Monday, March 20, 2017

Jesus Is the Proof

No one in the ancient world had to prove that God existed. Virtually everyone believed in the gods. The few people we know of who were skeptical were the philosophers of Greece. The average Joe simply assumed not only the existence of the gods but the involvement of the gods in the lives of men. But solid evidence? That was another thing.

   Well, not for the Jews. They not only believed in God but their whole history seemed to them to be proof for the particular God whose name was Yahweh. Solid evidence was everywhere from the stars to the miracles God had done for them to their very existence.

   But empirical evidence? Had they personally seen God or touched him? Had they ever talked with God as a man talks with a man? Well, no. Maybe some special men in the distant past. But they themselves? No. But they didn't expect to. That sort of thing was unimaginable. No. God is in heaven.

   Until Jesus appeared along the shores of Galilee.

   Writing from a distance of sixty years John the Apostle writes about Jesus:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. (1 John 1:1,2)
   Yes. In Jesus God became visible and touchable. And John saw him and touched him. And had the incredible experience of having a three year conversation with him.

   What made John so sure Jesus was God in the flesh?

   John was a Jew. All of the disciples were Jews. They were believers in God. But they were absolute skeptics when it came to God showing up as a man. It was an idea that could not and would not be entertained. It was perhaps the greatest sin. No.

   Yet after three years with Jesus, John and all of his disciple companions were convinced that God had come down to them in the person of this man. Here's what happened.

   They heard Jesus speak. And Jesus spoke with wisdom and perception that no man they knew could have or could possibly have. He knew Andrew had been sitting under a fig tree before Phillip found him and told him about Jesus, and he knew Andrew's heart (John 1:44-49). And Jesus kept doing that.

   In John 4, Jesus knew that the Samaritan woman has had five husbands and was living with a man who was not her husband (4:16-26).  It was a shock to her that this stranger could know her life. Who does that?It was enough to convince her that Jesus was the Messiah.

   Time and again Jesus knew the secret thoughts of the hearts of those he met. And he spoke directly to that issue, even when it had not been spoken (Luke 7:36-50). He knew what was really in the heart of the rich young ruler who had come to him to ask about eternal life. He even knew where the fish were when lifelong fishermen did not. Who can do that? It was enough to convince Peter (Luke 5:1-11).

   And Jesus spoke with authority. When he spoke, people were healed. When he spoke, the storm was quieted. When he spoke, demons fled. When he spoke of God, people knew that he spoke truth because he spoke to them more deeply that anyone ever had. He spoke with more than wisdom; others had done that. He spoke to the heart of men.

   Not only were his words and wisdom convincing, his power was beyond anything ever seen or heard. He healed diseases. He made the blind see and the lame walk.  He multiplied the bread. He walked on the water. He quieted the storm. He raised the dead. And all he did was in line with what the disciples understood of God. These were not tricks meant to draw attention and wow people. He had no coin hidden up his sleeve. He was not a magician. He was not a sorcerer who conjured up ghosts. He did not tell fortunes. This was not spectacle. Everything he did fit the picture the prophets had painted of the Messiah.

   This is what Jesus said to John the Baptist when he sent his disciples to ask if Jesus were actually the Messiah:

Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see:  The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.  Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me” (Matthew 11:4-6).

   These were the things Isaiah had spoken of:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

   And then there was the affirmation of God. The disciples had heard the voice from heaven - and were afraid, we might add. This they were convinced was God speaking and affirming that Jesus was his Son. They had seen Jesus transformed into a figure more glorious and incredible than they could imagine.This does not happen in "real" life. Unless God does it.

   But. They also saw Jesus die. And it was ugly - and as final as any death is. What then?

   That was the final punctuation mark on Jesus' life. It was not an exclamation mark; it was a period. How could the Messiah die? How could God die? It is not possible. The only conclusion they could come to was that they were mistaken. The two men whom Jesus joined on their walk home to Emmaus after Jesus' death said as much: "The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel."

   The other disciples would have said the same, but they were hiding, afraid they would be next. Even the women who went to the grave expected to find a dead body.

   That was that.

   Had Jesus remained in the grave. That would have been the end of the story. Jesus might have been remembered for a while as a prophet and a good man. But the reality is that he left no written words by which to be remembered in history. The only thing we know that he wrote, he wrote in the dust, and the wind eventually blew it away.

   And what would his disciples have written, even if they could? "We had hoped." That is all.

   Better to go fishing.

   But God didn't let it rest at that. He raised Jesus from the grave, alive with a resurrection body, immortal, never to die again.

   Now, if you have trouble believing that, you have company. The disciples did not believe it either. They thought him a ghost. After all, he could appear in a locked room. He could disappear while they talked with him. Yet he had substance. He lit a fire. He ate with them. They touched him. They had conversations with him. He had flesh and bones, as he said.

   What were they to make of this? What do we make of this? It was stranger than anything they had seen yet. But hadn't Jesus told them to expect his return to them alive? Yes. A lot of times. But who believes that?

    Well, the disciples now did. They might as well deny the noses on their faces as to deny that Jesus stood before than as much a physical man as he had ever been. But more.

   Then it dawned on them. What Jesus had told them before his death made perfect sense. Philip had asked, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us," and Jesus answered, “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father."

   Yes. They had seen God. And now they were sure without a shadow of a doubt. God had affirmed in the most dramatic way possible that Jesus was his Son. That absolute certainty carried them to the end of their lives.

   And for us? The fact of Jesus is sufficient to not only prove to us that God IS but that God came down to us in Jesus. He was seen and touched. His words were heard. His words were the words of God. His touch was the touch of God. He did everything necessary to demonstrate for us in real time and space that he is God the Son. If you want empirical proof, there it is.

   The only question is what will you do with him.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Prove To Me There Is a God

The most often repeated challenges to faith is this: prove to me there is a God. Almost always it is a challenge thrown in the faces of believers because the skeptic doesn't think it is answerable. But that is wrong. It is easily answered. 

   The first, the universe is finely tuned so that it permits life like ourselves to exist AND that our particular place in the universe is especially finely tuned for life like ourselves - that is large bodied and intelligent. Various scientists have pointed to as many as 200 conditions that are/were required for life to develop on this planet. Fine Tuning and God

   Are those measurable?

   Yes. Can they be falsified or can the conclusion drawn from that evidence be falsified? Yes. Simply show me a place with large bodied intelligent life that doesn't meet those conditions and the premise that it requires such fine-tuning is falsified. Or show me a place that meets those conditions that does not have large bodied intelligent life and the premise is falsified.  

   BTW If that premise were not falsifiable, then all the efforts to falsify it seem pointless.  

   The inference is that the conjunction of those conditions is improbable naturally. That can also be falsified by showing that there are many such places in the universe.  

   The inference is that highly improbable conditions suggest the need for those conditions to be purposeful, thus an intelligence behind them.  

   Second, there is the evidence of the book. The Bible is made up of 66 pieces written by dozens of different authors over a period of 1000 years or more. There was no collusion among them. None understood they were writing a single story. Yet it is a single story. And it is a story that meets all the criteria of a narrative with beginning middle and end (a single plot) and the usual plot development that we have come to see as common in literature throughout the millennia in which people have written or told stories.  The Book

   The inference is that a single story with those characteristics is highly improbable unless there is a divine author.

   Is that falsifiable? Yes. shown that this kind of story structure is unique in literature. Show that the was collusion among the authors. Show that there are other stories with the same parameters.  

   Third, there is the evidence of the nation Israel. The book mentioned above is in large part the story of Israel. In that story The divine author makes numerous promises to Israel, promises that stretch out over 1000 years and more. One of those is that Israel will never disappear from history until God brings history to a close. There may be times of discipline when the nation is exiled from the land. But the Hebrew people will not be absorbed into the other nations and lose their identity, and every exile will end with the people back in the land assigned to them by God.  A Chosen People

   The inference is that because this is unique in human history and so very improbable  if  were to happen some divine entity must be involved. Is that falsifiable? Yes. Over the 4000 years during which Israel has existed, all of the predictions and promises have proven accurate. If they had not, that would falsify the premise that there is divine purpose evidenced in the history of Israel.

    BTW If that premise is not falsifiable, then all the efforts to show that it is false seem pointless.  

   Fourth, there is the evidence of the foreshadowing (prophecies) made in the book. Not all the prophecies are easily tested, but some are. I've recommended the prophecy in Daniel 9:20-27 as one of those. The Date of Jesus' Death Foretold

   The inference is that it is highly improbable that anyone could predict the future in detail and with measurable specifics. Only God can do that.

   Is that premise falsifiiable? Yes. Show that the prophecies fail. Or show that anyone can make such prophecies. Obviously, that premise is tested by skeptics.

   But if this was not a valid test for the existence of God, such challenges would make no sense.  

    Fifth, there is the evidence of Jesus. Jesus and those writing about him in the book make the claim that he was/is God.  Jesus Is Proof

   The inference is that Jesus did things that would be highly improbable for a person to do who was not God. Is that falsifiable? Yes. Show that Jesus did not do those things. Show that those things can be done by anyone. Show that the claims were not made by Jesus.  

   The strong attempts to refute those claims or the facts presented demonstrate that many here think that the claims are falsifiable.  

   Bottom line. When multiple lines of evidence converge on one conclusion and survive the attempts to falsify them, the inference is strong that there is a God.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Matthew's Magnificent Gospel, Pt. 2

Who has not heard of the Lord's prayer? Almost no one. It has been at the heart of church gatherings since the first century. In fact it is quoted in full from chapter 5 of Matthew's Gospel in the Didache, an early 2nd century manual for church and Christian practice. I quote the Didache  chapter 8 here:

And do not pray as the hypocrites, but as the Lord commanded in his Gospel, pray thus: "Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy Name, thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, as in Heaven so also upon earth; give us today our daily bread, and forgive us our debt as we forgive our debtors, and lead us not into trial, but deliver us from the Evil One, for thine is the power and the glory for ever."

   It is not the Lord's prayer alone, however, that is quoted from Matthew and memorable for
Christians for 20 centuries. Think of the Beatitudes - "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" -  and the instructions regarding fasting and giving and the warning about attachment to things. All these are found in a dearly loved section of Matthew called the Sermon on the Mount.

Pithy and Personal
   What makes the sermon, I think, so well loved and so memorable and quotable is the sound of Jesus' voice in the words and his heart in the message. His words are pithy and personal. It sounds like he is talking directly to us. Over and over again he uses you: "You are the salt of the earth. You have heard it said. When you give. When you pray. You cannot serve both God and money."

   But there is something more about Jesus' words; they are penetrating. Who does not find himself guilty of judging others when Jesus says, "“Do not judge, or you too will be judged." Or "love your enemies." Or when we are struck, "turn to them the other cheek also." Or "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth."

   In fact, Jesus' words are so penetrating that we cannot rush over them and move on. We are compelled to return again and again. It is like coming in from a walk on a blustery March day and catching sight of ourselves in  a mirror with our hair blown and our clothes all disheveled by the wind; we are aghast, and we cannot put what we see out of our mind. We find ourselves humbled before the Lord, and his words "be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect" prick our hearts. But do they make a difference?

   A blogger recently remarked in a conversation with me about Matthew's Gospel and in particular this sermon, what difference does it make if these are Jesus' words quoted accurately by Matthew when Christians disregard much of what Jesus says. And he was right . . . and wrong at the same time.

   Christians are pricked by Jesus' words. We fall short of the standard of perfection we see in the Father. My blogger friend was right. But we do not disregard Jesus' words, for there is this hope: forgiveness.

   Here I return to the prayer: "forgive us our debt ." Those words and the promise implied in them allow us to stand on our feet again and look forward to what we can be and will be by God's grace. It was this in Jesus' words that drew crowds. And continues to draw crowds. Hope and grace.

   An old slave trader some years ago who turned to Christ for forgiveness said, “I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am.” (John Newton) Jesus words do not condemn us; they challenge us to step into the grace of God that enables us to move higher.

   That is why Christians return again and again to these words of Jesus preserved for us by Matthew; they speak hope. They point us upward with the anticipation that if they are not perfectly lived today they will be more truly tomorrow and perfectly in the kingdom of heaven to come. They are powerful words. They do not condemn. They change us.


Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Matthew's Magnificent Gospel.

The Gospel of Matthew was the centerpiece of the early church. It was the first Gospel written according to several early post-Apostolic writers and the most often quoted during the first 200 years of the church. And rightly so, for it is not only magnificently written but it is the bridge between the Old Testament and the New.

     William Barclay writes, “When we turn to Matthew, we turn to the book which may well be called the most important single document of the Christian faith, for in it we have the fullest and the most systematic account of the life and the teachings of Jesus”

     But it is not above its modern critics.

     Among the most often heard critiques is that it was not written by the Apostle Matthew but rather by an unknown author some time in the late 1st century. That would remove it from the likelihood that it was an eyewitness  account. At best it would be legend, at worst fiction.

John Loftus' critique of the Gospel of Matthew summarizes the complaints against the Gospel then engages the critique at the point of sources the author used:

he [Matthew] employs secondary sources (Mark & Q), themselves patchworks of well-worn fragments.

Loftus, John W.. Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity (Revised & Expanded) (p. 312). Prometheus Books. Kindle Edition.
     And I as well as almost every Bible scholar would agree. Yes. Matthew used quotes from other sources. He could not have been there when the events of the first few chapters took place. But everyone recognizes that. He also uses quotes from some other source for all the sayings and deeds of Jesus. But let's consider that.

     The quotes in Matthew have every mark of being rather literal translations from a Hebrew original. They retain the Hebrew word order, and they are filled with Hebrew idioms while nowhere else in the book are Hebrew idioms found.  The quotes are also used heavily by Mark and Luke.  There are also some quotes that are Hebrew translations shared with Luke and not Mark. Scholars identify those by Q, which stands for Source. But there are many places in Matthew where the  quotes are unique to Matthew. Chapter 23, for example, has no counterpart in any of the other Gospels. Much of the famous Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 is found in no other Gospel.

     That is ample evidence there was an earlier source. But it is not likely Mark. Much of Mark, of course, is shared with Matthew. And Mark also is quoting an earlier source just as is Matthew because his quotes are also heavy with Hebrew idioms. But the early Christian writers are clear that Matthew was first and that Mark wrote later relying on Peter's memories. They did not copy from one another.  The best solution to the puzzle is that Matthew and Mark were quoting a common oral source. We could call that Q if we like.

     If it was an oral source, it was a well known oral source since it is quoted in all three synoptics (the first three Gospels) and it had a form, a chronology,  that is retained in those Gospels. These were not random quotes. The source of those oral sayings and deeds of Jesus is most likely the Apostles themselves. Who else would put together an orderly record of the sayings of Jesus?

     In Acts 2 we are told that the Apostles almost immediately began to teach the new converts about Jesus. And who could possibly know the story and the words of Jesus better than they themselves? It is reasonable that this teaching was organized and memorized so that it could be spoken to others faithfully as the church expanded beyond Jerusalem.

     Now, Peter was one of the Apostles, and Peter was with Jesus almost the entire time of his teaching ministry. He was among the Apostles in Jerusalem as they taught the new converts. He would have known the story of Jesus well. It is his memories that Mark is said by early second century writer Papias to have recorded in an orderly fashion in his Gospel. But Peter's recollections of Jesus would have been much like those of the other Apostles.

     Matthew, we know, was also a disciple. He is mentioned in all three Gospels. Would his recollections not have been very similar?

     But they were not exactly the same. There are variations - which argue for oral transmission rather than written transmission. In one place Matthew's account is significantly different. He inserts the name Matthew where Mark and Luke use Levi.  Why would he change the name?  It may be because Matthew wrote the Gospel and was, therefore, writing about himself.  Matthew also makes a point of confessing that he was the tax collector giving the party in the passage that follows his calling. He also refers to himself as the tax collector in the list of the twelve disciples. Mark and Luke do not make that reference. Matthew's reference seems like a personal disclosure, and one another writer might not make writing about a respected Apostle since tax collector was a disreputable profession. 

     There is another reason for Matthew not using the name Levi. The name Levi carried some weight. It indicated that Levi (Matthew) belonged to the tribe of Levi, the priesthood tribe. If so that would imply that he was likely well educated in the Hebrew Scriptures, and that is certainly the case with the author of Matthew. No other writer makes as many references to the Hebrew Scriptures as Matthew. It is also evident that the author of Matthew was well versed in Rabbinical interpretation of the scriptures. He uses an interpretive style common among the rabbis, including a teaching method called a remez.[1] But if Matthew was a Levite with the education and religious heritage of a Levite, what is he doing collecting taxes? That is about as low as you could go in Judean society. And it was rarely a profession at which an educated man would be found.

     The answer may be that Matthew was a disaffected Levite. Having seen the religion up close and personal, he was as disgusted with it as Jesus. (It is also why Matthew includes chapter 23. He is letting Jesus say what he thought about the religious leaders of his day.)  But rather than confront it as Jesus did, he ran away from it. And why not? The religious scene was a sham. Collecting taxes was at least lucrative. And it provided fellowship with people just as much on the margins of society as Matthew felt himself to be.

     But there was still a spark of faith in him. It would not be a surprise then when Jesus came along preaching the restoration of the Hebrew faith that Matthew would be attracted.When Jesus called, he followed.

     If the author is Matthew the Apostle he would have known the story of Jesus as well as Peter and the other Apostles.  He was one of them. It was his story. And that is why what seem like third person accounts could also have been his own eyewitness memories. But there is another reason as well for the author using the third person instead of the first person.

     The whole point of all three of the Gospels is Jesus. None of the writers identify themselves, even Luke. Mark doesn't even credit the record of Jesus to Peter, though there are hints in Mark that it is told from Peter's memories. All the Gospel writers choose to focus upon Jesus rather than themselves. It is not surprising  then that Matthew didn't include first person memories.

     All these features point to Matthew as the author and accord well with what the early church understood. 

     However, there is another feature that Lotfus does not mention. That is the quality of the Greek. Some scholars argue that a tax collector in a podunk back water region like Galilee would not have known Greek and certainly could not have written in the excellent and educated Greek evident in the Gospel.

     But Matthew was not the typical tax collector. And Galilee was not as backward as some scholars think. It was a multi-enthnic area. It was a crossroads of cultures.  People spoke Greek and Aramaic and likely other languages. Far from being a surprise that a tax collector in Galilee would know Greek, it would seem almost a prerequisite.

     But excellent Greek? Well, just look at Paul. He was a Jew and spoke Hebrew/Aramaic among his people. He was educated as a Pharisee and knew the Hebrew Scriptures well.  But he knew Greek just as well, and spoke and wrote it as a native speaker. Could that not have been the case with Matthew?

     Then there was the case of the author of Hebrews. His Greek was if anything better, equal to Luke's who was an educated native Greek speaker. And he was also a Jew well versed in the Hebrew Scriptures. And there were others. Philo was a Jew from Alexandria who wrote excellent Greek. Josephus knew Hebrew/Aramaic and yet wrote Greek very well.

     Being bi-lingual when both languages are learned from birth results in the ability to be fluent in both languages as if they were - as they are in that case - the native language. At the most, we can derive from Matthew's language that he was a educated native speaker of Greek and also a well versed student of the Hebrew Scriptures. We need not conclude that he could not be a tax collector or one of the disciples.

     Certainly the Apostle Matthew meets every qualification to be the writer of the Gospel. But there are two more things. Papias early in the second century identifies Matthew the Apostle as the author of the first Gospel, and he mentions Matthew wrote first in Hebrew. That fits the Gospel of Matthew very well. No other Gospel was directed as specifically toward the Jews as Matthew's. The text we have is in Greek, it is true. But Matthew among all the Apostles was uniquely able to write his Gospel also in Greek, not as a translation but as a native speaker. And so he did.

     Finally, there is the place the Gospel was accorded in the early church. It is not only listed first but is the most often quoted, and most notably in the Didache, a book of instruction for worship in the early church, a book of instructions from the Apostles.

     That seals the deal for me. Matthew is the author; he is the only author the early church knew for the Gospel. And the Gospel is an eyewitness account. Today that makes it most valuable to the church as the confessing church meets the challenges of the New Biblical Scholars and skeptics.


Friday, March 3, 2017

Who Wrote the Bible, Pt. 2 The Torah

Loftus in his book Why I Became an Atheist brings us finally to the denouement of the story of the Torah. He proposes, along with many of the New Biblical Scholars, that the Torah and other books having to do with Israel's early history were written as some say much later in the history of Israel, around the time of the Babylonian Exile, either shortly before or shortly after. In doing so these scholars must write a new history, a metanarrative, to explain the features they have identified as problems for the traditional understanding of the writing of the Old Testament.

     But any history narrative, the biblical narrative or the new metanarrative,  stands or falls not merely on a scenario or the analysis of the text - texts can be added to or edited over the years as we've seen with Genesis -  but on the brute facts of primary sources and artifacts. And for this new story there are none.
Tel Arad. Credit Abraham Wikimedia Commons

     But new facts surface regularly. For example, recent finds of ostracons in the area of Arad in southern Israel provide evidence that literacy was high in the period before the Babylonian Exile.
We found indirect evidence of the existence of an educational infrastructure, which could have enabled the composition of biblical texts," said Piasetzky. "Literacy existed at all levels of the administrative, military and priestly systems of Judah. Reading and writing were not limited to a tiny elite.     Arad
Archaeologist Israel Finkelstein adds
Following the fall of Judah, there was a large gap in production of Hebrew inscriptions until the second century BCE, the next period with evidence for widespread literacy. This reduces the odds for a compilation of substantial Biblical literature in Jerusalem between ca. 586 and 200 BCE.         Finkelstein
     It is at that point the metanarrative of the New Biblical Scholars falls apart. There simply are no brute facts to support the new metanarrative of the creation of early biblical texts after the Exile. None. In fact, the brute facts imply the metanarrative is unlikely. So what about just before the Exile?

     Let's take just one example that Loftus puts forward to demonstrate that the Torah, meaning specifically Exodus and Leviticus, were perhaps written in the time of Josiah King of Judah, perhaps by Jeremiah, circa 620 B.C. He quotes from Jeremiah, a contemporary of Josiah:
This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Go ahead, add your burnt offerings to your other sacrifices and eat the meat yourselves! For when I brought your ancestors out of Egypt and spoke to them, I did not just give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices, but I gave them this command: Obey me, and I will be your God and you will be my people. Walk in obedience to all I command you, that it may go well with you. (Jeremiah 7:22-23)
     Loftus claims that Jeremiah is admitting that the law having to do with sacrifices and ritual was not what God commanded when God brought Israel out of Egypt. Never mind that Loftus and the New Biblical Scholars do not believe that Israel came out of Egypt in an exodus. Never mind that they do not really believe in an actual Moses. It would be ironic enough to propose a solution built entirely on what they consider a fictitious narrative, but what I find particularly ironic in this piece of the metanarrative is that Jeremiah is standing in the one place where brute facts are undeniable, within eye shot of the temple.

     Now, the temple stood only - and I emphasize ONLY - because there was an Exodus and a Leviticus. It is in those books that the tabernacle, the forerunner of the temple, is described and constructed. It is in those books where all the implements of the tabernacle and temple are described and created. It is in those books where the sacrifices are commanded. It is in those books where the priesthood is commissioned. Suffice to say, without Exodus and Leviticus there is no temple. That is a pretty brutal fact that the metanarrative does not and cannot explain without claiming that virtually everything - ironically including Josiah himself - is a fiction. Everything.

     At that point the new biblical scholars should either go home or transfer to the literature department because they can only be creating a fictional story and not history. Given the massive numbers of brute facts for the Israelites in Canaan and for elements of the biblical narrative - not the least of which is the site of Arad which Finkelstein was digging - it is simply foolish to prefer a metanarrative over the biblical narrative. It is worse than foolish. It is a denial of the standards of doing history.

     Now, I am not saying that the New Biblical Scholars' work is without value. The observations they have made about the text should not be dismissed out of hand. I like Finkelstein. He writes lucidly and is open to new facts and ideas. I am simply saying that the conclusions they come to are without support. And I am saying that none of this should shake the faith of knowledgeable Christians. If anything, the brute facts of which we are reminded should strengthen our confidence in the biblical narrative.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Who Wrote the Bible, Pt. 1 Genesis

John Loftus begins a final section in his book Why I Became an Atheist with this coup de grĂ¢ce: Jesus attested  that Moses was the author of the first five books, but  subsequent analysis proves Moses could not have written the first book and did not. Jesus was wrong.

     That should seal the deal. Not only is the traditional understanding about the authorship of the
Torah wrong, but Jesus was wrong. Jesus was dead wrong.

     I encountered something like this charge while in college 45 years ago. It was a shock to my faith. And it seems to have been a shock to the faith of many who now consider themselves atheists, perhaps John Loftus is included. If the Bible cannot be trusted, if Jesus cannot be trusted, what is left?

     I recovered. I thought it through. I did the research. And I was satisfied then that the Bible could be trusted. Jesus could be trusted. My faith was strengthened. But in the intervening years the attacks on the historicity of the Bible and upon Jesus have gotten more sophisticated. More scholars from the mainstream academic world have joined the ranks, names like Bart Ehrman and Hector Avalos and John Crossan. They hold professorships in well known universities. And they are trusted to speak for mainstream Christianity on national news programs. Their critiques have gotten louder and more public. So I thought it through again. My conclusion is that their argument that the Bible could not be trusted to be accurate historically - and therefore, could not be God inspired - has gotten more complex, but it has not gotten stronger. So let's look at the case against the Torah.

     Loftus has done us the favor of summarizing most of the key points of the New Biblical Scholars' arguments. I'll examine them point by point in what follows.

     I begin with the charge that Jesus affirmed that the first five books of the Hebrew Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy were written by Moses. Is that true? A closer examination of the verses quoted by Loftus to demonstrate that Jesus referred to the five books of the Torah as written by Moses reveals that Jesus actually only referred to Exodus and Leviticus. Check them out: Matt. 8: 4; 19: 6– 8; 22: 24; Mark 1: 44; 7: 10; 10: 3– 4; 12: 19; 26; Luke 2: 22; 5: 14; 16:29-31; and 24:44. But the tradition, even in Jesus' day, was that the Torah was given by Moses. Did Jesus mean all the books by reference to Moses as the author of several of them? Clearly the Jews did hold to the tradition that Moses wrote the all five books. But does it matter?

     The Torah is about Moses. From Exodus through Deuteronomy the Torah is the story of his life. Genesis provides the background necessary to understand that story. They are the books of Moses in at least the sense that they are the story of Moses' life.

     But they are more than that, and certainly the Jews regarded them so. They are the message of God through Moses' that established the nation of Israel. They speak God's words to his people. But if  parts of the books were written by others, if a later editor or translator or compiler added explanatory information would that be an argument against the authority of the books? The answer is no. The integrity of the books is not damaged by explanatory or editorial comments. So what follows here from Loftus and the New Biblical Scholars he quotes may argue against the tradition. But it is not an indictment of the Bible.

     For some Christians, however, even the idea that the books of Moses may not all have been written 100% by the hand Moses or that Genesis, in particular, was not dictated by God to Moses is troubling. That is our tradition: They were written by Moses, and that's that. It is what we have been taught from Sunday school on. But the reality is that some parts were obviously not written by Moses. Even the untrained reader can identify some of those places. Simply read Deuteronomy  where Moses' death is recorded. That part could not logically have been written by Moses. A later editor must have inserted at least that part. Genesis 36 could not have been written by Moses for the same reason; it records events that happened after his death.

     What if a later editor added those explanatory comments? Would that destroy the value or the inspiration of the books? What is important is not the authorship. What is important is the authority of the books. That I will defend.

     That defense might seem easy if a few editorial comments are all there are. But the situation is more complicated than simply an editor wrapping up the story - as Loftus points out. So let me take each of the observations Loftus makes, particularly those relative to Genesis, and the conclusions he draws one by one.

     Anachronisms. An anachronism is something that is out of place in time. A reference to something that happened long after the events recorded in the story would be an anachronism. Loftus points out a number of places where people and places are mentioned in the books of Genesis (and Deuteronomy) that could only be known long after the time of Moses.  And he is right. One example is in Genesis 36 where a list the descendants of Esau includes kings who lived long after Moses. Moses could not have written this chapter.

     But almost all biblical scholars notice that anachronism. My Hebrew professor called our attention to it in seminary. Clearly chapter 36 is an insertion by a later editor to make sense out of the family of Esau. Chapter 36 answers the question about what happened to Esau and his family after he and Jacob buried their father Isaac (Genesis 35:29)  Since many of these men in Esau's line show up later in the biblical narrative, seeing their connection to Esau seemed important to the editor who also lived later. (BTW this insertion also can be used to identify the approximate time when the insertion was added. It was added during the time of the kings of Israel.) The interruption of chapter 36 in the narrative of Genesis does not undermine the authority of the book. 

     But the problems with anachronisms do not end there. As Israel Finkelstein writes: "the biblical text was filled with literary asides, explaining the ancient names of certain places." The Bible Unearthed. 
The land/city of Dan, for example,  is mentioned in Genesis 14:14. Yet Dan, a son of Jacob, had not even been born yet and the land of Dan would not become known as Dan until the Danites settled there in the time of the judges many hundreds of years after their mention in the narrative of Abraham. Does the reference to Dan demand that the whole book of Genesis be written after the time of the judges? No. It is simply an editorial insertion for the sake of the readers who in the editor's time did not know that place in northern Israel as Laish.

     All of this assumes, almost requires, that we understand the book of Genesis to have been redacted (texts from several sources combined in one document)  by an editor at a date later than Moses. That may disturb some Christians who haven't thought about it before. But it should not disturb those who understand that the books of the Bible have a history. They have been copied and edited  and even redacted. But the integrity and  authority of the book is not undermined by that reality.They have not been distorted by editing.

     I go on. The problem of the name Yahweh in Genesis prior to the moment in Exodus 6 where God identifies himself to Moses as Yahweh is for John Loftus  a serious contradiction. God specifically says to Moses that he had not revealed himself to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as Yahweh. Could the same author have written both Genesis and Exodus? Could Exodus possibly be accurate and inspired when God is caught in the contradiction? I smile.

     There is an old joke based on the same twist of words Loftus uses. It goes this way. A man to his friend: "Have you stopped beating your wife yet?" Both a yes or a no implies that the premise of the joke is true; I have been beating my wife. But everyone sees through that and laughs. 

    In this case Loftus implies the premise that there is a contradiction. But there is not. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob did not know God by the name of Yahweh. So how is it that the name Yahweh shows up so prominently in Genesis?  It was added in place of an older name. It seems to me that editing in the name Yahweh by a later editor is by far the simplest explanation and the one to be preferred in lieu of other evidence.

     In what is an early story in Genesis 14 when Melchizedek came to Abraham to bless him, he and Abraham both refer to God as El Elyon, the Creator of heaven and earth. Since by every other measure chapter 14 is a very old story and accurate to the place and time of about 2000 B.C. we might assume that the name for God, El Elyon, is also accurate to the place and time. El Elyon is the name by which both Abraham and Melchizedek knew God.

     There is, however, one reference to Yahweh in the pericope. It is in verse 22. Here God Abraham names God "Yahweh, El Elyon, the Creator of heaven and earth." Why not simply El Elyon? The most probable explanation is that later readers who knew the God of Israel as Yahweh and not El Elyon would better understand that the God Abraham knew was the same as Yahweh.

     That same conclusion may be drawn from the book of Job. The central poem of the book is perhaps the oldest piece of biblical literature. The geography and customs and archaic words used in the poem reveal, in a close examination of the poem, a time of about the same time Abraham lived and a place not too far from the land where Abraham came from, Ur in Mesopotamia. In Job the name for God is consistently Shadday (Almighty) and Eloah (God). (The only use of Yahweh comes in the sections at the beginning and end, sections that were added to the poem later, and in 12:9.)

     It is clear in  the poem that Job is referring, as Melchizedek did, to the Creator of heaven and earth, yet he did not know the Creator by the name Yahweh. He knew him as El Ekoah and El Shadday (which is how Moses knew God in Exodus 6 prior to God revealing his personal name). So it appears that in the oldest texts the name Yahweh was not known. But how then is it that we find Yahweh so consistently used in Genesis? The answer again is that a later editor inserted the name for the sake of the readers in his day who knew God as Yahweh. That is not so hard.

     However, we need not conclude that the later editor is other than Moses himself. The events in Genesis happened before Moses' time. And it seems clear that many of the stories were stories passed down from the past and worked by the final writer (redacted) into the coherent narrative of Genesis. If so, why is it so difficult to see Moses inserting the name Yahweh into the stories in those places where a more ancient name had been used? Moses might have done that to avoid implying that there was more than one God. But there is really a more important reason.

     Yahweh is the personal name for God. It is the name by which he expresses his personal relationship to people. The other more general name for God is Elohim. It is by that name and by the similar names of El, El Elyon, El Shaddy, and Eloah that God is spoken of more impersonally as Creator or judge. It was by that name that the Canaanites knew God. That pattern is quite consistent throughout the Old Testament though not absolutely so.

     Camels are another anachronism often identified in Genesis.  In all there are twenty passages in which camels are mentioned. The earliest is in Genesis 12 where the text says Abraham had camels, among the many other livestock. That would have been about 2000 B.C. Critics have long contested the possibility that camels had been domesticated that early. Recent research by two archaeologist " Dr Erez Ben-Yosef and Dr Lidar Sapir-Hen of Tel Aviv University's Department of Archaeology and Near Eastern Cultures used radiocarbon dating to pinpoint the moment when domesticated camels arrived in the southern Levant. They found camels came in the 9th century B.C. Camels in the Levant

     But their conclusions ignored a mass of evidence that camels were in use in the Middle East including the Levant as early as the third millennium and earlier than any reference in Genesis. Biblical Archaeology Review  And there are pictures to prove it. So no anachronism here.

     Doublets. Finally, John points to the doublets. Doublets are stories found in Genesis that appear to be told twice, but from two sources. One perhaps from the memory of the northern kingdom of Israel the other from the memory of the southern kingdom Judah, or so Loftus argues. But Loftus is simply alluding to what the New Biblical Scholars have been saying for many years. Again Finkelstein summarizes the case:
Thus one set of stories consistently used the tetragrammaton — the four-letter name YHWH (assumed by most scholars to have been pronounced Yahweh) — in the course of its historical narration and seemed to be most interested in the tribe and territory of Judah in its various accounts. The other set of stories used the names Elohim or El for God and seemed particularly concerned with the tribes and territories in the north of the country — mainly Ephraim, Manasseh, and Benjamin. In time, it became clear that the doublets derived from two distinct sources, written in different times and different places. Scholars gave the name "J" to the Yahwist source (spelled Jahvist in German) and "E" to the Elohist source.

The distinctive uses of geographical terminology and religious symbols and the roles played by the various tribes in the two sources convinced scholars that the J text was written in Jerusalem and represented the perspective of the united monarchy or the kingdom of Judah, presumably at or soon after the time of King Solomon (C. 970-930 BCE). Likewise, the E text seemed to have been written in the north and represented the perspective of the kingdom of Israel, and would have been composed during the independent life of that kingdom (C. 930-720 BCE).

     One such story is the story of Abraham and Sarah in Egypt and the story of Abraham and Sarah in Gerar. In both Abraham presents Sarah as his sister in order to avoid being killed.

     But the stories are too dissimilar to be considered one story told from two sources.  They sound more like two different experiences. And I think that is the best solution to the puzzle. Of course, both explanations could be true; the stories each might have been collected from a different sources by the redactor of Genesis, though from the traditions of later Israel and Judah seems more of a stretch than necessary. But there is the additional feature, which Finkelstein points out.  Abraham in Gerar, refers to God as Elohim  and in the other of Abraham in Egypt as Yahweh. If that feature is put forth as evidence for a later story tradition, it assumes that the northern kingdom had abandoned using the name Yahweh. But there is no evidence for that. And Finkelstein provides none in his short summary of his book.

     If we look to the biblical history in Kings, in all the places where the northern kingdom is described in 1st and 2nd Kings - and there is virtually no textual history of the northern kingdom outside the Bible - there is no evidence that the name Elohim had replaced Yahweh. There had been syncretism with other religions, notably with Baal worship, but there seems to have also been a retention of Yahweh as God. Of course, this history is told from the point of view of the southern kingdom. But it remains that to presume that the name Elohim was used rather than Yahweh is one bridge too far. So some other explanation is needed. This one falls flat.

     A better explanation is that in Gerar the king knew God by the name Elohim, he was after all a Canaanite and that was the common name for God among the Canaanites.  The compiler Moses simply retained that name, perhaps to show that the king of Gerar was actually a believer in the one true God. And that seems clear in the story itself since Abimelech the king of Gerar has great respect for Elohim.

     In Egypt the Pharaoh did not know God at all and makes no reference to any god. In that case the compiler  Moses used the name Yahweh in the one occurrence in the pericope because that reference is to the God of Abraham. 

     A second and rather popular example of a doublet proposed by the New Biblical Scholars is the two creation stories of Genesis 1 and 2. A close reading of those chapters reveals, however, that they are not two creations stories at all. They are one story in two parts. Chapter one speaks about the creation of the heavens and the earth. It is concluded by a toldoth in Genesis 2:4. A toldoth is a stylistic device marking the end of a story and the beginning of another. It is translated "the generations of."  The "second story" does not reiterate the creation narrative of Genesis 1. It is a sequel. It goes on to speak of Adam and his line. They are two stories connected by the creation of man.

     Simply recognizing that there are two different stories and not doublets may not be a solution to every case where doublets are identified by the New Biblical Scholars. But this solution highlights the probability that there are more complex solutions than Loftus or Finkelstein allows.

     What these issues do not do is shake the conviction that Moses was the writer or compiler of the Genesis narrative. He clearly obtained the stories that make up the book by ordinary means rather than by divine dictation. There are too many examples of archaic origin and hints at a reworking of an older story to assume that. The Genesis narrative was also edited by a later editor some time after Moses, perhaps in the period of the kings. But the idea that the book was wholly written by a later compiler is not borne out in the text.

     What is also not shaken is the conviction that the book is authoritative. But what does that mean? At this point I defer to N.T. Wright.  "God’s authority vested in scripture is designed, as all God’s authority is designed, to liberate human beings and to judge and condemn evil and sin in the world in order to set people free to be fully human." N.T.Wright  

     In my simpler words, "authority" is  the power of the written word of God to connect us to God TRULY. The written word is not merely good advice. It is not merely inspirational. It is not simply a collection of doctrines or even truths. It is not a record of history. It has power. It is true. It touches the reader who will receive it on a level that brings conviction of sin and the confident hope that God pushes through my sin to speak and touch me and call me to him - just as he did with Adam. And Genesis does that powerfully.

     Genesis is, of course, part of a bigger narrative and therefore does not tell us everything. It does not, for example develop in detail how God reconnects us to himself. That is left for the New Testament to complete, though the foreshadowing of that completion is there in Genesis. Genesis, however, gives us a foretaste of that good news, what we call the gospel, in chapter three and illustrates the gospel again and again and again in the stories of people like Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph.

   Indeed, the book of Genesis, if we had it alone, would be enough to do all that the Bible is intended by God to do. It gives us hope in God's mercy. It is a magnificent testament to God. And it is difficult to imagine how any man could write such a book. Far from being flawed as the New Biblical Scholars imply, it is a treasure of incredible beauty. It is a jewel which, if we gaze into its depths, reflects back intimations of eternity.