July 23, 2005

On the Defense of Scripture

Question:
I find it hard to place my absolute trust in the bible because I thought it was highly edited 100+ yrs after Christ and translated too and that there were meetings of the Roman Catholic Church where they purposely omitted certain sections and things. Also, what about those hidden gospels that were found? Like the gospel of Thomas? Now maybe to a Christian insider all these things have obvious explanations, but you must understand to the outside observer like me, its all information, who should I choose to believe?

Answer:
I can't blame you for having some confusion here; there are so many books, TV specials, and liberal professors who have worked very hard to undermine confidence in the Bible. In fact, I'm going to predict by the content of your question that you have read the Da Vinci Code. But in spite of what Dan Brown and his fans may believe, his depiction of history is not even respectable by (even rabidly) non-Christian scholarly standards there is such a thing as "good" and "fair" critical analysis, but that isn't it.

The problem that critics of the Bible have is that they do not have much to go on. It's not like they've found old copies of the four gospels that are radically different from what we have today. There are no old manuscripts in our possession that say things like, "Jesus showed compassion to the leper" rather than, "Jesus healed the leper" or, "I show you one way to the Father" rather than, "no one comes to the Father except through Me." And there are no "other gospel" manuscripts found that have been demonstrated to be from the first century or to be copies of something that existed at that time. Claims that the Bible has been tampered with are without empirical backing; they are simply assumptions based on "conspiracy theory" type thinking. The way it works is this: it is first assumed that the stories of Jesus couldn't possibly be true because of all the miracle talk, then an attempt is made to weave a tale as to how such miracles could have gotten in the text. And if any fairly old books, like the Gospel of Thomas, are found that have a less orthodox portrait of Jesus, then these are assumed to be earlier works. The fact that there is no time-tested and consistent story from the critics regarding what "really happened" in that first century (their story changes about every 25 years) is testimony that they are simply grappling with theory and not hard data.

There was a time in the past when critical scholars suspected that the New Testament (N.T.) documents were largely authored in the second or third century, but today most admit that they originate in the first century. I've even recently heard John Dominic Crossan (of the Jesus Seminar {a group of radically liberal "scholars"}) admit on TV that the gospels were written within decades after Jesus' death! And there is even less debate over the letters of Paul, most of which are taken to be from his own hand and are the earliest writings of all. This is a real problem, because Paul's writings contain the clearest of all presentations of classical Christian theology (the book of Romans is a theological masterpiece), which were not supposed to have "developed" until decades later. This is why modern critical scholarship is trying to find a way to drive a wedge between Paul and the other Apostles his testimony is just too...Christian like.

Some of the reasons why scholars have been forced to admit that the N.T. materials are first century works are the following:

1) Manuscript evidence. There is, by far, better and older manuscript support for the N.T. than for any other work of antiquity. If we considered other secular writers of the same era (e.g., Josephus, Pliny, Tacitus, Plutarch) we would discover that the most ancient copies of their writings that we possess are from more than 800 years after they were authored. In contrast, if we looked at something like the Gospel of John, we would discover that we have fragments of it from within 30 years after it was authored (presumably the late first century). And the Gospel of John is considered to be the last N.T. document written, so this dates the other writings even earlier! It is said that we have around 5000 ancient copies of the N.T. from around the Mediterranean in its source language Greek (that is to say, not translations but direct copies). Most of these documents vary only in syntax or due to common copyist errors.

2) Early Church Fathers. Besides the biblical documents, we also have the writings of the early leaders of the church from all corners of the Roman Empire. It has been observed that if one took all the biblical quotes in these documents, one could reconstruct most of the verses of the NT. And their quotes compare well against the N.T. documents themselves.

3) Accuracy of the documents. There are stories of critical scholars who set out to prove the falsity of the N.T. documents, and eventually became believers themselves, by comparing them against the archaeology, cultural history, and literary styles of the first century era. It was thought that surely, if they were written in a later era, there would be technical slip-ups. Even those things that seemed to have been discrepancies have one-by-one, over time, come to be conceded as accurate. Wherever scripture can be tested, it usually comes out the victor. There are very few open issues remaining to be settled at this time.

4) Extra-biblical references. The Bible and the Christian community are not the only sources of information about the early church. Over time other Jewish, Roman, and Greek manuscript finds have been uncovered to support many points of data contained in the scriptures. For example: that Jesus existed, that He was tried and executed, that His followers continued after Him and claimed He was deity and resurrected, that they were dying for their beliefs, that Jesus' brother was the head of the Jerusalem church and was also executed, etc.

This deals (well enough for now) with the issue of those books we know as our New Testament, but what about those "other gospels," like Thomas, that were "left out" of the canon by the church? First of all, the idea that there was a council of the church that sat down with some 80 available gospels (as Dan Brown claims in his Da Vinci Code) and arbitrarily voted on which ones to include is a fiction. The closest thing to this are the various regional councils most notably the Council of Carthage (397) that simply "recognized" the commonly accepted list of books that had already been identified. The way that the "inspired" books came to be acknowledged was by perfectly reasonable and natural criteria, by which the other gospels that some people would like to squeeze in there (primarily Gnostic texts) fail to measure up. Here are some of the primary factors involved:

1) The book had to be a product of the first century church, and from those who were authoritative eyewitnesses to the action. If a book was from the hand of an Apostle, it was an automatic candidate. If it was from a sidekick of an Apostle (like Luke or Mark), or from those of the inner circle (like Jude or James), then it was a solid candidate as well. This is why the Gnostic books were so often written under the names of Apostles: to attempt to foster a sense of credibility.

2) The pedigree of the book had to be good. That is, there had to be high confidence that the book was actually from the time and author that it was claimed to be. We have various writings of the Church Fathers as a window into this dialog if we care to review their defenses. The backers of the Gnostic books failed to demonstrate a lineage back to the Apostles. And these books cannot be shown to be authored any earlier than the second or third century. Mention of such books in the writings of the Church Fathers (mostly critiques) does not even begin until later in church history. However, we do see some discussion about a few more reasonable candidates.

3) There were certain books that no one called into question, like the four Gospels, Acts, and most of the Pauline letters. Of those that were the subject of some debate, one standard of measure was that these should be consistent in theological content and quality with those having been already accepted. In comparison to the harmony of the four universally recognized gospels (which even the Gnostics didn't challenge) the others often sound like a tone-deaf choirboy. Here's one example from the Gospel of Thomas:

"Simon Peter said to them: Let Mary go forth from among us, for women are not worthy of the life. Jesus said: Behold, I shall lead her, that I may make her male, in order that she also may become a living spirit like you males. For every woman who makes herself male shall enter into the kingdom of heaven."

4) Another more subjective criteria would be what I might call the staying power of the book. An inspired book would be expected to have a certain popular following among the clergy and be profitable in the lives of believers and the history of the church. Perhaps I could use the analogy of pop music, in that decades later it is only the best-in-class that tends to get playtime on the oldies stations. The Gnostic texts were not so much pushed and stamped out of existence as they were neglected and abandon. The wheat survived over the chaff. And when the Roman persecutors came a-knockin' in search of contraband Christian materials, the priests and bishops were less than grieved to hand over certain texts as decoys.

For more information on Gnosticism, you can see my related post here: Regarding Gnosticism

Long before those councils that formally recognized the canon listings we find writings of the Church Fathers that include each of their A-lists as well as their habit of quoting only certain books as authoritative. And the selections of these writers line up very well with the modern Bible. In addition, I would point out the Muratorian Canon from the second century, which is an official catalog of accepted texts along with their historical setting. It was probably compiled to counter a fellow named Marcion, who was making an effort to discard and edit books that didn't fit into his theology (he didn't like the O.T. and any N.T. books that made positive reference to it). In fact, as it turns out, almost all the "disputed" books were ones that eventually DID make it in to the canon; the church eventually did more including rather than the often imagined excluding. The few that were seriously debated, yet not chosen for inclusion (like the epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas), are available to review today, and it's fairly plain to any who read them why they were bypassed (not that they contain contradictory theology, but simply don't fit well within the 4 criteria I mention above). Of Thomas and the other "hidden gospels" never even considered.

Let me end this point with a lengthy quote from the church historian Eusebius who wrote in his Ecclesiastical History (325 AD) the following assessment. I include it because it is an early writing from a highly respected source that well summarizes much of what I have been saying here (not that it is the only or earliest such text).
First then must be put the holy quaternion of the Gospels [Matthew, Mark, Luke, John]; following them the Acts of the Apostles. After this must be reckoned the epistles of Paul; next in order the first former epistle of John, and likewise the epistle of Peter, must be maintained. After them is to be placed, if it really seem proper, the Apocalypse of John, concerning which we shall give the different opinions at the proper time. These then belong among the accepted writings. Among the disputed writings, which are nevertheless recognized by many, are extant the so-called epistle of James and that of Jude, also the second epistle of Peter, and those that are called the second and third of John ... Among the rejected writings must be reckoned the Acts of Paul, and the so-called Shepherd, and the Apocalypse of Peter, and in addition to these the extant epistle of Barnabas, and the so-called Teachings of the Apostles; and besides, as I said, the Apocalypse of John, if it seem proper, which some, as I said, reject, but which others class with the accepted books. And among these some have placed also the Gospel according to the Hebrews ... all these may be reckoned among the disputed books. But we have nevertheless felt compelled to give a catalogue of these also, distinguishing those works which according to ecclesiastical tradition are true and genuine and commonly accepted, from those others which, although not canonical but disputed, are yet at the same time known to most ecclesiastical writers we have felt compelled to give this catalogue in order that we might be able to know both these works and those that are cited by the heretics under the name of the apostles, including, for instance, such books as the Gospels of Peter, of Thomas, of Matthias, or of any others besides them, and the Acts of Andrew and John and the other apostles, which no one belonging to the succession of ecclesiastical writers has deemed worthy of mention in his writings. And further, the character of the style is at variance with apostolic usage, and both the thoughts and the purpose of the things that are related in them are so completely out of accord with true orthodoxy that they clearly show themselves to be the fictions of heretics.
So far I've dealt with the origin of the text, the reliability of its transmission, and the selection of the canon, but what about our modern translations? Did the contents of the original writings get accidentally or intentionally corrupted during "all those translations and retranslations?"

First, remember that I mentioned that we have numerous very old texts in their original language. This means that if anyone happens to know the Greek language of the time (or Hebrew, in the case of the O.T.), then they do not even need to concern themselves with the various translations. The skeptical Greek scholar may compare these source materials against your average Bible translation for himself to see how faithful the translators have been. The translation issue is not one of the objections raised by informed critics; they are more concerned with the integrity of the early source language materials. There may have been times and places where translations were problematic, as in Martin Luther's case where the only available text for his German translation was the Latin Vulgate, but modern translators have a wealth of source language materials from which to work. And most modern translations DO begin with such materials; they are not simply translating translations of translations.

Our present translations are better than at any time in the past. Some target a style that is more technically accurate (like the NASB) and some attempt to be more readable and conversational (like the NIV), but harmony of meaning is rarely compromised in any (the "paraphrase" translations being the farthest from the mark). The bottom line is, there is good reason to be confident that what we read today in our modern Bibles accurately mirrors what the authors actually wrote. Of course, one can always argue that these authors were liars or mythmakers, but then some answer must be given as to why they would be inclined to invent a fiction that gained them no material advantage (unlike Muhammad or Joseph Smith) and cost them their lives to defend.

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July 16, 2005

Christianity and Science

I'm presently engaged in a dialog with a talented young musician. He's offered me some fair and open questions about Christianity, and in the process of responding I'm generating quite a bit content that may be of interest to others. What I intend to do is to edit it as needed and release it topically in separate posts. The first one relates to science, and the next two will relate to the reliability of Scripture and the fate of "devout" people of other religions.

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Question:
The truth thing is often hard for me to understand. Like, if I was to just think of finding out things that were objectively true and unbiased, I would probably first look to science. I mean, having a scientific method and being ready to find out whatever might be. Science seems to have shed a lot of light on some really cloudy issues. So it seems to me that there are some contradictions between a few scientific discoveries and viewpoints and a few Christian ideas and fundamentals. But maybe there's a lot more to it?

Answer:
Such a big topic; so many points I could make here. Let me do a shotgun approach and give you an overview of some of the kinds of things to be considered when thinking about "science." These can be fleshed out later as needed. First, a definition of terms. When I use the words "naturalism" or "materialism" I usually mean the idea that there is no God or spiritual realm and that matter/nature is all there is. At this point I can use these words interchangeably; the nuanced distinction is not yet important.

1) Science is not an unbiased venture. It is a fiction to think that scientists are influenced by agendas and worldviews any less than are other types of persons. In fact, modern science has succeeded in having certain biases built in to its very definition and methodologies. For example, the idea that there are no miracles, there is no purpose to nature, and there is nothing super-natural. As the late Carl Sagan use to say, "Nature is all there is, was, or ever will be." If there is a God, we shall not know it from the formal proclamations of science -- perhaps only from its commentators.

Harvard geneticist and evolutionary biologist, Richard Lewontin, said it best (and with great candor) in his NY Times review of one of Carl Sagan's books:

Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.
2) Philosophy precedes science. The very definition of what science is and how it operates is based on what would be called the "philosophy of science." And some of the philosophical assumptions on which science depends are highly questionable outside of a theistic framework. For example, science relies on some of the following assumptions without any kind of prior justification as to why they must be so.
* That the world outside our minds is real and that truth actually exists to be discovered.
* The basic reliability of sense perception, i.e., that what we think we perceive actually fits the real world.
* That the law of cause and effect is valid and universal.
* That our minds are constructed in such a way that we can truly know and understand the complexities of nature.
* That the laws of logic and mathematics are objectively real tools that are adequate to the task of finding truth.

There are some postmodern thinkers who dispute most of these assumptions, but they do make perfect sense if the God of Christianity exists, and if we don't accept these assumptions then it is impossible to do science in the traditional sense.

3) Science is well grounded in a Christian worldview. It is no accident that modern science was birthed (and sustained) in Western civilization of all possible places. The Christian view of metaphysics lent itself well to the task, i.e., the idea that God has created an orderly and law-driven world and that it is designed for purpose, pleasure, and exploration. Christians have historically loved science with great passion because, as Kepler stated it, it allows them to "think God's thoughts after Him." It is only the modern banishment of "religion" from scientific discourse that would make it appear otherwise.

4) Scientific support for Christianity. In actuality, there are very few sustained discoveries that are hostile to Christianity. I say "sustained" because at certain points in time things were believed, but later found to be false, that ran contrary to Biblical teachings. For example, the Bible teaches of a beginning to creation, but in centuries past (prior to big bang cosmology) it was thought that the universe was eternal.

In the past 50 years the scientific discoveries supporting theism seem to have snowballed to a point where pure atheism in the "hard sciences" seems to be passé. There are many conversion stories at hand regarding individuals who were set on their spiritual journeys by their scientific education or discoveries. One of the most recent relates to the renowned atheist Antony Flew. While more of a philosopher, this fellow traffics in the scientific arguments for and against God. It turns out that these are the very things that brought him to ultimately rethink his atheism. Some of the modern scientific findings that I might mention are the following:

* Big Bang cosmology. Cosmologists and astrophysicists are now generally agreed that there is a point of origin of all space, time, and matter. As a result of this, astronomer Geoffrey Burbridge once lamented that his fellow scientists were rushing off to join the "First Church of Christ of the Big Bang."

* Fine-tuning of the laws of physics. The very laws of physics have been discovered to be "just right" for the support of complex chemistry and life itself. Some of the forces and constants I refer to are the weak and strong atomic forces, various atomic particle weights, electromagnetic force, gravitational force, the speed of light, and the expansion rate of the universe. If any of these constants were tweaked by even the slightest degree, the results would be disastrous. And I don't just mean disastrous for "life as we know it," I mean for the existence of complex matter or the universe itself. For example, it is said that the "cosmological constant" (which controls the expansion of the universe) is fine-tuned to 1 part in 10^124 power! (Yes, I confirmed this with non-Christian sources). If it were different in one way or the other the universe would either have been just a hiccup (exploding & recollapsing before anything interesting could happen), or it would have fled away too quickly to support the formation of planets, stars, and galaxies.

* Problem of abiogenesis. This is the issue that particularly drove Antony Flew out of his atheism. This relates to the question of how the first life form came into being out of raw chemistry. The simplest and earliest known organisms to be explained are equivalent to today's bacteria, and these have been found to be so complex (see my next point) that virtually no one continues to suggest that a bacteria could have popped into existence from an ocean full of any kind of chemistry at all. The problems are these: 1) there is nothing simpler than bacteria known to have existed, 2) there is no evidence in early earth history of the kind of atmosphere & oceans existing that would be needed to produce even just the building-blocks of life, 3) only a short amount of time occurred between the cooling/stabilization of the planet and the appearance of the first life-forms, and 4) there are no experimentally (or even theoretically) supportable propositions for what happened between the simple-chemistry stage of earth history and the appearance of complex biochemistry. These are some of the reasons why the panspermia theory (life-from-space) has gained such popularity, and even Nobel laureates are saying things like "maybe an alien ship dumped its waste tank in our ocean several billion years ago." It is also why Dean Kenyon, one of the pioneers in naturalistic origins of life theory, is now a Christian arguing against his prior flawed work.

* Biochemical complexity. Modern electron microscopes have dispelled Darwin's mistaken notion that the cell is a mere "blob of protoplasm." It has been discovered to be a "design" marvel, complex as a city, which is full of what may rightly be termed "molecular machines." These machines are quite sophisticated and efficient, and generally involve numerous independent, unique proteins. Besides explaining this kind of complexity, a naturalist must face the difficulty of how these things could come to exist in a step-by-step fashion (ala Darwinian evolution) given the fact that they are non-functional until all the proteins exist and are assembled correctly -- these machines are "irreducibly complex." Here is an example of such a molecular machine -- the bacterial flagellum, which is an acid-powered rotary motor that runs up to 20,000 rpm and can reverse direction in a quarter turn: http://www.arn.org/docs/mm/flag_labels.jpg

* Cambrian explosion (the biological big bang). Contrary to Darwin's expectations, paleontologists have discovered the fossil record not to be characterized by gradual change; rather, as evolutionists Steven J. Gould and Niles Eldridge pointed out, it is characterized by long periods of stasis punctuated by the sudden emergence of new species (usually in conjunction with extinctions of most of the old). In no place is this more profoundly demonstrated than at the start of the Cambrian period. Prior to this, all we have for nearly 3 billion years are bacteria and algae (and some hint of simple multi-cellular organism toward the end). However, in the Cambrian period we suddenly have complex and highly specialized creatures. In fact, every know Phylum (the major body plans) comes into existence at this point, and I understand that no new Phylum have come into existence since.

5) The fallibility of science. Science is only as infallible as the humans who apply it. Just as we believe Scripture to be reliable, so too is science when rightly applied and interpreted. And just as theologians can make unwarranted conclusions from Scripture, so too can scientists make significant errors regarding nature. Some errors have even endured for centuries before being corrected. I offer some examples here:
* The Ptolemaic model of the universe - the Greeks had the earth at center long before Christianity was around.
* Phlogiston theory - a rather curious theory regarding matter and combustion that reigned for most of the 18th century.
* Spontaneous generation - e.g., meat produces flies, grain produces mice, mud produces frogs, etc.
* Newtonian vs. quantum physics - modern physics seems to have overturned some of the assumptions of both Newton and Einstein.
* Steady-state and oscillating universe theories - some interesting theories that have been discredited in the wake of wide-scale acceptance of big bang cosmology. They seem to have been frantic attempts to find a means to sustain the idea of a universe without a beginning (which is much friendlier to atheism).

We must remain cautious of our understanding of nature, just as caution is warranted in regard to what we think the Bible is saying about it. If Christianity were to hang its fortunes on every turn of science (assuming it were theologically free to do so), then history would be riddled with "Galileo incidents."

6) Scientific thinking in the metaphysical realm. As I've tried to make clear, Christianity has no quarrel with science in general and the application of the scientific method to matters of truth. In fact, we would go so far as to say that "scientific" thinking (logic, reason, and systematics) should be equally applied to metaphysical claims. So often, people put on a whole different hat when thinking about religion, values, and morality, but there is no particular reason why logic should fail us in those matters if it serves us so well in all others. I commend your desire to apply reason in your quest for truth, but I would only ask that you hold your metaphysical thinking to the same standard of scrutiny.

And one final thing...

Perhaps when you are thinking of "contradictions between science and Christianity" you are referring to things like the supposed vast age of the universe vs. a 6-day creation, or evolution vs. God's direct acts of creation. These are the most common things that people cite as conflict. Without getting (more) long-winded, let me mention just two things for now.

The allowed interpretation of the Genesis creation account has been a matter of dispute well before the days of modern science. There are several interpretations that are considered "within the pale of orthodoxy." These are known by such names as the 6-Day Creation model, the Day-Age theory (sometimes called Progressive Creation), the Framework theory, and the Fiat Creation theory. There are many fine conservative Christian theologians who hold to something other than the 6-day model, essentially affirming an old universe with creation happening in long epochs or "ages." Personally, I currently hold to this view. I think the text of Genesis has several suggestions of longer-than-day timeframes (for example, we are still in the "seventh day"), and I think the evidence for an old universe is more compelling than for a young one (though I'm perfectly open-minded to the "young" view and I've seen some interesting counter-evidence). I'm something of an astronomy and general science buff, so this debate is of great interest to me, though it is an in-house Christian debate.

After I became a Christian I continued to believe in evolution for about a year. The belief was so drilled into me from mere cultural influences that I didn't even think to question it before then. Afterwards, I became open to hearing the counter-arguments. I came to realize that from all my schooling and private reading about nature and science I really had never been exposed to many empirical arguments FOR evolution. The strongest arguments I had were that the earth was old (and, of course, "anything can happen given enough time"), the fossil record showed a simple to complex biological strata, and that "all scientists" believed in evolution. However, what finally changed my mind was an even deeper knowledge of biology, paleontology, and the supposed mechanisms of Darwinian evolution. If I chose to now I could make an even better case FOR evolution than I could when I believed it, but I find the case against it vastly superior. I'm gambling that you buy into evolutionary theory yourself and haven't really been exposed to the counter arguments.

Here are some choice links I would recommend for some stimulating reading on issues of science and theism.
http://www.leaderu.com/offices/schaefer/docs/scientists.html
http://www.leaderu.com/menus/sciences.html
http://www.discovery.org/csc/scientificResearch/
http://www.discovery.org/scripts/viewDB/filesDB-download.php?id=302

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July 09, 2005

Too Zealous

I recently had someone complain to me about one of her family member's Christian attitude. It seems that they were behaving too "zealously" for her comfort – things like, offering Christian books, bringing religion into discussions, and making value judgments according to Biblical standards. The sense of the objection was that it's fine for this person to be so committed to the faith, but why must it spill out onto everyone else. Now, this is the kind of objection that one often hears and expects from non-Christians, but the sad thing is that this complaint came from one who self-consciously identifies herself as a Christian. Let me share my response here, with a little hindsight embellishment.

The first thing I did was to clarify why someone would think it important to "push" their Christian beliefs on others.

Christianity is not just a roll-your-own belief system; it's a particular thing, even if there might be some dispute over the details. One of its main tenants is that there is a final accounting at the end of history and many people will not fare so well in that judgment. There is a real danger in being cavalier about your life and metaphysics; God is not just raining love and unconditional acceptance over the creation. Consequently, there is something to fear regarding those who do not seem to be aligned to the biblical view of Christ and salvation.

"Well, that's not quite how I believe" was her response.

"But where do you get your beliefs?" I asked.

"I've always believed...my church taught...I was raised to believe..." she stammered.

I don't think she'd ever really been called to an account of her own beliefs on these matters. Our modern, "tolerant" society tends to give a pass to most belief systems – even the most wild-eyed speculations – so long as it is not classical Christianity, and then, ironically, people become quite concerned about things like reason and consistency. Logic is a servant employed only so long as it favors its master's cause. But I digress.

I mercifully stepped in and explained that in Christianity the Bible is the playbook, and it speaks of things like hell and judgment and salvation in almost every book. If you're not using that, you're not talking Christianity. And if you're only picking and choosing what you want to believe from it, then you're basically building your own ala carte religion, but you can't rightly call it "Christianity." It's only by the authority of your own tastes and preferences that you can claim that you've come to any True conclusions about God.

I pointed out that this person believes that the Bible is actually true and this is why they press themselves upon people so zealously. It may be fair to question things like tactics and timing (it is a delicate business and it is easy to push people away). However, it is because this person thinks that Christianity is true that they are so vocal about it and keen to make believers out of their loved ones. It is a matter of being consistent with their beliefs, and if there really is a danger, then it is a logical expression of their love to try to save people from that danger.

If you were driving your car in a heavy snowstorm and a fanatical man tried to get you to stop, might you not think him odd, dangerous, or an annoyance? But what if you knew that the bridge ahead was out and that he was trying to warn motorists of almost certain death? Might you not have some understanding? Appreciation? You might even think him negligent if he did not do so. Perhaps if you knew (believed) this too you might join him in his task.

Unfortunately, this precious backdoor witnessing opportunity was cut short, but not before I was able to offer the following conclusion, which she comprehended well enough that she nearly finished my point for me. "The real question is not whether [this family member] is being meddlesome or an 'overzealous' Christian; the real question is whether or not biblical Christianity is actually true. To say that their behavior is wrong you must first say that their beliefs are wrong." But standing on the shifting sands of her own murky understanding of Christianity I could see that she was ill-equipped to make such a judgment call. But as Greg Koukl would say, I had left a stone in her shoe.

My questions to the reader are these: When is the last time you shared your faith and pressed into someone's comfort zone? Is yours a faith of any confidence and grounding? Is it a faith worth sharing? If you could ascend into the heavens and see and touch what it is you claim to believe, and then return, would it change the way you handle yourself or interact with the unbelievers around you (or even those who you're not absolutely sure of)?

The story is told of Charles Peace, a great thief and murderer of 19th Century England. He was eventually apprehended and condemned to hang. On his way to the gallows the chaplain walked by his side, offering "the consolation of religion." As he spoke of Christ's power to save, the wretched man turned upon him and exclaimed, "Do you believe it? Do you believe it?" Then with obvious bitterness he cried: "If I believed that, I would willingly crawl across England on broken glass on my hands and knees to tell men it was true!"

How well do we believe it? How much inconvenience or embarrassment, much less suffering, are we willing to invest in this thing we so casually affirm amongst our cozy peers on Sunday morning? It is to my shame that the person I mention was not complaining about me, only to me, who she thought was a fellow Christian of "reasonable" temperament. But I will hide behind my own justification that I had been tactically measured in her presence thus far. Yeah, that's it: "measured." I only pray that Christ is not as measured in His grace and mercy toward me on that great Day.

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July 01, 2005

Gospel Contradictions?

It is both a blessing and a burden to us that we have 4 separate and recognized accounts of the life of Jesus – the Gospels. This is a blessing in that we have all the more detail of the single most important event in history (and collaboration for its historicity), and a burden because critics have something against which to compare the testimony for consistency and credibility.

Inerrant or not, 4 separate accounts of any event will necessarily differ in perspective, detail, and intent. This is no different with the Gospels, which were written for different audiences and for different purposes. For example, Matthew seems to be targeting the Jewish community, while Mark is aimed at the Gentiles. Such unique perspectives will naturally lead to variations that can easily be perceived as discrepancies by casual (or hostile) observers.

Contributing to this confusion are such things as the arrangement of events sometimes being topical vs. sequential, different persons, dialog, or details being emphasized, and the original documents being composed in Greek vs. Hebrew or Aramaic, which can result in cultural variations in names and measures. Additionally, the claim is not that any one translation is inerrant, but it is the originally authored manuscripts (the "autographs") that are being esteemed. While we do not have these in our possession, we do have a large enough and ancient enough body of descendant materials that we have reason for great confidence in our modern translations. For more information on this, see this article: "Are the Biblical Documents Reliable?"

While it is well beyond the scope of this article to address all the related Gospel difficulties, let's look at a sampling in order to demonstrate how some of these may be answered.

1) The genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke differ, particularly in the later lineage. Matthew seems to start from Joseph and go back through his father, Jacob, while Luke also appears to trace through Joseph yet names Heli as the next ancestor. How can this be? The answer is plain when we understand Luke to be actually tracing the ancestry through Mary (who provides the true, human bloodline). This is both hinted at by Luke's comment, "[Jesus] was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph", and explicit in the fact that the Jerusalem Talmud records that Mary was the daughter of Heli. This can even further be reconciled when we understand that Joseph was the son-in-law of Heli. Luke could rightfully call Joseph the "son of Heli" because this was in compliance with use of the word "son" at that time.

2) Mark states that Jesus was crucified at the "third" hour on Good Friday, and John indicates that the trial of Jesus was still going on at the "sixth" hour, indicating that the time of His crucifixion was later still. There are a several responses to this, but the most probable is as follows.

The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) used a different method to number the hours of the day than John. Matthew, Mark, and Luke used the traditional Hebrew system, in which the hours of the day were numbered from sunrise (approximately 6:00 AM), which places the crucifixion at about 9:00 AM, or the third hour by this system. John, did not employ the Hebrew system, he used the Roman civil day. The Roman system defined a day from midnight to midnight, as we do today. Pliny the Elder (in Natural History 2.77) and Macrobius (Saturnalia 1.3) provide historical confirmation of this fact. Therefore, using the Roman system, which was used by John, the trial of Jesus ended around the sixth hour (6:00 AM), which was the first hour of the Hebrew system used by Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Between this time and the time of crucifixion, Jesus was flogged, mocked, and beaten by the Roman soldiers in the Praetorium (Mark 15:16-20). The crucifixion itself occurred at the third hour in the Hebrew system, which is the ninth in the Roman system, or 9:00 AM to us.

Why did John use a different numbering system? The Gospel of John was written after the other three (as late as 90 AD) while he resided in Ephesus, the capital of the Roman province of Asia. John, by this time, was probably most comfortable with the Roman system. John used the Roman system in John 21:19: "On the evening of that first day of the week." This was Sunday evening, which in the Hebrew system was actually the second day, because each day began at sunset.

Now, while I am not suggesting the need to surrender inerrancy, as an interesting thought experiment let's assume for the moment that the Gospels do contain irreconcilable discrepancies. What conclusions might be drawn from this?

Many skeptics seem to argue as though the existence of contradictions invalidates the Scriptures as a whole. But this conclusion doesn't follow; at best, all this would do is defeat our common understanding of Biblical inerrancy. Isolated errors would not automatically turn the essential claims of Christianity into mythology.

At minimum, we can view the Gospels as a case of 4 independent testimonies, much like we do with witnesses at the scene of a crime. Accounts may vary in detail, but the general events are easily discerned if the testimonies are genuine. For example, the precise time, colors of clothing, or exact sequence of events may vary, but the crucial details may be gleaned, such as that it was Tuesday, the location was the library, Mr. White was the aggressor, and a knife was used. It is in the foundational details that variation is lethal to the credibility of a witness. Now, if witness B says the murder was on Monday, that Mr. Green was the aggressor, and the weapon was a pipe, then we know that somebody, or possibly all parties, are not giving credible testimony.

Even if it could be proved that there were irreconcilable contradictions in Scripture, we still have to account for the vast consistencies. It should be noted that none of the passages in question happen to relate to anything such as claims that Jesus was just a man, or did not do miracles, or did not rise from the dead, or exhibited questionable moral character – nothing that affects any of the fundamental doctrines of classical Christianity. It is presumptuous to simply dismiss the uniform portrait of Jesus and his earthly ministry that is painted by the four distinct brushes of the Gospels.

Many of those who attack Scripture also advocate the idea that it is just mythology or deception authored by the early church, and that these founding fathers made a practice of enhancing, expanding, or adapting the manuscripts as needed. But if this were the case then we'd expect all these "issues" to be long since worked out of the text. Surely those so intimate with the Scriptures would not perpetually overlook such "obvious" discrepancies. The existence of these "issues" surely tells us something about the early church's unwillingness to meddle with these texts.

We should also not be so naïve as to imagine that the lack of inconsistencies would be taken as proof for the events in the Gospels. In fact, it would surely be looked on as evidence of complicity. As it turns out, discrepancies (or at least notable differences) disaffirm collusion; it is what one would expect to find in independent testimonies. In the criminal justice system, witness testimonies that parallel too closely are held in suspicion, while radical divergence is a sign of fraud. There must be an appropriate balance between independence and collaboration. Could it be that God's sovereign hand is found even in a permissive use of diversity?

In the end, it is probably fruitless to attempt to defend inerrancy against those who do not even take Scripture to be generally reliable. While there is certainly much to say in defense of inerrancy, it is more productive to begin the dialog with such things as the historical, textual, archaeological, and prophetic evidences for the overall veracity of the Bible. It is only when one is first surrendered to the authority of Scripture that one would be genuinely inclined to entertain explanations for the alleged discrepancies.

For anyone truly interested in hearing out the various Christian responses, ample resources are available to address all of the scriptural difficulties. Some of the more approachable treatments include the following.
  • Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, by Gleason Archer
  • The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, by Craig Blomberg
  • When Critics Ask, by Norm Geisler
  • Hard Sayings of the Bible, by Walter Kaiser & F.F. Bruce

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