Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Mark's Gospel and Inspiration

During the 1800s and early 1900s the Liberal movement in Christianity brought serious challenges to historic Christianity. Under scrutiny were long-held assumptions about the historicity of Jesus, the inspiration of Scripture, and the authorship, dating, and transmission of the New Testament books.

In reaction to the Liberal movement a counter movement took shape that came to be called the Fundamentalist movement. That movement morphed into the Evangelical movement in the mid-twentieth century.

But the debate about the fundamental doctrines of Christianity continues into  the 21st century, though it is much more defined; some of the categories include form criticism, source criticism, textual criticism, and redaction criticism. If those sound pretty technical, they are simply the closer examination of the text and manuscripts of the Scriptures and the culture of the time and place during which they were written in an attempt to discover the original source, the authors, and the editing that may have been done by later authors or copyists.

The objective, whether as Liberals or Evangelicals,  has been to understand better our inherited faith. 

The topics of the debate are all quite beyond the average Christian or non-believer who may never have heard of any of these things.  But the repercussions of this scholarly work does reach the Christian in the pew, so to speak, via articles that appear more and more frequently in popular news magazines and on the Internet. And the various controversies are often turned into attacks on Christianity by those who wish to discredit the foundations of our faith.It is a good idea to think through the claims and evidence.

One such controversy regards the integrity of the text of the Gospel of Mark. Almost all Bible scholars, whether Liberal or Evangelical, recognize that the verses at the end of Mark, chapter 16
verses 9-20,  seem to be added to the original text. Most modern versions of the Bible indicate in footnotes that there is some question about them.

There is another passage in Mark that seems to be an addition. That is the narrative about the death of John the Baptist in chapter 6. The passage does seem like a parenthesis in the narrative, which does seem to have more continuity if read without it. But there is a second problem. The author of the passage may have been mistaken about who Herodias was married to before marrying Herod Antipater (Antipas). The fact that there were several men who were related to Herod the Great and thus were named Herod and several Philips, one of whom was also related to Herod, gives some modern scholars pause to question whether the author of the passage in  Mark got it right. 

All this speculation, when it hits the popular media, creates a question in the minds of many Christians whether the Bible is accurate and reliable - and whether it is inspired and without error, as the Fundamentalists of the early 1900s declared. Those questions have undermined the faith of some I meet on the Internet.They should not.

It is important to understand two facts. First, the text we have today is not totally without error. There are many variations in the old copies. By far most of the errors are copyist mistakes and are as simple as the spelling of a word.  Christians would be well to simply accept this fact.

But there are passages like those I've noted in Mark (there is another passage in  John 8 that may have been a later addition also). They are not found in all the old manuscripts and under the microscope of the modern critical methods don't seem to be by the same author as the rest of the text.

Do anomalies like those discredit the inspiration of the Scriptures? I do not think so. I think the Bible is clearly inspired as Christians from the earliest days of the church to the present affirm. But it would be well for Christians to not draw lines in the sand where the Bible does not.

Two of the lines we have drawn are on the issues of inerrancy and on what I was taught early on as verbal plenary inspiration. (Verbal plenary inspiration means that the Bible is inspired word for word and that it is all inspired.) In biblical theology - that is, doctrine that is clearly and directly taught in the Scripture -  neither of those ideas are declared. They are inferred from indirect statements.

What is declared directly in the Scriptures is the Scriptures are God breathed, that the authors were moved upon by the Holy Spirit, that they are truth, that they are useful, that they are alive and powerful, and that they come from God. These truths declared in the Scriptures are not limited by the imperfections in copies and translations. Verbal inspiration is a theoretical idea, a doctrine, with little practical value, for we do not have in any case the actual manuscripts written by the original authors. And if inerrancy is dependent upon having the precise words that are inspired, we do not have assurance of that either. But what we do have is far better than a doctrine. We have the powerful words of God, no matter the perfection of the texts or the translations 

Some years a go I talked with a Wicliffe Bible translator who had translated part of the Bible into the language of the Aztecs in Central Mexico. Looking back from a distance of many years, he said that his translation was crude. It certainly was not a word for word translation, and much of it was either translated from  English translations, not the original Greek, or checked against English translations. Yet, those translated words resulted in many of these Aztec speakers turning genuinely to God in faith. It resulted in lives truly changed.  The power of the word was not hindered by the imperfection of the translation.

Nor was the power hindered by the possible inclusion of pieces that were not written by the original authors. The story of the adulterous woman in John 8 or the ending of the Gospel of Mark may not have been the work of the original authors. But they do not run counter to the message.

 In the case of the John 8 passage, that story is so in tune with the character of Jesus and the message of John about Jesus that few reject it as uninspired. It has life and power. In the case of Mark 16, the brief history of what happened among the Apostles and in the church in the early years is confirmed by other histories. It is not "made up." Neither do either introduce any new doctrine, something that is foreign to the body of Scripture. Those were among the criteria used by the early churches and church fathers to identify inspired works.

So let's let the Bible speak. Let's not draw lines where the Bible does not nor allow those who may wish to discredit the Bible to do so. Let's not be easily disturbed by the speculations that sometimes get featured as "truth" in news magazine or on Youtube. The Bible speaks for itself. But let's not be afraid of inquiry either. Legitimate inquiry will not undermine the word of God. In fact, legitimate inquiry has buttressed my trust in the Bible. stand more sure today than ever that the Bible is God's word and is powerful unto salvation for all who believe.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Cargo Cults and the Jesus Myth

One of the arguments of the Jesus Myth people is that myths can develop rather quickly – within months if not just a few years.  So it is not at all impossible for a myth that came to be known as Christianity to have developed within the relatively few years between the events of Jesus’ life – whatever they might have been – and the development of the stories of Jesus’ life, the Gospels.  As proof they present the cargo cults of the South Pacific.

Cargo cults are religions that development when modern civilization encountered the primitive cultures of the isolated peoples of the South Sea islands in the late 19th  and  early 20th centuries.  The simplified description of the development of these cargo cult religions is that the primitive islanders saw the Western missionaries and other technologically advanced Western people - the Western military that occupied the islands in the Second World War - as so remarkable that they assumed them to be gods or emissaries from gods.  Then these primitive South Sea islanders noticed that when these emissaries asked for supplies (cargo) they arrived.  They reasoned It must have been sent by the gods.

That cargo was a wonder to these primitive people. It was a miracle; they had no conception of where it might have come from; they could not comprehend modern industrial societies. But it made life so much easier.  And possessing cargo made the possessor powerful in these primitive societies. So when the missionaries and the U.S. Army left, these primitive people continued to believe in gods who could supply the cargo if asked correctly.

Praying to these gods and rituals that resembled the way the missionaries and other Westerners lived developed with the hope that the gods could be persuaded to supply cargo.  Names were given to the gods. In one case John Frum and in another a variation of Roosevelt, the president during the time of the occupation of the islands by American troops in the Second World War,  became the names of these gods. (You can look up the Scientific American article about these cults Scientific American and a web page describing the John Frum cult John Frum  )

The point of all this is that the cargo cults have become what the Jesus Myth folk see as an example of rapid development of a myth and a type of myth  development which they claim happened in the Jesus myth.

However, they overlook something important in their hasty analogy: there was cargo delivered to the missionaries and to the American troops.  There was a real basis for the beliefs of these primitive people.   (Worsley in the Scientific American article wrote that their belief had a reasonable basis.) And it was a rather sustained experience;  that is, it was something  observed over a period of decades.

On the other hand, the Jesus Myth folk will deny that there was anything of real substance to the myth of Jesus.  Some will say that the origin of the Jesus myth is in the vision of  Paul rather than  a real person named Jesus.

Others will say that the origin of the Jesus myth was in one or another or a combination of the various messiah’s who populated the first century Palestine landscape, but who in no case that we know of truly produced anything more than the hope of independence from Rome or the king established by Rome, Herod. In other words, there was no cargo.  There certainly was no cargo that resembled the acts of Jesus in the New Testament Gospels.

The problem then is the development of a “cargo cult” when there was no cargo delivered. The "cargo," which in this case might be the miracles Jesus performed or the message he spoke or the resurrection, is imagined to be  themselves a part of the myth that developed. The result is a circular argument: some promised benefit resulted in the development of the Jesus myth, but the promised benefit is found only in the myth that developed. That is not the way the cargo cult myths developed.

That leaves the Jesus Myth folk with a myth that has no foundation. The cargo cults at least had the cargo delivered to Westerners and the obvious power of the Westerners as a hope. Both were real things. That a cargo cult could develop without those is not believable. It did not develop around any of the other messianic hopefuls of first century Palestine. Why? The simple answer is that they delivered no cargo. They died not having fulfilled in any way the promises they made. Who would create a cult around a failed messiah?  And the idea that a cargo cult developing with no benefit certainly is not supported in the scientific literature.

Jesus, on the other hand, delivered on his promise of life. He rose from the dead. He was seen by many. He spoke to them. He ate with them. He displayed the wound of crucifixion. They touched him. This was evidence, and dramatic evidence at that, that the promise of Jesus was real. This was a reality on which to build a faith.

Marching with guns is still a ritual of some cargo cults.
There is another problem.  Modern societies do not develop myths. Moderns may create mythical stories, but they are recognized as fiction. Primitive societies do develop myths. They develop myths to explain the unexplainable and rituals to try to bridge the power gap between their society and the far more advanced society they have encountered. (See Cargo Cult, Wikipedia ) Primitive societies do this.  The key concept in the scientific literature is “primitive.”

Was the society of first century Palestine primitive? I suggest it was not. It was far more like a modern society than a primitive South Sea island society. It was a highly educated and literate society. The average Jew in Judea may not have been literate, but he knew by experience about the larger literate and advanced society of the Roman Empire. He had daily contact with that society. He imagined no magic that enabled Romans to be more powerful than themselves. And then there were people like Paul.

Paul was educated in the literature, philosophy, history, and the religions of the Greeks. He was a citizen of Rome and came from a major city. As a student of the Hebrew Scriptures and a Pharisee, he was especially literate and knowledgeable in the Old Testament. He was not primitive. If he was, as many of the Jesus Myth people suggest, the original conveyer of this “myth,” it would be exceptionally remarkable. He in no way fits the model of “primitive” which the scientific literature indicates is the seedbed for the development of a cargo cult.

Most who have actually studied the cargo cults and the myths and rituals that developed in these societies do not use them as illustrations for how Christianity developed. But I still encounter in the popular literature of the Jesus Myth people reference to John Frum and the cargo cults. Many times those who are impressed by this phenomenon don’t dig deeper to understand the cargo cults. My objective is simply to suggest that the Jesus Myth people are mistaken. To suggest that the cargo cults provide an example of how a myth may develop quickly - if it is used to support the Jesus Myth proposition - is too simplistic. The analogy is not there. The differences are too great.

But the attack of the Jesus Myth people on the historicity of the Gospels is nevertheless serious. Christians, too, seldom dig deeper and think critically about what we read in the news magazines and see on TV.  And there are an increasing number of these articles. (I noted earlier the piece in the December 18 edition of the Washington Post in which Raphael Lataster argues for the non-existence of a historical Jesus.)  Christians need to be prepared with good information.

Thursday, January 15, 2015


I've been reading in the past weeks about the Gospels. I suppose my interest has been rekindled because of the ideas I encountered in the book I recently read, Zealot. The idea of that author, Reza Aslan, is that the Gospels were all written in the later part of the first century or early second century and were not the accounts of eyewitnesses or even those acquainted with the eyewitnesses to Jesus.

My own research leads me to another conclusion, especially related to the Gospel of Matthew. In fact, I was so exercised by Aslan's analysis that I felt led to publish a piece out of my book I Walked With Jesus in which I address the question. It follows.

Profile of Matthew

Who was Matthew? In our hurry to get into the book itself, we often overlook the author. That is a mistake. Knowing the author and his purpose in writing is important to our understanding of any piece of writing and certainly to our understanding of this gospel. In fact, as we better understand the man called Matthew and his passion for the Messiah and for his own Jewish people, what he wrote of Jesus takes on greater meaning.

Who was this Matthew? The answer that immediately rolls off our tongues is that he is the disciple of that name, called by Jesus to become one of the inner group of twelve disciples. But in recent years that assumption has been challenged. The author does not sign his name to the manuscript. He includes no first person “we” memories of Jesus or first person recollections of what would have been his shared experiences with the other disciples. He even seems to use long passages from a previously existing source rather than personal eyewitness testimony - which the author must have had if he were the disciple Matthew. So, were we mistaken? I do not think so.

Who was Matthew? If we were to ask him, he would tell us, as he does in his gospel, that he was just a man, a sinner who followed Jesus. He would happily leave it at that and change the discussion to what was really his passion, the Messiah.

But of course, Matthew’s brief, humble reply would be only part of the story. History tells us that he was more than a humble follower of Jesus. He was also an Apostle, a man sent with a message to his people, and the author of the book called by his name.

But was he the author? There are two lines of evidence for Matthew’s authorship of the gospel. They both lead us back to what the church has for nineteen centuries accepted as true.

The first is the words of the early church father Papias. Writing in the early part of the second century, Papias identified the author of the book as the Apostle Matthew. Papias also tells us that Matthew wrote for Jewish Christians and perhaps wrote in the Hebrew or Aramaic language. To Papias, Matthew was more than a name from history. He was a real person, a respected Apostle. To take the word of someone who lived as little as one generation distant from the author of the book seems reasonable. He certainly knew the events that surrounded the beginning of the church far better than we can know them from a distance of almost two thousand years.

The second line of evidence is a manual for conduct and practice in the early church called the Didache. It is dated to the late first or early second century (100-130 A.D.) and was considered by the early church to be the teachings of the Apostles. The Didache contains the Lord’s Prayer just as it appears in the Matthew’s gospel and the formula used for baptizing - "in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" - found in chapter 28 of the gospel. Along with these longer quotes, the Didache also uses many briefer phrases and words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapters 5-7, words not found in the other gospels. The heavy dependence of the Didache on Matthew would indicate both the early and apostolic origin of Matthew’s gospel, as well as the gospel's importance to the early church.

However, it is not the historical evidence for authorship that is most significant for our understanding of his message. It is the portrait of Matthew that emerges from the book itself.

Matthew clearly was a literate and knowledgeable reader of the Hebrew Scriptures. He quoted extensively from those scriptures, more than any of the other three gospel writers. And it was a knowledge that is understandable when we see in the gospels of Mark and Luke that Matthew was also known as Levi. That name identifies Matthew as a man belonging to the family clan assigned to serve in temple ministry, a man who would have been well schooled in the Scriptures of Israel.

Yet when we are introduced to him in the gospels he is not in the temple. He is working at the most despised of professions, a tax collector for Herod and the Romans, and consorting with sinners. How had he fallen? Why?

Perhaps Matthew’s personal experience of the “religion” of Israel is the answer.
Matthew would have grown up in a family intimately associated with religion. He would have personally seen the corruption and political compromise and deadness (the very things that Jesus confronted and that Matthew reported at length in the gospel). If he had been a young man serious about God, dead religion up close and personal must have been a terribly disturbing disappointment. Like many young people today who become disillusioned by the emptiness of the religion they see in churches, the only option seemed to be to walk away from it all. He didn’t end up pouring drinks in a sleazy back street bar, but his job as tax collector and partier with sinners was not much different. It was as far away from the religion of his youth as he could get. Yet there smoldered in Matthew a hope. It was a passion that is evident in his frequent references to the prophet Isaiah.

Isaiah, more than any other prophet, weeps in pain at the moral and spiritual decline of Israel. Yet this same Isaiah deeply hopes in the promised Messiah - whose portrait he so wonderfully drew in the powerful 53rd chapter of his message. For Isaiah, the Messiah is the Servant of God who would take away the sin of his people. Isaiah pictured these people as an “afflicted city” ( Isaiah 54:11), a people who were waiting in “darkness” (Isaiah 61:1). And that was Matthew. He was a pile of kindling waiting for a flame. Jesus was that flame.
Jesus came preaching that the kingdom of God was here. It was now. And Jesus demonstrated it with the power of his words and his acts. The Messiah Isaiah had spoken of had come, and Matthew had become convinced deep down and without question that Jesus was the hope of Israel. This man was Messiah! It must have sent a chill down his back when Matthew first came to that realization.

Matthew’s passionate surrender to the one he knew to be Messiah left him forever humbled. It is telling that Matthew alone uses the name Matthew and not the name Levi when he tells of his own calling to follow Jesus. The other two gospel writers call him Levi. But the name Levi carried far more status than Matthew wished now to bear. Forever after he would call himself simply a man named Matthew.

It is also telling that in the list of the twelve disciples included in all three gospels, Matthew alone would add to his name, “the tax collector.” (He might as well have written Matthew the sinner, for that is what he meant.) Yes, Matthew’s encounter with Messiah left him deeply and profoundly humbled, but it also left him with a burden.

Matthew’s passionate surrender to Messiah would turn him to his people with the message of the Servant Savior. He saw his people as the people described by Isaiah:

Like the blind we grope along the wall, feeling our way like people without eyes. At midday we stumble as if it were twilight; among the strong, we are like the dead” ( Isaiah59:10).
Upon them the light had now dawned. And with the burden of a prophet, Matthew would spend the rest of his life speaking the message of Messiah Jesus, the Light. He would bear that burden to his people in Judea and then across western Asia. Out of that passion flowed the words of the book we know as the Gospel of Matthew.