Historiography 101: A Look at the Role of the Testimony and Witness in the New Testament

A few years back on the oval at The Ohio State University, I heard an exchange between a campus evangelist and a large group of students. The campus evangelist tried to explain the evidence for the resurrection was based on eyewitness testimony. One of the objections from the students was that we can’t trust eyewitness testimony. As I walked away I realized there was so much left out of the conversation. It just so happens that I had already written a post on this issue.

New Testament faith is portrayed biblically as knowledge based upon testimony. In other words, it is impossible to forget that a Christians’ faith will be directly related to the testimony of the witnesses in the New Testament. As a Christian, I share the faith of the early witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus. How do historians reconstruct the events of the past?

After all, even though the earliest life of Alexander the Great (356-323) was written 200 years later, it is regarded by historians as a reliable source of information. Any historian will quickly admit that they can’t verify that Alexander the Great existed ever by observing him directly. What about the life and deeds of Julius Caesar who was responsible for transforming the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire? The earliest copy we have for the life of Caesar is nearly 1,000 years after when it was first written. Many people assume Caesar existed and did the deeds that are attested about him from the sources we have available to us. But once again, the historian knows he can’t verify Casers’ existence by observing him directly.

Since historians can’t verify the events directly, they rely on things such as written documents (both primary and secondary sources), archaeology, and the testimony of the witnesses to the events. Epistemology is a branch of philosophy that investigates the nature and origin of knowledge. We as humans come to know things by a variety of ways such as reason and logic, intuition, inference, personal and religious experience, the scientific method, listening to authorities on a subject matter, etc. Epistemologically speaking, one of the tools that plays another important element of discovering the past is the testimony of witnesses. As I said, New Testament faith is portrayed biblically as knowledge based upon testimony.

As Bakers Evangelical Dictionary of Theology notes, the biblical concept of testimony or witness is closely allied with the conventional Old Testament legal sense of testimony given in a court of law. Its validity consists in certifiable, objective facts. In both Testaments, it appears as the primary standard for establishing and testing truth claims. Uncertifiable subjective claims, opinions, and beliefs, on the contrary, appear in Scripture as inadmissible testimony. Even the testimony of one witness is insufficient—for testimony to be acceptable, it must be established by two or three witnesses (Deut 19:15). It can also be observed that the emphasis on eyewitness testimony was carried on through the early church.

As Gregory Boyd and Paul Eddy note in their book The Jesus Legend: A Case For the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Tradition, Christianity cannot be understood apart from it’s first century Jewish context. The Sinai teaching that multiple witnesses was retained Mark 14:56,59; John 5:31-32; Heb 10:28) and also used for church discipline (Matt. 18:16; 2 Cor 13:1;1 Tim 5:19). Also, the principle of giving a true testimony and making a true confession are evident in the early church (Matt 10:18; Mark 6:11;13:9-13;Luke 1:1-2;9:5;21:12-13;22:71;John 1:7-8,15,19,32,34;3:26,28;5:32; Acts 1:8,22;3:15;5:32;10:37-41;13:31;22:15;18;23:11;26:16).

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.”

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.

What is significant about Richard Bauckham’s book is his mentioning of Thomas Reid. Reid was a Scottish philosopher and contemporary of David Hume who played an integral role in the Scottish Enlightenment. It was in Reid’s “common sense” philosophy of the eighteenth century where Reid understood testimony as an integral part of the social character of knowledge. In other words, for Reid, to trust the testimony of others is simply fundamental to the kind of creatures we are.

As Bauckham notes:

“Trusting testimony is indefensible to historiography. This trust need not be blind faith. In the “critical realist” historian’s reception and use of testimony there is a dialectic trust and critical assessment. But the assessment is precisely an assessment of the testimony as trustworthy or not. What is not possible is independents verification or falsification of everything the testimony relates such a reliance on testimony would not longer be needed. Testimony shares the frugality of memory, which is the testimony’s sole access to the past, while also, when it predates living memory, existing only as an archived memory, cut off from the dialogical context of contemporary testimony. But for most purposes, testimony is all we have. There are indeed, other traces of the past in the present (such as archaeological finds), which can to a degree corroborate or discredit testimony, but they cannot, in most cases, suffice for the study and writing of history. They cannot replace testimony. In the end, testimony is all we have.”

As Bauckham also 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). This, at least, was historiographic best practice, represented and theorized by such generally admired historians as Thucydides and Polybius. The preference for direct and indirect testimony is an obviously reasonable rule for acquiring the testimony likely to be reasonable. (Pg 479)

Loveday Alexander, in his book The Preface to Luke’s Gospel offers the translations: “those with personal/firsthand experience; those who know the facts at hand (Bauckham, pg 117). 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.

External Corroboration

Something else that helps solidify the truthfulness of eyewitness testimony is the use of archaeology or external evidence. In his book The Reliability of John’s Gospel, Craig Blomberg has identified 59 people, events, or places that have been confirmed by archaeology. Furthermore, Luke’s Gospel shows displays a variety of historical figures that have been confirmed. For example, Luke gives correct titles for the following officials: Cyprus, proconsul (13:7–8); Thessalonica, politarchs (17:6); Ephesus, temple wardens (19:35); Malta, the first man of the island. (3) Each of these has been confirmed by Roman usage. In all, Luke names thirty-two countries, fifty-four cities, and nine islands without an error.

Over all, here is a list of 30 historical persons in the New Testament.

30 Historical Persons in NT
• Agrippa I—-Acts 12
• Agrippa II—Acts 25
• Ananias—–Acts 23, 24
• Annas——-Luke 3; Jn. 18; Acts 4
• Aretas——-2Cor. 11
• Bernice—–Acts 23
• Augustus—Lk. 2
• Caiaphas—Mt. 26; Lk. 3; Jn. 11, 18; Acts 4
• Claudius—-Acts 11, 18
• Drusilla—-Acts 24
• Egyptian (false prophet)–Acts 21
• Erastus—-Acts 19
• Felix——–Acts 23
• Gallio——-Acts 18
• Gamaliel—Acts 5

Of course, one book in the New Testament that plays as indispensible role in evaluating the resurrection is the book of Acts. It is within Acts that we see the resurrection was part of the early apostolic preaching and the evidence given that Christianity is true (Acts 2:25-32; 3: 15; 10:39-41; 17:2-3, 18, 31), It is also within Acts that records Paul’s testimony to the resurrection of Jesus (Acts 9:1-9; 22: 1-11; 26: 9-19). In his monumental work called The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History, classics scholar Colin Hemer has shown that Luke has also done his work as an historian. There are at least 84 events, people, locations, etc, which have been confirmed by archeology. Some of them are:

1. A natural crossing between correctly named ports (13:4–5). Mount Casius, south of Seleucia, stands within sight of Cyprus. The name of the proconsul in 13:7 cannot be confirmed, but the family of the Sergii Pauli is attested.
2. The proper river port, Perga, for a ship crossing from Cyprus (13:13).
3. The proper location of Lycaonia (14:6).
4. The unusual but correct declension of the name Lystra and the correct language spoken in Lystra. Correct identification of the two gods associated with the city, Zeus and Hermes (14:12).
5. The proper port, Attalia, for returning travelers (14:25).
6. The correct route from the Cilician Gates (16:1).
7. The proper form of the name Troas (16:8).
8. A conspicuous sailors’ landmark at Samothrace (16:11).
9. The proper identification of Philippi as a Roman colony. The right location for the riverGangites near Philippi (16:13).
10. Association of Thyatira with cloth dyeing (16:14). Correct designations of the titles for the colony magistrates (16:20, 35, 36, 38).
11. The proper locations where travelers would spend successive nights on this journey (17:1).
12. The presence of a synagogue in Thessalonica (17:1), and the proper title of politarch for the magistrates (17:6).
13. The correct explanation that sea travel is the most convenient way to reach Athens in summer with favoring east winds (17:14).
14. The abundance of images in Athens (17:16), and reference to the synagogue there (17:17).

Skeptics may acknowledge that their is external evidence but tend to assert that the Gospels/Acts are just another form of historical fiction which blends real people, events and places and mixes it with fiction. This is failure to understand the genre of the Gospels.

Eyewitness Testimony in Other Religions?

What about the other so-called eyewitness testimony in other religions? This is where context counts. For example, Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church, claimed an angel appeared to him and directed him to what are called the golden plates. Smith then showed them to eleven others. Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church, claimed to have received personal revelation from God on the basis of two visions, (the first allegedly given to him in 1820, the second one in 1823). Smith is supposed to be responsible for translating these plates into The Book of Mormon. Like the apostles of Jesus, Smith suffered and died for his beliefs. However, there is a major difference between the eleven witnesses to the gold plates and the apostles of Jesus.

Is there any external evidence to support the Mormon claim? The Book of Mormon tells the story of a Nephite civilization in the New World. There is no archaeological evidence to support the onetime existence of a Nephite civilization in North America or a huge battle in New York.

Also, in the case of the Mormon claim as well as supposed supernatural sightings etc, they fail the test of coherence. In examining an ancient document, a historian asks whether an event or teaching fits well with what is known concerning other surrounding occurrences and teachings. Coherence involves the extraordinary consistency of Jesus’ resurrection with his unique life and teachings, including his predictions of his death and resurrection. The resurrection coheres with Jesus’ entire ministry and His divine claims-His Amen and Abba statements, His “I” and “I AM” statements, His actions, the use of Jewish divine categories such as Wisdom, Shekinah, the Name, Son of Man, etc, and His ministry that is built on the messianic expectations of the Hebrew Bible. Hence, there is a large body of background evidence to the life of Jesus.

The Resurrection of Jesus: A Look at The Birth of Christianity and The Birth of Christology

By Eric Chabot

Anyone who studies historical method is familar with what is called historical causation. Historians seek out the causes of a certain events. For example, there is no doubt that historians can observe the effect- the birth of Christianity pre-70 AD. And given the issues in our previous post, the historical question at hand is the cause for the birth of this new religious movement. What must be asked is what has better explanatory power for the birth of early Christianity- pre 70 AD and a very high Christology in a very short time period after Jesus’ resurrection? As historian Paul Barnett says, “The birth of Christianity and the birth of Christology are inseparable both as to time and essence.” (1)

Throughout the years, skeptics have offered a wide range of naturalistic explanations to the resurrection hypothesis. If you want to study the problems of each of these- click here:

Jesus Devotion/The Birth of Christology

We must not forget that within Judaism there is a term called “avodah zara” which is defined as the formal recognition or worship as God of an entity that is in fact not God i.e., idolatry. In other words, the acceptance of a non-divine entity as your deity is a form of avodah zara. (2) As of today, traditional or Orthodox Judaism still upholds the position that Jewish people are forbidden to pray and worship anyone other than the God of Israel (Ex. 20:1–5; Deut. 5:6–9).

In light of this issue, one theory is that Jesus’ deity can be attributed to an apotheosis legend. In an apotheosis legend, a human becomes one among many gods. The New Testament seems to show the rejection of an apotheosis category for Jesus given that the early Jewish followers of Jesus refused worship (Acts 14:15) as did angels (Rev. 22:8–9). There are also references to the negative views of gentile polytheism (Acts 17: 22-23; 1 Cor 8:5). Gentiles were regarded as both sinful (Gal 2:5) and idolatrous (Rom 1:23). To read more about this, see Paul Eddy’s essay called, Was Early Christianity Corrupted by Hellenism?

In light of these issues, what has the best explanatory power for a more explicit Christology in a very short time interval after the death of Jesus?

In their book  The Jesus Legend, The: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition, Gregory Boyd and Paul Eddy say,

 “During the reign of Pilate and Herod, when Caiaphas was high priest, we find a Jewish movement arising that worships a recent contemporary alongside and in a similar manner as Yahweh-God. To call this development “novel” is a significant understatement. In truth, it constitutes nothing less than a massive paradigm shift in the first century Palestinian Jewish religious worldview.” (3)

Let’s look at Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 8: 5-6:

“For though there are things that are called gods, whether in the heavens or on earth; as there are many gods and many lords; yet to us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and we live through him.”

Here is a distinct echo of the Shema, a creed that every Jew would have memorized from a very early age. When we read Deuteronomy 6:4-9, which says, “Hear O Israel! The Lord our God is our God, the Lord is one,” Paul ends up doing something extremely significant in the history of Judaism.

A glance at the entire context of the passage in 1 Corinthians 8:5-6 shows that according to Paul’s inspired understanding, Jesus receives the “name above all names,” the name God revealed as his own, the name of the Lord. In giving a reformulation of the Shema, Paul still affirms the existence of the one God, but what is unique is that somehow this one God now includes the one Lord, Jesus the Messiah. Therefore, Paul’s understanding of this passage begets no indication of abandoning Jewish monotheism in place of paganism.

For a Jewish person, when the title “Lord” (Heb. Adonai) was used in place of the divine name YHWH, this was the highest designation a Jewish person could use for deity. Furthermore, it would have been no problem to confess Jesus as prophet, priest, or king since these offices already existed in the Hebrew Bible. After all, these titles were used for a human being. There was nothing divine about them.

Another specialist in the area of early Christianity is Larry Hurtado. Hurtado describes the early devotion to Jesus as a “mutation.” (4) One of the primary factors that Hurtado presents for the cause of this “mutation” in the context of Jewish monotheism is the resurrection itself and the post-resurrection appearances. Some of the features in the early Jesus devotion are as follows: First, there are hymns to Jesus (John 1:1-18; Col 1:15-20; Phil.2:5-11; Rev. 4:8,11; 5:9-10;15:14) . Second, there are prayers to Jesus: we see prayer to Jesus in prayer-like expressions such as “grace and peace” greetings at the beginning of Paul’s letters and in the benedictions at the end. Also, the early followers of Jesus are seen “calling upon” the name of Jesus as Lord (Acts 9:14, 21; 22:16;1 Cor. 1:2; Rom. 10:13), which is the same pattern that is used in the Hebrew Bible where it refers to “calling upon the Lord” (Gen. 12:8;13:4 ;21:23 ; 26:25; Psalms 99:6;105:1; Joel 2:32). (5)

Another passage that stands out is 1 Corinthians 16:22: “If anyone does not love the Lord, let him be accursed. Maranatha.” Maranatha means “Our Lord Come!” Because this liturgical expression was present at the worship gathering for Jesus to come eschatologically, it is evident that this was a plea that was a widely known feature of early Christian worship that started among Aramaic-speaking believers and had also become a part of the prayers among Pauline Christians. Hurtado says, “What is even more significant is that there is nothing in comparison to a corporate invocation to Jesus to any other group related to a Jewish tradition at that time period.” (6)

As I said, one thing that can be observed by the historian is cause and effect. In other words, a historian can observe the effect- the radical shift in the devotional practice of the early Christian community. While the Jesus devotion of the early Christian community is related to the disciples experiences with Jesus before the resurrection, there is no doubt that Hurtado’s comments about Jesus’ messianic work by being raised from the dead certainly lends credence to the fact that He was worthy of their worship and devotion.

The Cause for Jesus Devotion? Paganism, Hellenism, Mystery Religions?

Now I know the skeptic will try to find some naturalistic explanation to explain the “shift” in the devotional practice of these early Jewish believers. As I said, there are also references to the negative views of gentile polytheism (Acts 17: 22-23; 1 Cor 8:5). Gentiles were regarded as both sinful (Gal 2:5) and idolatrous (Rom 1:23). To try to say that during the Second Temple period that the early Jewish believers were syncretistic is problematic.

Sadly, the internet is loaded with short, reductionistic answers that are poorly researched and pay little attention to the critical methods involved in doing history. In other words, the statement, “There is nothing original about Christianity” is an oversimplification. Regarding this issue, it would also be helpful to understand the Second Temple Judaism period. To see an extensive overview of this topic, see Glen Miller’s article here:

T.N.D. Mettinger, a Swedish scholar, professor of Lund University, and member of the Royal Academy of Letters, History, and Antiquities in Stockholm, has written a recent book on one of the academic treatments of the dying and rising gods in antiquity.

Mettinger arrives at four conclusions as a result of his research: This info is pointed out in Mike Licona’s The Resurrection of Jesus, A New Historiographical Approach:

1. The world of the ancient Near East religions actually knew of a number of deities that may be properly described as dying and rising gods (217).

2. These examples listed “long before the turn of the Christian era, in pre-Christian times”  (217).

3. One could not hypostasize these gods into a specific type ‘the dying and rising god.” On the contrary, the gods mentioned are of very different types, although we have found tendencies to association and syncretism.” (218)

4. The gods that die and rise have close ties to the seasonal cycle of plant life. The summer drought is the time when their earth can mourned ritually. The time after the winter rains and flooding may rovide the occasion for the celebration of their return. (219)

What about Jesus as a dying and rising god? Mettinger says the answer is beyond the scope of his study. However, he makes the following notes:

 “For the earliest Christians, “the resurrection of Jesus was  one-time event, historical event that took place at one specific point in the earth’s topography. The empty tomb was seen as a historical datum (221). Whereas the death and rising gods were losely related to the seasonal cycle with their death and return were seen as reflected in the changes of plant life. The death and resurrection of Jesus is  one-time event, not repeated, and unrelated to seasonal changes……  (221).

The death of Jesus is presented in sources as vicarious suffering as an act of atonement for sins. The myth of Dumuzi has an arrangement with bilocation and substitution, but there is no evidence for the death of the dying and rising gods as vicarious sufferings for sins” (221). There is, as far as I am aware, no prima facie evidence that the death and resurrection of Jesus is a mythological construct, drawing on the myths and rites in the dying and rising gods of the surrounding world. While studied with profit against the background of Jewish resurrection belief, the faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus retains its unique character in the history of religions. The riddle remains.” (7)

Conclusion

So what has the best explanatory power for birth of Christology? The answer to this question can’t be determined apart from a person’s presuppositions. If one has decided to not rule out any explanation that isn’t naturalistic, then I concur with Hurtado that it is the resurrection itself and the post-resurrection appearances that provides the best hypothesis for both the birth of Christianity and the birth of Christology.

Sources:
1. Paul Barnett, The Birth of Christianity: The First Twenty Years (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 2005), 8.
2. David Berger, The Rebbe, The Messiah And The Scandal Of Orthodox Difference, 160-174.
3. Gregory A. Boyd and Paul R. Eddy, The Jesus Legend: A Case For The Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Tradition (Grand Rapids: MI: Baker Books, 2007), 132.
4. Larry Hurtado, One Lord, One God, Early Christian Devotion And Ancient Jewish Montheism (Philadelphia, PA. Fortress Press. 1988), 100-124.
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.
7. Tryggve N.D Mettinger, The Riddle of the Resurrection: “Dying and Rising God’s” in the Ancient Near East (Stockholm, Sweden:Almquist &Wiskell International, 2001), 221.

The Gospels: Why Genre Criticism Matters

Introduction

In his book Mere Christianity, C.S Lewis left an apologetic for the world with his three options about the identity of Jesus: Jesus must be considered either a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord. I think I saw this statement by Lewis repeated in just about every apologetic book that I read during the first year of my Christian life. But there is another option that has been offered by skeptics: Jesus is a legend. The Random House College Dictionary defines “legend” as “a nonhistorical or unverifiable story handed down by tradition from earlier times and popularly accepted as historical.” In other posts on this blog, I have already discussed the early account to the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15: 3-7 and the role of orality, memorization, as well as credible witnesses in a Jewish culture. Given these issues, it makes it highly unlikely that there was enough time for a legend to develop.

Genre Issues

But what about the accusation that the story of non-historical? One way to respond to this objection is to remind people of the inherent problem of applying modern historiographical expectations to the gospels. When this is done, it only makes it more difficult to recognize ancient conventions and genre traits that the authors used in communicating the message of the resurrection. As Ben Witherington says, “Works of ancient history or biography should be judged by their own conventions.” (1)

Therefore, in asking whether the available sources for the resurrection are legendary is to 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. 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)

The Gospels: Modern Biographies?

It is true that the Gospels are not modern biographies. While modern biographers may write to the entire public and no one or group in particular, the Gospels were written to specific Christian audiences. But what needs to be remembered is that just because the Gospels are not biographies in the modern sense, this does not mean they are unreliable. It is important to avoid the fallacy of chronological snobbery which rejects something just because of the date of it is extremely old or what people label as “primitive” or “prescientific.” If anything, we should appreciate the fact that we have access to four biographies from a figure in antiquity such as Jesus. Despite these issues, it can still seen that the reason there is still a high degree of skepticism towards the records that are available to us is mostly due to the miraculous. Therefore, many of the objections to the miraculous are mostly philosophical. There have plenty of books written on this subject. I suggest Norman Geisler’s Miracles and the Modern Mind or Gregory Boyd and Paul Eddy’s The Jesus Legend: A Case For The Relability of the Synoptic Tradition.

Sources:

1. Ben Witherington III, New Testament History (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 2001), 18.

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.

A Look At Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity

Ontology is a branch of philosophy that examines the study of being or existence. For example, when Jesus says, “If you have seen Me, you have seen the Father” (John 14:9), ontology asks questions such as, “Is Jesus saying He has the same substance or essence of the Father?”

Ontology is especially relevant in relation to the Trinity since Orthodox Christians attempt to articulate how the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all the same substance or essence. As of today, one of the main objections is that Jesus is not the Messiah since he did not fulfill the job description. For the Jewish community, the messianic idea is somewhat pragmatic. In other words, “What difference does the Messiah make in the world?” One of the Jewish expectations is that 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 unite humanity as one (Zech. 14:9).

The Messiah is also supposed usher in a period of worldwide peace, and put an end to all oppression, suffering and disease (Is. 2:1-22; Mic. 4:1-4). Hence, since the world is not in a state of peace and the Jewish people are not dwelling securely in the land of Israel, the Jewish community objects to the claim that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah.

Within the Hebrew Bible, there are Messianic texts such as Isaiah 52:13-53; 61:1-3, that focus upon the Messiah’s works rather than his essence or being. Perhaps this shows us that one of the starting points in Jewish-Christian dialogue is to understand the importance of the relationship between not only who the Messiah IS but also what the Messiah DOES. In his famous book, The Prophets, Abraham Heschel said, “Biblical ontology does not separate being from doing.” (1) Heshel goes on to say, “What is acts. The God of Israel is a God who acts, a God of mighty deeds.” (2) In contrast to ontological Christology, functional Christology emphasizes the actions of the Messiah.

Throughout the ministry of Jesus, he continually appealed to his actions as evidence of his Messiahship. Some of the visible actions of Jesus included the healing of the sick (Mark 1: 32-34; Acts 3:6; 10:38), teaching authoritatively (Mark 1:21-22; 13:31), forgiving sins (Mark 2:1-12; Luke 24:47; Acts 5:31; Col. 3:13), imparting eternal life (Acts 4:12; Rom. 10:12-14), raising the dead (Luke 7:11-17; John 5:21; 6:40), and showing the ability to exercise judgment (Matt. 25:31-46; John 5:19-29; Acts 10:42; 1 Cor 4:4-5).

From a Christian perspective, the work of the Messiah is accomplished in a series of stages: (1) The consecration at John’s baptism, (2) Messiah’s death, (3) Messiah’s resurrection, (4) Messiah’s present role as priest and advocate for His people which is presently happening (1 John 2:2; Romans 8:34), (5) Messiah’s current positional rule or Lordship over the Church and His enemies. And we see in the final work of the Messiah will be in the future. Jesus will return and establish the earthly, national aspect of the kingdom of God. (Dan. 2:44; 7:13-14; 27; Is. 11:11-12; 24:23; Mic.4:1-4;Zech.14:1-9; Matt. 26:63-64; Acts 1:6-11; 3:19-26). In other words, one day the Messiah will be King over His people (Matt. 19:28).

In his book Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity, Richard Bauckham has asserted that an Ontic/Functional Christology distinction is not the correct approach to New Testament Christology. While some Jewish writers in the late Second Temple period did utilize some of the Greek metaphysical language, their understanding of God is not a definition of divine nature- what divinity is- but a notion of the divine identity, characterized primarily in ways other than metaphysical attributes. Bauckham suggests that in studying the relationship between Jewish monotheism and early Christology, it is imperative to understand the religious sects during Second Temple Judaism. The one God of Second Temple Jewish belief was identifiable by His covenant relationship with Israel. Various New Testament scriptures demonstrate that while the early Christians used titles to describe Jesus as God, they also clearly believed Jesus was God as evidenced by assigning attributes to Him which were clearly reserved for God. Moreover, they did so in a distinctly Jewish way that at the same time adhered to the monotheistic tradition of first- century Judaism.

While Greeks focused on philosophical matters of the nature of the divine, Jewish monotheism was more concerned with God’s divine identity. The God of Second Temple Judaism was identifiable by three unique attributes: (1) The God of Israel is the sole Creator of all things (Is. 40:26, 28; 37:16; 42:5; 45:12; Neh. 9:6; Ps 86:10; Hos. 13:4; (2)The God of Israel is the sovereign Ruler of all things (Dan. 4:34-35); (3) The God of Israel is also the only the only being worthy of being worshiped (Deut. 6:13; Ps. 97:7; Is. 45:23; Rev. 19:10; 22:8-9).

Jesus’ divine identity is affirmed by the fact that He is given the same attributes as God. Through Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection, Jesus comes to participate as God’s sovereign Ruler over all things (Ps. 110:1; Matt. 22:44;26:64; Acts 2:33-35; 5:31; 7:55-56; 1 Cor.15:27-28; Phil. 2:6-11; Eph. 1:21-22; Heb. 1:3; 1 Pet. 3:22). Jesus is seen as the object of worship (Matt. 14:33; 28: 9,17; Jn. 5:23; 20:28; Heb. 1:6; Rev. 5:8-12). He is also the recipient of praise (Matt. 21:16-16; Eph. 6:19; 1 Tim. 1:12; Rev. 5:8-14) and prayer (Acts 1:24; 7:59-60; 9:10-17,21; 22:16,19;1 Cor. 1:2; 16:22; 2 Cor.12:8). Jesus is also the Creator of all things (Heb. 1:2; Jn. 1: 1-3; Col. 1:15-16; 1 Cor. 8:6). For Bauckham, the divine identity of God is seen in Jesus’ suffering, death, and glory.

It is a great read. Check it out!

Sources:
1.Abraham J. Heshel, The Prophets (New York, N.Y: 1962 Reprint. Peabody MA: Hendrickson Publishers 2003), 44.
2.Ibid.

Science and Faith:Friends or Foes?


Atheism

Atheists are becoming more vocal about offering a viable alterative to Christian theism and faith in general. Books such as Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Sam Harris’ The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, Christopher Hitchens’ How Religion Poisons Everything, and Daniel Dennetts’ Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon are stirring the debate between atheism and theism. Some of these books by atheists have been best sellers. It should be no surprise that The God Delusion has sold over one million copies.

As I have conversed with a variety of people, I have heard a variety of viewpoints on the Richard Dawkin’s book The God Delusion. Some people who came from a religious background (but with very little foundation) have found Dawkin’s arguments convincing. These people sometimes veer towards some sort of agnosticism or atheism (possibly strong or weak atheism). On the other hand, I have had atheists tell me they are not thrilled with the rhetoric and arguments of the book.

In relation to Dawkin’s philosophical skills, philosopher Alvin Plantinga said in his review of The God Delusion that, “You might say that some of his forays into philosophy are at best sophomoric, but that would be unfair to sophomores; the fact is (grade inflation aside), many of his arguments would receive a failing grade in a sophomore philosophy class.” See the entire review here: And on the cover of Alistar and Joanna McGrath’s book The Dawkins Delusion? Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine, philosopher and Darwinian advocate Michael Ruse says, “The God Delusion makes me embarrassed to be an atheist.”

The Scientific Method and God’s Existence

One of the main themes that runs through the latest slew of books on atheism is that faith/theology and science are diametrically opposed to one another. Since science tests the observable, is this the correct way to approach the existence of God? What tends to be forgotten is the insistence that God must be a visible/material object which can be observed with the five senses is to commit a category mistake. A category mistake is to assign to something a property which applies only to objects of another category.

As J.P. Moreland says, “It is a category fallacy to fault colors for not having smells, universals for not being located at only one place, and God for not being an empirical entity. From the Orthodox Christian view, God, if He exists at all, is an infinite Spirit. It is not part of the nature of a spirit to be visibly empirically as a material object would be. It is a category fallacy to ascribe sensory qualities to God or fault him for not being visible.” (Scaling the Secular City: A Defense of Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1987), 227.

In my view, one of the best solutions to handling the issue of evidence and arguments for God’s existence is to 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. Since we can’t see God as a material object, we have to look at the effects in the world and make rational inferences to the cause of the effect. Hence, we have to look to see if God has left us any pointers that lead the way to finding Him.

Science or Scientism: Philosophical Errors and Presuppositions

In regards to Dawkins, it is no surprise that Dawkins is a strong advocate of what is called “strong scientism” which tends to reduce all legitimate knowledge (epistemology) to the scientific method. Science is a method of gathering knowledge by observation and experimentation. In this sense, the Christian worldview is not opposed to science. But the Christian worldview does recognize the limitations of “scientism” in relation to the discovery of human knowledge. Skeptics such as Dawkins and others who embrace strong scientism believe a proposition can only be trusted if it can be formed and tested by the scientific process. Therefore, strong scientism ends up committing the reductive fallacy by taking one area of study and reduces all reality to this one area alone. Furthermore, for those that assert that all truth claims must be scientifically verifiable end up making a philosophical assumption rather than a scientific statement.

What needs to be remembered is that science is dependent upon certain philosophical presuppositions such as:

1. The existence of a theory- independent, external world
2. The orderly nature of the external world
3. The knowability of the external world
4. The existence of truth
5. The laws of logic
6. The reliability of our cognitive and sensory faculties to serve as truth-gatherers and as a source of justified beliefs in our intellectual environment.
7. The adequacy of language to describe the real world
8. The existence of values used in science (e.g., “test theories fairly and report test results honestly”)
9. The uniformity of nature and induction
10. The existence of numbers (1)

A theist asserts that the physical universe is not all there is. There is an infinite, personal God who created it, sustains it and can act within it in a natural and non-natural way. As I can say without hesitation that I am ignorant about many things, I generally find that many people are generally ignorant about the history between theism and science. In the words of physicist Paul Davies, “Science began as an outgrowth of theology, and all scientists, whether atheists or theists…..accept an essentially theological worldview.” (2)

Theists and Modern Science

By the way, I am not saying just because there are a group of scientists who believe in the existence of God makes theism true. Anyway, here are some of the scientists (although some were deistic) who believed that God was the Primary cause of the universe (see more below). These men gave birth to modern science:

Johann Kepler (1571–1630), celestial mechanics, physical astronomy
Blaise Pascal (1623–1662), hydrostatics
Robert Boyle (1627–1691), chemistry, gas dynamics
Nicholas Steno (1638–1687), stratigraphy
Isaac Newton (1642–1727), calculus, dynamics
Michael Faraday (1791–1867), field theory
Charles Babbage (1792–1871), computer science
Louis Agassiz (1807–1873), glacial geology, ichthyology
James Simpson (1811–1870), gynecology
Gregor Mendel (1822–1884), genetics
Louis Pasteur (1822–1895), bacteriology
William Kelvin (1824–1907), energetics, thermodynamics
Joseph Lister (1827–1912), antiseptic surgery
James Clerk Maxwell (1831–1879), electrodynamics, statistical thermodynamics
William Ramsay (1852–1916), isotopic chemistry (3)

In Ian Barbour’s book Religion in an Age of Science, Barbour describes scientism’s exalted view of the scientific method. As Barbour says:

“Science starts from reproducible public data. Theories are formulated and their implications are tested against experimental observations. Additional criteria of coherence, comprehensiveness, and fruitfulness influence choice among theories. Religious beliefs are not acceptable, in this view, because religion lacks public data, such as experiential testing, and such criteria of evaluation. Science alone is objective, open-minded, universal, cumulative, and progressive. Religious traditions, by contrast, are said to be subjective, closed-minded, parochial, uncritical, and resistant to change.”

In his book The Limits of Science, Nicholas Rescher also offers a helpful comment about this issue. Rescher says,

“The theorist who maintains that science is the be-all and end-all –that what is not in science textbooks is not worth knowing is an ideologist with a peculiar and distorted doctrine of his own. For him, science is no longer a sector of the cognitive enterprise but an all-inclusive world-view. This is the doctrine not of science but of scientism. To take this stance is not to celebrate science but to distort it.”

Primary and Secondary Causes

Two of the most crucial principles of science are causality and uniformity. Causality is the relationship between an event (the cause) and a second event (the effect). The principle of uniformity derives its name from the uniform experience on which it is based. When I look around the world, I see two kinds of causes- natural and intelligent. I also know that through repeated observation that certain kinds of causes regularly produce certain kinds of effects. For example, wind on sand (or water) produces waves. Heavy rain on dirt results in erosion, and so on. These what are called natural, or secondary causes.

Their effects are produced by natural forces whose processes are an observable part of the ongoing operation of the physical universe. In addition to secondary causes, there are primary/intelligent causes. Natural laws do nothing and set nothing into motion. A “law of nature” is a description of what happens when no agent (whether it be divine, human, etc) is interfering or intervening into the casual order. Intelligence is a primary cause. For example, when we come across a sandcastle on the beach, we never assume that waves and sand did it on it’s own without any outside agency/intelligence.

Likewise, we would never think that a natural law on it’s own would produce the faces on Mount Rushmore. As we know, nature can’t by itself produce skyscrapers or computers. And in an experimental sense, when we see glance inside a laboratory, we also know that nature by itself can’t show how life came from non-life. Nor can we attempt to reduplicate the Big Bang apart from human agency/intelligence. The list goes on.

So convinced are we by previous repeated experience that only intelligence produces these kinds of effects that when we see even a single event that resembles one of these kinds of effects we invariably posit an intelligible cause for it.

So part of the debate over science is about the difference between primary and secondary causes. Biblical theism does acknowledge that while God is the primary Cause of all things, He also works through secondary causes. In other words, God acts in the world through direct intervention (a miracle such as the creation of the universe or the resurrection of Jesus) and natural causes or indirect actions (preservation). If you study the history of modern science, there was a period where the some of the founders of modern science (see above), did not allow for all causes to be explained by natural, or secondary causes. In other words, they allowed for both a primary Cause (that being God as the originator of things ) and secondary causes-the operation of the world.

When Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827) corrected Isaac Newton’s misbelief that God intervened to correct the elliptical orbits of the planets, Laplace offered a naturalistic explanation of the development of the solar system. James Hutton (1726-1797) and Charles Lyell (1797-1875) explained geological processes by natural causes apart from any non-natural interference. Charles Darwin (1809-1882) later offered a natural explanation for the emergence of the species. This led to the need to explain the operation of the world instead of its ultimate origin; therefore, the search for secondary causes overshadowed the need for a primary cause. So we see that theism was reduced to deism and then set the stage for atheism. (4) Oh well!

In the world of the New Atheists, science is limited to the following range of concerns:
1. Science only is concerned with the material aspects of the natural world.
2. Science restricts itself to the secondary causes and would forgo consideration of a primary cause (such as a divine/intelligent primary cause) as part of the explanatory structure.
3. Science seeks to reduce the systems observed to their component parts as a way of simplifying observation and explaining the behavior of the higher levels of organization. (5)

So what we see here is that The New Atheists are promoting a view of science that results from the Enlightenment period. It was during that period that the turn to reason is the most reliable form for knowledge of nature, combined with assumption that nature is intelligible, encouraged the development of that method that is now the hallmark of the scientific enterprise. (6)

And in the end, we see the reductionism in this method. In the reductionist model, all natural phenomena can be understood in terms of lower and more elementary levels of existence, all the way down to particle physics (consciousness reduced to biology, biology reduces to chemistry, chemistry reduces to physics, and all physics reduces to the “behavior” or elementary particles and forces. (7)

I do want to mention that the term naturalist is generally thought of in reference to atheists and materialists. This is bit problematic. Many theists have no problem in looking for natural/secondary causes. But the difference is that theists are open to a primary cause as not being simply regulated to natural causes alone.

Don’t Forget Metaphysics

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.

Richard Lewontin’s comments in his January 9, 1997 article, Billions and Billions of Demons summarizes how naturalisitc 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.”


A Final Note

There are scientists that reject the false dichotomy between science/religion. Some have proposed integration models such as Ian Barbour and Rev. John Polkinghorne. Polkinghorne is one of the greatest living writers and thinkers on science and religion: a truly world-class scientist turned priest. See his website here:

One of the best books to read about the relationship between God and science is John Lennox’s God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? Give it a read sometime.

Sources:

1. Moreland, J.P. The Creation Hypothesis: Scientific Evidence for an Intelligent Designer (Downers Grove ILL: InterVaristy Press, 1994), 16-17.
2. Davies, P. Are We Alone? (New York: Basic, 1995), 96.
3. Geisler N.L. Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 167-169.
4. ____. Systematic Theology, Vol 2. (Minneapolis, MI: Bethany House, 2003), 509.
Filed under: 1
5. Peters, T. and Gaymon Bennett. Bridging Science and Religion (London: SCM Press, 2002), 72-73.
6. Ibid.
7. Scheiman, B. An Atheist Defends Religion: Why Humanity Is Better Off with Religion than without It (New York: New York: Penguin Group Publishers, 2009), 170-171.

Did Paul Invent Christianity?

By Alex McFarland

Did Paul Invent Christianity?

“Is it true that much of Christianity is based on the ideas of Paul rather than on the original teachings of Jesus? My professor said that for centuries Christianity has been distorted by the church.” I was speaking to a campus Christian group at a secular university on the East coast. Several students in attendance from another college indicated that they had heard this opinion in the classroom as well. The origin and content of the Gospel message is an important issue. Some assume that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) gives us the summation of Jesus’ teachings. Love your neighbor. Feed the poor. That just about covers it. Skeptics say things like, “Jesus never mentioned homosexuality,” or “Show me where Jesus ever said that women shouldn’t be pastors!”

Before we get to the subject of Paul, let’s think of the biblical content in three ways: there are the Jewish Scriptures (comprising the Old Testament), the actual words of Jesus recorded in the Gospels (all of which are God’s Word because Jesus is Deity), and everything else in the New Testament besides the sayings of Jesus.

Jesus said that He had not come to abolish the teachings of the Old Testament, but to fulfill them (Matthew 5:43). In the four Gospels we see that Jesus quoted the Old Testament hundreds of times and taught that the authority of Scripture was timeless (Matthew 24:35; John 10:35). Jesus also promised His disciples that “the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:26). Thus, Christ affirmed the Old Testament and made provision for creation of the New Testament. Jesus, in effect, has put his seal of approval on the Bible.

Let’s get back to the question of whether or not the apostle Paul “invented” or distorted Christianity. Saul of Tarsus–a passionate persecutor of the church–became Paul the believer about AD 35. The book of Acts (written by Luke) records Paul’s salvation experience in chapters 9, 22, and 26. In his own writings, Paul also explains his conversion to faith (I Corinthians 9:1, 15:3-8, and Galatians 1:11-18). From about AD 48 until his death around AD 68, Paul wrote at least 13 of the New Testament’s books.

The fact that Paul had originally opposed and persecuted the church proves that he could not have “invented” Christianity. Paul’s use of the words “received” and “passed on”–rabbinical terms for the handing down of teachings–is significant in I Corinthians 15:3-8. In relating these facts about Jesus’ death and resurrection, Paul is saying that what is presents is existing truth that he himself had received. Scholars recognize that this passage contains an early church creed (or statement of belief) that was recited by believers in the days before the New Testament had been written down. Other Scriptures that preserve the early, verbal Christian creeds include I John 4:2, Philippians 2:6, II Timothy 2:8, and Romans 1:3-4. Another notable passage is I Timothy 3:16. Not only is this a confession of belief, it may have actually been part of a hymn that was sung by early believers.

The point is this: the key teachings of the Gospel (Jesus is the sinless Son of God; He died for our sins and rose again; we receive Him as Savior through repentance and faith) pre-date Paul. Paul taught these things, expounded on these things, and was used by God to write much of the New Testament. But the core of the Gospel was being widely spread even before Paul was a believer. In the final words I Corinthians 15:8, Paul seemed to acknowledge that he was late getting to the party!
Look at Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, found in Acts 2:14-40. Peter presents the core facts of the Gospel, including Jesus’ Deity, death, and resurrection. Peter preaches the same truths again in Acts 3:12-18. In Acts 5:29-33, Peter addressed Jewish leaders, and again gives the key facts of the Christian message. By Acts 5:42, we read, “Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ.”

Two important conclusions emerge: first, the early church knew what they believed, and the teachings were effectively passed on and preserved among the people, and second, Paul could not have “invented” Christianity because he was not even a believer until about two years after Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and the subsequent events of Pentecost. The early church and the content of the Gospel are clearly shown to pre-date Paul.

Where is Your Conscience? A Look at Natural Law

One of the problems in the debate over the foundation of objective morality is differentating between moral epistemology (how we know) and moral ontology which deals with the nature of reality (what is).

We should not confuse (knowledge) of morality with the basis for morality (ontology). The issue with objective morality is centered on the ontology issue. Theists are not saying that the non-theist doesn’t have moral knowledge.

Every ethical system must answer the “How” question. What justification do we have for knowing what is right? What is the justification for our moral knowledge?

From the Christian perspective, since all humans are God’s image-bearers, it isn’t surprising that they are capable of recognizing or KNOWING the same sorts of moral values—whether theists or not. Now I know you may be saying you are begging the question that God exists. But there are enough posts/articles on this website that deal with that issue.

Where does the knowing come from? How is that all humans have moral knowledge? One answer is called Natural Law Theory. Natural Law Theory doesn’t appeal to special revelation such as the Bible. This type of natural revelation is called intuitive knowledge. It is instantaneously apprehended. Natural law theorist Jay Budziszewski points out the following:

1. Basic moral principles are discovered, not invented, and persons with a decently functioning conscience can get a lot of moral things right. As C. S. Lewis has pointed out, law codes across civilizations and through¬out history (Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek, Native American, and so on) reveal a continual resurfacing of the same basic moral standards—do not murder, break promises, take another’s property, or defraud- see The Abolition of Man

2. When we are talking to people about natural law, we are not teaching people what they have no clue about, but bringing to the surface the latent moral knowledge or suppressed moral knowledge that they have already.

3. The non-theist says “We can be moral without God” Remember, the foundational principles of the natural law are not only right for all, but at some level known to all. This means that non-Christians know them too—even atheists. It does not follow from this that belief in God has nothing to do with the matter. The atheist has a conscience; atheists know as well as theists do that they ought not steal, ought not murder, and so on. The issue is what worldview makes the most sense of conscience. (1)

Paul also speaks about natural law when he states, “For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 2:12-15).

A quick glance at Amos 1& 2 reveals that God threatens judgment upon the neighbors of Judah and Israel. But notice that since none of these nations were the same as the nation of Israel, God still held them accountable by a different standard. They did not have the Torah. But God knew they violated a moral law that they knew and should have obeyed. And that standard is what Paul talks about it Rom. 2:12-15.

The Greek word for conscience is “suneidesis” which means “a co-knowledge, of oneself, the witness borne to one’s conduct by conscience, that faculty by which we apprehend the will of God as that which is designed to govern our lives; that process of thought which distinguishes what it considers morally good or bad, condemning the good, condemning the bad, and so prompting to do the former, and avoid the latter.” In Romans 2:15, “suneidesis” stands alongside with the “heart” and “thoughts” as the faculty that allows the pagan world to live a life that corresponds to the Jewish people who have the written law. This type of natural revelation is called intuitive knowledge.

Before the time of Jesus, and even after Jesus, the Jewish people viewed the heart as the core of the entire personality. The Hebrew word for the conscience is “lebad,” which is usually translated as the “heart” in the Hebrew Bible. The conscience is so much of the core of the human soul that the Hebrew mind did not draw a distinction between conscience and the rest of the inner person. In the Hebrew Bible, not only is “heart” used to describe as a metaphor to describe the physical organ, but it is also the center or defining element of the entire person. It can be seen as the seat of the person’s intellectual, emotional, affective, and volitional life. In the New Testament, the heart is the psychic center of human affection or the source of spiritual life and the seat of intellect and will. (2)

So if the Bible says that Gentiles already know God already through the created order and the conscience, why is it so hard for people to find their way to God? Paul says in Romans 1:18 that natural revelation can be suppressed, which means “to consciously dismiss in the mind,” to “hold down”, or to “hold back by force or to dismiss.”

We also see the conscience can be ignored in Scripture: When Pharaoh hardened his heart (Exodus 8:15), Pharaoh steeled his conscience against God’s will. A tender heart (2 Chronicles 34:27), refers to a sensitive conscience. The upright in heart (Psalm 7:10), are those with pure consciences. When David prayed “Create in me a clean heart, O God, (Psalm 51:10), he was seeking to have his conscience cleansed. (3)

The conscience can become dull, or seared (1 Tim. 4:2). In other words, people can and do harden their heart towards God! Sadly, a hardened heart can make someone less sensitive to the things of God. Sometimes a hardened heart results from an unforgiving or bitter spirit. Or sometimes people don’t want the rule of Christ in their lives. Although Paul had once been a murderer, God had cleansed his conscience (1 Tim. 1:12-13). Paul also speaks of a clear conscience in 2 Tim. 1:1-3.

Of course, our conscience is informed or trained by proper instruction. This is one function of the Scriptures and parents, teachers, and so on. These are given us to train us, to inform our conscience, and to apply God’s law to our life. (4) We are living in a world where we are clearly seeing that the conscience is being ignored. The world around us can desensitize our conscience towards the things of God. What is the answer to having a cleansed conscience? Repentance!

Natural Law Theory is just one theory that accounts for the justification for how humans have moral knowledge.

Sources:
1. See Budziszewski, J. What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide. Dallas, TX: Spence Publishing Company, 2004.
2. Sire, J. Naming the Elephant: Worldview as a Concept. Downers Grove: IL: Intervarsity Press. 2004, 45.
3. MacArthur, J. The Vanishing Conscience. Dallas, TX. Word Publishing, 1994, 36-37.
4. Ibid.

Are Christians Offering People A False Hope? Who is Jesus?

In the recent debate at OSU on the issue of suffering, Dr. Bart Ehrman told Dr. Michael Brown that he was offering people a false hope. Hence, obviously Jesus is not the Messiah of Israel. The New Testament does not reveal Jesus as any ordinary prophet or religious teacher. Rather, it reveals Him as God incarnate (John 1:1; 8:58-59;10:29-31;14:8-9;20-28; Phil 2:5-7; Col 2:9;Titus 2;13; Heb 1:8; 2 Peter 1:1). Furthermore, Jesus is the only possible Savior for the human race (Matt. 11:27; John 1:18; 3:36; 14:6; Acts 4:12; 1 John 1: 5:11-12). For anyone that thinks I am begging the question by appealing to the New Testament, feel free to go to our articles section to read up on the reliability of the New Testament. So who is Jesus? Perhaps an upcoming weekend at a local congregation here in Columbus, Ohio can shed some light on this issue.

On May 21-23, 2010, the Messianic Studies Institute here in Columbus, Ohio is proud to present the following:

Craig A. Evans, PhD
Jesus: Messiah of Israel or Fabricated Deity?

Dr. Evans (PhD Claremont Graduate University, 1983) is Payzant Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Acadia Divinity College of Acadia University, in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. His specialties include Early Judaica and the NT, Dead Sea Scrolls, The Historical Jesus Studies, and the Synoptic Gospels. He is the author or editor of more than fifty books and hundreds of articles including Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels and Exploring the Origins of the Bible. Dr. Evans has also appeared in several History Channel and BBC documentaries, and is a regular guest on Dateline NBC.
$50.00 for entire symposium (3 days) • $20.00 per day

SCHEDULE:
FRIDAY EVENING May 21
7:00-8:00pm Jesus: Messiah of Israel or Fabricated Deity?

Could Jesus Read?
8:10pm-9:00pm Was Jesus Interested in the Scriptures of Israel?

SATURDAY May 22
10:30am-12:30pm Sermon: Jesus, Forgiver of Sinners (Luke 7:36-50)
2:00pm-3:30pm Was Jesus Interested in the Restoration of Israel?
3:45pm-4:45pm Did Jesus Understand Himself to be the Messiah of Israel?
5:00pm-6:00pm The Mighty Deeds of Jesus

SUNDAY May 23
10:00am-11:00am The Death of Jesus
11:10am-12:00pm The Early Community of Jesus’ Followers
1:30pm-3:00pm The Gospels in Jewish Perspective

Reflections on the Bart Ehrman/Michael Brown Debate at The Ohio State University

Well it is over. The Great Debate has come to pass. Our apologetics ministry at The Ohio State University (60,000 students) had the privilege of co-sponsoring a debate called “Does the Bible Provide an Adequate Answer to the Problem of Suffering?” The two debaters were Dr. Michael Brown and Dr. Bart Ehrman. Dr. Brown, who has a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Literature’s from New York University has debated many rabbis on shows such as Phil Donahue, and Faith Under Fire. He is a Jewish believer in Jesus and is visiting professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Fuller Theological Seminary. He is author of the five volume set called Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus. Dr. Bart Ehrman is the author of more than twenty books, including two New York Times bestsellers: Misquoting Jesus and God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer. Dr. Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina , Chapel Hill , and is a leading authority on the New Testament and the history of early Christianity.

I have to say that it was a real treat to spend some time with both debaters. I had met Dr. Brown in the past and have always had enormous respect for his godliness and scholarship. But meeting Bart Ehrman for the first time was a pleasant experience. Anyway, I was pleased with the turnout for the debate. Considering the room we rented held 500 people, we only had a few seats left. It showed me that most people found the topic for the debate to be relevant. While the audience consisted of persons who sided with Michael Brown, there were still a fair amount of skeptics/agnostics and or /atheists that attended.

Philosophical Issues

One thing that everyone could agree with was Dr. Brown’s opening statement when he commented that suffering is a universal problem. I think both debaters agreed that a good amount of the suffering in the world is caused by us. We as humans make poor choices which can have a long term impact on others. Why should God be blamed when humans don’t use their brains? Even though this debate did not address this issue, there are plenty of philosophical issues with the problem of suffering. For example, as I listened and watched the debate, I thought of how the entire suffering issue always brings the moral argument to the surface. Here is the modus tollens argument:

P1: If God (a being who is both omnipotent and perfectly good) exists, then there should be no evil.
P2: But there is evil (i.e., it is not the case that there is no evil).
C: God does not exist.

After all, anyone morally outraged about evil and suffering in the world is making a moral judgment, as well as assuming an objective moral standard to judge suffering as suffering and evil as evil. And claiming evil/suffering is a problem assumes there’s a standard of goodness; but without God, we are back to the issue of the foundation of objective morality. To say we know that is in-just (not-just) implies the Just (i.e. God). One could not know he had some ultimate standard of justice by which he could know it was ultimately unjust. Morality prescribes what we ought to do; it does not merely describe what is in fact done. Objective morality makes sense if real moral laws or oughts exist and if normative, moral properties like rightness, goodness, worth, and dignity exist in acts (such as honoring ones parents), and things (persons and animals have worth). So if physicalism/naturalism is true, are there any moral properties or oughts? From what I understand, physical states simply are- they’re not things that “ought” to be.

The Emotional Problem With Suffering/Evil

But laying this aside, I think the question of the debate was centered around the emotional problem with suffering. At least I know it seemed to be a rather emotional issue with Dr. Ehrman. And I appreciated that Dr. Brown did not try to minimize that issue. One thing that I took away from the debate was the issue of how one’s worldview/lifeview leads an individual to be pro-active in alleviating suffering in the world. At one point, Michael Brown asked Bart Ehrman what kind of impact had his teaching had on his students. In other words, what are the graduates that Bart Ehrman teaches actually “doing” to alleviate suffering in the world. Dr. Brown had already listed some of the things that his grads were doing such as regular missionary work with the poor, etc. When Dr. Ehrman was asked this question, he responded by saying, “My students are hedonists.” With this response, the audience laughed. Dr. Ehman went on to say that he believed and hoped his teaching leads to transformational thinking. In other words, he likes to think that he helps his students to be better thinkers.

What Does Christianity Do To Alleviate Suffering?

Anyway, I kept thinking to myself what does the Christian worldview contribute to the problem of alleviating suffering in the world? Dr. Brown had listed a few things. But as I went home that night the things that came to my mind was the fact that both historically and statistically, Christianity has led the way to alleviate suffering in the world. Just to name a few of these organizations that continue to alleviate suffering in the world are Samaritans Purse, The Salvation Army, The Red Cross, World Vision, Christian Foundation for Children and Aging, United Methodist Committee on Relief, ChildFund International, Catholic Relief Services, Operation Blessing, Lutheran World Relief, Prison Fellowship Ministry, and Habitat for Humanity. Not to mention the countless of efforts by local churches and the hospitals that have been built all around the world.

I also recalled that Rick Warren had taken most of his profits from his best-selling Purpose Driven Life book (which 30 million copies worldwide) and directed it towards the global HIV/AIDS crisis.I could mention the evangelical Christians such as Wilberforce, Charles Finney, William Lloyd Garrison, Edward Beecher, and Theodore Dwight Weld who battled to abolish slavery. John Gregg Fee, the evangelical founder of Berea College in Kentucky called out to God in prayer on his knees and said “Lord, if needs be, make me an Abolitionist.” (Gary Haugen, Good News About Injustice, pg 62-63). I also know during this week at OSU that one of the major campus ministries is leading an outreach to inform the campus and public about the problem of human trafficking.

In his book An Atheist Defends Religion: Why Humanity Is Better Off With It Than Without It, author Bruce Sheiman lists some interesting stats. He says that according to Giving USA, American charitable contributions reached a total of $307 billion in 2007, a figure that represents more than 2 percent of the GDP, well above that of any other nation in the world. Of that $307 billion, 33 percent was given to religious organizations-or just over $100 billion. Sheiman goes on to say that of that amount, an undetermined amount when to further charitable mission of thousands of religious initiatives, from feeding the poor to international relief efforts.

Now I know I will hear the objection that people don’t need God to alleviate suffering in the world. And I know that there are humanitarian organizations that aren’t faith based. But to be honest, I don’t see any possibility of the end of Christian based organizations leading the way in doing everything they can to alleviate suffering in the world. Yes, God is at work in the world!
The Errors of Ehrman

While I have respect for Ehrman as a New Testament scholar, he made some mistakes during the question and answer period between both scholars. When Dr. Ehrman pressed Dr. Brown about suffering in specific books in the Bible such as Job, Ecclesiastes, and other books, I agreed with my friend who is a full-time New Testament professor that Ehrman’s attempts to apply Theocratic texts regarding Israel to other nations such as God’s punishment of Israel to the Haitian earthquake is misguided. He also seemed to be ignorant of the genres of particular books. When he asked Dr. Brown about whether the “lake of fire” passage in the book of Revelation was eternal (hence, what kind of suffering is that verse talking about?), Dr. Brown demonstrated more competence in his knowledge of the genre of the book by acknowledging that Revelation was Apocalyptic Literature. Therefore, it should be interpreted in light of its genre.

A False Hope?

One thing that I will never forget was the comment made by Ehrman that Christians were offering people a false hope. At this point, many in the audience clapped. In order to show this to be true, Ehrman would have to deny the resurrection of Jesus. But when it comes to the resurrection, Ehrman says the following: “We can say with complete certainty that some of his disciples at some later time insisted that . . . he soon appeared to them, convincing them that he had been raised from the dead.” (Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (New York: Oxford University,1999), 230.

So we see Ehrman falls into the category that is pointed out as the five well-evidenced facts granted by virtually all scholars who study the historical Jesus: (see See Habermas. G.R. and Licona, M. L. The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus). Here are the five facts:

1. Jesus’ death by crucifixion

2. Jesus’ followers sincerely believed Jesus rose from the dead

3. Early eyewitness testimony to belief in Jesus’ resurrection

4. The conversion of Jesus’ skeptical brother, James

5. Paul, once an enemy of the early faith, became a committed follower of Jesus the Messiah

The reason Ehrman rejects the bodily resurrection of Jesus as the best explanation is because of his naturalistic presuppositions. I have already written about these issues at other places on the blog- here There are plenty of articles on it on the site.

What Am I Doing?

For me personally, the debate made me examine how much more I should be doing to alleviate suffering around me. I have a long ways to go!

The Son of God:By Ben Witherington, III

Son of God: By Ben Witherington, III

One of the big mistakes in Christian apologetics is just focusing on what Jesus publicly claimed to be. The truth is that what a person is and what they claim to be can be two very different things. In the case of Jesus, public claims are but a small subset of what Jesus taught His inner circle, and that also was but a small subset of what Jesus believed about Himself, and revealed in various ways, including in some rare cases by public claims. We need to understand as well the nature of the culture in which Jesus lived. Jesus did not live in a late western culture that stressed individualism or striving to be an individual. Rather one’s identity was defined by one’s key relationships. Notice that almost all the so called titles predicated of Jesus are actually relational terms—Jesus is Son in relationship to God, He is Son in relationship to humankind, He is God’s anointed (the meaning of Messiah/Christ), He is Lord in relationship to those He rules, He is Son in relationship to David. One of the crucial reasons that Jesus did not run around Israel making enormous direct claims for Himself to total strangers is because they were bound to be badly misunderstood in a world where standing out from the crowd was seen as abnormal and undesirable. So for example, even with His disciples Jesus asks them “who do people say that I am” (Mark 8:27. NASB). Normally in Jesus’ world, people were defined by others and by the tribe they were a part of.

The phrase “Son of God” often connotes divinity in modern Christian discussions, but it seldom did so in Jewish antiquity. It is true that sometimes angels were called sons of God (see Gen. 6:2) but when Jews thought about a Son of God they normally thought of a king anointed by God. For example, it is perfectly clear in Psalm 2 that the discussion is about the Davidic king who has been anointed by the high priest, and thereby coroneted as king. “The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against His Anointed One…the Lord scoffs at them…’I have installed my king on Zion, my holy hill.’” Then the king himself declares “I will proclaim the decree of the Lord…You are My Son; today I have become your Father. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance” (Ps. 2:2-8, NIV). These last verses should be familiar since they are quoted in part at Jesus’ baptismal event (see Mark 1:11 and par.). In Judaism it was believed that the king had a special relationship with God, and was in fact adopted by God as His own child at the point of coronation. What is especially interesting about Mark 1:11 is that the second phrase “today I have become your Father” is omitted because Mark does not want to suggest that Jesus was merely adopted as God’s Son at the point of His baptism. Rather the baptism is the juncture where the Father confirms to the Son the identity He has always had and will now be publicly revealed.

There can be no doubt however, that Jesus did not view His relationship to God as simply identical to the relationship King David had with God. For one thing, it tells us a lot about Jesus that He prayed to God as Abba which is the Aramaic term of endearment which means dearest Father (see Mark 14:36,Abba is not slang, it does not mean “Daddy.”) This is frankly inexplicable if Jesus only saw Himself as a King, or a prophetic figure, because no Jew, not even the king before Jesus’ day prayed to God as “my dearest Father.” This would have sounded like shocking familiarity. Notice that God is very seldom called Father in the Old Testament, and never prayed to as Abba. This is something new, and it reveals something special about how Jesus viewed His relationship to God. He believed He had a distinctively intimate relationship with God the Father. Even more striking is the fact that He taught His own disciples to pray to God as Abba, suggesting He could give them an intimate relationship with God unlike any they had had before. This is why we find several places in our chronologically earliest New Testament documents, the letters of Paul, where Paul says that Christians pray to God as Abba, indeed the Holy Spirit prompts them to do so, for they have become sons and daughters of God like Jesus though on a lesser scale, through their relationship with Jesus (see Gal. 4:6; Rom. 8:15.) And of course the very first word of the Lord’s Prayer, which Jesus taught to His disciples in Aramaic was Abba (see Luke 11:2.) One has to ask, What sort of person could Jesus be if He thought He could not only save people, but give people alienated from God a relationship with God unlike any that human beings had had previously? This in itself implies a lot about Jesus’ self understanding.

A further insight into Jesus’ view of Himself as God’s Son comes from a close examination of a text like Matthew 11:27, NIV, “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” The first half of this maxim is unexceptional. Anyone could say “no one really knows me except God my maker who knows all.” But it is the second half of the saying which reflects Jesus’ distinctive self-understanding. He sees Himself as knowing God in a way and to a degree that others do not, and furthermore, He sees Himself as the conduit or unique mediator of that knowledge to other human beings. Not only so, but Jesus is said to get to choose whom He reveals this intimate knowledge to. While this does not in itself prove that Jesus thought of Himself as divine, this saying puts Jesus in a unique and unprecedented position when it comes to the knowledge of God, and also in His role as the dispenser of the knowledge of God. It is not a surprise that Paul some 35 or so years later would stress “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim. 2:5-6, NIV). Later Christian theology was right to draw the inference that if Jesus was indeed the mediator of the saving knowledge and power and presence of God, and it was right to see Himself as a mediator then He had to be able to represent God to humankind, and humans to God. In short, He had to partake of both the nature of God and the nature of human beings.

One of the important though indirect ways that Jesus revealed His identity to His disciples and others was through various forms of wisdom or sapiential speech, for example the telling of parables. Mark 12:1-12 immediately comes to mind. In this parable the last and climactic agent and emissary of God to His vineyard is His Son. The vineyard was of course a long time symbol of God’s Jewish people (see Isa. 5) and the tenders of the vineyard were of course the religious leaders of Israel, whether prophets, priests, or kings. Notice how the Son is called “the one whom he loved.” The Jewish phrase “beloved son” often was a synonym for “only begotten son” and hence especially cherished. Jesus then in this parable sees Himself as a Son of God in some way that is distinctive from other Jews such that He could be called “the beloved Son.” Did He understand that he had a unique relationship to the Father because of His distinctive origins (see Matt. 1 on the virginal conception)? This seems a plausible deduction.

The title Son of God, while more frequently conveying royalty than divinity in early Judaism, nonetheless had overtones of divinity for the very good reason that in the wider culture which surrounded Israel, kings were quite readily believed to be God’s Son in a divine sense. Certainly, when this title was used by someone like Paul to speak of Jesus in the Greco-Roman world to Gentiles, the title must have sometimes carried this sort of significance. It is important to recognize then that it was Jesus’ own use of the term Son of Himself that set this train of thought in motion, even though it was more fully amplified, explained, and expounded on after Jesus’ death by Paul and various others as the Jesus movement spread west across the empire and became increasingly a Gentile phenomenon. For more on this subject one should consult Witherington, The Many Faces of the Christ, (Continuum, 1995).