Archive for the ‘Jesus’ Category
Consider this perhaps familiar scenario: A controversial theory is made that challenges the core beliefs of a faith rooted in history, embedded in an attractive, popular and entertainment-oriented format which masquerades as scholarship…
Like the cultural fallout of the The DaVinci Code, James Cameron’s documentary, “The Lost Tomb of Jesus,” makes strident claims about the central figure of Christianity, Jesus himself, yet takes them even further than even Dan Brown. The substance of the claims of the documentary is that an opulent tomb containing 10 ossuaries, 6 of which are inscribed with Biblically familiar names, actually contains the remains of Jesus of Nazareth and his family- including his wife, Mary Magdalene (or in this case, “Mary, the Master”) and their child, Judah! No doubt the discussion will be passionate, and perhaps last as long as the post-DaVinci Code activity did. However, central to any discussion will likely be the same question: Who was Jesus?
I have already seen numerous opinions written in the last several days that in response to the discovery of the so-called “Jesus Tomb,” Christians should do the reasonable thing and accept the facts, “Jesus’ bones have been found. He was not bodily resurrected. He is dead. You’ve been duped! But, I suppose you can still be a Christian. After all, Jesus is more powerful as an idea rather than a person. Ideas change people. That’s all we have!” I must strongly disagree. If it were to be proven somehow that these remains are in fact those of Jesus and his family, and that he was not resurrected, the reasonable response would not be to adapt the Christian faith and reconstruct its theology to fit the predicament and worship a symbol. The reasonable response would be to abandon the Christian faith altogether (what this would mean for theism is another argument). The apostle Paul spoke to this idea when he wrote in his first letter to the church of Corinth, “and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.”
Ultimately, faith cannot be in a symbol. Symbols are interpreted in light of many things, often subjective in nature. They can mean vastly different things to different people. Yet, the Christian faith and its understanding of who Jesus was has always been based upon specific events in history and the people involved in those events. The primary meaning of these events is not subjective, but the foundation upon which Christian theology is understood. The meaning and power of these events and people have no value if they are not true! There are many beautiful stories that were never intended to be anything other than fiction, and though their ideas and symbols have persevered through the generations, placing faith in them in the way Christians do in Jesus Christ, would be absurd.
In the same way, no man, no matter how wise a teacher or influential a revolutionary, aught to be the object of faith or worship; for so long as he is a man, he can reach no further or do no more than those who may mistakenly place their faith in him. The man who accepts worship and acts as if he were God without having a shred of divinity is, as famously put by C.S. Lewis, either a lunatic or a liar, neither of which is worthy of worship. But, if He truly is Lord, then worship Him we must!
While we have little reason to think that this particular find bears any threat to the truths of the Christian faith, we must not entertain any notion of diluting it simply to avoid the challenges we are sure to face. We must consider it yet another opportunity to respond to the question that Jesus asked of His disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”
A tomb discovered in Jerusalem has been the subject of much media attention in recent days. A Time Magazine blog entry, entitled “Jesus: Tales from the Crypt” (http://time-blog.com/middle_east/2007/02/jesus_tales_from_the_crypt.html?iid=feed-middle_east) has been heavily viewed, as has the Discovery Channel interactive site that details much of the information known about the tomb (http://dsc.discovery.com/convergence/tomb/tomb.html).
Though the tomb and its contents (10 ossuaries, 6 of which have inscriptions, as well as 3 unidentified skulls) have not yet been evaluated to the satisfaction of most interested parties, enough information has been gathered so far as to merit discussion. My initial impression is that much of the alleged evidence that has been interpreted as proof that the tomb discovered in 1980 was indeed that of the Biblical Jesus and his family is gaining such widespread attention now based upon an excellent and intentional public relations effort and hype rather than its own validity. However, I will be paying close attention to this story as it develops further.
Most of the information that will be revealed at the coming press conference and Discovery Channel documentary produced by Hollywood director James Cameron is known at this point. I have detailed below what I think are several strong points of contention.
It should be wondered whether a humble Galilean family would have been able to afford what is obviously an opulent and grand tomb for its time, or whether they would have located that tomb in Jerusalem rather than their own home. Though tradition recounts that James, the brother of Jesus, came to believe in Jesus as messiah and lead what became the early church in Jerusalem, it is also known that he was stoned to death by the Jewish Sanhedrin in approximately AD 62. This is an important fact because the nature of his death would lead many historians to conclude that his subsequent burial would not have been likely to be honorable. Additionally, James’ presence in Jerusalem may lead some to conclude that the rest of his family was there as well, though there really is no conclusive evidence to suggest this.
Six of the ten ossuaries in the tomb have inscriptions. They are: “Maria,” the Latin form of Mary, inscribed on the side of the ossuary in Hebrew script; “Matia,” inscribed in Hebrew script; “Yose,” the diminutive of “Yosef,” inscribed in Hebrew script; “Yeshua bar Yosef,” translated “Jesus, son of Joseph,” inscribed in Aramaic lettering; “Mariamene e Mara,” so far translated as “Mary, known as master,” inscribed in Greek lettering; and “Yehuda bar Yeshua,” translated “Judah, son of Jesus,” inscribed in Aramaic lettering on a more decorated façade.
Though the collection of names bears striking resemblance to what we know are names of Jesus’ family, it should be said at the outset that these names were extremely common at that time. Additionally, there are some names from Jesus’ family that are missing from the tomb and some heretofore unknown names present. Joseph, the father of Jesus, does not seem to be present among the ossuaries, unless of course, his is one of the uninscribed. The ossuary inscribed “Yose” is unlikely to be that of the patriarch given that Yose would have been nicknamed this because of his father’s name. The ossuary inscribed “Matia” is puzzling given that the name Matthew has been associated with Jesus because of his disciple, Levi, though not with a member of his immediate family. “Matthan,” a name similar to Matthew, is listed among the genealogy of the Gospel of Matthew as the grandfather of Joseph. It seems doubtful that the two are related as the names themselves are different and the presence of Joseph’s grandfather in the tomb would only further raise the question of Joseph’s absence, as well as why the grandfather’s ossuary would be inscribed but Joseph’s presumably not.
The presence of the ossuary inscribed “Yose” strengthens the circumstantial case, as the name has been listed in the Gospel accounts as being a brother of Jesus. However, there is no other evidence to confirm that this ossuary belonged to the brother of the ossuary inscribed “Yeshua bar Yosef.”
The inscription “Mariamene e mara” is of high interest, especially to those who would like to make a case for the marriage of Jesus to Mary Magdalene. The inscription has been translated “Mary, known as master,” which is strange indeed as it is unlikely that such a description would be given to a woman of that time, no less strange given that her presumed “mastery” bears reference to Jesus himself, yet the ossuary inscribed “Yeshua bar Yosef,” has no other description or title associated with it. If these are indeed the ossuaries of the Biblical figures, why would Mary have such a title and Jesus not? However, it is also possible, if not likely, that the inscription “Mariamene e mara,” could be translated as the diminutive form of “Mariam,” or “Maria.” In any case, none of these translations bear a direct or confirmed link to Mary Magdalene, nor do they really indicate a relationship between the owners of the “Mariamene e mara” ossuary and the “Yeshua bar Yosef” ossuary.
The other ossuary bearing an inscription reads “Yehuda bar Yeshua,” or “Judah, son of Jesus.” There is really no strong evidence to suggest that the Biblical Jesus had a son, nor that he was married (I have discussed this previously here: http://christopherbutler.wordpress.com/2006/04/11/what-about-all-the-other-gospels-part-2/). However, the presence of this inscribed ossuary in a tomb among other common yet Biblically familiar names in no way merits the reinterpretations of Biblical passages widely interpreted to be referring to the disciple John as actually referring to a child- possibly the child of Jesus. Without any additional historical evidence that Jesus had a son, the presence of the Judah ossuary seems to be a strike against the case, not for it.
The Discovery channel site seems to imply that an ossuary inscribed with “Yaakov bar Yosef a khui d’ Yeshua,” or “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus,” in Aramaic, is present along with the others. This is not the case, and is frankly misleading on the part of Discovery. Indeed, an ossuary with this inscription has been found and has been the subject of much discussion given its inscription. Much of the controversy surrounding this ossuary is due to the dismissal of the last part of the inscription, “brother of Jesus,” which some scholars have claimed was added as a forgery to bolster the value of the artifact. Incidentally, the owner of the ossuary, Oded Golan, testified in 2004 that it had been in his possession for over 25 years, and prior to that had been owned by someone else. This means that the James ossuary must have been discovered at least several years prior to the discovery of the intact Talpiot tomb, leading to the conclusion that it was never among the ten ossuaries found there.
Lastly, it seems to me that the linguistic variety of the ossuary inscriptions do not necessarily imply any kind of special status. It seems that the inscription of the “Maria” ossuary is being singled out due to the fact that Maria is the Latin form of Mary. Yet, what of the “Mariamene e mara,” “Yeshua bar Yosef,” and “Yehuda bar Yeshua” ossuaries, which are also inscribed in languages other than Hebrew script? This means that four of the six inscribed ossuaries are not in Hebrew script. Perhaps, then, the Hebrew inscribed ossuaries are the special ones? The statistical evidence, which has been put forth to conclude that the chances that this tomb is not that of Jesus’ family are 600:1 is also quite misleading. It assumes that the “Mariamene e mara” inscription identifies Mary Magdalene. It also does not weigh the presence of the names not associated with Jesus’ family against it, nor does it take in to consideration the presence of unmarked ossuaries. While the collection of names is intriguing, 600:1 in favor of this tomb being that of Jesus’ family seems almost absurd.
The DNA Evidence
According to information released about the tomb, useable tissue samples were only able to be extracted from the ossuaries inscribed “Mariamene e mara” and “Yeshua bar Yosef.” (Jewish law prohibits the bones from being disturbed, so testing has been limited to organic tissue residue found in the ossuaries.) Testing has so far concluded that the occupants of the two ossuaries could not have been maternally related. However, this is a far cry from establishing that the two were married! Though it seems obvious, it should be noted that without an authentic sample of DNA from either the person him/herself or a proven descendant, it is impossible to use DNA sampling to establish the identity of a person. Thus, without an existing sample of DNA from the Biblical Jesus, or a sample from a proven descendant of the Biblical Jesus, no DNA evidence will prove that this ossuary belonged to him.
While the information collected from this tomb might seem to build a convincing case for it being that of the Biblical family, it must be considered along side of all the other information we do know about the family and the circumstances of the early church. The historical validity of the New Testament documents provides ample information about the followers of Jesus, as do the writings of early church fathers and Josephus. Taken as a body of evidence, they certainly suggest that something significant happened to alter the behavior of the disciples and to propel the Christian movement into what it is today. I have written about this previously here: http://christopherbutler.wordpress.com/2006/03/13/the-historical-resurrection-of-jesus-part-3-the-origin-and-perseverance-of-the-church/ and here: http://christopherbutler.wordpress.com/2006/03/11/the-historical-resurrection-of-jesus-part-2-the-empty-tomb/.)
It seems valid at this point to conclude that the evidence that has been released so far is not strong enough to build a case for the Talpiot tomb having belonged to the family of the Biblical Jesus. Indeed, even Amos Kloner, the Bar-Ilan University professor and archaeologist who lead the excavation and subsequent analysis, has been quoted recently, dismissing the hype by saying “It makes a great story for a TV film, but it’s impossible. It’s nonsense. There is no likelihood that Jesus and his relatives had a family tomb. They were a Galilee family with no ties in Jerusalem. The Talpiot tomb belonged to a middle-class family from the 1st century CE.”
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The Historical Resurrection of Jesus, Part 1 (The Pos-Mortem Appearances)
The Historical Resurrection of Jesus, Part 2 (The Empty Tomb)
The Historical Resurrection of Jesus, Part 3 (The Origin and Perseverance of the Church)
The Historical Resurrection of Jesus, Part 4 (Addressing Alternative Explanations)
Related Articles (offsite):
The Discovery Channel interactive site on the “Lost Tomb of Jesus”
The Discovery Channel sponsored “Lost Tomb of Jesus” discussion board
CNN Article posted after the televised press conference:
Ben Witherington’s take on the Talpiot tomb:
Ben Witherington’s second take on the Talpiot tomb:
David Kuo’s take on the Talpiot tomb:
A fair take on some of the scholarly objections on Time.com:
An interesting commentary on the symbols found in the tomb, by Pastor David Janssen (new):
Craig Blomberg’s article on the Talpiot Tomb (new):
Mithraism, as it is germane to Christian historical discussion, was a mystery religion adopted by the Romans in the 1st century A.D. (I am careful with my words here, as Mithraism has a previous historical incantation in ancient Persia, though its relationship to the Roman tradition, in practice and philosophy, is unclear at this point.) Some critics claim that Christianity borrowed from the traditions of Mithraism as a means of attracting followers, though these allegedly adopted Mithraic traditions were not actually authentic to Jesus. I believe it is safe to say that, on the basis of historical scholarship done by secular, Christian and Mithraic-oriented scholars, this claim is thoroughly without serious basis.
According to Mithraic scholar Franz Cumont, the first mention of Mithra was made in a treaty from 1400 B.C. (Other, more recent, scholars place this date at around 700 B.C.) At this time and after, Mithraic tradition indicated Mithra as a deity who gave orders and guidance to the military, as well as dispensed justice to those who broke political treaties. As the religion developed, the Mithraic story grew richer. Mithra became known as the provider of rain, bringing vegetation and health to the people. However, to the Persians who held to this tradition, Mithra was not the supreme deity, but subservient to another god, Varuna, who was specifically associated with the culture’s rice harvest. Some descriptions of Mithra have been translated, “Lord of the Contract,” “Upholder of Truth,” “Peaceful, benevolent protector,” and “Not easily provoked.” Even later mentions of Mithra characterize him again as a warrior, though at some point they seem to have reverted again to depicting him as a pacifist deity. When Zoroastrian religion developed in Persia (estimated at around 440 B.C., according to Herodotus’ The Histories), Mithra’s previous association with treaties developed into his role as a “mediator” between the gods of good and evil, Ohrmazd and Ahriman, respectively. He was considered part of a larger pantheon of seven deities that served the gods of the upper spiritual echelon. In this Mithraic-Zoroastrian incantation, Mithra’s role in the cosmos also included delivering the condemned to hell and the saved to heaven. By the first century B.C., Mithra was still associated with these themes, in addition to having some sort of relationship with the gods Apollos and Hermes.
The Roman Mithraic tradition seems to only be linked to the Persian Mithra by name, though in the Hellenistic and Roman traditions, he is referred to as Mithras (the Greek masculine form of Mithra). The Roman Mithraic story involves the heroic slaying of a sacred bull by Mithras, perhaps an astrological allegory, though the Persian details, treaty enforcement, agriculture, and escorting of souls, seem to no longer apply. According to Roman tradition, Mithras’ heroic slaying of the bull gained him the favor of the sun god. Other than tracking the evolution of the name of Mithras across the two traditions, scholars in the 20th century have failed to establish a substantial link between the two Mithraic traditions in terms of their actual beliefs. Rather, the latest scholarship in regard to Mithras suggests that the Romans founded their version of Mithraism in response to the astrological discovery of the movement of the heavens (now referred to as the precession of the equinoxes). Scholars who advocate the astrological thesis suggest that the Persian name of Mithras was given to the god who they believed orchestrated this movement (Perseus in the Roman tradition) due to an alliance at the time with a leader from Asia Minor named Mithridates and the influence of Mithraic Cilician pirates.
Despite what seems to be an obvious lack of related details between the Mithraic tradition and the origins of Christianity, critics nonetheless allege that certain details of the Christian tradition were adapted, if not outright “stolen” from Mithraism. I will examine some of the more inflammatory claims below:
Like Jesus, Mithras was born of a virgin on December 25th in a cave. His birth was also attended by shepherds.
Many Christians are well aware that there is no Biblical basis for setting the date of the birth of Jesus on December 25th. History shows that this date was introduced as significant to Christ later by the post-apostolic church, no doubt influenced by the multiplicity of sacred festivals occurring at this time. According to Mithraic tradition, Mithras was not born of a virgin in a cave. In fact, Mithras was said to have been born, fully grown, from solid rock; the event leaving a cavity behind. There was no mention of a virgin. Interestingly, the story continues to describe Mithras being helped out of the rock by shepherds, who offer him a pick from their flock. Yet according to Mithraic tradition, Mithras was created prior to the creation of mankind. Consequently, the Mithraic “shepherds” cannot be legitimately compared to those of the Christian tradition. Lastly, the earliest existing record of this narrative is from around 100 years after the manuscripts of the New Testament, leaving no room for claims that the Christian tradition copied the story and attributed it to Jesus. (Note also that the later Persian Mithraic traditions recount his conception through the incestual copulation of the god Ahura-Mazda and his mother. The Christian virgin birth story is principally concerned with the humanity of Mary and God’s role in the creation of Jesus through her. There is no parallel between this and the Mithraic story.)
Mithras was also considered a great traveling teacher and master.
This particular attribute is probably one of the most common identifiers of just about every spiritual leader in history. However, there is no mention in Mithraic tradition of Mithras being an itinerant teacher like Jesus. If this claim is to be taken seriously as evidence that Christian tradition appropriated from Mithraic tradition, one must also take into account the travels and teachings of other spiritual figures like Buddha, Krishna, Muhammed, etc.
Mithras had 12 disciples.
The Persian Mithra was often associated with the god Varuna, such that one might infer that they were considered a pair. However, in this tradition Mithra is short 10 companions. In the Roman tradition, Mithras was accompanied by two entities, created after his own image, named Cautes and Catopatres. They have been said to represent day and night or spring and fall or life and death. Mithras was also associated with the snake, the dog, the lion, and the scorpion, likely due to the astrological origin of the Roman tradition. Still, Mithras’ companions only add up to 6 at most, taking all into account. Some claim that a Mithraic stone carving, which depicts the famous bull scene with one vertical row of six images on each side, proves the “12 disciples” connection. However, most current Mithraic scholarship attributes these to zodiac representations. In addition to acknowledging that since the carving itself dates to well after the time of Jesus, any connections to the Christian tradition of 12 disciples would have to implicate Mithraism as the copycat, not Christianity. In the other direction, one would have to claim that Christianity stole the number twelve from astrology- likely a much more difficult case to make.
Mithras offered eternal life to his followers.
Like the “traveling teacher” connection, this claim no more implicates Christianity as it does just about every religious tradition that posits life after death. Incidentally, the only specific mention of a Mithraic offer of eternal life to his followers exists in a piece of writing dated to 200 A.D., which has been translated, “and us, too, you saved by spilling the eternal blood.” In Mithraic tradition, the blood is not the blood of Mithras, but that of the bull he slaughtered, and “saved” referred to being approved to ascend through other levels toward immortality. It was clearly not the same type of salvation that is taught in Christian theology.
Mithras performed miracles.
While both the Iranian Mithra and the Roman Mithras traditions recount acts of great power done by Mithra(s), this is hardly an incriminating fact. Like the teaching and offering of immortality, this is another common attribute of any religious figure. To make this claim worthwhile, one would have to show similarities in type of miracle (i.e. Mithras walked on water, healed the blind, or raised the dead).
Mithras sacrificed himself for mankind.
Some Mithraic scholars have tried to depict Mithras and the bull he had slain as one and the same, construing the story to represent that Mithras gave his own life. However, the narrative in no way suggests this. At best, Mithras could be considered heroic for his victory over the bull, though more likely is the modern interpretation that the bull slaying story corresponded to astrological themes. However, this has no comparison to the Christian claim that Jesus died as atonement for the sins of mankind.
Mithras was buried in a tomb, and after three days, He rose again.
In Prescription Against Heretics, Tertullian writes, “if my memory still serves me, Mithra there, (in the kingdom of Satan), sets his marks on the foreheads of his soldiers; celebrates also the oblation of bread, and introduces an image of a resurrection, and before a sword wreathes a crow.” This is the only reference from which some Mithraic scholars claim a correlation between Mithraic and Christian traditions. Unfortunately, having been written after the New Testament, there is no evidence that what it describes predates Christianity. Nor is there really any compelling aspect to Tertullian’s description that would indicate that these practices were authentic to Mithraism or even appropriately compared to Christian tradition.
Mithras said, “He who shall not eat of my body nor drink of my blood so that he may be one with me and I with him, shall not be saved.”
There is no evidence for this saying being attributed to Mithras. Scholars have, however, found this saying attributed to Zarathustra, though in a medieval document (remember that Zarathustra, the founding prophet of Zoroastrianism, is thought to have lived some time around 2000 B.C.). Though followers of Mithras were known to have fellowship meals, at which was eaten bread, water, wine and meat, such circumstances were common to meals shared by many people in many different contexts.
It should be emphasized that none of the alleged similarities between Mithras and Jesus can be shown to apply to the Persian Mithra, but only to the Roman Mithraic tradition, which did not really flourish until after the time of the New Testament. That said, the alleged connections are quite dubious, as I explained above. In fact, no archeological evidence for this tradition can be argued to exist from any earlier than A.D. 90. This seems to suggest that the re-emergence of Mithras in the Roman context preserved the name of the Persian deity, yet adopted a new set of traditions more closely linked to the many mystery religions of the time. In any case, the overall Mithraic tradition should actually be thought of as two distinct movements, having little to do with one another beyond having a god of the same name.
The driving force of these comparisons appears to be a deliberate application of language resembling that used in Christian tradition to traditions that never actually used that language in the first place. For example, referring to the “birth” of Mithras to a “virgin” is absurd given that, according to Mithraic tradition, he was not “born” in the human sense at all, but came into being out of lifeless solid rock. Perhaps one might claim that the lifeless solid rock, having never before had an entity emerge from it, was “virgin-like,” but that would be an extreme stretch in language and meaning, and more akin to an intentional characterization of Mithraic tradition in Christian terms. Similarly, if Mithraic tradition could be shown to teach that Mithras instructed his followers to gather together in a fellowship meal, it would be misleading to refer to this as a Mithraic “last supper.” Even if Roman Mithraism did hold to traditions similar to Christianity, it would be false to assume that simply because the two traditions existed similarly and contemporaneously one must have preceded or caused the other. Like liberal Biblical scholars that give priority to Gnostic sources on Jesus, though they date long after the canonical Gospels, those that desire to establish a link between Mithras and Jesus must contend with the fact that the existing sources for Roman Mithraism are all post-Christian and cannot be said to have influenced Christian doctrine.
I do find it strange that these allegations persist despite the overwhelming fact that the historicity of the character of Mithras is incomparable to that of Jesus of Nazareth. Given that Mithras is obviously a mythical character, and that no evidence exists to show that a man name Mithras actually lived at some point in history and had followers in the same sense as the Christian disciples, the notion of Mithras actually participating in historical events and teaching actual people is significantly questionable. On the other hand, there is overwhelming evidence, attested to by multiple independent sources, that Jesus was a historical figure that actually lived in first century Palestine, assembled a group of followers, the teachings of whom were recorded by multiple sources, and was actually put to death by Roman authorities. Given the amount of historical knowledge that exists about Jesus of Nazareth, the suggestion that the Christian tradition “re-branded” Jesus with Mithraic characteristics implies an unfathomably large conspiracy without a bit of evidence to back it up.
Some sources on Mithraism
Mysteries of Mithra by Franz Cumont
The Mysteries of Mithras: The Pagan Belief that Shaped the Christian World by Caitlin Matthews and Payam Nabarz
The Roman Cult of Mithras: The God and His Mysteries by Manfred Clauss
The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries: Cosmology and Salvation in the Ancient World, by David Ulansey
As often as I hear talk of the need for the Gospel, I also hear of the need for “relevance.” While it is true that the word can mean a variety of things depending upon the context in which it is used, there is one particular meaning (which I dare say is most frequent in my hearing) that I believe runs contrary to the very Gospel message itself.
(As a disclaimer, I would like to set aside an immediate issue that is likely to already be on the minds of many readers. I am not certain at this point if the meaning in which Relevant Media Group uses the word “relevant” is of the same concern, though I would venture to say that it is not. In fact, in stating the obvious, Relevant Media Group’s mission statement can hardly be disputed at face value: “Relevant Media Group is a multimedia company whose purpose is to impact culture and show that a relationship with God is relevant and essential to a fulfilled life.” Clearly, Relevant’s declared purpose is not to make the Gospel relevant, but to show the relevance of the Christian life by modeling an appropriately Godly perspective amidst current culture. I can’t really argue with that. However, I must admit at this point that I am not necessarily a fan of Relevant Magazine or the seemingly commoditized Christianity that it portrays. Truly, it is the “rebranding” and “packaging” of the church, and even of the Christian, that I fear is an already accepted result of the new concept of being relevant.)
Some may be asking, as I have also often asked, “What does relevant mean, anyway?” According to Webster, to be relevant is defined as “having significant and demonstrable bearing on the matter at hand.” Therefore, Relevant Media is right in declaring its mission to “show that a relationship with God” has significant and demonstrable bearing “to a fulfilled life.” So in this regard, there is nothing wrong with relevance.
Yet, this is not the context in which I often hear the word being used. I would argue that the word relevant is becoming a term descriptive of a movement, or a genre, or a flavor, within Christianity. Yet, as I discussed above, the word intends to relate the value of an idea to a particular context, not to convey a particular descriptive idea of its own. In other words, relevance means nothing if it does not objectively link an idea to the context in which it exists.
So, then, what is meant by such common phrases as, “looking for a church that’s relevant,” or “the church must become relevant,” or “we are a relevant church?” I hope, for our sake, that it does not mean a certain style of music in worship, or a certain casualness with which a service is delivered, or a lack of structure, or a focus on youth, or even an emphasis on certain doctrines. If a church affirms that which is true about God and the Gospel, worships God in Spirit and in truth, and seeks to fulfill the Great Commission, how could it possibly be irrelevant? What exactly is an irrelevant church or an irrelevant Christian? Can we really suggest that churches or individuals that do not operate or appear comfortably within the status quo of contemporary culture are “resisting relevance (another phrase I have heard often)?” Without knowing the mind of God through and through, any suggestion as to the relevance of a church or individual, especially on the basis of the fleeting and fickle trends of popular culture, would be a presumptuous and woeful error.
Frankly, the idea that we could possibly make Christianity relevant to culture through our own doing is shortsighted. How dare we assume that we have any power or influence to actually make God’s plan and work relevant to humankind? It is humankind that should seek to be conformed to the will of God, revealed by God through His Word and His Spirit, and not conformed to the world.
On a purely philosophical level, I am not very comfortable with even putting the words God and relevant in the same sentence; not even to say what seems to be harmless and obvious, that God is relevant. If God exists, and for the purposes of this argument I am assuming that He does, then created, contingent, mortal beings have no place to assign relevance to the eternal, omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent deity from who’s being the creation of the entire universe resulted. Rather, the simple but utterly profound statement, “God is,” is a more appropriate affirmation.
If God is, than what is relevant is relevant in relation to Him, not to that which He has created.
On March 28, 2006, the College of the Holy Cross sponsored a debate between Dr. William Lane Craig and Dr. Bart D. Ehrman, titled "Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus?" Since I was not able to actually attend this much-anticipated event, I have been able to review the transcript of the proceedings, which can be found here. Normally, I wouldn't endeavor to analyze or throw my 'two cents' in after the fact, but the debate raised several issues that are particularly germane to philosophical and historical apologetics and which I think merit some attention. I won't necessarily be defending the historical resurrection in this article as previous ones have made clear my position on this matter. However, I would like to examine some philosophical ideas related to the discussion that often cause damage to a debate such as this one.
Aside from a rather unfortunate and embarassing introduction from the moderator, which recounts a medieval debate between a Jewish Rabbi and a Christian Monk over whether Jesus was the messiah and seems to suggest that the resulting bedlam is characteristic of Christian 'sore losers,' both Craig and Ehrman seem to have conducted themselves in gentlemanly and scholarly fashion.
Dr. William Lane Craig, representing the affirmative position, is a Christian philosopher by profession, though it should be noted that he has advanced degrees in theology and philosophy and his apologetic work tends to focus on issues relevant to the cosmological argument for the existence of God and the historical resurrection of Jesus. Dr. Bart D. Ehrman, representing the negative position, is a Biblical historian and textual critic with a doctorate in theology who has been in the limelight recently after the publication of his latest book, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, which discusses the transmission of the Biblical texts and how they were changed over time. In summary, Dr. Craig defended his position that there is, in fact, historical evidence in light of which the resurrection of Jesus is a probable event. He began with what is a classic approach of his, what I will call the 'Four Facts' argument, which propose that there are four facts which must be adequately explained: 1. the burial of Jesus, 2. the discovery of his empty tomb, 3. the post-mortem appearances of Jesus, and 4. the origin of the disciples belief in the resurrection. On the basis of his argument, he concludes that the best explanation of the facts is that Jesus rose from the dead. On the other hand, Dr. Ehrman argued that history is methodologically limited to dealing with information that can be verified through reliable sources and suggests only natural events. It is on the basis of this assertion that Ehrman declares such an event as the resurrection of Jesus non-historical, and therefore not germane to any discussion he would conduct.
This particular methodology, which Ehrman claims carries no bias toward theological issues, does not allow for a historical presence of the supernatural. Thus, the logical conclusion is that supernatural actions of God in history, are by nature non-historical. However, this just seems somewhat difficult to defend. If one were to grant the existence of God, not even necessarily a personal one such as Christianity posits, the declaration that God would not act in history is completely arbitrary on the part of the human being. Without a direct communication from God affirming this point, one really has no basis to assume it. However, one does have, again assuming theism, a precedent upon which to expect God to act in history- namely the creation of the universe itself, which must be a historical event though no one was there to write it down or snap a photo as it was happening. Yet, since even the ‘natural’ was created at that point, the act itself must have been supernatural. In any case, suffice it to say that I believe Ehrman’s position on the matter to be a bit of a stretch of the credulity of any philosopher. He may be playing by the rules of historians, but that says nothing of whether a supernatural event actually occurred.
In response to the classic 'four facts' argument put forth by Craig, Ehrman suggests a couple of alternative explanations, which, while he does not subscribe to them personally, he argues are more probable explanations than that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. For example, one he suggested first was that after Jesus' death by crucifixion, He was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. However, His family, motive unknown but preferring to have the final say in where Jesus was buried, broke into the tomb at night and removed the body. While transporting it, they encountered some Roman guards who summarily put them to death and cast all the bodies in an unmarked mass grave. Later, the disciples would obviously find the original tomb empty and legend would flourish.
While this explanation is rife with problems, the more important issue at play is, again, the arbitrariness with which it is assembled. The issue here is to find an explanation which satisfactorily deals with all the information available. In other words, and often stated by Craig, such an explanation must have appropriate explanatory scope and power in order to be the most probable and suitable to settle upon. Ehrman's suggestion not only fails in this regard, but it is absurdly ad hoc and ends up not satisfying the actual evidence but creating a list of other points to ground it that are either entirely contrived or at best speculative. For instance, his explanation follows the Gospel narrative in general but inserts an event previously unknown to account for the empty tomb. Not only is this event completely contrived, but it presents a new problem that the explanation does not itself solve. Specifically, had the relatives of Jesus (presumably Mary, and/or his brothers) attempted to move the body and been killed in the process, surely there would be some mention of their absence or at least an explanation of their deaths. In fact, history shows that at least James and Jude could not have been involved in this plot (assuming the authorship of the epistles of James and Jude are not spurious).
Craig, of course, continually returns to his 'four facts' argument and reminds the attending audience that they have not been adequately refuted. Given Ehrman’s inability to diffuse the ‘four facts’ argument, it seems that the issue of the debate sadly came down to one of professional methodology. On the one hand, we have a philosopher, adhering to the laws of logic and the fundamental notion of following the evidence where it leads, while on the other a historian willing to play by rules that satisfy operating in a bubble but seem almost absurd when exposed to the scrutiny of common sense. Needless to say, I was disappointed by this debate. Had the format of the proceedings themselves allowed, the scholars might have had opportunity to unpack the issues of historical and philosophical methodology in a depth necessary for really coming to any worthwhile determinations on the matter. While I find the ‘four facts’ argument to be strongly persuasive, it is only because I am also persuaded that historical methodology must allow for any event, including the miraculous, to occur. What would make for an interesting sequel to this debate would be to have the scholars return to discuss this issue in particular and then perhaps readdress the conclusions in regard to Jesus.
The publication of Dr. Bart Ehrman’s latest book, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, has caused quite a bit of controversy, and I have responded to it, generally, in a previous post titled Scriptural Transmission, Inspiration, and Inerrancy. However, I began to develop in my response an argument against the often-heard comparison of scriptural textual transmission to the children’s game of Telephone which I think needs a bit more detail.
Actually, I came to the determination that I should elaborate on this subject when a student recently asked, “Doesn’t it seem that the way we got our Bible is a lot like the game of Telephone? How do we know that the message we have now is at all like how it started?” Ironically, this student was not at all familiar with Ehrman’s book, or the field of textual criticism, so it can be rightly concluded that it doesn’t take an eminent scholar to come up with such a theory. Rather, I would argue that the arguments used by scholars, like Ehrman, to conclude the unreliability of the Bible ultimately work against them.
Instead of retracing my previous article on this topic, let me summarize the issue in this way: Ehrman, who is rightly regarded as an expert in the field of Biblical textual criticism, argues in his latest book that due to errors and even intentional changes in the text from one copy to another, the present form of the Bible should not be trusted in its details nor considered a reliable source of theological doctrine. Like the game of telephone, what goes in does not come out without being distorted, if not changed completely. In fact, half the fun of the game tends to be the result of intentional changes rather than incidental ones; apparently such is also the case of the scribes responsible for duplicating Biblical manuscripts.
The particularly ‘bombshell-like’ examples of errors in the Biblical texts that Ehrman documents have already been discussed at length (again, in my previous post on this topic). As I, and many others, have shown, not only are these errors not new to anyone familiar with Biblical scholarship, they are never damaging to the Orthodox theological understanding of Christianity. While I admit that Ehrman delivers a sobering call to Christian scholarship and perhaps even the merited removal of some portions of text from the Bible, his conclusions are generally unfair and likely the result of a desire to come to them, rather than a true mandate.
The process of textual criticism, however, is certainly not like the game of telephone. In the game of telephone, there is no aspect which objectively preserves the initial message, except for the word of the first speaker. Thus, in a hypothetical circle of fifteen, player seven has no way of knowing whether the message whispered into his or her ear is at all like the original. In fact, player seven really has no way of knowing whether that message even resembles what player six received. However, such is not the case with the scriptural manuscripts. Like our modern Bibles, which footnote passages which vary from one manuscript family to another, even some of the early manuscripts contained such warnings! This would be like player seven passing on a message like, “Player six whispered the words ‘banana cheese steak’ into my ears, but I doubt their accuracy and suggest that they really meant banana cheesecake.” In other words, the scribes involved were not copying automatons, but were deeply involved in the process in a critical way. Of course, this does open the door for intentional theological alterations, which Ehrman certainly mentions, but as I will argue, these still do not lead to the conclusion that the resulting transmission of the scriptures cannot be trusted.
Our ability to discern errors in the transmission of the scriptures relies upon the availability of thousands of copies. (In fact, when confronted with daunting numbers of errors, keep in mind that one error in a manuscript duplicated possibly 100 times after results in a total of 100 errors. Really, in such cases only one error exists.) In fact, because certain early manuscripts were copied and lead to traceable ‘families’ of subsequent copies (think of a family tree of documents rather than people), we have a remarkably large amount of information with which to work to discern the probable original wording in the case where an error is found. In other words, the same process by which Ehrman has perceived individual errors and concluded unreliability in general should actually lead to the conclusion that the current version is likely to quite closely resemble the original.
When I answered the original question above, put forth by a student, I pointed out that the game of telephone is intentionally set up to produce distorted and entertaining results. In contrast, the process of textual transmission was one intentionally constructed out of pious stewardship and the awareness that without certain measures, the message of the Bible could be unintentionally (or even intentionally) changed. This responsibility was a tradition inherited from Jewish scribes, who, leaving no spaces between characters in their manuscripts, would produce a word count when finished and compare it to other results. If the count was off, the entire document would have to be checked and corrected. Unlike telephone, community measures were in place to prevent and catch errors. Similarly, Christian scribes would separate verified copies and establish new ‘family’ lines and even make marginal notes or comments in regard to questionable content. What has resulted is an ever-growing supply of copies that enable scholars to reconstruct what were likely the original versions of the scriptural documents. In many ways, comparing the many manuscript copies is like having them in transparency form and overlaying the various versions to see where variances are. Consequently, I would argue that as time passes and the process of discovering more copies and refining translations continues, the reliability of the Bible will only increase.
One of the central images used by Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code is the mural Leonardo painted at Santa Maria delle Grazie, which depicts Jesus and the twelve disciples gathering for the Passover meal prior to His crucifixion, The Last Supper. It was at this gathering that Jesus shared with the twelve his coming betrayal by one of them, as well as the practice of sharing communion with one another in remembrance of Him. However, Brown's character Sir Leigh Teabing alleges that the painting provides clues within an elaborate conspiracy to conceal a relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene:
"'It's a matter of historical record,' Teabing said, 'and Da Vinci was certainly aware of that fact. The Last Supper practically shouts to the viewer that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were a pair.'"
Leonardo, beginning work on the mural in 1495, was known for his desire to depict images in a realistic fashion and his criticism of other artists for embellishing imagery. Yet some conspiracy theorists, like the character of Teabing, argue that Leonardo's painting is an elaborate clue to a secret he was under charge to protect as a member of the Priory of Sion. It might be helpful to point out at the outset that lacing a very public work with overt clues to a secret he was supposed to protect might be a conflict of interest. It would seem to me that a better motive would need to be suggested for Leonardo to want to reveal the "secret" but only through cryptic symbolism in his paintings. Nevertheless, many allege that the incriminating symbols are in fact there.
The famous allegation is that the figure to the right of Jesus, appearing to swoon in the direction of Peter, standing to his right, is actually Mary Magdalene, not John, as was traditionally understood by the Church and art historians alike. The theory cites the feminine appearance of this figure as obvious evidence that Leonardo was intending to paint a woman, rather than a man. Some indicate that Jesus and the figure to His right are painted as mirror images of each other with symmetrically matching clothing, forming a 'V' shape, which represents a female womb and thus homage to the "divine feminine." Additionally, the shape of Jesus and the mysterious figure to His right are also said to form the shape of the letter "M," perhaps for the word "matrimony" or "Magdalene." I think that such interpretations require far too much of the presupposition that Leonardo had some sort of secret agenda with the painting, which ultimately begs the question. However, the claims of Teabing get even more farfetched. He says, "Oddly, Da Vinci appears to have forgotten to paint the cup of Christ," indicating that the absence of an actual cup in front of Christ proves that the grail is something other than a literal cup- perhaps the bloodline of Jesus Himself!
Such theories are ultimately fantasy. In fact, they seem to rely upon the assumption that Leonardo was a reliable source regarding the event of the last supper, as if he had himself been there. However, Leonardo depicted the scene over 1400 years after it occurred, presumably relying upon the Gospel accounts themselves to do so. Given the likely reliance upon the Gospels, it is no surprise that the cup is not a central element of the depiction as it was certainly not in the Biblical narrative. The legend of the Grail having supernatural power resulting from Jesus' use came much later and has no scriptural precedent. Moreover, the assumption that Leonardo would have even been motivated to lace the painting with clues to a conspiracy is based upon his membership in the Priory of Sion, a legendary secret society which has been proven to have been a hoax invented in the 20th century. Without the Priory connection, there really is no substance to the theory.
Art historians, however, have consistently approached The Last Supper as being both typical of Leonardo and typical of contemporary Florentine trends. They interpret the figures and their expressions as follows: From left, Bartholomew, James the Lesser, and Andrew (his hands up as if to say 'stop!') form a group and are surprised. Judas Iscariot, Peter, and John form the next group. Judas is depicted as withdrawn and somewhat sinister as he holds a small bag presumably carrying the silver he received as payment for his betrayal. He appears to be in shadow, symbolizing his spiritual lostness. Peter wields a knife, pointing toward Bartholomew (some say to reference Bartholomew’s future martyrdom, others to foreshadow Peter's actions at Gethsemane), while John swoons in Peter's direction. Thomas, James and Philip are the next group to Jesus' left. Thomas shows distress, while James throws his arms out in dismay. Philip seems to ask for clarification. Finally, Matthew, Jude, and Simon the Zealot form the last group, the former two appearing to consult Simon. Incidentally, this interpretive scheme was confirmed by the discovery of a document known as The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci, found in the 19th century.
The feminine appearance of the figure historians almost unanimously interpret to be John is no surprise given that it was typical of Leonardo's depiction of young men, as well as the Florentine tradition of painting John as beardless and youthful. What's more, this character appears to be wearing men's clothing, not those of a woman. The traditional interpretation of art historians seems a much more likely explanation than Teabing's, which relies on too many assumptions to be justifiable. Another problem raised by interpreting this figure as Magdalene is that her presence would reduce the count of the disciples to eleven, with one missing, which contradicts the Biblical and traditional accounts.
While Brown creates a compelling narrative around the imagery of Leonardo, conspiracies and esoteric knowledge, the historical credibility is just not there. However, even if Leonardo had been a member of a secret society with fantastic ideas about Jesus and Mary Magdalene, which he decided to hide in his paintings, there is no supporting evidence to suggest that anyone should take him seriously in this regard. Even the recently proven hoax of the Priory of Sion set its date of establishment at 1099, a millennium after Christ! Leonardo, painting four-hundred years later, likely did not have accurate insight into the details of the real "last supper," nor does it seem that he had any feasible esoteric agenda.
In The God Who Wasn’t There, filmmaker Brian Flemming attempts to cast doubt upon the reliability of the New Testament, something which is affirmed by the majority of contemporary Biblical scholars. While many may dispute the interpretation of these scriptures, or the ways in which we aught to apply their message to our lives, the historical value of them is not quite up for debate. However, Flemming makes some rather specific comments, which I would like to examine.
"Why is it that Christians can be so specific about the life of Christ but they’re vague about what happened after he left? Aren’t Christian leaders telling them the story? [Regarding the Gospels], the other three are clearly derived from Mark. Mark mentions the destruction of the Jewish Temple which happened in the year 70. So, the Gospels all came later than that; probably much later. There’s a gap of four decades or more. Most of what we know about this period comes from a man who says he saw Jesus Christ come to him in a vision. He was the apostle Paul, formally known as Saul of Tarsus. (The God Who Wasn’t There)"
The allegation that modern Christians know little to nothing about the early Christian church is quite unfounded. There is actually a wealth of information about this time in history that not only allows for a relatively tight chronology, but also verifies the reliability of the New Testament books themselves. The early Christians left such a significant “paper trail” that the entire New Testament can be reconstructed simply from quotes and citations found in the letters and writings of the leaders of the church in the first and second century! While these non-Biblical documents aid in our understanding of the Bible itself, they also provide a great deal of information regarding the practices of the early Christians, the growth of the church, and even the details of heresies as they were discovered and how they were addressed. But Flemming seems more interested in challenging the reliability of the Gospels, specifically on the basis that they were too far removed from the events they describe to be trusted.
First, Flemming alleges that the Gospels of Matthew, Luke and John are derived from Mark. Do all the Gospels derive from Mark? This is hardly the consensus. In fact, while similarities between Matthew and Luke suggest Markan priority, there is plenty of additional information in each that is not found in Mark, possibly suggesting other sources- unless of course the writers were actually just faithful to the message they received from Jesus. Whether these 'other sources' can be accounted for on the basis that the authors of these Gospels were actually who tradition suggests (Mark, a close disciple of Peter, and Matthew the disciple of Jesus himself) is a separate question, but clearly there is too much information within both the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke that cannot be accounted for only by the content of The Gospel of Mark. In fact, Luke explicitly states that he embarked to gather information from many sources, and implies that the Christian tradition, then being put into writing, was first established and spread orally:
“Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having understanding of all things from the very first, to write you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed (Luke 1:1-4)”
Some scholars infer, on the basis of similarities among the synoptic Gospels, a prior source, called 'Q,' that preceded the writing of any of the canonical Gospels and for some reason was not preserved but would have had to have been established quite soon after Jesus' crucifixion (I have written on the ‘Q’ hypothesis in a previous post titled What About Other Gospels, Part 3). Note, however, that if such a document were to be discovered and did represent the earliest teaching about Jesus, the difficulty which many critics have with the span of time between the death of Jesus and the writing of the Gospels would be even more unfounded. ‘Q,’ then is a hypothesis which would only strengthen Biblical reliability.
Flemming then hones in on a particular target and claims that the Gospel of Mark could not have been written until after AD 70, followed by the other three. He interviews another scholar, by the name of Doherty, to corroborate this:
"The earliest possible date for Mark was used on this timeline [AD 70]. In fact, the 40-year gap is probably much wider. Scholarship shows that Mark could have been written as late as 85-90 A.D. (Flemming)"
"The first Gospel wasn’t written until almost the end of the first century…The others follow over the next several decades (Doherty)."
I happen to think that we have very good reasons to disagree with this scheme of dating, but for the sake of argument, let's give Flemming and Doherty the benefit of the doubt regarding the supposed 40-year gap. To suggest that a 40-year gap between an ancient event and its documentation disqualifies it from being historically reliable is contrary to the process and standards of historical verification. In fact, most of our current data on ancient events relies on documents far more removed from the events they describe than the Gospels. Flemming and Doherty’s suggestion otherwise is intentionally misleading. However, current Biblical scholarship is not in agreement with the dates for the Gospels given by Flemming and Doherty, which I will address later.
Regarding the span of time between the writing of the New Testament documents and the events they describe, Biblical scholar Frederic Kenyon writes,
"This may sound a considerable interval, but it is nothing to that which parts most of the great classical authors from their earliest manuscripts. We believe that we have in all essentials an accurate text of the seven extant plays of Sophocles; yet the earliest substantial manuscript upon which it is based was written more than 1400 years after the poet's death. (Frederic Kenyon, Handbook to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament)."
If Kenyon's statement isn't robust enough for an argument, renowned Biblical scholar F.F. Bruce provides a bit more of a detailed comparison:
"Perhaps we can appreciate how wealthy the New Testament is in manuscript attestation if we compare the textual material for other ancient historical works. For Caesar's Gallic War (composed between 58 and 50 B.C.) there are several extant MSS, but only nine or ten are good, and the oldest is some 900 years later than Caesar's day. Of the 142 books of the Roman history of Livy (59 B.C. – A.D. 17), only 35 survive; of the 16 books of his Annals, 10 survive in full and two in part. The text of these extant portions of his two great historical works depends entirely on two MSS, one of the ninth centruy and one of the eleventh. The extant MSS of his minor works (Dialogus de Oratoribus, Agricola, Germania) all descend from a codex of the tenth century. The History of Thucydides (c. 460 – 400 B.C.) is known to us from eight MSS, the earliest belonging to c. A.D. 900, and a few papyrus scraps, belonging to about the beginning of the Christian era. The same is true of the History of Herodotus (B.C. 488 – 428). Yet, no classical scholar would listen to an argument that the authenticity of Herodotus or Thucydides is in doubt because the earliest MSS of their works which are of any use to us are over 1,300 years later than the originals (The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?)."
So assuming that there is such a 40-year gap, as Flemming asserts, this seems to be a fact still in favor of the reliability of the scriptures, especially within the context of other ancient sources and how they are treated historically.
Incidentally, however, Flemming's dates for the Gospels are significantly off from those that many Biblical scholars affirm. While evangelical and skeptical Biblical scholars tend to vary by a factor of ten years in their dating of the New Testament books, one method of pinpointing a date is to start from a suggested dating of the book of Acts and work backward. The final accounts of Acts detail Paul's imprisonment in Rome, but say nothing about his subsequent death, nor the deaths of Peter or James (believed to have occurred sometime between AD 60 – 70). This is remarkable given the final passages of Acts’ primary focus on Paul. Nor does Acts account for the Roman war (AD 66) or the fall of Jerusalem (AD 70), both major events which would have been especially germane to the subject of the book and surely of interest to the apostles. The omission of these relevant facts lead to a likely conclusion that the book itself was completed prior to any of these events, sometime prior to the early 60's AD. Since most scholars affirm that the Gospel of Luke was written prior to Acts and after the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, one can conclude on the basis of historically positioning the book of Acts that all of these books can all be dated before AD 70.
Flemming also notes that the Gospel of Mark mentions the fall of the temple in Jerusalem, which happened in AD 70, therefore Mark could not have been written prior to AD 70. Actually, the passage he is referring to does not explicitly mention the destruction of the temple in AD 70, but contains a cryptic prophesy from Jesus which has subsequently been interpreted to refer to the temple. It reads:
“Then as He went out of the temple, one of His disciples said to Him, 'Teacher, see what manner of stones and what buildings are here!' And Jesus answered and said to him, 'Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone shall be left upon another, that shall not be thrown down (Mark 13: 1-3).”
Though this has come to be known as a prophecy confirmed by the fall of the temple in AD 70, it is not a specific mention of the event itself. One would have no reason to date this text after the event unless the possibility of prophetic accuracy was rejected prima facie. However, if one were to reject the prophetic, it is certainly plausible that Jesus was simply stating that no building will remain after His second coming, making the fall of the temple decades later a significant coincidence. While exegetical stances may vary in regard to this passage, Mark 13: 1-3 is not helpful in discerning the date of the writing of the Gospel, and certainly should not bar it from having been written prior to AD 70.
Besides the Gospel accounts, the details of Jesus' life are also found in reliable secular historical sources. These include Tacitus, Suetonius, Thallus, Pliny the Younger, Trajan, Hadrian, Lucian, Mara Bar-Serapian, and the Jewish historian Josephus. All of these writers cited information related to Jesus or Christianity within 20 to 150 years of the death of Jesus. For secondary affirmations in history, these are very early and valuable to refuting the claim that we know little of that portion of history. Jewish historian Josephus, for example, provides a detailed account of the rule of Pontius Pilate, and even includes an account of Jesus:
"Now, there was about this time, Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of the Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day (Antiquities of the Jews, Book XVIII, Chapter III)."
As a disclaimer, I am well aware that portions of this passage which seem to agree with the most supernatural claims about Jesus are likely to be spurious. My point in quoting from Josephus is not to prove that Josephus believed in the deity or even messianic identity of Jesus, but simply to show that Jesus was important enough to have been mentioned by him.
Skeptics might at this point suggest that using the same method of historiography to evaluate the New Testament documents as one might use to evaluate the documents of Herodotus is invalid, given that the Biblical accounts include supernatural and miraculous events, while the ancient histories do not. This is, however, false. In fact, ancient historical accounts do include numerous reports of omens, prophesies, miracles, as well as divine and demonic encounters and activity.
One often cited example comes from Plutarch's account of Alexander the Great, in which he notes that Alexander came from a Herculean genealogical line, as well as other supernatural details such as how the Greek pantheon favored and assisted him in battle, how he had encounters with a priest claiming to be the son of the god Ammon, and how he relied constantly upon oracles for decision making. Tacitus, too, mentions the divinity of the Caesars, the worship of them, and the divine influence upon the crop cycle. Suetonius includes in his writings numerous examples of divine encounters, interactions with the spirits of the dead, worship and prophesies, and many additional citations of omens found in heavenly observation, dreams and visions. While many of the ancient historians not only reported things of a supernatural nature, suggesting that people of that time actually believed in them, it seems that the historians themselves also believed in these phenomena. Why then are these writers forgiven their supernatural inclinations and trusted in their reporting, yet the New Testament writers are not given the same benefit? It seems, then, that this discrepancy is the result of historically retrospective discrimination.
Flemming plays fast and loose with claims of the illegitimacy of the New Testament and infers on such basis that secrets were kept and knowledge suppressed by church leaders for the purpose of misleading people and assuming control over them. Such a conspiracy and manipulation theory is often too easily assumed today without considering the cumulative weight of the evidence to the contrary, especially when the motivation to do so is first established by an emotional appeal to skepticism. I have previously written on the reliability of the New Testament, and am strongly in favor of the position that regardless of what one chooses to believe about the scriptures, their position and authority in history is clear (see my previous post on the reliability of the New Testament).
Beneath the popular current of The DaVinci Code controversy (which I have addressed in several articles) is another attack on the Christian faith, this one more of a grassroots effort, not sheltered by the guise of fiction, but overtly labeling itself as a factual documentary which exposes the “truth” about the Christian faith. This “documentary” is called The God Who Wasn’t There, and was produced by Brian Flemming and distributed through a network of “guerilla-style” operatives who attempt to plant the DVD and other literature on church grounds and other Christian gathering places (I mentioned this project briefly in an earlier post called ‘The War on Easter’).
The basic premise of The God Who Wasn’t There is that Jesus never existed, and that fact, among many others pertaining to the traditional Christian faith, is a fabrication without any historical basis. Now, I must initially state that such a claim is so fantastic and on the extreme fringe of scholarship in theology, religion, history, and other fields as to be simply incredible and not worthy of discussion. However, and as I think the DaVinci phenomenon illustrates, we seem to be at a point at which we are more likely to extract truth from incredible sources, especially fictional ones, rather than those which exist to provide it. In other words, entertainment seems to have a more authoritative voice in our society such that outrageous claims and simply erroneous statements slip by and are taken as reliable while they cleverly hide within a seductive narrative context. To be fair, this is not exactly the sort of context in which The God Who Wasn’t There is presented; as I said before, it clearly intends to be a documentary. However, it is one with a particular agenda which provides a substantially skewed portrayal of just about every known fact pertaining to Christianity, yet its growing popularity suggests that many are convinced by its claims. In my next few posts, I will be examining some of the major issues related to this documentary and its distorted portrayal of the Christian faith.
The first portion of The God Who Wasn’t There is essentially a barrage of ad hominem (or "against the man") attacks against the Christian faith, mentioning the Galileo controversy (which I addressed in an earlier post called Valid and Invalid Conclusions from the Galileo Controversy), and several notorious individuals who have associated themselves with Christianity. In particular, Flemming mentions Charles Manson, Pat Robertson, Dena Schlosser, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, David Koresh, and then concludes, "So, I guess it’s kind of a mixed bag." I assume that at this point, the intention is for the viewer to have developed a distaste for Christianity based upon the provided roster of Christian “spokespersons” known for being insane, homicidal, publicly outrageous, and controversial. Yet, attacking individuals for various reasons says nothing about the veracity or the value of the Christian faith.
Augustine of Hippo is known to have said ‘One must not judge a philosophy by its abuse.’ Flemming’s use of Charles Manson as an example of Christianity is an obvious distortion of what Christianity actually is. It would be obviously ridiculous to say that, regardless of whether it is true, Christianity teaches white supremacy and homicide. Additionally, it would be incorrect to conclude that if Charles Manson, an admitted killer, claims to be a Christian, Christianity must be a lie or a failure. What Augustine means to show is that a proposition, or in this case a systematic faith, can be true regardless of how people respond to it or whether people even believe it. Needless to say, we cannot know how sincere any of these people are in their claim to be Christians. What Flemming is doing is establishing a distorted version of Christianity by intentionally selecting a list of notorious figures to represent it, likely hoping to build a strong foundation of resentment and anger upon which to build his weak historical case.
Ironically, while Christianity does not logically establish a basis upon which to behave as someone like Charles Manson has, Atheism cannot logically support the derivation of objective morality and thus can lead to such behavior. In fact, the most notorious crimes against humanity in the 20th century have been committed under the auspices of atheistic regimes like those of Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Mau and Pol Pot. I am not saying, of course, that an atheist cannot live a moral life. Many atheists do live a moral life, yet they do so by adopting a system of morality from some external source which does not fit within the scheme of atheism. Thus, what I am saying is that atheism as a philosophy cannot account for a moral law and thus opens the door to such atrocities. If there is no God, then there is no moral law objective enough to which we must be accountable. If there is no objective moral law, then there is no logical reason why Stalin, Hitler, et al should have acted differently. On the other hand, Manson, though he may claim to be a Christian, committed acts which represent a clear rejection or diversion from the teachings of Christ, and thus cannot be a credible representative of the teachings of Christ.
The first portion of The God Who Wasn’t There, while trying to establish an atmosphere conducive to belittling and debunking Christianity actually backfires and reveals the subjectivity and personal angst of the filmmaker himself. Sadly, this is very common in the church and should serve as a convicting reminder that our works should be indicative of our faith, and will be how the faith is represented to those who are on the outside looking in. While this issue is obviously a logically flawed and illegitimate means of building an argument against the Christian faith, it does show the profound cost of poor stewardship of the church throughout history. We must be compelled to look to the example of Christ and act accordingly!
Like Jesus of Nazareth, Paul of Tarsus has been reinvented numerous times by theologians and historians alike, mostly in an effort to provide an explanation for the origin of the Christian movement other than the simplest or most obvious one provided by the testimony of the New Testament scriptures. Contrary to the well known theory of explanatory simplicity proposed by William of Ockham, such reconstructed “Pauls” tend to be based upon numerous assumptions that ultimately complicate the explanation itself and require that the most plausible evidence is rejected.
But, do we have any reason to believe that Paul of Tarsus, the late-coming Apostle of Jesus, was not who he claimed to be, or that the testimony of the New Testament is rife with contradictions in regards to his identity? My argument would be a simple “no,” given that the majority of historical information that is used by anyone even trying to reconstruct the life of Paul comes from the New Testament. In other words, historians, both religious and secular, rely upon the Bible as their primary source of information about the life of the Apostle Paul. To be sure, the New Testament does not provide a comprehensive biographical account of Paul, not because it is in some way incomplete or inadequate, but because it’s primary purpose is not to educate people about Paul, but to provide a testimony of God’s relationship with His people, especially in the culminating events surrounding the life of Jesus. However, many attempt to fill in the gaps in the life of Paul through traditional accounts that mention him, such as the writings of early church fathers like Clement, Eusebius, Gaius, and Bede, and other documents.
One particular non-canonical account of Paul comes from a second-century Coptic document known as The Acts of Paul and Thecla. This apocryphal story describes Paul’s missionary travels and his relationship with a virgin girl named Thecla, who is miraculously delivered from persecution several times, presumably protected by God in reward for her purity. According to the story, Paul primarily preached on the virtues of chastity, which reflects the asceticism of some of the divergent Christian sects of the 2nd and 3rd centuries. It also includes the earliest physical description of Paul, who is described as short, stocky, bald and having a rather large nose. While there is good reason to reject the theological implications of the Thecla story, on the basis that it heavily contradicts earlier and better attested accounts, such as Paul’s own letters, it could be possible that Paul did in fact look as this document describes him. In other words, like other apocryphal works which likely contain bits of historical truth, they will not necessarily be helpful in creating a more accurate understanding of who Paul was and what he did.
Even factoring in the various apocryphal accounts of Paul, such as The Acts of Paul and Thecla, the character of Paul and his significance to the Christian faith does not dramatically change. Rather, incidental details are added, such as remarks about possible stops he made on his journeys, the circumstances of his death, and the location of his burial which most scholars and theologians would agree have little to no theological relevance. This means that alternative accounts of the identity and legacy of Paul, no matter how ‘reinforced’ by collected historical hints and snippets, are actually peculiar reinterpretations of the existing scriptural record on the basis of various political or religious presuppositions with an aim to discredit Christian orthodoxy.
The most typical conclusion of the many reinterpretations of Paul is that Christian doctrine, and in the most extreme cases the person of Jesus, is the creation of Paul for variously argued political reasons. These types of theories, however, are generally defended on the basis of ad hoc assumptions about the veracity of Paul’s statements in his letters. For example, one popular reconstruction comes from the late British scholar Hyam Maccoby, who alleges that Paul invented Christian doctrine by basing the legend of Jesus on the traditions of existing Pagan mystery religions. He comes to this conclusion by arguing that Paul was not a Pharisee, as he claimed to be, nor even a Jew familiar with Hebrew! Specifically, Maccoby argues that Paul’s statements in Romans 5:10, 5:17, 11:15, and 11:24 would not have been made by a Pharisee because they are not in doctrinal agreement with first century Orthodox Judaism. Of course, this claim is outright laughable since no scholar would argue that Paul is writing to defend the perspectives of a Pharisee- these passages are written in direct opposition to the Jewish messianic scheme. No, the validity of Paul’s identity as a Pharisee has little to do with Paul’s defense of Christ, nor are such passages valid in arguing against it. Actually, Maccoby’s entire theory begins and ends with the same presupposition- that the early Christians did not believe in the divinity of Christ, nor could such a belief be possible anyway. Therefore he concludes that Paul must have been a liar and a manipulator. This type of circular reasoning is typical in Pauline ‘reconstructions.’
Yet, on the basis of the historical reliability of the New Testament documents (see The Reliability of the New Testament Scriptures for a defense of this), I think that it is quite obvious that Paul is not the subversive figure that some scholars like Maccoby have made him out to be. While Paul is responsible for an enormous portion of the growth of the Christian church, and is without a doubt the most influential apostolic voice in the scriptures, it does not follow that Paul is the creator of Christian doctrine. Neither does his influence as a man merit the great suspicion with which some skeptical scholars approach his writings and the truth of Christianity at large, unless a predisposition towards conspiracy theories is considered valid scholarship.
Having little to hide, Paul freely admits the details of his conversion after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the fact that he was well known as a former persecutor of Christians. Furthermore, Paul seems quite clear that he desired to use the influence he had for the sake of the Gospel, rather than to dictate or manipulate for personal gain. The evidence that his post-conversion life was one of great trials and suffering should speak for itself. Paul, in his letter to the Galatian church, speaks to the fact that though he had encountered the resurrected Jesus on the Damascus road, the details of the Gospel were provided to him by the apostles Peter and James, to whom he submitted and checked with in regards to doctrine. In his letter to the Corinthian church, he elaborates:
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles. (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)”
This information, given to Paul by James and Peter, can be dated to at least 3 years after the death of Jesus, meaning that it preceded the writing of any Gospel and was taught and believed by the early church independent of any document! This again supports the conclusion that the incidentals of Jesus’ death, resurrection and post-resurrection appearances were not Pauline inventions, but facts shared and experienced by the entire Christian community and established as oral tradition before Paul’s conversion.
Paul clearly is not writing with the pretense that this information is unique to him. In fact, many of his letters include material that is now recognized as pre-established Christian hymns and creeds (see Rom. 1:3-4;1 Cor. 11:23 ff.;15:3-8; Phil. 2:6_11; Col.1:15-18;1 Tim. 3:16; 2 Tim. 2:8; see also John 1:1-18; 1 Peter 3:18-22; 1 John 4:2). New Testament linguistic scholars have discerned that the quality of the language used in these passages is different from what has been recognized as typical of Paul’s writings, suggesting he did not formulate the verses but was actually referring to them. Also, these passages show a remarkable simplicity in being translated from Paul’s Greek into Aramaic, the Hebrew dialect spoken by Jesus and His followers, suggesting that they originated in this language as part of the pre-Gospels Hebrew/Christian oral tradition. Specifically, the terms ‘delivered,’ and ‘received’ derive from Rabbinic oral tradition, presumably an integral part of the early Christian tradition as well. This is remarkably significant considering the fact that all of these passages clearly affirm the doctrines of the death, resurrection and divinity of Jesus.
Another compelling example comes again from Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church, which was a Greek-speaking community, in which he uses the Aramaic phrase ‘maranatha,’ which refers to Jesus as ‘God’ (mar)*(see Scott Pruett's comment below) and looks forward to his imminent return (anatha). This inclusion of an Aramaic phrase in addressing a Greek audience indicates that the Corinthians were familiar with the phrase and its religious significance prior to Paul’s writing them, which again shows the importance of the early establishment of an oral tradition prior to the writing of any documents.
Lastly, many critics remark that since Paul’s letters are the earliest Christian documents that we have, it is somewhat incriminating how little biographical information about Jesus they contain. Such skeptics conclude that this is because the information about Jesus contained in the four Gospels was mythological and developed over time. While I think that my above remarks refute this claim satisfactorily, I think it is also important to consider that most of Paul’s writing makes little sense outside of a scheme of the truth of Jesus’ death and resurrection. In fact, the communities to whom Paul wrote would not have needed any kind of ‘recap’ on the life of Jesus in these letters, as they were already part of established Christian church communities assembled on the basis of such truths about Jesus!
It was the judgment of the early Christian community that the teaching and words of Paul were not only consistent with the teaching of Christ, but inspired by the Spirit of God. While many scholars are free to reject that particular spiritual conclusion, the cumulative weight of the evidence affirms that Paul sincerely participated in the growth of a church based upon the historical events of the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In fact, it seems likely that with or without Paul, the Gospel of Jesus would still have been preached.