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: 
" 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.