Don’t Know Much About History

On Monday I’ll get back to my series of posts on how I choose books but today I wanted to explore another topic. Namely, the dangerous attitude of Christians – especially those tasked with teaching – towards history. I do not mean that every pastor or teacher must be a lover of history. What I mean is that everyone who claims to teach the Bible should have a respect for history and an understanding of its importance in correctly handling the Word of God.

Here’s why I am bringing this up: several months ago I was perusing the transcript of a Christmas-season sermon from one of America’s most well-known pastors. This man is a bestselling author, the leader of one of the biggest churches in the world, and is held in high regard. Let’s call him Pastor X

No, it is not Rick Warren.

I have always had a healthy respect for Pastor X, though I have never met him or been to his church; his messages are generally faithful to Scripture and rarely resemble the topical mush that characterizes so much of evangelical preaching. Further, he has always struck me as a guy who knows his stuff. I’ve never heard him say something that made me scratch my head and wonder what in the world he was talking about.

Until I came across a particular line in this transcript that reduced me to slack-jawed disbelief. This is essentially what it said–I’ll paraphrase rather than reproduce the entire paragraph:

“The title ‘Prince of Peace’ is sar shalome in Hebrew. So sar means Prince or Lord and the Romans took this Hebrew word sar and it became Czar which then became Caesar, as in Julius Caesar.”

If that doesn’t make your head explode with its wrongness, one of two things is true: you do not have a general knowledge of ancient history (which is unfortunate, but not sinful) or you know it is wrong, but it does not bother you (which is unfortunate and, I would argue, sinful).

In case you don’t know how that statement is wrong: the words ‘Czar’ and ‘Caesar’ are connected, but the Russian ‘Czar’ (and other European titles, like ‘Kaiser’) came from ‘Caesar,’ not the other way around. Further, the idea that the Romans appropriated the Hebrew word sar is laughable. And even if they did, it certainly did NOT become the word ‘Caesar’ which was a family name long before it was a title, and either meant ‘hairless’ (the Julii men may have been known for their baldness) or ‘elephant killer.’ Seriously. Julius Caesar seems to have thought it was the latter, which is why the picture of an elephant can be found on certain coins made in his name.

But regardless of whether ‘Caesar’ meant ‘bald’ or ‘elephant killer’ it certainly did not mean ‘lord’ or ‘king.’ Octavian was adopted by Julius and emphasized his connection to the murdered tyrant with his new name, ‘Caesar.’ Afterwards, emperors all claimed the name Caesar to emphasize continuity and thus the name became the title synonymous with ‘Emperor.’

Pastor X’s statement is so embarassingly incorrect that, if I heard it in church, I might be forced to conclude that I could not trust the speaker to faithfully interpret Scripture. So how did a statement that can’t even be supported with a Google search make it into a sermon heard by tens of thousands?

One word: ignorance. Now, our society tends to equate the word ‘ignorance’ with stupidity, but that is silly. Ignorance can be remedied, while stupidity is sadly incurable.

My point is this: pastors, teachers, are you speaking words of truth? Your congregations trust you. How can you possibly claim to teach truth if you have no interest in learning the history behind the text? The Bible is, after all, an ancient text. Yes, it is timeless and always relevant, but it is still ancient. It requires study; it requires a pursuit – we must chase after the truths of God in order to help our people understand Him better.

The tragedy is that even ten minutes on the Internet would have prevented such an appalling inaccuracy from reaching the message. There are many components to studying the Bible and history is not foremost among them, but I do think it is perhaps the most neglected. Please do not misunderstand me: I am not advocating history lectures from the pulpit. What I am advocating is an understanding of history sufficient to prevent lies from reaching the pulpit.


2 responses to “Don’t Know Much About History

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