What Christians Should Know About Paul

Given that historians look to those who are contemporaries of the events, Paul is an important resource for what historians can know about Jesus of Nazareth. Furthermore, the earliest documents we have for the life of Jesus are Paul’s letters. Paul was a very competent rabbi who was trained at the rabbinic academy called the House of Hillel by ‘Gamaliel,’ a key rabbinic leader and member of the Sanhedrin.  Both Christian and non-Christian scholars have come to have great respect Paul. Allow me to mention a few comments here:

“Without knowing about first century Judaism, modern readers—even those committed to faith by reading him—are bound to misconstrue Paul’s writing…Paul is a trained Pharisee who became the apostle to the Gentiles.” –Alan Segal, Paul the Convert: The Apostolate and Apostasy of Saul the Pharisee (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), xi-xii


“Paul has left us an extremely precious document for Jewish students, the spiritual autobiography of a first-century Jew…Moreover, if we take Paul at his word—and I see no a priori reason not to—he was a member of the Pharisaic wing of first century Judaism.”–Daniel Boyarian, A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 2.


“Paul was a scholar, an attendant of Rabban Gamaliel the Elder, well-versed in the laws of Torah.”-Rabbi Jacob Emeden (1679-1776)–cited by Harvey Falk, Jesus the Pharisee (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2003), 18.

Allow me to list some of the basics every Christian should know about Paul:

1. Paul was educated

In this case, I have adapted much of this material from A Commentary on the Jewish Roots of Galatians (The Jewish Roots of the New Testament) by Joseph Shulam and Hilary Le Cornu. I have taken most of these points from their section called Paul: A Biography, pgs, 435-469.

1. Paul studied under the famous teacher Gamaliel (Acts 22: 3), the grandson of Hillel.

2. Hillel the Elder was nicknamed “the Babylonian” because he was descended from a family of Babylon.

3. Beit Hillel ended up having three successors, Rabban Gamaliel, the Elder being the first Sage esteemed with the honorific title of Rabban—“our master.”

4. The house of Hillel was unique in that it was an example of a family of who originated from the diaspora, with no priestly connections, which attained the position of hereditary leaders of the nation until, in the time of Rabbi Judah ha Nasi (170-200 C.E.), its members were officially recognized as by the Roman government as Patriarchs.

5. Beit Hillel ended up having three successors, Rabban Gamaliel, the Elder being the first Sage esteemed with the honorific title of Rabban—“our master.” The New Testament evidence demonstrates that Paul belonged to Beit Hillel rather than Beit Shammai. This is supported by Paul’s halakhot (with the possible exception of his view of the legal status of women), his tolerance and openness of Gentiles, some of his no literal interpretations, and his anthropocentric rather than theocentric emphases.

5. The Talmudic sources distinguish between the beit sefer (i.e., the house of the book”) wherein the (sofer) taught the reading of the written Torah- and the beit talmud (i.e., the house of learning). Children would learn the alphabet and how to read in the former, the teacher would write the letters on a wax tablet with a stylus and the pupils would recite them aloud. Reading skills were attained through repetition after the teacher and auditive memory since the scriptural text was not yet vocalized, students were dependent on the teacher’s precision in orally transmitting the precise reading for every passage.

6. Young children were taught how to read and understand the Torah and Prophets, to recite the Shema and the basic blessings over the food, and received instruction regarding their future roles in family and command of life. Following years of Bible study, students moved on to the study of the Oral Torah. School studies would finish at the age of twelve or thirteen (bar mitzvah age) and of the boy was gifted and so inclined he would then enroll at a “beit midrash” to study Torah with other adults who devoted themselves to Torah study in their spare time.

7.  If he showed further ability and willingness he could go to one of the famous Sages and learn from him for a number of years. Gamaliel would of served as one of the foremost teachers of the “beit midrash” (e.g., a college or “seminary”) conducted by pharisaic leaders within the Sanhedrin. Therefore, given that Gamaliel was such a distinguished teacher, it may be possible that Paul began to study with him only after he had displayed great promise and reached an age whereby he could profit from learning under a great master like Gamaliel.

8. In the relationship between the students and teacher, a deep bond could be established which led to great love and respect. The subject matter of study revolved around three main areas: Bible, midrash (creative biblical interpretation), aggadah (narrative elaboration of the biblical text). Since Paul’s letters demonstrate a strong familiarity with biblical text among other ways, since he quotes from the Tanakh over ninety times in his letters, the standard hermeneutical rules are displayed both halakhically and aggadically.

9. Paul spoke mishnaic Hebrew/Aramaic as well as Greek (cf. Acts 21:37), in addition to possessing a reading knowledge of biblical Hebrew. Paul also demonstrated he was familiar with Greek poets (e.g., Epimendies, Aratus, Euripides, Memander).  Therefore, since Paul’s letters show familiarity with rabbinic methods for interpretation of Scripture and popular Hellenistic philosophy to a degree, this makes it likely that he received a formal education in both areas.

 2. Paul as an active persecutor

The language Paul uses in his pre-revelatory encounter with the risen Lord shows how antagonistic he was towards the messianic movement. In Gal. 1:13-15, Paul uses terms such as “persecute” and “destroy” to describe his efforts to put and end to the spread of the early faith.  We see here:

Saul was in hearty agreement with putting him (Stephen) to death. And on that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Some devout men buried Stephen, and made loud lamentation over him. But Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison. (Acts 8: 1-3).

Furthermore, Luke summarizes Paul’s persecution of the early Messianic community.

I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And I did so in Jerusalem. I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them.  And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme, and in raging fury against them I persecuted them even to foreign cities. (Acts 26:10-11).

3. Paul’s Antagonism Towards the Early Messianic Movement 

Paul doesn’t give a list of reasons as to why he persecuted the early Messianic community. It may be that Paul perceived faith in Jesus as a threat to Torah obedience. His zeal for the Torah is evident in his Letters (Phil. 3:6; 1 Tim 1:13). Any tampering with the Torah was off limits cause it defined the identity of the Jewish people.  Or, perhaps Paul wanted to help keep the peace. Hence, he feared a Roman reprisal of a Jewish sect proclaiming Jesus as Messiah.  Another possibility is that given that Deut. 21:22f. puts “the one who is hanged under a divine curse” and  Paul’s language about the offensiveness of a crucified Messiah (1 Cor. 1:23), Paul  knew the seriousness of his fellow countrymen proclaiming a crucified blasphemer like Jesus. In the end, we can’t be dogmatic as to why Paul was the persecutor that he was. Paul doesn’t list his reasons for why he persecuted the early followers of Jesus.

 4. Paul’s Encounter with the Risen Messiah

Paul did not follow Jesus from the beginning. However, Paul is still considered an apostle, though “abnormally born” and “the least of the apostles” (1 Corinthians 15:8-9). His turning to Jesus happened though a dramatic revelatory encounter (Acts 9: 1-7). His first years as a follower of Jesus in Arabia remain a mystery. Three years later he went to Jerusalem to visit; this is where he saw Peter and James.  Paul’s account of his calling in Galatians 1:15-16 is similar to what Jeremiah’s says about his own calling:

But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. (Gal 1:15-17)


The word of the Lord came to me, saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,  before you were born I set you apart;  I appointed you as a prophet to the nations. (Jer.1: 4-5)

Regarding what happened to Paul, he more likely received a “call” rather than a conversion to a new religion. He says “ I am a Jew” (Acts 22;3) “I am a Pharisee” (Acts 23;6), and “I am a prisoner for the sake of the hope of Israel”  (Acts 28:20).  Notice that Paul didn’t say “I was a Pharisee” or that “I was a Jew.”  He saw his calling as being in line with the same divine mission that was given to the prophets of the Old Testament.

 5. Paul’s Letters: Primary and Secondary Sources

Remember, written and oral sources are divided into two kinds: primary and secondary.  A primary source is the testimony of an eyewitness.  A secondary source is the testimony source is the testimony of anyone who is not an eyewitness-that is, of one who was not present at the events of which he tells.  A primary source must thus have been produced by a contemporary of the events it narrates.  Since Paul was a contemporary of Jesus, he can be considered as a primary source. He also claimed to have a personal encounter with Jesus (Acts 9:5-9).

6. Paul’s use of oral tradition terminology

Paul  employs oral tradition terminology such as “delivering,” “receiving,” “passing on” “learning,” “guarding,” the traditional teaching within his letters in the following places:

Romans 16: 17: “Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them.”

1 Corinthians 11:23: For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread.

Philippians 4:9: The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

1 Thessalonians 2:13: For this reason we also constantly thank God that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe.

2 Thessalonians 2:15: So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.

7. Why do Paul’s Letters Matter?

Paul’s letters are dated between AD 40 and 60. These are the earliest records we have for the life of Jesus.  Therefore, to jump to the Gospels as the earliest records to the life of Jesus is a tactical mistake.

Note: To see some of the common objections to Paul, see our post Evidence We Want and Evidence We Should Expect: A Look at Paul’s Letters

What Can We Know? How Epistemology Impacts our Search for God’s Existence

Here is a basic outline on religious epistemology and how this impacts our quest to know there is a God.  There is much more to be said. But I just wanted to point out some of the terms here. Hope it helps.

 I. Epistemology:  Is the branch of philosophy concerned with questions about knowledge and belief and related issues such as justification, truth, types of certainty.

a. Justification: a belief is said to be justified when a person fulfills his or her duties in acquiring  and maintaining a belief. A belief is said to be justified when it is based on a good reason/reasons or has the right grounds or foundation.

b. Knowledge: Knowledge is a belief that is true and warranted or properly accounted for. In other words, knowledge excludes beliefs that are just true accidentally.

Example: It is 12:30 pm and through an antique shop window I happen to look at a non-working clock, which happens to indicate 12:30. I would not be warranted in concluding that it’s 12:30 P.M. I may have belief that is true- the first components of knowledge—but I happened to get lucky. That does not qualify as knowledge; it’s not properly warranted (which completes the definition of knowledge). NOTE: This example was taken from Paul Copan’s True for you, but not for me: Deflating the Slogans that Leave Christians Speechless.

II. Common Sense Beliefs: Beliefs we take for granted in the common concerns of life, without being able to give a reason for them:

a. Testimony: We rightly accept what others tell us without having first established that they are worthy of trust. Without testimony, we could never be able to learn a language or accept something we learned before checking out for ourselves.

b. Our senses: We trust our senses on a daily basis/we trust our cognitive faculties. We rely on introspection, intuition, and perception on a daily basis.

c. Memory: Memory is a pervasive, bedrock of our intellectual existence.

d. Perception: apprehending by means of the senses or of the mind; cognition; understanding.

Regarding perception and Romans 1:18-21, Norman Geisler says:

“Paul insisted that “the man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God” (1 Cor. 2:14). They cannot even “know” him. But Paul does not say that natural persons cannot perceive truth about God, but that they do not receive (Gk. dekomai, “welcome”) it. Paul emphatically declared that the basic truths about God are “clearly seen” (Rom. 1:20). The problem is not that unbelievers are not aware of God’s existence but that they do not want to accept him because of the moral consequences this would have on their sinful lives. They do not “know” (Gk. ginomskom, which frequently means to “know by experience). They know God in their mind (Rom. 1:19–20), but they have not accepted him in their heart (Rom. 1:18). “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God’ ” (Ps. 14:1). (BECA, pg 540).

In Romans 1:18-21, God’s knowledge is described as “eternal power and divine nature.” Paul lays out the basic principle of cause and effect. Paul says since God is the Designer (God is the cause), His “everlasting power and divinity” are seen “through the things that are made” (this is the effect). Even though I doubt that Paul was familar with the phrase, “Inference to the Best Explanation,” Paul was communicating to his audience that God’s fingerprints can be inferred from “the things that have been made.”

In Rom. 1:18, the word “suppress,” means “to consciously dismiss in the mind,”to “hold down”, or to “hold back by force or to dismiss.” However, that which is “suppressed” is not destroyed. As much as humans try to suppress the truth of God’s existence, the human mind is still aware of their moral accountability to Him. In relation to this passage, Paul says God’s revelation says is not hidden or concealed. The reason this revelation is clear is because God shows it to him.

In other words, God makes knowledge of Himself available to man! The creation gives a cognitive knowledge of God’s existence but not saving knowledge. However, according to Romans 1:18-21, man is not left in ignorance about God.

Theologians, philosophers, and apologists have made significant comments in relation to Romans 1:18-21. Here are a few of them:

1. ” The revelation of God in nature is mediate, but it is so manifest and so clear that it does not necessitate a complex theoretical reasoning process that could be achieved only by a group of geniuses. If God’s general revelation is in fact “general,” in that it is plain enough for all to see clearly without complicated cosmological argumentation, then it may even be said to be self evident. The revelation is clear enough for an unskilled and illiterate person to perceive it. The memory of conscious knowledge of the trauma encounter with God’s revelation is not maintained in its lucid, threatening state, but is repressed. It is “put down or held in captivity” in the unconsciousness. That which is repressed is not destroyed. The memory remains though it may be buried in the subconscious realm. Knowledge of God is unacceptable, and as a result humans attempt to blot it out or at least camouflage it in such a way that its threatening character can be concealed or dulled.” (Sproul, R.C, Gerstner, John and Arthur Lindsey. Classical Apologetics: A Rational Defense of the Christian Faith and a Critique of Presuppositional Apologetics. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing.1984, 46-59).

2. Former atheist J. Budziszewski:

” I am not at present concerned to explore Paul’s general claim that those who deny the Creator are wicked but only his more particular claim that they are intellectually dishonest. Notice that he does not criticize nonbelievers because they do not know about God but ought to. Rather, he criticizes them because they do know about God but pretend to themselves that they don’t. According to his account, we are not ignorant of God’s reality at all. Rather, we “suppress” it; to translate differently, we “hold it down.” With all our strength we try not to know it, even though we can’t help knowing it; with one part of our minds we do know it, while with another we say, “I know no such thing.” From the biblical point of view, then, the reason it is so difficult to argue with an atheist—as I once was—is that he is not being honest with himself. He knows there is a God, but he tells himself that he doesn’t. How can a person explain how he reached new first principles? By what route could he have arrived at them? To what deeper considerations could he have appealed? If the biblical account is true, then it would seem that no one really arrives at new first principles; a person only seems to arrive at them. The atheist does not lack true first principles; they are in his knowledge already, though suppressed. The convert from atheism did not acquire them; rather, things he knew all along were unearthed.” ( Geisler, N. L. and Paul K. Hoffman. Why I Am A Christian. Leading Thinkers Explain Why They Believe. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House. 2001, 49).

3. ” Our original knowledge of God and his glory is muffled and impaired; it has been replaced (by virtue of sin) by stupidity, dullness, blindness, inability to perceive God or to perceive him in his handiwork. Our knowledge of his character and his love toward us can be smothered: it can be transformed into resentful thought that God is to be feared and mistrusted; we may see him as indifferent or even malignant. In the traditional taxonomy of seven deadly sins, this is sloth. Sloth is not simple laziness, like the inclination to lie down and watch television rather than go out and get exercise you need; it is, instead, a kind of spiritual deadness, blindness, imperceptiveness, acedia, torpor, a failure to be aware of God’s presence, love, requirements.” (Plantinga, A. Warranted Christian Belief. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 2000, 214-215).

The Worship of Nature

Even though the argument that Paul lays out in Romans 1:18-21 is getting some support from the latest work in cosmology, I don’t expect that this will make much of a difference to many skeptics. If you read on through the rest of the passage in Romans 1, we see that an exchange takes place. The idolatry comes into the picture. People worship the creation rather than the Creator. In other words, God is not the Primary Cause anymore. Hence, nature (without any agency) can explain all the observable complexity in the cosmic and biological realm.

This is why it is imperative to remember that without metaphysics one would not be able to construct a worldview. Philosophical or metaphysical naturalism refers to the view that nature is the “whole show.” Naturalism (as currently discussed and advocated by Richard Dawkins, some atheists, etc) is not a discovery of science. It must always be viewed as a presupposition of science as presently practiced. Both Dawkins and Francis Crick both admit that while the world shows every indication it is designed and have purpose, they add one qualification; it only looks that way. In other words, while the design is evident, it can be explained without resorting to any Designer.

Let’s look at Richard Lewontin’s comments in his January 9, 1997 article, Billions and Billions of Demons summarizes how naturalistic philosophy impacts the entire scientific process:

” Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.”

Also see David Snoke’s The Apologetic Argument

Regarding memory, trusting testimony, and our senses, all three of these points impact how we approach the Bible and for that matter, anything else in antiquity. Nobody was there to observe the past. Therefore, we trust written documents that contain the testimony of witnesses who used their senses and their memory and ended up recording what they saw, heard, touched, etc.

The Gospel of John uses words that are usually translated as witness, testimony, to bear witness, or to testify. The total usage of these words in John’s Gospel is larger than any of the Synoptic Gospels. The book of Acts is the next book with the most references to the terms related to eyewitness testimony. We see in the following New Testament passages where testimony and witness is used as a means to verify events:

• Luke 1:4: “Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word have handed them down to us, I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received”

•Acts 2:32: “This Jesus God raised up, and we are all witnesses of it”

• Acts 3:14-15:But you disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, but put to death the Prince of life, the one whom God raised from the dead, a fact to which we are witnesses.”

• Acts 5:30-32: “The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you had put to death by hanging Him on a cross. “He is the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins. “And we are witnesses of these things; and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey Him.”

•1 John 1:1: “What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon and touched with our hands concerns the Word of life”

•Acts 10:39 : “We are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and (in) Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree.”

•Acts 4:19-20: “Peter and John, however, said to them in reply, “Whether it is right in the sight of God for us to obey you rather than God, you be the judges. It is impossible for us not to speak about what we have seen and heard.”

•1 Peter 5:1: “So I exhort the presbyters among you, as a fellow presbyter and witness to the sufferings of Christ and one who has a share in the glory to be revealed.

•2 Peter 1:19: ” We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.”

•John 21:24: “This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true.”

•1 Corinthians 15: 3-8: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”

To see more on this topic, see our post “Can We Trust Eyewitness Memory?”  and James Warner Wallace’s book Cold Case Christianity.

III. We know things by appealing to authorities:

a. Nobody can learn everything and nobody can be a master on every subject matter. All people appeal to authorities. Now this doesn’t mean authorities are without their biases and worldview commitments. Also, authorities can be challenged. But there is simply no possible way of gathering knowledge apart from appealing to authorities.

IV. Answering self-defeating claims:

a.  “We can’t know” is one of genuine knowledge: “I know that we can’t know.” This argument already assumes knowledge of the truth to be able to detect mistakes and deception.

b.  “There is no truth”: Is that true?

c.   “There is no objective truth”: Is that objectively true?

V. Skepticism and God’s Existence: 

 Strengths of Skepticism: 

a. Skepticism can be healthy and constructive. After all, we shouldn’t be gullible and naïve, believing everything we hear or read.

b. Religious/Revelatory Claims are contradictory: We are required to provide reasons and evidence for what we believe.

To see more about this issue, see our post The First Question in Discussing the Existence of God

Weaknesses of Skepticism: (NOTE: Points a-e are adapted from How Do You Know You’re Not Wrong? A Response to Skepticism  by Paul Copan).

a. Skeptics are more skeptical about religious beliefs than anything else!

b. Skeptics aren’t truly skeptical about two fundamental things they take for granted: (a) the inescapable logical laws that they’re constantly using to disprove the claims of those who say they have knowledge or (b) that their minds are properly functioning so that they can draw their skeptical conclusions!

c. Being less than 100% certain doesn’t mean we can’t truly know. We can have highly plausible or probable knowledge, even if it’s not 100% certain.

d. The skeptic does not realize we don’t have to have absolute certainty to know something; we know many things that we aren’t absolutely certain about, and this is legitimately called “knowledge.”

e. The hyper-skeptic is in a position that ends up eliminating any kind of personal responsibility or accountability.

f. Skeptics need to be clear about what kind of approach they are taking to the existence of God (i.e., religious experience, induction, deduction, a historical approach, empirical approach, inference to the best explanation, etc). Of course, to demand God show everyone a sign is to misunderstand the nature of God. The nature of the object determines how we know it, not the other way around.

VI. Explanation, Argumentation, and Probability

a. Explanations try to show how something happened. That is, what is the cause for something that has happened, The truth of the event is already assumed.

b. Arguments try to show something is true given the truth if the premises.

c. Probability tries to show something might be true given the truth of the premises.

Deductive Arguments: In a deductive argument, the premises are intended to provide support for the conclusion that is so strong that, if the premises are true, it would be impossible for the conclusion to be false.

(Premise 1)…….All the books on that shelf are science books.

(Premise 2)…….This book is from that shelf.

(Conclusion)……This book is therefore a science book.

Inductive Arguments: In an inductive argument, the premises are intended only to be so strong that, if they are true, then it is unlikely that the conclusion is false.

(Premise 1)…….This book is from that shelf.

(Premise 2)…….This book is a science book.

(Conclusion)……All the books on that shelf are science books.

In this argument, even if the premises are true, you could not conclude, with certainty, that all of the books on the shelf are science books just from the two pieces of information given in the premises.

Abduction/Inference to the Best Explanation

C.S. Lewis said that “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” (see The Weight of Glory). To apply what Lewis says, we might utilize what is called inference to the best explanation. The inference to the best explanation model takes into account the best available explanation in our whole range of experience and reflection. For example, when we look at these features of reality, which provides a more satisfactory explanation:

  • How do you explain the Origin of the Universe?
  • How do you explain the Mathematical Fine-Tuning of the Universe?
  • How do you explain the Terrestrial Fine-Tuning of Planet Earth?
  • How do you explain the Informational Fine-Tuning of the DNA molecule?
  • How do you explain the Origin of Mathematical Laws?
  • How do you explain the Origin of Logical Laws?
  • How do you explain the Origin of Physical/Natural Laws?
  • How do you explain the Origin of the First Cell?
  • How do you explain the Origin of Human Reason?
  • How do you explain the Origin of Human Consciousness?
  • How do you explain the Origin of Objective Morality?
  • How do you explain Ultimate Meaning in Life?
  • How do you explain Ultimate Value in Life?
  • How do you explain Ultimate Purpose in Life?

To see a short example of this approach online see,  The Return of the God Hypothesis  by Stephen C. Meyer or Paul Copan’s God: The Best Explanation

Another example of this approach is seen in a book like A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the  Genius of Nature by Benjamin Wiker and Jonathan Witt.

VI. Probability comes in degrees: Degrees of Probability

a. Virtual Certainty: Where the evidence is overwhelmingly in its  favor( the law of gravity)

b. Highly probable: Very good evidence in its favor (There was a man named Jesus who lived 2,000 years ago and was crucified)

c.  Probable: Means there is sufficient evidence in its favor (Paul wrote Galatians and 1 Corinthians)

d. Possible: Seems to have evidence both for and against (The Shroud of Turin is the cloth that covered Jesus when he was in the tomb)

e.  Improbable: Insufficient Evidence in its favor (Life can come from non-life)

f.  Highly Improbable: Very little evidence in its favor (The events in the Book of Mormon took place)

g. Virtually Impossible: Almost no evidence in its favor (George Bush is a Martian)

VII. Kinds of Certainty

a.  Mathematical Certainty: ( 7+5+12)

b. Logical Certainty:  (There are no square circles)

c. Existentially Undeniable: ‘I exist’

d. Spiritual (Supernatural) Certainty: ‘I experience the Holy Spirit in my life

e.  Historical Certainty: Since history is inductive, we can only arrive at probabilities

f. Pragmatic certainty: If something works or has beneficial consequences. This is challenging since someone could believe something works that does not correspond to reality.

VII.  What is Certitude, Doubt, and Beyond A Reasonable Doubt?


In order for a judgment to belong in the realm of certitude, it must meet the following criteria:

(1)  It cannot be challenged by the consideration of new evidence that results from improved observation

(2) It can’t be criticized by improved reasoning or the detection of inadequacies or errors in the reasoning we have done. Beyond such challenge or criticism, such judgments are indubitable, or beyond doubt.


A judgment is subject to doubt if there is any possibility at all (1) of its being challenged in the light of additional or more acute observations or (2) of its being criticized on the basis of more cogent or more comprehensive reasoning.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

A courtroom analogy is helpful here: a jury is asked to bring in the verdict that they have no reason to doubt- no rational basis for doubting- in light of all the evidence offered and the arguments presented by the opposing counsel. Of course, it is always possible that new evidence may be forthcoming and, if that occurs, the case may be reopened and a new trial may result in a different verdict. The original verdict may have been beyond a reasonable doubt at the time it was made, but it is not indubitable-not beyond all doubt or beyond a shadow of a doubt–precisely because it can be challenged by new evidence or set aside by an appeal that called attention to procedural errors that may have invalidated the jury’s deliberations- the reasoning they did weighing and interpreting the evidence presented. NOTE: This was adpated from Mortimer Adler’s Six Great Ideas.

“Just What Exactly Is Salvation and Why Do Christians Seem to Misunderstand It?”


Actual moment of the soul leaving the body of dead humans by using Bioelectrographic photography

Many years ago when I was seeking God and asking questions about the Gospel, I had two zealous Christians walk up to me and say “Are you saved?” Now at the time I had no idea what they meant. But later on, someone told me these two Christians were concerned about the salvation of my soul. Since then, I have done more exegetical work on the topic of salvation in the Bible. Thus, I have concluded salvation is much more extensive than the fire insurance Gospel that Christians are trained to pitch to people. You can see a introduction on the topic here by Bakers Online Dictionary of Theology.

This past summer I was approached by some young teenagers who were our evangelizing in the downtown area where I live. They asked me “What is salvation?” I honestly think they were trying to quiz me to see if I was really a Christian. I responded by saying salvation is to enter into the rule, or realm of God. Thus,  Jesus is the King who allows you to do this. Now I could of responded in a number of ways to their question. But after this response, they look puzzled. They assumed I was going to say salvation is to be ‘saved’ from  hell. But I think the discussion of the kingship or kingdom of God is important.Most recently I have been reading Joel B. Green’s Salvation: Reframing New Testament Theology.

Here is what Green says;

“To speak of “God’s kingdom” is immediately to raise questions of language.  In recent decades, some have objected to the use of the word “kingdom” because it possesses inherently masculine connotations; for this reason, some have chosen to translate the Greek word βασιλεία (basileia) with the English term “reign” instead. This is both helpful and unfortunate. It is helpful insofar as it underscores the important insight that βασιλεία (basileia) often refers to God’s powerful rule, God’s activity in the world.  However, it overlooks the key observation that in the Gospels, God’s kingdom has an inescapably spatial sense. In fact, the single most frequent action that happens with respect to God’s kingdom is that it is “entered” (Matt 5: 20; 7: 21; 8: 11; 19: 23, 24; 21: 31; 25: 34; Mark 9: 47; 10: 23, 24, 25; Luke 18: 17, 24, 25; John 3: 5), with the corollary that people can be “in” (Matt 5: 19; 11: 11; 13: 43; 18: 1, 4; 20: 21; 26: 29; Mark 14: 25; Luke 7: 28; 13: 28, 29; 14: 15; 22: 16; 22: 30) or “out” (Matt 23: 13) or “not far from” (Mark 12: 34) the kingdom; additionally, when the kingdom appears as the subject of verbs, the kingdom is said to “come,” “draw near,” and so on. Accordingly, “kingdom” is more than “reign,” for it also includes the notion of “realm.” Also problematic is the ease with which the translation of βασιλεία (basileia) as “reign” allows us to reduce God’s work to the “life of the spirit” or to God’s activity in people’s hearts or to restrict the reach of God’s activity as though God’s rule were present and active only among those people who have submitted to God’s reign. Moreover, although it is true that βασιλεία (basileia) possessed hierarchical and masculine connotations in Roman antiquity, this did not keep Jesus from using the term in ways that actually subverted those connotations. If “masculinity” was correlated in the Roman world with the exercise of power and self-control, for example, then Jesus’ claim that “God’s kingdom” belongs to little children must surely have been shocking.”

Green goes onto say:

“How might Jesus’ contemporaries have understood “God’s kingdom”? Granted that, as in most other areas, Second Temple Judaism had room for a variety of views concerning the kingdom,  we can nonetheless summarize four central features. First, to speak of God’s kingdom is to speak of God’s activity— creating, providing, leading, sending, calling, liberating, judging, conquering, caring— and God’s domain, inclusive of the whole cosmos, though centered on Israel. If God’s kingdom was understood as a reality of present existence, then eschatological hope would center on the future, cosmological revelation of God’s already-present reign. Second, God’s kingdom entailed a vision of God’s universal, peaceable rule. God’s rule spells justice, the triumph of righteousness and establishment of peace in the world, shalom. Accordingly, many would have heard in references to God’s kingdom an eschatological hope focused on God’s coming in power to restore and vindicate God’s people. Third, the disclosure of God’s kingdom necessarily evokes response from God’s subjects, responses cast either as allegiance or rebellion, responses that provide the basis for royal judgment. Fourth, and finally, the Gospels situate Jesus within those currents of Second Temple Judaism that tied the actualization of God’s kingdom to a hope in God’s raising up an anointed king, the Messiah. What is the relationship of these expectations to Jesus’ ministry? Are these hopes actualized in Jesus’ coming? The only possible answer is equivocal: Yes and No. We must say yes because this is precisely what the Gospels broadcast, that Jesus not only shares these expectations but actually regards them as being actualized in his ministry. Christ, anointed king, who announces and enacts the kingdom. Wherever Jesus is engaged in ministry, there God’s kingdom is on display. We must answer no because Jesus did not perform in the expected way.

According to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, even John the Baptist was baffled by the direction of Jesus’ mission: Where is the anticipated fiery judgment on Israel’s enemies (Matt 3: 11-12; 11: 2-3; Luke 3: 16-17; 7: 18-20)? If we follow the Gospels, then, we realize that Jesus interpreted his mission from within Israel’s story against the backdrop of the Roman Empire. Jesus’ advent as God’s anointed king, then, marks the decisive disclosure of God’s royal rule, together with the consequent unmasking of all rules, all authorities, all powers that would compete with God’s sovereignty. The time of restoration was at hand, evil was being exposed and rolled back, peace with justice was being established throughout the world, and God was present to rule: all in Jesus’ ministry.”-Green, Joel B. Why Salvation? (Reframing New Testament Theology, Abingdon Press.

Over the years, I have noticed that about 8 out of 10 Christians think salvation is only about the afterlife. When I ask them how they view the resurrection, they seem a bit puzzled. This is because they tend to think ‘heaven’ or ‘hell’ is final destination. A few things to remember:

The resurrection of Jesus  teaches that the restoration of the whole man in bodily existence is the destiny of the Lord’s people. Also, Jesus did not appear as a ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’ apart from a body to people.Contrary to what many people think, salvation in the Bible is not the deliverance from the body, which is the prison of the soul. The believer’s final destination is not heaven, but it is the new heavens and new earth- complete with a resurrection body. Eternal life is a quality of life that does not start when we die, but right now in the present (John 17:2).While heaven is part of our salvation experience, in the final state, heaven including the New Jerusalem portrayed as a bride breaks into history and comes to the renewed, physical, earthly, existence (see Rev 21). This shows that God is interested in the renewal of creation- God cares about the physical realm.



Book Review: Jesus Is the Christ: The Messianic Testimony of the Gospels: Michael F. Bird

Jesus Is the Christ: The Messianic Testimony of the Gospels: Michael F. Bird, IVP Publishers, 2013, 219, pp. 978-0830828234

If you visit this blog, you know I post a lot of book reviews by New Testament scholar Michael F. Bird. I love reading his books because he always gives me a lot to think about. He also is very familiar with the first century context of the claims of Jesus.

Jewish Messianism is one of my favorite historical and theological topics. In this book, Bird goes to great lengths to discuss the Messiah issue in each Gospel (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). He goes to great lengths to help the reader understand the different perspectives each Gospel author has on why Jesus is the promised Messiah of Israel and the entire world. As I have said before, Jesus can’t be the Savior of the world if he isn’t the Jewish Messiah. I will give some highlights from where Bird deals specifically with each Gospel.  Sadly, many people assume Jesus was just one of sveral messianic figures in the first century. In other words, there is nothing unique about him. But as Bird says:

“ Not all Jews in the first century were anxiously waiting for a Messiah. Despite popular misconceptions that Judea was filled with every Tobias, David, and Herschel claiming to be the Messiah, the only two figures unambiguously spoken of as the Messiah between AD 30 and 132 are Jesus of Nazareth and Simon bar Kochbar (known also as Simeon ben Kosiba).6 Yes, other figures emerged from time to time who excited hopes for future deliverance, set themselves up as royal claimants, echoed biblical traditions in their actions, but few as far as we know were explicitly hailed as messianic leaders. Among those Jewish authors and Jewish groups who did anticipate a Messiah, there were diverse opinions as to what type of figure he would be.7 Some looked for a Messiah with militaristic qualities, who would lead the people in a successful purge of Gentiles and sinners (e.g. 1QM; Pss. Sol. 17 – 18). Others imagined a Messiah with transcendent qualities and supernatural powers (e.g. 1 Enoch 37 – 71; 4 Ezra). The Qumran community envisaged two ‘anointed’ leaders in the final days: a ‘Messiah of Aaron’ and a ‘Messiah of Israel’ (e.g. 1QS 9.11; CD 12.22–23; 1QSa 2.17–22). Philo held out a hope for a Hebrew king who would establish a Jewish kingdom and subjugate the nations (e.g. Moses 1.290–291; Rewards 95–96). There is also a variety of names and titles for such a deliverer other than ‘Messiah’, including: Son of David, Son of God, Son of Man, the Prophet, Elect One, Prince, Branch, Root, Sceptre, Star, Chosen One, Coming One. Messianism grew out of reflection on Israel’s sacred traditions in light of the mixed socio-political fortunes of the Jewish people in the Persian, Greek, and Roman periods. The shared thread of Jewish messianism in the various tapestries that hung around from time to time was a future hope for a royal and eschatological deliverer to liberate Israel and establish a renewed Jewish kingdom.”-Kindle Highlight 179

Also, there has been an ongoing debate as to whether Jesus very claimed to be the Messiah. If he did, what did he mean by it? Was he redefining the role of the Jewish Messsiah? As Bird says:

“Did Jesus claim to be the Messiah? For many the answer is an obvious ‘yes’, and for others it is an equally obvious ‘no’! Why the confusion?10 Well, consider the fact that Jesus never once uses the title ‘Messiah’ to describe himself. At the very most, he is called Messiah, king, and Son of David by others. By itself such data might suggest that Jesus inspired messianic hopes but did not himself embrace the title as the best label for what his ministry was about. The other problem is that the places in the Gospels where Jesus supposedly accepts the messianic designation (Mark 8:29; 14:61–62; John 4:25–26; 18:33–34) are thought to bear an uncanny resemblance to early Christian confessions of Jesus’ identity. In other words, some of the Gospel accounts look as if the evangelists or their sources have read their messianic faith back into stories of Jesus’ pre-Easter life. So where does one go with this? First, a denial that Jesus thought of himself as a messianic leader creates more problems than it solves. We still have the matter of why Jesus was crucified as a messianic pretender, how the messianic faith of the early church arose in the first place, and why the evangelists put the story of Jesus into a messianic matrix. One standard explanation is that the early church inferred Jesus’ status as Messiah from his resurrection. If God had raised him, then surely he must be the Messiah – but it is not that simple. The problem is that there is no precedent for deducing messiahship from resurrection. How does ‘resurrected’ equal ‘Messiah’? John the Baptist died a martyr, some even thought he had come back to life in Jesus (Mark 6:14–16; 8:28), but no-one thereafter considered the Baptist to be the Messiah. We could say the same about the two witnesses in Revelation 11 who are martyred, brought back to life, and ascend to heaven.”-Kindle Highlight, 198.

But even if Jesus didn’t explicitly say he was the Messiah because of the political connotations at that time, Bird also says that there are actually are some fairly good reasons for thinking that Jesus did in fact claim to be a messianic figure. He says the key evidence is as follows:

(1) Isaiah 61, about a coming anointed figure, seems to have played a significant part in Jesus’ own understanding of his role. There is an explicit appeal to a Spirit-anointed ministry in special Lucan material (Luke 4:18-21) and similarly Isaianic echoes in the material common to Luke and Matthew about John the Baptist’s question as to whether Jesus really is the ‘one to come’ (Luke 7:18-23; Matt. 11:2-6). In fact, this later unit possesses a striking similarity with a text from the Dead Sea Scrolls that attributes a similar list of deeds to Israel’s Messiah (4Q521 2.1-10).

(2) It is commonly recognized that Jesus’ central message pertained to the kingdom of God. What role did Jesus think that he played in that kingdom, its announcement and consummation? Jesus’ choice of twelve disciples was symbolic of the restoration of Israel that he believed he was effecting (Mark 3:13-16). There is also an eschatological saying that the twelve would sit on twelve thrones judging Israel and have a kingdom conferred on them the same way that the Father confers a kingdom on Jesus (Luke 22:28-30/Matt. 19:28-30). It seems that Jesus saw himself as the royal leader-to-be of the restored people of God – a king of a future kingdom.

(3) We also have to take into account the prominence of allusions to David and Solomon in Jesus’ teaching activities (Matt. 12:42/Luke 11:31; Mark 2:23-28; 12:35-37). Solomon and David were both regarded as prophets and allegedly performed exorcisms, which aligns also with the pattern of Jesus’ ministry. In any case, Jesus saw himself in a lineage associated with the greatest of royal figures from Israel’s ancient past as ways of explicating his eschatological role.

(4) Several of the ‘I have come’ sayings appear to associate Jesus with activities that, in comparison with other Jewish literature, may be suitably classified as messianic (Mark 2:17; Luke 12:49-51/Matt. 10:34; Luke 19:10).

(5) Jesus’ final week was thoroughly messianic. We have a messianic action in the triumphal entry that deliberately acts out Zechariah 9 (Mark 11:1-10). There is a messianic act in the temple where he warns of the destruction of the temple unless Israel repents (Mark 11:11-18), and elsewhere we are told that he predicted the rebuilding of the temple, which is a messianic task (Mark 14:58; John 2:19; cf. 2 Sam. 7:11-14). Jesus engages the scribes on several topics, including the identity of the Messiah as David’s Lord (Mark 12:35-37). In the passion scene, Jesus is depicted as a messianic shepherd who saves his people from the danger of tribulation by his vicarious death (Mark 14:27 = Zech. 13:7). At his trial before Caiaphas, Jesus is asked point blank a messianic question and responds with an oblique but affirmative answer that conflates Psalm 110:1 and Daniel 7:13 (Mark 14:62).

(6) Finally, Jesus was executed on the charge of being a messianic pretender, hence the titulus that mocked him as ‘the King of the Jews’ in derisive fashion (see Matt. 27:37; Mark 15:26; Luke 23:38; John 19:19).

Bird emphasizes the Christology and messianism of each Gospel. For example, in Matthew’s Gospel, he says:

“The Son of David One of the distinctive elements of Matthew’s Christology is his amplification of the Son of David tradition. Matthew places the term at the head of his Gospel in the incipit to the genealogy (1:1). Thereafter Matthew explicitly nominates the kingship of David (1:6) and he defines David as the halfway point between Abraham and the exile (1:17). Joseph is a ‘son of David’, and Jesus is grafted into the Davidic line through Joseph, his paterfamilias (1:20). Matthew also retains Son of David material from Mark. This includes the healing of the blind men at Jericho (Matt. 20:30–34 [Mark 10:46–52]) and the riddle of the Messiah as David’s son (Matt. 22:42–46 [Mark 12:35–37]). A story found only in Matthew pertains to the two men who are healed by Jesus at an early stage of his ministry (9:27–31). This is the first time in the Gospel that ‘Son of David’ is used as a form of address to Jesus. Later, after Jesus’ healing of a blind and dumb man, the crowds are astonished at his actions and ask, ‘Can this man really be the Son of David?’ (my trans.). The Pharisees respond negatively to this by saying that Jesus casts out demons by the power of Beelzebul (12:22–24). The crowd draws the inference that Jesus wanted John the Baptist to make from observation of his healings. Matthew’s account of the Canaanite differs from Mark’s account of the Syro-Phoenician woman in several regards. In Matthew, she addresses Jesus as ‘Lord, Son of David’ and appeals for mercy for her demon-possessed daughter (15:22).  Isaiah as part of the job description for a Messiah. For Matthew, the Son of David is defined by mercy rather than by massacres. He comes for compassion, not combat. Indeed, the concept of ‘healing’ arguably binds together the Isaianic message of good news with the nature of the kingdom, the authority of Jesus’ teaching, and the appeal of Jesus to those in Judea, Syria, Decapolis, and Galilee (see 4:23–25). As such, the most analogous title to ‘Son of David’ in Matthew is not ‘Messiah’ or ‘King’ (though they are connoted), but ‘Shepherd’ (2:6; 9:36; 10:6,16; 15:24; 18:12–14; 25:31–46; 26:31).

Shepherd was a role often assigned to kings in the ancient Near East (e.g. Ezek. 34), and David was the quintessential shepherd-king (2 Sam. 5:2; Ps. 78:70–72; Mic. 4:1–5). Matthew introduces the motif of compassion for the shepherdless sheep by the Shepherd in 9:36 and applies it broadly to the teaching and healing mission of Jesus. The metaphor of shepherding is also utilized in the description of the last judgement, where the righteous and unrighteous are separated much like a shepherd divides the sheep from the goats (25:32–33).41 In effect, the function of judgement is delegated from God to Jesus who, as the Son of Man, acts as king and Lord (25:34,40).42 Overall, the Matthean Jesus is the new Davidic Shepherd over the lost sheep of the house of Israel, who leads them in a new exodus where there is forgiveness of sins, healing, and restoration of the nation.:- Kindle Highlights, 1355-1397

As far as Luke’s Gospel, Bird says:

“Jesus is introduced and defined as the one who will fulfil the Old Testament promises made to David.’13 In the ‘Nazareth Manifesto’ (Luke 4:16–30), Jesus enters a synagogue at Nazareth; he reads from Isaiah 61 and pronounces its fulfilment, which is followed with his rejection by the crowd. Jesus responds to his rejection by quoting the proverbs of the sick physician and the rebuffed prophet. This riposte continues with allusions to the biblical stories of the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian. This unit is programmatic of Jesus’ ministry, and overtures the various motifs of Luke–Acts: Spirit, mission, Christology, Israel’s rejection, and God’s acceptance of outcasts.14 The word ‘anointed’ has obvious messianic connotations, and when Jesus declares that God has anointed him with the Spirit, he is making a de facto messianic claim.15 It is entirely plausible that we have in this section echoes of a royal Davidic figure, the final eschatological prophet, the Suffering Servant, and the Messiah all put into one compressed presentation of Jesus.16 Some may wish to see the significance of Jesus’ claim to an anointing here as purely prophetic rather than messianic.17 Yet this is unlikely for several reasons. First, the Isaianic Servant displays both prophetic and royal traits.18 Second, 11Q13 and 4Q521 provide a messianic reading of Isaiah 61 similar to Luke. Third, it must be observed that a messianic reading of Isaiah 61 is found elsewhere in Luke. In response to the delegation sent from John the Baptist, Jesus replies: ‘Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor’ (7:22). Put together, Jesus answers the Baptist’s question by way of reference to a messianic reading of Isaiah 61. The signs of national renewal associated with the messianic age are present, thus the divine design for the sending of the messianic deliverer is indeed taking shape. If John can look past his incumbent situation and identify Jesus within the story of the anointed one and his deeds, then the question that John asks is easily answered.” – Kindle Highlights 1649

As far as the Gospel of Mark, Mark, Bird says:

“Mark’s literary and theological project is to reconcile the notion that ‘Jesus is the Messiah’ with ‘crucifixion’ in a way that is persuasive to his readers. In this sense, Mark appears to be addressing the problem encountered by Paul where the cross is ‘a stumbling block to Jews’ (1 Cor. 1:23; cf. Rom. 9:32-33; Gal. 5:11; 6:12-14; Phil. 3:18). Or the objection given by Trypho to Justin: ‘It is just this that we cannot comprehend . . . that you set your hope on one crucified’ (Dial. Tryph. 10). It is a problem that is quite understandable given that Paul, Luke, Philo, and the Dead Sea Scrolls all link crucifixion to Deut. 21:23, which states that ‘cursed is any man who hangs upon a tree’ (my trans.).8 This would imply that Jesus was ‘cursed’ and therefore could not be the Messiah. It should be borne in mind that the Messiah was meant to be the representative of Israel par excellence. N.T. Wright spells out a possible problem that emerges: ‘The cross is offensive to Jews because a crucified Messiah implies a crucified Israel.’

Additionally, in the Greco-Roman world crucifixion was the antithesis of the noble death. Seneca writes, ‘Can any man be found willing to be fastened to the accursed tree, long sickly, already deformed, swelling with ugly weals on shoulders and chest, and drawing the breath of life amid long-drawn out agony?’ (Lucil. 101). Josephus observed many crucifixions and he said it was ‘the most wretched of deaths’ (War 7.203). Tacitus labelled crucifixion the ‘punishment of slaves’ (Hist. 4.11). The Alexamenos Graffito depicts a figure on a cross with a donkey’s head being worshipped by a man, with the epithet beneath the picture reading ‘Alexamenos worships his god’. This furnishes substantial proof of the derision associated with worship of a crucified man.”

One thing I was so thankful for was that Bird actually discusses the relationship between the resurrection and the messiahship of Jesus. Bird says:

“The resurrection would make Jesus a divinely honoured martyr, but not necessarily a Messiah. In addition, the widespread appearance of in relation to Jesus’ suffering and death (e.g. Acts 3:18-19; 17:3; 26:23; Rom. 5:6,8; 8:34; 1 Cor. 8:11; 15:3; Gal. 2:21; 3:13; 1 Pet. 2:21; 3:18; 4:1; 5:10) suggests that interpretation of Jesus’ death as a messianic death was primitive and pervasive (see also ‘Messiah died and rose’ etc. [Rom. 14:9; 2 Cor. 5:14-15; 1 Thess. 4:14]).

But from where did it come? Resurrection could not on its own create the messianic faith or a messianic atonement theology. A better point of origin for this formula would be Jesus himself, who enacted a messianic ministry in conjunction with references to his forthcoming rejection in Jerusalem.

In other words, it was Jesus’ messianic claims combined with his intimations of his violent death that, in light of his resurrection, led Christians to find patterns in Scripture of a suffering/rejected figure who could be identified as the Messiah..”

.As far as the Christology and messianism in John’s Gospel, Bird says:

“The implicit messianism of the prologue is apparent in at least four ways. First, John is amplifying his messianic testimony by placing the person of the Messiah within the orbit of the divine identity. One way that John does this is by identifying Jesus as pre-existent. The pre-existence of Jesus in the Gospel is clear in several units, not only in the prologue with ‘in the beginning’, but elsewhere too, such as Jesus’ retort to the Pharisees: ‘“Very truly I tell you . . . before Abraham was born, I am!”’ (8:58). Moreover, the pre-existence of the Messiah seems to have been debated within Judaism. The concept of a pre-existing Messiah is implied, to varying degrees, in several Jewish texts,14 yet the late second-century Christian author Hippolytus knows of a Jewish tradition that disputed such a claim since the   (1:11). The notion that Jesus as Messiah is the ‘coming one’ is firmly embedded in the Gospel tradition. Jesus is the stronger one/coming one in the witness of the Baptist (Mark 1:7/Matt. 3:11/Luke 3:16/John 1:15,30). Jesus is asked by John’s disciples if he is the ‘one to come’ (Luke 7:19–20/Matt. 11:2–3). In the triumphal entry, rich with messianic overtones, Jesus is the one who ‘comes in the name of the Lord’ (Mark 11:9/Matt. 21:9/Luke 19:38/John 12:13). This is more than a movement from A to B, as ‘the coming one’ was rich with eschatological and messianic significance.

The Septuagint version of Hab. 2:3 is messianic, and refers not simply to a coming age, but to a coming person. Thus, for John, Jesus is both the messianic temple-builder and the embodiment of God’s glory as the new temple itself. Out of the various encounters that Jesus has with key figures, the encounter that makes the most of the messianic theme is the exchange that takes place between Jesus and the Samaritan woman (John 4:1–42). The substance of the dialogue focuses on ‘Living Water’ (4:4–14), ‘The Woman’s Husbands’ (4:15–19), ‘Worship True and False’ (4:20–26), and ‘The Woman’s Witness’ (4:27–30). In terms of the christological affirmations of this section, the woman affirms that Jesus is a prophet because of his knowledge of her circumstance (4:19). This leads to her pressing question – the one that divided Jews and Samaritans – about the proper place of worship: Jerusalem or Mount Gerizim (4:20). Jesus’ response is that what matters is not the place of worship, but worship performed ‘in the Spirit and in truth’ (4:23–24). The ‘Spirit’ here is not the human spirit, but the Holy Spirit who inspires the worship of the believing community.” – Kindle Highlights, Location, 1993, 2176, 2271.

Over all, this book is truly unique. Bird wrote this as a follow up to his book “Are You the One Who Is to Come?: The Historical Jesus and the Messianic Question.” The reader will learn a tremendous amount about Jewish messianism, Christology and how each Gospel author presents Jesus to his audience.

Book Review:Approaches to Paul: A Student’s Guide to Recent Scholarship, by Magnus Zetterholm

Approaches to Paul: A Student’s Guide to Recent Scholarship, Magnus Zetterholm, Fortress Press, 2009,  288 pp. 978-0800663377

There is no doubt that within Biblical scholarship, Paul is one of the most debated figures within Biblical scholarship. Though this book was written back in 2009, the publisher was gracious enough to send me a review copy. At this point, I have built quite a library on Pauline studies. However, in relation to Paul, I was looking for a book that highlights the history of Pauline thought. This book doesn’t disappoint. Zetterholm spends the first portion of the book discussing Paul’s background as well as an analysis of key Pauline texts.

In relation to Philippians 3:4b-6 which is an autobiographical note that may confirm Luke’s account. Paul writes: If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Zetterholmn says:

“Besides referring to his Jewish identity in several ways, Paul here describes himself as a Pharisee. This agrees well with the statement given in Acts that he had studied under Gamaliel, who was a leading Pharisee. The Pharisees were a religious, and to a certain extent, political, party that emphasized the importance of continuous interpretation of the Torah. One problem that occupied the Pharisees was how to apply the Torah to new situations. Unlike the Sadducees, the Pharisees accepted the oral Torah, that is, all interpretations and adaptations of the biblical text, which were considered divinely inspired and just as binding as the original precepts. In the Gospels, especially Matthew, the Pharisees are portrayed as the main opponents of Jesus, but the evangelist’s presentation of them as hypocrites and exponents of a rigid, petrified religion must be viewed as a caricature. The Pharisees represented a pious movement. They enjoyed wide popular support and were dedicated to an interpretation of the biblical texts that was anything but rigid and literal.”- Kindle Location, 255-259.

As the book progresses, Zetterholm summarizes the contributions of Bultmann, F.C Baur, and the  Tubigen school and how these contributions shaped Pauline studies.

Zetterman then discusses one of the most heated debates in Pauline studies-The New Perspective on Paul. But before jumping into the NPP issue, he spends considerable time discussing the Reformation/Lutheran view of Paul. Having taught some classes on the Jewish Roots of Christianity in local churches, there is no doubt that the majority of Christians hold to what Zetterholm says here:

“Regardless of the individuals behind the demands, Paul reacts most vehemently, and Galatians, as well as Romans, contains many Torah-critical statements. In Galatians 2:16a, Paul writes, “we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” In Galatians 3:13a, he maintains, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law,” and in Galatians 5:4 he thunders: “You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.” Here the matter seer- clear-cut: Paul has dissociated himself from one of the most central tenets of Judaism. the Torah, and replaced it with Christ. Those who seek their righteousness in the Torah are foredoomed to failure and barred from grace. Paul really deem., to have abandoned Judaism and instead created a new religion. This is exactly the way scholars have traditionally assessed it, and there is a good deal of truth in Brad Young’s description of the situation:
“The consensus of scholarship has come to view [Paul] as a Hellenistic Jew who departed radically from his Judaism. Scholars view him as being influenced by his upbringing in the Stoic environs of Tarsus and various streams of thought flowing forth from paganism, Greco-Roman culture, popular Hellenistic philosophy, mystery religious cults, and Gnostic systems. Seldom is the origin of Paul’s faith seen as rooted in Pharisaism.” Paul is commonly thought to have left Judaism because he had realized that the Torah represents a person’s ambition to become righteous by means of his or her own efforts. Such an endeavor is not only impossible, as no one can keep the entire Torah all the time, but it also represents the cardinal sin-self-righteousness. On this view, when Jesus appears to Paul on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3-9), Paul is struck by the insight of the basic fault of Judaism and converts to Christianity. “The one who is righteous will live by faith,” has often been regarded as the all-embracing conflict between Jewish self-righteousness obtained by keeping the precepts of the Torah, and Christian faith in Jesus as a basis for an attributive, undeserved righteousness, on the other. Strangely enough, Paul quotes a Jewish text, in fact from the prophet Habakkuk, who wrote: “Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith” (Hab 2:4). When Paul formulates what would later become the cornerstone of the Protestant churches-righteousness by faith alone-he accordingly refers to the very Jewish tradition with which he is presumed to have broken. Righteousness, forgiveness, and atonement are, of course, all central Jewish concepts, and when Paul attempts to explain how this righteousness by faith alone functions (Romans 4), he selects one of the prominent figures of Judaism, Abraham, as an example.- Kindle Location, 148-164.

In reaction to the traditional Lutheran paradigm, Zetterholm then spends a considerable amount of time summarizing the work of E.P. Sanders who was one of the main scholars behind what is called “The New Perspective of Paul.”  He says:

“Sanders proved with extraordinary clarity that the traditional picture had arisen through the use of a selection of Jewish texts confirming the Lutheran image of ancient Judaism established long ago. Sanders, however, found an entirely different picture of Judaism. Judaism was, according to Sanders, characterized not by legalism but by covenantal nomism God, by grace, having chosen the Jewish people. God indeed punishes transgressions and rewards faithfulness, Sanders argues, but the important point is that a broken relationship with God can be restored by the atonement system the Torah offers. Strictly speaking, Sanders’s picture of Judaism is not new. Practically the same view that he emphasizes was pointed out already at the beginning of the twentieth century. The difference was that Sanders’s book enjoyed a very widespread circulation. One of the reasons why his interpretation of Judaism became so generally accepted was that Sanders did not come to very far-reaching conclusions about Paul. Sanders is of the opinion that Paul did not adhere to the model of covenantal nomism, which in principle characterized all Jewish groups during the period from roughly 200 BCE to 200 CE. According to Sanders, Paul denied the importance of Jewish mainstays such as the covenant, the election, and the law. His main criticism against Judaism, Sanders says, was that God had chosen another, that is, a specific relationship between the Torah and the covenant that God has made with the Jewish people. Observing the Torah is thus not a means for the Jew to merit justification, but the consequence of way of saving humankind than by means of the Torah. The problem with Judaism was simply that it was not Christianity. Regarding Paul’s relationship to Judaism, Sanders thus came to the same conclusion as most scholars at that time-Paul left Judaism-but according to Sanders, he did it for reasons others than those generally given. The anti-Jewish component thus became considerably toned down, while Paul still could be seen to be in opposition to Judaism. New Perspectives on Paul Initially, it did not seem as if Sanders’s revision of Judaism would have any dramatic impact on Pauline scholarship.

Zetterholm even discusses what is called “a radical new perspective.” Thus, there are some scholars how have even moved beyond the New Perspective. He says:

During the 1980’s, however, scholars such as J. D. G. Dunn and N. T. Wright pointed out that Sanders had not fully understood the consequences of his own interpretation of Judaism with respect to Paul. Dunn, who coined the term “the new perspective on Paul,” suggested, as did Wright, that Paul only opposed those aspects of the “Torah that served as specific Jewish markers of identity, thus separating Jews from non-Jews. The problem, Dunn maintained, was not the Torah or covenantal nomism, but Jewish national righteousness. In the course of the ensuing decades, a large number of books and articles were published in which the authors made attempts to understand Paul from this new perspective. By redefining the problem of Paul’s relation to Judaism, new perspective scholars brought other aspects of Paul’s writings to the fore and the inherent anti-Judaism prevalent in the traditional opposition between Paul and Judaism was significantly downplayed-but not obliterated. Radicalism and Reactions Some scholars soon reached the conclusion that the new perspective had not gone far enough with regard to Paul’s Jewishness. They pointed out that the traditional dichotomy between Judaism and Christianity and between Judaism and Paul still constituted an important fundament even within the new perspective. Thus instead of assuming that Paul opposed Judaism, scholars like Lloyd Gaston, Stanley Stowers, and Caroline Johnson Hodge all assume that Paul should be even more closely related to first-century Judaism than scholars from within the new perspective usually imagine. This change of perspective has indeed led to new, challenging results, and scholars working from a radical new perspective have reached fundamentally different conclusions than scholars before them. Within the radical new perspective, many of the established truths about Paul have thus been challenged, for instance, the idea that Paul ceased observing the Torah or that he created a new religion based on universalism instead of Jewish particularism. The cornerstone in this perspective on Paul is the natural development of Sanders’s revision of Judaism and the new perspective on Paul. If the old caricature of Judaism can be proven false and it can be assumed that first-century Judaism was not characterized by legalism and works-righteousness, it seems quite unlikely that Paul found reason to  Judaism for Christianity – Kindle Location, 2872-2883.

When it comes to two of the most famous British scholars (N.T. Wright and James Dunn), he says:

“Both Dunn’s “new” and Wright’s “fresh” perspective of Paul offer challenging theological alternatives to the traditional Lutheran interpretations without entirely undermining many of the major aspects of Lutheran theology, Wright even aims at resolving the tension between the old and the new perspectives on Paul by emphasizing that Paul dealt both with the general inclusion of non-Jews and the issue of how individual sinners are put right with God. The same tendency is discernible also with Dunn.’ Thus even from the position of the new perspectives, a fairly traditional Christian theology seems possible, even though some of its critics sometimes tend to view things differently. While the new perspective most likely still represents a radical challenge to normative Christian theology, it is today probably justified to speak of it as representing an exegetical middle position. From the traditional standpoint, the new perspective indeed offers an alternative reading of Paul against a more nuanced view of ancient Judaism. Yet, some scholars have gone even further with regard to locating Paul within a Jewish context. Even though proponents of the new perspective emphasize Paul’s Jewishness, it is important to note that Dunn’s Paul has abandoned important aspects of the Torah. Wright’s Paul remains within a Judaism stripped of most of its hallmarks, so redefined that ethnicity no longer matters, and “Israel” becomes a designation for Jews and non-Jews fused together into a third entity, indeed no longer pagan, but not really Jewish either, at least not from the standpoint of most Jews in antiquity. The new perspective on Paul should at least partly be regarded as a Christian theological attempt to come to terms with the new view of Judaism while still establishing a well-defined distinction between Judaism and Christianity.- Kindle Locations, 1615-1625.

In summarizing the current debate he says:

 “Pauline studies today exist in a tension between a traditional Reformation perspective, ultimately aiming at legitimizing a neoorthodox standpoint, and methodologically sophisticated, radical attempts to understand Paul from other assumptions than the traditional ones. The increasing amount of studies within and even outside the field of New Testament studies (as in the case of secular philosophy) clearly demonstrates that the apostle to the Gentiles has not ceased to fascinate diverse audiences. Thus, there are 1) scholars who basically work from a traditional, Reformation perspective; 2) scholars who would define themselves as adhering to the new perspective; and 3) scholars who have moved beyond the new perspective into what we may call a “radical new perspective.” These major traditions within Pauline scholarship are by no means homogenous. Scholars belonging to the same tradition may very well arrive at different interpretations of a given text or suggest even contradictory solutions to a certain problem. Accordingly, there is a significant diversity both within each of these schools and among the respective traditions. What defines these traditions is rather a general agreement on some basic shared perspectives.”

What was one of the most interesting parts of this book was at the very end, Zetterholm utlizes the work of Thomas Kuhn and how we can learn quite a bit about the challenge of overturning a paradigm. He says

“In 1962, Thomas S. Kuhn (1922-1996), then Professor of the History of Science at the University of California, Berkeley, published his work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In this, his most influential work, he suggests that scientific evolution does not develop continuously, but that different scientific paradigms succeed one another and drastically change a certain scientific field. A paradigm is made up of the sum of theories and methods used within a certain field and leads to the establishment of a kind of scientific, conceptual worldview, which Kuhn called normal science. Within the paradigm of normal science, where most research is carried out, scholars work without directly questioning the overall framework of interpretation. Rather there is a tendency to focus on con firming the predominant paradigm. A distinct norm for which solutions to a given problem are acceptable is established. In this way, certain expectations regarding the results of an investigation also arise. Notice Kuhn says “Rather there is a tendency to focus on con firming the predominant paradigm.”

Now what does a scientist such as Thomas Kuhn have to do with Pauline studies? From my own experience, what I like best about the NPP, and even some of the “radical new perspective” views is that it puts Paul back in his first century context. Obviously, the Reformation/Lutheran view of Paul is a ‘paradigm.’

Thousands of Christians assume there was one “Judaism” in the first century and then Jesus and Paul came along and got rid of it and started the religion called Christianity. This is sad and quite frankly a paradigm that has continued on to this day.

In other posts, I have mentioned the following comments by Craig Evans who says:

But we must ask if Paul has created a new institution, a new organization, something that stands over against Israel, something that Jesus himself never anticipated. From time to time learned tomes and popular books have asserted that the Christian church is largely Paul’s creation, that Jesus himself never intended for such a thing to emerge. Frankly, I think the hypothesis of Paul as creator of the church or inventor of Christianity is too simplistic. A solution that is fairer to the sources, both Christian and Jewish, is more complicated. -Evans, Craig A., From Jesus to the Church: The First Christian Generation .

Linguistically speaking, Christianity didn’t exist in the first century. Judaism in the first century was not seen as a single “way.”  There were many “Judaism’s”- the Sadducees, the Pharisees, Essenes, Zealots, etc.  The followers of Jesus are referred to as a “sect” (Acts 24:14;28:22); “the sect of the Nazarenes” (24:5).  Josephus refers to the “sects” of Essenes, Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Zealots. The first followers of Jesus were considered to be a sect of Second Temple Judaism.  For all the different sects, they did have some core beliefs such as adherence to the Torah, belief in one God, and belief in Israel as God’s elect people and the Temple was part of the social glue that bound them together as a people group.From my own experience, most Christians and Jewish people like the current boundaries. In other words, we have two separate religions- Judaism and Christianity. Thus, we don’t care much about as to how we got to that place. One thing for sure: If we discuss the “imperial Christianity” that was legalized in the fourth century by Constantine  and whether Jesus or Paul is the founder of that, the answer is no. By then, the Christianity that existed was so far away from what Jesus and Paul had done, it had morphed into a new and separate religion.

What’s my point? The Reformation/Lutheran reading of Paul has been one of the main catalysts that has allowed Christians to assume Judaism is a dead, legalistic religion (go back and read the quote at the start of this post). It can’t be stressed enough that we need to read the Bible on its terms, and that includes reading it in its ANE setting. One thing for sure: Pauline studies is exciting. I look forward to what Pauline scholars will be saying twenty years from now. If you want an introductory book on Pauline thought, including both history and theology, this book is an excellent resource.




What Can We Know About Jesus? 25 Suggested Readings

1.Gregory Boyd and Paul Eddy: The Jesus Legend, The: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition

This is one of my favorite books on the topic. Its comprehensiveness and attention to detail is hard to match. What is so refreshing is it’s coverage of the critical issues involved in doing history. Topics include oral tradition, genre studies, Paul’s knowledge of the historical Jesus, the reliability of sources outside the Gospels, etc. In this chapter Boyd and Eddy present a historical method that is lacking in so many books of this nature.

Secondly, the chapter called A Jewish Legend of “Yahweh Embodied” demonstrates the call for an historical explanation about the early Jesus devotion of the Jewish followers of Jesus. Boyd and Eddy discuss how the old argument that Jesus’ divinity was simply borrowed from paganism or some sort of mystery religion is overly problematic. Also, the attempt to fit Jesus into some sort of “divine men” category is a bit strained. If anything, Jews were resistant to Hellenism and paganism. In the end, I think this book succeeds in deconstructing the method of Jesus mythers. After all, it is about method! Give this book a read. You won’t be disappointed!

2. Paul W. Barnett:  Jesus and the Logic of History (New Studies in Biblical Theology). This is a short little book that is a gem. Barnett focuses primarily on Paul and how he can be treated as providing historical knowledge for Jesus.

3. Darrell L.Bock: Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods. This is a great resource and covers a lot of ground. Bock discusses  both biblical and extra-biblical sources for Jesus, the history and culture at he time of Jesus as well as the use of criticism (e.g., historical, redactional, etc).

4. Michael F. Bird: Are You the One Who is to Come?: The Historical Jesus and the Messianic Question. This is a book that discusses Jewish Messianism and whether Jesus thought of Himself as the Jewish Messiah. It is outstanding!

5. Michael J. Wilkins: Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus. This book has some very good essays. Back when it was written, many of them were a reaction to some of the Jesus Seminar writings. Granted, many of us have moved on since the Seminar. However, this should be in your library.

6. Jonathan T. Pennington: Reading the Gospels Wisely: A Narrative and Theological Introduction. This book did do a bit more on the theological side of the Gospels. But the author still discusses genre and the importance of having four Gospels of Jesus.

7. Craig A. Evans: Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels: Evans has a mastery of the languages, the Dead Sea Scrolls ad extra- biblical literature. Anything by him is worth reading. This is a must read.

8. Paul W. Barnett:  Finding the Historical Christ (After Jesus). This is a much more extensive book than his previous one I mentioned.  Much attention is given to the Gospels. I highly recommend it.

9. Richard Bauckham: Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. This was one of my favorite books on  the topic. As Bauckham notes:

The Greek word for “eyewitness” (autoptai), does not have forensic meaning, and in that sense the English word “eyewitnesses” with its suggestion of a metaphor from the law courts, is a little misleading. The autoptai are simply firsthand observers of those events. Bauckham has followed the work of Samuel Byrskog in arguing that while the Gospels though in some ways are a very distinctive form of historiography, they share broadly in the attitude to eyewitness testimony that was common among historians in the Greco-Roman period. These historians valued above all reports of firsthand experience of the events they recounted. Best of all was for the historian to have been himself a participant in the events (direct autopsy). Failing that (and no historian was present at all the events he need to recount, not least because some would be simultaneous), they sought informants who could speak from firsthand knowledge and whom they could interview (indirect autopsy). In other words, Byrskog defines “autopsy,” as a visual means of gathering data about a certain object and can include means that are either direct (being an eyewitness) or indirect (access to eyewitnesses). Byrskog also claims that such autopsy is arguably used by Paul (1 Cor 9:1; 15:5–8; Gal 1:16), Luke(Acts 1:21–22; 10:39–41) and John (19:35; 21:24; 1 John 1:1–4).

One of the greatest assets of Bauckham’s book is the reminder that ancient historians thought that history had to be written during a time when eyewitnesses were still available to be cross-examined.

Historically speaking, eyewitness testimony is generally considered more reliable than testimony that is heard from a second-or third hand source. But as Bauckham notes, the Greek word for “eyewitness” (autoptai), means that the historian was a firsthand observer of the events.

10. Birger Gerhardsson: The Reliability of the Gospel Tradition. This is a short little book that discusses the role of Jewish culture and oral tradition in the Gospel accounts. Rabbi Jesus taught his disciples which required memorization of the master’s teaching.

11. Reinventing Jesus: J. Ed Komoszewski , M. James Sawyer,  Daniel B. Wallace

12. The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide: Gerd Theissen , Annette Merz

13. Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels: Craig Evans

14. The Historical Jesus: Five Views: James K. Beilby , Paul R. Eddy   

15. Behind the Gospels: Understanding the Oral Tradition: Eric Eve  

16. The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth: Ben Witherington III

17. New Testament History: A Narrative Account: Ben Witherington III

18. Who Was Jesus?: A Jewish-Christian Dialogue: Paul Copan

19. Jesus, the Final Days: What Really Happened: Craig Evans and N.T. Wright

20. The Gospel of the Lord: Michael F. Bird

21. Jesus Is the Christ: The Messianic Testimony of the Gospels: Michael F. Bird

22. Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey, Second Edition: Craig Blomberg

23. The Jewish Reclamation of Jesus: Donald Hanger

24. Jesus the Jew: Geza Vermes

25. Jesus and History; How We Know His Life and Claims: Dr. Steven Waterhouse

Responding to Critics, Seekers, and Doubters


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