Be Thinking

There are many apologetics web-sites on the Internet.  Some are better than others.  I have seen some of the worst but thankfully there are some good ones as well.  A good one that I have come across is www.bethinking.org that is particularly rich in audio files.  Check it out, you might find something in your area of interest.

What Have They Done With Jesus?

I just finished reading What Have They Done With Jesus? Beyond Strange Theories and Bad History – Why We Can Trust the Bible by Ben Witherington III.  I like Ben Witherington’s stuff and I read his blog regularly.  However, I was disappointed in this book in a way.  The disappointment is actually with the title.  It sounds as if the book is dealing with the bizarre biblical theories that are out there in a way similar to Craig Evans’ Fabricating Jesus.  Although Witherington’s book touches on these ideas briefly (there is an appendix on James Tabor’s Jesus Dynastyand there is some great work on the Gnostic gospels), it really is a study on important figures of the New Testament.  Witherington has interesting chapters on such figures as Joanna, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus, Peter, the Beloved Disciple, James and Paul.  Despite my disappointment in how the title does not reflect the content, it actually is an extremely good study.  Some interesting theories that Witherington promotes is that the Joanna of the Gospels is the Apostle Junia of Paul’s letters and the Beloved Disciple and author of John’s Gospel is actually Lazarus whom Jesus raised in John 11.  I find this last theory very interesting and I think Witherington puts forward a very good argument.  The chapters on James the brother of Jesus is also very good.  Although not strictly an apologetic book, What Have They Done With Jesus? is a great example of how scholars should piece together biblical data.  I recommend this book.

Virgin Birth

How much of the Gospel accounts about Jesus are historical?  What actually happened in Jesus’ life and what was the invention of the Gospel writers?  E.P. Sanders says in his book The Historical Figure of Jesus, “The clearest cases of invention are in the birth narratives.” (p. 85)  Sanders then goes on to describe a number of descrepencies between the accounts of Matthew and Luke to demonstrate that they are inventions by the evangelists.  First of all, we must remember that our job is not to prove that the Gospels pass the standards of 21st century historical method.  These are first century historical accounts and they are completely in line with those standards.  I won’t go through every one of Sanders objections but I will mention one.  Sanders says that is very unlikely that Joseph would have to go back to Bethlehem, the home of his ancestor David, because Joseph would have had millions of ancestors.  Why pick this one?  Well, King David is not just any ancestor.  Part of Joseph’s identity would be in his belonging to the line of David.  Also, the word for inn does not have to mean an inn in our modern sense.  It could just as easily have been the family home.  Perhaps Joseph was originally from Bethlehem and his family was still living there.  Because so much of the family had returned to the home there was no room for Joseph and Mary.  Joseph was just going back where he was born and had originally lived before moving to Nazareth.

Again, I want to stress that our job is not to prove that every verse of the Bible fits with every other verse but rather to determine what actually happened with Jesus.  Was there a virgin birth?  To determine if there is a historical event behind a narrative, we like to see at least two independent accounts.  We have to watch with the Gospels because we know that Matthew and Luke used Mark.  Just because the same event is described in the same way in all three does not mean that we have three sources, in those cases we likely only have one and that is Mark’s.  How does the virgin birth fit into this?  When we examine Matthew and Luke’s accounts, we quickly see that this is not a copying of the same account.  These are two separate and independent traditions about the virgin birth, one focusing on Joseph and the other on Mary.  This is exactly what we want to see in making a historical judgment.

So where did the virgin birth traditions come from?  Some critics suggest that the evangelists constructed a life of Jesus by compiling various Old Testament texts and putting it in a historical framework.  Matthew 1:23 quotes Isaiah 7:14 about a virgin giving birth and so perhaps that was the inspiration for the whole tradition.  The problem is that the Hebrew word for virgin is almah which is more properly ‘young woman.’  While most young women would have been virgins, the point is that the Jews were not sitting around waiting for a virgin to give birth to the Messiah, it was not a part of their expectations.  What seems to have happened is that a tradition about Jesus being born to a virgin already existed and Matthew wanting to show how Jesus fit with the Old Testament found the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) version where almah is translated into parthenos or virgin.  So in this case, the historical tradition came before the Scriptural proof.

Others look for a pagan origin.  The Roman author Suetonius describes the Emperor Augustus as being conceived when his mother was in the temple of Apollo.  Therefore, the evangelists are trying to set Jesus as the true Lord in comparison to the Roman lord Augustus.  The problem is that Suetonius was born in 69 AD and that the Gospels were long written by the time he wrote The Twelve Caesars. We also know that Suetonius was aware of the Christians and wrote about them.  Who influenced who?  Other attempts at pagan origins include Horus and Mithra.  Mithra was born from a rock, which I suppose is a virgin, but far from the idea in the Gospels.  Horus was conceived when Isis had sexual intercourse with her dead husband Osiris.  Not exactly a virgin birth!

While there are details in the accounts of Matthew and Luke that we do not understand, the best explanation is that they were recording two independent traditions about Jesus’ virgin birth that went back to a historical event.

Book Reviews

I just had three book reviews published in the Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism.  They include N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God, Darrell Bock’s The Missing Gospels and Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.  All three books are valuable for Christian apologetics and you are welcome to read the reviews to see if these books would be helpful in the areas of your interest.  You can purchase each of these books (Resurrection of the Son of God, Missing Gospels, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses at http://apologiaresources.blogspot.com.

Resurrection and History

Dr. John Dickson has an interesting article on the resurrection that you can find here.  I like what he says even if it might not be far enough for many Christians.  Dickson attempts to find a balance between apologists who attempt to prove every minute detail of the biblical accounts and skeptics that deny pretty much everything in the biblical account.  He takes a look at the biblical accounts and argues that there is a solid historical account, although it still takes faith to accept that what the disciples thought they saw was indeed a resurrected Jesus.  I like the way Dickson deals with the skeptics and he has good advice for Christian apologists.  It is a fairly short article and is well worth the read.

Testamonium Flavianum

When we look for the evidence of the historical Jesus, we must spend time dealing with the first century Jewish historian Josephus.  Josephus wrote a number of books including one called the Antiquities of the Jews.  This is a history of the Jews from creation to the Jewish War of 70 AD.  If Jesus existed, you would expect that he would get some mention from Josephus and he does.  In Antiquities 18:63-64 we read this:

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared to them restored to life, for the prophets of God had prophesied these and countless other marvelous things about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.

Critics who suggest that Jesus never existed must wrestle with this passage. If you do not believe that this is an issue, see my recent debate with atheist apologist Rook Hawkins here. The problem is that Josephus’ account looks too Christian for a Jew to write. Most scholars accept the fact that later Christian writers tampered with the passage to make it more Christian. However, this passage is still of use to us. Scholars have been able to reconstruct the passage as to what it likely looked like before the Christians got to it.

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man… For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks… When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him… And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.

Despite this reconstruction, there are some critics who claim that the entire passage is a forgery (afterall this passage is a great embarassment to those who reject the historicity of Jesus). Is this true? The evidence does point to a testimony of Jesus by Josephus that once lacked the Christian additions. Evidence for this is found in the early church father Origen (185-254 AD). In Origen’s writings (Contra Celsum i. 47, Commentary on Matthew x. 17) he discusses what Josephus says about John the Baptist, James and Jesus. In both passages, Origen says that Josephus did not accept Jesus as the Christ. This suggests that Origen knew a version of Josephus that mentioned Jesus but did not include the Christian additions. The Testamonium Flavianum continues to be a major piece of evidence for the historical Jesus.

Fabricating Jesus

I just finished reading Craig A. Evans’ Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels.  This was one of the best books on apologetics that I have ever read.  Evans tackles the Jesus Seminar, John Dominic Crossan, Bart Ehrman, Dan Brown, Barbara Thiering, Talpiot Tomb, Tom Harpur and more.  You might wonder how any one author or book could deal with such variety.  Evans does it, not just by the short reponses that he does give, but through an indepth look at the core issues that are the foundation of such diverse radical interpretations.  Key texts are included in side-bars so that readers can judge for themselves, instead of just relying on any of the modern authors.  Particularly helpful is Evans’ treatment of gnostic gospels such as Thomas, Peter, Egerton Gospel, Mary and the Secret Gospel of Mark.  Of course I also appreciate the fact that Evans cites our book, Unmasking the Pagan Christ, in his notes.  Evans describes the aim of his book in this way:

Fabricating Jesus is designed to speak to a variety of readers.  First, this book is written to assist anyone who is confused by the wild theories and conflicting portraits of Jesus, the claims that he really didn’t see himself as the Messiah or as God’s Son, or that the New Testament Gospels are not trustworthy, or that other sources are better or at least equally valid, and so forth.  Second, the book is written for people who are interested in Jesus and the New Testament Gospels and want to learn more but are baffled by the strange books that have appeared in recent years.  I hope you haven’t given up.  Third, it is written for skeptics, especially those prone to fall for some old nineteenth-century philosophical hokum that almost no one today holds.  Fourth, Fabricating Jesus is written for the guild, for the scholars whose profession is to investigate the Gospels and the life and teachings of Jesus, in hope that it may call us not to a lesser standard of scholarship but indeed to a higher one, one which doesn’t presume that skepticism equals scholarship.  (p. 17)

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and if there is one book on apologetics that I have read in recent years that I would recommend to others, it is Fabricating Jesus.

Wine into Water

I have a new article published in the McMaster Journal of Theology and Ministry. It is a response to Tom Harpur’s latest book, Water into Wine. My article is entitled “Turning Wine into Water: Tom Harpur and the “Re-Mythologization” of the Gospels.” I do not intend to build a career out of battling Tom Harpur. He lives in my community, I think he is a nice person and we are friendly to each other when we meet. But I do feel an obligation to provide the other side of the story when people offer radical interpretations of the Gospel. Hopefully this article will be helpful for those confused by Harpur’s claims about the Pagan Christ.

The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?

One of my favourite biblical scholars and writers is F.F. Bruce (1910-1990).  Bruce’s career was the beginning of a renaissance in evangelical Christian scholarship.  Bruce demonstrated that it was possible to be faithful to high levels of scholarship and the truth of the Bible.  He inspired countless other evangelicals to continue to bridge this gap. 

I recently read F.F. Bruce’s book, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?  This is an older book, first written in 1943 and last updated in 1960 (although my copy contains footnotes for books into the 1970’s).  Despite its age, this book is a classic among Christian apologetic works, both in style and content.  Bruce provides a great model of how to defend the Scriptures in a scholarly and faithful manner.  The content of this book still stands as well.  Much of what he argues against and for are the same discussions that continue today.  He demonstrates in a skillful and understandable way that the New Testament passes every test of authenticity.  These are the chapters in the book: 1) Does It Matter, 2) The New Testament Documents: Their Date and Attestation, 3) The Canon of the New Testament, 4) The Gospels, 5) The Gospel Miracles. 6) The Importance of Paul’s Evidence, 7) The Writings of Luke, 8) More Archaeological Evidence, 9) The Evidence of Early Jewish Writings and 10) The Evidence of Early Gentile Writers.  This book is written at a level that contains enough value to be useful for scholars but is still accessible to laypeople.  It is short (only 120 pages) and deserves to be in the library of everyone interested in apologetics.

I would like to conclude with a great statement by F.F. Bruce, words that are still important for us to hear:

Some writers may toy with the fancy of a ‘Christ-myth’, but they do not do so on the ground of historical evidence. The historicity of Christ is as axiomatic for an unbiased historian as the historicity of Julius Caesar. It is not historians who propagate the ‘Christ-myth’ theories. (p. 119)

Jesus Now and Then

I just finished reading a book called Jesus Now and Then by Richard Burridge and Graham Gould.  The book is divided into two section written by each author: one on the New Testament and the other on church history.  Both sections of the book focus on what Christians were saying about Jesus, especially in terms of his divinity.  There is also a helpful section on the historicity of Jesus.  I actually found the second part most useful, especially the summary of early heresies, church councils and the development of the doctrine of the Trinity.  This book is well done, but it is not aimed at scholars.  In fact this is its strength, it is aimed at the general reader and yet is able to clearly and accessibly present the relevant material in an understandable way.  Key terms and events are defined in information boxes found throughout the book.  For anyone interested in a good solid introduction to New Testament and early church understandings of Jesus, Jesus Now and Then is a worthwhile investment.