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The God Who Wasn’t There, Part 2

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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).

The God Who Wasn’t There, Part 1

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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!

The Early Church and the Creedal Affirmation of Paul

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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.

The Claims of The DaVinci Code

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As there have been many requests for information regarding the claims of The DaVinci Code, I would like to direct readers to the following posts.

Claim: The four Gospels were chosen from 80 other gospels.
I discuss this claim in What About All the Other “Gospels?” Part 1

Claim: Jesus was married to Mary Magdelene and left the church in her charge.
I discuss this claim in What About All the Other "Gospels?" Part 2

Claim: Pre-Biblical documents tell the true story of Jesus and Mary and are located in Mary's tomb.
I discuss this claim in What About All the Other "Gospels?" Part 3

Claim: The New Testament scriptures are unreliable.
I discuss this claim in The Reliability of the New Testament Scriptures and A Survey of New Testament Documents and The God Who Wasn't There, Part 2

Claim: Leonardo's The Last Supper contains visual clues to the secret of Jesus' marriage to Mary Magdalene.
I discuss this claim in The Last Supper.

Some additional recommended resources:

Biblical scholar Dr. Craig Blomberg has done two excellent lectures related to the claims of The DaVinci Code, available for download here:
The DaVinci Code (Part 1): Was There a Plan to Suppress "Secret" Gospels?
The DaVinci Code (Part 2): Was There a Conspiracy to Concoct a Divine Jesus?

Also, Stand To Reason has produced a great 10-page PDF document addressing The DaVinci Code, available here:
http://www.str.org/site/DocServer/5-6_2006_SG.pdf?docID=961

CNN refutes The DaVinci Code!
Click here to read a decent article on CNN.com dealing with the credibility of the claims of The DaVinci Code.

CBS 60 Minutes debunks Priory of Sion!
Click here to read an article at cbsnews.com detailing the forged origin of Priory of Sion documents used by Dan Brown in his 'historical' research for The DaVinci Code (thanks BB for the link).

US News & World Report sets the record straight!
Click here to read an article at usnews.com generally outlining the historically incorrect claims of the DaVinci Code and the corrections to them.

Scriptural Transmission, Inspiration, and Inerrancy

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Imagine playing a typical game of ‘telephone,’ in which a phrase or sentence is whispered from one player to another until it reaches the original person who composed it. Often, the words have changed and the result is a hilarious illustration of how easily information can get lost in transmission. According to Bart Ehrman’s recent book, ‘Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why,’ the transmission of the Bible by scribes was comparable to a game of ‘telephone,’ (my analogy, not his) as the existence of scores of textual variants among the thousands of existing manuscripts leads Ehrman to the conclusion that the original meaning of the scriptures must be lost. Needless to say, such an allegation is likely to (and has) created controversy of ‘Dan Brownian’ proportions.

It should be initially pointed out that Dr. Ehrman’s reputation as a Biblical scholar and textual critic is exemplary, and his contributions to the study of the transmission of the scriptures are many. However, though he wields considerable authority in this area, his conclusion that the existence of variations in wording among manuscripts calls established Christian doctrines into question is quite overreaching. So, I do not want to suggest that my short article can simply dismiss Ehrman’s work as incorrect. Rather, I would like to examine several of the passages of scripture which he cites and then provide my own response as well as a brief note on the principles of inspiration and inerrancy.

Mark 16:9-20
It has been noted by New Testament scholars for the last century that the ending passage of the Gospel of Mark is absent from the earliest Greek, Latin, Syriac, Coptic, and Armenian manuscripts. Even subsequent copies reveal that the passage had been marked as questionable in its relationship to the original autograph. The writings of Clement of Alexandria and Origen seem to suggest that they were not aware of this passage, as it is not explicitly mentioned by either. However, later writings by Eusebius and Jerome indicate that they were aware of this passage’s absence from the earlier Greek manuscripts and subsequent addition. So, barring the discovery of an earlier manuscript, the current evidence seems to be in favor of a Gospel of Mark which ends prior to 16:9. Some, however, have argued that the final passage is authentic on the basis of a quote in Ireneaus’ Against Heresies of AD 180, which reads:

“Also, towards the conclusion of his gospel, Mark says, 'So then, after the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was received up into heaven and sits on the right hand of God.’”

Regardless of whether the passage is or is not ultimately authentic, the fact remains that some manuscripts contain it while others do not. Dr. Ehrman concludes that a variation of this nature calls the Christian traditions of inspiration and inerrancy into serious question. His expectation is that God would prevent such variations as the scriptures are reproduced. Since variations do, in fact, occur, we must be mistaken about the meaning of the scriptures and ultimately the very character of God. While Ehrman’s conclusions are based upon a presupposition regarding inspiration and innerancy which I will examine at the conclusion of this post, I would initially comment that to suggest that this is some sort of expose on the reliability of the scriptures is incorrect. Many Biblical scholars (his mentor Bruce Metzger included) examine the same data that Ehrman has and reach far different conclusions regarding the inspiration and Inerrancy of the Bible.

John 7:53-8:11
Like the above mentioned passage from the Gospel of Mark, the Pericope De Adultera is not found in the earliest manuscript copies of the Gospel of John. St. Augustine wrote of the omission of this passage, suggesting that scribes made an editorial decision based upon the fear that the story was too lenient upon adultery. Again like the Markan verses, absence of commentary on this passage from writers such as Tertullian and Cyprian seems to indicate that they did not know of it. In fact, many scholars point out that Origen’s commentary on this portion of the Gospel of John mentions every verse except those from the passage between 7:53 and 8:11, leading to the conclusion that he, too, had not been aware of it. Though we may be safe in concluding that the passage should not be considered a part of the autograph, some still suggest that the narrative is a true representation of Jesus. Bruce Metzger elaborates on this, affirming that the periscope can be non-canonical and still true:

“When one adds to this impressive and diversified list of external evidence the consideration that the style and vocabulary of the pericope differ noticeably from the rest of the Fourth Gospel (see any critical commentary), and that it interrupts the sequence of 7.52 and 8.12 ff., the case against its being of Johannine authorship appears to be conclusive. At the same time the account has all the earmarks of historical veracity. It is obviously a piece of oral tradition which circulated in certain parts of the Western church and which was subsequently incorporated into various manuscripts at various places. Most copyists apparently thought that it would interrupt John's narrative least if it were inserted after 7.52 (D E F G H K M U G P 28 700 892 al). Others placed it after 7.36 (ms. 225) or after 7.44 (several Georgian mss.) or after 21.25 (1 565 1076 1570 1582 armmss) or after Luke 21.38 (f13). Significantly enough, in many of the witnesses which contain the passage it is marked with asterisks or obeli, indicating that, though the scribes included the account, they were aware that it lacked satisfactory credentials (Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament).”

It seems quite clear that these two passages, especially the Pericope de Adultera, do not belong in the Bible, though they affirm true things about the character of Jesus and even things He was likely to have done. Biblical scholarship has traditionally affirmed that canonicity is not measured by the veracity of the content of certain books, but by the affirmation of the Holy Spirit. For example, Jude 14-15 quotes from the Book of Enoch, though this book has not been considered part of the canon. The passage, which reads, “Behold, the Lord came with his holy myriads, to execute judgment on all, and to convict all the ungodly of all their ungodly deeds which they have committed in such an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things which ungodly sinners spoke against him,” certainly does not affirm anything necessarily contrary to scripture, yet its veracity does not necessarily qualify it as scripture itself. Additionally, Old Testament apocryphal books like 1 and 2 Maccabees which likely contain accurate historical accounts of the inter-testamental period also contain heretical teachings. Specifically, 2 Macabbees contains passages which affirm suicide, prayers for the dead, Purgatorial suffering as well as the possibility of being granted salvation after death.

Dr. Ehrman is correct in asserting that passages which are unauthentic or spurious should not be considered scripture regardless of our fondness for them or their veracity. However, the fact that some of these passages do remain does not lead to the conclusion that, like a domino effect, the rest of Scripture is dubious as well.

The inspiration of scripture is not at risk due to these variations. Inspiration should be understood as the intentional use of human authors by the Holy Spirit of God in the writing of scripture, such that it contained the exact message He desires. The inspiration was in the production of the autographs, not in the production of copies of the autographs. To suggest that flawed copies indicates a flawed source is without logical basis. In fact, the entire process of reconstructing the autographs by the outstandingly large amount of manuscript attestation we do have has produced a Bible of overwhelming accuracy, and in so doing affirms the emphasis on the inspiration of the autograph, rather than the copies. Even Ehrman agrees here.

Inerrancy, on the other hand, is the conclusion that scripture inspired by God is essentially true. Inerrancy does not mean that copies of the inspired autographs of scripture will be grammatically perfect or even consistent. Yet, it does suggest that the message of God will be both preserved and uncorrupted such that it is accessible to all. This is a crucial point which has major ramifications on the process of reproduction. If inerrancy meant the perfection of the words themselves, rather than the message, then the Word of God would be untranslatable. Such is the dilemma of Islam, where the Koran itself is seen as the ultimate miracle of God, perfect in essence and language. To even interact with the one miracle, the Muslim must understand Arabic, while those that read translations are prohibited from commentary as the act of translation itself is seen as a corrupting agent to the miracle. Yet, this is not the case for the Christian claim of inerrancy of scripture. In fact, the commission of Christ relies upon the ability of His Word to be translated into other languages and even paraphrased by teachers. Thus, the inerrancy of scripture is in the message, rather than the words, or even the sentences, chapters or books.

We should certainly be motivated to have a Bible that is as close to a perfect reproduction of the autographs as possible. To do so means that passages such as the two mentioned here should probably be removed (though it is only fair to mention that virtually every existing modern translation indicates clearly the verses which are varied among the source manuscripts, either by separating the text, footnotes, or other visual cues). However, and this is a big however, the existence of non-authentic passages, even within our latest versions of the Bible, do nothing more to discredit the inspiration and inerrancy of scripture as entire books that were determined as non-canonical, such as the Old and New Testament Apocrypha.

But the more important point is that while inspiration and inerrancy are integral to the Christian faith, they are not principles which override the philosophical grounding of Christian theism, nor the historical grounding of the life, ministry, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. As Dr. Ehrman himself agrees, along with the majority of New Testament scholars, our modern Bible is overwhelmingly reliable as a witness to the original autographs and as a historical account of the time of Christ and the early church. I can only postulate that his incorrect conception of inspiration and inerrancy have led him to prioritize such ideas over the testimony of historical record.

Progress, Ethics and the Finitude of Means

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As petrol costs continue to rise, there seems to be an abundance of discussion about governmental regulation of price gauging and even some philosophical talk of alternative energy. As much as I am intrigued and hoping for a paradigm shift in our reliance upon fossil fuels, I can’t help but suspect that it is a long way off. While new types of transportation solutions are a start, even if they are still very much in the concept phase, my concern is the pre-technological paradigm shift that is needed in our scientific motivations. How does this in any way relate to Christian philosophy and apologetics? Stick with me, I promise to make the connection, however loose, long-winded, or disconnected my approach may be…

Let me begin by suggesting that the past two decades have seen exponential growth in technology, both on the scientific and consumer level, which ultimately seems to have become the goal of science itself. In other words, it seems that science, at least on the popular level, is expected to produce technology, which in turn is expected to progress society towards something better. Yet, it seems that any sincere scientist would hope that at the root of their study is a fascination for the universe and a desire to understand it more. For the Christian, this inductive study of the creation is rooted in the image of God in which we are made. As I suggest in my past two posts concerning the relationship between faith and science, the questions that man asks regarding his existence and the universe must be approached bilaterally- from both observation and philosophy, as science ideally gathers data and philosophy provides the framework through which to interpret it.

However, some scientists disagree. In 1985, Dr. Gerald Feinberg, Professor of Physics at Columbia University wrote,

Scientists now consider that scientific inquiry dominates the human intellectual adventure…Many philosophers argue, as do I, that ethical questions do not have answers in the sense that scientific questions do. (from ‘Solid Clues’).”

While I certainly agree that there are substantial differences between the approaches that science and ethics may take in providing answers to questions, or even the types of questions that they can answer, it is a false dichotomy to limit questions categorically to ethics and science. In fact, if one is determined to create such a dichotomy, ethics is the wrong choice and should be substituted with philosophy. Ethics is a system of moral principles dependent upon a philosophy. Without a grounded philosophy, a system of ethics is meaningless and could allow for anything. (I would even go further to say that philosophy cannot be the ultimate counterpart to science in this hypothetical dichotomy, as the philosophy itself depends upon its epistemological root, but this gets our discussion into much choppier waters than I am ready to navigate in this post!) But, to suggest that science dominates the human intellectual adventure is irresponsible and ignorant of the reality of science’s need for philosophical guidance. This is along the lines of the projected face of the Wizard of Oz declaring it’s independence from the true ‘wizard,’ the man behind the curtain.

Feinberg goes on to write,

“There is no valid reason for any society to limit the type of questions that scientists may investigate or to constrain the type of answers that scientists may find to the questions that interest them…Society is no more justified in regulating the curiosity of its scientists than it would be in regulating their eating habits, or regulating the expression of artists.”

Society is certainly not justified in arbitrarily setting limits for scientific inquiry, but clearly no one is advocating this. Ethics, on the other hand, derived from philosophical determination of the nature of mankind and the universe, should naturally affect how science proceeds. This certainly does not mean policing the thoughts of individuals, so Feinberg can rest assured that even ethics cannot limit the types of questions that scientists ask. This does, however, mean that ethics should prevent certain methods from being used for the purpose of answering questions, as well as determine the value of study relative to its expected impact upon society. For example, while many would agree that it was nobody’s business what sorts of questions Josef Mengele asked in his own mind, it became the world’s business the moment he proceeded to use men, women and children as the subjects of his depraved inquiry. Even today it is fashionable to decry the use of animals in scientific testing, of course it should be pointed out that tolerance for this practice is much lower in the case of the cosmetics industry than it is in cancer research. So while it is true on one hand that ethics cannot allow men to attempt to police the minds of other men, it is true on the other that one’s curiosity does not have preeminence over society. Moreover, thoughts of Mengelian proportion aught to compel psychiatric and/or spiritual council rather than be indulged simply because they are one’s right to think. Likewise, many questions are lawfully and rightfully asked, but the means of attaining answers to these questions have the potential to wreak havoc upon mankind. Thus, our responsibility toward the protection of one another trumps curiosity.

Dr. Liebe Cavalieri, in his book “The Double-Edged Helix: Genetic Engineering in the Real World,” responds to this particular type of thinking when he writes,

"I suspect that many of the implications of [modern science] have been cast aside by the scientific community because a more enlightened view would require a general examination of societal problems, and the solutions to those problems might place constraints on the scientific enterprise.”

In other words, in constructing this false dichotomy of science and ethics at odds, a world is created in which scientists can rightfully turn a blind eye towards considering the effects of their exploits. In doing so, the actual progress or improvement that society can expect is likely stunted. Cavalieri continues,

“Many scientists fail to take note of the possible ill effects that could follow from their work; they make the implicit, vague assumption that all science is good, as though its beneficent application were foolproof. This leads to the illogical conclusion that any and all goals are equally desirable in the search for knowledge, and this is somehow connected with freedom of inquiry…Some scientists hold up the specters of Galileo or Lysenko at any suggestion of public accountability, although their histories are not relevant to the issues of public and environmental safety raised by [modern technologies.]"

But all science cannot be implicitly good, as the example of Mengele so simply points out. Even questions such as how to apprehend cures to disease or improve food supply to the world are posited out of a moral and ethical framework. If it were not morally right to care for the sick, I can see little reason why science would be calibrated toward such results on its own accord. If there is such a thing as ‘good’ science (meaning science for good, rather than science well done), then there must also be such a thing as ‘bad’ science. Bad science could be as obvious as exploiting others for immoral purposes or as subtle as methods extended for a goal that brings short-term benefit but ultimately contributes to the harm of society. This is why ethics, as a system, and ultimately morality, must shepherd science.

I began this post with a remark about our present condition, some twenty years after Feinberg and Cavalieri wrote on the issue, which finds us uncertain of our future as we seem hopefully dependent upon fossil fuels and outgrowing our ability to sustain ourselves. It would be unfair to suggest that the scientists of the past, enthusiastic to develop society and get motors running (literally), should have known better and suppressed their knowledge of petroleum refining to prevent a massively disproportionate dependence upon it years later. However, now that we are existing within such an enormous machine, it may be time that we consider the costs of being liberated from our dependence. At that, I will conclude with Cavalieri’s seemingly prophetic remarks (made in 1985) regarding our situation and future:

“The physical realities of finite energy supplies, the limited ability of the environment to absorb pollution, population growth and the finite potential for food production, and, ultimately, the projected thermal instability of the planet force the inevitable conclusion that growth must cease within a few decades…The practice of science as we know it cannot continue unrestrained, in the present milieu, for its results are bound to be applied by the industrial establishment in the name of progress…Scientists will have to develop a social conscience, convey this to the people, and above all, teach their newly acquired wisdom to the technocrats. To call for an awakening of scientists, technocrats, and the masses on whom technology is practiced sounds all but hopeless, to be sure. But there is no other way to halt the impending technological disaster.”

Written by Christopher Butler

April 25, 2006 at 6:29 pm

Bertrand Russell and the Castration of Knowledge

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Rather than simply being in pace with trends, I have been discussing the relationship between religion and science in several recent posts because I feel that this discussion deals with some critical philosophical ideas that strongly influence our society. In this particular article, I would like to examine the argument of philosopher Bertrand Russell that science has allowed for the dominance of ‘technical’ truth over ‘absolute truth,’ which I believe is flawed on the basis of a particular misunderstanding of the role of religion in society and of an arbitrary limiting of science.

In his “Religion and Science,” published in 1935, Russell attempts to compare and contrast religion with science:

Science is the attempt to discover, by means of observation, and reasoning based upon it, first, particular facts about the world, and then laws connecting facts with one another and (in fortunate cases) making it possible to predict future occurrences…Religion, considered socially, is a more complex phenomenon than science. Each of the great historical religions has three aspects: 1) a church, 2) a creed, and 3) a code of personal morals…Creeds are the intellectual source of the conflict between religion and science, but the bitterness of the opposition has been due to the connection of creeds with churches, and with moral codes. (All quotes in this post will be from ‘Religion and Science, by Bertrand Russell.’)

Russell defines science as having relevance to the pursuit of knowledge dealing with the origins and destiny of the physical world, as well as the process by which it is sustained. This is, at face value, as it should be as far as scientific methods are concerned. However, as later quotes will show, this particular scheme of science is governed by the presupposition which excludes supernatural phenomena from explanations. To assume that all of reality can be explained outside of the realm of supernatural phenomena is quite unwarranted given the likelihood that we do not have full knowledge by which to justify it. Russell’s religious source, which he cites as the creed, is also unlikely. The creed is a statement of belief; for it to be both the source of the belief and the statement of the belief certainly begs the question. However, the assumption that the creed is the intellectual source of religious belief is also governed by an unwritten assumption excluding supernatural phenomena, for if religions are manmade, then the creed would certainly become the source of religion, but if God does exist and has spoken, than God is the source of religious belief and the creed is merely an affirmation of the belief.

Russell continues,

Sometimes there happens to be a text in the Bible making some assertion as to a matter of fact…Such assertions, when they are refuted by scientific observation, cause difficulties for those who believe, as most Christians did, until science forced them to think otherwise, that every word of the Bible is divinely inspired.

It would be helpful to have particular passages which illustrate the point Russell is trying to make here, but unfortunately he leaves the idea undeveloped. To use my previous post as a valid example, science provided observational evidence that seemed to contradict with the current interpretation of certain Biblical texts dealing with the Earth’s relationship to the Sun. However, as Galileo rightly pointed out, and many theologians and scientists later concurred, the truth of the scriptures was never at risk, but the truth of the interpretation of men of its meaning. The authority of the scriptures, then, is not subservient to the findings of science. One cannot solve issues of seeming discrepancy by simply limiting scriptural authority to meaning and morality, either. It is out of a comprehensive scheme that conclusions in regard to meaning and morality are made, which depend on a specific expository process from beginning (the origin of creation) to end (its destiny).

Back to Russell:

Men of science did not ask that propositions should be believed because of some important authority had said they were true; on the contrary, they appealed to the evidence of the senses, and maintained only such doctrines as they believed to be upon facts which were patent to all who chose to make the necessary observations. The new method achieved such immense successes, both theoretical and practical, that theology was gradually forced to accommodate itself to science.”

Many scientific conclusions have adhered to such a scheme and have made obvious improvements upon society. This is quite clear to all, I am sure. However, this statement is subversive if it is meant to assert that all theories and conclusions of science adhere to it strictly, especially those which pertain to origins and destiny, the understanding of which continues to be in flux as new interpretations of evidence come in and out of repute. In the cases of making inference in regards to such distant events (both future and past), it is necessary to view the observational data in light of an ideological framework. Again, in reference to the Galileo controversy, the proper interpretation of phenomenological language in scripture is by no means an accommodation to the higher authority of science. Rather, it is the uncovering of an already existing truth by the collaboration of piety and observation.

In anticipation of what many may dispute about the notion of science operating with presuppositions, I will first include what Russell himself had to say about it:

Experience has shown that it is dangerous to start from general principles and proceed deductively, both because principles may be untrue and because the reasoning based upon them may be fallacious. Science starts, not from large assumptions, but from particular facts discovered by observation or experiment.”

This is obviously false. Most scientists would agree that their methods begin with the assumption that supernatural phenomena do not exist. While I think this is a fair limitation of methods, I do not think that it is a fair limitation of conclusions given that we could not possibly affirm through observation or experiment the non-existence of supernatural phenomena. It is a brute assumption that cannot be validated by Russell’s method as stated above. In fact, presuppositions govern the crucial points of science; they provide an initial scheme from which to formulate questions and hypothesis, as well as provide a framework from which to interpret evidence and make conclusions.

Russell continues,

A religious creed differs from a scientific theory in claiming to embody eternal and absolutely certain truth, whereas science is always tentative, expecting that modifications in its present theories will sooner or later be found necessary, and aware that its method is one which is logically incapable of arriving at complete and final demonstration…Science thus encourages the abandonment of the search for absolute truth, and the substitution of what may be called ‘technical’ truth, which belongs to any theory that can be successfully employed in inventions or in predicting the future…’Knowledge’ ceases to be a mental mirror of the universe, and becomes merely a practical tool in the manipulation of matter.”

Russell admits the limitation of science to the pragmatic, yet his conclusion that therefore objective truth does not exist does not logically follow. If science is simply a means to knowledge, and is successful in providing a portion of that knowledge, it does not mean that the remaining knowledge that is not reachable through science simply is invalid or does not exist! The notion that truth is that which ‘works’ has been demonstrated time and again to be unnecessarily narrow and observably false. Russell’s own statement, that ‘science is always tentative,’ relies upon a larger ‘set’ of truth which cannot be empirically verified but the objectivity of which is invoked in order to make the claim. So, while the judicious scientist is aware of and accepts the tentativeness of his discoveries, and rightly so, it would be incoherent to claim that it is objectively true that ‘science is always tentative.’

What Russell really does, out of his assumptions about religious philosophy and his rejection of it as epistemologically valid, is make knowledge impotent in really providing any answers to the ‘big’ questions of man. By limiting the source of knowledge to “technical truth” derived by science alone, he has, in a sense, castrated knowledge! His “technical truth” will by nature be unable to answer questions of meaning or morality (questions most likely to be of higher priority to mankind), nor will it honestly lead to a comprehensive understanding of origins and destiny.

Written by Christopher Butler

April 18, 2006 at 4:36 pm

Valid and Invalid Conclusions from the Galileo Controversy

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In 1614, Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei wrote a letter to the Grand Duchess Christina in which he defended his position regarding the authority of the Church in matters of scientific inquiry. On the basis of that letter, and the subsequently published work, “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems,” Galileo was censured and punished by the Papal authority of Pope Urban III as a heretic for his teaching of heliocentrism, despite initially having the support of the former Cardinal Barberini.

The church’s denial and suppression of scientific observations, which were ultimately proven to be true, on the basis of theological doctrine has become one of the most frequently invoked polemics against the Christian faith in modern history. Many skeptics cast Galileo as a fellow skeptic and renegade agnostic fighting against the potentially fascist control of the Church. While there are shades of truth in such a picture, I would argue that it is irresponsible to distort the struggle of Galileo for the purposes of debunking Christianity. While an obvious response to such a move would be to recall the warning of Augustine, that one must not judge a philosophy by its abuse, I think there is more to this to be discussed. Needless to say, to conclude that because the Church was in error in the Galileo affair therefore Christianity is false is unwarranted.

Actually, Galileo was a devout and committed Christian, believing that God had created a world with certain laws which made scientific study possible. To Galileo, scientific inquiry was a means through which to better understand his creator and to bring glory to Him. His study, however, did reveal some tensions between what the Church had taught regarding the created world and his own documented observations. In his letter to the Grand Duchess, Galileo explained,

The reason produced for condemning the opinion that the Earth moves and the Sun stands still is that in many places in the Bible one may read that the Sun moves and the Earth stands still…It is very pious to say and prudent to affirm that the Holy Bible can never speak untruth- whenever its true meaning is understood…It is necessary for the Bible, in order to be accommodated to the understanding of every man, to speak many things which appear to differ from the absolute truth so far as the bare meaning of the words is concerned. (All of the statements of Galileo quoted in this article are found in his letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, of 1614.)

It seems that Galileo calibrated his scientific study by affirming what should be the authority, both for the scientist and for any discerner of truth. Despite the seeming tensions between the accepted teaching of the Church and his observations, Galileo was certain that an explanation which favored both the authority of the scriptures and the truth of his observations could be found. By taking his observations of God’s creation and understanding them in light of His Word, it became apparent that much of the Biblical descriptive language, especially as it pertains to the created world, is phenomenological in nature. In other words, much of the Biblical description of the created world is in language which reflects how certain phenomena appears from the point of view of mankind. Galileo defended this conclusion on the basis of the theological position of Augustine, which indicated various genres of literature within the scriptures as indicative of the different means by which interpretation is established.

Galileo continued, “Since the Holy Ghost did not intend to teach us whether heaven moves or stands still, whether its shape is spherical or like a discus or extended in a plane, nor whether the Earth is located at its center or off to one side, then so much the less was it intended to settle for us any other conclusion of the same kind.”

This makes a crucial point regarding the truth and teaching of Scripture. Galileo says, and I think quite correctly so, that while the scriptures cannot speak falsely and should be regarded as quite correct in all propositions they make, they may not carry a particular doctrinal mandate in regard to the Earth’s position and behavior in the universe. So, while the Bible does in fact make many statements about the Earth being immoveable or having four corners, the emphasis is on the point of view of mankind and is often poetic rather than scientific. Thus, to create a doctrine from a literal interpretation of descriptive phenomenological language would be tenuous at best and irresponsible and heretical at worst!

Galileo advocates for the freedom of scientific inquiry, proceeding from reverence and honor of God, His Word, and His creation, rather than the censuring of such a practice out of fear.

To prohibit the whole science would be but to censure a hundred passages of Holy Scripture which teach us that the glory and greatness of Almighty God are marvelously discerned in all His works and divinely read in the open book of Heaven.”

In other words, the Bible itself seems to affirm that the Heavens, too, are a truth-telling source of testimony to the glory of God. Thus, our observations of it must be combined with the scriptures to provided the most accurate and comprehensive description of our Creator available to us. Perhaps, then, the argument should be that neither science nor the Church, which is merely the corporate name of God’s people, should have final epistemological authority, but that the two should participate in concert, guided by the truth of the Word, in the effort to discern the truth of God and His creation.

Sadly, Galileo was never vindicated in his lifetime. Cardinal Barberini, who had initially encouraged him to produce the “Dialogue,” was later displeased by how Galileo’s work unfavorably characterized the church and too strongly advocated for heliocentrism. When Barberini became Pope Urban III, he called Galileo before the Inquisition to answer for charges of heresy, for which he was ultimately condemned and placed under house arrest for the remainder of his life. It wasn’t until 1758 that the Vatican formally accepted the heliocentric scheme of the solar system and affirmed its agreement with scripture. Much later, in 1992, Pope John Paul II wrote of his regret over how the Church handled the dispute, indicating that Galileo’s desire for the cooperation of science and scripture was indeed correct.

Written by Christopher Butler

April 17, 2006 at 3:11 pm

The War on Easter?

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Many will most likely be hearing reports today about a DVD documentary that has been distributed and hidden in churches by volunteers for an atheist organization. The documentary, titled The God Who Wasn’t There, seeks to spread the “truth” that Jesus never existed.

Brian Flemming, president of Beyond Belief Media, the distributor of the DVD, has said, “People go to churches to hide from the truth. At no time is this more apparent than Easter, when Christians get together to convince each other that a man died, stayed dead three days, rose from the dead and then flew into the air above the clouds.”

Though I have not yet seen this film, nor do I have any plans to intentionally seek it out, I would like to initially make a few comments. Primarily, the assertion that Jesus never existed is extremely far out from the mainstream of scholarship in regards to Jesus. No serious scholar, skeptic or not, would make such a claim. Contrary to whatever obsolete arguments are touted on this DVD, historical evidence is strongly in favor of the existence, life, death and resurrection of Christ. To suggest otherwise is almost comical.

I do wonder what the advantage to this “guerilla” tactic is for the distributors. My suspicion is that it may be the result of not obtaining agreements to have the program aired on television. Though, had it been aired this way, it wouldn’t be much of a deviation from much anti-Christian programming commonly seen anyway! I also find the method of distribution ultimately ironic. Were Christians to place pro-Jesus propaganda on private property, they would be shut down in a second, blasted by the media, and trailed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Written by Christopher Butler

April 12, 2006 at 10:14 pm

What About All the Other “Gospels?” Part 3

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After looking at the Gnostic “other gospels” in light of the recent media attention, as well as in terms of their historical and theological validity, I want to examine one last issue that is often mentioned within the context of the discussion. This concerns the hypothetical “Q” document, supposed by some scholars to be the source of information to which the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke refer.

Suggested by the German scholar Friedrich Schleiermacher in 1832, the “Q” hypothesis (named for the German word Quelle, or “source”) was proposed to account for the parallels between Matthew and Luke’s writings of the sayings of Jesus. Some 250 verses of both Gospels show parallels, in that they have particular similarities that are not found in the Gospel of Mark, which scholars suggest is due to an actual document having pre-existed the Gospels and served as their source. Schleiermacher was prompted to take up this study after encountering the writing of Papias of Hierapolis, who wrote, “Matthew compiled the oracles of the Lord in a Hebrew manner of speech.” It had previously been interpreted that Papias meant that Matthew had written in Hebrew, but Schleiermacher interpreted this quote to mean that there was a document previous to Matthew.

The hypothesis has a particular presupposition of Markan priority, meaning that the Gospel of Mark was written first, to account for the similarities. However, if Matthew was actually written first, the hypothesis has little basis to be defended. Some advocates of the “Q” hypothesis reason that the format of the “Gospel of Thomas” (see What about Other “Gospels?” Part 1) shows that a purely sayings-based document has historical precedent. However this relies upon the assumption that such a format would precede the narrative accounts found in the canonical Gospels, which, given the later date of “Thomas” is not necessarily the case.

Interestingly, an expert character in Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code suggests,

Also rumored to be a part of the treasury [of supposed documents hidden in the tomb of Mary Magdalene] is the legendary “Q” document, a manuscript that even the Vatican admits they believe exists. Allegedly, it is a book of Jesus’ teachings, possibly written in his own hand…Another explosive document believed to be in the treasury is a manuscript called the ‘Magdalene Diaries,’ Mary Magdalene’s personal account of her relationship with Christ, His crucifixion, and her time in France.”

To be fair, Brown’s book is, after all, a fictional work, making his completely unfounded suggestion of the existence of a diary written by Mary Magdalene (completely without historical credence) ignorable. However, Brown does open the book with a note explaining that all descriptions of documents within the book are accurate. For the record, however, though the “Q” document is an existing hypothesis and the basis of valid scholarship, no scholar has ever suggested that there is any reason to think it would have been written by Christ himself.

Contrary to the claims of the mostly Gnostic “gospels” I have examined in my previous two posts, the existence of “Q” would not actually cause any theological or historical problems. In fact, it was common for certain able followers of a Rabbi at the time to take notes of his teachings so that they may commit to memory and deliver to others what they had learned. If “Q” did exist, I would assume that it would have been on the level of such notes, since no copy of it has survived nor has it been explicitly referred to by any other early documents. However, we have no tangible evidence for either position, so “Q” must remain a hypothesis until we do.