciation for how God has worked to reach that nation, and how he is now using them to reach so many others. What a legacy. And what a tragedy considering the ongoing suffering of North Koreans. May God be merciful and grant the reunification of the North and South so long prayed for.

Could it be that my persecuted minority focus group might some day respond to the gospel and be a huge sending force like the Koreans are? May it be.

Listen to the podcast here.

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The Apostle of Mesopotamia

The Syrian acts of Mar Mari, from the sixth/seventh century… credit Mar Mari with the first complete evangelization of Mesopotamia. He serves as the apostle to Mesopotamia, whose two major rivers, the Euphrates and the Tigris, according the Genesis, flowed out of paradise (Gen 2:14) According to the acts, Mar Addai sent him from Edessa to the east. He first taught in Nisibis and then moved on the Arbil, the capital of the principality of Adiabene in modern Iraqi Kurdistan, where he cured the king of leprosy and cast out a demon the from the son of an officer. On the way south, he, like Jesus, healed the afflicted, cast demons out of the possessed and even raised the dead. In Seleucia-Ctesiphon he encountered resistance; the citizens wanted nothing of the Good News. Only a successful demonstration of divine judgement, in which the apostle remained unharmed in a blazing fire, enabled a few conversions, after which Mari destroyed a pagan temple and erected atop its ruins a chapel – the future cathedral of Kokhe. He then followed the Tigris south, reached present-day Basra and concluded his journey in Khuzistan and the province of Persia. The acts close with the extolling of Mari, who, like a ‘pillar of fire’, led believers through the desert of ignorance into the kingdom of the Gospel.

Baumer, The Church of the East, pp. 19-20

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The First Literates

For it was Patrick’s Christian mission that nurtured Irish scholarship into blossom. Patrick, the incomplete Roman, nevertheless understood that, though Christianity was not inextricably wedded to Roman custom, it could not survive without Roman literacy. And so the first Irish Christians also became the first Irish literates.

Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, pp. 150-151

And this continues to be the case. I remember my mother teaching literacy classes in the woven reed huts of Melanesia. Friends in Cameroon are teaching others to read and write for the first time. And even here in Central Asia, literacy and eventually scholarship goes hand in hand with gospel advance. Just this week I helped pay for some seminary books in one of our languages and wrote someone else asking them to consider coming and investing in one of our many unengaged minority language groups. They (or you) could be the first Christian and outsider ever to learn one of these tongues and preach the gospel in it.

Is it pragmatic to teach indigenous peoples how to read and write so that the faith might survive and advance? Sure, but I believe it’s more than that. Christians have always been people of the book. We are lovers of language who truly delight to see the worship of God breaking into more and more mother-tongues.

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Christians Do Not Abandon Their Dead

‘Our brothers from Parthia do not marry two wives; Jewish Christians are not circumcised, our sisters from Gilan and Kushan do not associate with foreigners; those from Persia do not marry their daughters; those from Media do not abandon their dead, nor do they give them to the dogs to eat, nor do they bury the dying while still alive, Christians from Edessa do not kill their wives or sisters who commit adultery, and those from Hatra do not stone thieves.’ This quote from Bardaisan’s ‘Book of the Laws of the Lands’ from the early third century is not merely instructive on account of the descriptions of the morals of the Asian peoples mentioned but also provides valuable evidence of how far Christianity had spread to the east by the end of the Parthian dynasty (224/226 CE). Parthia should be understood here as Mesopotamia, and Persia and Media as Iran. Gilan lies to the south of the Caspian Sea, the most westerly part of the great Kushan empire was Transoxania, and Hatra lies south of Mosul. At the start of the third century, Christian cells existed in all of these regions.

Baumer, The Church of the East, p. 19

What a difference the gospel made in these ancient cultures!

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Wine’s Alcohol Content in the Ancient World

This week I came across this article by Dr. Charles L Quarles of SEBTS, titled Was New Testament Wine Alcoholic? It contained this interesting trivia: ancient writers and the water to wine dilution rates mentioned in their works.

The article goes on to argue that the most likely water to wine dilution rate of Jews in the New Testament period was 3:1, which was equivalent to a beverage that is only 3% alcoholic. In other words, equivalent to a modern low-alcohol beer. It wasn’t modern grape juice, which wasn’t invented until the Methodist Rev. Welch came along in the 1800s. But neither was it basically the same thing as a contemporary shiraz.

If this is true, then it’s a finding likely unsatisfactory to both sides of the Christians and alcohol debate. The wine consumed by Jesus was actually alcoholic, but in a pretty mild way. You’d have to drink a lot to get drunk. However, you could indeed get drunk from the common wine of the Jews if you wanted to. And there was certainly other wine around that was stronger, judging from the biblical passages addressing the dangers of drunkenness, as well as the testimony of the ancient writers in this Quarle’s article.

While I find the historical context interesting and helpful – these kinds of details really do matter for good interpretation – I’m not at all sure that it changes the biblical principle. Namely, drunkenness is a sin, and any alcohol consumption should be governed by a Christian accordingly (Eph 5:18). This principle seems sound and stable no matter the alcohol content of a given drink.

Just this past week, *Darius was sharing his testimony. It involved his amazement that during our first time hanging out together, I didn’t drink with him and his friends, breaking their expectations of what an American was supposed to be like. But I was then and am still under a no-alcohol covenant required by my organization. Darius wanted to know why I wasn’t partaking of the alcohol they had on hand and that’s what got us into a gospel conversation. That conversation led to more talks, until Darius came to faith.

I smiled as he recounted this story, because in previous years I had had the exact opposite happen. When I was here previously with a different organization, I had felt unexpectedly led to have a beer with my new Muslim friends. That act of partaking led to good gospel conversations, and *Hama ended up coming to faith.

So which is it? Have a beer for the sake of the gospel or abstain for the sake of the gospel? Both, it seems, according to the place where God sovereignly has you. Both can be done for the sake of love. And both postures can bridge to the heart of the matter – that we need new hearts.

There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.โ€ (Mark 7:15 ESV)

Wait, can biblical wisdom really leave the door open to both? Won’t that be harmful or confusing?

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, โ€˜He has a demon.โ€™ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, โ€˜Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!โ€™ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.โ€ (Matt 11:18-19 ESV)

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*Names changed for security

The Ark of the Covenant in its Egyptian Context

Here is a fascinating article from the Biblical Archaeology Society about the Ark of the Covenant and the possible meanings of its design. The Hebrews weren’t operating from a blank cultural slate. They had been living in Egypt for 400 years and adopting from that culture certain meaning-form understandings. For example, the pharaoh could go into battle while seated on a winged throne. That throne would be held aloft by shoulder poles – just like the Ark of the Covenant. In other words, it’s highly likely that the poles the Levites used to carry the ark, and the wings of the cherubim, and the mercy seat itself were all designed to carry a particular visual meaning – YHWH is divine king. I find the concluding paragraph of the article helpful in summarizing many of the elements of Old Testament religion.

“Therefore, even though Yahweh is not bound to human limits, he condescended to mankind deferring to human expectations of divinity. The cherubim had wings that stretched out over the Mercy Seat, and the shekinah glory met with man from between the wings of the cherubim above the ark. God did not try to change the beliefs of the people before engaging them, but instead respected human frailty and human notions of the divine, inverting or modifying those beliefs to teach humanity new ideas about himself.”

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The Script of Jesus and the Mongols

Likewise unquestioned is the fact that both Syriac languages and scripts developed out of the Aramaic dialect of Edessa [modern Urfa]. This language, which was widespread in Syria and Parthia and functioned as the lingua franca of Egypt and Asia Minor as far as India, was Jesus’ mother tongue and belongs to the Semitic language family. Beginning in the fifth century BCE, it replaced Hebrew as the colloquial language of the Jews. Its consonant alphabet is a further development of the Phoenician. Thanks to the Syriac Gospel harmony of Tatian (c. 170) and the Tetragospels called the Peshitta (c. 400), Syriac spread rapidly in Asian Christianity… Also belonging to the sphere of Aramaic script culture – in part because of the Nestorian mission to Asia – are the right-to-left and/or top-to-bottom scripts of the Sogdians, the Uigurs, the Mongols and the Manchurians.

Baumer, The Church of the East, p. 18

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More Than a Home

The exchange between Patrick and his adopted people is marvelous to contemplate. In the overheated Irish cultural environment, mystical attitudes toward the world were taken for granted, as they had never been in the cooler, more rational Roman world. Despite its pagan darkness and shifting insubstantiality, this Irish environment was in the end a more comfortable one for the badly educated shepherd boy to whom God spoke directly. His original home in Roman Britain had become an alien place to him. But the Irish gave Patrick more than a home – they gave him a role, a meaning to his life. For only this former slave had the right instincts to impart to the Irish a New Story, one that made new sense of all their old stories and brought them a peace they had never known before.

Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, pp. 147-148

This description of Patrick might resonate with many who have grown up as third-culture kids, those who are raised in a different culture than their parents’ native one and who develop their own “third” personal culture. Patrick’s story was somewhat different in that he was forced to become a third-culture kid when he was kidnapped and made a shepherd-slave. But many TCKs today will still resonate with the line, “his original home… had become an alien place to him.” Some might also recognize the strange discovery that this failure to fit in often points to a particular purpose elsewhere.

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