Michael Licona and Bart Ehrman debate on The Reliability of the Gospels

Here was the recent debate between Mike Licona and Bart Ehrman on the Reliability of the Gospels.


What does it mean to say Christianity is true?

A common approach in apologetic discussions is to ask someone what would convince them  Christianity is true. And if it is true, would you believe it?  After all, we rely on truth every day of our lives. We want our banks, our employers, government, friends, and  family to be truthful with us. And why would you want to believe something that is false? But the more I have thought about this question, I think it leads to some very important questions.


1. First of all, when you say the word ‘true’ or ‘truth’ you have to define what you mean! Whatever determines a test for truth determines one’s apologetic approach. It is quite common for the Christian or Christian apologist to defend  the correspondence theory of truth. Thus, truth is what corresponds to reality. As Norman Geisler says:

“Truth is what corresponds to its referent. Truth about reality is what corresponds to the way things really are. Truth is “telling it like it is.” This correspondence applies to abstract realities as well as actual ones. There are mathematical truths. There are also truths about ideas. In each case there is a reality, and truth accurately expresses it. Falsehood, then is what does not correspond. It tells it like it is not, misrepresenting the way things are.”–Baker’s Dictionary of Christian Apologetics, pgs,741-745.

Now here is the challenge: Many people aren’t asking whether Christianity corresponds to reality.  Instead, they are asking if it is true because of the pragmatic benefits they see in people’s lives. This is a very popular approach. In this argument, many people say their religious beliefs have been tried and tested out in the reality of life.  In other words, “Christianity works because it is true!”

This does have some merit. After all, if the Christian faith is the one true path, it should make a radical difference in the reality of life. The challenge of this argument is that in some cases, it seems Christianity doesn’t work. Christians have challenges in their families, work related issues and relationships. However, just because Christians don’t always reflect the character of Jesus and don’t always show the difference it makes, this doesn’t mean Christianity is false. It could be that the person is not under healthy teaching/discipleship or living in sin. So the pragmatic argument can be a tricky one. Everyone knows Christians have done some amazing things for the world (see here), but we also have some inconsistencies.

When we are challenging people on whether Christianity is true, sometimes the goal is to break them out of all other tests for truth (especially the pragmatic one) and get them to ask whether Christianity corresponds to reality? So our attempt  to get people out of a post modern view of truth is quite challenging. 

“The Christ” and First Century Context

If we are going to say “Christianity” is true, obviously  it is about Jesus Christ. But what does that mean? “The comparable New Testament Greek word is Christos, from which we get the English word “Christ.” But this Greek word carries the same connotations as the Hebrew word — “the Anointed One” which is is where the word “messiah” comes from. “Messiah” means “anointed one” and is derived from verbs that have the general meaning of “to rub something” or, more specifically, “to anoint someone.” The Jewish Scriptures records the history of those who were anointed for a specific purpose such as priests, prophets and kings. So are we saying Christianity is true because Jesus is the “Christ”? Thus, he is the Messiah that was discussed in the O.T.? Does this come up in your discussions?  Let’s look at how the apostles spread the Gospel in Acts.

1. The promises by God made in the Hebrew Bible/The Old Testament have now been revealed with the coming of Jesus the Messiah (Acts 2:30;3;19;24,10:43; 26:6-7;22).

2. Jesus was anointed by God at his baptism (Acts 10:38).

3. Jesus began his ministry at Galilee after his baptism (Acts 10:37).

4. Jesus conducted a beneficent ministry, doing good and performing mighty works by the power of God ( Acts 2:22; 10:38).

5. The Messiah was crucified according to the plan of God (Acts 2:23).

6. He was raised from the dead and appeared to his disciples (Acts 2:24; 31-32; 3:15-26;10:40-41;17:31;26:23).

7. Jesus was exalted and given the name “Lord” (Acts 2:25-29;33-36;3:13;10:36).

8. He gave the Holy Spirit to form the new community of God (Acts 1:8;2;14-18;33,38-39;10:44-47).

9. He will come again for judgment and the restoration of all things (Acts 3:20-21;10:42; 17:31).

10. All who hear the message should repent and be baptized because of the finished work of Jesus (Acts 2:21;38;3:19;10:43, 17-48; 17:30, 26:20).

As Russell Moore says:

“As the secularizing and sexualizing revolutions whir on, it is no longer possible to pretend that we represent the “real America,” a majority of God-loving, hard-working, salt-of-the-earth cultural conservatives like us. Accordingly, we will engage the culture less like the chaplains of some idyllic Mayberry and more like the apostles in the Book of Acts. We will be speaking not primarily to baptized pagans on someone’s church roll, but to those who are hearing something new, maybe for the first time. We will hardly be “normal,” but we should never have tried to be.”

The Resurrection

For many of us, we say Jesus is the “Christ”- the Messiah, because he rose from the dead. But there isn’t alot about the Messiah rising from the dead in the Jewish Scriptures. Not to mention hardly any Jews today think the resurrection is a messianic qualification. I still think the resurrection is important. But just remember, you may have to get the person to see that this historical claim corresponds to reality.

Natural Theology?

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

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

Using God as an explanatory explanation is seen in philosophical theology or natural theology arguments. The book The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology does a fine job in handling this issue. To see a short example of this approach online see,  The Return of the God Hypothesis  by Stephen C. Meyer or Paul Copan’s God: The Best Explanation

The challenge is that  if we try to use natural theology arguments in showing Christianity is true, it doesn’t show us the character of God.. In other words,  these arguments only get people half the way to the “Christ.” Thus, we have to do historical apologetics.


Apologists have their work cut for them in showing what they mean when they say “Christianity is true” or “If Christianity is true, would you follow Jesus?” We need to remember that the definitions of terms is crucial to our cultural engagement.


When Science Masquerades as Philosophy

In Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, he attempts to demonstrate why science is “our exclusive guide to reality.” Here, Rosenberg attempts to provide a neat synopsis of life’s big questions, along with what he considers to be scientifically reliable answers. Here are some of life’s big questions that he thinks science can answer:

Is there a God? No. What is the nature of reality? What physics says it is. What is the purpose of the universe? There is none. What is the meaning of life? Ditto. Why am I here? Just dumb luck . . . Is there free will? Not a chance. What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad? There is no moral difference between them. Why should I be moral? Because it makes you feel better than being immoral. Is abortion, euthanasia, suicide, paying taxes, foreign aid, or anything else you don’t like forbidden, permissible, or something obligatory? Anything goes.[1]

Here, Rosenberg makes the assumption that what science reveals to us is all that is real. But as Edward Feser points out, Rosenberg is guilty of a reductionist view of reality. Feser illustrates:

  1. Metal detectors have had far greater success in finding coins and other metallic objects in more places than any other method has.
  2. Therefore, what metal detectors reveal to us (coins and other metallic objects) is probably all that is real.[2]

Anyone who came to this conclusion about metal detectors should visit a doctor, of course. The point is, Rosenberg and others who follow his lead should allow for additional ways besides science to explain reality along with life’s big questions. Metal detectors will always find metal and science will always find material/physical explanations to reality. We must  ask what kinds of questions science can legitimately answer.  Can science can answer the “why” questions?  Yes, it is true science can say why the universe exists. In other words, they can say the universe exists because of the Big Bang or some other scientific explanation. But, science is generally restricted to study how the mechanisms work behind several features of the natural or physical world. But once science attempts to answer whether or why the universe and several features of reality may have a deeper purpose, design, or an end goal, it enters the realm of philosophy.

 [1]. Alexander Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions (New York: W.W. Norton. 2012), 2-3.

[2].  Feser, Five Proofs for The Existence of God, 281.


A Look at Identity: What Defines You?

 11 things that are commonly seen as essential dimensions of a person’s identity: 1. Your race, ethnicity, and nationality; 2. Your culture; 3. Your gender and sexuality; 4. Your physical and mental capacity; 5. Your family of origin; 6. Your age; 7. Your relationships; 8. Your occupation; 9. Your possessions; 10. Your religion; and 11. Your personality and character.
Does a theistic worldview provide the proper understanding for identity?


A Closer Look at the “Good News”


The current disarray in our culture has lead to confusion, anxiety, misunderstanding, and division. What is the cure to this issue? Preach the Good News!  It is a message of reconciliation. Over the years I have spoken to many people about the claims of the Christian faith, I have continually asked myself if I am getting the Gospel right when I share it with others. There have been a slew of books questioning “What is the Gospel?” After looking at the Bible (where else might we get our understanding of this topic from?), I have concluded the Gospel is presented in a variety of contexts. Let’s take a look:

The Gospel Before Jesus

In the Tanakh (the Old Testament), Good news is proclaimed widely ( 1 Sam 31:9 ; Psalm 96:2-3 ; Isa 40:9 ; 52:7 ), spread rapidly ( 2 Sam 18:19-31 ; 2 Kings 7:9 ; Psalm 68:11 ), and declared and received joyfully ( 2 Sam 1:20 ; Psalm 96:11-12 ; Isa 52:7-9 ; Jer 20:15 ). Anytime the message of the gospel is for the Jewish people and based on God’s deliverance, the news is in every case but one ( Jer 20:15 ) related to God the Savior. (1)

The Gospel and Jesus: Pre-Resurrection

#1 Jesus and Isaiah

In the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus reads from Isaiah 61: “the Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” ( Luke 4:18-19 ). So according to Jesus, the prophecy is fulfilled in Jesus’ own ministry ( 4:21 ) since He has come to free the physically infirm, such as the blind ( 4:18 ) and the leprous ( 4:27 ; cf. 7:21 ; 9:6 ). (2)

Therefore, Jesus helps the materially poor, like the widow in Elijah’s day ( 4:25-26 ; cf. Luke 6:20-25 Luke 6:30-38 ). Yet the spiritually poor are primarily in view people broken and grieved by misery and poverty, oppression and injustice, suffering and death, national apostasy and personal sin, who in their extremity cry out to God to bring forth justice, bestow his mercy, and establish his kingdom ( Matt 5:3-10 ). Jesus has come to usher in the kingdom, to rescue the lost, to liberate the enslaved, to cure the afflicted, and to forgive the guilty ( Mark 2:5 Mark 2:10 Mark 2:17 ; 10:45 ; Luke 7:48-49 ; 19:10 ). (3)

#2: Jesus and the Kingdom of God Gospel

We just touched on the reign of God theme. One of the most prominent themes throughout the Bible is the kingdom of God. The framework of Israel’s existence and self-understanding was formulated from God’s covenant with Israel and Israel’s servant to God the King. Israel is the people of the king, and the Holy land is the land of the king’s rule. Biblical scholar J. Julius Scott Jr. has noted that in the ancient world, “kingdom” referred to “lordship,” “rule,” “reign,” or “sovereignty,” rather than simply a geographical location. Scott asserts “sovereignty (or rule) of God” would be a better translation than “kingdom of God,” since such a translation denotes God’s sphere or influence or control and includes any person or group who, regardless of their location, acknowledge His sovereignty. (4)

On point that is generally agreed on by all scholars is that the central message of Jesus was about the kingdom of God. He preached the arrival of the messianic age and its activity of deliverance, contrasting the greatness of the kingdom era with the era of John the Baptist, which had now seemingly passed (Luke 4:16-30; 7:22-23). In the New Testament, the Greek word for kingdom is “basileia,” which denotes “sovereignty,” “royal power,” and “dominion.” The references to the word “kingdom” can be seen in two classes: First, it is viewed as a present reality and involves suffering for those who enter into it (2 Thess. 1:5). Second, the kingdom is futuristic and involves reward (Matt 25:34), as well as glory (Matt 13:43).

#3: The Gospel after the Resurrection: A Look at Paul

For Paul, Jesus’ death and resurrection are central ( 1 Cor 15:1-4 ), with the cross at the very center ( 1 Col 1:17-2:5 ; Rom 3:21-26 ; 2 Col 5:14-21 ). Paul declares ( Rom 1:16 ; 1 Col 1:17-18 ) the gospel to be “the power of God “not merely a witness to, but an expression of his power. The gospel is no bare word but is laden with the power of the Holy Spirit ( 1 Col 2:1-5 ; 1 Thess 1:5-6 ). Thus it cannot be fettered ( 2 Tim 2:8-9 ). The gospel effects the salvation it announces and imparts the life it promises. (5)

#4: Romans

For Paul, in offering his Son as a sacrifice for sins ( Rom 3:25a ), God demonstrates his righteousness ( Romans 3:25 Romans 3:26 ). In Jesus’ death sins formerly “passed over” ( 3:25c ) become the object of divine wrath ( 1:18 ). Yet in the place where God deals justly with sins, he shows grace to sinners. For the judgment is focused not upon the sinners themselves but upon the One who stands in their place ( 4:25 ; 5:6-11 ; 2 Cor 5:21 ; Gal 3:13 ). (6) Sinners are therefore freely pardoned ( Rom 3:24 ). The gospel is a channel of God’s grace. “A righteousness from God is revealed” in the gospel ( Rom 1:17 )not merely expounded but unleashed, so that the gospel becomes “the power of God for salvation” ( 1:16 ). God activates his righteousness by bestowing it freely upon sinners ( 5:17 ). They are acquitted, justified, “declared righteous, ” by God the Judge by virtue of their righteousness ( 1 Col 1:30 ; 2 Col 5:21 ; Php 3:9 ). (7)

Let’s look at Romans 1: 1-7:

“Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which He promised beforehand through His prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh, who was declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for His name’s sake, among whom you also are the called of Jesus Christ; to all who are beloved of God in Rome, called as saints:Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

So for Paul, the Gospel is first and foremost a message about Jesus. Six things stand out:

1. In Jesus of Nazareth, specifically in the cross, the decisive victory has been won over all the powers of evil, including sin and death themselves.

2. In Jesus’ resurrection, a new age has dawned, inaugurating the long-awaited time when the prophecies would be fulfilled, when Israel’s exile would be over, and the whole world would be addressed by the one creator God.

3. The crucified and risen Jesus, was, all along Israel’s Messiah, her representative king:

Paul lays great emphasis on Jesus’ resurrection in other places in the NT. Through Jesus’ resurrection, He installed as Son of God (Rom. 1:4), as universal Lord (Rom. 14:9; Eph.1:20-21; Phi.2:9-11), and judge of the living and the dead (Acts 17:31).

4. Jesus was therefore, also the Lord, the true king of the world, the one whose very knee must bow:

In the Roman Empire, pagans would have seen Caesar as their “Lord.” But for Paul there is a different “Lord” and his name is Jesus. Hence, the willingness to do call Jesus “Lord” is to place Jesus in a role attributed to God in Jewish expectation. 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.

5. The God of Israel is the one true God, and pagan deities are mere idols:

This sounds alot like 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.

If we look at the entire context of the passage in 1 Corinthians 8:5-6, 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.

6. The God of Israel is now made known in and through Jesus himself. (8)

#5: The “Kerygma” in the Book of Acts

1. The promises by God made in the Hebrew Bible/The Old Testament have now been revealed with the coming of Jesus the Messiah (Acts 2:30;3;19;24,10:43; 26:6-7;22).

2. Jesus was anointed by God at his baptism (Acts 10:38).

3. Jesus began his ministry at Galilee after his baptism (Acts 10:37).

4. Jesus conducted a beneficent ministry, doing good and performing mighty works by the power of God ( Acts 2:22; 10:38).

5. The Messiah was crucified according to the plan of God (Acts 2:23).

6. He was raised from the dead and appeared to his disciples (Acts 2:24; 31-32; 3:15-26;10:40-41;17:31;26:23).

7. Jesus was exalted and given the name “Lord” (Acts 2:25-29;33-36;3:13;10:36).

8. He gave the Holy Spirit to form the new community of God (Acts 1:8;2;14-18;33,38-39;10:44-47).

9. He will come again for judgment and the restoration of all things (Acts 3:20-21;10:42; 17:31).

10. All who hear the message should repent and be baptized because of the finished work of Jesus (Acts 2:21;38;3:19;10:43, 17-48; 17:30, 26:20).


One way or the other, if we look at the variety of ways the Gospel is presented in the Bible, there is no basis for a pragmatic Gospel or a message that says “Come to Jesus and He will fix all your problems.” Furthermore, if we follow the examples of Paul and the Apostles after the resurrection, there is no Gospel apart from the resurrection. To go and tell people that the Gospel is “Jesus died for your sins” is incorrect. Without the mention of the resurrection, it is an incomplete Gospel. Hence, either give people the whole Gospel or don’t mention it at all. But one thing for sure: Let’s be sharing the Good News so we can see heart’s changed and true reconciliation occur!

1. J. Knox Chamblin “Gospel” featured in Walter Elwell, Bakers Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Company, 1996), 305-308.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. J. J. Scott Jr, Customs and Controversies: Intertestamental Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995), 297.
5. Chamblin, “Gospel” featured in Walter Elwell, Bakers Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Company, 1996), 305-308.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid.
8. These six points were made in N.T Wright’s What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Group, 1997), 60. I have added some of my own thoughts.


The Right and Wrong Reasons to Pursue Apologetics

A ways back I remember reading an article by William Lane Craig about advice for people who want be an apologist. In all honesty, Craig probably knows many people who have come to him asking for advice. I think he would admit that many of them want to live the life he has and is living (e.g.,lots of speaking gigs/debates, lots of fans, lots of attention, etc). The more I have thought about this issue, I can list some of the right and wrong reasons to pursue a career in apologetics. Or, perhaps here are some of the right and wrong reasons for being very active in the field of apologetics.

Wrong Reasons

#1: The Need for Attention

Given the overload of reality TV shows and celebrity worship, the last thing we need are apologists who have a narcissism problem.  If you are craving attention and affirmation, than that can’t be motivation for being a player in apologetics. I am not saying that it is a bad thing to be encouraged and noted at all for contributions in the field of apologetics. However, we need to check ourselves in this area.

#2: The need to tear people down with knowledge

Sean McDowell gives us some tips on this one:

“Youth Specialties president Mark Matlock wrote a compelling essay about apologetics and emotional development.3 In it, he argued that apologetics often attracts people who have been emotionally hurt, and in turn, who use apologetics to hurt other people. He’s absolutely right. As the saying famously goes, “Hurt people hurt people.” There is power in knowledge. And many people seek power by gaining more information so they can control and even humiliate other people. If you are an apologist, I encourage you to ask yourself some deep questions: Why (honestly) are you an apologist? Is your heart genuinely broken for non-Christians? Do you pray for humility and guidance in your research and conversations with both Christians and non-Christians? I hope so.”

To read on, click here.

#3: The Need to Look Really Smart

Don’t get me wrong. I know we have an anti-intellectualism problem in the Church. I also know we have a fideism problem as well. But if you want to be an apologist to show people how smart you really are (and boast about your degrees), that is probably not a good thing. If anything, this only reveals that there is some sort of insecurity here. We need to check ourselves in this area.

Right Reasons:

#1: We want the Church strengthened and confident in their faith

Apologists work hard! They have to answer a lot of objections and have to be very knowledgeable about a variety of disciplines. We want Christians confident so that they will in turn want to obey the commands of Jesus (e.g., preach the Gospel and make disciples).

#2: Apologists know their ultimate reward is with Christ

A mature apologist doesn’t always look for affirmation from others because they know their real reward is with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:10). They have been called to be faithful and obedient to him. Now that doesn’t mean there is no need for any encouragement. But ultimately the apologist will answer to the Lord for the work they did to edify and strengthen his Church. After all, it was the Lord who has laid down his life for his Church (1 John 3:16). It belongs to Him!

#3: The Apologist knows false ideas are a hindrance to the Gospel

“False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the reception of the gospel. We may preach with all the fervor of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation to be controlled by ideas […] which prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion.” – J. Gresham Machen, “Christianity and Culture,” Princeton Theological Review 11 (1913):

The apologist knows one of the main motives he does apologetics is to expose the idea structures that are causing a hindrance to the Gospel. Paul speaks about this here:

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ (2 Cor. 10:3-5 NIV).

#4 Apologists know that critics must be answered

As I have mentioned before, in Introducing Apologetics: Cultivating Christian Commitment by James Taylor, he lists three kinds of people who we will encounter when doing evangelism. If anything, if we do evangelism and encounter people in these categories, we should see why we need apologetics in the Church. Taylor says when dealing with people, many people may fall into various categories such as:

1. Critics: those with criticisms of the Christian faith who are not open to the possibility of its truth. Critics need to be answered to neutralize the effects of their criticisms on seekers and doubters.

2. Seekers: people who are open to our faith but are prevented from making a commitment primarily because of honest questions about the Christian claims.

3. Doubters: are Christians who find it difficult to believe one or more tenants of the Christian faith with complete confidence. Doubters need to be restored to full Christian conviction by giving them the tools to remove their doubts.

Once again, apologists work hard at answering #1 because they know the critics are the ones that impact the seekers and doubters.


There are many more  motives that need to be examined if we are to be effective in the field of apologetics. To read more on this, see Apologetics 315’s article here called The Pitfalls of the Apologist.


Paul Barnett on the Genre of the Gospels

Finding the Historical Christ (After Jesus) by [Barnett, Paul]
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?” Historian and theologian Paul Barnett has made some helpful comments here on this topic.
He says:

” In attempting to identify the gospels in terms of existing literary genres, it is not always recognized, as it should be, that Mark alone calls his book by that name. Furthermore, the four canonical gospels differ from each other in both character and intention. Mark wrote his text to be read aloud in church meetings (Mark 13:14) to demonstrate that Jesus was the awesome Son of Man who disappeared as mysteriously as he had appeared. Luke wrote his two-volume “narrative” to confirm catechumens like Theophilus in the truth in which he had been instructed (Luke 1:1-4). Matthew wrote his gospel as a manual for the instruction of disciples, based on the collected teachings of the Christ (Matt 28:19). John wrote his book with special interest in Jesus’ miracle signs and lengthy pastoral and polemical discourse. The character and intention of each gospel are different. Luke and Matthew felt that Mark’s gospel was inadequate, so they adapted it and added other material to suit their purposes. John wrote his “book” to reassure his Christian hearers that Jesus was truly the Christ, the Son of God (John 20:30-31). Clearly each gospel is biographical in character and bears some similarities to the Greco-Roman bioi of that general era, e.g., Suetonius’s Twelve Caesars or Plutarch’s Parallel Lives.56 Nonetheless, the gospels are unusual if not unique because their intended readership and purpose are so exclusively defined. Whereas the contemporary biographers and historians wrote to inform everyone in general and no one in particular, the gospelers wrote their texts narrowly and specifically for Christians for “in-house” use. Accordingly, attempts to classify the gospels according to this genre or that should be regarded as secondary.

The primary observation should be to recognize their unique intended audience as church-directed and their function as ecclesial-liturgical (Mark), polemical-apologetic (John), and instructional (Matthew, Luke-Acts).s’ Mark is a special case. The writer’s explicit direction to the lector to explain the meaning of an obscure text (Mark 13:14) and the many implied side comments to those present (e.g., 7:11,19;13:37; 15:21) identify this text as designed to be read aloud in a church meeting. Mark must be classified alongside the letters of Paul and the Apocalypse as a text the author specifically wrote for an aural purpose in a liturgical, ecclesial setting.58 That was also likely true of Matthew, Luke-Acts, and John. The gospels claim another dimension as well, the supranatural. That is to say, the gospels are existentially the word of the risen and ascended Kyrios that are read aloud to his assembled people (cf. Mark 13:14 – “Let the lector explain”). Mark’s opening words indicate that what follows is “the gospel of (i.e., from) Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” that is to say, his word to his hearers in the churches.

The man Mark is merely the human cipher through whom the words of the risen Lord come to his people. Using different language, John asserts that the “book” he writes is a “true … witness” to Christ’s “signs” for his hearers to safely “believe” for immediate entry to “eternal life” (John 20:30-31; 19:35; cf. 21:24). Does the supranatural character of Mark suggest that his gospel is a historical, in fact mythical in character? No. Mark roots his narrative in the soil of geography (e.g., Nazareth, Capernaum, Gennesaret, Bethsaida, Tyre, Sidon, the Decapolis, Caesarea Philippi, Jerusalem) and (as noted) in the context of John the Baptist and of known political leaders (Herod the king [actually, tetrarch], the high priest, Pontius Pilate). Jesus’ movements as fugitive from the ruler of Galilee (chapters 6-9) are consistent with one avoiding the borders of Herod Antipas’s jurisdiction. Mark’s gospel is the word of the living Christ to the churches and a work that is both historical and geographical. We offer two observations about the genre of the gospels. First, their special readership (church groups) and purpose liturgical/polemical/apologetic/instructional) make it difficult to classify them alongside other contemporary texts. Second, insofar as they are able to be classified, they belong to the broad group of biographies (bioi). In short, they are ecclesial documents that are biographical and historical in character. For both Mark and John their words are supranaturally true. Yet at the same time they must also be historically true. If they are not historically true, they cannot be supranaturally true.”- Finding the Historical Christ (After Jesus) by Paul Barnett

For more on this topic, see our post A Closer Look at the Genre of the Gospels: Ancient and Modern Historiography: What are the Gospels?


Five Options For Approaching the Deity of Messiah in the Old Testament

Is the deity of Jesus implicit or explicit in the Jewish Scriptures? In this post, I will lay out five options to talk about this topic.

Option #1: Talk about the Nature of the Godhead

In this option, we can discuss whether God is plurality within a unity: For example,  Dr. Arnold  Fruchtenbaum says:

“It is generally agreed that Elohim is a plural noun having the masculine plural ending “im.” The very word Elohim used of the true God in Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” is also used in Exodus 20:3, “You shall have no other gods (Elohim) before Me,” and in Deuteronomy 13:2, “Let us go after other gods (Elohim)… .” While the use of the plural Elohim does not prove a Tri-unity, it certainly opens the door to a doctrine of plurality in the Godhead since it is the word that is used for the one true God as well as for the many false gods.”

See the entire article here: 

or The Divine Unity and the Deity of Messiah by Noam Hendren

 Option #2: Discuss Messianic Names in the Old Testament

In this case, in the words of Michael Bird:

“The role of the Messiah is multifarious. There was no single and uniform description of the messianic task.” Furthermore, before 70 CE, messianic figures could go by a variety of names such as Son of David, Son of God, Son of Man, the Prophet, Elect One, Prince, Branch, Root, Scepter, Star, Chosen One, Coming One, and so forth.” – Bird, M.F. Are You The One To Come? The Historical Jesus and the Messianic Question (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 35

So if we take Bird’s advice, we can discuss some of these names. Some of them like “Son of Man” (see Daniel 7: 13-14) and our article here, and “Scepter” (from Gen 49:8-12 –see more in our article here) speak of a figure that will have a worldwide dominion. The same theme is also seen in Psalm 2 when it speaks of a Davidic King who will inherit the nations. See more on that here:

Option #3: Discuss Theophanies in the Old Testament

This is a popular approach. We need to remember that the Bible says we can’t see God (Exodus 33:20; John 1:18). Jesus said that no one has ever seen the Father (John 6:46). The Father nor the Holy Spirit has never appeared in bodily form.

Theophany is not a biblical term. It is a theological term used to refer to visible or auditory manifestations of God. Theophanies could appear to men in one of four forms so that God could magnify and authenticate His revelation of Himself to His servants.

For example:

1. He appeared in human form to Abraham (Gen 18). For example, in Gen. 18, the three “men” are later identified as angels (compare Genesis 18:22 & 19:1). But the third one that ate (v.8), spoke (v.10) and walked (v.16, 22) with Abraham is identified as the LORD, Himself. In 18:13, the text states “And the LORD said to Abraham….” The word translated ‘LORD’ throughout this portion is the Tetragrammaton, the four Hebrew letters that make up the sacred Name of God: yood, hey, vav, hey, (pronounced by some as Yahweh, or Jehovah). 2. He appeared in a non-human form in Exodus 3.
3. He appeared as an angel in Exodus 23:2-23.
4. He spoke audibly in Gen 3:8; 1 Kings 19:12; Matt 3:17.

The Angel of Jehovah

1.Is not to be taken as a title, but, following Hebrew grammar, it always functions as a proper name.
2. The individual is considered distinct from all other angels and is unique.
3. Read Gen 16:7-14;22:9-16;31:11-13;32:24-30; Exod. 3:1-5; Judges 2:1:6;11-24.
4. Read Judges13:2-24: We see nine times in this passage, He is referred to as the Angel of Jehovah: but in verse 22, He is said to be God Himself. Also, notice verse 18, the Angel’s name is “Wonderful.” In Isaiah 9:6, “pele” the Hebrew word for “wonderful” is only used of God, never of man, and never of an angel.
5.The Angel of Jehovah no longer appears after the incarnation- see Fruchtenbaum, A.G, Messianic Christology: A Study of Old Testament Prophecy Concerning the First Coming of the Messiah (Tustin CA: Ariel Ministries, 1998), 109-110.

While this approach has some merit, it also poses some challenges. I think this excellent article is helpful. .

Option #4: Discuss Jewish Categories in the Old Testament such as Shechinah, Word, Wisdom , etc.

I have taken that approach here.

Option #5: An Unavoidable Issue: The Issue of Progressive Revelation

One of the most important themes of the Bible is that since God is free and personal, that he acts on behalf of those whom he loves, and that his actions includes already within history, a partial disclosure of his nature, attributes, and intensions. The God of Israel is a God who is relational and wants people to come to know Him. 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. This is why the deity of Jesus becomes more clearer in the New Testament. See Robert Bowman’s outline here. Also, there is no evidence the New Testament authors departed from monotheism in their worship of Jesus. I have written about that here.

For a deeper study on the topic, see here: Dr. Michael Heiser: The Jewish Trinity