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.


Was Jesus Mistaken About Abiathar? : Why Thoughtful Study is Better Than Ad-Hoc Harmonizations

In his 2005 New York Times best seller, Misquoting Jesus, Bart Ehrman told the story of how he discovered that there were mistakes in the Bible. Despite having attended stalwart evangelical institutions, like Moody Bible College and Wheaton College, in Illinois, Ehrman arrived at Princeton Theological Seminary, having serious questions about the Bible’s reliability.

….. in a series on the “historical criticism” of the Bible….

Did Jesus mess up when He referenced the Old Testament, or did He say what He did on purpose? (Credit: Christianity Today magazine.)

When Harmonization is Helpful … and When the Search for Ad-Hoc Harmonizations Can Lead Someone Away from Faith

Bart Ehrman decided to write a hefty paper about a famous Bible discrepancy in Mark  2, where critics have claimed that Jesus mistakenly named “Abiathar” as a high priest in days of King David, when he should have used the name “Ahimelich.” Ehrman used the tools of “historical criticism” he had learned, trying to harmonize the details to somehow make the Bible “fit.” After pages and pages of analysis, a professor suggested to him that perhaps Mark or Jesus simply got that particular detail wrong.

At that moment, years of effort to “defend the Bible” came crashing down around Dr. Erhman. He remained a Christian after that for a few years, albeit a rather liberal or progressive one. But he gave up his faith altogether soon thereafter, the process of deconstruction having run its course to a full-blown agnosticism, if not downright atheism.

This story helped to catapult book sales of Misquoting Jesus, and later titles, thus giving Dr. Erhman the privilege of selling millions of books, for over the past 17 years. Every year or so, I have run into someone I know, or someone close to them, who has looked to Dr. Ehrman’s books as part of their deconstruction movement out of Christianity. Anytime Dr. Ehrman shows up on YouTube, he gets thousands of views.

Now, I am not saying that Dr. Erhman has been in it for the money. He is not. Nor is he purposefully attempting to destroy the faith of other believers in telling his story. He is not doing that either. Some Christians take a cheap shot at Ehrman and make wild accusations like these. Not only are such accusations unfair, they fail to adequately address some valid questions about what the Bible is actually teaching, concerns raised by Dr. Ehrman.

Other Christians have taken a more measured approach, but still find themselves nervous when they hear such claims, suggesting that Jesus, or someone else in the Bible, was wrong. The natural tendency is then to gravitate towards some relatively quick, ad hoc explanation of the discrepancy. You then latch onto some “possible” way of interpreting a passage differently, breathe a sigh of relief, and then move onto the next difficulty.

Now, such harmonization is not without merit. One of my favorite YouTube apologists, Inspiring Philosophy, somewhat leans towards this very approach with that passage. However, caution is in order, as such harmonization efforts can easily come across as either self-serving or overly complex, thereby encouraging skeptical critics to remain hardened in their skepticism.

A Quick Sidebar: One or Two Temple Cleansings?

A quick example here can suffice: All four Gospels each record one instance of Jesus cleansing the Temple in Jerusalem. However, while Matthew, Mark and Luke place this event around the week prior to Jesus’ Crucifixion, John places the event at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Some Christians, with godly scholarly support, contend for a harmonization approach, whereby we are to conclude that Jesus cleansed the Temple twice during his public ministry, first at the beginning of His public ministry, and second towards the end of His public ministry (One gracious, friendly commentator on a previous blog post even gave me a theological reason why there must have been two cleansings…. though well intended, I was not convinced).

While there is nothing technically wrong with this harmonization, it can come across as sounding rather ad hoc, or forced, as it fails to answer the question as to why no one single Gospel records the two Temple cleansings. Furthermore, it is highly unlikely that Jesus could have gotten away with the first Temple cleansing in John, without getting arrested, but the second Temple cleansing chimes in well with his arrest later in the Passion Week.

Rather, a much better solution is to say that John was not trying to give a chronological account of the one Temple cleansing. Instead, John put the (single) Temple cleansing first in his narrative, to theologically highlight the fact that Jesus came to take down the Old Covenant, as represented by the Temple, and install a New Covenant, centered around faith in Jesus as the Son of God.

In other words, Temple worship does not save us. But faith in Jesus does. And that is Good News!! There is no real concern about possibly “de-historicizing” or “demythologizing” the Bible, as Rudolf Bultmann tried to do. It just makes better sense to read the text this way. No ad hoc harmonization required.

The main problem with a rather ad hoc harmonization approach to the Scriptures is that it tends to reduce Bible study to working a puzzle, merely trying to find solutions to a problem to be solved, instead of seeing Bible discrepancies as a window into exploring a mystery that sets a truly Christian imagination on fire. While sometimes solving a puzzle in the Bible is a worthwhile endeavor, as is the case with syncing up Paul’s description of his missionary journeys, when compared to potential discrepancies we find in the Book of Acts, the rich 2,000 year history of Christian reading and study of the Scriptures suggests meditating on the intricacies of Bible discrepancies actually helps the reader enter into the theological depths of God’s Word, at a whole new level. When the juices begin to flow to help the believer to expand their imagination, to think God’s thoughts after Him, to see that there are mysteries unfolding in the text, then that is a wonderful sign that the Holy Spirit is at work.

Connecting the dots associated with what at first appears to be conflicting data points in the Bible have led to some of the most remarkable conversions in the history of the church. It is that type of fired up Christian imagination that helped to turn former skeptics, like the 5th century Augustine of Hippo, to the 20th century Oxford don, C.S. Lewis, to having faith in Jesus. Bishop Ambrose in Rome helped Augustine see the Bible in a whole new way. J.R.R. Tolkien did this for his Oxford scholar/friend C.S. Lewis.

A Case Study on Doing Bible Study Without Excessive Harmonization

British pastor/teacher Andrew Wilson takes the difficult Mark 2 passage regarding Jesus’ supposed “mistake” about Abiathar as an illustration to make this very point, and he makes the illustration a lot better than I can. I took part of Wilson’s essay from behind the paywall at Christianity Today magazine to post the best part here, so I hope Christianity Today will not mind (it may just inspire someone to subscribe to CT, which would be for their benefit).  Enjoy and be edified:

One of my favorite discrepancies is Jesus’ “mistake” in Mark 2. In this passage, the Pharisees criticize Jesus for letting his disciples pluck grain on the Sabbath. In response, Jesus explains that he and his friends are doing what David and his men did when they ate the holy bread in the time of Abiathar the high priest (Mark 2:25–26). The problem is, 1 Samuel 21 tells us that Ahimelech, not his son Abiathar, was the high priest at the time that David and his men ate the holy bread. Either Jesus made a mistake or Mark did. In either case, evangelicals get nervous.

Scholar Bart Ehrman said that when he discovered this discrepancy in seminary, it kick-started his departure from Christianity. Progressive UK pastor Steve Chalke made it his opening salvo in a debate with me about the truthfulness of the Bible. Countless Christians, on the other hand, upon seeing the problem, have rushed to their study Bibles or other resources where they discover, in relief, that the Greek phrase epi Abiathar could mean “in the passage about Abiathar” rather than “in the time of Abiathar.” “That must be it,” they exclaim. “Problem solved. On to Mark 3.”

Yet there is far more going on in Mark 2. Jesus’ argument is not that he has found an obscure guy in the Old Testament who once ate bread on a Saturday. His point is that David, Israel’s true king-in-waiting, and his consecrated friends were allowed the holy bread that day. Jesus is interpreting his actions through the story of Israel’s greatest king. He is saying, in that cryptic way he often does, “I am David. These guys are my men. So they can eat what they want.”

So Jesus is David, the true king of Israel, and the disciples are his allies. But they aren’t the only characters in the story. Herod is Saul, the current king who has drifted from God and now wants to kill the pretender to the throne. John the Baptist is Samuel, the fiery prophet who prepares the way for the new king and confronts the old one. Judas is Doeg the Edomite, the betrayer. And Abiathar? He is Eli’s great-great-grandson, the last surviving member of the old priestly line, whose eventual removal from the priesthood would prove true God’s word through Samuel (1 Kings 2:27).

All of this means that Jesus mentions Abiathar rather than Ahimelech for good reason. He is saying, “I am David, these are my men, and the current priests are Abiathar. They are in charge now, but in just a few years their priesthood will end, just like Abiathar’s. And my kingdom will be established, just like David’s.”

I think that’s wonderful. The Holy Spirit didn’t put discrepancies in Scripture to provide fuel for skeptics, employment for commentators, or annoyance for evangelical Christians. He did it to make us think, search, meditate, read, learn—and be ever filled with awe.

Andrew Wilson’s treatment of this difficult passage is a good example of a better way we should deal with certain Bible discrepancies.  In the next post in this series, just in time for end of Holy Week, we will examine one of the most puzzling passages in the Gospels. To give you a hint, we will be talking about “Zombies” in the Bible. Look for it on Good Friday!

In the meantime, please keep Michael Licona in your prayers for his big 7-hour debate with Bart Ehrman, to be recorded tomorrow, on the question, “Did the Resurrection of Jesus Really Happen?” It happens tomorrow, April 9th, starting at 9:30am, EDT!!


Why Wishful Thinking Can Make Us Blind to the Truth

I have a few confessions to make (I am taking a short break from the “historical criticism” series of blog posts).

I did not know much about Vladimir Putin, but for years, what I knew about him was somewhat positive. Sure, he was a former KGB man, and he still harbored some socialist ideals. But he had renounced communism, which was a big improvement over the days of Soviet Russia. He appeared, at least for awhile, to be a supporter of the Christian faith in Russia. Former U.S. President George W. Bush said that he was able to get “a sense of [Putin’s] soul.” That seemed promising.

Under Putin’s presidency, things with Russia became light years ahead of the dark days of Bolshevikism and the U.S.S.R., and the constant threat of nuclear annihilation I feared as a kid growing up during the Cold War. Like many Enlightenment-guided Westerners, I was convinced that the days of World War II style naked aggression were over. He was not perfect, but at least, under Putin, the threat of nuclear war was remote.

Even Boris Yeltsin, the Russian president during the 1990s, and Putin’s predecessor, who sought to make Russia into a modern democracy, had confidence in Vladimir Putin, believing that Putin would carry on the reforms in the post-U.S.S.R. era.

I really wanted Vladimir Putin to be a “good guy.”

However, the events of the last month or so have shattered that. Though I wanted him to be a “good guy,” I discovered that he was not. I have since learned that he is a nationalist, or more accurately, an empire builder/wanna-be restorer, who cares nothing about the lives and aspirations of thousands, if not millions, of Ukrainian people. In Mariupol alone, we have reports that 90% of the buildings in that city have been damaged or even demolished, leaving civilians without food, water, electricity and heat. The horror of effectively destroying such a beautiful country, like Ukraine, and causing over a million to become homeless, does not seem to register in the mind of Putin as being a moral atrocity. The fact that Putin’s cover for this “military operation” had been blown for weeks before Russian troops crossed the border into the Ukraine, and that Putin went ahead with the “military operation” anyway, is ghastly.

What makes it all the worse is that Mr. Putin’s version of a politicized Christianity plays into the whole tragedy. Apparently, Vladimir Putin has been enamored by the concept of a “Holy Rus,” a vision of one unified Russian people, with one great church holding everyone together, made up of Russians AND Ukranians. This ideology is traceable back to 988 C.E., when Prince Vladimir chose to be baptized into the Christian faith, thus introducing Christianity to the Slavic peoples. Prince Vladimir, along with his warriors and families, were baptized altogether in the Dnieper River, in Kyiv. When the Mongols swept through destroying Kyiv a few centuries later, Moscow became the new seat of north Eastern European Christianity. With the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 to the Turks the mythological status of Moscow as the “Third Rome” took hold.

Now, in the wake of the collapse of the U.S.S.R., Mr. Putin wishes to restore that Moscow as the “Third Rome” once again, hoping to restore the glory of pre-U.S.S.R. ancient Czarist Russia. If you read Putin’s hour-long speech that he gave, upon the eve of the invasion, you can begin to appreciate the inner working of his logic. One might argue that Putin’s vision of a grand “Christian empire” may have been at one time well-intended, but as we see this story play out, the dark side of this has been revealed. Christianity has again been hijacked by the State, and millions are suffering in its wake. Thankfully, many Christians, including many Eastern Orthodox have condemned the violence, but Putin shows no signs of backing down.

The issues behind the Ukraine/Russia conflict are very complex, and very few people are aware of the spiritual/religious aspects that are deeply rooted in the history of the region. The Gospel Simplicity YouTube channel, started by Austin Suggs, as a theology student at Moody Bible Institute, features an interview with John Strickland, an Eastern Orthodox priest in America and historian on Russia, who dives deep into history behind the conflict, describing details that few even know about.

I was blinded by my own wishful thinking about Vladimir Putin. My wishful thinking kept me from seeing and understanding the truth.

Wishful thinking makes us feel better. Wishful thinking can help us to think we are good persons: moral, upright, and justified. But it comes at a cost.

Wishful thinking can easily blind any of us. Sometimes a reality check is what we need to cure us of wishful thoughts, that while surely well intended, do nothing but lead us along a path of deception.

This can be a really hard thing to accept, as I hate to be wrong about anything. But there have been times where evidence presented against my wishful thinking has forced me to change my perspective. It has not always been easy.

Sometimes, the costs of such misguided wishful thinking are not too terrible. In my younger years, I wished that I could be a successful guitar player, and even be a rock star. Reality set in, and I instead became a computer geek. I still play guitar, but I no longer fantasize about being the next Jimi Hendrix. I am quite okay with that now.

At other times, misguided wishful thinking can get you into serious trouble. For Westerners who believed that Vladimir Putin was merely bluffing about invading Ukraine, that type of wishful thinking has become deadly. Putin himself has quite a bit of wishful thinking himself, describing the Russian aggression as freeing Ukraine from the domination of “Nazis” and “fascists.”

Why does Putin make this claim? Because during World War II, certain Ukrainian nationalists aligned themselves with Hitler’s Germany, as liberators from Soviet oppression… that is, until they figured out what the Nazis were really up to. Many historians say that Putin is ignoring what Paul Harvey called “the rest of the story,” pointing out that the Ukrainian independence movement began earlier during World War I, in 1917, before the Soviets took over the Ukraine in 1922.

Putin’s narrative is this: Ukraine was, and is, and will always be part of Russia. End of discussion. This is the world that Putin wants to live in. It makes him feel good about himself. It makes him feel moral, upright, and justified.

Wishful thinking can deceive even world leaders, like Vladimir Putin. When we so desperately want something to be true, when the reality suggests otherwise, calamity is not too far behind.

 

The Corrective to Wishful Thinking: Fairly Evaluating the Evidence

In spiritual matters, wishful thinking that is not grounded in truth, as established by the evidence, can have undesired consequences, too. Much of what I say here will sound controversial to some. For the rest of this blog post, I will summarize where my thinking has either deepened, or even changed, on certain theological topics that I have explored over the last few years. A number of you may not like where I eventually land on these topics. Regardless of where you ultimately stand on these difficult topics, and how you evaluate the evidence, I hope you might appreciate the posture that I trying to take, as woven around this particular theme of “wishful thinking.”

Wanting for something to be true simply does not make it true.

There are times, surely, where we want something to be true, and it turns out that it is! However, wishful thinking can also deceive. What makes the difference is a fair evaluation of the evidence. This requires a willingness to rethink our assumptions and then follow the evidence wherever it leads.

Consider attempts that some Russian propagandists have made to try and get Ukrainians to give up against the Russian invasion, and re-assure other Russians that Putin is in the right, in this conflict. On March 16, 2022, a deepfake video of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had been shared around social media, calling on his soldiers to lay down their arms. If you look at the video it might look and sound convincing, particularly if you were harboring wishful thoughts, that this message was indeed true.

The real President Zelensky responded to the deepfake, and refuted its message, and in turned urged Russian soldiers to lay down their arms, and go home. Upon closer inspection, evidence from the deepfake video showed that it indeed was a fake.

Unfortunately, a lot of supposed “evidence” for a position are actually assertions, that lack sufficient merit. In this particular case regarding the deepfake Zelensky video, it was outright propaganda.

But how many people unknowingly and willfully are drawn into accepting these messages to be true, when their wishful thinking steers them in that direction?

 

The Dangers of Wishful Thinking: Universalism

For example, let us consider a very serious spiritual matter. On this, my thinking has not changed much over the years.

I really wish I could be a universalist. I wish everyone, even a Vladimir Putin, could be converted and come to know Jesus in the end, and hell could be emptied. Even before I became a Christian believer, I could not imagine why anyone would want to believe in an eternal hell.

But as I have taken an honest look at the Holy Scriptures, it just seems near impossible for me to read the Bible and conclude that universalism is true.  God’s judgment, as presented in the Bible, does not seem to work like that. As Revelation 22:15 teaches, those who “love and make lies” will be barred from entering the New Jerusalem. It is really difficult to get around all of that.

I know that a brilliant theologian, like David Bentley Hart, probably thinks that someone like me is morally reprobate, because I do not find the case for universalism that he champions to be supported by the teaching of Scripture. When I wrote a blog article in 2019, covering book reviews of D. B. Hart’s defense of universalism, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Unversalism, I received some of the most uncharitable and scathing comments, that misrepresented my position, in all of the years of my blogging on Veracity, even though I spent several hours listening to interviews Hart gave in defending his thesis, in order to try to give Hart’s viewpoint a fair hearing. In D. B. Hart’s mind, he is moral, upright, and justified. I, on the other hand, to such critics, must be a moral cretin.

So, let me state this clearly again: I wish I am wrong about the evidence against so-called “Christian Universalism.”  I wish all could be saved in the end. Perhaps I will be proven wrong at the end of all time, but I am not convinced that I will be.

Wanting for something to be true simply does not make it true.

 

The Dangers of Wishful Thinking: Some Touchy Theological Issues (National, Ethnic Israel)

Are you ready for more?

I started off with the universalism issue because it helps to frame a compassionate, honest way of thinking through these type of issues that I will address below. I mean, you really have to be a moron if you gleefully want people to perish in hell. Nevertheless, the question of truth matters. There is a certain sense of anguish that anyone with a pulse should be feeling, as they wrestle with such difficult matters. The same sentiment applies on a lot of these other issues.

Before we get into some really touchy issues in our day, that get us even farther away from the Ukraine/Russia crisis, I will briefly address a relatively easier issue first: As a young believer in college, I was immersed in a type of dispensationalist teaching that really championed the modern nation/state of Israel. However, in the mid-1990s, I took a trip to the Holy Land, and frankly, I was deeply disillusioned with what I saw.

Israel looked a whole lot like “Sodom and Gomorrah” and a lot less like the Jewish, deeply spiritual population group that my college church envisioned Israel to be. Aside from visiting a lot of places where Jesus walked, etc., I just sensed that the country was a spiritually dark place. I was most deeply bothered by how poorly so many Palestinian Christians felt treated by the Israeli government. So, I abandoned my dispensationalist mindset and embraced covenant theology, which at that time seemed to be the best, theologically orthodox alternative to dispensationalism. It was not like I completely rejected any type of future for national, ethnic Israel. It was just that I was not convinced that the modern nation state of Israel had that much to do with it.

Then about 15 years later, a friend of mine challenged me on my beliefs. Frankly, I did not want to be challenged. I wanted my newer beliefs to be true, and I really did not want to be questioned.

But in 2014, I began about a four-year project, with about a two-year break in the middle, to study this topic of Israel (and Christian Zionism, in particular), and to set aside the wishful thinking that I had adopted, and be open to the truth, following the evidence, wherever it led me. Here is a link to the starting place of my research journey. I ended up in a more nuanced position, somewhere between the dispensationalist theology of my college years and the covenant theology of my post-Israel visit. It was a very humbling process, but looking back, I am glad I went through it.

Wanting for something to be true simply does not make it true.

 

The Dangers of Wishful Thinking: Some Touchy Theological Issues (Slavery)

Now, here is something that is really touchy.

For years, I believed that Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels, and not Paul’s letters, were the best source for addressing the evils of slavery. After all, the “Golden Rule” taught by Jesus seemed like an obvious defeater for slavery. Jesus’ love for the poor and outcast seemed to me to outshine anything I read from Paul. Paul’s teaching in various places about slaves being obedient to their masters made me uncomfortable, so I tended to want to favor the “red letter” Christianity of where Jesus was quoted in the Gospels, in so-called “Red Letter Bibles.

The inconvenient truth is that there is nothing in the Gospels that indicates Jesus saw anything about slavery as being evil. Slavery was quite common in the first century Roman empire, but Jesus never spoke out against it.

Go ahead. Search through the Gospels yourself. See if you can find any explicit statement, or even an implicit one, where Jesus condemns slavery. Instead, you will find numerous places where Jesus simply assumes slavery to be a given reality in human society.

I hated to admit that to myself. But the silence in the Gospels about the evils of slavery is deafening.

Instead, one must look to the writings of Paul, Jesus’ designated spokesperson to the Gentiles, for any critique of slavery in the New Testament. While Paul does tell slaves to obey their masters, he also tells masters not to mistreat their slaves, which was quite out of step with the pater familias ethic of Roman households, where the predominate male of the house had complete, absolute control over everyone in the household, including slaves.

But the real clincher for Paul is found in his shortest letter in the New Testament, the letter to Philemon: When Paul returned the runaway slave, Onesimus, to his master, Philemon, he challenged Philemon to adopt the same attitude Paul had developed towards Onesimus, that of treating him as both a brother and a son.

Some treat Paul’s statement here as a kind of rhetorical flourish, but it really is much more than that. Paul’s Jewish heritage, grounded in the Hebrew Scriptures, had informed him that it was morally wrong to enslave a fellow believer, much less a family member, thereby cutting at the very foundation as to why people should ever become slaves in the first place. Paul also knew the story of the Hebrew slaves being set free from underneath the rule of Pharaoh. It is no surprise then, that such a prominent early church father, like Gregory of Nyssa, became such an outspoken critic of slavery, a thousand years before the first African slave ever stepped foot on American soil.

True, Paul never comes out explicitly to tell Philemon to free Onesimus. Paul’s failure to do so might explain why it took so many centuries before slavery would be finally rejected as a moral evil, and why so many secularists today are dismissive of the Bible as not being more forceful in condemning slavery. But the fact that slavery gradually and eventually did become a moral evil to be rejected in civilized society can be traced back to Paul’s letter to Philemon (Thanks to Sarah Ruden, who helped me to understand this).

Sure, we still have slavery in the modern world, albeit in illegal ways. Thankfully, in our day, no morally responsible person, influenced by the Christian message, enslaves their own brother or son, and since we live in a world where the Gospel message can make anyone into a brother or sister in Christ, the enforcement of a slavery system becomes a mute issue. Alas, we find very little of this in the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels. But thankfully, we have Paul!

I wanted Jesus to be a slavery abolitionist, and leave Paul out of the discussion. One can infer truths like “love your neighbor, as yourself” as being abolitionist in intent, but history has shown that many slaveholders over the centuries have had no problem accepting Jesus’ teaching here, while still retaining ownership of another human being. But had those Christians really meditated on Paul’s short, little letter to Philemon?

Like many Christians have been tempted to want to believe, I had much preferred Jesus over Paul. However, the truth is that it all lands on Jesus’ spokesperson, Paul, and not Jesus himself, to voice that New Testament truth that undercuts the slavery system.

Wanting for something to be true simply does not make it true.

 

The Dangers of Wishful Thinking: Some Touchy Theological Issues (Non-Violence)

For a long time, I wanted to believe that the Bible strictly teaches an ethic of non-violence. I have sincere and wonderful Anabaptist friends who hold strongly to this belief. I still find myself looking away at some of the more violent passages of the Old Testament (I have a book on my reading list that I hope to review on this topic and report on, later this year).

Pacifists like Martin Luther King, Jr., and India’s Mahatma Gandhi have been heroes to me, and I still believe that there are cases where non-violence offers the best moral solution. I pray, pray, pray for peace. But in looking at the example of German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a man who wrestled with the ethic of non-violence, he eventually concluded that it was morally right and indeed necessary to throw “a spoke in the wheel” to try to stop Adolph Hitler’s murderous efforts to eliminate the Jews, as a follower of Jesus. Likewise, as far as I am concerned, the current efforts by the people of Ukraine to use military force to repel the Russian invasion, as best as I can understand the issues, adequately meets Saint Augustine’s criteria for a just war.

Wanting for something to be true simply does not make it true.

 

The Dangers of Wishful Thinking: Some Touchy Theological Issues (Loving Those Who Experience Same-Sex Attraction)

I have been bothered by the fact that some dear friends of mine have struggled with same-sex attraction. I wrestle with trying to understand why these friends have been subjected to this costly struggle, through no fault of their own. Some of these friends have since convinced themselves that foregoing the traditional Christian sexual ethic, and embracing same-sex marriage, is somehow “OK” with God. In many ways, I wish I could believe that. I want my friends to be happy, and if same-sex marriage brings them that happiness, I wish for them to experience that happiness.

The problem is that I find no room in the teaching of Scripture for sanctioning and blessing same-sex marriage, within the Christian church. Instead, I trust that God can provide other ways for my friends to experience intimacy and fulfilling friendship, without same-sex erotic relations, in a manner that brings God the glory. One can live without sex, but one can not live without friendship. Because I am tethered to the authority of Scripture, that is the position that I must take (Look here for an expansive treatment on this issue).

Wanting for something to be true simply does not make it true.

 

The Dangers of Wishful Thinking: Some Touchy Theological Issues (Women Serving as Elders in a Local Church??)

Here is another divisive issue in some quarters, though not nearly as serious as the previous topic of same-sex marriage. This is not a hill I am going to die on, yet I have some important concerns about how the Scriptures are interpreted: For years, I wanted to believe that God desired women to serve in the same ways that men serve in the leadership of the church. I was actually a pretty opinionated egalitarian, believing that women can and should serve as elders/overseers, or presbyters, in a local church, which is in contrast with nearly all forms of complementarian theology.

Before anyone misrepresents my position (see this series of blog posts that examine this issue in great detail), I am still convinced that Scripture allows for and encourages women to serve in an incredibly wide variety of leadership functions, ranging from deacons, to church planters, to parachurch ministry workers, to ministry directors, to small group teachers and leaders, to members of a church board of directors, to theologians, to Bible scholars, and to prophets (Some of my more conservative complementarian friends these days think that my list is way, way too broad!). In fact, a lot of the research done, particularly over the past thirty years by egalitarian Bible scholars, has brought about a better sense of balance in our modern Bible translations. However, when I began to focus on the question of women serving specifically as elders/overseers in local churches, I have had to really rethink through the arguments and evidence presented in the New Testament.

I have many, many dear Christian friends of mine who are convinced in their own minds that Paul’s restrictions against women serving as elders/overseers in a local church, as found in 1 Timothy and Titus, are merely temporary commands, or otherwise they are commands limited to specific cultural circumstances and concerns found in first century Ephesus and Crete, respectively (where Timothy and Titus were). I held that view for a long time, too, so I am very sympathetic and respectful of such viewpoints. Those who disagree with me truly love Jesus, care deeply about winning others to the Gospel, and seek to honor and love the Scriptures.

In fact, I would argue that probably the best argument for an egalitarian reading of 1 Timothy 2:8-15 suggests that Paul is only forbidding the women of Ephesus from exercising spiritual authority and teaching because they might have been promoting Gnostic heresy.  I just no longer find that argument convincing. So, I must respectfully “agree to disagree” here with my egalitarian brothers and sisters in Christ, despite how much it pains me that we lack unity in this area.

But as I have studied the evidence more I have come to the conclusion that Paul’s view against having women serve as elders is not limited to the 1st century church in Ephesus or Crete, nor is this a temporary decree. Women have served in leadership in a wide variety of ways, particularly during the early church era. For example, the evidence for women serving as deacons, as early as the first decade of the second century, is overwhelming. However, the only time you find women specifically serving as elders/overseers during the early church era was in some extraordinary corner cases, and more commonly in heretical Christian movements, such as the Arians, the Montanists,  and the Gnostics, that were condemned across the board by the early leaders of the Christian church. Otherwise, the early church rejected the notion of having women serve as local church elders. Such evangelical luminaries as Tim Keller agree with me on these observations, as well as Francis Chan. (A quick note: this has nothing to do with women serving in the marketplace. Extreme complementarians try to force the Bible to inappropriately restrict women here… whoops, just made some complementarians mad!  Oh, well!!)

Furthermore, aside from certain evangelical egalitarian scholars, you will not find any scholars today, either conservative or liberal, who accept the arguments that the Paul of 1 Timothy and Titus would have endorsed women serving as elders/overseers in a local church. Instead, I have come to see that there is a powerful sacramentalist understanding of why Paul thought the way that he did, that does not fit the stereotype of chauvinism. Rather, a sacramentalist interpretation celebrates the mystery of the difference between male and female. Now, I can understand why other Christians are so troubled by the thought that Scripture forbids women to serve as local church elders. I wish I was wrong here, and perhaps new evidence will emerge that changes the story, but I find it necessary to follow the evidence that we already have.

Wanting for something to be true simply does not make it true.

 

Wishful Thinking In the Midst of Struggle

Do I still struggle with issues surrounding the doctrine of hell, slavery, non-violence, how best to support my same-sex attracted friends, and charges of misogyny in the Bible? Sure I do. Only the most hardened conservative would fail to wrestle with these difficult issues. But hiding behind the thin veneer of wishful thinking has caused more harm than good.

When Christians are willing to fudge the data in order to make a case for something important to them, even if the intentions are good, it casts some serious doubt on the reliability of the Christian witness. It can come across as cheating. A bad apologetic can become fuel for the fire for the skeptic of Christianity.

 

Analyzing the Evidence for the Most Important Teaching in the Bible: The Resurrection

There are much more fundamental matters at stake. The bedrock of the Christian faith is the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus Christ. If the Resurrection of Jesus is true, then Christianity is true, period! But if the Resurrection of Jesus did not happen, then even the Apostle Paul admits that our faith would be in vain.

But how do we know if Jesus really rose from the dead? Is that, too, also a product of wishful thinking? Is there sufficient evidence to support the truthfulness of the Resurrection of Jesus?

I have non-believing friends of mine who have challenged me with this question: “What would it take to prove to you, Clarke, that your belief in Christianity is a false belief? What would convince you that the Resurrection was untrue?”

My first instinct is to say that if you can produce the bones of Jesus, that would convince me that the Resurrection of Jesus was false. But in thinking about it some more, this is a bit of cheating. For how could you reliably find out if you actually had the bones of Jesus? How would you go about doing DNA testing, to figure out if you even had a match on Jesus’ bones? That is a pretty unrealistic way to try to falsify something.

A more realistic way of trying to falsify a belief in the Resurrection of Jesus would be to focus on the reliability of those early witnesses to the Risen Jesus. For if one can demonstrate that those witnesses were somehow unreliable and deceptive, it would cast some serious doubt on the Resurrection claim.

As a young college student, I often heard the claim from Christian apologists, that with the exception of the Apostle John, every single one of the original apostles died a martyr’s death. That claim helped me to be convinced that Jesus really rose from the dead. Plus, I really wanted this to be true. So, it was quite a blow to me to learn that this claim was overstated. A few of the early apostles were indeed martyred, like Peter, Paul, and James, but the others probably died natural deaths. In several cases, we simply do not know for sure.

Wanting for something to be true simply does not make it true.

However, the rest of the story is vitally important. While not all of the apostles died as martyrs, is important to note that we have no evidence whatsoever that any of the early witnesses to the Resurrection ever denied their faith. None! Given the remarkableness of the Christian claim for the Resurrection, it is reasonable to conclude that they probably would have died for that belief, if the prospect of martyrdom became unavoidable. Just compare that with the story about the Book of Mormon, where several of the early witnesses to Joseph Smith’s story of the Golden Plates eventually did deny their earlier testimony regarding seeing the Golden Plates.

We still have good evidence that indeed the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is true, and not merely a product of wishful thinking.

When evaluating evidence for any truth claim, we must always keep in mind that we all have experiences that cause us to weight certain type of evidence as being more crucial than other types of evidence. We all have biases that can cloud our thinking. We all make certain assumptions that tend to shape the method we use, in which we discover truth.

But one of the most important challenges for us is to be willing take a reality check on our wishful thinking, to see if the evidence really stacks up in favor of what we believe, and often more honestly, what we want to believe is true.

This blog post has been a really L-O-N-G introduction to what might possibly the most important debate of all time. This might seem like an exaggeration, but here are the details.

  • Bart Ehrman is probably one of the world’s most recognizable skeptics of the Bible, a former Christian, who does not believe that Jesus bodily rose from the dead.
  • Michael Licona is an evangelical Christian, and a New Testament scholar, who has written one of most cogent defenses of the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus.
  • Both Bart Ehrman and Michael Licona have debated one another several times, and they are both friends, even though they strongly disagree with one another about the historicity of the Resurrection.
  • On April 9, 2022, Ehrman and Licona will debate the topic once again, but this time, it will be “The Debate to End All Debates!” This debate is scheduled to last SEVEN HOURS. That’s right: 7 hours!!
  • To view the debate, you need to sign up for pay-per-view, which will give you lifetime access to the debate material.
  • Check out the following video by Michael Licona, describing how the debate will work.
  • Join me in praying for Michael Licona, for what will be an incredibly informative and thoughtful debate, that will test the stamina of both scholars!

 


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