Correctly Interpreting God’s Word: Part 5 Literary Genres

2 Comments

Eminem is a rap artist. He has released several albums and has a reputation for writing songs with a heavy biographical emphasis. If you follow his albums, you will encounter a guy who demonstrates a clear shift from wild and bad to a struggling individual to recovering drug addict. He has made a career out of putting his marriage and family out in the public eye. If I were to pick up his albums and go through them one at a time, I could establish a progression of sorts. Does that make it a biography? Sort of, because there are autobiographical elements to the albums he has released. However, these are rap albums, not hardcover books. They are meant to be autobiographical, but their genre is poetry. If I read his lyrics, I do not have a full understanding of his life as I would with a larger book. The genre of the material we are reading is significant to our understanding of the material we are encountering. Poetry is not narrative. Prophecy is not prose. Gospel is not wisdom literature. In learning to understand scripture, it is important to take into account the genre of literature you are reading.

How is the genre helpful in discerning the message of scripture? Well, my illustrative example aside, let’s look at apocalyptic prophecy in the scriptures. If you have paid any attention to Christianity over the last 30 years, you will undoubtedly have encountered a rash of stories about the end times. There are whole movements devoted to deciphering the words of Revelation and setting them against current events. But, is this a valid way to interpret the text based on the genre? There are several characteristics of apocalyptic literature that should affect the interpretation of the genre. For example, Jewish apocalyptic literature frequently made references to the current events of the day. For example, Revelation was written during a period of heavy persecution for the church. Much of the imagery clearly references those things. The city on 7 hills is an obvious reference to the city of Rome, which was a city built on seven hills. Modern prophecy interpreters have tried to associate this reference to the Catholic Church, which is headquartered in Rome. While it may be the case that there is a double reference here, a more reasonable reading of the reference is to understand it as talking about Rome and the emperor.

Another example of genre is the narrative account to Ruth. Ruth is the narrative account of Ruth, who is a widow and is not properly treated by her husband’s family. This results in her living in destitution. Boaz, a foreigner, ultimately marries her. There is a tendency to read the book of Ruth and interpret it as an allegory of Christ. There is, at times, a tendency to want to allegorize (make it into symbols) everything in the scriptures to make them about Jesus. This is not the strongest reading of the text because this story is a narrative account. To interpret it entirely apart from the historic and narrative account isn’t right for the genre.

The following are a brief list of the various Biblical literary genres:

Prophecy: Prophecy needs to be read and understood in the context of the historical setting. Isaiah, for example, is the prophetic interaction between God and His people during the time of the Assyrian conquests. God speaks to specific nations and situations. In addition, He speaks of his larger redemptive plan through the suffering servant. These prophecies are best used in an attempt to understand the work of God through the scope of Israel’s history. It is not unusual to see folks take up this book and attempt to apply it to modern world affairs. However, this isn’t a legitimate reading of prophecy. Reading and interpreting prophecy requires a history book and a lot of time. Or, you could just use a reputable commentary.

Narrative: Narrative is best read and understood as history. There is a tendency to read narrative and try to allegorize it and apply it to our situations. We see this often with the story of God’s people crossing into the Promised Land. This is a narrative. It is not the story of your church growing or moving into a new building. It’s also not the story of moving into our best life now. It’s the story of God fulfilling the promise made to Abraham. When reading this account, we do better to look for parallels in the story of Christ, like the 40 days of fasting in the wilderness, which parallels the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. Narrative is best read with an eye on the larger story of Israel and God’s interaction with His people.

Poetry: Poetry is poetry. It can bring to the table elements of prophecy, as most prophecy is written in poetic form. Interpreting poetry requires that you consider the poetic form and the author’s intent. Poetic forms are well documented. I will not be delving more deeply into the poetic forms in this setting. There is plenty of documentation on this matter to be found.

Epistle: The epistle is a genre of letter. When interpreting epistles, it’ts important to understand the context (see previous articles) and to interpret the epistle based on the fact that the letter was written by an author to a specific audience. It needs to be read based on this.

Gospel: Gospel is an unusual genre of literature. It is a biography of sorts, but it is more than a simple biography. The Gospel account sets out to tell the biographical account of Jesus’ life while making a larger point about Jesus’ work and mission. Each Gospel account has a specific message in mind. The details of Jesus’ life are chosen in order to support that message. It is often asked: “Why don’t the Gospel accounts include narrative about Jesus’ childhood? The reason is that the information doesn’t support the larger message. This is part of the reason that a Gospel account is not a biography in the purest sense.

Wisdom literature: Wisdom literature as a genre includes the books of Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Wisdom literature sets out to depict principles of life through specific forms. These can almost be seen as poetic forms. It’s important to understand that wisdom literature is comprised of observations, not hard and fast rules for the universe. So, when we read that the dishonest don’t prosper in a wisdom saying, we cannot say that this means that the dishonest never prosper. In fact, the dishonest sometimes do quite well. Rather, this is an indication that to be dishonest can bring downfall.

Law: Law is exactly that: law. It needs to be read as such and understood as part of the larger covenant agreements in which it takes place. The Ten Commandments are an example of this. The commandments are stipulations related to the Mosaic covenant. They are sort of like part of a treaty. In fact, they are written in an ancient treaty literary form. So, when we read the commandments they reflect God’s treaty agreement with Israel. Further, laws relate to different settings. Some laws are civil, some relate to temple worship, etc. They must be read according to these contexts.

Lists: Lists, like genealogies or lists of items, serve a specific purpose beyond boring the socks off the reader. They act as a concrete demonstration of proof as to what happened in a specific setting. They tie specific events to real people and places. In addition, they demonstrate God’s working through the covenants. We see God working with the Israelites in different settings through the genealogies. One prime example of this is the line from David to Jesus. This is vital for understanding Jesus as the fulfillment of the Davidic covenant set forth in 2 Samuel.

This list of genres of scripture is by no means exhaustive. It reflects the larger areas of literature. A good commentary or Study Bible ought to offer a more detailed accounting of the genre of literature in any given section.

Advertisements

On Pluralism In Western Culture

1 Comment

I am currently reading a book on apologetics from my Logos library. The opening chapters of the text are littered  with quotes from D.S. Carson. CArson is an intellectual heavyweight in the area of Biblical scholarship and Christianity. I learned a great deal from his books while I was in seminary. The following are a few of the quotes I lifted from the text. These are all Carson quotes from God and Culture.

In the religious field, this means that few people will be offended by the multiplying new religions. No matter how wacky, no matter how flimsy their intellectual credentials, no matter how subjective and uncontrolled, no matter how blatantly self-centered, no matter how obviously their gods have been manufactured to foster human self-promotion, the media will treat them with fascination and even a degree of respect. But if any religion claims that in some measure other religions are wrong, a line has been crossed and resentment is immediately stirred up: pluralism … has been challenged. Exclusiveness is the one religious idea that cannot be tolerated.

Pluralism has managed to set in place certain “rules” for playing the game of religion—rules that transcend any single religion. These rules are judged to be axiomatic. They include the following: religiously based exclusive claims must be false; what is old or traditional in religion is suspect and should probably be superseded; “sin” is a concept steeped in intolerance. The list could easily be expanded.

Those who are committed to the proposition that all views are equally valid have eliminated the possibility that one or more of those opinions has a special claim to being true or valid. They have foreclosed on open-mindedness in the same breath by which they extol the virtues of open-mindedness; they are dogmatic about pluralism.…

Both the irony and the tragedy of this fierce intolerance stem from the fact that it is done in the name of tolerance. It is not “liberal education” in the best sense; it is not pluralism in the best sense. It is fundamentalistic dogmatism in the worse sense.…

Repost: 20 Scripture Twisting Techniques

3 Comments

Up front I will acknowledge that this is a copy and past article I grabbed from the Fightingforthefaith.com website. Fighting for the FAith/Pirate Christian Radio is a podcast that takes the time to compare what people are saying in the name of God to the word of God. Its an excellent podcast, though I suggest that you come at with some pretty thick skin because it tends to be pretty forthright and unapologetic in its pursuit of proclaiming Biblical purity. I have been challenged significantly by this podcast.

That having been said, the text I borrowed is from a PDF linked on their home page right now called: The 20 Scripture Twisting Techniques of the Cults. Its worth knowing because it serves as a tremendous lens through which you can look at the scriptural citations used by anyone claiming to speak with Biblical authority on their side:

In light of the fact that far too many pastors are mangling and twisting God’s word in the exact same ways that the cults do, in order to protect yourself and your loved ones it is a good idea for you to acquaint yourself with James Sire’s book, Scripture Twisting: 20 Ways the Cults Misread the Bible. Here is a summary of Sire’s work.

1. INACCURATE QUOTATION: A biblical text is referred to but is either not quoted in the way the text appears in any standard translation or is wrongly attributed. Example: The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi says, “Christ said, ‘Be still and know that I am God.'” Whereas this text is found ONLY in Psalms.

2. TWISTED TRANSLATION: The biblical text is retranslated, not in accordance with sound Greek scholarship, to fit a preconceived teaching of a cult. Example: the Jehovah’s Witnesses translate John 1:1 as “In [the] beginning the Word was, and the Word was with God, and the word was a god.”

3. BIBLICAL HOOK: A text of Scripture is quoted primarily as a device to grasp the attention of readers or listeners and then followed by a teaching which is so nonbiblical that it would appear far more dubious to most people had it not been preceded by a reference to Scripture. Example: Mormon missionaries quote James 1:5 which promises God’s wisdom to those who ask him and, then, follow this by explaining that when Joseph Smith did this he was given a revelation from which he concluded that God the Father has a body.

4. IGNORING THE IMMEDIATE CONTEXT: A text of Scripture is quoted but removed from the surrounding verses which form the immediate framework for its meaning. Example: Alan Watts quotes the first half of John 5:39 (“You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life”), claiming that Jesus was challenging His listeners’ over emphasis of the Old Testament, but the remainder of the immediate context reads, “and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (verses 39-40), which shows that Jesus was upholding the value of the Old Testament as a testimony to Himself.

5. COLLAPSING CONTEXTS: Two or more verses which have little or nothing to do with each other are put together as if one were a commentary of the other(s). Example: The

Mormons associate Jeremiah 1:5 with John 1:2,14 and thus imply that both verses talk about the premortal existence of all human beings; Jeremiah 1:5, however, speaks of God’s foreknowledge of Jeremiah (Not his premortal existence) and JOhn 1:2 refers to the pre- existence of God the Son and not to human beings in general.

6. OVERSPECIFICATION: A more detailed or specific conclusion than is legitimate is drawn from a biblical text. Example: The Mormon missionary manual quotes the parable of the virgins from Matthew 25:1-13 to document the concept that “mortality is a probationary period during which we prepare to meet God.” But the parable of the virgins could, and most probably does, mean something far less specific, for example, that human beings should be prepared at any time to meet God or to witness the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

7. WORD PLAY: A word or phrase from a biblical translation is examined and interpreted as if the revelation had been given in that language. Example: mary Bake Eddy says the

name Adam consist of two syllables, A DAM, which means an obstruction, in which case, Adam signifies “the obstacle which the serpent, sin, would impose between man and his Creator.”

8. THE FIGURATIVE FALLACY: Either (1) mistaking literal language for figurative language or (2)mistaking figurative language for literal language. Example of (1): Mary Baker

Eddy interprets EVENING as “mistiness of mortal thought; weariness of mortal mind; obscured views; peace and rest.” Example of (2): The Mormon theologian james Talmage interprets the prophesy that “thou shalt be brought down and speak out of the ground” to mean that God’s Word would come to people from the Book of Mormon which was taken out of the ground at the hill of Cumorah.

9. SPECULATIVE READINGS OF PREDICTIVE PROPHESY: A predictive prophesy is too readily explained by the occurance of specific events, despite the fact that equally

committed biblical scholars consider the interpretation highly dubious. Example: The stick of Judah and the Stick of Joseph in Ezekiel 37:15- 23 are interpreted by the Mormons to mean the Bible and the Book of Mormon.

10. SAYING BUT NOT CITING: A writer says that the Bible says such and such but does not cite the specific text (which often indicates that there may be no such text at all).

Example: A common phrase “God helps those who help themselves” is not found in the Bible.

11. SELECTIVE CITING: To substantiate a given argument, only a limited number of text is quoted: the total teaching of Scripture on that subject would lead to a conclusion different

from that of the writer. Example: The Jehovah’s Witnesses critique the traditional Christian notion of the Trinity without considering the full text which scholars use to substantiate the concept.

12. INADEQUATE EVIDENCE: A hasty generalization is drawn from too little evidence. Example: The Jehovah’s Witnesses teach that blood transfusion is nonbiblical, but the

biblical data that they cite fails either to speak directly to the issue or to adequately substantiate their teaching.

13. CONFUSED DEFINITION: A biblical term is misunderstood in such a way that an essential biblical doctrine is distorted or rejected. Example: one of Edgar Cayce’s followers confuses the eastern doctrine of reincarnation with the biblical doctrine of being born again.

14. IGNORING ALTERNATIVE EXPLANATIONS: A specific interpretation given to a biblical text or set of text which could well be, and often have been, interpreted in quite a different fashion, but these alternatives are not considered. Example: Erich von Daniken asks why in Genesis 1:26 God speaks in the plural (“us”), suggesting that this is an oblique reference to God’s being one of many astronauts and failing to consider alternative explanations that either God was speaking as “Heaven’s king accompanied by His heavenly host” or that the plural prefigures the doctrine of the Trinity expressed more explicitly in the New Testament.

15. THE OBVIOUS FALLACY: Words like OBVIOUSLY, UNDOUBTEDLY, CERTAINLY, ALL REASONABLE PEOPLE HOLD THAT and so forth are substituted

for logical reasons. Example: Erich von daniken says, “Undoubtedly the Ark [of the Covenent] was electrically charged!”

16. VIRTUE BY ASSOCIATION: Either (1) a cult writer a ssociates his or her teaching with those of figures accepted as authoritative by traditional Christians; (2) cult writings are likened to the Bible; or (3) cult literature imitates the form of the Bible writing such that it sounds like the Bible. Example of (1): Rick Chapman list 21 gurus, including Jesus Christ, St. Francis and St. Theresa, that “you can’t go wrong with.” Example of (2): Juan Mascaro in his introduction to the Upanishads cites the New Testament, the Gospels, Ecclesiastes and the Psalms, from which he quotes passages supposedly paralleling the Upanishads. Example of (3): The Mormon DOCTRINE AND COVENANTS interweaves phrases from the Gospel of John and maintains a superficial similarity to the Gospel such that it seems to be like the Bible.

17. ESOTERIC INTERPRETATION: Under the assumption that the Bible contains hidden, esoteric, meaning which is open only to those who are initiated into its secrets, the

interpreter declares the significance of biblical passages without giving much, if any, explanation for his or her interpretation. Example: Mary Baker Eddy gives the meaning of the first phrase in the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father which art in heaven,” as “Our Father- Mother God, all harmonious.”

18. SUPPLEMENTING BIBLICAL AUTHORITY: New revelation from post biblical prophets either replaces or is added to the Bible as authority. Example: The Mormons supplement the Bible with the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price.

19. REJECTING BIBLICAL AUTHORITY: Either the Bible as a whole or texts from the Bible are examined and rejected because they do not square with other authorities – such as

reason or revelation = do not appear to agree with them. Example:Archie Matson holds that the Bible contains contradictions and that Jesus himself rejected the authority of the Old Testament when he contrasted His own views with it on the Sermon on the Mount.

20. WORLD-VIEW CONFUSION: Scriptural statements, stories, commands or symbols which have a particular meaning or set of meanings when taken within the intellectual and broadly cultural framework of the Bible itself are lifted out of that context, placed within the frame of reference of another system and thus given a meaning that markedly differs from their intended meaning. Example: The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi interprets “Be still, and know that I am God” as meaning that each person should meditate and come to the realization that he is essentially Godhood itself.

Josephus’ First Reference to Jesus

Leave a comment

My previous post referenced the fact that Josephus wrote about Christ. The last post cited his second reference and indicated that I posted the first one previously. I looked and realized that I posted t in my “Defending the Resurrection Part 4” post. So, here is the quote:

“At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus, and his conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon their loyalty to him. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion, and that he was alive. Accordingly they believed that he was the Messiah, concerning whom the Prophets have recounted wonders.”

This quote has been questioned for authenticity. It is worth motif that there are no manuscripts of Josephus that omit this quote totally. There are variations, but it does appear in very existing copy. In addition, a recent discovery of Josephus’ work in Arabic is thought to be a very well preserved document textually. This is believed to be proof of Josephus’ reference in some form.

Correctly Interpreting God’s Word: Part 3 Cultural, historical and geographical context

2 Comments

Jesus entered the Temple and began to drive out all the people buying and selling animals for sacrifice. He knocked over the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves. He said to them, “The Scriptures declare, ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer,’ but you have turned it into a den of thieves!”
Matthew 21:12-13

It’s easy to read is text and find yourself thinking “Jesus! What are you doing!?!” One of the most common questions I hear in association with this verse is: How on earth could he become so angry over the marketplace in the temple?

Well, answering this question requires that we understand a little something about the historic and cultural context. For Jewish people, the temple was an incredibly important thing. The priesthood was way up there, too. These were parts of their religion that were heavily associated with God. Every member of the priesthood was supposed to be from the line of Aaron, Moses’ brother, and from the family of Zadok. Zadok was a family that God blessed with the priesthood later because they opposed the pagan religions during Isaiah’s ministry. In the several hundred years previous to this story, this had ceased to be the case. The system had become corrupt. The high priesthood eventually became a position that was for sale. Over time, the Sadducees began to dominate the high priesthood because they were quite wealthy. They, in turn, allowed the courts of the temple to be used for commerce. The Mishnah (Jewish commentary on rabbinical debates in the ancient world) indicates that the folks running the market were from the family of the high priest. So, the high priest is a corrupt jerk who bribes the king to get his job. He then allows his family to run the special market in the courts. Sound kosher? It probably shouldn’t. It gets worse though. The high priests decided that the only money that could be could be used in the temple was a special temple currency, which you had to get from them at a modest exchange rate. So, they were skimming off the top of the offerings. This was a corrupt system and pretty much everyone knew it. What made it worse is that it was happening in the temple. The most holy place in the world. Christ became enraged and took action. He was passionate about God’s house.

Does the text take on different meaning for you now? Is it clearer? The next rule of Biblical interpretation is to pay attention to the historical and cultural context. This one requires a little work. Lots of what makes this happen is reading and studying. However, it’s quite do-able and many of the best books that fill in these sorts of blanks are available online for free. A little bit of research goes a long way toward understanding the meaning of a passage based on the context. Often times, a reader can turn to a good commentary to obtain information on the matter. The information is out there and ever more accessible with the Internet.

This is particularly important because it is very easy to force a 21st century value system onto a text. This is often seen in responses to the Bible that refer to it as evil, based on interpreting rules and events by our worldview rather than considering the ancient context. One obvious example is the tendency to look at the accounts of the year of jubilee and criticize the people for having slaves. The Jubilee regulations indicate that in the year of the jubilee all slaves were to freed and all debts washed away. This happened in Israel, but nowhere else in the ancient world. Other nations didn’t free their slaves. The Jews did. It’s easy to criticize and miss the fact that everyone had slaves in the ancient world. What makes the scriptures pretty unique is that they present a fairly progressive perspective. This is easily missed when considering them out of their cultural context.

Geographic understanding also helps with properly interpreting the scriptures, which is why Bibles come with the book of maps. Knowing the place things took place makes certain elements of the text more vivid. For example, the story of the good Samaritan involves a man being robbed and left for dead on the road. A priest and a scribe pass him while moving from Jerusalem to Jericho. They crossed to the other side of the road to avoid the man. Here we have a geographical joke built into the text. Both are mountain towns. This would have been a mountain road. These roads were not superhighways wide enough to give a big berth. Rather they were fairly narrow and so crossing to the other side was not a huge step. In fact, in some spots it may have been step.

So, where do we learn this stuff? Well, a good study Bible will cover most of these bases. After that, we have a glut of resources at our disposal if we merely spend some time to ask the right questions to get us going in the right direction. Here are a few decent sites for research and reading to check cultural, historical and geographical context:

biblestudytools.com also available as an AppStore app.
biblegateway.com
ccel.com this one is a little more advanced and much tougher to use
For iPad, iPhone and android users the logos app is really good, but better if you have a logos package purchased.
For a good cultural overview of the New Testament era I would recommend the New Testament Milieu by A. B. Du Toit. It offers an overview of the history building up to the coming of Christ and the social setting. Reading this one will give you most of the contextual information you will ever need.
Alfred Edersheim wrote several excellent books on the New Testament setting. I use his book on the temple and the Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah.

Defending the Resurrection: Part 4 External Evidence

Leave a comment

The previous installment of this series dealt with the various eyewitnesses to the resurrection. All of the eyewitness accounts of the event are contained in the Bible. This has been a point of contention between believers and skeptics, because it is often claimed that the all of the supporting evidence is contained in the Bible. The lack of outside confirming sources is considered by some to be a weakness to the historicity of the scriptures. The outside evidence that supports the resurrection narrative will be the focus of this post.
20110812-112403.jpg

For starters, the argument that the lack of extra-Biblical eyewitnesses weakens the case for the resurrection is a bit of a non-starter. To understand why, it is important to know that the various accounts were not written as components of a larger collection. In fact, the authors had no idea that the books would eventually be assembled into the Bible. The original texts were written as letters and testimonies meant to transmit instructions or to attest to the life of Christ. The effort of assembling a collection didn’t begin until around 140 AD, but more on that in a later post. The exact collection of books was finally settled on in 367 AD. During the course of 200ish years, the assemblers of the Bible sought out and verified the texts that eventually became the Bible. All of the verifiable documents were included in the Bible. All of the texts that could not be verified did not make the final cut. This includes texts written by individuals who clearly did not know Christ or see his resurrection and books that were clearly pseudoepigraphical (written under a fake name claiming to be someone important like Paul, Peter, Judas, etc.). Otherwise, all of the accounts of Christ were included in the Bible itself. Most of the skeptics who encountered Jesus after the resurrection would likely have become his followers, as is the case for James, Jude and Paul. Believers who wrote books that attested to Jesus as having been risen would ultimately have had their books added to the canon. There is a natural lack of books that confirm Christ’s resurrection through eyewitness in the secular realm because the skeptics who saw Jesus alive ceased to be skeptics. One need only reflect on the words of Thomas that he needed to ‘put his finger in the holes in Christ’s hands before he would believe’ to find a mirror of the skeptics demand for still more proof.

However, that does not mean that there is no external evidence to be found or that there is no other evidence related to the documents themselves that can be considered. We will begin by looking at the external sources that offer information related to the resurrection.

Josephus: The most popular extra-Biblical source that relates to Christ is Jewish Antiquities by Josephus. Josephus was a Pharisee/priest turned traitor to the Jewish people, who aided the Romans in their (re)conquering of Israel around 70 AD. His book is a history of the Jews, and it mentions both Jesus and John the Baptist. Most scholars generally accept the Jesus quote as authentic or partially authentic as all available manuscripts feature at least some variation of this passage. The John quote is almost universally accepted as genuine. Here are the two passages in question:

“At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus, and his conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon their loyalty to him. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion, and that he was alive. Accordingly they believed that he was the Messiah, concerning whom the Prophets have recounted wonders.”

“Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. Now when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late. Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God’s displeasure to him.”

The reason these are important is that they are sources from outside the Bible that support the existence of two major figures from the Biblical texts. Josephus also supports several basic facts of the resurrection story: (1) the crucifixion and death under Pilate and (2) the continued devotion of his followers. If Christ were a fictional person, it is unlikely that external sources would support his existence, much less confirm the crucifixion narrative. This support is very important when defending the resurrection as historical because it trumps claims that there was no Jesus or that the crucifixion did happen.

Talmud: The next source worth considering is the Talmud. The Talmud is the Jewish collection of teaching and commentary on the Old Testament scriptures. They are notoriously difficult to interpret properly and are so expansive that it is difficult to deal with them as a layperson. The issue with dealing with the Talmud is that it is a trickier source for supporting claims about Christ. There is much debate and disagreement regarding whether or not Jesus is mentioned in the Talmud as we posses it today. This debate includes suggestions that Christians are grasping at straws in trying to find Jesus in the texts, accusations of editing the Talmud to remove Christ, difficulties related to interpreting texts, etc. That having been said, there are scholars who believe that Jesus is mentioned in the Talmud and that the texts support his existence and some of the details of his life, including the crucifixion. Of particular note is the work of Peter Schafer, Professor of Jewish Studies at Princeton. His book, Jesus in the Talmud, addresses the matter of editing in the Ancient texts. He argues that references to Jesus were edited out entirely and references to Christ completely expunged. It is important to note that the Jewish people were quite hostile to Christians during the era of the early church, as illustrated by the addition of prayers hostile to Christians in synagogue services during the second century. Christianity was a rival religion to the Jewish faith, which makes expunging of records a reasonable possibility. Please note that the expunged texts are fairly graphic and not for polite conversation. Nonetheless, the existence of these texts lends support for the existence of Christ from an early source.

Various Roman Historians: Tacitus, a roman historian, mentions Christ by the name “Christus” and describes his arrest and crucifixion for advancing a dangerous superstition. The reference is associated with Tacitus’ account of Emperor Nero’s persecution of Christians in the mid to late 60’s. Julius Africanus, yet another historian, references the darkness that fell over all of the empire during the crucifixion, which is referenced in the Biblical account. Suetonius, another historian, references Christians in relation to a banishing from Rome that took place under Emperor Claudius. This particular reference is important because it confirms the reference in the Bible to the same event. Ultimately, this is important because it supports the scriptures, not so much because it recounts the resurrection. There are other references to Christians, but these do not really help as evidence because they only refer to Christians and we know that Christians existed. The issue we are addressing is the resurrection.

Textual Issues that Argue for Authenticity: The Biblical texts contain several oddities that argue against them being fraudulent. For example: according to the text, the first witnesses of the resurrection were women. This may not seem like a big deal, but at the time women were not allowed to act as witnesses in court. This makes the opening testimony inadmissible to anyone who was from that day and age. Unless it was true, it would be as stupid opening argument. Another support from within the text is the surplus specifics featured in the story. This includes names of people who were present. If a writer were coming up with a lie they would be wise to avoid including names of people who can confirm or deny the story. Vagueness is the mark of a good lie. It is also important to note that the main characters, aside from Jesus, wind up looking pretty silly. If the texts were falsified, why make the authors look so bad? A final point of consideration is the unusual nature of the message. The scriptures offer a religious message that is quite unique to the era. The Jews found the incarnation and crucifixion totally offensive. The Greeks found resurrection to be ridiculous. The proponents of the mystery religions tried to alter Christianity to make it conform to their ideas of what ought to be true of a religion (see the gnostic gospels). There is no other faith in the ancient era like Christianity. If it were a lie, why generate the LEAST palatable story possible?

The Prophets: The final area of consideration regarding the crucifixion that argues for the truthfulness of the resurrection is the glut of prophetic writing pointing to its occurrence. These supports will not sway an ardently anti-supernatural skeptic, but are quite compelling to an open minded individual. One need only read Psalm 22 or Isaiah 53 to find the clear story of Christ’s death and resurrection. The trick is that Isaiah was written 700 years before Jesus was even born and Psalms even farther back. The Old Testament is rife with specific prophecies that are fulfilled by Christ’s death and resurrection. For a list of these prophesies type “Jesus crucifixion resurrection prophecies” into Google. Spend time reading them. Still more can be found by looking into his whole life. There are literally hundreds of them. Most folks, including a lot of Christians, don’t have any idea how specific the details are in the Old Testament. This, unfortunately does not gird the argument for the historic nature of the resurrection, however it does offer strength to the validity of the text itself.

The early church fathers: There is a collection of books consisting of roughly 50 volumes entitled “The Early Church Fathers.” These books contain the collected writings of the early scholars and leaders of the church. These texts include the work of Polykarp, who was a student of John, the disciple. Polykarp confirms the resurrection as well. Admittedly, this is hearsay, but it is a first hand source recounting what the disciple John taught regarding Christ. It is as close of a connection as we have to Socrates, the Greek philosopher. With Plato writing about Socrates and Aristotle writing as Plato’s student. We find the same with John as Jesus’ student and Polykarp as John’s student. Interestingly, almost no one questions Socrates as a historical figure, despite having fewer than half the number of eyewitnesses and almost no external witnesses. By the standards applied to every other historical figure, Christ undisputedly walked the earth, was crucified under Pilate and rose again. The only hindrance to the general acceptance of the claim is the supernatural elements of the story.

The next post will focus on the Bible texts themselves and how we can know if they are accurate to what was originally written.

Skipping Out on Milk and Cookies Christianity

3 Comments

I first began attending church when I was 15 at a Lutheran Church Missouri Synod in Montgomery Alabama. One of the staples of the weekly service was the recitation of the creeds. This always took place right before the sermon. I now understand that this took place so that the listener could compare the beliefs of historic Christianity with the message being presented. It kept everything Kosher, so to speak. As a new believer, I found this comforting. I liked hearing the totality of the beliefs of the church summarized succinctly. In addition, I read the creeds and looked up the ideas in the scriptures. The product of this was: I knew what the Christian faith was about and I knew why I believed it. Over time the repetition from week to week began to wear out the joy of hearing the creeds. Eventually, we moved to a new town and the family settled into a Reformed Church, which has less repetition. When I went to college, the creeds disappeared from my worship experience entirely, though I can still recite them from memory.

The last few Sundays, I have listened to a series of sermons on the basic ideas of the Christian faith. These messages have reminded me of how powerful and comforting those creeds are. Last week, Denver preached on the Trinity. I will admit that it has been over a decade since I have heard a sermon on the Trinity. I have read about it in classes for seminary and as a part of various books. It was terrific. In a day and age of movie themed and self-help sermons, the appearance of a message on the foundations of the faith was a welcome change of pace. What made it particularly powerful was that the topic of the Trinity parlayed into a call for repentance in Christ. An altar call in a sermon on the Trinity… awesome! Having mulled over the whole thing at length, I think I figured out why it struck me as being so terrific.

Standard therapy/entertainment sermons found in churches across the country aren’t about God. They are all about the listener. More time is spent dealing with the listeners thoughts, feelings, needs and wants than is spent talking about Jesus. Relevance has turned the weekly service into a sad variation of the worship song: “it’s all about me, it’s all about me… the listener.” This relevance is a necessity because there is no real focus on God. People come in and have little or no relationship or connection as the Body of Christ and very little connection to God and only stay as long as they feel comfortable. They need to be entertained, because they are not growing members of the Body of Christ, instead they are merely spectators or infants who need something shiny to look at. There is no need to mature in the Body because maturing would require they not indulge in the lowest common denominator of spirituality, which seems to be self-indulgence. They need milk… or Kool-Aid, lest they accidently nourish themselves spiritually and treat anything other than themselves and their own comfort as God. The easy listening sermon is a powerful tool in building large churches, and by large churches I mean gatherings thousands of attendees wide and very very shallow. I am being a bit harsh and am painting with a broad brush. I do not wish to convey a total condemnation of all efforts toward relevance in preaching. However, when relevance crosses from speaking the language of the congregation to making the service completely about the listener, there is a problem. That is not accessibility, it is consumerism disguised as Christianity.

This is highlighted in the Trinity in particular. Augustine points out that the Trinity is essentially the note of doctrine that describes God’s relationship with Himself. It isn’t about us. Certain elements of our lives may reflect the Trinitarian relationship, but merely because they are designed to do so. The important part of the Trinity sermon is God. The important part of worship ought to be God. This is perhaps why the call to repent and follow Christ stood out to me as being particularly powerful in this sermon. It was about committing to follow Christ, not buying a bill of goods. In our day and age, following Christ is packaged as a way to have secure finances or better self-esteem or a more fulfilling sex life. The problem is that the real call to follow Christ is about receiving forgiveness and becoming a follower of the way. The way may have side effects, but they are side effects. The primary effect is salvation. The Trinity puts on display the various aspects of God and highlights how awesome He is. Creator, comforter, redeemer, etc. are all parts of the picture of God provided in the Trinity. These are the things that ought to attract us when we commit to following Christ. Further, they are the meat and potatoes that every growing believer needs.

Interestingly, for all the time, effort and energy spent by evangelicals and conservatives speaking out against questionable cultural trends and liberalism in the church and books about whether or not hell exists, all in the name of protecting the flock from being mislead from the Biblical message of Christianity, simply teaching the flock to recognize basic truths about God would do wonders to ensure that such things do not occur.

By the way, it was a great sermon.