Tag Archives: Christmas

Earthrise: 50 Years Since Apollo 8

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*SIGH*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes:

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

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

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


A Fake-News Jesus? Why “Jesus Myth-ers” Should Take a Trip to Rome … (for Christmas)

After Thanksgiving, I was greeted by the following Tweet message being passed around from Harvard psychologist, Steven Pinker:

Pinker is a brilliant cognitive psychologist, linguist, and popular science author, but apparently he needs some help with his history. This new book by R. G. Price is hoping to popularize the notion of “Jesus Mythicism,” namely that Jesus of Nazareth never existed. Perhaps such “Jesus Myth-ers” should consider taking a trip to Rome, and dig a little through history.

This idea that Jesus never existed has really taken off over the past few years, picking up a lot of intrigued interest among atheists, that apparently now includes Steven Pinker, even as early as two years ago!  If professor Pinker has no opportunity to go to Rome anytime soon, say in time for Christmas, he might want to consider reading material from Tim O’Neill, a fellow atheist, who gets his history right, as discussed months ago here at Veracity. The details are too much to go into here, but O’Neill’s series on “Jesus Mythicism” is simply fantastic, where he basically argues that “Jesus Mythicism” is roughly the atheist equivalent of the belief in a “Flat Earth,” being promoted by some conservative Christians.

I guess we all have our embarrassing, crazy family members to deal with at holiday family gatherings.

But why is Rome important when it comes to talking about “Jesus Mythicism?” (… and why Christmas?)

Price’s self-published book is a revisionist reading of the Gospels, but “Jesus Myth-ers” more commonly make a different, yet just as historically convoluted, argument. Long time Veracity readers would know that those who promote “Jesus Mythicism” often say that Christianity stole much of its belief system from the Roman cult of worshipping Mithras, popular among Roman soldiers during the first centuries of the Christian era. For example, “Jesus Myth-ers” typically contend that the Christian claim, of Jesus being “born of a virgin,” at Christmas, was actually taken from the Mithraic religion, which supposedly claimed that Mithras was also “born of a virgin,” on December 25th.

Tim O’Neill has a great (yet long) post about the cult of Mithras, that should effectively dismantle such spurious claims (O’Neill has another great post that critiques R. G. Price’s own, even more peculiar version of “Jesus Mythicism,” that does not address the Mithras religion). The evidence to support the claim, that Mithras was “born of a virgin” on December 25th, is either non-existent or terribly “stupid” at best (“stupid” is how Price’s “fellow” atheist, Tim O’Neill, describes it!).

So, when my wife and I had the opportunity to go visit Rome earlier this year, I was determined to find out more about Mithras myself…. just to make sure.

The Mithras cult was a big deal in ancient Rome, and there are several places in Rome where archaeologists have found Mithraic temples buried well below buildings from the later Christian era. The closest modern equivalent to Mithraism might be the Masonic movement. Imagine a fraternity of like-minded, Roman soldiers coming together to perform sacred rituals, with all of their secret handshakes, and whatnot.

It helps to have an idea of what Mithras looked like. I was able to get this snapshot below of Mithras stabbing the cosmic bull, at the Vatican Museums. It was hard to get a good, front-on shot, due to the crowds, but this is what I saw: That is a dagger in his right hand, being thrust into the right shoulder side of the bull:

Mithras slaying the cosmic bull, at the Vatican Museums (from Clarke Morledge’s Android phone)

Tours to see the archaeological remains of these Mithraic temples were hard to get, as the spaces to get into these underground areas were pretty tight. Thankfully, we were able to go to the Basilica of San Clemente, a church in the Lateran part of Rome, which has a unique, multi-layered architecture. At the main entrance (see photo below), of the church, you enter the main sanctuary, built in the 11th century.

Entrance to the Basilica of San Clemente, in Rome, Italy (my wife has her back to me, as she is reading the entrance sign to the far right of the door).

From the sanctuary, I was able to walk to the church’s courtyard to get a better outside look, facing the entrance to the sanctuary:

Basilica of San Clemente courtyard, on a beautiful day in Rome (October, 2018)

Below that level is a 4th century church, which itself was built out of a home temporarily used for Christian worship, dating back to the 1st century. In the basement of this home, was a Mithraic temple, that was in use briefly in the 2nd century A.D.

Apparently, the Christians were here in this house first, before the Mithras worshippers got to the basement. The docent we had was pursuing graduate studies in Italian history, and she was a wealth of information about all things Mithras. Not one word about the supposed parallels between Christianity and Mithraism came up. We were not allowed to take photographs inside the church or underground, but this photo comes from the guidebook you can buy from the church’s bookstore:

Basement Mithraic temple, underneath the Basilica of San Clemente (from the church guidebook). Note the relief image of Mithras stabbing the cosmic bull, on the altar.

Once you do a little “digging” (pun intended!), you get the idea that far from being a copycat faith that stole from Mithraism, Christianity is actually quite different. Neither Mithraism nor Christianity lines up anything like what the “Jesus Myth-ers” imagine them to be.

Sure, the fact that Mithraism and Christianity are very different, does not necessarily mean that Christianity is true. A strong consensus of scholars is convinced that Jesus indeed did exist, even if many of these scholars reject the idea of God becoming Incarnate at Christmas. There are atheists, like Stephen Pinker, R. G. Price, and the more historically astute, Tim O’Neill, who do not “buy into” the Christian claim of Jesus being risen from the dead. I pray that God might touch their hearts and minds in a manner that they might see the Risen Jesus clearly.

But at the very least, the trip to Rome that my wife and I took helps to confirm that when someone says “Merry Christmas,” it is not just a clever way of saying “Merry Mithras” instead.

 

Listen to Nick Peters’ Deeper Water’s apologetics podcast, where Nick interviews Tim O’Neill discussing Jesus’ Mythicism. Tim O’Neill wrote a short review of Steven Pinker’s 2011 best-selling book, Better Angels of Our Nature, that should cause any Pinker enthusiast to pause. Steven Pinker and Nick Spencer debate one another, on the Unbelievable podcast, hosted by Justin Brierley, earlier in 2018, on the topic, “Have Science, Reason and Humanism Replaced Faith? (Youtube)” New Testament scholar N.T. Wright responds to Steven Pinker’s claim, that human rights were not derived from Christianity (Youtube).

 


Andy Stanley, and Critics Who Shoot First, and Ask Questions Later

Megachurch pastor Andy Stanley. Promoter of Biblical truth... or compromiser?

Atlanta Megachurch pastor Andy Stanley is in trouble again with a number of his fellow evangelical leader friends… or have his “friends” succumbed to a “Shoot First, Ask Questions Later” approach to evaluating his preaching?

Do you “fact check” what you read on social media, or any other source of news and information, particularly when it involves a controversial matter of grave concern?

I had just come back from a Christmas trip to visit family, when I ran across a Patheos blog article with the alarming title, “Andy Stanley: Please Relent or Step Down from Pastoral Ministry.” Mmmm…. Yet another scandal among God’s people? A megachurch pastor gone astray? What embarrassment for the Christian faith is it this time?

In this article, the author compares Andy Stanley, a megachurch pastor in Atlanta, and son of popular Bible-teacher Charles Stanley, with the mid-20th century liberal minister, Henry Emerson Fosdick, and a modern-day prosperity doctrine guru, Joel Osteen. Wow! If you know anything about evangelical theology, these are serious charges to lay against any evangelical pastor.

Andy Stanley’s preaching faux pas, per the Patheos blogger, was taken from an early December 2016 sermon delivered by Andy Stanley, regarding Christmas and the difficulty that many people in our secularized culture today have believing in the Virgin Birth of Jesus. Our scientific world has tested the credibility of such miracles, and so, many wonder if the Virgin Birth is not some type of man-made fiction. In responding to the doubts of many, Stanley was partially quoted in a Washington Post article as saying, “If somebody can predict their own death and resurrection, I’m not all that concerned about how they got into the world.”

What does that mean?

The Patheos blogger I was reading, along with a wide variety of other Internet bloggers and Christian media outlets, since early December, took this to mean that Stanley believes that the Virgin Birth is not an essential matter of Christian faith. Others interpret this by saying that Stanley was “questioning the significance of the virgin birth.” Even the venerable president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Al Mohler, took exception to Stanley’s statement as quoted by the Washington Post, on a recent “The Briefing” podcast (though it should be noted to Dr. Mohler’s credit that he did not name Stanley directly):

If Jesus was not born of the virgin then the Bible cannot be trusted when it comes to telling us the story of Jesus, and that mistrust cannot be limited to how he came to us in terms of the incarnation. The fact is that biblical Christianity and ultimately the Gospel of Christ cannot survive the denial of the virgin birth. Because without the virgin birth, you end up with a very different Jesus than the fully human, fully divine savior revealed in scripture.

Now, I agree with folks like Al Mohler that the Virgin Birth is an essential doctrine to Christian faith. It is one of the historic, fundamental beliefs of Christianity, not to mention the entire foundation for the Christmas story. But is it accurate to say or imply that pastor Andy Stanley is now denying the essential doctrine of the Virgin Birth?

Upon reading and hearing these things, I harkened back to another controversy that pastor Andy Stanley had earlier in 2016, a story covered here at Veracity (part #1 and part #2).  In that controversy, Stanley was accused of denying Biblical inerrancy. Yet strangely enough, Stanley made his own defense by appealing to one of Stanley’s teachers and mentors, Norman Geisler, who was glad to offer support for Stanley. Norman Geisler was one of the primary architects behind the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy, articulated in the 1970s. So, it really is strange to imagine that Andy Stanley, an enthusiastic student of Geisler’s, would find himself accused of denying Biblical inerrancy, then defended by Norman Geisler, and then still be accused by some of his fellow evangelical leaders as being “dangerous.”

Strange. Very strange indeed.

It reminds me of something Yogi Berra might have said: It is like “deja vu all over again.” Continue reading


%d bloggers like this: