Book Plunge: Evidence Considered Chapter 29

Is Jesus the Son of Man? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

We return to Glenton Jelbert’s Evidence Considered to look at Darrell Bock’s work on Jesus being the Son of Man. Jelbert isn’t too impressed with this essay apparently as this is one incredibly short chapter. Just as soon as I thought I was beginning it, it was over. It’s a shame because in my thinking, Jelbert really doesn’t treat the evidence fairly at all.

Jelbert says Bock seems to take for granted the existence of God and the credibility of the Bible. On the former, yes. Bock is not supposed to give the Kalam Cosmological Argument or anything like that every time. Many Christian Bible scholars could give that, but they won’t be like a William Lane Craig and specialize in it. Still, I don’t even think theism is necessary to make the case. It could be making the case for Jesus gets us closer to the case for theism.

As for credibility, Bock has written several works on this so there is nothing that he just assumes in this. When New Testament scholars make their case, they make it based on the data they have and if they think their case requires treating a text differently or suspiciously, they say so and why. Bock is just fine with what he is doing.

Jelbert says part of the problem is that Bock says the phrase means a human being. This isn’t an immediate problem since Jesus is indeed a human being. Not only that, it’s an essential of Christian theology that Jesus is a human being. If Jesus is not a human being, then there is no Christianity. That’s another point and I won’t go on on that one for now.

Naturally, Daniel 7:13 comes up and Jelbert says that one problem is it’s a dream. So what? The text of Daniel makes it clear this dream was from God. Jelbert doesn’t believe that? Big deal. Jesus and His audience would. The Sadducees could be an exception, but most of the people in Israel would think that.

Jelbert makes much about the statement about like and the use of a. I think these are just common Biblical descriptions. If this is where your strongest argument lies, then your case is pretty weak.

Now though, we get into one of my favorite parts. It’s a topic I love to discuss. This is the best way I think to see the evidence.

Jelbert says that the usage of Son of Man shows that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who thought the end times were imminent. Interestingly, he points to Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? rather than his Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of a New Millennium. I have reviewed the latter book. Jelbert says Jesus thought this, but He was wrong. The end times did not arrive.

On the contrary, (To quote Thomas Aquinas) Jesus did think they were going to arrive and Jesus was right. The question is, what were the end times the end of? If you think the end of the world, then you are mistaken. Let’s consider Jesus speaking about the temple. The disciples want to ask Jesus the sign of His coming and the end of the age.

Odd question isn’t it?

I mean, what do they mean with His coming? Jesus is already there! Did they mean His return after His resurrection? Doubtful. These guys hadn’t even realized Jesus was going to die yet, let alone die, be resurrected, and ascend to come again later. What did they want to know?

And if this is the end of the world, why point to just the temple? Won’t that be the case with everything? A lot of what Jesus says doesn’t make sense if He means the end of the world. “Flee to the mountains!” Because, you know, the mountains will be totally safe if the world comes to an end. Pray that it not be in the winter on a Sabbath. After all, if the world comes to an end, let’s hope it’s in the summer on a Thursday.

Could there be some other way to understand this? Why yes there is. It’s in the sense of what is meant by a coming. A coming refers in the Old Testament many times to judgment. Consider Isaiah 19:1. The Lord rides on a swift cloud and is coming to Egypt. So is the Lord going to be like kid Goku riding on a nimbus cloud in judgment? No. Coming and clouds are both tied in. Clouds for deity and coming to refer to judgment.

In Revelation 2:5, Jesus tells the church at Ephesus that if they do not repent, He will come to them and remove their lampstand. Whoa! The second coming is going to take place if this one church doesn’t get their act right? Nope. This is about judgment.

One of my favorite passages on this is in 2 Samuel 22.

1 David sang to the LORD the words of this song when the LORD delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul. 
2 He said: “The LORD is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; 
3my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation. He is my stronghold, my refuge and my savior— from violent people you save me. 
4 “I called to the LORD, who is worthy of praise, and have been saved from my enemies. 
5 The waves of death swirled about me; the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me. 
6 The cords of the grave coiled around me; the snares of death confronted me. 
7 “In my distress I called to the LORD; I called out to my God. From his temple he heard my voice; my cry came to his ears. 
8 The earth trembled and quaked, the foundations of the heavens shook; they trembled because he was angry. 
9 Smoke rose from his nostrils; consuming fire came from his mouth, burning coals blazed out of it. 
10 He parted the heavens and came down; dark clouds were under his feet. 
11 He mounted the cherubim and flew; he soared on the wings of the wind. 
12 He made darkness his canopy around him— the dark rain clouds of the sky. 
13 Out of the brightness of his presence bolts of lightning blazed forth. 
14 The LORD thundered from heaven; the voice of the Most High resounded. 
15He shot his arrows and scattered the enemy, with great bolts of lightning he routed them. 
16 The valleys of the sea were exposed and the foundations of the earth laid bare at the rebuke of the LORD, at the blast of breath from his nostrils. 
17 “He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters. 
18 He rescued me from my powerful enemy, from my foes, who were too strong for me.
You can search all you want through the life of David in 1 and 2 Samuel. You will never find a passage with YHWH hitching up on Gabriel and Michael and riding through playing Green Arrow. You will never find a massive event where the valleys of the sea are exposed and we see the foundations of the Earth. Yet here David says all of this took place.
Why?

Because for David, as for other Jews, political actions and such were depicted often using cosmic imagery. We do the same when we refer to an event as earth-shaking, without necessarily speaking about an earthquake. The great mistake is to take apocalyptic imagery as if it was literal.

So what was Jesus talking about?
He tells you. It was the destruction of the temple. Jesus says the temple will be destroyed and all the things He speaks of will take place. (By the way, for those who think this is the same event as 1 Thess. 4 or 1 Cor. 15, where is the resurrection? What timeframe does Jesus give? This generation will not pass away.
The temple was destroyed in 70 A.D.
Jesus was right.
Of course, some might be wondering about interpretations. I recommend looking up the position I have given, Orthodox Preterism, and see how the passages are interpreted. Even if you don’t agree, realize it is an acceptable view within Christianity.
Jelbert then goes on to say that sometimes Jesus refers to someone else as the Son of Man. This isn’t as momentous as Jelbert thinks. There was a common practice to refer to oneself in the third person. Paul does the same in 2 Corinthians 12 when writing about the man he knew who had an experience of heaven. Paul is speaking about himself. He says Ehrman makes a case that Jesus would have thought a future figure would be this Son of Man.
Ehrman does make such a case, but I think Michael Bird has a better one. Bird has pointed to a passage like Matthew 19:28-30. This passage is after the rich young ruler comes to Jesus and Jesus tells His disciples that when the Son of Man comes, they will sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. So what’s the big deal? Maybe Jesus is talking about another man coming in the future.
Doubtful. For one thing, this passage is quite likely an authentic one by skeptical standards since it refers to the twelve apostles judging the twelve tribes. A later writer would not have that since that would imply Judas. Yet if this is what happens to the apostles, where is Jesus? Is Jesus just slinking in the background somewhere? If the apostles get this great honor, doesn’t it fit that Jesus would have the glory of the Son of Man?
Furthermore, Son of Man is not a title the early church would make up. It doesn’t show up in Paul and it doesn’t normally show up in the Fathers unless they’re quoting Scripture. It’s quite an anachronism unless Jesus said it. The only times it shows up are in places like Acts 7 and the stoning of Stephen, and in my view, Stephen says that referring to Daniel 7 and the Son of Man standing in judgment. Hebrews tells us that Jesus sat down next to the right hand and Psalm 110:1 which says “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.’ ” (By the way, that’s the most quoted Old Testament verse in the New Testament.) Why is Jesus standing then? I think it’s because Jesus is judging the nation of Israel there as sealing their fate for stoning the first Christian martyr.
Also, another passage that Jelbert points to is the one that before the transfiguration has Jesus saying that some listening to Him would not taste death before they see the Kingdom of God come in power. Jelbert again thinks this is about the end of the world. It’s not. It’s about the kingship of Jesus being vindicated in A.D. 70 with the destruction of the Jewish temple showing the age of the Law was ended and the age of the Messiah had come.
Some Christians think this is referring to the transfiguration, but if so, it’s a weak prophecy. Imagine if I went to my church next Sunday and gave a sermon and said, “Some of you will not taste death before next Sunday comes!” I would not be heralded as the most awesome prophet of all. 99.9999% of the time I am sure I would be correct. Even with a higher mortality rate in the past, it wouldn’t be that great.
The transfiguration was a revelation of who the king is, but His rule would be established in the destruction of the temple. Jelbert thinks we have to redefine terms. No. We just have to abandon a Western literalism and go with a more Jewish approach to the text. If Jelbert wants to say I’m wrong, he’s free to engage me on my exegesis, but what he thinks is a passage showing a great weakness in Christianity is one that I think shows one of its great strengths. If I wanted to show a great proof that Jesus was a true prophet, I would go to these passages that Jelbert thinks are such a problem.
In the end, I have every reason to think Jesus spoke of Himself as the Son of Man and He spoke truly. He truly was an apocalyptic prophet and He truly was right. I am not waiting for Jesus to be the King. Jesus is the King right now and His enemies are being made a footstool for His feet.
In Christ,
Nick Peters

Book Plunge: In Defense of the Gospels

What do I think of John Stewart’s book published by Intelligent Faith Press? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

John Stewart is a lawyer who works with Ratio Christi and has written a book on defending the Gospels. Stewart goes through several questions very thoroughly and point by point. He also introduces you to many methodologies and explains why he accepts the answers that he accepts.

He starts off with asking when the Gospels were written. He establishes reasons for His dates but points out that often even on the worst case scenario of a date, the date could still be within the lifetime of the eyewitnesses. He points out that this is important and compares this to other works of history as well.

Stewart goes on to use similar methodologies on other questions such as if the Gospels are anonymous or if they’ve been changed or if they’re biased. Many of the objections dealt with are the ones that most people will encounter when they engage with internet atheists. If you are often involved or know someone who is involved with those debates and wants an extra resource, this would be a good one.

The work is also short and easy to understand without using technical language. It can be read in a short time and would be ideal for college students on campuses. No doubt, this is because of years that Stewart has spent with Ratio Christi.

There’s also a brief section on Jesus Mythicism in one of the chapters. This will be helpful for those who regularly encounter this crazy idea that seems to keep popping up its head. While the material there is basic, it is enough to help you out with the average mythicist.

I also like the argument dealing with the question of if the Gospels are anonymous. This is a common one that shows up on the internet, but it is one I do not see professional scholars dealing with, mainly because most scholars don’t use “The Gospels are anonymous” as a reason to think that they are automatically untrustworthy. Stewart rightly points out that it does help us if we can have good reasons to name an eyewitness behind a Gospel, but it is not a necessity to know if the Gospel is reliable or not.

If there were some criticisms I would give, the first one is that the book does need an editor. There would occasionally be seen typos that were distracting. One in particular was to hear about how to respond to Bark Ehrman. This is a slip of the keyboard of course, but it can damage one’s reputation.

I also would have liked to have seen a lot more specifics on ideas that have been overturned in the past 100 years about the Gospels due to archaeology. Mythicism was addressed, but that has never been a reigning theory among scholars. There have been very few isolated individuals who have held that position, although the number today could be greater due to the rise of the internet and the fast spread of false information.

Still, there is much to commend in Stewart’s book. It is a good opening defense one can have in the case of the Gospels and the author does make sure to focus there. He does have a short section on the Pauline epistles, but that is not what the book is about so he does rightly stick with the Gospels. I recommend this one for your college student, especially one who wants to better defend the Gospels.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

 

Deeper Waters Podcast 5/5/2018: J.P. Holding

What’s coming up? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Today, we live in a world that has largely been Christianized. While there are still many people that have never heard the name of Jesus, there are billions that have. Christianity is the major dominating force in the world today. Jesus Christ has had more impact on the world than anyone else who ever lived.

How did we get to this point? What is it that made Christianity survive? It’s easy to say Constantine and blame him for everything, but how did Christianity even get to Constantine? It was a highly persecuted faith and a very shameful one.

Bart Ehrman has a theory and he recently discussed his theory in the book The Triumph of Christianity. As readers of this blog know, I was not impressed with this one and found it severely lacking. Ehrman never even touched on many significant issues.

However, there are other theories about how Christianity came to survive. One that is anathema to Ehrman would be that Christianity is true. Even still, how did it survive? What made it difficult to survive? Would Christianity have even been seen as appealing by the people at the time?

One of my favorite explanations for the rise of Christianity comes from my ministry partner. He has talked about it in his book The Impossible Faith. This is that if Christianity was false, it should have died out and it should have died out easily. That Christianity survived is in reality a testimony to its truth. He’s J.P. Holding and he’ll be returning to the Deeper Waters Podcast this Saturday.

So who is he?

J. P. Holding has a Masters’ Degree in Library Science and is a contributing writer to the Christian Research Journal. He has also written for the publications of Creation Ministries International.

I also want to give a special update. A kind fan of Deeper Waters has donated to us a webcam and some web editing software. Hopefully, we will be able to make videos soon. We will be doing this episode on Facebook live so you can hear the interview live and if you have questions, you can feel free to ask those. It’s up to my discretion if a question gets on the air or not, but it will be good to see your interactions.

We will be talking about the problems of Bart Ehrman’s book and where he goes wrong and anything he might get right as well. We will be talking about his approach to the Gospels and to ancient evidence. One aspect I definitely hope to touch on is why is it that honor and shame get no real traction in his book? Does Ehrman still not understand how the ancient world worked?

I hope you’ll be watching for this latest episode of the Deeper Waters Podcast. We can be sure of Facebook Live, but we could also try for YouTube Live. It’s a great way of branching out. Please go on iTunes also and leave a positive review of the Deeper Waters Podcast.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

My Question To Bart Ehrman

Why does someone believe or not believe in miracles? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Recently, my father-in-law Mike Licona debated Bart Ehrman on Gospel reliability right here in Atlanta. I went to it with my wife and when the Q&A started, I rushed to the microphone to be the first to ask Ehrman a question. I had been thinking about what to ask and nothing in the debate changed my mind.

I asked Ehrman about a claim he made in Misquoting Jesus where he said that by definition, a miracle is the least probable explanation of an event. I wanted to know if this was something one would say before examining the evidence, which I could understand, or after. If it was after, isn’t one then saying that no amount of evidence will change one’s mind on a miracle? After all, you could show all the evidence in the world and it wouldn’t change the likelihood of a miracle being the true explanation of what happened, or if a miracle is the true explanation, one has a historical methodology that rules them out from knowing the truth.

One aspect I definitely remember of Ehrman’s answer is that believing in miracles is based on faith. If you’re a believer, you believe in them. If you’re a non-believer, you don’t. Seems simple enough. Right?

Not exactly.

First off, I don’t think this answers the question. When is a miracle thought to be the least probable explanation by definition? Who made this definition and how could it be changed? if it has to be that, then it would seem that no amount of evidence can ever change the situation to make a miracle more likely. (Although interestingly, I suspect it can somehow be made less likely!)

Second, this isn’t just a case of faith. This implies that believers themselves aren’t interested in evidence. If I want to judge if a miracle happened, I look at the evidence. Some claims have better evidence than others. Last night my wife and I were at a Bible study and someone told us privately about how they know someone who became a Christian and is convinced that God told them that Jesus would return before their mother passed away.

Now do I believe in the return of Christ in the future? Absolutely. Do I believe that God can speak to people today? Yes, though I think it’s extremely rare. Do I think this happened in this case? Not a bit. I have seen enough people make crazy claims about when Jesus is returning and I have no reason to think God told this one guy.

On the other hand, consider a New Testament scholar like Pinchas Lapides. He was a Jew who never believed Jesus was the Messiah and never became a Christian and his Ph.D. is in the New Testament. What does he conclude about Jesus? Jesus rose from the dead. What’s that based on? The evidence.

Some of you might think I am only open to miracles in my own religion. Not at all. My basis is always the same. Whatever the miracle claim is, just present the evidence. If it’s sufficient evidence in my opinion, I should believe it. My Christianity is not threatened by a miracle on the outside.

The problem with saying faith is that one is ultimately saying it’s not a matter of evidence. If that is one’s position, then we have to ask who is really living by faith? If your methodology has already ruled out miracles a priori, then if a miracle has happened, you will never know what did happen. If you assert one has never happened, then you have to show that, and if your methodology again won’t allow that, then we are arguing in a circle.

I conclude with a summarization of the thought of Chesterton.

The Christian believes in the miracle, rightly or wrongly, because of the evidence. The skeptic disbelieves in the miracle, rightly or wrongly, because he has a dogma against them.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Book Plunge: The Triumph Of Christianity

What do I think of Bart Ehrman’s latest published by Simon and Schuster? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

When I first heard about The Triumph of Christianity coming out, I was quite excited. The survival and eventual triumph of Christianity is something I consider to be a great argument for the truth of Christianity, especially since Christianity did not spread through force and was spread in a society that would want to eliminate it and that it was a very shameful faith. I was quite looking forward to seeing if Ehrman would either add to that thesis or challenge it.

This book sadly was disappointing in that regard. As I go through, I don’t find many clear answers. I do thankfully find that Constantine is not the reason the faith succeeded, although he might have made it’s eventual triumph faster. Sadly, Ehrman doesn’t seem to have much of an idea why it did. You get a basic answer of people talked to one another and each time someone became a Christian, paganism lost. Pagans would still be pagans if they worshiped a different god. They wouldn’t be if they worshiped Christ.

Ehrman also has the positive of talking about the things that Christianity has done. The Roman Empire at the time of Jesus was one marked by dominance. Slavery was unquestioned. Men had to be the leaders. War and conquest seemed natural. (p. 5)

Christianity changed that. We all think it’s natural to want to care for the sick and the poor. That’s because of Christianity. Without Christianity, we might never have had the realities of health care that we have today. Ehrman says we have simply assumed that these are human values, but they’re not. (p. 6)

This I can support definitely. So many times when atheists argue today, they point to the claim that the Bible condones slavery supposedly. It is taken for granted that everyone knows that this is wrong because we’re all humans. Go back to the Roman Empire in the time of Jesus and it would more likely be the opposite. You would be the oddball not for approving slavery but for condemning it.

One of the first places Ehrman goes to is talking about Constantine. I find this quite odd seeing as Constantine is about 300 years later. It’s important to get to, but why go there so quickly? I want to know how Christianity even got to that point.

Ehrman does have some interesting points here. He is right that pagans were fine with you worshiping another god provided you were not excluding others with that. The Christians would not have really been a problem had Jesus been presented as one other deity in the pantheon to be worshiped. That is not what the Christians did. The Christians said God had revealed Himself in Jesus and that was the only way to worship Him. All other gods were false gods.

One author who has brought this out well is Larry Hurtado in his book Destroyer of the Gods. One would hope that Ehrman’s not interacting with that book is because it came out after the manuscript was done, but it’s hard to say since Ehrman can be good at giving the sound of one hand clapping and not interacting with the best of his critics.

Hurtado points out that by a gentile becoming a Christian, he was putting himself on the outs socially. It could be compared to someone leaving a cult today, and I mean a bona fide cult. If you have left the Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Mormons, that would be such an example. A Gentile would go into the home of a friend and all of a sudden, he couldn’t honor the household gods. He couldn’t go to the meetings of the gods at work. He was on the outs with his society entirely. He was risking everything.

A Jew could be given a free pass because the Jewish beliefs were ancient and thus, they were seen as something that could have been a valid path to God. For the ancients, those that came before them were even closer to the gods and knew how to get there. A religious idea that was new was viewed with suspicion. Hence, one of the early apologetic works was called “Neither New Nor Strange.”

A great work on this is Robert Louis Wilkens’s The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (Yet another work that Ehrman never interacts with). One who became a Christian was embracing a religion that was shameful. Your entire reputation and even identity was being put on the line in the Roman world by becoming a Christian.

Speaking of being a shameful religion, this is something Ehrman also never interacts with. He never looks at how the ancient world was a world of honor and shame. This permeated everything. Having honor in the ancient world meant more to them than paying our bills means to us. You won’t get this reality one iota from Ehrman’s book. It never enters the equation when it should be central to the equation. This is a glaring problem to me in the book.

To get back to Constantine, Ehrman does admit that Constantine wasn’t a perfect Christian, but he was at least a Christian. He did take his conversion seriously. Much of this material will be troublesome to people who are of the mythicist variety and think that Constantine is the only reason Christianity survived. (Again, I still want to know how the religion survived until Constantine.) Also, speaking of sources never interacted with, there is no mention of Peter Leithart’s Defending Constantine in all of this.

Ehrman then goes back to Paul, who I think would have been a much better start for the book, and in here actually says that in the life of Jesus some people did believe He was the Messiah. I am quite thankful to see this said from Ehrman. It’s also stated that the resurrection is what confirmed that Jesus was the Messiah. (p. 48)

It’s important to note how that works. Jesus isn’t the Messiah because God raised Him from the dead. God raised Him from the dead because He is the Messiah. The resurrection confirmed what Jesus had already demonstrated with His life and teachings.

Ehrman also will irritate the mythicist crowd by pointing out that while Paul never mentions the message he gave to potential Christians in his letters, that’s because he doesn’t need to. That message was given in person. The letters were to deal with other matters.

Something else interesting about Ehrman’s thesis, and yet confusing from his perspective, is that Christianity spread because of the belief in real miracles. Ehrman even admits that Paul says at times in his letters, such as in Romans 15, and I would add in 2 Cor., that he did miracles himself before his audience. Something important about this is that it’s easy to make a claim like that to people who already believe you’re the apostle to the Gentiles. Try saying that to the church in 2 Corinthians who is questioning your status because of the super-apostles. Paul is trying to get his opponents to remember what was done. You don’t point to what your opponents will remember unless you’re sure they will remember it and not dispute it.

But Ehrman doesn’t believe in miracles! That’s right, but he does say people did believe they had seen miracles or that the stories were reliable about miracles somehow. He thinks most often it happened because the people heard about miracles.

As a Christian, I do believe miracles happened, but Ehrman never interacts with skeptical ideas at the time. What about Lucian who seemed to make a habit of exposing miracles? Ehrman seems to take it for granted that this was an age that believed in miracles very easily. Maybe it was, but I’m not so sure, and that is something that Ehrman should argue. Still, there’s something odd about someone who doesn’t believe in miracles arguing that belief in miracles was the reason that Christianity gained converts.

Absent is one other possible explanation. Maybe people investigated the claims and decided Jesus rose from the dead. How would this happen? A group of people or one high honor wealthy person would send an investigator or a number of investigators to Jerusalem and the surrounding area. These people would talk to eyewitnesses and gather facts and report them back. Note that someone with high honor would have the most to lose by joining Christianity and so they would want to make sure the facts were right. There had to be such people since 1 Cor. 1 says that not many were in an honorable position, which means some were. Also, the church had to have some financial backing for the extensive letter writing and Gospel writing that went on. Those were not cheap.

Ehrman never seems to consider this idea. For him, word of mouth is sufficient, but that is a lacking idea. People would join a movement without checking where they would put their entire identity on the line by identifying with a crucified man? I don’t think Ehrman really understands the social consequences of becoming a Christian in that world.

On a positive note on the other hand, Ehrman does say that Paul did not invent Christianity nor did he invent the idea that the death and resurrection of Jesus brought salvation. (p. 71) This is not original to Paul as it was part of the package he came to believe. Paul had to have known what he was persecuting and how to recognize a Christian.

Ehrman also will not be a friend to the mythicist crowd when he says Mithraism could not have overtaken the empire. (p. 81) Mithraism was not exclusive like Christianity was. Exclusivism made it risky to become a Christian.

Ehrman is also right that people did not believe in life after death. What is not right about this is that that would have made Christianity a plus. For many, it would be like returning to a prison again. The body was something that you wanted to escape. A spiritual resurrection would have been much easier to accept. Teaching a resurrection to a body of flesh would not have been.

For this, Ehrman often thinks that Heaven and Hell were great motivators, but why should this be? If you don’t believe the person who makes the threat, why take the threat seriously? People speaking about hell would have likely been seen as wild-eyed fanatics.

Ehrman is also right about how the Romans were generally tolerant, but that’s because other religions weren’t stepping on any toes. Saying you shouldn’t worship the gods of the state or worship the emperor was going against that. Another movement Ehrman says was attacked by Rome was the Bacchanalia movement due to licentious practices. Christianity would have been seen as treasonous due to their being no separation of church and state. To deny the Roman gods was to deny Rome itself and a Gentile could not get away with that because we all know Gentiles are not Jews.

Ehrman does have his statement about other Christianities being around, but there is no reason to think any of them were close to dominating. Ehrman regularly does this kind of thing sadly. He will speak of a church that used the Gospel of Peter, but it was only for a short time and it was one particular area. There is nothing about how Egypt was even the most heterodox area and yet when we look at what we find there, orthodox manuscripts of the Bible outweigh the heretical works greatly. This is in Charles Hill’s Who Chose The Gospels? (Another work that there is no interaction with)

On p. 143, Ehrman does say that many people believe in miracles today not because they have seen them, but because they’ve heard about them, and eventually they just believe that they are possible and then true. Why should we think that our society will mirror the ancient one? People would risk everything again just because they hard a story and didn’t bother to check it? It looks like Ehrman hopes his readers are just as gullible as he thinks the ancients were.

On p. 181, in writing about 1 Peter, Ehrman does say they were facing opposition for their faith, but we don’t know what it was. It wasn’t an empire wide persecution. What could it have been? It never enters Ehrman’s mind apparently that it was shaming from their society. This is again the glaring blind spot in the book. Ehrman does not interact with what the culture was truly like.

When we get to the end of the book, we find Ehrman going on a different track, and one that is very mistaken. This is talking about intolerance, and this largely in the context of later Christian emperors opposing paganism. Ehrman says that intolerance is “the principled rejection of other beliefs and practices as wrong, dangerous, or both.” p. 256.

It doesn’t take much thinking to see the problem here. By this definition, anyone who thinks they are right in anything is automatically intolerant because all contrary beliefs have to be false. If Ehrman doesn’t even think that what he is presenting in a book is right, why should I bother listening to him? Apparently, Ehrman thinks it’s intolerant for Christians to think they are right. Is Ehrman intolerant then if he goes out and argues for his case as he does in debates and tells his opponents why he thinks they are not right?

He also has a section on the death of Hypatia which he says was at the hands of a Christian mob. The reality is despite what he thinks, we are not most fully informed. Every side tries to claim Hypatia and use her as a weapon against the other. A good source on her is here.

Oh. All this intolerance? It started with Jesus Himself. Jesus was not tolerate of the beliefs of the Pharisees. (How dare Jesus disagree! Rabbis never ever did that with each other!) Ehrman plays the card again about the Jews being addressed in John 8, not realizing that doesn’t mean all Jews of all time but would refer to a specific group of people. A good look at that can be found here. It’s interesting that Jesus and Paul are the intolerant ones, when they were the ones being put to death by their opponents.

Ehrman also says Paul was intolerant with issuing a divine curse on anyone who preaches a different Gospel. Yes. Paul does that. The stakes are high for him. Note that he never says though that he is applying the curse himself or to go out and kill the people of a different persuasion.

Ehrman on p. 285 says that tolerance was encouraged and freedom of religion was embraced. This tolerance was lost with the triumph of Christianity. Note that Ehrman says this in a country founded on Christian principles where he’s allowed to freely write as an agnostic and publish books arguing against Christianity. Yes. That is truly an intolerant society.

Note also pagans reveled in diversity to a point. There was no reveling in the new Christian movement at all. The Christians did not have the freedom to worship. Now do I think it is wrong when Christians get the power to use it to force Christianity on the populace. Still, it is quite bizarre to say the pagans were tolerant. It’s easy to be tolerant when those who disagree with you only disagree on what you consider a minor point and aren’t a threat at all. At least Ehrman acknowledges again the positives he stated at the beginning such as caring for the poor and the sick, but this tirade on intolerance is not really fitting and Ehrman always says on the one hand he wants to be neutral as a historian, but when he says something like this, he is hardly neutral.

In the end, I find this book just lacking. It’s almost like Ehrman is writing a book just to write a book and get something out there. You can see him picking out a few favorite source repeatedly and relying on them. I know Christianity triumphed and I have some good ideas why, but I don’t see why Ehrman thinks it did.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Book Plunge: Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Second Edition

What do I think of Richard Bauckham’s book published by Eerdmans? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

I want to think Eerdmans and Bauckham himself for making sure I got a review copy of this book. The first edition was indeed a classic and something all interested in the reliability of the Gospels should read. The second one is no exception and expounds further than the last one did.

Something that is striking to me about this book as I read through it is how different the argument is from most works. Most works will start with dating the Gospels and then argue from there by pointing to events like archaeological findings. Bauckham doesn’t do that, well not in the exact sense. Archaeology I think is only mentioned once that I recall and this concerning the destruction of Jerusalem and Josephus. The closest you get to dating is by looking at the names that show up in the Gospels.

Why would anyone do that? Because when we look at the Gospels, we see the names used in them match the commonly used names at the time and the ones that are exceptions match that same ratio as well. This is not the kind of thing that a later writer would easily produce. We can tell the common names today because we have a whole catalog available to us of all the names being used. Back then, you couldn’t jump on Google and see what popular names were so a writer would not know about that.

Interestingly to me, much of the time Bauckham spends examining Mark and John. Not much is said about Luke or Matthew, though some is of course. I find this surprising since for many of us, the place we’d go to the most for eyewitness testimony is Luke. He specifically mentions eyewitness testimony and there’s much archaeological evidence for Luke and Acts.

Meanwhile, John is usually seen as highly unreliable. Bauckham argues that the Gospel is likely from the perspective of the beloved disciple. He doesn’t believe this to be John, the son of Zebedee, but he does say that this person was part of Jesus’s entourage and was an eyewitness of what he reported. If this is so, then scholars really need to rethink how they see John.

But isn’t eyewitness testimony unreliable? You can see stories about how people got facts wrong about 9/11 when interviewed later about it. How can this be? These people were eyewitnesses. Bauckham does make a case for eyewitness testimony being reliable in many many cases.

Still, as I thought about this, I thought that many of these “eyewitnesses” were really “TV witnesses.” If we really wanted eyewitness testimony about an event like 9/11, what would be best would be to interview people like survivors who worked in the building, people who lost loved ones on that day, and firefighters and police officers who went in and got people out. These are all people who had skin in the game.

This would be the closest parallel perhaps to Jesus. If you want to know who to talk to about the life of Jesus, talk to the people who were active participants in it and not just bystanders. Sure, bystanders can get some things right, but they won’t remember long-term details. A college student watching 9/11 on TV won’t know as much about it as someone who had a loved one in the towers wondering if they would get out.

Speaking of this, many people like Carrier and others often talk about how the Gospels didn’t cite their sources like other writers did. One thing to say about this is there weren’t exactly many written materials to cite. A second thing to say is that ancient writers didn’t use footnotes and endnotes like we do and did not cite all their sources. A third thing is that if Bauckham is right, they did. When they named someone in the Gospels who was not a famous figure, this was a method of citation. Names could drop out then because that person had died and was no longer available.

One example I can think of immediately with this is the resurrection of Jesus in John. In his Gospel, only Mary Magdalene is named, but in the story she uses the word “we” to describe going to the tomb. Could it be that there were other women there, but only Mary is named because only she was still alive?

One other point worth mentioning is that according to Bauckham, form criticism is dead. One can certainly hope so. We have learned so much since the time of Bultmann and others that we should discard an ideology if it is no longer being used. Unfortunately, we do live in the day and age of the internet where an idea being dead doesn’t mean it can’t be used. (Those of you who argue Jesus never existed and is a copy of pagan gods? I’m talking to you especially.)

This book is full of many in-depth arguments, many of which are too in-depth to go into here. Anyone wanting to discuss the reliability of the Gospels owes it to themselves to check out this work. Bauckham is no slouch in the field and his reputation should not be taken lightly. I hope this study will be the start of many many more such studies.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Book Plunge: The Historical Reliability of The New Testament

What do I think of Craig Blomberg’s book published by B&H Academic? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Craig Blomberg has recently written a rather large tome on the reliability of the New Testament and it is one that is definitely in-depth. There is hardly a major issue of New Testament studies that you won’t find here. Blomberg has extensive footnotes as he wrestles with most issues that are alive today in discussion.

Want to know about the Gospels and who wrote them? It’s there. When were they written? It’s there. What about the epistles? There. What about forgery in the epistles? Blomberg has you covered. There’s even a section on Revelation. Why? Because much of Revelation does fit into a historical setting. (This could also be an area I disagree with Blomberg some on as he prefers what he calls a Preterist-Futurist approach. I prefer just an Orthodox Preterist approach. I’m pleased to see he rightly condemns neohymenaeanism.

Blomberg also writes on issues related to textual criticism and the canon. How do we know that the New Testament has been handed down accurately? Even if it has been, there were a lot of other books that could have gone into the canon. Right? Wasn’t this just a decision made at Nicea? (I would also go against Blomberg here saying that this largely comes from Dan Brown. Brown popularized it, but this claim was going on long before Dan Brown.)

If you want to know about those other accounts, there’s a section on them too. Like I said, Blomberg is thorough. It’s hard to think of a way that he could be more meticulous than this.

The final section is on miracles and the resurrection. Again, this is one area where I would disagree on the use of the term supernatural. I have a hard time with this because it is never clearly defined and I think it in fact gives the atheist a free pass with thinking that the natural doesn’t really need an explanation. While it’s not in his area, Blomberg starts off by pointing to others who have written on the existence of God (And I do wish he’d mentioned the Thomistic arguments, in my opinion, the best.) and then goes on to make the case for miracles largely using the work of Craig Keener.

The positives of this volume are that despite it being large, it is also easy to understand. A layman will get a lot out of this volume. If the reader only wants to know about one area, say the synoptic Gospels, for instance, no problem. Just go there. If you want to know about the formation of the canon, no problem. Just go there.

A work like this is also a good response to people who immediately decide there is no evidence for anything in the New Testament. Sadly, few of them will ever bother to pick up a work like this and will instead run to internet sites that already agree with them. Those who do manage to work their way through Blomberg’s book will be blessed for it.

If you want a go-to book on the reliability of the New Testament as a whole, this is the one to go to. In New Testament courses on apologetics even at a Seminary’s level, Blomberg’s book should be a staple for a long time to come. He has also said he will be having a theology book coming out next. We eagerly look forward to it.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

 

Deeper Waters Podcast 3/11/2017: Mike Licona

What’s coming up on the Deeper Waters Podcast? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

“It depends on which Gospel you read!” Many of us have heard Bart Ehrman talk about this in describing Gospel differences. It is a kind of unavoidable problem. Why are there differences in the Gospels? Shouldn’t we expect them to agree, especially on major events like the resurrection?

If you want to know why there are differences in the Gospels, you should talk to someone who has written on this. In fact, the very name of his book is Why Are There Differences In The GospelsThat someone is Mike Licona, a friend, a scholar, a great apologist, and my father-in-law, and he will be my guest. So who is he?

MikeLicona

According to his bio:

Mike Licona has a Ph.D. in New Testament Studies (University of Pretoria), which he completed with distinction. He serves as associate professor in theology at Houston Baptist University. Mike was interviewed by Lee Strobel in his book The Case for the Real Jesus and appeared in Strobel’s video The Case for Christ. He is the author of numerous books including Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? What We Can Learn From Ancient Biography (Oxford University Press, 2017), The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (IVP Academic, 2010), Paul Meets Muhammad (Baker, 2006), co-author with Gary Habermas of the award-winning book The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Kregel, 2004) and co-editor with William Dembski of Evidence for God: 50 Arguments for Faith from the Bible, History, Philosophy, and Science (Baker, 2010). Mike is a member of the Evangelical Theological and Philosophical Societies, the Institute for Biblical Research, and the Society of Biblical Literature. He has spoken on more than 90 university campuses, and has appeared on dozens of radio and television programs.

We’ll be talking about Plutarch in comparison with the Gospels, including not just parallel accounts, but how does the writing of Plutarch compare even with anonymity, dating, and miraculous activity? We’ll then be looking at some scenes in Plutarch that appear in more than one life that he has written, but at the same time are vastly different. We’ll be discussing how these work when carried over to the Gospels and if there are similarities in treatment.

We’ll then go to the Gospels. What are we to make of the idea of Ehrman that “It depends on which Gospel you read?” How does this research affect the doctrine of inerrancy if it does at all? What are we to do when we read the same story in different Gospels and see great differences between them? Do the differences outweigh the similarities?

I hope you’ll be listening. Mike Licona is an excellent scholar and this work is one that has been published by Oxford Press and so one can’t say it’s your regular evangelical press. I also hope you’ll be willing to go to ITunes and leave a positive review of the Deeper Waters Podcast. I always love to see how much you like the show.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

 

 

Has The Bible Been Changed A Lot?

Is the text vastly different than it was? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

It was recently brought to my attention that Business Insider decided to celebrate Christmas with a video on why the Bible isn’t trustworthy. Normally, I prefer to celebrate with presents and time with friends and family, but to each his own I suppose. So do we really have anything new here?

Of course not.

That doesn’t mean it doesn’t need to be addressed. After all, a lot of people will never bother to study what it is they believe and why. (You know how it is, we live in a society where people will learn about their favorite sports team, TV show, video game, etc. but won’t dare to really consider maybe they should think about the belief that they base their entire life on.) Sadly, this will also apply to many skeptics who will take a faith that makes strong claims and decides ipso facto that since those claims involve miracles they must be nonsense and never examine the claims seriously.

So let’s dive into this video. The speaker starts with talking about the Bible being the most sold book of all and that many think it contains the actual words of God. What many people don’t realize according to him is that the Bible has been changed, A LOT. So what are these evidences?

To begin with, no first edition exists. All we have are copies of copies.

This sounds scary if you’re someone who doesn’t know about manuscripts in the ancient world, until you realize that we don’t have the first writing of ANY ancient work that I know of. If there is one, I will be quite surprised. We have copies in every case. How much we can trust the account depends on a number of factors.

How soon is the earliest copy to the date of the original writing?
How many copies do we have?
Can we check these copies back and forth?

So how does the New Testament measure up?

manuscript copies

As you can see, Homer comes closest and it’s not even a contest really. Now if the speaker wants to make a big deal out of this, we ask that he be consistent. Please be extremely skeptical of all the other books on the list as well.

The speaker then says that this all took place many years after the events supposedly took place. It would be good to know how much skepticism he has. Would he go all the way to being a mythicist? Inquiring minds want to know! He also points out that many of these copies weren’t made by professionals but were made by laymen.

Naturally, we can’t expect someone busy enough to make a video for Business Insider to go out and read some of the scholarship on this issue and actually inform himself. While he cites a couple of scholars, there’s no in-depth looking at what they say and providing context for the issue. He could do what I did and interview Charles Hill on the Early Text of the New Testament and issues of canonicity or interview Daniel Wallace. (And if he can’t interview at least listen to what they have to say.)

The speaker goes on to talk about how this lead to many errors and omissions.

No. It’s not a typo on my part. He’s the one who said “This lead to many,” Who knows? Maybe he differed from the original script at one point.

If he wants to talk about these kinds of omissions and errors, he’s free to examine the texts. We will have a little bit more on this, but we have so many texts in so many languages that it’s easy to cross-check. When we do, we find that in fact the Bible does hold up, but again, a little bit more on this later.

We go to the three biggest changes. The first is the woman caught in adultery. It’s a shame that this is news to so many Christians, but such it is. We live in a time of great Biblical ignorance.

The next is the Gospel of Mark. (It’s amazing how predictable these are.) This change is the ending of the Gospel and how it has no narrative of Jesus rising and appearing. The speaker then tells us that in original manuscripts, this story is nowhere to be found.

Wait a second.

What original manuscripts?

Our speaker has gone on and on about how there are no original manuscripts and now is saying this is not to be found in the original? In what way does he know? Could it be that we can tell because we can actually check the texts back and forth and see what they say and compare them? Has our speaker undermined his own case?

The third is that in Luke, Jesus makes a dying plea to forgive the executioners, but it was not intended to refer to the Romans but to the Jews. This was taken out and then added centuries later to appear to be about the Romans. This is one many haven’t heard of, but notice something.

Apparently, we don’t have a clue what the text said, but we can tell what the originals somehow said, that a change was made, and that said change was later corrected. We can discuss why it happened and how, but that doesn’t change what the original said. Even his source on this, Bart Ehrman, says it is likely to be found in the originals.

While we’re at it, what else does Bart Ehrman, this non-Christian New Testament scholar say about the New Testament?

If the primary purpose of this discipline is to get back to the original text, we may as well admit either defeat or victory, depending on how one chooses to look at it, because we’re not going to get much closer to the original text than we already are.… At this stage, our work on the original amounts to little more than tinkering. There’s something about historical scholarship that refuses to concede that a major task has been accomplished, but there it is. Novum Testamentum Graecum Editio Critica Maior: An Evaluation: TC: A Journal of Biblical Textual Criticism, 1998, a revision of a paper presented at the Textual Criticism section of the 1997 Society of Biblical Literature in San Francisco. http://rosetta.reltech.org/TC/vol03/Ehrman1998.html

 

In spite of these remarkable [textual] differences, scholars are convinced that we can reconstruct the original words of the New Testament with reasonable (although probably not 100 percent) accuracy. Bart Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 481.

Sadly, too many Christians won’t be prepared for something like this because, well, all those sermons on how to be a good person and how much God loves you won’t really matter when the text that all that is based on is called into question. Even worse, these kinds of objections are not the crisis that many people think that they are. With some serious study, instead of focusing only on one’s personal hobbies, it’s amazing what one can learn.

Hopefully Business Insider from now on will stick to business instead of going to Biblical studies.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

Many Prophets, One Message on the Trinity

Does the Trinity have pagan origins? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

I had planned to write a book review again today, but then in a discussion on if Christianity copied from pagans, someone shared this to respond to my claim that they did not. What we saw from the last election cycle in our country is sometimes it’s tempting to get people to move away from a candidate by claiming they’re racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. (Didn’t work too well this time.) In religion, it can be tempting to label something as pagan and think everyone will back away. Of course, labeling is not the same as being able to demonstrate.
The post under question is from Many Prophets, One Message and can be found here. The post is from a Muslim so I won’t be commenting on everything. For instance, when we start talking about the Muslim belief, I won’t be saying anything. Islam is not a specialty area of mine and when I dialogue with Muslims, I stick to what I know, the New Testament. Others who have studied Islam more might want to say something about that part.

So let’s see what they say.

In order to understand the influence of paganism on the doctrine of the Trinity, we need to first understand the world into which Christianity was born and developed. The disciples, the first believers in Jesus, were Jews. In fact Christianity started out as a movement within Judaism. Like Jews since the time of Moses, these first believers kept the Sabbath, were circumcised and worshiped in the Temple: “One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer—at three in the afternoon.” [Acts 3:1] The only thing that distinguished the early followers of Jesus from any other Jews was their belief in Jesus as the Messiah, that is, the one chosen by God who would redeem the Jewish people. Today, many Christian scholars agree that authors of the New Testament such as Matthew were Jewish believers in Jesus. The influence of Judaism on the New Testament is important because it helps us to correctly understand its message. The New Testament is full of terminology like “son of God.” Such language is interpreted literally by Trinitarians to mean that Jesus is God the Son, but is this correct? What was the intention behind the Jewish writers of the New Testament when they used such language? What did these terms mean at the time of Jesus?

I’m pleased that there is some right stuff here, such as the authors of the New Testament being Jewish believers in Jesus, though I’d say it’s quite a good possibility that Luke was a Gentile believer. Still, the claim that the first believers kept the Sabbath, were circumcised, and worshiped in the Temple is flimsy. All we have is one verse and it only describes the Temple.

I meet many Seventh-Day Adventists who think that Paul had to worship on Saturday because he went into the synagogues on Saturday to speak to the Jews so he was still observing the Sabbath. If he was, it will need to be established on other grounds. Why would Paul go on Saturday? He went on Saturday because that is the day the Jews were there. If he had gone on Sunday, no one would have been there to hear the message, or at least if some were there, it would not be the usual crowd.

In the same way, when the first believers went to the temple, this is only the believers in Jerusalem and they went there because that was a central meeting place to spread the message of Jesus. Of course, we learn later in Acts 12 about them meeting in the homes of believers as well. As for circumcision, if they were Jews, they were indeed circumcised, but as we learn in Acts 15, circumcision was not seen as essential for Christianity. This was the first great debate. (And aren’t we men all thankful for how it turned out?)

Our writer also says “Son of God” in interpreted literally by Christians. Unfortunately, He does not state what this means. For instance, if I say Jesus is the Son of God, I don’t mean in a literal sense such as God having sex with Mary. I also realize it can be used in a figurative sense as it has been used of angels and of great men and yes, the pagans used the title for their kings. Our author, unfortunately, cites no Trinitarians who are doing what he claims.

In fact, I would argue that Son of God is not the greatest claim to deity Jesus made. Son of Man is far more persuasive. With this, Jesus is consistently pointing to the figure in Daniel 7. This is the figure that will rule alongside the Ancient of Days and whose Kingdom has no end.

When we turn to the Old Testament we find that such language permeates its pages. For example, Moses calls God “Father”: Is this the way you repay the Lord, you foolish and unwise people? Is he not your Father, your Creator, who made you and formed you? [Deuteronomy 32:6] Angels are referred to as “sons of God”: Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan came also among them. [Job 1:6] The Old Testament even goes so far as to call Moses a god: “And the LORD said unto Moses, See, I have made thee a god to Pharaoh: and Aaron thy brother shall be thy prophet.” [Exodus 7:1] The Israelites are also referred to as “gods”: “I said, ‘You are “gods”; you are all sons of the Most High.’”  [Psalm 82:6] What we can conclude is that such highly exalted language was commonplace and is intended figuratively; it is not a literal indication of divinity.

The problem here is that this is not enough to make a case and it can be cherry picking. Just pick verses that agree with your position and hey, you’ve got it! The reference to Moses is one that is being seen as a metaphor and not a claim about what it means to be the son of God. As for Psalms 82, I interpret this as sarcasm. The rulers of Israel prided themselves as being favored since they were the leaders and got to judge Israel, but God says they’re not gods, they’re mere men. Jesus used this passage to back His claims in John 10. If the title can be used of sinful men, how much more the righteous one? Note He used it to back His claim to deity and not to lessen it.

Even as late as the end of the first century, when the New Testament writers started penning their accounts of the life of Jesus, Jewish people were still using such language figuratively. In a conversation between Jesus and some Jewish teachers of the law, they say to Jesus: “…The only Father we have is God himself.” [John 8:41] The Gospel of Luke calls Adam a son of God when it recounts the lineage of Jesus: “the son of Enosh, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.” [Luke 3:38] Jesus even says that anyone who is makes peace is a child of God: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” [Matthew 5:9] If the New Testament writers understood such language to be a claim to divinity, then they would have used it exclusively in relation to Jesus. Clearly, it denotes a person that is righteous before God and nothing more.

So we can see that such language, in and of itself, does not denote the divinity of Jesus. So where did such ideas come from?

Again, Son of God depends on the context. It’s not the same meaning every time, and our writer makes the mistake of thinking that it is. Note that passages like John 10 are ignored. Still, he asks a good question. Where does the idea that Jesus is divine come from?

The turning point in history came when Christianity ceased being a small movement within Judaism and Gentiles (non-Jews) started to embrace the faith in large numbers. We need to look to the pagan world of the Gentiles in order to understand the mindset of the people that received the New Testament message. Since the time of Alexander the Great, Gentiles had been living in a Hellenistic (Greek) world. Their lands were dominated by Roman armies, with the Roman Empire being the superpower of the world at the time. The Roman Empire itself was heavily influenced by Hellenistic religion, philosophy and culture. Greek gods and goddesses like Zeus, Hermes and Aphrodite, as well as Roman gods and goddesses like Jupiter, Venus and Diana, dominated the landscape. There were temples, priesthoods, and feasts dedicated to the patron god or goddess of a city or region; statues to the deities dotted the forums of the cities. Even rulers themselves were frequently worshipped as gods.

Aside from the first sentence, I really don’t have a problem with what is said here. We do need to understand the Gentile world and the pagan world to understand the New Testament. Much of what is said here about the pagan world is in fact accurate.

Gentiles from such a polytheistic background would have naturally understood Christian preaching about the “son of God” in light of a Greek or Roman god having been begotten by another. We can see this mindset manifested in the New Testament. In the Book of Acts there is an incident where the Gentile crowds think that Paul is Zeus come among them when he heals a crippled man:

When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!”

Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker.

The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them. [Acts 14:11-13]

In checking this, I found something interesting. When I went to the book of Acts, I did a search for the words “son” and “God.” Only two places do I see references to Jesus being the Son of God. One is in Acts 9:20.

“And straightway in the synagogues he proclaimed Jesus, that he is the Son of God.”

Note that here we have Paul in a Jewish synagogue and saying “He is the Son of God” about Jesus. The question to ask is how would the Jews understand this? In light of the resurrection, it would mean the claims of Jesus were true, and I would include deity in that. Acts 13:33 is the next and could in fact contain early creedal material.

that God hath fulfilled the same unto our children, in that he raised up Jesus; as also it is written in the second psalm, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee.

This would include the idea that as the resurrected Son, Jesus is the rightful king of this world. He is the one meant to rule. Already, we have exalted language of Jesus. This isn’t counting what we find in the Pauline epistles that leads us to conclude that the earliest Christology is indeed the highest.

Still, what about Acts 14? As our writer goes on to say:

It is worthy of note that Paul and Barnabas did not take this opportunity to explain that it was not they but rather Jesus who was God come in human form. Such a clarification is what you would expect, if Trinitarian beliefs about Jesus are correct. Instead, they argued against such pagan beliefs and practices:

But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting:

“Men, why are you doing this? We too are only men, human like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them. [Acts 14:14-15]

Here we see that the Greco-Roman peoples that Paul and Barnabas were preaching to were in the habit of taking humans for gods. Despite Paul protesting that he was not a god, the people persisted in their belief: “Even with these words, they had difficulty keeping the crowd from sacrificing to them.” [Acts 14:18] From this example we can see that according to Christian history, it was a common practice for people to attribute divinity to other humans. In spite of Paul openly denying being a god, the people continued to worship and sacrifice to him. We can conclude that even if Jesus himself rejected being God at that time, the mindset of the people was such that they would still have found a way to deify him. This is not an isolated incident, as we read elsewhere that Gentiles believed Paul was a god because he survived a bite from a venomous snake:

It is actually not at all surprising. For one thing, I think Luke is speaking in a mocking tone about the people of Lystra. Yet why would Paul not be out spouting full Trinitarian theology at once? One problem is that a lot of people think that if the Trinity is true, that the earliest believers needed to be quoting the Nicene Creed. Not at all. They grew in their understanding like we all do. Paul himself spent three years in the wilderness rethinking everything he knew when he found out Jesus was the Messiah, and in many ways actually understood the ramifications of that better than the others.

Why would Paul not say Jesus was God in human form? Because the people of Lystra would be thinking of Zeus or some other polytheistic deity. Paul would start with where they were. We don’t know for sure what arguments he made as we’re given a picture and a paragraph, but all our writer has is a picture and a paragraph. You need more than that.

He also claims that since people were easily deified, it’s not a shock to think of that happening to Jesus. However, as has been shown, the claims of deity that we’ve already seen aren’t made to a pagan audience but a Jewish one. Jews would not be the ones to do that unless they had really good reason to believe that there had been an incarnation that had taken place. We also have to ask still “How did the idea that Jesus is deity ever come about?” Many people had risen from the dead in the Bible. None were said to be deity. Why Jesus? This is indeed a central question.

Let’s go on.

Once safely on shore, we found out that the island was called Malta.

The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold.

Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand.

When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, “This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.”

But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects.

The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead; but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god. [Acts:28:1-6]

With this background in mind, it’s easy to see how Judaic phrases like “son of God” took on a different meaning when transported out of their Jewish monotheistic context into pagan Greco-Roman thought. The Trinity doctrine arose neither in a vacuum, nor strictly from the text of Scripture. It was the result of the influence of certain beliefs and attitudes that prevailed in and around the Church after the first century. The Church emerged in a Jewish and Greek world and so the primitive Church had to reconcile the notions they had inherited from Judaism with those they had derived from pagan mythology. In the words of the historian and Anglican bishop John Wand, “Jew and Greek had to meet in Christ”

Except the Gentiles never claimed Paul was a son of God. They were claiming he was a god. The Jews were the ones using the Son of God claim. Note that already our writer is claiming the church received ideas from pagan mythology. All we’ve seen so far is that some pagans thought Paul was a god. We have seen no evidence that the Jews received these ideas or that the early church did and if Luke is indeed mocking the people, then it is quite likely they did not.

It’s interesting to note that the Greco-Roman religions were filled with tales of gods procreating with human beings and begetting god-men. The belief that God could be incarnate, or that there were sons of God, were common and popular beliefs. For example, the chief god in the Greek pantheon, Zeus, visited the human woman Danae in the form of golden rain and fathered Perseus, a “god-man.” In another tale Zeus is said to have come to the human woman Alcmena, disguised as her husband. Alcmena bore Hercules, another “god-man.” Such tales bear a striking similarity to Trinitarian beliefs of God being begotten as a man. In fact, the early Christian apologist Justin Martyr, considered a saint in the Catholic Church, said the following in response to pagan criticisms that Christianity borrowed from their beliefs about the sons of God:

Well, not really. That a god could take on a human guise is one thing. That they would take on a human nature is entirely different. This is the claim about Jesus. Jesus entered into every aspect of human life, the good, the bad, and the ugly. (Not that Jesus Himself did anything bad of course.) That is in no way a similiarity to the Christian claims. Gentiles would be quite horrified by the thought of the gods doing something as shameful as actually becoming human. Still, let’s look at what our writer has to say about Justin Martyr.

When we say that the Word, who is our teacher, Jesus Christ the first born of God, was produced without sexual union, and that he was crucified and died and rose again, and ascended to heaven, we propound nothing new or different from what you [pagans] believe regarding those whom you consider sons of Jupiter.

And the comment on this is:

According to ancient Roman myth, Jupiter was the king of all the gods. Here Justin Martyr is telling Roman pagans that what the Christians believe about Jesus being the son of God is nothing different than what they believe about the sons of the god Jupiter. That the Church Fathers’ conception of the Trinity was a combination of Jewish monotheism and pagan polytheism can be seen in the testimony of Gregory of Nyssa, a fourth century bishop who is venerated as a saint in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. He also happens to be one of the great figures in the history of the philosophical formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity. He wrote:

We’ll see what comes from Gregory next, but let’s look at what Justin Martyr is saying. What is he defending? He is trying to defend the claim that the Christian religion is NOT shameful. Justin thought the parallels were there because the devil in the myths of the pagans was trying to imitate…..what was he trying to imitate?

The prophecies of Moses.

In fact, I find Justin’s parallels to be stretches. Why would he do this? To get the emperor to stop persecuting the Christians based on their believing something new and strange. In Justin’s time, new beliefs were viewed with suspicion so you tried to connect your beliefs to something old. That’s why Justin points to the Hebrew prophecies. (Get that. Justin believes that all about Jesus is prophesied in the Old Testament, not taken from pagans.) He is wanting pagan audiences to see parallels, indicating they probably didn’t see them before. Note also that there is no indication that the Christians took this on to be more hospitable to pagans. After all, here we are about 100 years later and if that was the plan, it has failed miserably.

I also want to be clear I don’t agree with Justin’s argument, but just because I don’t agree doesn’t mean I think we should misunderstand it. It can only be disagreed with truly if one truly understands it. Let’s make sure we are interpreting Justin rightly.

Now moving on to Gregory:

For the truth passes in the mean between these two conceptions, destroying each heresy, and yet, accepting what is useful to it from each. The Jewish dogma is destroyed by the acceptance of the Word and by belief in the Spirit, while the polytheistic error of the Greek school is made to vanish by the unity of the nature abrogating this imagination of plurality.

The Christian conception of God, argues Gregory of Nyssa, is neither purely the polytheism of the Greeks nor purely the monotheism of the Jews, but rather a combination of both.

There’s a little bit of error mixed in with the understanding here. The Trinity that Gregory accepted is montheistic, but it is not a unitarian monotheism. In fact, this is one of the first mistakes made in Trinitarian discussions. There’s an assumption that God must be one in person. In fact, Jews in the time of Jesus were open to a plurality in the Godhead and even afterward. Afterward, look at figures like Metatron. Before, look at figures like Wisdom and the Logos and sometimes the Son of Man as well.

Even the concept of God-men who were saviours of mankind was by no means exclusive to Jesus. Long before Jesus was born, it was not uncommon for military men and political rulers to be talked about as divine beings. More than that, they were even treated as divine beings: given temples, with priests, who would perform sacrifices in their honour, in the presence of statues of them. In Athens for example, Demetrios Poliorcetes (Demetrios the Conqueror of Cities, 337–283 BCE) was acclaimed as a divine being by hymn-writers because he liberated them from their Macedonian enemies:

How the greatest and dearest of the gods are present in our city! For the circumstances have brought together Demeter and Demetrios; she comes to celebrate the solemn mysteries of the Kore, while he is here full of joy, as befits the god, fair and laughing. His appearance is solemn, his friends all around him and he in their midst, as though they were stars and he the sun. Hail boy of the most powerful god Poseidon and Aphrodite! For other gods are either far away, or they do not have ears, or they do not exist, or do not take any notice of us, but you we can see present here, not made of wood or stone, but real. So we pray to you: first make peace, dearest; for you have the power…

Note that there is a difference between being a divine being, and being seen as ontologically equal to one supreme God. What is the claim of Jesus? Was Paul just preaching that Jesus was a divine being? Note also that you can show all day long other humans were turned into divine beings. That does not show that when it was done to Jesus, that it was done falsely. That would be like saying “Other Jews thought other figures were the Messiah, so when they thought it about Jesus they thought wrongly.” It doesn’t work.

The Athenians gave Demetrios an arrival that was fit for a god, burning incense on altars and making offerings to their new deified king. It must be pointed out that as time passed by, he did some other things that the Athenians did not approve of, and as a consequence they revoked their adoration of him. It seems that in the days before Jesus, divinity could be stripped away from human beings just as easily as it was granted. Perhaps the best known examples of God-men are the divine honours bestowed upon the rulers of the Roman Empire, starting with Julius Caesar. We have an inscription dedicated to him in 49 BCE discovered in the city of Ephesus, which says this about him

Descendant of Ares and Aphrodite

The God who has become manifest

And universal savior of human life

What of it? Claims were made of Caesar like this. Again, our writer will have to show that the claims were made falsely about Jesus. This has not been done. In fact, as we saw earlier, the claims were first made in a Jewish context. I plan on showing more of that later on.

So Julius Caesar was God manifest as man, the saviour of mankind. Sound familiar? Now prior to Julius Caesar, rulers in the city of Rome itself were not granted divine honours. But Caesar himself was – before he died, the senate approved the building of a temple for him, a cult statue, and a priest. Soon after his death, his adopted son and heir, Octavian, promoted the idea that at his death, Caesar had been taken up to heaven and been made a god to live with the gods. There was a good reason that Octavian wanted his adopted father to be declared a God. If his father was God, then what does that make him? This deification of Caesar set the precedent for what was to happen with the emperors, beginning with the first of them, Octavian himself, who became “Caesar Augustus” in 29 BCE. There is an inscription that survives from his lifetime found in the city of Halicarnassus (modern Turkey), which calls Augustus

…The native Zeus

and Savior of the human race

There’s something interesting about all of this. It does indeed sound familiar, but not for the same reasons. Let’s consider what is said by a Bart Ehrman blog which can be found here. If you will look through, the exact same references are used and many times, the same language is used. Ehrman is also a favorite of Muslims, so this doesn’t surprise me, but again, can the writer show that this happened with Jesus in a Jewish context?

This is yet another example of a divine saviour of mankind. Now Octavian happened to also be the “son of God” by virtue of his divine father Julius Caesar. In fact Octavian became known as ‘Divi filius’ (“Son of the Divine One”). These, of course, are all titles widely used by Christians today to describe Jesus. We must realise that the early Church did not come up with these titles out of the blue, they are all things said of other men before they were said of Jesus. For early Christians, the idea was not that Jesus was the only person who was ever called such things, this is a misconception. The concept of a divine human being who was the saviour of mankind was a sort of template that was applied to people of great power and authority. We’ve seen that the history of paganism is littered with such examples, and Jesus was just another divine saviour in a long list of divine saviours that had preceded him.

And this is it. There is no interaction with the divine claims found in the New Testament. There is no indication that pagans believed in a Trinity. Instead, we have the idea of “Pagans turned humans into deities so the same happend with Jesus.” That needs to be shown on all counts and not just asserted. Let’s look at some divine claims about Jesus.

Chris Tilling has a wonderful book called Paul’s Divine Christology. I have reviewed it here. Tilling’s hypothesis is that if there was something that set YHWH apart as deity it was His position as being in covenant relationship with Israel. When we go to the New Testament, we see this same language, but it’s not so much YHWH and Israel as it is Jesus and the church. The parallel is that Jesus is seen as the one the people of God honor in the New Testament in the way that God is honored in the Old Testament.

Another work worth reading is that edited by Michael Bird called How God Became Jesus. I have also reviewed that here and interviewed three of the authors here. You can get an excellent lesson on Christology there.

I regret that I haven’t read Larry Hurtado’s massive work Lord Jesus Christ yet, but I have read How On Earth Did Jesus Become A God?. Hurtado points to some of our early creedal traditions. Jesus is spoken of as the Lord. The language is saying “Anathema, Maranatha.” It refers to the coming of the Lord and is in Aramaic, something Gentiles were not known for speaking. This is high language of Jesus referring to the coming of the Lord. Romans 1:3-4 referring to the divine nature of Jesus fits in this as well as this is also a creedal statement.

The writer might also be interesting in my talk with Rob Bowman on the Trinity. For John, there is my talk with Paul Rainbow on Johannine theology. There are plenty of other authors that could be read like Bauckham and O’Collins and others. Our writer did not interact with any and it’s very easy to make a case if you ignore all the best arguments against your position.

Also, I point to statements such as Paul’s of Jesus being in the divine nature in Philippians 2 and then the language of Isaiah that was applied to God alone. Revelation has all creation in chapter 5 worshiping Him who sits on the throne and the Lamb. Note that the Lamb is separated from all creation. In fact, a fascinating way to study Revelation is to go through and see not what it says about whatever your view is of end times, but what does it say about Jesus?

Matthew also begins with early on having Jesus being seen as Immanuel, meaning “God with us.” In the end, Jesus says He has been given all authority and says “I am with you always.” These are bookends. In the middle, He also says that when two or three are gathered, He is in their midst, which is a reference to what was said about YHWH in the study of Torah by the Jews.

We could go on and on with Jesus forgiving someone in the book of Mark and Mark 1 having Scripture that applied to YHWH being applied to Jesus, with Hebrews, a thoroughly Jewish book, having an opening chapter that is a massive tour de force on Jesus being fully equal with God, and with Jesus saying that all must honor Him as they honor the Father in John. The person wanting to know more about this is invited to go to the best scholars on both sides and study the issue.

In conclusion, I find that the writer just hasn’t made his case. He has spent so much time looking at the pagans, that he has not looked at Jesus at all really. What happened in the life of Jesus? What is the evidence? A suspicion is not the same as an argument. The same arguments made could be used to argue that Jesus wasn’t really the Messiah, which Islam would not want to say.

If the writer wants to show true pagan influence, I hope they do better next time.

In Christ,
Nick Peters