Author Archives: Clarke Morledge

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit.

Rock and Sand: An Eastern Orthodox Appraisal of the Protestant Reformation

Most evangelical Protestants, particularly in the United States, know very little about the Eastern Orthodox faith. What they do know is often jumbled together with their understanding of Roman Catholicism. Likewise, many Eastern Orthodox remain unfamiliar with Protestant beliefs.

A lot of that is changing as Eastern Orthodoxy grows in America, with high profile conversions from evangelical Protestantism to Orthodoxy, ranging from apologist Hank Hanegraaff to Christian author Frederica Mathewes-Green. Other well known Eastern Orthodox Christians (or those with appreciative Eastern Orthodox backgrounds) include columnist Rod Dreher and the controversial radio personality Eric Metaxas.

Unlike the Christian West, where Protestantism split from the Roman Catholic Church, about 500 years ago, Eastern Orthodoxy has no exact equivalence of a Protestant Reformation in its history. Essentially, Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy constituted one unified church for basically a thousand years, until these movements both split from one another officially in 1054 C.E. But, what exactly makes Eastern Orthodoxy different from evangelical Protestantism?

Father Josiah Trenham shows how Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestant evangelicalism differ from one another, offering a look at what Protestants can learn from Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

A Church Built on Rock… or Sand?

Father Josiah Trenham, an Antiochian Eastern Orthodox priest in California, has written a book, Rock and Sand: An Orthodox Appraisal of the Protestant Reformers and Their Teachings, that helps readers answer this very question. Trenham was raised in a conservative Presbyterian church, eventually following the teachings of Ligonier Ministries founder, R.C. Sproul. But partway through his seminary training, Trenham came to see what he saw were weaknesses in the evangelical Protestant tradition, and he was received into the Antiochian Eastern Orthodox church and eventually became a priest there in 1993. Today, he runs a popular YouTube channel, Patristic Nectar.

Rock and Sand: An Orthodox Appraisal of the Protestant Reformers and Their Teachings was written primarily to help Eastern Orthodox believers understand the roots of Protestantism, but I found it a helpful guide, as an evangelical Protestant myself, to understand the differences between the two traditions. As indicated by the title, the aim of Rock and Sand is to show that Eastern Orthodoxy is built on rock whereas Protestantism is built on sand. It is worth exploring how Father Trenham makes the case for Eastern Orthodoxy.

Father Trenham does a commendable job describing the distinctive teachings of the early Reformers, ranging from Martin Luther, to Ulrich Zwingli, to John Calvin. Trenham appreciates those reforms that sought to correct imbalances in the medieval Roman Catholic church, such as rejecting the doctrine of purgatory, indulgences, and papal primacy. He personally values his own experience within Protestant churches, particularly the evangelical Protestant zeal for the Bible and for missionary evangelism.

Trenham recalls a quote made by Martin Luther, when he was first publicly challenged by the papal legate Cardinal Cajetan in 1519, “The truth lies with the Greeks,” meaning the Eastern Orthodox. Trenham acknowledges that Luther had the most Eastern Orthodox-ish view of sanctification among the early Reformers, grounding the Christian life in our union with Christ, thus aligning towards the Eastern Orthodox understanding of theosis. Trenham warmly accepts Calvin’s measured view of the End Times, that avoids endless speculation derived from the Book of Revelation, and judges that Calvin “maintained a brilliant Christocentric hermeneutic” of Scripture. Very few Protestants today even know that Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin positively affirmed the perpetual virginity of Mary, which agrees with Eastern Orthodox teachings.

Yet in other ways, Father Trenham does not shy away from showing where the Protestant Reformers fell short in comparison to the Eastern Orthodox. At various points, he focuses on certain details that expose the more odd and embarrassing side of the Reformers. Little did I know that Martin Luther argued against certain traditional views of incest, by allowing for Christians to marry their first cousins. Trenham uses Luther’s, Melancthon’s and Martin Bucer’s awkward approval of Philip of Hesse’s bigamy as an unflattering illustration of the Protestant Reformers willingness to compromise with the political powers of the day, in order to gain the favor of the state.

Father Trenham also zeroes in on some of the more idiosyncratic views of certain Reformers, to illustrate the failure of sola scriptura as a coherent doctrine, from his perspective. He blasts the Reformers, like Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli, for their failure to agree upon the nature of the Lord’s Supper, the central act of worship throughout the entire history of the Christian church. Both Luther and Zwingli believed that the “plain reading of the text” clearly taught their respective views, despite the fact that they contradicted one another. This argument supports Trenham’s contention that only a church guided by the light of tradition, upheld by a college of bishops, apostolic succession, and ecumenical councils can prevent a Christian community from falling prey to idiosyncratic interpretations of the Bible, that will inevitably cause church splits, an endemic feature of nearly all Protestant churches.

Father Trenham illustrates that the evangelical Protestant prejudice against church tradition is even reflected in some popular Bible translations. For example, the Greek word paradosis is used in the Bible regarding “tradition” in two senses. In the negative sense, “tradition” refers to the man-made traditions of the Pharisees, which Jesus exposed as hypocrisy, as in Matthew 15:3. But it also has the positive sense of “tradition” in other contexts, where “tradition” is in reference to what Christians are to pass down from one generation to the next generation, as in 2 Thessalonians 2:15. Unfortunately, the popular NIV translation for years has translated this positive sense of paradosis very differently as “teachings,” instead of “traditions.” Thankfully, more recent translations, such as the ESV and the CSB, correctly translate this as “traditions”: “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.” At least the NIV does mention “traditions” as a possible translation, in a footnote, for those who bother to notice. Nevertheless, among many Protestant evangelicals, some reading habits are hard to break.

An Eastern Orthodox Appreciation for Infant Baptism

In his argument against the Anabaptists, Father Trenham gives a very coherent defense of infant baptism, against all forms of “credobaptism”; otherwise known as “Believer’s Baptism.” He demonstrates that the practice of baptizing infants is in continuity with the Old Testament practice of male infant circumcision. However, whereas circumcision was the primary marker for membership in the Old Covenant of the Jews, it has now been replaced by the practice of baptism in the New Covenant. In other words, baptism carries forward the original Old Testament concept of covenant membership to include Jew and Gentile, male and female, and slave and free, as grounded in the New Testament (Galatians 3:25-28).

Interestingly, Father Trenham argues against the Protestant insistence that salvation is primarily an individual act, and his case for infant baptism is used to buttress his more communal understanding of salvation. The repeated experience that entire households were baptized in the New Testament, even though only one member of the household professed faith initially, calls into question the claim that “Believer’s Baptism” is the clear teaching of Scripture. In the case of the conversion of Lydia (Acts 16:11-15), the passage tells only of Lydia’s conversion and no one else in her household. Nevertheless, everyone in Lydia’s household was baptized. In the case of the conversion of the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:25-34), the passage tells only of the jailer’s conversion and no one else in his household. Nevertheless, everyone in the Philippian jailer’s household was baptized.

Is it possible that the other members of Lydia’s household had become believers at that time, and the text never tells us? Yes, but it is also possible that there were infants in Lydia’s household, who were baptized. Is it possible that the rejoicing of the Philippian household in the jailor’s conversion signaled their own faith in Christ? Yes, but it is also just as likely, if not more so, that they all became believers after their baptism, and not before. The Bible’s silence on this issue, in these two cases, is profound. The argument presented by Father Trenham is something that most Protestant proponents of “Believer’s Baptism” rarely address.

On occasion, Father Trenham makes some rather suspect claims about the Protestant Reformers, but these are very rare. He states that John Calvin taught a very clear doctrine of double predestination, but that some of his closest followers after him did not, such as Theodore Beza. This is highly problematic as many Protestant students of Calvin suggest that Theodore Beza developed Calvin’s doctrine of predestination in greater detail and force than did Calvin himself, who relegated the doctrine of predestination to a lesser position in his Institutes of the Christian Religion.

One of the more interesting features of Father Trenham’s book is a summary retelling of the history of dialogue between the Protestant Reformers and the Eastern Orthodox, a topic often completely ignored among historians of the Reformation. Lines of communication between the early Lutherans and the Eastern Orthodox led to a fruitful dialogue between both sides, despite their ultimate disagreements. Cyril Lucaris, an Eastern Orthodox patriarch and theologian in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, urged other Eastern Orthodox theologians to study in Western Europe at Protestant universities, in hopes of stimulating a reunion of the churches. Lucaris was even rumored to have written a confession of faith along Calvinist lines, yet Father Trenham vigorously denies that Lucaris was the real author of such work.

The Achilles Heel of the Protestant Evangelical Movement

The most stinging critique of Protestantism comes in Father Trenham’s chapter on “Evangelicalism”:

Many modern Protestants do not even recognize themselves as the heirs of the Protestant Reformation. The most vibrant and demographically explosive forms of Protestantism are so ahistorical, so radically detached from the historic Christian ethos that an organic association even with their own Protestant lineage is too much of a chronological and dogmatic commitment. For many of these Protestant Christians the only relevant history of Christianity began with the history of their own particular congregation or even the history of their particular preacher and no tangible connection to the Christian past is considered essential. What matters to them is that their spiritual experience is real, not that their spiritual experience is in harmony with that of their forebears

Ouch. That really hurt. That paragraph alone was the most griping of Rock and Sand.

It pretty much explains my own encounter with evangelicalism, particularly that of the megachurch variety. The relatively ahistorical character of evangelicalism is responsible for the absurd notion that those who wish to defend any 2,000 year old teaching of the church bears the burden of proof for its defense, as though a Bible believer today can simply read something in the Scriptures and declare such tradition to be false, with very little evidence to show for it. This is nothing more than Protestant hubris that devalues the importance of church history.

Evangelicalism brings in the numbers, and reaches a lot of people for Jesus, something that I celebrate (as does Father Trenham), but it does so at the cost of producing a relatively shallow form of faith, that does not always weather well when the storms of doubt trouble the soul. The contemporary “ExEvangelical” deconstruction trend in some circles serves as evidence for that deficiency within Protestant evangelical subculture. Eastern Orthodoxy has its own skeletons in the closet, but that paragraph above from Father Trenham about my own tradition hit me like a two-by-four across the skull.

Alas, Some Hesitations Regarding Eastern Orthodoxy

Rock and Sand does not address this, but it would have been helpful to touch on some of the problems internal to Eastern Orthodoxy, as a means of self-critique. Ongoing disputes concerning the Protestant doctrines of sola scripture, sola fide, and sola gratia, not withstanding, there are other reasons why many Protestants still wrestle the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Despite the enumerated strengths of the book, and Protestants wrestling with the implications of sola scriptura, the Eastern Orthodox have their own struggles with schism, mostly along ethnic, even nationalistic lines.

A case in point dominates the 2022 news cycle: The 2018 quarrel between the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople (Istanbul) and the Russian patriarch, over the jurisdiction of orthodoxy in Ukraine, has served as an unfortunate backdrop, contributing to the tense political situation that precipitated the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. While Father Trenham rightly questioned the ties that 16th century Reformation leaders had with the European political authorities of that day, it is fair to say that certain strands in Eastern Orthodoxy have become enmeshed in an unhealthy way with certain political powers as well, throughout its history. Many Eastern Orthodox Christians have condemned Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, but not all have done so. In the past, I have held out hope that reconciliation among the churches was within grasp, but recent events have rocked that hope for me. The 2022 crisis in the Ukraine and Vladimir Putin’s role in Eastern Orthodoxy threatens to raise even more skepticism among non-Eastern Orthodox Westerners about the supposed purity of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Perhaps the primary deficiency of Rock and Sand is the underlying polemical nature of the book, casting serious doubt on the possibility of the reunification of the East and the West. An appendix in the book includes the records of several attempts towards Eastern Orthodox and Protestant reconciliation, including the 1672 Confession of Patriarch Dositheos, at the Synod of Jerusalem, and the more recent 1912 effort by American Episcopalians and Saint Raphael of Brooklyn, the first Eastern Orthodox bishop to be consecrated on American soil. to dialogue with one another. Sadly, none of these efforts have born lasting fruit in favor of ecumenism.

The tone of Father Trenham may come across as negative at times to some readers. The idea of being called a “heterodox believer” is not always very comforting. Father Trenham notes a distinction between “heresy” and “schism,” the latter being less serious, but does at times unflinchingly place Protestantism in the category of “heresy.” A number of Father Trenham’s fellow Eastern Orthodox readers concur that the tone of Rock and Sand comes across as somewhat mixed in this regard.

Rock and Sand: An Excellent Resource for Understanding the Differences Between Protestantism and Easter Orthodoxy

However, in his defense, Father Trenham does seek to be charitable, broadly throughout the book, and frankly his critique of Protestantism is not that far off the mark. In an age where evangelical Protestants have the unceasing propensity towards the division of churches, while simultaneously making awkward pleas for “unity,” it is quite understandable why Eastern Orthodoxy offers a refreshing appeal towards disaffected Protestants who desire to take the best of their Protestant evangelical background and make the move towards of Eastern Orthodoxy, with its extraordinary reverence, and holistic integration of worship and theology, which is so often absent in many Protestant circles today.

My own interest in Eastern Orthodoxy comes from a growing sense that the “agree to disagree” posture of popular evangelicalism, that dominates the greatest segment of megachurch American Protestant Christianity, is extremely difficult to sustain over the long term. Many evangelical churches adopt a very broad concept of handling “disputable matters” in the church, but there is not always a very cohesive understanding as to what the New Testament’s teaching on “disputable matters” even means. Many evangelical churches are extremely weak in catechizing (or teaching) their members about the basics of the faith. Then, when certain persons growing up in evangelical churches later fall away from their faith upbringing, those who remain lament the fact, but they often do not know what to do about it, because they lack the historical perspective offered by older traditions like Eastern Orthodoxy, or even Roman Catholicism.

Eastern Orthodoxy, on the other hand, finds no attraction to this kind of evangelical populism, that ignores the lessons of church history, particularly of the early church. A worship experience in an Eastern Orthodox church is wonderfully awe-inspiring, rich in symbolism and mystery, rooted in centuries of tradition, whereas the typical evangelical megachurch formula of singing a bunch of songs, followed by a TED-talk-style sermon, often lacks depth. Eastern Orthodoxy is not perfect, and some Eastern Orthodox doctrines and practices may have a quirky feel to them, but Protestant evangelicals have a lot to learn from our Christian friends in the East. Protestant evangelicals would do well to read Rock and Sand, even if they are not completely won over by all of Father Trenham’s arguments.

The Bosphorus is the body of water that divides Europe from Asia in modern day Turkey, near Istanbul. But for centuries Istanbul was known as the central home for Eastern Orthodoxy. The slogan of “crossing the Bosphorus” is today commonly used as a metaphor to describe one’s conversion from Protestant or Roman Catholic brands of Western Christianity to embrace Eastern Orthodoxy. A read through Father Josiah Trenham’s Rock and Sand will help Protestants like myself to rethink their own faith experience, and it even might provide the impetus for some to make that journey to “cross the Bosphorus.”

 

In the following video segment on Gospel Simplicity’s YouTube channel, Father Josiah Trenham offers his reasoning as to why the Protestant doctrine of “sola scripture” begets all of the other “heresies” associated with Protestant faith.  View the whole video interview here. Or you can follow the link to Father Trenham’s own YouTube channel.


Is “Historical Criticism” of the Bible a Good Thing, … or a Bad Thing?

In this series of blog posts, we have examined the “historical criticism” of the Bible. At this point, it might be worth offering a brief summary of where we are at.

Historical criticism of the Bible: Friend or foe?

First, we considered the question as to what “historical criticism” of the Bible is. Briefly put, historical criticism seeks to understand the origins of ancient texts in order to better get at the world “behind the text.” With respect to the Bible, this means trying to place our understanding of the Bible within the historical context of the ancient world of Israel, and first-century Palestine and the Greco-Roman world, where both the Old and New Testaments, respectively, were written.

Secondly, we looked how historical criticism developed over time. The standard story is that “historical criticism” of the Bible arose during the period of the Enlightenment, following the Protestant Reformation. But if we place the rise of historical criticism itself within its own historical context, we see that multiple stories emerge. For historically-orthodox minded Christians, historical criticism is a continuation of an attempt to better understand the Bible as the very Word of God, something that thoughtful believers have been trying to do since the reception of the canon of Scripture. However, for others, historical criticism has been an attempt to take the task of Biblical interpretation out of the hands of spiritual leaders in the churches, and place it in the hands of a different authority, whether that authority be the academic university or even the state. During the Enlightenment the idea was to appeal to the principles of science to resolve Bible interpretation issues, instead of relying on conflicting dogmatic traditions of various church bodies.

Thirdly, we have looked at how the practice of historical criticism in our churches has led to a split, dividing historically-orthodox believers from progressive Christians. On the one hand, the rejection of what is perceived to be “historical criticism,” found in various forms of “fundamentalism,” has led to a concern of an anti-intellectual spirit that marginalizes historical Christianity. On the other hand, the enthusiastic embrace of historical criticism in “progressive Christianity” circles has threatened to empty Christian teaching of any real content, that would distinguish the church from the secularization of the culture growing around the church. In other words, while “progressive Christianity” seeks to rescue Christianity from rigid dogmatism, it often ends up looking no different from the agnostic/atheist assumptions of the secular world.

Fourthly, we have examined a shift over the previous century with respect to the concerns brought to bear on the text of Scripture by historical criticism. Way back in the 19th and 20th centuries, advocates of historical criticism were primarily concerned with superstitious assumptions about the world made by more traditional forms of Christianity. Such superstitions tended to elevate the supernatural over and against the natural, thus sidelining the advance of science in the modern world. Now, in the 21st century, those concerns have dramatically shifted towards more social justice oriented questions, ranging from racism, to the treatment of women, and most recently, to various LGBTQ concerns. While people still wonder about truth claim of a Bodily Resurrection of Jesus, and its miraculous character, Western culture has become more focused on how the Bible is sometimes used as a weapon to hurt people. In other words, when it comes to reading and interpreting the Bible, in the 21st century, social justice concerns have superseded concerns about science, which were more of the primary concerns of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Along the way in this series, we have examined a few case studies that illustrate the themes described above. An historically-orthodox believer who values the benefit of historical criticism will find a harmony within the text where certain tensions exist. However, if an advocate for historical criticism seeks to set aside the divine inspiration in their analysis of the Bible, those same tensions will appear to them as contradictions. For example, if we see the Bible as a cohesive whole, as inspired by God, we can see how God seeks to honor the beauty of the relationship between male and female, whereas a more skeptical critic will see tensions as contradictions, where such teachings can be easily misused to denigrate and oppress women.

We also considered the question of when we should look to harmonize various discrepancies that we find in the Bible, versus looking for more creative ways of thinking, in order to help resolve those tensions we find within Scripture. We then looked at some principles for considering the evidence for a traditional way of reading a passage of the Bible, versus potentially embracing a different interpretation of that passage, that makes better sense of the text overall.

Leading up prior to this blog post, we examined a very helpful scholarly attempt to provide some authoritative answers for believers, when their friends, neighbors, and relatives ask questions about some of the insights gained from the historical criticism of the Bible.

So, back to the question in the title of this blog post: Is “Historical Criticism” of the Bible a good thing?

A reasonable answer is this: YES, it is a good thing for the most part, but it really depends on the assumptions and attitudes one has when doing “historical criticism” of the Bible. For if we come to the text of Scripture in an attempt to knock down its authority, or otherwise distort its message, then it can indeed be a bad thing. On the other hand, coming to the Bible, with a spirit of openness to the Holy Spirit, and a sense of humility, can be a very, very good thing. In some cases, our traditional ways of thinking about the message of Bible will be challenged and transformed, while in other ways, the traditional teachings that have been handed down throughout the ages, will be reaffirmed and treasured more deeply.

This blog post pretty much closes out this series on “historical criticism” for now, though from time to time I will add more articles, indexed from the introductory post in this series.


Why I Trust the Bible: Bible Translator Bill Mounce Answers Real Questions and Doubts

Were the Gospels written by anonymous people who had no direct contact with early eyewitnesses to Jesus of Nazareth?

.… Part of an on-going series on the “historical criticism” of the Bible….

How Do You Answer Critics, Who Try to Use “Historical Criticism,” to Attack the Message of the Bible? 

Dr. Bill Mounce, who has served on the translation committee for the New International Version of the Bible, and as the New Testament Chairperson for the English Standard Version of the Bible, has heard of claims like these before. Critical scholars, most notably represented by those like University of North Carolina professor, Bart Ehrman, argue that the writers of the four Gospels were written by sophisticated Greek-speakers, who lived in a very different world from Jesus’ original followers, made up of mostly illiterate persons, like Peter the fisherman, who primarily spoke Aramaic, and only very little Greek. We have no real idea who exactly wrote the Gospels, though they were probably composed as completed works as late as the 2nd century, and therefore, the historical information presented in them can not be entirely trusted as being accurate about Jesus.

As with any scholarly claim like this, there are elements of truth here. Yes, the four Gospels we have probably did not originally have the names of their authors embedded in the text. Titles like, “the Gospel according to Mark,” were added to the text by the late 2nd century. Yes, Jesus’ original hearers primarily spoke and understood Aramaic, while all four Gospels are written in elegant Greek.

But as Dr. Mounce writes in his Why I Trust the Bible: Answers to Real Questions and Doubts People Have about the Bible, the idea that it was really Matthew, Mark, Luke and John who wrote their respective Gospels, was the unanimous consensus by the mid-2nd century. If the Gospels were truly anonymous, we would have heard of other possible author names being put forward as alternatives. But we do not see any contested argument regarding the names of authors in the historical record. In the ancient world, where we had no mass communication systems, made available by today’s technologies like the Internet, the traditional names of the Gospel writers consistently flourished throughout the geographically vast area of the Roman empire.

Contrast this with the disputes over who wrote the Book of Hebrews, the only New Testament book that lacks a particular claim to a particular author. Tertullian argued that Barnabas wrote Hebrews. Other early church fathers suggest Clement of Rome, or Luke. Eusebius believed it was Paul. Some even say Priscilla wrote it. Origen concluded, “In truth only God knows.”

In the case of Mark’s Gospel, we do have good evidence that Mark was indeed the author. Though the writings have not directly survived, Eusebius tells us of the church father and writer Papias, the bishop of Hierapolis in Asia Minor, until about 130 CE, who was a disciple of John. Papias in these lost writings had written that Mark had become Peter’s interpreter. Furthermore, Clement of Alexandria attests to Peter being in Rome, preaching in perhaps the 60s, of the first century. This would indicate that Mark probably wrote his Gospel, based on the eyewitness testimony of Peter, as derived from sermons that Peter gave in Rome, prior to Peter’s martyrdom.

When Doubts Arise: Having a Reliable Guide to Answer Informed Critics

Bill Mounce givens seasoned, evidence-grounded answers, like the one above, to the type of doubts and questions raised by critics of the Bible today, in Why I Trust the Bible. Dr. Mounce makes judicious use of the insights gained by the “historical criticism” of the Bible, that enhance our understanding of the Scriptural text, rather than undermining it. Mounce’s audience is directed at ordinary Christian believers, who find themselves overwhelmed by the popular claims of skeptics, who are looking for reasoned explanations, that are readily accessible, and that do not descend into the overly technical. For those looking for more academic treatments of these topics, Mounce footnotes his references for those who want to dive deeper into these type of discussions.

I was particularly impressed with Dr. Mounce’s chapters on textual criticism, answering both the criticisms against New Testament itself popularly expressed by the famous atheist/agnostic scholar Bart Ehrman, as well as the King James Only-movement on the other side of the debate. Those few chapters alone are worth the price of the book, written at a level that most people should be able to understand, that covers all of the important questions that are typically raised on this topic.

I can quibble with Dr. Mounce on a few points here and there throughout the book. For example, Dr. Mounce’s claim that the “had formed” for the animals’ creation in Genesis 2:19, as found in the ESV and NIV translations, does not carry a sense of temporal sequence, has been criticized by other scholars as a form of cheating when it comes to certain Bible translations (see page 257). But such complaints are minor, as set within the context of the whole of Dr. Mounce’s excellent work.

All in all, Why I Trust the Bible is probably one of the best resources available, that critique some of the more extreme conclusions made within the “historical criticism” movement, regarding the Bible. From questions about the canon of Scripture to the latest intellectual fad of “Jesus Mythicism,” Bill Mounce hits nearly every major topic that skeptics will bring up about the Bible. That being said, this may not be the right book to give to a knowledgeable non-believer, who devours every book that Bart Ehrman publishes. Dr. Mounce pretty much assumes that his audience are either Christians, or those who are genuinely seeking information about the Bible. There are lots of great books now about the existence of God, how science and faith relate to one another, and social justice issues concerning Christianity, but if I had to pick just one book that specifically looks at the trustworthiness of the Bible, Why I Trust the Bible: Answers to Real Questions and Doubts People Have about the Bible stands near the top of the list.

One Serious Gripe

If I had one serious complaint to make about Why I Trust the Bible it would be that the book is too short. Why I Trust the Bible could have explored certain issues at a greater length and depth, but the author chose not to. Dr. Mounce’s book clocks in at around 280 pages, whereas British Anglican liberal scholar John Barton’s A History of the Bible: The Book and Its Faiths, ( reviewed earlier in this blog post series on Veracity ), and endorsed by Bart Ehrman, clocks in at a hefty and whopping 635 pages. Both books are written for a popular audience, and easily digestible. Both books address overlapping material. Both Dr. Mounce and Dr. Barton are world-class scholars. But in spite of the length of Barton’s A History of the Bible, that might easily scare off some readers, Barton’s book outsells Dr. Mounce’s shorter Why I Trust the Bible, and most likely, will continue to outsell it.

I wonder if the topic of “historical criticism” of the Bible is avoided by church-going believers, because they are afraid with what they might find there. Thankfully, Bill Mounce’s Why I Trust the Bible does not exploit such fears, as it actually does the exact opposite. But perhaps the popularity of John Barton’s A History of the Bible exploits the growing skeptical reading audience’s desire for more material to challenge historic, orthodox Christianity.

While conservative evangelical book publishing has continued to improve tremendously over the past few decades, substantial volumes geared towards the general public have languished when compared to similar texts produced by progressive Christian and non-believing scholars. Back when I was in seminary in the 1990s, I remember being mesmerized by books written by the progressive Bible scholar, Elaine Pagels, available at the Barnes and Noble bookstore, while being frustrated by the lack of alternative volumes written by otherwise equally competent conservative evangelical scholars, on similar topics, altogether absent from those Barnes and Noble bookshelves. Elaine Pagels was introducing me to a whole new world of “historical criticism,” but the evangelical churches I knew of in those days, addressed such topics with crickets!!

Is this the fault of evangelical book publishers, or the book reading market that tends to shy away from lengthy books of this type? I do not know that answer here. But what I do know is that we need more substantial books, along the lines of Mounce’s Why I Trust the Bible: Answers to Real Questions and Doubts People Have about the Bible, that help to counter a growing skepticism in an increasingly secularized world.

 

In closing out this book review, I am leaving a whole list of teasers that might inspire you to go out and buy the book. Thankfully, Dr. Mounce has released a set of short videos, most of them clocking in at well under 5-minutes, that give you a summary of each chapter, plus a few extra videos that dive a little deeper into more complex topics. Here is the link to the entire YouTube playlist, but right below is the first video in the list, and I have hyperlinked to the other videos in the playlist, just below that. This is great stuff for your own personal discipleship journey, and might even be useful in a small group setting. Enjoy!! 

 

Chapter 1: Did Jesus really exist? Who was the Jesus of history?

Chapter 2: Who wrote the Gospels?

Chapter 3: Are there really contradictions in the Bible?

Chapter 4: What about “discrepancies” in the Bible that really, really look like contradictions?

Chapter 5: Why do we have 27 books in the New Testament?

Chapter 6: When was the New Testament canon closed? What was the role of the church?

Chapter 7: Are the original Greek texts for the New Testament hopelessly corrupt?

Chapter 8: How were the ancient New Testament manuscripts copied down through the generations?

Chapter 9: How does Dr. Bill Mounce interact with the claims of Dr. Bart Ehrman?

Chapter 10: There are so many Bible translations! Which ones can you trust?

Chapter 11: What are different philosophies behind Bible translations?

Chapter 12: Can I trust the character of God given to us in the Old Testament?

Chapter 13: Can we trust the historicity of the Old Testament?

Conclusion: Why does Dr. Mounce trust the Bible, and why should I?

What is “Jesus Mythicism?”

Does the Bible adequately show that Jesus really existed?

How accurate are the Gospels, if they were written down at least 20-25 years after Jesus lived on earth?

How good were the memories of the Gospel writers?

A tough apparent contradiction: Staff, or no staff?

Staff, or no staff? A shorter summary.

How many times did Peter deny Jesus?

Does the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew contradict the genealogy in Luke?


How Does the Gospel of Mark Really End?

Yesterday’s Easter sermon covered the last few verses in the Gospel of Mark…. or did it?

If you pick up any copy of any modern English Bible translation, Mark 16 starts off telling the reader that the women came to the tomb, where Jesus was laid after the crucifixion, early on Sunday morning, only to find that the stone at the entrance of the tomb had been rolled away, and a “young man” (an angel perhaps?) sought to answer the questions that the women had in their minds at that moment:

‘And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid’ (Mark 16:6-8 ESV).

The end.

It is a very awkward ending to the Gospel. This unknown figure announces that Jesus has been risen from the dead, but there are no resurrection appearances of Jesus to the women. That is really odd, but that is what you have here.

The graveyard at Bruton Parish Church, in Williamsburg, Virginia. What if you were among the women to visit the grave of Jesus, and Jesus was not there, but someone told you that Jesus had been raised from the dead?

However, what is interesting is that most every modern Bible translation will then include a note. The English Standard Version (ESV) modestly reads, “Some of the earliest manuscripts do not include 16:9–20.”  The New International Version (NIV) is bolder and more direct, “The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have verses 9–20.

Most of these modern translations will then have a footnote describing what is called the “shorter ending of Mark.” They will often include, in the main body of the text, what is called the “longer ending of Mark.” The most interesting feature of the “longer ending of Mark” is that it includes the infamous snake-handling verse (Mark 16:18), that some Christian groups in Appalachia use as a prooftext for handling live snakes in their worship services (Link to creepy National Geographic story on snake handling).

So, what is the story with these alternative endings for Mark?

Many Christians familiar with the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible will notice that there is no note at the end of verse 8, but that verses 9-16 are included anyway (the longer ending of Mark).  Many therefore conclude (understandably) that the longer ending is the authentic ending for the Gospel of Mark.

However, most scholars (Christian and non-Christian) do not believe that the “longer ending” (or even the “shorter ending”) of Mark are authentic. But scholars differ as to why most of our earliest sources lack anything after verse 8. Perhaps Mark just left the Gospel as a cliff-hanger at the end. Perhaps the original ending to Mark’s Gospel simply got lost, as though the last few inches of Mark’s papyrus got ripped off. A handful of scholars even suggest that some type of oral tradition gives us the alternative endings to Mark that are found after verse 8. Others say that it just seemed too awkward for Mark to end the Gospel at verse 8, so other endings were invented to smooth out the ending of the story.

The bottom line is that we simply do not know how to account for Mark’s abrupt ending at verse 8. Aside from the snake-handling verse, which is perhaps an allusion to Paul being bitten by a snake on the island of Malta, and surviving (Acts 28:1-7), (and the related bit about drinking poison), there is nothing in verse 9-16 that is not repeated or covered elsewhere in the New Testament. No theological problems here. So, we do not lose any specific Christian doctrine if we recognize verses 9-16 as not being authentic.

But it does make for some interesting conversation!!

For a “shorter” summary of the broad scholarly consensus on Mark 16:9-20, you might want to briefly look at the 2 1/2 minute video below from a recent Mike Licona debate. For a “longer” summary, you can consider Mike Winger’s 2-hour video teaching on the topic. Mike Winger is one of most popular Christian Bible teachers / apologists today on YouTube, with over 400,000 followers. As a church pastor, with a YouTube channel on the side, Mike Winger says he spent 150 hours researching this topic. Did you ever think it was possible to spend 150 hours studying the final 12 verses of the longer end of Mark?

 

 


Zombie Apocalypse on Good Friday?

Here is one of those Bible passages you probably never hear a sermon about:

50 But Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and gave up his spirit.51 Suddenly, the curtain of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom, the earth quaked, and the rocks were split. 52 The tombs were also opened and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. 53 And they came out of the tombs after his resurrection, entered the holy city, and appeared to many. (Matthew 27:50-53, Christian Standard Bible)

It is Good Friday. Jesus had just died, after being crucified on the cross. Verse 51 is loaded with interesting details, but the really weird part starts in verse 52. At first glance, it seems like something out of the 1968 movie, The Night of the Living Dead. Does this mean we really have “zombies” in our Bible?

... Another post in a series on “historical criticism” of the Bible. Go ahead and skip the video clip linked here, for The Night of the Living Dead, if you do not want to get freaked out….

A “Zombie” Apocalypse on Good Friday?

What makes this text all the more strange is the fact that only in the Gospel of Matthew do we have this story about the “zombies.” None of the other three Gospels even hint at this. You would think that the Resurrection of Jesus is a big enough event, but to have a whole group of raised saints wandering around Jerusalem would have really caused a stir. Where did they all go? What is going on here?

There are two basic ways of interpreting this passage: The traditional view suggests that this is an historical event that Matthew uniquely records. Yet trying to grapple with who these “saints” are, and what this all means, are both provocative questions.

The most common explanation is that these raised “saints” are Old Testament believers, such as some heroes of the faith, like the great prophets of the Old Testament, like Isaiah and Jeremiah, perhaps.  Some tie this story of these raised “saints” with the Harrowing of Hell, commonly associated with the phrase, “He descended into hell/hades,” found in the classic early creed of the church, the Apostle Creed, which some suggest teaches that between his death on Good Friday, and his Resurrection on Sunday, Jesus is preaching the Gospel to those who have died, raising those who believe to new life.

The apocalyptic/metaphorical view suggests that this story in Matthew is not an historical event, but rather a type of prophetic vision of what will happen in the End Times, which is the reason why it is called “apocalyptic.” The appearance of raised saints points forward to the future, whereby all true believers in Jesus will be raised permanently to eternal life. While the apocalyptic/metaphorical view does not insist that this actually happened historically on Good Friday, it is nevertheless still true, since it is anticipating the reality of the future Resurrection.

Dr. Michael Licona, a New Testament scholar, and probably one of the most able defenders of the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus, against the skeptics who deny Jesus’ Resurrection, takes this metaphorical view.  Dr. Licona came under severe criticism about ten years ago, or so, by suggesting that this story is an example of “special effects” added in by Matthew, to better explain the meaning of Christ’s death. Defenders of the traditional view say that inserting a fictionalized literary device smack dab in the middle of an historical narrative like this interrupts the flow of the story. But even more serious, Licona’s critics accused him of denying biblical inerrancy by “de-historicizing” this element of Matthew’s narrative.

So, which view is right? The traditional, historical view or the apocalyptic/metaphorical view?

A still frame from George Romero’s 1968 horror film, Night of the Living Dead. Matthew the Evangelist did not have this in mind regarding the risen dead that walked the streets of Jerusalem, following Christ’s Resurrection. But this peculiar incident in Matthew’s Gospel raises some interesting questions: Did Matthew mean this to be part of his historical narrative, or was this an apocalyptic metaphor, looking to the future?

Examining the Evidence

In classical debates about how best to interpret difficult passages like this, it is always the prudent idea to place the burden of proof on the non-traditional view. The traditional view, by the very fact that it has been embraced by Christians for a long period of time, even back to the period of the early church, should enjoy the favor of place in these type of discussions. It is up to defenders of the apocalyptic/metaphorical view to see if they can meet the burden of proof, in order to overturn the tradition.

Furthermore, defenders of the traditional view are concerned that the metaphorical view might call other miraculous events in Scripture into question. This is a very reasonable concern: Where do you draw the line here, and on what grounds do you make a distinction between an historical narrative account versus a prophetic, metaphorical vision of some sort?  Jesus spoke in parables, which are fictional teaching devices, but the Gospels also claim that the Resurrection of Jesus is a real historical event, in space and time. The Bodily Resurrection of Jesus has the unanimous consensus from our New Testament sources, including all four Gospels. For if Jesus is risen from the dead, then this opens up the historical possibility of other miraculous Bible events having happened in history as well. But does this necessarily mean that the best explanation for another difficult passage requires a “miraculous” explanation? Another “non-miraculous” explanation, that fits the data better, might actually make better sense of the text. But does the evidence really support this? Traditionalists have a right to be worried, as some Christians, who find no difficulty in accepting the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus, will go to great lengths to dismiss other miracles, such as the Virgin Birth of Jesus, as a pious fiction, a view which causes all sorts of mischief.

From the perspective of an historian, one could argue that both the traditional and apocalyptic/metaphorical views are historical possibilities.  Only those skeptics who reject the supernatural would rule out the traditional view as a possibility, because the idea of people walking around after being dead is most definitely a supernatural event. For some who employ the historical critical method, the impossibility of the miraculous is the starting point, and the divine inspiration of the text is an assumption that can be safely set aside, for the sake of getting at the “real” history. In other words, if you treat the miraculous with utter disdain, or you reject the concept of God-breathed inspired Scripture, then the whole business about Matthew’s Gospel “zombies” as historical event will probably just come across to you as completely silly. For historically orthodox Christians, the use of historical critical method does not require one to take those kind of skeptical steps.

However, it is not enough to determine an event’s possibility. What is more difficult is to try to determine how plausible an event might be, considering the evidence, and then try to weigh that evidence to figure out what view is more probable, compared to the other alternatives.

The sheer weight of tradition is not something to dismiss lightly. However, there are a number of factors to consider, that are frankly ignored or otherwise distorted by some commentators who defend the traditional view.

The first thing to consider is what did it mean for these saints to be “raised?” After all, Jesus himself had raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-44). But was the raising of Lazarus the same as the raising of these saints on Good Friday?

Most scholars would agree that Lazarus was risen from the dead, but that he eventually died at some later time. You will be hard pressed to find anyone who believes that a 2,000 year old Lazarus is still living in some New York City high-rise apartment, collecting social security. Likewise, there are some who believe that these raised saints on Good Friday eventually died again, just as Lazarus did. Unfortunately, the text in Matthew does not tell us anything about the eventual fate of these raised saints.

If these saints who were raised died again, it does make you wonder what the point of the whole story was about.  For if these raised saints were Old Testament believers, what would the point be for them to be raised, and then die a second time?

The other alternative would be that these raised saints remained alive after this event. Does this mean that a whole group of “zombies” are living in New York City apartments, collecting more social security, and making our taxes so high? Well, most probably not. Unfortunately, if these saints did remain alive, we have no record of an ascension of these saints (Though some do suggest that this is implied by another weird and difficult passage, Ephesians 4:7-10, and/or that these saints quietly ascended to heaven along with Jesus at Jesus’ ascension).

The real tricky part is trying to make this historical reconstruction of events fit with other parts of Scripture. Here is the Apostle Paul:

20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep…. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24 Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. (1 Corinthians 15:20,23-24 ESV)

Some commentators say that the raised saints on Good Friday are some of the “firstfruits” of the resurrection promised to all believers. Some suggest that verse 23 above should have a comma after “Christ” but before “the firstfruits“, to therefore read: “But each in his own order: Christ, the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.”  In other words, first Jesus is raised, then the “zombie” saints in Jerusalem, and then finally associated with the event of the Second Coming, everyone else is raised. 

There are several problems here. To take verse 23, and divide it up into three separate events does not mesh well with verse 20, where the Resurrection of Christ, by itself, is equated with the “firstfruits” of the Resurrection. The answer to this objection is that “firstfruits” is plural, which would suggest that multiple events can be associated with these “firstfruits.” In other words, both the Resurrection of Christ AND the raising of these saints together are the “firstfruits.”

True, firstfruits is plural here, but this is a grammatical construction that can have a singular referent. A good example in English is the word mathematics. I majored in mathematics in college, but it does not mean that I double-majored, or triple-majored in multiple mathematic subjects. To say that I majored in mathematics is the same as saying that I majored in math, which is singular. I majored in one subject, mathematics. Likewise, it is perfectly consistent with the biblical text here to say that the (singular) Resurrection of Christ is equivalent to the (plural) firstfruits of the Resurrection. Furthermore, we can find another example of this singular referent to the plural firstfruits in a passage like Romans 16:5, where Epaenetus is described as the “first convert” (firstfruits) to Christ in Asia.

However, the most serious difficulty is that the order of events described by Paul here in 1 Corinthians does not mesh well with the traditional historical interpretation associated with Matthew. A number of commentators will say that in Matthew’s narrative that Jesus was Resurrected on Sunday morning, and then followed by the raising of the saints, who made their way about Jerusalem. This reconstruction might fit 1 Corinthians, if it was possible to interpret the firstfruits of 1 Corinthians 15 with multiple events.

However, a careful reading of the text shows that this simply is not true. In the Matthew passage quoted above, in the Christian Standard Bible translation, Jesus dies upon the cross on Good Friday (v. 50), then followed by the phrase, “Suddenly….” in verse 51, describing all of the events associated with the death of Jesus, which includes the opening of the tombs and the raising of the saints, all happening there on Good Friday (see verses 51 and 52). It is not until Sunday, after Jesus’ Resurrection do these saints leave their tombs and appear about the city, as we find in verse 53.

What the raised saints were doing in their tombs over the weekend is anyone’s guess…. perhaps they were waking up from their long sleep?? But the point here is to say that the raising of these saints preceded Christ’s Resurrection, which if understood in a non-metaphorical manner, would contradict with what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15. That is a serious problem.

The “Suddenly…” of the Christian Standard Bible (CSB) in verse 51 is obscured in the otherwise excellent English Standard Version (ESV), which has the more archaic “Behold...” The New International Version (NIV) renders this as “At that moment…” There really is no way that you can delay the raising of the saints, in their tombs, until two days later, if the traditional historical interpretation is to be adopted.

However, the most pressing concern is the theological meaning behind the whole “zombie” episode. For if the point of the episode is to tell us that a number of saints were resurrected before Jesus’ Resurrection, it really messes with the whole theology of Resurrection that Paul is trying to describe in 1 Corinthians 15.

Unlike the “resurrection” of Lazarus, who eventually did die sometime in the 1st century timeframe, the Resurrection of Jesus is quite different. When Jesus died on the cross, and then was Resurrected, this Resurrection was (and “is”) permanent. In other words, Jesus will never die again. Likewise, the hope that Paul is trying to give to the Corinthian church is that Resurrection for us as believers, is unlike the story of Lazarus. Instead, our Resurrection will be like that of Christ’s Resurrection. For those believers who have died prior to Jesus’ Second Coming, they will be raised to eternal life, and they will never die again, following the example, the firstfruits, set by Jesus himself.

If this is indeed the point of the Matthew story, then we really are not dealing with something out of a “zombie” horror movie. Rather, the raising of the saints is a look into the future, whereby Matthew wants to reassure the reader that the coming Resurrection of Jesus two days later, after the Crucifixion, is the same hope that we can have as believers, that in the “End Times,” all who have died in Christ will be raised in Christ…. permanently!!

For the Christian, Jesus has conquered death, permanently. That is Good News!!

This is why the “special effects” apolocalyptic literary device mentioned by Michael Licona makes sense with the metaphorical interpretation, in contrast with the traditional, historical interpretation of this passage in Matthew’s Gospel.  Historical critical analysis of this particular text chimes in well with the generally accepted view today that the Gospels fit within the literary genre of Greco-Roman biography. For example, Virgil describes the death of Julius Caesar with all sorts of reports of various apocalyptic phenomena, such as cattle speaking, streams standing still, pale phantoms being spotted at dusk, the opening up of the earth, and a comet being seen. It would have been perfectly acceptable for Matthew to use a similar literary device to make a theological point about the believer’s hope in a future Resurrection.

Where Do You Land on Understanding the “Zombie” Passage in Matthew’s Gospel?

So, which is the better interpretation of this passage? Is it the traditional, historical view, or the metaphorical, future-looking ahead view? Scholars will weigh the evidence differently, in order to make a judgment on the probability of an event. This is not a hill that I am willing to die on, but in my mind, the evidence favors the metaphorical view as the better interpretation, when examining all of the evidence. Has the burden of proof been met, to overturn the traditional view? I would say, yes, but many other devoted Christians would probably disagree with me here.

What does bother me is when some advocates of the traditional, historical view regard advocates of the apocalyptic/metaphorical view as somehow having a lower view of the Bible. With all due respect to such critics, the idea of promoting a particular “miraculous” interpretation of a difficult passage that results in postulating a contradiction in the Bible is not a good way of trying to supposedly “defend the Bible.”

Nevertheless, what both the traditional, historical view and the apocalyptic/metaphorical view have in common is the affirmation that God has the power to conquer death, and that God has done this through the Resurrection of Jesus. That message should give us hope that death does not have the final word. When all seems bleak, and at its darkest, we can trust in the reality that “Sunday is a’coming.”

In these early years of the third decade of the 21st century, we have endured the stench of death from the loss of friends and family who have suffered from Covid-19, and now more recently, we recoil from the horror of bodies left piled up on the streets of the cities of Ukraine. Thankfully, the story of the Christian faith gives us a sense of hope that a Resurrection awaits those who put their trust in Jesus, no matter how dark our world seems today. That is a message worth pondering on Good Friday.

 

In the next post of this series on “historical criticism,” I will review a book written by one of the finest conservative Bible scholars alive today, that uses the tools of “historical criticism” in a very responsible manner, without falling off any theological cliffs, as so many other advocates of “historical criticism” have repeatedly done. Look for it in a week or so.


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