Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Luke-Acts and the atonement

I've just discovered a debate that theologians have been having on and off for decades. The debate concerns whether or not the author of Luke-Acts believes that Jesus death had atoning power or not.

I'll admit, this came as something of a shock to me. While I've known for years that each of the gospel writers has their own agenda and their own take on who Jesus was and what he came to do, I actually thought that they all basically agreed on what Jesus death on the cross was all about. But apparently not.

For some time I've been meaning to read up on the things that Matthew changed when he expanded on Mark, and the things that Luke changed when he expanded on Mark, but had never really found the time. Now, quite by accident, I have stumbled upon this astounding claim:

When Luke used Mark to create his gospel, he deliberately removed verses that said that Jesus death was an atoning sacrifice. 

Specifically, the debate hangs on a few verses:
  1. Mark 10:45 says "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." Luke uses much of Mark in his gospel, including material from immediately before and immediately after this, but omits this verse.
  2. Luke 22:19-20 says "And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you." but some manuscripts only have "And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, 'This is my body.'" that is, some manuscripts miss out the bit that suggests there is some atonement going on. I've just been reading Bart Ehrman (in 'The orthodox corruption of scripture') giving a very compelling case for why the shorter reading is the original. This is the only verse in Luke that suggests that Jesus's death has atoning power.
  3. Acts 20:28 says "Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood." This is the only verse in Acts that suggests that Jesus's death has atoning power, and much like the verse in Luke, there is a good case to be made that these words were not part of the original.
Without Luke 22:19b-20 and Acts 20:28 there is no concept of atonement in all of Luke-Acts. When Jesus died, according to Luke, it wasn't on behalf of sinners.

So what is the cross all about according to Luke-Acts? Let's have a look at the preaching of Peter and Paul in Acts.

Peter's preaching in Acts 2 has this basic message:
Jesus was a man sent by God. We know he was sent by God because of the miracles. According to God's plan he was killed. God raised him to life. God made him Lord and Messiah. God gave him the Holy Spirit, which he now pours out on his followers. In order to get the Spirit you need to repent and be baptised in Jesus's name. The process of baptism forgives your sins.
The objective of Peter's message here is that you get the Holy Spirit. There is no atonement in Jesus's death. Forgiveness comes through repentance and baptism.

In Acts 3, Peter's preaching touches on similar themes, although here forgiveness comes through repentance and baptism isn't mentioned.

In Acts 4, Peter's message to the Sanhedrin is that salvation is found in Jesus, but this appears linked to his exalted current status, not to his death.

In Acts 5, Peter's words suggest that God gave Jesus the role of Saviour after his resurrection, so it was neither the death or resurrection that has saving power, but rather Jesus's current exalted status.

Stephen's preaching in Acts 7 doesn't actually include a 'gospel' message, but it is clear that it is the power of the risen Jesus that matters.

In Acts 8, the thing with Simon the Sorcerer is all about how you get the Holy Spirit. Again, this seems to be the objective of preaching in Acts. 

Again, in Acts 10, in Peter's preaching to Cornelius, it is what God did to Jesus after his ascension that matters, and believing in the risen Jesus is the way to receive the Holy Spirit.

The same basic message features in the preaching of Paul in Acts 13. Jesus was a good man, wrongly killed, vindicated by god, raised, and then made Son of God and Saviour. Some of the same is in Paul's famous preaching in Acts 17.

Throughout all the preaching of the apostles in Acts, the same basic message is evident: Jesus was a good man, wrongly killed. He was vindicated by God and raised from the dead. He became the Son of God and Saviour. He can forgive the sins of the repentant and give the Holy Spirit.

There is no atonement in the preaching in Acts. The cross is not central. There is barely any future hope of heaven or resurrection either. The gospel message in Luke-Acts is for now and it is this: repent, be baptised in the name of Jesus and receive the Holy Spirit. That is all.

How come I've never noticed this before? How come millions of Christians haven't noticed this either?

The 'gospel' of Luke and Acts is different to the gospel of the epistles and the other three gospels.

Another nail in the coffin of inerrancy.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Something had to happen...?

I've just been listening to last week's Unbelievable podcast, featuring a debate between Bart Ehrman and Simon Gathercole on the subject of "How God became Jesus". I don't have much to say about the debate as a whole, but there was one claim made at about 55 min into podcast which I found to be interesting. While talking about the resurrection and the start of Christianity, the host Justin Brierley said: 
"...you need something to explain why suddenly these very radical views about Jesus were coming from"
To which the guest Simon Gathercole responded:
"I think... everyone thinks that you have to have some kind of 'big bang', because if there wasn't something, then Christianity... the Jesus movement would have fizzled out, just like the Theudas movement fizzled out, just like the Judas the Galilean movement fizzled out, to cite two other sort of messianic, or semi-messianic movements. So yes, certainly something had to happen which kept the movement alive."
Really? Something had to happen or the religion would never have kept going? And everyone thinks it? By that token, Joseph Smith really had to have had a visitation from the angel Moroni, or Mohammed really had to have had revelations from the angel Gabriel, and so on. 

Not all religions start with an actual supernatural event. Indeed, almost by definition, all religions (except possibly the 'one true religion') must have started without any supernatural event. Why should Christianity be the exception to that? Why did Christianity need an actual resurrection to get going while the Mithras religion didn't, or the Zoroastrian religion didn't, etc.? Are the claims of Christianity so much more unbelievable than the claims of other religions that it couldn't possibly get going without some grounding in reality, but the others could, because they are somehow more believable? I doubt it.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Drops of blood?

39 Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. 40 On reaching the place, he said to them, “Pray that you will not fall into temptation.” 41 He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, 42 “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” 43 An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. 44 And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. 
45 When he rose from prayer and went back to the disciples, he found them asleep, exhausted from sorrow. 46 “Why are you sleeping?” he asked them. “Get up and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.” Luke 22:39-46
The verses in the middle of this passage have always bothered me. Verse 44 in particular, but verse 43 is odd too. I don't think I've ever noticed the footnote that is included in the NIV which notes that "Many early manuscripts do not have verses 43 and 44." 

It seems that most modern translations of the bible err on the side of caution when it comes to verses that aren't in some manuscripts. The assumption seems to be that it is more likely that some scribe would have accidentally missed out some words or verses while copying a passage, than that some scribe would have intentionally added in extra words or verses while copying. So all 'occasional' passages are included in the bible. I suppose the intention is to make sure that our modern bibles contain the entire 'Word of God' and don't inadvertently cut some bits of divine inspiration out. I guess there is also an element of assuming that ancient copyists had modern evangelical values as well - the vast majority of Christians today wouldn't dream of adding something they'd made up and trying to pass it off as inspired scripture.

But what if some of the occasional passages were really scribal inventions, and not part of the original? Well then, some of what we read cannot be the inspired Word of God. (Of course, the whole thing may not be inspired, but that's a debate for a different post.)

I've been thinking about this as these verses were quoted twice in church today, and I'm currently reading Bart Ehrman's "The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture" (which is basically the longer and more scholarly version of his book "Misquoting Jesus") and I've just (last night) read the bit where he discusses these verses. Its almost like somebody is trying to draw my attention to the fact that these verses aren't part of the original.

Ehrman makes a very compelling case (which apparently is a summary of another of his publications) for the inauthenticity of verses 43 and 44. The verses are not only out of character in Luke as a whole, they actually break the literary pattern of the passage and appear to go against the flow of the message Luke seems to be trying to make.

With these verses in context, the passion account in Luke is similar in theme and emphasis to the passion accounts of Mark and Matthew, where an anguished Jesus agonises about the ordeal he is about to undergo. But without them, Luke's passion loses all of its, well, erm, its passion. All of a sudden we get a story of a very calm and collected Jesus who accepts his fate with serenity and seems totally in control of the situation. Much more like John's Jesus, in fact, although John has no prayer in the garden.

All very interesting. But to me this highlights the different agendas of the different gospel writers. And, indeed, the different Jesus characters they present. The more I read the gospels and the more I read about them, the more I see that they are not unified with a single gospel message.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The God of all possibility?

I've just been listening to a debate between William Lane Craig and Sean Carroll on the Unbelievable podcast. I think Carroll won. Indeed, he wiped the floor with WLC, but anyway.

What I found myself thinking (other than 'what the heck is a Boltzmann brain?') was this:

If there is a creator God who can do anything and everything, and therefore can create any universe, then any conceivable universe (and indeed any inconceivable universe), including a universe where there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever for God, is consistent with the existence of God.

So evidence becomes utterly meaningless in the search for God. It doesn't matter what you observe (or fail to observe) in the universe, anything is consistent with this definition of God. So if you believe in that sort of God, then there is no evidence to dissuade you from your belief...

So given that a great many believers of several religions actually do believe in this sort of God, then there is little point in attempting to reason them out of that belief on the basis of evidence.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The first edition of the New Testament

The second book I read from New College library was 'The First Edition of the New Testament' by David Trobisch. This is a relatively short book with a simple (if incomplete) point to make. The point is this - most of the early manuscripts of the New Testament that we have suggest that they originate from a common, edited, source. There are commonalities in style in manuscripts of the letters of Paul, or the gospels, or Acts, etc., which demonstrate that these come from a compiled book, and did not circulate for long as discrete and independent documents.

What this book does not do, however, is identify the time of the compilation, or who the editor was. (The author went on, some years after the publication of this book, to claim that the editor was most likely Polycarp, and the complication was most likely in the middle-late 2nd century, but that is not discussed here.)

What this book does do is make a very compelling case that, very early in the life of the church, there was a published and widely distributed 'edition' of the NT, and that it was compiled with a clear and definite agenda. The most compelling piece of evidence for the common source is the 'Nomina sacra' - a style of abbreviating certain holy names (God, Jesus, Spirit, etc.) that is common in the majority of early manuscripts we have. It is highly unlikely that Paul, Matthew, John, etc. would independently invent such a distinctive style like this, and it is not pre-Christian, yet the writings of these diverse authors use the same style. Trobisch's conclusion - that someone compiled each of these documents into an edited book with a common style throughout, and then this 'edition' was copied and distributed.

So I'm convinced, someone compiled and published a New Testament book with all 27 of the books we have in our modern NT in place, sometime in the 2nd century. This is earlier than most scholars seem to think the canon was complied, but so what? What difference does it make?

Well, here is where Trobisch implies a lot but doesn't spell it all out explicitly. The important thing about the fact of the first edition is the editorial intention. Why were these 27 books compiled and published? Why were other books excluded? (It is notable that some extra-canonical writings like the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas were included in some early (3rd/4th century) editions of the NT, but were not in this 'original' edition, and were subsequently booted out of later editions. Why did they not fit?) Trobisch demonstrates (quite compellingly) that the editor of the NT had an agenda, and it was this - to put Peter and Paul on an equal footing.

The point of the first edition of the NT writings was to stamp out anti-Pauline feelings in one 'part of the church' and stamp out anti-Petrine feelings in another 'part of the church' and get both sides to accept the heroes of both camps. It is implied that several of the books in here (particularly ones that include cross-references to other books, such as 2 Peter or Paul's pastoral epistles) were written (or significantly edited) at the time of the compilation, to fit the editorial agenda. Acts in particular was constructed or edited to ensure that Peter and Paul have equal billing - basically there is nothing that Paul does that Peter doesn't also do, and nothing that Peter does that Paul doesn't do: miraculous escape from prison? both manage this; face-off with a magician? both do this again; miraculous healings? check; preach the same gospel message? yes; evangelise gentiles? yes; and so on... I've heard somewhere that it's possible to do a tally of the things that Peter does, and you can basically tick off a list of what Paul does. They both do everything, and neither appears superior to the other. This can't be an accident. This must be an intention of the author or editor of Acts. Trobisch implies that the author/editor of Acts is also the editor of the first edition. If this happened in the 2nd century, we can pretty much rule out Luke as the author of Acts. Does that mean we have to also rule him out as the author of the gospel of Luke? Hmmm.

So, given the fact that the 1st Edition goes to a lot of bother to reconcile the Peter fans with the Paul fans, what does this tell us about 'the church' in the days before the publication of this book? Well, it clearly suggests that there were at least two factions before that which were not united. Above I described these two factions as 'parts of the church', but were they really two parts of some larger whole before this book was created to bring them together? Traditional views on church history suggest that there was one true 'orthodox' original from which heretical sects and ideas occasionally broke away from. Yet the creation of this book suggests that 'orthodoxy' was created by the fusion of two (or more) diverse factions. Was either of them the original orthodox? There is no compelling reason to suggest this. What if Christian orthodoxy really is a creation of the 2nd century? What if before that there were people who really did 'follow' Paul (1 Corinthians 1:12 and 3:4) and reject Peter, and vice versa? What if Christianity doesn't go back to Christ?

There's some big things to think about in there. I wish Trobisch wasn't so implicit about everything. The implications are massive, but the discussion is incomplete. Sigh. More reading to do, I guess...

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Margaret Barker, The Lost Prophet, and 1st temple worship...

I recently discovered that, as a member of staff at the University of Edinburgh, I have access to the New College library, one of the biggest theological libraries in Europe. So rather than waste that opportunity, I went and borrowed some books.

The first one I read, largely because it was the slimmest of the books I borrowed was "The Lost Prophet" by Margaret Barker. I've previously read her book "The Great Angel" and found it fascinating, and really want to read her first book "The Older Testament", but sadly New College don't have that, so I settled on this.

The book is an examination of the ancient book of 1st Enoch. Exactly how ancient it is is one of the conundrums of the book. It is in five parts, four of which were found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, making those parts pre-Christian. The other part is only found in later, Christian, documents, so it is unclear if this bit is pre-Christian or not. This is a bit annoying as this part contains a lot of material about a character called "The Son of Man". If this could be shown to be pre-Christian then this book might yield understanding of what Jesus and the early church meant when they used the phrase.

Conventional thinking about this book is that it is later to, and derivative of, the Old Testament writings. Barker makes the opposite case, that the book of Enoch could be contemporary with some of the Old Testament books, perhaps even earlier. She makes a good case for, at the very least, not assuming the priority of the OT books, just because they're in the canon. The OT books, like Daniel and some of Isaiah, could basically be products of the same kind of thinking that also gave us the book of Enoch. That is to say, in evolutionary terms, that they share common ancestry. 

Barker claims that if we read the New Testament through the lens of this Enochic view of the world, then we can gain insight into many parts of the NT, not just Jude and 2Peter, which refer to it explicitly, but also all the Son of Man stuff in the gospels and some of the thinking of the epistles.

Its all interesting stuff, and might give insights on a few obscure passages, but its not going to set the world on fire...

What I am much more interested in, having read this, is the content of her earlier book, and the thesis contained therein. You see, Barker claims that the stories, rituals and beliefs, etc. of the pre-exilic period in Israel and Judah have been deliberately modified and rewritten with a different agenda in the post-exilic period when the OT was compiled. The Old Testament, she claims, misrepresents the first temple period and, essentially, rewrote history saying that what they did back then was the same as what we do now...

Barker believes otherwise. She seems to hold that the first temple worship was directed to more than one divine being, and that the King was considered by his people as divine and literally the Son of God.

Its frustrating reading this between the lines of this book when, I guess, she makes her full case for this in her earlier book. Must read it.

Anyway, I've also listened to a couple of talks by her on YouTube. Here she implies the same sort of ideas, again without fully spelling them out. One of the most fascinating ideas that she mentions in the talks and also in this book, is the idea that the Adam and Eve story is a relatively new addition to the OT, and that this picture of the origin of the world, sin, etc. was not part of first temple thinking. She points out something surprising - after the first few chapters of Genesis, Adam and Eve are never mentioned again in the OT. This is one of the things which suggests that this is a late story, even though it comes first in our book. She suggests that all the Abraham and the patriarchs stuff is much older.

But her main thesis is that the system of worship from the first temple period has been written out of the bible, and only teasing hints remain. I think her basic thinking goes like this:

The 'reforms' of Josiah's day changed the Jewish religion. The rewriting of the story, as told by post-Josiah and post-exilic writers, says that God instructed Moses in a particular system of monotheistic worship, in the tabernacle, which was later set in stone, as it were, in Solomon's temple. But Solomon and those who came after him allowed 'foreign' worship of other gods into the temple, which corrupted the original, pure monotheistic system. So Josiah's reforms were, as seen from a 2nd temple viewpoint, the restoration of the old ways and the expulsion of the foreign gods.

Barker claims otherwise. She notes that in 1 Enoch, it is the 'reformers' who are portrayed as the bad guys who corrupted the original system. Not the original Mosaic system, which may be a later invention, pushing 2nd temple thinking back into a fabricated history, but rather the original Abrahamic and Messianic system of worship where the King was The Lord and The Lord was the King, and where the divine goddess of wisdom, Ashera or Astarte, was worshiped alongside Yahweh and his anointed one, the King.

Barker goes on to claim that these ideas, while written out of the priestly history books, were not written out of public belief, and that these ideas formed the basis of Christianity, with Jesus as the divine messiah, wisdom personified as the Holy Spirit, and the temple 'rebuilt' out of the living stones of believers. Its a shocking thought.

But where Barker doesn't go, is to explain why this way of thinking gets lost from the New Testament. Why don't we know this stuff? Why do we not believe what Barker claims the early Christians did believe? Here's where I have to speculate. What if this stuff got written out again in the 2nd century during all the battles between orthodoxy and heresy? The 'catholic' Christianity that emerged at the end of the 2nd century seems to be a fusion of different strands which went before - what happens if you try to fuse a Christianity based on 1st temple thinking, with a 2nd temple Judaic way of thinking? Something would have to give. Something would have to get left out, or changed, or rewritten. We might very well end up with what we have now.

Of course, nothing is proved here, this is all speculation, but it is fascinating speculation...

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Myths and timelines...

I've been thinking over some apologetic lines of reasoning recently. I'll deal with them in more detail in future posts, but for now consider the following two statements:
  1. Thirty years ago Perseus tamed and rode the flying horse Pegasus.
  2. Yesterday Hercules captured the three headed dog Cerberus.
According to some lines of apologetic reasoning, the second of those statements is more likely to be true and accurate than the first. Apologists think that the closer the writing of the story to the date of the alleged event, the more likely it is that the description of the event is true. 

Well that sounds reasonable, at first glance, but I think if you consider the example given above, the line of reasoning is quite clearly flawed. Neither of those events happened (at least not in recent history!), so neither is more likely than the other. The timing of the writing about the event is entirely unrelated to the factual accuracy of the story. Or in other words, a mythical event remains a mythical event even if it is claimed to have happened in very recent history.

The same, presumably applies to eyewitness claims:
  1. Thirty years ago I saw Perseus taming and riding Pegasus.
  2. Yesterday I saw Hercules capturing Cerberus.
Which of those is more likely to be true?

So when it comes to the gospels, the apologists think they have won the argument if they can demonstrate that the (eyewitness?) gospel writers were doing their writing within a generation of the resurrection of Jesus. Surely a document written in 60AD, a mere 30 years after the resurrection, is going to be pretty accurate, certainly more accurate than a late document written in the early 2nd century? Well, not if the document describes an impossible or mythical event. If the resurrection didn't happen, and a book was written one day after the claimed date of the resurrection, then such a book would be no more likely to be true than one written yesterday.

All this basically to say that arguments for an early dating of the gospels prove nothing. 

All our experience tells us that in reality people can't walk on water, transmute water into wine, kill fig trees with a single word, and that executed men do not come back to life after being dead three days. All our experience tells us that these things can happen in fiction. A very, very early date for the gospels can never be sufficient evidence to prove that the impossible happened.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

David, Goliath, and the combat myth...

I've recently been listening to some episodes of the "Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean" podcast, presented by Prof Philip Harland. They're not exactly the most professionally made things, most are simply recordings of parts of his lectures at York University (Toronto, Canada), but I find them particularly fascinating. Recently he's been talking about the 'Combat Myth'.

The Combat Myth is an archetypal story which seems to have been prevalent through many, if not all, religions in the ancient middle east. While there are variations in the theme, and embellishments peculiar to each telling, there is a basic pattern to the story which is common to all. Specifically:
  • There is an ancient and monstrous god/creature which represents chaos, or evil in some of the later tellings.
  • The king of the pantheon of gods is unable to control or defeat the monster.
  • For a time, no hero can be found who is willing to step up and attempt to defeat the monster.
  • Eventually a young god (sometimes, but not always, the son of the old king god) steps up, defeats and kills the monster, and claims (or is given) the kingship for himself.
  • Sometimes the young god creates the world out of the body of the slain monster.
This pattern can be seen in the Akkadian myth of Ninurta (the young god) and Anzu (the chaos monster, formerly the servant of Enlil, the old king) which probably goes back at least 2000 years BC, possibly much longer ago. It can also be seen in the Babylonian myth of Marduk and Tiamat, sometime between 2000 and 1000 years BC, and in the myths of Baal and Yam, and Baal and Mot, from about the same era. There even appears to be evidence of the same story being told of the Hebrew God Yahweh defeating Leviathan (the sea/chaos monster) in the Psalms (74 and 89), although the actual arc of the story is missing in the bible.

Reflecting on all this, I found myself thinking about the story of David and Goliath. Its basically the same story as the Combat Myth, but told as a human story, supposedly in human history.
  • Goliath is a monstrous evil enemy.
  • Old King Saul can do nothing to defeat the monster.
  • For a time, no hero can be found.
  • Eventually a youngster, David, steps up, kills the giant, and ultimately becomes king.
OK, so in the David story he had already been selected as a future king, and didn't immediately depose Saul, but not all the other versions of the story are exact in all the details, either.

It very much looks to me like this is simply a retelling of the Combat Myth as a legend about an ancient hero. So this isn't likely to be a historical event. This seems really quite obvious to me, so I was surprised (after Googling a few relevant phrases) to find that nobody out there on the internet seems to have discussed this parallel. Surely I haven't stumbled on to an original thought...?

I wonder which other stories in the life of the great hero David were invented on the basis of mythic themes?

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Cold Case Christianity (Part 1)

J Warner Wallace is a 'cold case' homicide detective in California. When he was in his mid 30s he converted from being an 'angry atheist' (his words) to being a 'born again' Christian after apparently applying his detective skills to the gospel accounts. His experience and understanding led him to conclude that the gospels are genuine 'eye-witness' testimony and that they report the true events of Jesus life, ministry, crucifixion and resurrection.

His book 'Cold Case Christianity' is not his biography, but is an apologetic vehicle, aiming to convince the reader of the truth of Christianity, but through the 'unique' perspective of a detective who is used to sifting though evidence and building a case strong enough to convict a suspect. The methods used by detectives are described, 'real life' examples of how these work in murder cases are given (with all the names changed), and  the methods are then applied to the gospel stories.

My review of this book got unnecessarily long, so I'll review Part 1 of the book in this post, and take the chapters in Part 2 of the book, individually, in future posts.

Given the supposedly unique perspective of this author, its astounding how much of this reasoning and these arguments we've heard before. Most of the first half of this book is standard apologetic fayre, slightly 'sexed up' with the inclusion of 'gritty' detective stories. The actual apologetic arguments are expressed in fairly basic form and it appears that the main contribution of the first half of this book to the debate is the murder analogies, which sometimes distract us away from the biblical evidence rather than supporting the case being made.

But having said all that, there are a few interesting conclusions and claims in here which need some thought.

In what follows, I'll be looking at the apologetic arguments in the first half of the book, without much reference to the detective analogies. I'll take this bit chapter by chapter, starting at the very beginning. I'll deal with the meatier content of the second half of the book in subsequent posts.

In the first section of the book (which makes up almost exactly half of its length), the author goes through ten 'principles' of detective work which can be applied to the gospel stories. There is a chapter for each principle.

The first one is "don't be a know-it-all", that is, don't approach the gospels with your mind already made up or with anti-supernatural presuppositions. There is nothing particularly noteworthy here. 

This is followed by "learn how to infer" in which the author tries to draw a distinction between what is possible and what is reasonable. The claim is that the simplest of a range of 'possible' causes is the most reasonable. The claims are: (1) the truth must be feasible, (2) the truth will usually be straightforward, (3) the truth should be exhaustive, (4) the truth must be logical, and (5) the truth will be superior. We are then led through the usual 'minimal facts' argument of Habermas and Licona and a few 'possible' theories are presented which might explain these. These are: (a) Jesus wasn't really dead when he was taken down from the cross (in which the author states that it was 'the disciples' who 'pulled Jesus from the cross', which is something denied in the actual gospels, but hey... He also makes the claim that the gospels (plural) record the fact of the blood and water coming out of Jesus side. Of course this is only in one gospel...), (b) the disciples lied, (c) the disciples were delusional, (d) the disciples were fooled by an imposter, (e) the disciples were influenced by limited spiritual sightings, (f) the disciples' observations were distorted later, and (g) the disciples were accurately reporting the resurrection of Jesus.

Along the way in here the author says: "I've discovered that the first recollections of the eyewitnesses are usually more detailed and reliable than what they might offer thirty years later. Like other cold-case detectives, I rely on the original reports as I compare what witnesses once said to what these witnesses are saying today." What he doesn't seem to notice is that the thing we are missing in the gospels, even on the most conservative dating and traditional interpretation, is the early recollections. At the very best what we have is the recollections from 40 or more years later.

Of course, the author dismisses options (a) to (f) and concludes that option (g) is the most reasonable, even if it contains the miraculous and supernatural. Somehow he thinks that the simplest solution is the one that invokes the God of infinite possibilities. Given that, by definition, the God of infinite possibilities is consistent with all possible hypotheses, there is no case for concluding on only one here.

It is also worth noting that there is at least one possibility which is not considered - that the stories contain fiction. The disciples lying is considered, but not the possibility that the whole story, including the disciples' testimony, is fiction. Surely that needs considered before it can be dismissed?

The third principle is "think circumstantially", in which we get the classic 'cosmological argument', 'fine-tuning argument', 'argument from intelligent design' and the 'moral argument'. William Lane Craig does each of these better than they are presented here. Along the way he says "Darwinian evolution has great difficulty accounting for the existence of objective moral obligations..." which presupposes, as do many apologists, that if they can show that the Darwinian theory of evolution fails to account for some observation unrelated to the origin of species, that it fails as a world view. Sorry, "Darwinian evolution" is not an entire worldview, only a part of one. Plate tectonics can't explain morality either, but that doesn't invalidate the theory...

The argument that you can build a strong case purely on the basis of 'circumstantial' evidence is one that the author uses extensively later on in the book, so it is worth noting that the 'circumstantial' evidence presented in this chapter isn't that strong. But I think the author wants to get the reader to accept the idea of circumstantial evidence early on, so that we won't question it again later.

The fourth chapter is "test your witnesses" in which the author seeks to explain away the contradictions in the conflicting gospel accounts. Here, for the first time, it is totally clear that the detective stories have been selected to fit the apologetic perfectly, which makes you feel like someone might be trying to deceive you. Were the gospel writers liars or were they telling the truth? The possibility that they might have been sincere but misinformed is never considered (here), the author is convinced that they are eyewitnesses, and says that they (plural) identified themselves as eyewitnesses. Erm, no they don't, except the author of the Johannine appendix, who may not be the author of the whole book of John.

Chapter 5, "hang on every word" is the first chapter that needs some wrestling with. The idea presented is that you can glean 'evidence' from the way in which a witness presents their story. That is, the choice of words may give insight into the real opinions of the witness, which may sometimes be at odds with what they say. One of the examples given is of a man suspected of murdering his wife. If during questioning he describes the victim as "my beautiful wife" we may learn something about their relationship, if however he calls her "the wife" we perhaps get a different picture of his view of her. Of course, a turn of phrase proves nothing, but it may help as part of a cumulative case.

So when the author points out that John never names 'the mother of Jesus' in his gospel, he claims that this is consistent with the behaviour of an adopted son, who couldn't bring himself to use the name of someone he had called 'mother' for many years. So this observation corroborates the story of Jesus giving the responsibility of his mother to John, while he was on the cross.

But the main issue the author wants to address here is Peter's alleged eye-witness testimony in the gospel of Mark. Papias, and later Irenaeus, made the claim that Mark was Peter's interpreter and the gospel was his recollections of the actual stories told by Peter. The claim here is that this assertion is corroborated by the way in which Mark's gospel is written. Specifically: (1) Peter is the main character after Jesus, (2) Mark is familiar in the way he talks about Peter, (3) Peter is the 'inclusio' character, (4) Peter is painted in a positive light, even when he has shamed himself, (5) some minor details in the story are consistent with a Petrine origin, and (6) Mark's story is consistent in style and content with the teaching of Peter, as recorded in Acts.

Is all that right? Well, some of those claims are obvious, but not necessarily proof of anything. Sure, Peter is a main character, sure, Mark shows some familiarity with him. Neither of those really say anything about Mark's relationship to Peter, just that he is making a collection of 'Peter stories' that he knows. The 'inclusio' thing is not compelling, especially as it isn't clear at all. Yes, Peter features right at the start of the gospel and, yes, he is mentioned again near the end. But only mentioned, not featured. The closing words of Mark are by the angels to the women, with no sign of Peter. 

Point 4 is an odd one, especially as I have heard the exact opposite case made. The author here claims Mark is kinder to Peter than the other 3 gospel writers, but I've heard others claiming that Matthew has softened the scathing text of Mark to make the disciples (including Peter) not look like the idiots the do in Mark. So which is it, is Matthew harsher or kinder to Peter than Mark? If its not clear, then this point is not valid.

Point 5 is so vague as to be useless on its own, and even as part of a cumulative case, I'm not convinced there is any evidence here. And finally, for point 6 to be valid, we have to assume that Luke kept an accurate record of Peter's teaching, which he built into Acts, but then didn't use the same record when compiling his own gospel, for his gospel seems to have different details than the ones in Mark which make this case. And furthermore, many have pointed out that the preaching of Peter in Acts is barely (if at all) distinguishable from the preaching of Paul in Acts, which suggests that no Petrine characteristics are recorded there.

All this suggests to me is that the evidence here supports whatever preconceptions you approach the text with, so really there is nothing in this 'evidence' to build a case on.

Chapter 6 is "separate artifacts from evidence". Here the author acknowledges that the gospel accounts we have are not the originals, but have been edited and changed a bit over time. That is, they contain stories, like the woman taken in adultery, which were not there originally. The claim is that it is possible to identify these "artifacts" and discount them. However, it appears that the author only discounts artifacts for which we have two variant manuscripts, so we can clearly see that something has been added or changed. He gives us no methodology (beyond a vague reference to "textual criticism") for identifying artifacts when we have no variant texts, yet presumably these must exist - it would be amazingly unlikely if we had all the manuscripts we need to identify all the redactions in the bible. So here, I think he is trying to fight off some skeptical arguments, but he does shoot himself in the foot a bit. It is odd that this chapter features no citations at all.

Chapter 7 urges us to "resist conspiracy theories". Here the author rehashes the old claim that the disciples wouldn't have died for their faith if they knew it to be a lie. He says: "None of these eyewitnesses ever recanted, none was ever trotted out by the enemies of Christianity in an effort to expose the Christian "lie"... These men and women either were involved in the greatest conspiracy of all time or were simply eyewitnesses who were telling the truth." He also writes off the movies "The god who wasn't there" and "Zeitgeist" as being conspiracy theories, without giving them any consideration. But, as far as I can tell, we have nothing but legends, and late legends at that, about how the apostles died. They might have been martyred, but maybe not. In the document where we learn about Paul's beheading, he also makes a post-mortem appearance. The second half of that appears legendary, so why take the first part as gospel?

Chapter 8 tells us to "respect the chain of custody" and aims to show that the gospel stories were faithfully and accurately transmitted from the time of Jesus ("1-33AD") to the Council of Laodicea in 363AD, when the canon of scripture was formalised. This chapter serves only as a placeholder, putting ideas in the mind of the reader, without actually discussing any content. We'll get to that in Part 2 of the book. The suggestion made here (with no evidence, that comes later) is that the disciples of Jesus accurately remembered the stories, and faithfully passed them on to their disciples, who faithfully passed it on... and so on. As with chapter 6, this chapter features no citations.

Next we get "know when enough is enough". Basically this chapter is all about what constitutes 'beyond reasonable doubt' and how you don't need to have the answer to absolutely every question before you can decide to accept a particular hypothesis as being probably true. Here we are urged to distinguish our rational (i.e. evidence based) doubts from our emotional or volitional (i.e. not evidence based) doubts. If we can satisfy our rational doubts, the chapter urges us to ignore the other doubts as worthless. The aim of this chapter is to get the reader to dismiss certain of the common issues raised by atheists, such as the problem of evil. Sorry, I'm not convinced that this issue isn't rationally based. But the author tries to use the 'problem of evil' against the atheist by claiming that the existence of evil, or rather, the existence of absolute, objective moral facts, points to a higher power than man.
"In order for an act to be objectively 'bad', there must be some standard of objective 'good' by which to measure it. What might that standard be if not God? Can the standard come from some evolutionary process? Can it come from the slow development of cultural groups? If so, morals are simply a matter of opinion (albeit a largely held opinion), and there is nothing objectively evil to complain about."
Hmmm. I really must do another post on this issue again soon. But anyway, this digression kind of feels out of place in this chapter and doesn't really help the argument.

And so we get to Chapter 10 "prepare for an attack" and the end of Part 1 of this book. The main thrust of this chapter is to pre-empt the challenges of atheists by likening them to the wiles of a defence attorney. The tools employed by a good defence attorney are discussed, and many of them are shown to be ploys to try and confuse or distract the jury away from the evidence. So by analogy, this chapter is claiming that atheists have no real points to make and are just throwing lots of spurious arguments into the mix to muddy the waters and mask the truth. Here the author builds a 'straw man' of his own devising and then tears it apart. Not convinced.

So armed with these ten principles, we are now ready to consider the evidence for ourselves. Or so the book claims. What it has also done is sneakily undermined some arguments before they've even been raised, and subtly suggested to us things about the evidence that might not turn out to be as clear cut as we're being led to believe, but we'll get there in my review of Part 2...

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The early Christian belief in the ascension?

In a recent episode of The Bible Geek podcast, a listener asked about passages in the NT which don't appear to have been in the earliest manuscripts, but appear to have been added some centuries later. The most famous of these is the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8. But there are others.

What I had never previously realised is that all the ascension stories in the gospels are late additions. 

Of course, there is no explicit ascension in Matthew or John, but Mark and Luke have it, don't they? Well, I had never really thought about the fact that the ascension in Mark is part of the last bit of chapter 16, which isn't in the earliest manuscripts. But Luke at least has the ascension, doesn't he?

Well, no. It appears not. The single verse (and I had never before noticed that it is only a single verse) in Luke that refers to the ascension doesn't appear in any manuscript until the 3rd or 4th century. So it very much looks like none of the gospels originally had the ascension.

What!?

None of the four stories of the life and deeds of Jesus mentioned the ascension, at all? That wasn't a thing worth mentioning? I think if that was the way that Jesus's earthly ministry had actually ended, then one out of the four of them might have mentioned it!

Surely this observation is sufficient to deduce that the original stories about Jesus actually didn't feature the ascension. Which suggests that if there was a real Jesus, then he didn't ascend as most Christians today believe he did.

So if he didn't ascend, then where did he go?

That is an important question. If there was a real Jesus, who died and rose again, but didn't then ascend, i.e. didn't physically leave, then where was he in the years that followed, and where is he now? Given that I've got no good answer to that question, then I have to consider the premise of the question. What if some of the details in the story of Jesus in the NT are not true? Well, maybe that explains the lack of ascension. Here's the options as I see them:
  1. Jesus died and rose, but his resurrection was to a spiritual body, and was directly into heaven. Thus all the post-resurrection appearances were really just visions (c.f. 1 Corinthians 15 - Paul makes no distinction between the vision he saw and the appearances to the other apostles - maybe they were all the same, just visions). The need to invent an ascension at a later date, must have followed the shift to make the resurrection a physical thing, also at a later date.
  2. Jesus died but did not rise. However, his disciples believed that he was raised directly to heaven. And so on, as above. There is no way at this late stage to decide between these two options, there is no evidence either way. I guess it is a matter of faith.
  3. There was no Jesus. I don't really want to get into this in this post, but it should still be an option on the table.
So it doesn't matter which way you slice it, no ascension pretty much destroys contemporary Christian belief. But there are two other things to consider.

What about Acts 1?

Well the lack of ascension in Luke actually solves one of the classic biblical contradictions - Luke says the ascension was pretty much immediately after the resurrection, Acts says it was 40 days later. And yet these are supposedly the work of the same author? No ascension in Luke solves that problem. No contradiction.

But the ascension is still in Acts, so it clearly was part of early Christian belief, right? Well, yes, but how early is early? The book of Acts is not independently attested until the late 2nd century. A number of critical scholars believe it was composed in the 2nd century, possibly as part of a response to Marcionites (see, for example, Joseph Tyson) and possibly also as an attempt to unite rival 'Petrine' and 'Pauline' factions in the nascent church (Robert Price certainly thinks this). David Trobisch claims that Acts was composed by Polycarp in the mid 2nd century. If any of this is the case, then the stories of the ascension came into play about a hundred years after the alleged event. That's far too late to have any historical weight, especially since the earlier gospels all fail to mention it.

What about John 20v17?

But is there an oblique reference to the ascension in John's gospel? It says
"Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”" 
So it looks like the author of the 4th gospel was anticipating the ascension, even if he doesn't describe it explicitly. Well, yes, it looks like that in English, but I had a peek at the Greek and discovered that the word translated 'ascended' here is actually a pretty common word, which is usually translated 'went up'. As in "Jesus went up to Jerusalem" or "Jesus went up to Galilee". The word seems to convey physical elevation in some way, but clearly was used to mean simply travelling from one place to another. So here Jesus says he is going or travelling to the Father, and it is only the turn of phrase that suggests elevation. Maybe he just meant he was leaving, but didn't mean anything about flying through the air.

So where does this leave us? With an earth-bound Jesus, or a non-physical Jesus, but not with the one who most Christians believe in today.