Monthly Archives: December 2018

Assorted Best of 2018 Blog Posts

As a way of ending off the year, I thought I would highlight some of the year’s best Internet blog posts and stories, that offer thoughtful reflections that inform Christian faith and practice. This is meant to supplement a “Best of Summer 2018” Veracity posting, from a few months ago (a lot has happened this year in the world of theology!). Some posts are Bible “geeky,” some deal with contemporary challenges to the Gospel, some are on church history, and nearly all I had to say, “I need to come back to that one, and give it more thought!” Bearing all of that in mind, here is my list of the rest of the best blog posts and stories of 2018:


Earthrise: 50 Years Since Apollo 8

Fifty years ago today, three American astronauts read from the Book of Genesis, on Christmas Eve, as their space ship orbited the moon. The New York Times has produced two films, one short 5-minute film and one fantastic, longer 30-minute film, that remembers the iconic photo, that memorializes a stunning moment in human history.

The iconic “Earthrise” image taken by astronaut Bill Anders on Apollo 8 on Christmas Eve 1968. Friday marked the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 8 liftoff (William Anders, NASA)


When Did Joseph and Mary Go to Bethlehem for the Census?

Joseph and pregnant Mary at the census. But what if we got this picture wrong, and Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem for the census, when Jesus was 10 years old? (credit: Chora Church, Istanbul/Shutterstock)

 

If this proposal turns out to be correct, it would positively throw perhaps the best argument AGAINST the historical reliability of the Bible into the dumpster…. But to get the idea, you would have to completely rethink how Luke handles chronology. Veracity readers, get out your thinking caps!

One of the thorniest apologetic challenges is trying to fit Luke’s traditional dating for Jesus’ birth to Caesar’s census, during the time when Quirinius was governor, with Matthew’s version, which has Jesus born during the latter years of Herod. The big problem is the timing. Luke’s Quirinian census is typically dated to 6 A.D., largely due to Josephus’ historical record, whereas Matthew’s description of the death of Herod is somewhere around 4-1 B.C.

That is like at least a 7-10 year discrepancy. Whoops.

Skeptics of the Bible often point to this as proof that the Bible has errors in it, and therefore, the Bible can not be trusted for history.

Over the years, Christian apologists have put forward various explanations to account for this discrepancy. Perhaps we are talking about a different census, with Luke’s census happening a few years earlier, but that we simply have no secular or other record for it. Perhaps Josephus was wrong on his dating of events. While these proposals present some thoughtful possibilities, the critics often respond with, “Meh…. There go the Christians again, overreaching for an apologetic.”

But what if the traditional reading of Luke’s story has been misinterpreted? What if it is possible, that about 10 years after Jesus’ birth, after living a few years in Nazareth, the Holy Family returned back to Bethlehem for the census? What if the story about the census is a digression, purposefully inserted by Luke, temporarily jumping ahead in the chronological narrative, before returning back to the main story about Jesus’ birth?

I argue for a similar literary technique used by Luke in Acts, regarding the number of visits Paul makes to Jerusalem, that attempts to reconcile with Paul’s own story in Galatians. Studies by New Testament scholars, such as Michael Licona, author of Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?, argue that Luke uses such literary techniques more frequently than traditionally known, whether by evangelicals or skeptics!

In fact, Luke unambiguously does this very thing in Luke 3, by sandwiching verses 19-20, detailing John the Baptist’s future imprisonment, in the middle of the narrative regarding Jesus’ baptism. We know from Mark 1:9-11 that John the Baptist baptized Jesus, which must have happened prior to John’s imprisonment. Apparently, Luke is not afraid of reporting events in a non-chronological manner, to suit his own purposes, assuming that his readers would already know the exact historical chronology.

British bible teacher, Andrew Wilson, on the “Think” blog, pointed me to this new research done by David Armitage, and published in 2018, at the British evangelical think tank in Cambridge, Tyndale House. Armitage’s proposal has a number of exegetical and translation steps to make, but the more I think about it, Armitage’s idea is quite persuasive.

Jump on over to the Think blog to get the argument summary, but here below is Armitage’s proposed translation of Luke 1:80-2:7, that puts all of the pieces together. The chronological digression might be hard to pick out, so you may need to wait for the full explanation at the end of this post to get it straight. The main thing to look for is Luke 1:80 to 2:5, where the narrative jumps forward in time, following along the time period of John the Baptist’s upbringing, before resuming in verse 6, which chronologically follows after the narrative of where John the Baptist’s birth ends, described in Luke 1. It starts with the story of the young, John the Baptist, as he was growing up (notice how chapter headings, first introduced in our Bibles by, Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, in the 13th century, can be misleading):

1:80 The child [John the Baptist] grew and was strengthened in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel. 2:1 As it happens, it was during that time that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus to register all the Roman world 2 (this was the first registration, when Quirinius was governor of Syria), 3 and everyone went – each into their own town – to be registered. 4 Joseph also went up: out of Galilee, away from the town of Nazareth, into Judea, to David’s town (which is called Bethlehem) because he was from the house and family of David; 5 he went to be registered with Mary (she who was his betrothed when she was pregnant).

6 Now, it transpired that the days were completed for her to give birth when they were in that place, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in cloths and laid him in a feeding trough, because there was insufficient space for them in their lodging place.

Compare with the ESV translation, and see what you think:

80 And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.

2:1 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

The most troublesome verse for me is verse 5, as the ESV follows the standard interpretation, by describing the condition Mary was in, during the Quirinian census, that of being pregnant with Jesus. But Armitage argues that the Greek allows for a different translation, with a parenthetical comment, that simply reminds the reader of who Mary was, with no immediate time reference implied. This sets us up to read verse 6 as a transition, implicitly ten years prior, back to the main narrative, emphasizing the place of Jesus’ birth, Bethlehem, and not the timing. I am no Greek scholar, but this is very intriguing! Armitage paraphrases verse 5 like this:

Joseph went there to register with Mary – that same Mary, you will recall, who whilst betrothed to him was pregnant.

Objections to Armitage’s reconstruction might focus on the complex number of interpretive steps required. However, the whole solution is actually simpler, if we grant that Luke has a habit of sometimes jumping around chronologically in his narrative, for reasons clear to his original audience, that are not always intuitive to more contemporary readers. One big plus is that Armitage’s reconstruction adequately explains why Matthew’s account never mentions the Quirinian census; that is, Matthew never covers the events of Jesus’ life at age 10.

If Armitage’s proposal holds, and he admits that it is far from being certain, this is what he says his revised chronology looks like. It totally reframes one of the most well-known Bible stories, of all time, but it solves a particularly knotty, chronological problem:

  1. Towards the end of the reign of Herod the Great, Mary – who is from Nazareth – encounters an angel who foretells Jesus’ birth.
  2. Mary visits Elizabeth in the Judean hill country, then returns home.
  3. Although already found to be pregnant whilst betrothed, Mary marries Joseph – a man from Bethlehem – who initially takes Mary to his family home.
  4. Jesus is born in Bethlehem; because of space restrictions in their quarters, Mary and Joseph place the baby in a feeding trough in the main living area.
  5. The family subsequently relocate to Nazareth, establishing there a home of their own.
  6. Several years later, when Quirinius is governing Syria, an enrolment is announced, so Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem, because this remains the location of Joseph’s family home, and he needs to register in connection with property there.

Pretty cool, huh?

Additional Resources:

I wrote about the Quirinius question five years ago, but David Armitage’s new solution is by far, the most persuasive, in my view…. A couple of other twists to the birth narratives:  The traditional story of Jesus’ birth, as told in many Hollywood movies, tries to smash together the events recorded by Matthew and Luke, such that you have Luke’s shepherds together with Matthew’s wise men from the east, gathered around the newborn Jesus. It makes for a tidy story, until you start comparing Matthew and Luke together, a well-known difficulty for students of the Bible. Matthew has no shepherds, and Luke has no wise men! More than likely, the visit with Matthew’s “wise men,” or more specifically, “magi,” was a separate event, happening weeks, if not months, after Jesus’ birth. This places the trip to Egypt, as described in Matthew, at some undetermined time after the birth of Jesus, yet prior to the permanent settlement in Nazareth, an historical detail that Luke simply ignores. As another example, a growing consensus among Bible scholars has pretty much rejected the popular, traditional idea, of Joseph and a pregnant Mary going up and down the streets of Bethlehem, looking for a place to stay, only to be finally turned away at the “inn.” Contemporary scholarship makes the more modest claim that there was no available “guest room” for the family to stay in at relatives in Bethlehem, a correction made explicit in the NIV 2011 translation of Luke 2:7 (The ESV keeps the more traditional “inn,” but puts “guest room” in a footnote; see above, but according to New Testament scholar, Ian Paul, the evidence favors the “guest room” translation).

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Are the Christmas Stories in the Bible Fact or Fiction? (in 4 minutes)

While Christian believers prepare for Christmas, many today wonder if the whole thing was all made up. N.T. Wright responds to the skeptics’ question:


The Micah 5:2 Christmas Prophecy (…and How “King James Only” Apologetic Arguments Only Tell Part of the Story)

During the season of Advent, churches will read from the Gospels, directly referencing Old Testament prophecies, as being fulfilled at Christmas, with the coming of Jesus as Messiah. One of the most familiar prophecies is found in Micah 5:2, which is said to predict that the Messiah will come from Bethlehem, which is confirmed by Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, by Matthew (Matthew 2:1-6) and Luke (Luke 2:1-7). Such prophecies can stir up controversy, even among those who claim to be Christians, as I will point out.

10th century image of the “Massacre of Innocents” from Matthew 2:16-18. Why would Herod take the drastic action, of murdering young children from the town of Bethlehem? The Scriptures prophesied that a descendant of King David would arise from Bethlehem, posing a threat to Herod, but a quirky dispute promoted by King-James-Only advocates only confuses the matter.

Skeptics of the Christian faith will reject such predictive prophesies. For example, the well-known critic, Bart Ehrman, focuses on the problems of Jesus’ birthplace, contending that it was really Nazareth and not Bethlehem, where Jesus was born. Erhman claims that the Gospel writers invented the Bethlehem birth story to make it all fit within Micah’s prophecy. This objection has been answered elsewhere (here by apologist Tim McGrew). But there is actually another problem, brought on by misguided thinking propagated by King-James-Only advocates, that only complicates things unnecessarily.

Let me first set the record straight: I do love the King James Version (KJV). Some of my friends simply prefer the KJV, and I can appreciate why. In several ways, modern translations have yet to improve upon the old trusty KJV. However, I also believe that other, more modern translations can help us to better understand God’s Word, expanding upon what the KJV gives us.

“King-James-Only” advocates, on the other hand, believe that only the KJV translation can be trusted, and that all modern Bible translations are the works of the Devil. I read a great book this past summer, Mark Ward’s Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible, that I reviewed, that gently shows why some over-enthusiastic fans of the KJV can go completely overboard. Sadly, such King-James-Only folks can ironically raise unnecessary doubts in the minds of some Christians, as to the Bible’s trustworthiness, particularly among those who are new to the faith, regardless of which translation someone uses.

Here is a sample of the rhetoric from YouTube sensation, Steven Anderson, who cites the NIV (New International Verision) translation as denying the pre-existence of Jesus. For Anderson, the very Bibles most Christians use today actually undercut the doctrine of the Incarnation, that Jesus as God experienced a human birth in Bethlehem :

You can pretty much substitute “NIV” with just about any other modern English translation, and you get the power of Anderson’s rhetoric: “Do not believe modern English translations of the Bible, because they are lying to you!

Here is how Anderson’s argument works. First, let us contrast how the KJV and the ESV (another modern translation) handle Micah 5:2:

But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah,
though thou be little among the thousands of Judah,
yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me
that is to be ruler in Israel;
whose goings forth have been from of old,
from everlasting. (KJV)
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
from ancient days. (ESV)

Here we see, in both versions, that one shall come from Bethlehem, to be ruler in Israel, which explains why Matthew and Luke have such an interest, showing that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem. Anderson’s argument is that the KJV teaches that Jesus is from “everlasting,” his “goings forth,” thus emphasizing Jesus pre-existence as a non-created being, whereas translations like the ESV, that have “ancient days,” suggest that Jesus was created in time, his “coming forth,” or “origins” (in the NIV), and therefore, is not pre-existent.

In other words, please put your ESVs and NIVs in a pile and burn them, according to Anderson.

But worse than that, such varied readings of Micah’s prophecy can make some think that no Bible translation can be trusted. That is; if a modern Bible translation can not be trusted, then why trust something older, like the KJV?

*SIGH*

Sadly, Anderson leaves out some really important details. First, Anderson makes it a big deal that “everlasting” is the correct translation of the Hebrew here, and not “ancient days.” However, the KJV uses the very similar term “ancient of days,” three times in the Book of Daniel to refer to God Himself. I am not aware of any King James Only advocate who would call for a rejection of the KJV, for using such terminology, “ancient of days,” to refer to the pre-existent, non-created God. If the KJV is okay with identifying “ancient of days” with God in other places, why should we be bothered here in Micah 5:2?

Secondly, Anderson does not reveal why modern translations generally favor “ancient days” over “everlasting.” From the prior verse, Micah 5:1, we see that the former might be more accurate, with respect to the immediate context:

Now muster your troops, O daughter of troops;
    siege is laid against us;
with a rod they strike the judge of Israel
    on the cheek (ESV).

This would indicate that Micah has in mind that the one coming from Bethlehem (v.2) is associated with the judge of Israel (v.1). This judge of Israel is thought to be the ruler of Israel, none other than a king from the line of David. Therefore, Micah has in mind that the one from Bethlehem is a son of David, an heir to the Davidic kingly throne, which chimes in with the Gospel of Luke’s insistence that Joseph, the husband of Mary, was in the line of King David (Luke 2:4 ESV).

Mmmm…. So, why do “King James Only” people neglect to tell you these things?

Well, one of the main characteristics of conspiracy theories, such as King James Only-ism, is a propensity to only tell you part of the story, and then assign the worst possible motives to your antagonists, in this case, the majority of modern, evangelical Bible scholars.1

Here is some background: As Old Testament professor Claude Mariottini shows, the translation of “ancient days” ties the one coming from Bethlehem to a promise given within earthly time (Micah 7:14). Note that the covenant made with David, that there would be someone from the line of David, who would rule Israel, was made at a particular point in Israel’s history, in earthly time. In this context, there is no need to make the reference back to eternity (1 Chronicles 17:11-14).

So, does this mean that the King James Version was simply wrong to translate Micah 5:2 with “from everlasting,” instead of the more modern “from ancient days?” Not necessarily.

The debate among scholars today points more to a “BOTH/AND” answer, as opposed to an “EITHER/OR.” There were no earthly kings reigning in Israel prior to Saul and David, a fact that favors the “from ancient days” translation. And yet the translation does not preclude one from saying that God’s covenant with David was an expression of God’s larger, eternal purposes for His people, “from everlasting.”

While the immediate context of Micah 5:2 suggests that the Old Testament prophet has the connection with the Davidic covenant in mind, established from the “ancient days,” there could be a broader understanding in view as well, that ties this one from Bethlehem to having some “origin” from beyond created time, stretching back into eternity. The Hebrew phrasing here could just as well be interpreted as referring to a divine or eternal origin.2

Which is it then? Did Jesus come “from everlasting,” or “from ancient days?” The best answer is “YES.”

In other words, a good case can be made for both views, that Micah 5:2 refers to the Davidic covenant, established in time, and the pre-existence of the Messiah, established in eternity, that points us towards Jesus, who is not only the promised son-of-David, the king of Israel, from days of old, but also the very revelation of God, in human history, pre-existent from all eternity.

So, despite the rather misguided thinking that some King James Only-ist promoters like to push, modern Bible translations can be trusted. While there are different opinions among scholars as to what constitutes the best translation, there is no conspiracy here. No, the purveyors of modern translators are not trying to deny the Trinity. Instead, they are trying to find the most accurate way of rendering the original text for the contemporary reader.

A Christian may prefer the KJV. Someone else may prefer the NIV. I prefer the ESV. All of that is fine. But better yet, having access to more than one Bible translation can actually help you better understanding the full meaning of Holy Scripture.

It is very easy to browse the Internet, and find plenty of King James Only websites, or YouTube channels, that try to bombard you with pious sounding arguments and half-truths, that would cause you to doubt the reliability of modern Bible translations.3 They often raise some very good points, but sadly, they rarely tell you the full story.

Notes:

1. What you typically hear from King James Only advocates is that modern Bible translations have some type of nefarious theological agenda, bent on undermining the doctrines of the Bible, in their efforts to move beyond the King James Bible. What King James Only advocates do not tell you, on this point, is that the modern Bible translations are mainly following the latest archaeological and literary research to try to produce more accurate Bible translations. For example, in 1 John 3:1, the old KJV has: “Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God: therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not.” Compare this to a more modern translation, like the ESV, that has: “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him.” Notice how the ESV adds a supposedly new phrase, “and so we are.” Does the addition of this phrase indicate some type of wicked, theological agenda, reinforcing the idea that Christians really are children of God? Does it even make sense to contend for the reverse, that the KJV removed the phrase, in order to minimize the theological truth that we are children of God? No, there is no corruptive theological agenda here, going either way. It is simply that the latest research on ancient biblical manuscripts indicates that the oldest manuscripts have the phrase “and so we are,” whereas the more recent manuscripts do not. Medieval scribes were not always perfect in making copies of the Scriptural text. In other words, the supposedly “new” addition of “and so we are” in the ESV is not “new” at all! See the notes in the NET Bible, for 1 John 3:1 (note 3), for additional explanation…. Oh, and by the way, the word for “children” in the ESV is a translation of the gender-neutral Greek word “tekna,” which is more accurate than the gender-specific “sons of God,” as found in in the KJV. 

2. The controversial Hebrew phrase being debated in Micah 5:2 is mimei olam qedem.  The mimei is understand as “from the days,” but are they temporal or eternal? From Michael Rydelnik, The Messianic Hope: Is the Hebrew Bible Messianic? (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2010), p. 98: “…Micah predicted that this king’s origins would be from eternity past. The two Hebrew temporal nouns used can speak of eternity when they stand alone, although this is not always the case. Used chronologically, qedem, ‘antiquity,’ can refer to ancient times as in ‘long ago,’ to the earliest imaginable times as when the mountains first came to be (Deut 33:15), or to the ‘eternal’ God and His eternal dwelling place (Deut 33:27; Hab 1:12; Pss 55:19; 68:33). The second term ‘ôlām, ‘eternity,’ usually refers to the distant or unending future (although sometimes within the context of one’s lifetime). But it is also used of ancient times in the past (Ps 24:7) or of the beginning of creation (Ps 25:6; Joel 2:2) or before. According to Ps 93:2, God’s ‘throne has been established from the beginning [lit. ‘from then’]; / You are from eternity.’ And Ps 90:2 declares, ‘Before the mountains were born, / before You gave birth to the earth and the world, / from eternity to eternity, You are God.’ When qedem and ‘ôlām are used together, however, as in Prov 8:22-23, they always denote eternity past (cf. Deut 33:27). In Mic 5:2, these words are placed together to emphasize the ruler’s true origin, being far earlier than his arrival in Bethlehem or even antiquity. Rather, he comes from eternity past.” See the NET Bible notes on this passage for more analysis and this answer from Dr. Michael Brown. Consult Fred Sanders, et.al. for a very technical discussion.  

3. The Internet is filled with a plethora of King James Only propaganda, that while intended to honor the great value of the King James Version, has the unintended negative consequence, of causing uninformed persons to doubt the validity of the Scriptures altogether! What a sad tragedy! Robert Plummer, a professor at Southern Baptist Seminary, explains why the thinking of King-James-Onlyism is so misguided: 


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