A Closer Look at the Genre of the Gospels: Ancient and Modern Historiography: What are the Gospels?

Introduction

I had previously written on this topic. But I wanted to add some new tidbits. Over the years, I have had my share of discussions about the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). There is still an overall skepticism towards them that permeates the culture and college campuses. I have found that many skeptics have never stopped and asked the question, “What Are The Gospels?”

What Are The Gospels?

When we discuss the Gospels with others I don’t think we can ignore the advice of New Testament scholar Ben Witherington who says, “Works of ancient history or biography should be judged by their own conventions.” (1)

For starters, one view of this topic was Dennis R. MacDonald’sHomeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark. But there was several problems with this approach. To see some of the issues with this approach, see here:

Therefore, in asking whether the available sources for the life of Jesus are legendary, we should carefully evaluate the genre of the Gospels. In studying for his doctoral dissertation, Richard Burridge, dean of King’s College in London England, researched the genre of the gospels. Burridge says, “Genre is the like a kind of contract between the author and the reader, or between the producers of a programme and the audience, about how they will write or produce something and how you should interpret what they have written.” Therefore, it is important that you know what the genre of the thing is before you come to interpret it.” (2)

Burridge placed special attention on the prologue, verb subjects, allocation of space, mode of representation, length, structure, scale, literary units, use of sources, style, social setting, quality of characterization, atmosphere as well authorial intention and purpose. Because of the gospel’s similarities to these ancient biographies, Burridge concluded that the genre of the gospels is what is called an ancient bioi which bear some similarities to Suetonius’s Twelve Ceasars or Plutarch’s Paraell Lives. But just because it can be concluded that the Gospels are Greco-Roman biographies, does that mean they are historical in nature? We probably should take the advice of David Aune when he says, “Greco Roman biography was “intrinsically concerned with history.” (3)

Some of the other aspects of an Ancient Bioi:

Ancient Bioi centered on a particular person and sought to present adequate characterization of that person. The biography would include information about other persons and groups of people, but the major focus of the work would be on central character. The goal of the ancient biographer was often hortatory or exhortational. Burridge says, “Ancient Bioi was a flexible genre having strong relationships with history, encomium and rhetoric, moral philosophy and the concern for character.” (4)

Other issues of Ancient Bioi:

1.The modern desire for precision must not be imposed on ancient authors because they wrote in general fashion. Ancient authors were content to use adverbs and other terms for time in a metaphorical or less that precise way. Example- Luke says “Jesus was about 30”

2. The ancient author utilized historical data about the central figure but did so with different purposes.

3. The goal of ancient bioi was to create a lasting impression on the reader.

4. Objection: “Why do the gospels not include more about Jesus’ childhood and early adult years? Because another aspect of an Ancient Bioi placed little focus on childhood development of the person in question since it was believed that character was basically static and did not develop over time, but rather, was merely revealed.

5. The author’s goal was not to recount all the historic events of the person’s life. The goal was to reveal who the person was through a portrait of words and deeds. If the person’s death took place in a glorious fashion, an ample amount of space had to be devoted to the biography to explain significance of event. The reason for this is the following: in antiquity that how one died revealed one’s true character. Since Jesus was crucified and no one in antiquity saw this as a noble way to die, this explains why the gospels include so much information about this event.

6. The tendency to apply modern historiographical expectations to the gospels makes it difficult to recognize ancient conventions and genre traits that are used in the Gospels such as:

1. Exhaustive or compressive accounts 2. Value-free commentary 3. Ascribing all events to natural causes –ancient authors did not hesitate to mention supernatural events in their narratives of historical events. 4.The avoidance of rhetorical devices and effects (5)

Charles Talbert, who had written the groundbreaking What Is a Gospel? says the following about the Burridge book, “This volume ought to end any legitimate details pf the canonical Gospel’s biographical character” (see his review in Journal of Biblical Literature, 112 (1993).

The Jewish Background of the Gospels

Michael Bird has recently noted the following about the genre of the Gospels:

“The Gospels are rooted in the Jewish Scriptures. They explicitly function as the continuation and fulfillment of the story of Israel. That is why they are replete with citations, allusions, and echoes of the Old Testament. The religious content and theological texture of the Gospels is heavily indebted to the worldview, socio-political landscape, and sacred texts of Judaism. Roman biography and Greek legends could refer to various religious literary works such as Delphic oracles or Homer’s Iliad. But for the Gospels, the story and worldview of Israel’s Scriptures are very much what the Gospels are about, namely, the God of Israel inaugurating his kingdom through Jesus the Messiah. It should not raise anyone’s eyebrows to say that the Gospels comprise a form of post-biblical Jewish literature with messianic faith in Jesus as its primary content. The main point of contact with the Gospels is that Jewish biographical literature contains a theography, a story about Israel’s God, working through an agent of deliverance, such as a prophet, king, or teacher. The protagonist leads the Jewish people at a time of national crisis or performs some miraculous deed at an important moment in Israel’s history. The Gospels possess a theological worldview, a geopolitical setting, didactic content, and a deliberate replication of Old Testament literary types that make some kind of connection with Jewish sacred literature irrefutable.”—-Michael F. Bird, The Gospel of the Lord (p. 229). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Bird also says:

The Gospels are the textual imprint of the oral phenomena of Christian preaching and teaching about Jesus. Viewed this way, they are Christian documents related to the needs of Christians in corporate reading, worship, apologetics, and proclamation. So in that sense they are a unique genre with no precise literary counterparts. However, their uniqueness is in many ways inconsequential because they remain largely analogous to Greco-Roman biography, and the biographical genre was typified by innovation and adaptation. The content of the Gospels is singularly determined by Jewish Christian content, while the literary form of the Gospels is a clear subtype of Greco-Roman biography.- Michael F. Bird, The Gospel of the Lord (p. 270), Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

The Gospel Genre and Historical Intention

In the book by Gregory Boyd and Paul Eddy called The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Tradition (pgs 334-335) they note Willem van Unick’s study of how ancient historians understood their work based on Lucian’s How To Write History and Dionysis of Halicarnassus’s Letter to Pompei. From these two works van Unick formulates “ten rules” of ancient historiography. Ancient historians were expected to:

1. Choose a noble subject 2. Choose a subject that would be useful to the intended audience 3. Be impartial and independent in researching and composing their history 4. Construct a good narrative with an especially good beginning and ending 5. Engage in adequate preparatory research 6. Use good judgment in the selection of material, exemplifying appropriate variety 7. Accurately and appropriately order one’s material 8. Make the narrative lively and interesting 9. Exercise moderation in topographal details 10. Compose speeches appropriate to the orator and rhetorical situation

Daniel Marguerat has analyzed Luke’s history writing in the light of Unnick’s ten rules and has arrived at the following conclusion:

“Comparisons of Luke-Acts with the list of historiographal norms confirms that the Lucan writings corresponds to standard Graeco-Roman historiogrpahy. We…find that Luke follows eight of ten rules: his transgression of the other two (the first and the third) points us toward the specificity of Luke’s project. The instructions observed by Luke are also followed by the majority of historians of Hellenistic Judaism, especially Flavius Josephus.”

Boyd and Eddy note that Luke’s apparent violation of rule number one is instructive. Rather than a culturally appropriate noble subject, Luke and his fellow Gospel writers chose as their central focus the life of a Galilean carpenter who was eventually crucified as a false messiah and blasphemer—hardly a “noble subject. “ –pgs 334-335

Modern Biographies?

Brent Pitre,  Author of  The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ says the following about the Gospels as ancient biography.

“The four Gospels are not just any kind of ancient biography. They are historical biographies, two of which explicitly claim to tell us what Jesus actually did and said and to be based on eyewitness testimony (Luke 1:1-4; John 21:20-24). The reason the historical character of the Gospels is important is that some scholars claim that the authors of the Gospels did not even intend to give us the historical truth about the words and deeds of Jesus. The only way to hold such a view, however, is to ignore the fact that ancient biographers often insist that they are recording the truth about what someone did and said. For example, in his biography of the philosopher Demonax, Lucian makes sure to let the reader know that he was an eyewitness and a disciple of Demonax himself: I speak with reference to the Boeotian Sostratus…and to Demonax, the philosopher. Both these men I saw myself, and saw with wonderment: and under one of them, Demonax, I was long a student. (Lucian, Life of Demonax, 1)24 One reason that Lucian may stress this point is that elsewhere in his writings, he insists on the ancient historian’s obligation to tell the truth: The historian’s task is one: to tell it as it happened…. This is the one peculiar characteristic of history, and to truth alone must sacrifice be made. (Lucian, How to Write History, 39, 40)25 Along similar lines, the first-century Jewish writer Josephus insists on the historical truth of his autobiography:

Having reached this point in my narrative, I propose to address a few words to Justus, who has produced his own account of these affairs, and to others who, while professing to write history, care little for truth, and either from spite or partiality, have no scruples about falsehood. The procedure of such persons resembles indeed the forgers of contracts, but having no corresponding penalty to fear, they can afford to disdain veracity…. [But] veracity is incumbent upon a historian. (Josephus, Life, 336–39) Notice that there is no trace of the idea that accounts in a biography can be true “whether or not they happened.” To the contrary, Josephus insists that the biography he is writing is a subset of “history” (Greek historia). This means that an author ought to tell the “truth” (Greek alētheia) about what happened, rather than “falsehood” (Greek pseudos). Of course, scholars may dispute whether or not Josephus or any other biographer was successful in telling the truth. But they can’t dispute that the genre of his writing is historical biography, and that he is purporting to tell what actually happened. As a result, any scholar who were to compare Josephus’s autobiography to “folklore” or “fairy stories” would be considered ridiculous. Nonetheless, this is exactly how scholars such as Rudolf Bultmann portray the Gospels. If we look at what the four Gospels actually say about what kinds of books they are, we discover that two of them emphasize that they are recording what Jesus actually did and said. They also claim that they are based on eyewitness testimony. In other words, they insist that they are historical biographies.

Consider, once again, the prologue to the Gospel of Luke:

“Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write carefully in order for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the facts concerning the things of which you have been informed.” (Luke 1:1-4)

In order to understand the importance of Luke’s prologue for our argument, four points need to be explained.

First, as many scholars point out, Luke’s prologue is strikingly similar to the prologues found in ancient Greco-Roman histories, by authors such as Herodotus, Thucydides, and Josephus.27 Like the prologues of other ancient histories, Luke’s prologue is intended to signal to the reader that the Gospel is historical in character. Second, Luke uses the word “narrative” (Greek diēgēsis) to describe his book. As Joseph Fitzmyer has shown, ancient Greco-Roman authors often use this word specifically for “the writing of history” (see Josephus, Life, 336; Lucian, How to Write History, 55).28 Third, Luke insists that his historical narrative is based on the testimony of “eyewitnesses (Greek autoptai) from the beginning” of Jesus’s public ministry. Now, why would Luke emphasize the eyewitness nature of his sources if he were just telling folktales? Clearly, Luke wants his readers to know that what he says about Jesus can be corroborated by those who knew him. Fourth and finally, Luke explicitly states that he is writing so that his audience might know “the facts” (Greek asphaleian). Although some English Bibles translate the Greek word asphalēia as “truth,” elsewhere Luke consistently uses it to refer to secure and verifiable facts (see Acts 21:34; 22:30; 25:26).29 In other words, the Gospel of Luke begins by insisting that it is an accurate, factual account, based directly on eyewitness testimony of what Jesus did and said.” – Brent Pitre,  The Case for Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ, Kindle Locations, 1383- 1427

 

The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony by Richard Bauckham

One book that has recently handled the issue of eyewitness testimony issue within the New Testament is Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony by Richard Bauckham. In this book, Bauckham offers a new paridigm called “The Jesus of Testimony.”

New Testament faith is portrayed biblically as knowledge based upon testimony. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that investigates the nature and origin of knowledge. How do we know something? The role of testimony is one of the primary ways humans can know anything about historical events. Bauckham does a superb job in evaluating how testimony can be treated as historical knowledge.

Bauckham demonstrates that, though the Gospels in some ways are a very distinctive form of historiography, they heavily relied on eyewitness testimony, which was common among historians in the Greco-Roman period. The Greek word for “eyewitness” (autoptai) refers to those that would have participated in the events (direct autopsy). If the authors didn’t participate in the events they were writing about, they sought informants who could speak from firsthand knowledge and whom they could interview (indirect autopsy). For example, since it is obvious that Mark relies on Peter as a direct eyewitness, Mark’s Gospel is a form of indirect autopsy.  We see in Luke 1:1-4 that while Luke was not a direct eyewitness of Jesus’s ministry, and the information was given to him by those who “from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word,” he also is a form of indirect autopsy. Space prohibits a robust defense of John and Matthew’s Gospels, but since John claims to be a direct eyewitness (John 21:20-24) he is form of direct autopsy. Matthew’s frequent references to money remind us that he had been a tax collector. It is likely that this role is an example of a direct eyewitness to the ministry of Jesus as well.

Conclusion:

It is my hope that more people will take the time to look at the genre of the books of the Bible and actually attempt to know what it is they are trying to interpret. While this may be a challenge for some people, it can be an incredibly rewarding experience.

Sources:

1. Ben Witherington III, New Testament History (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 2001), 14-28.

2. Richard Burridge And Graham Gould, Jesus: Then And Now (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 2004), 2.

3. Gregory A. Boyd and Paul R. Eddy, The Jesus Legend: A Case For The Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Tradition (Grand Rapids: Baker Books. 2007), 411.

4. See Richard Burridge, What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco Roman Biography (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, Second Edition, 2004).

5. These six points can be found in Witherington’s New Testament History.

 

Advertisements
Uncategorized

A Look at God’s Existence: Can We Really Appeal to A Revelatory Model?

Introduction

The skeptical issue in our culture mostly enters into the religious dialogue in the following way: “In the case of God, who isn’t some physical object but a divine being, what kind of evidence should we expect to find?  Christianity, Judaism, Islam, are all theistic faiths in contrast to pantheism (all is God), polytheism (many gods), and atheism (without God).The study of world religions involves a commitment to understand the issue of divine revelation. Richard Swinburne has done some work on this topic in his books Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy and The Resurrection of God Incarnate. He gives some reasons we should expect God to provide a revelation to humanity:

  1. We need a revelation from God so we can come to know more about Him. In other words, if we are to know more about God, he must reveal it in some way.
  2. Given the current state of our world (it is a world of sin and suffering), we should expect God to deal with this issue by becoming incarnate (taking on a human body and a human nature) and providing an atonement for our sins and identifying with our suffering
  3. To provide encouragement for doing what is right and avoid doing what is bad by providing rewards and punishments respectively.
  4. Provide us with moral information so we know what is good or bad as the case may be.

Let me offer a small outline on this issue and then look at some complaints by those who are not religious and some responses.

A. Divine Revelation: There are three things for a revelation to take place:

1. A Being capable of giving a revelation: God 2. A being capable of receiving a revelation: Man 3. A medium that is used for the revelation: (The created order, a messenger, the Bible, Jesus, etc.)

Biblically speaking, the acceptance of revelation is of fundamental importance to the Christian faith. The word “revelation” comes from the Greek word ” apokalupsis” which means “an “uncovering,” or “unveiling.”

In the Bible, there are two types of revelation- general and special. General revelation serves to explain the worldwide phenomenon of faith. Many people are religious, because they have a type of knowledge of God. All people have knowledge of God although it may be suppressed to the extent of being unrecognizable or unconscious. General revelation is seen in the created order (Rom 1:18-21) and through the gift of conscience (Rom. 2: 12-15).

While general revelation manifests God as Creator, it does not reveal Him as Redeemer. The principle of progressive revelation means that God does not reveal everything at once. In progressive revelation, there are many cases where the New Testament declares explicitly what was only implicit in the Hebrew Bible. One of these truths is the Jesus is the long awaited Messiah who takes away not only the sins of Israel, but the entire world (John 1: 29;3:16).

B. Challenges to the Revelation Model: The Outsider Complaint

1. Skeptics say there is no way to test a revelatory model. Religious people just “have faith.” It is blind and can’t be held to any empirical testing.

2. Competing revelatory models: Is there one God who gives a clear revelation? Or is there a God, or god who gives conflicting and contradictory revelations?

3. If religious people start with their Holy Book (The Bible, The Quran, The Book of Mormon), they are begging the question that there is a God who is able to give a revelation. Also, how do they know that it is their God or god that has given the correct revelation?

The late Christopher Hitchens said:

“Since all these revelations, many of them hopelessly inconsistent, cannot by definition be simultaneously true, it must follow that some of them are false and illusory. It could also follow that only one of them is authentic, but in the first place this seems dubious and in the second place it appears to necessitate religious war in order to decide whose revelation is the true one.”–Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Hachette Book Group, 2009), 97-98.

4. The scientific/naturalism objection: In his book Kingdom Triangle, J.P Moreland has noted that the majority of academia has convinced a gullible public into thinking that science/naturalism is the only way to arrive at knowledge.  Therefore, theology can’t give us knowledge and is cast off into the domain of subjective opinion, etc. What is wrong with this?

5. Fideism: This objection is somewhat similar to #1. If we stick to the revelation model, this approach leads to fideism. Religious fideism asserts that faith and religious belief are not supported by reason. One must simply believe. Faith, not reason, is what God requires (Heb. 11:6). Many skeptics can speak from experience that Christians and other people from religious backgrounds don’t feel compelled to offer rational justification for belief.

C. The Revelation Model: A Response

1. ” There is no way to test a revelatory model”

Response: I agree that there needs to be a healthy skepticism towards revelatory claims. After all, if someone comes to my door tomorrow and tells me they have a new revelation that I need to submit to, I will probably be a bit skeptical.  But the bulk of this complaint is based on a view that says unless we can empirically verify something, we just scrap it. The empirical view came to be seen as too narrow and self-defeating since on this ground the principle of empirical verifiability was not empirically verifiable itself. Therefore, it is meaningless as well.

The verification principle has broadened out to other kinds of verification tests such as experiential, historical, and eschatological.  Historical verification is a way to test religious claims. We can detect God’s work in human history and apply historical tests to the Bible or any other religious book. The late Anthony Flew said the resurrection of Jesus was the best attested miracle claim that he had seen. Perhaps the most reasonable expectation is to ask WHERE and WHEN God has broken through in human history. To say there is no way to test revelatory claims calls for some clarification.

2. Conflicting Revelatory Claims?

Response: This is why we have what is called apologetics-offering reasons for what we believe. When do this, we can ask the following questions:

1. What is the claim of each religion? 2. How does it claim to know it? 3. What is the evidence for it?

When we do this, we will see that while there are some similarities in faiths such as truth, a God, a right and wrong, spiritual purpose in life, and communion with God, they all also have some glaring differences such as the nature of God, the afterlife, the nature of man, sin, salvation, and creation. As a Christian, I don’t think God wants the world to be confused.  If God wants the world to know Him, it seems to me that he would give a clear revelation to humanity.

To assert that the God of the Bible would give a clear revelation in the person of Jesus (33 A.D.) and then give another revelation 600-650 years later (Islam), which contradicts the one in 33 A.D is odd. Furthermore, what about the  two other so-called revelations in the  1800′s (Mormonism and the Watchtower Society) that both contradict the Christian and Muslim claim. If anything, that would make the God of the Bible a very contradictory Being. We see in Scripture that the God of Israel is a rational being, principles of good reason do flow from his very nature. For example, “It is impossible for God to lie” (Heb 6:18), and God cannot deny Himself (2 Tim 2:13).

In my view, we should follow the guidelines as seen in the book Introduction to Philosophy: A Christian Perspective, by Norman L. Geisler and and Paul D. Feinberg. They say the following about the relationship between revelation and reason:

(1) “Reason is over revelation” is correct in that reason is epistemologically prior to revelation. The alleged revelation must be tested by reason. (2) “Revelation is over reason” is right in the ontological sense. God created reason and it must be His servant, not His master. (3) “Revelation only” is correct in the sense that ultimately and ontologically all truth comes from God. (4) “Reason only” has some truth, since reason must judge epistemologically whether the alleged revelation is from God. (5) “Revelation and reason” is correct because it properly assigns a role to each and shows their interrelationship. One should reason about and for revelation, otherwise he has an unreasonable faith. Likewise, reason has no guide without a revelation and flounders in error.

3. The science and naturalism objection

We can look at cosmology, biology, physics, and other fields of science to detect design. As we observe the world around us, there are two kinds of causes- natural and intelligent. When we take this approach, we can show that it requires some faith to think blind, undirected, natural processes (as a mechanism) can fully answer the issue of anticipatory, specified, and irreducible complexity.

Also, while the Christian worldview is not opposed to science, it does recognize the limitations of science in relation to the discovery of human knowledge. In some cases, scientism tends to reduce all legitimate knowledge (epistemology) to the scientific method. Therefore, this form of science ends up committing the reductive fallacy by taking one area of study and reduces all reality to this one area alone. Furthermore, to assert that all truth claims must be scientifically verifiable is a philosophical assumption rather than a scientific statement.

4. The Fideism objection:

The Church needs to take responsibility for this problem. How many sermons or classes have ever discussed a clear definition of Biblical faith? There have been three aspects of faith expressed throughout church history: notitia (knowledge), fiducia (trust), and assensus (assent). Notitia refers to the data or doctrinal element of faith. Assensus refers to the assent of the intellect of the truth of the Christian faith. According to the book of James, the demons have intellectual assent to the fact that God exists but not have saving faith. That is why a person must exercise fiducia- this is the aspect of faith that involves the application or trust in the faith process. In other words, fiducia allows a person to go beyond merely intellectual assent. Fiducia involves the will, emotion, and intellect.  Therefore, biblical faith involves a commitment of the whole person.

D. Some Reasons Why I Still Think Revelation is Needed:

1. Building on what Swinburne says, many people don’t have a developed theory of knowledge. Why? Because they don’t have the time or haven’t thought about it. Furthermore, people make rational statements and believe a number of things without doing an exhaustive evaluation of the evidence. Alvin Plantinga thinks belief in God properly basic. Although I don’t think everything about the Plantinga model is correct, there may be some truth to this.

2. The Effects of Sin: Biblically speaking, revelation is needed because of sin. Sin can dampen the cognitive faculties that God has given us to find Him. In other words, sin affects the whole person—mind, emotions, and will. Human beings are radically depraved in their being.People can and do harden their hearts towards God. Sometimes they can reach the point where they are desensitized towards the ways of God. Human beings are radically depraved in their being. Another way to say this is that they are extensively affected by sin. But humans are not totally depraved in an intensive sense, since sin does not destroy the image of God (see Gen. 9:6; James 3:9). God’s image is effaced but not erased. (1)

3. Aquinas on the need for Revelation: I think our buddy Thomas Aquinas offered a good case for the need for revelation. He set forth five reasons why we must first believe what we may later be able to provide good evidence for (Maimonides, 1.34):

1. The object of spiritual understanding is deep and subtle, far removed from sense perception.

2. Human understanding is weak as it fights through these issues.

3.  A number of things are needed for conclusive spiritual proof. It takes time to discern them.

4. Some people are disinclined to rigorous philosophical investigation.

5.  It is necessary to engage in other occupations besides philosophy and science to provide the necessities of life (On Truth, 14.10, reply).

Aquinas said it is clear that, “if it were necessary to use a strict demonstration as the only way to reach a knowledge of the things which we must know about God, very few could ever construct such a demonstration and even these could do it only after a long time.”

Elsewhere, Aquinas lists three basic reasons why divine revelation is needed.

1.  Few possess the knowledge of God, some do not have the disposition for philosophical study, and others do not have the time or are indolent.

2.  Time is required to find the truth. This truth is very profound, and there are many things that must be presupposed. During youth the soul is distracted by “the various movements of the passions.”

3.  It is difficult to sort out what is false in the intellect. Our judgment is weak in sorting true from false concepts.

Sources:

1. Geisler, Norman L. Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1999, 540.

Uncategorized

Why Jesus Can’t be the Savior of the World Unless He is the Jewish Messiah

One of the most popular  articles on the JewsNews website is an article called Who exactly is the Jewish Moshiach (Messiah), and why is he so critical to the Jewish people? While Christians take the time to celebrate the Savior of the world, they tend to forget unless Jesus is the Jewish Messiah of both Israel and the nations, he can’t be the Savior of the world. In other words, they can’t be divorced from each other. As Michael Bird says:

The statement that “Jesus is the Messiah” presupposes a certain way of reading Israel’s Scriptures and assumes a certain hermeneutical approach that finds in Jesus the unifying thread and the supreme goal of Israel’s sacred literature. A messiah can only be a messiah from Israel and for Israel. The story of the Messiah can only be understood as part of the story of Israel. Paul arguably says as much to a largely Gentile audience in Rome: “For I tell you that Christ [Messiah] has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy” (Rom. 15:8–9), Michael Bird, Are You the One Who Is to Come?: The Historical Jesus and the Messianic Question (Grand Rapids, Baker, 2009), 163

Anyone who has talked to people from groups like the author of this article or from groups like Jews for Judaism/anti-missionary groups will generally encounter thee kinds of objections that are mentioned in the article.

In response to this article, there is some overlap with this post and my other post called “Are There Over 300 Messianic Prophecies? After all, if we can’t even define messianic prophecy correctly and provide some tips on approaching the subject, we will never make any progress.

  1. The Messiah is not divine-he is an earthly figure “anointed” to carry out a specific task.
  2. The Messiah will enable the Jewish people to dwell securely in the land of Israel (Is.11:11-12; 43:5-6; Jer.23: 5-8; Mic.5:4-6), and usher in a period of worldwide peace.
  3. The Messiah is supposed to put an end to all oppression, suffering and disease (Is.2:1-22; 25:8; 65:25; Mic.4:1-4) and create a pathway for universal worship to the God of Israel (Zeph.3:9; Zech.9:16; 14:9).
  4. The Messiah will spread the knowledge of the God of Israel to the surrounding nations (Isa.11:9; 40:5; 52:8).

 There is some overlap in these expectations and Maimonides view of Messiah: Maimonides was a medieval Jewish philosopher whose writings are considered to be foundational to Jewish thought and study. Here are some of his messianic expectations:

  1. The Messiah will be a king who arises from the house of David
  2. He helps Israel follow Torah
  3.  He builds the Temple in its place
  4. He gathers the dispersed of Israel

Sadly, this doesn’t represent the entire scope of messianic thought. And it always lead to the “Heads, I win, tails you lose” approach.  In other words, “Jesus doesn’t fulfill any of the messianic prophecies so we have that all settled and we can move on and wait for the true Messiah to come.” As if  it is that simple.

The reality is that we have the same problem Jesus had when he was here. Hence, the Jewish expectations of the kingdom what would come would be (1) visible, (2) all at once, (3) in complete fullness, (4) when God’s enemies would be defeated  and (5) the saints are separated from the ungodly, the former receiving reward and the latter punishment. But  once again, as Beale and Gladd note in their book Hidden, But Now Revealed, the kingdom  that is revealed by Jesus is (1) for the most part invisibly, so that one must have eyes to perceive it (2) in two stages (already- and- not yet), (3), growing over an extended time from one stage to the last stage, (4) God’s opponents are not defeated immediately all together, but the invisible satanic powers are first subjugated and then at the end of time, all foes will be vanquished and judged and (5) saints are not being separated from the ungodly in the beginning stage of the kingdom, but such a separation will occur on the last day, when Jesus’ followers receive their reward and the latter punishment. This topic is also directly related to the topic of the covenants and God’s role with Israel and the nations.

I do want to say that a positive outcome of links like this one and others that discuss why Jewish people don’t believe in Jesus and the common messianic expectations is that it puts Jesus back into a Jewish context which is where he belongs. Many Christians have no context to their faith and know very little about the Jewish background on this topic.  In his book Kingdom Conspiracy (which I just finished), Scot McKnight summarizes what James Dunn says about understanding the importance of Israel. He says;

Dunn says we must begin with the story context: “It will have to be the context of Israel’s memory of its own monarchic past, of Jewish current experience under the kingship of others, and of the hopes of the faithful regarding God’s kingship for the future.”

He begins with three simple observations and then drenches those three points in a powerful display of evidence from Judaism of the various nuances at work at the time of Jesus. His three simple observations are these:

(1) God was King over all the earth (Ps. 103: 19); (2) only Israel acknowledges God’s kingdom, and that means Israel’s king (when they have one) is specially related to God the King; and (3) this universal kingship of God will someday, perhaps soon, expand over the whole earth. The integral features in the big story of Israel are these:

“God is King, Israel is God’s people and as such is God’s kingdom, and God’s kingdom will someday cover the globe. We can say the story has three nonnegotiables: the universal kingship of God, the covenant kingship of God with Israel, and a future universal rule. These three nonnegotiable beliefs in the Old Testament and in the shaping of Judaism’s story are rarely alone and almost never this abstract or theoretical. Instead they flow into very timely and contextualized expressions, and it is here that Dunn advances our discussion. When those three ideas were at work in real ways with real people in real contexts, they wore all sorts of attire, and Dunn lists the different ways this basic story was told in various contexts:

  1. Return from exile
  2. Hope for prosperity, healing, or paradise
  3. The renewal of the covenant
  4. Building a new temple Return of YHWH to Zion Triumph over, destruction of, and sometimes inclusion of gentiles Inheriting and expanding the land
  5. A climactic period of tribulation Cosmic disturbances leading to a new creation
  6. Defeat of Satan
  7. Final judgment
  8. Resurrection Sheol/ Hades morphing into a place of final retribution This list does not come from one Jewish source. Each of the themes has traces or footings in the Jewish Scriptures, the Old Testament. Each takes on either emphasis or de-emphasis depending on the author and circumstance. Each can be the entry through which the whole story of Israel can be told. It is not as if there are fourteen elements of the one story that we are called to tally up, making sure each gets represented in each retelling of Israel’s future”(pg 46).

 

Remember:  the Jewish Scriptures don’t reveal an explicit, fully disclosed, monolithic “messianic concept.”  To build on the comments stated here, Stanley Porter says:

Intertestamental and New Testament literature suggests that the expectation was all over the map. Some Jewish people did not expect a Messiah. Others thought that the Messiah would be a priestly figure, still others a royal deliverer. Some scholars interpret the evidence to suggest that at least one group of Jewish thinkers believed there would be two messiahs, one priestly and one royal. From what we know we can be certain that the New Testament did not create the idea of the Messiah. But we can also be sure that there was nothing like a commonly agreed delineation of what the Messiah would be like. The latter point means that modern-day Christians who shake their heads about why the Jewish people did not universally recognize the Messiah, considering all the fulfilled prophecy, really do not understand Old Testament literature.-Porter, The Messiah in the Old and New Testaments (McMaster New Testament Studies), 29.

Remember, other names were used to describe the messianic person other than the “Messiah.” Some of the names include Son of David, Son of God, Son of Man, Prophet, Elect One, Servant, Prince, Branch, Root, Scepter, Star, Chosen One, and Coming One. Therefore, to say Jesus is the Messiah is like asking whether he is the Son of Man, Prophet, Branch, etc.

To see more on this topic, see our previous post called Six Messianic Expectations and One Messsiah

Uncategorized

“Why Didn’t Jesus Write About Himself?”: Maurice Casey on the Importance of the Oral World of Jesus

Most skeptics assume the New Testament is biased. Therefore, they demand sources that are written about Jesus outside the New Testament. Furthermore, these sources need to be written by non-Christians, which equates to pure objectivity and no propaganda.

Sadly, the demand for this wish list shows the ignorance about the oral world of Jesus. We have a section on oral tradition here.

Maurice Casey, a non Christian scholar who specialized in early Christianity summarizes the importance of the oral world of Jesus:

“The major reasons why all our earliest sources for the Life and Teaching of Jesus are Christian is that Jesus was a first- century Jewish prophet who lived in a primarily oral Jewish culture, not a significant politician in the Graeco-Roman world. By contrast, for example, Julius Caesar was an important political and literary figure in the highly literate culture of the Romans. It is therefore natural that he should have written literary works which have survived, and that other surviving literary sources have written about him.”

Casey goes onto say:

“Jesus of Nazareth left no literary works at all, and he had no reason to write any. He lived in a primarily oral culture, except for the sanctity and central importance of its sacred texts, which approximate to our Hebrew Bible. A variety of works now thought of as Apocrypha (e.g. Sirach) or Pseudopigrapha (e.g. 1 Enoch) were held equally sacred by some Jewish people, and could equally well learnt and repeated by people who did not possess the then- difficult skill of writing. Almost all our surviving primary sources about Jesus are Christian because most people who had any interest in writing about him were his followers,and the few relatively early comments by other writers such as Josephus and Tacitus are largely due to special circumstances, such as Jesus’ brother Jacob (Jos.Ant .XX,200), or the great fire of Rome” (Tac.Annals XI, 44). – Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths? by Maurice Casey

Uncategorized

Power Point Teaching Series on The Existence of God

For anyone that is interested, this is five part series on The Existence of God. These were used as a supplement  to our apologetic meetings at The Ohio State University. We discuss natural theology, revelatory arguments, design arguments, inference to the best explanation, religious experience, pragmatic arguments, and Plantinga’s properly basic belief argument.

 

 

 

Uncategorized

A Look at Acts 17: Can Apologists Follow Paul’s Example in Today’s Culture?

When it comes to apologetics, Acts 17 has always been one of my favorite parts of the Bible. I have used it in the attempt to motivate others to learn about apologetics which is the rational defense of the Christian faith. The question at hand is whether the culture is the same today as it was in Paul’s day. Also, does Paul’s approach work for Christians today?

First, a little background about Paul:

The undisputed letters of Paul that can be used to give us an understanding about who he was and what his mission was are in Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. The rest of the letters yield very little about the life of Paul. From Paul’s Letters, we can gather that:

1. The man’s name was Paul: A Greek name.

2. He had a Jewish name, Saul. Remember, having two names was not uncommon for Jews who lived outside Palestine in the first century.

3. Paul was born in Tarsus, a city in Southwestern Asia Minor.

4. He came from a family of Pharisees of the tribe of Benjamin and was named for the tribe’s most illustrious member, King Saul.

5. Paul studied under the famous teacher Gamaliel (Acts 22: 3), the grandson of Hillel. Hillel is known as the Academy of Hillel, founded by a Jewish sage called Hillel the Elder. The House of Hillel was a school of Jewish law and thought that was very well known in the 1st century B.C.E. Jerusalem.

6. 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. Hence, Paul’s exegesis of the Old Testament shows evidence of his rabbinic training.

7. Paul was probably, as an adult, a resident of Damascus.[1]

8. In many places, Paul discusses his Jewish identity. 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).

Paul’s First Audience: Jewish Theists in Thessalonica

As someone who has done a fair amount of outreach to Jewish people, I think I have some practical experience here. Let’s look at Acts 17:1-3:

“ Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures,explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead.”

First of all, we see that Paul was following what he writes about in Romans 1:16:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “But the righteous man shall live by faith.”-NASB

Many Bible scholars agree that understanding Romans 1:16, 17 as the key to understanding the rest of the book of Romans. But does Paul mean the gospel was formerly, or once brought to the Jews, but now it is for the Gentiles? Is this view possible? In Romans 1:16 the Greek word for first is proton. As Dr. Michael Rydelnik, Professor of Jewish Studies at Moody Bible Institute writes,

“If Paul had meant ‘formerly’ or ‘earlier’ he would have used the Greek word “proteron.” The same word for first (proton) is used non-historically three times in Romans: …tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek… (Rom. 2:9,10), and First of all (chiefly, NKJ ), that they were entrusted with the oracles of God (Rom. 3:2).[2]

Grammatically, the entire verse is in the present tense. There are three verbs:unashamedisand believes. All are in the present tense. The gospel is, not was, but is the power of God, it is to all who believe, and it is to the Jew first. The idea that the Good News was “first for the Jew and then for the Gentile” implies that the Good News is no longer for the Jew (i.e. “they had their chance”). Obviously, this cannot be true, for to this very day Jewish people are still coming to faith in Jesus. Remember, Paul was writing to the Jew first, not regarding a past activity, but as his present and active ministry (compare Acts 13:46 with 14:1). He was not looking back on the first century advance of the Good News, but stating it as an ongoing principle for the future flow of history. Even as the apostle to the Gentiles, Paul’s ministry was always to the Jew first[3]

After all, we see Paul going to the Jew first in The Book of Acts. Paul goes to the synagogue first in Salamis (13:5), Pisidian Antioch (13:14), Iconium (14:1), Thessalonica (17:2), Berea (17:10), Corinth (18:4) and Ephesus (18:19 and 19:8).

We also  observe here that  Paul and the apostles approach to spreading the message of the Gospel is characterized by such terms as“apologeomai/apologia” which means “to give reasons, make a legal defense” (Acts 26:2; 2 Tim. 4:16; 1 Pet 3:15); “dialegomai” which means “to reason, speak boldly” (Acts 17:2; 17; 18:4; 19:8), “peíthō” which means to persuade, argue persuasively” (Acts 18:4; 19:8), and “bebaioō ” which means “to confirm, establish,” (Phil 1:7; Heb. 2:3). [4]

Paul’s Second Audience: Jewish Theists in Berea

 “The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue.Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men.”- Acts 17:10-12

So once again, we see Paul and Silas evangelizing another Jewish audience.

So what is the challenge of the first two examples here?

First, Paul’s audience were Jewish people who were already theists. In other words, they were already believed in the God of Israel. Hence, Paul had no need to establish whether there was a God with them. That is why his apologetic methodology was to go right into the Jewish Scriptures.

What about today? First, the challenge is that there are a fair amount of Christians that don’t know the Gospel is still “to the Jew first.” I am not trying to be overly critical. But I think it is imperative that the Church understands the pattern of mission in the Bible. While the culture has changed, the pattern for mission has not changed.

Second, can we use Paul’s approach with Jewish people? The answer is yes and no. It depends on the Jewish person. And in many cases, in today’s world, we are dealing with many Jewish people that are not Jewish theists. They are agnostics or in many cases atheists. I would say of the majority of Jewish people that I have spoken to on a major college campus don’t have any strong convictions about whether God exists or not.

Paul on Mars Hill

Paul now shifts gears a bit with his next audience:

“So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man,nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place,that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for In him we live and move and have our being as even some of your own poets have said,“ For we are indeed his offspring.’Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent,because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”-Acts 17: 22-31

What stands out here:
(1) Paul is urgent in his appeal for repentance
(2) According to Acts 14: 26, Paul states there was “a time in which God allowed the nations to walk in their own ways,” but now Paul states in Acts 17: 30, “The times of ignorance is over” – God has given man more revelation in the person of Jesus the Messiah
(3) Paul uses the same language as is used in the Jewish Scriptures about judgment (Psalm 9:9)
(4) The judgment will be conducted by an agent, a man who God has appointed
(5) Paul treats the resurrection as an historical fact and he uses it as a proof of God’s appointment as Jesus as the judge of the living and the dead! [5]

In this case, since Paul knows he isn’t dealing with Jewish theists  he uses a different approach. He starts with natural theology and explains to his audience how they can know the one true God who is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Apologists who love natural theology arguments generally love this part of the chapter. Furthermore,we have to use this approach with many skeptics.  I admit that I am fond of it as well. But here is where a change has taken place from Paul’s world to our world. When I do outreach on a major college campus or elsewhere, I generally find myself using Paul’s approach to the Greeks with Jewish people. You might say “Are you serious?” Yes! As I said, I can’t really open the Bible with many Jewish people who are agnostics and atheists. I generally have to establish whether there is a God and whether it is the God of the Bible.

Conclusion:

So can we follow Paul’s example in Acts 17? The answer  is yes. The best thing we can learn here is knowing our audience. But I think the real question is whether we as apologists will follow Paul’s example in the entire chapter, not just the Mars Hill section. We are still called to bring the message of Messiah to the Jew first and Gentile as well. Is it easy? No! But remember, God will honor our obedience.

  Sources: 


[1] Most of points 1-8 are laid out in Marion Soard’s The Apostle Paul: An Introduction to his Writings and Teaching (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1987), 10-11

[2] This section was taken from JEWISH EVANGELISM AND DISCIPLESHIP, Article 3 of 13: GOD’S UNCHANGEABLE PLAN by Sam Nadler at http://messianicassociation.org/ezine14-sam.God%27sUnchangeable%20Plan.htm?vm=r&s=1

[3] Ibid.

[4] Garrett J. Deweese, Doing Philosophy as a Christian (Downers Grove, ILL: IVP Publishers, 2012), 78-79.

[5] Howard Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Grand Rapids: MI: Intervarsity Press. 1980), 288-290.

Uncategorized

The Relationship Between Evangelism and Apologetics

Have you ever wondered why so many of us confuse the relationship between evangelism and apologetics? I talk about this in this podcast which supplements this comment by Mark Denver.

“People mistake apologetics for evangelism. Like the activities we’ve considered above, apologetics itself is a good thing. We are instructed by Peter to be ready to give a reason for the hope that we have (1 Pet. 3:15). And apologetics is doing exactly that. Apologetics is answering questions and objections people may have about God or Christ, or about the Bible or the message of the gospel. Apologists for Christianity argue for its truth. They maintain that Christianity better explains that sense of longing that all people seem to have. Christianity better explains human rationality. It fits better with order. They may argue (as C. S. Lewis does in Mere Christianity) that it better fits with the moral sense that people innately have. It copes better with problems of alienation and anxiety. Christians may – and should – argue that Christianity’s frankness about death and mortality commends it. These can be good arguments to have. Answering questions and defending parts of the good news may often be a part of conversations Christians have with non-Christians, and while that may have been a part of our own reading or thinking or talking as we came to Christ, such activity is not evangelism. Apologetics can present wonderful opportunities for evangelism. Being willing to engage in conversations about where we came from or what’s wrong with this world can be a significant way to introduce honest discussions about the gospel. For that matter, Christians can raise questions with their non-Christian friends about the purpose of life, what will happen after death, or the identity of Jesus Christ. Any of these topics will take work and careful thought, but they can easily lead into evangelism. It should also be said that apologetics has its own set of dangers. You might unwittingly confirm someone in their unbelief by your inability to answer questions that are impossible to answer anyway.

You can easily leave the impression that if you don’t know how to answer your friends’ questions, then you don’t really know enough to believe that the Christian gospel is true either. But just because we don’t know everything doesn’t mean we don’t know anything. All knowledge in this world is limited. We proceed from what we know, and we work that out. Everyone, from the youngest child to the most celebrated research scientist, does this. Apologetics can be very important work, but it should be undertaken with care. By far the greatest danger in apologetics is being distracted from the main message. Evangelism is not defending the virgin birth or defending the historicity of the resurrection. Apologetics is defending the faith, answering the questions others have about Christianity. It is responding to the agenda that others set. Evangelism, however, is following Christ’s agenda, the news about him. Evangelism is the positive act of telling the good news about Jesus Christ and the way of salvation through him.”

One of the most common and dangerous mistakes in evangelism is to misinterpret the results of evangelism – the conversion of unbelievers – for evangelism itself, which is the simple telling of the. gospel message. This may be the most subtle misunderstanding, yet it is a misunderstanding still. Evangelism must not be confused with its fruit. Now, if you combine this misunderstanding with a misunderstanding of the gospel itself, and of what the Bible teaches about conversion, then it is very possible to end up thinking not only that evangelism is seeing others converted, but thinking that it is within our power to do it! According to the Bible, converting people is not in our power. And evangelism may not be defined in terms of results but only in terms of faithfulness to the message preached. John Stott has said, “To ‘evangelize’ . . . does not mean to win converts . . . but simply to announce the good news, irrespective of the results.” To evangelize is to spread the good news that Jesus Christ died for our sins and was raised from the dead according to the Scriptures, and that as the reigning Lord he now offers the forgiveness of sins and the liberating gift of the Spirit to all who repent and believe.”—  Mark Dever, The Gospel and Personal Evangelism,  (pgs. 76-79).

Uncategorized