Why Doesn’t God Save People From Natural Disasters?

If God exists, then why do people die in natural disasters?

It is always a heart breaking tragedy when people die as a result of tornadoes, earthquakes and the resulting tsunamis. But – I’m not convinced we can blame God for the death of these people, or claim God doesn’t exist. There may be good reasons for all this.

 

We Can’t Blame God for Natural Disasters

First – if God’s responsible for setting up the universe, the matter, energy and physical laws that comprise it, then there are going to be some parts of nature that are essential for our survival, yet also lethal if we get too close. For example, the cosmos if full of suns. Cosmologists estimate that important materials were cooked in suns during the early eras on our universe. Suns are where the essential elements of matter were prepared. Also, clearly the energy given off by our particular sun is vital to our survival on this planet today. But what would happen if we got too close? Crispy! Not good for us.

Second – if we choose to walk around or live close to areas of natural risk, then we make a personal, conscious choice. I have many friends who live out in California in the US. They live close to the San Andreas fault. If there’s an earthquake, then they have chosen to live there and put themselves in harms way. You can’t blame God for the San Andreas fault line. Plate tectonics are just how nature operates. But if we choose to get too close – its possibly not going to be good for us.

Thirdclimate change is probably going to be the cause of many human deaths as time passes. That’s a tragic thought. But it seems that here, we are reaping the results of our own societal choices. You cannot blame God for that either. If he gave us a climate, we broke it. Not him.

Fourth – for one reason or another, one day you and I will die. We cannot stop it.

 

Why God Usually Does Not Save People from Natural Disasters

But if God loves people (as Christians claim) then why doesn’t he miraculously rescue people from natural disasters? And prolong their lives?

Well – I think sometimes he does choose to rescue people. I’ll give you a personal experience that may point to this at the end of this blog. But – I’ll be honest. I think God rescuing people from natural disasters is unusual, it’s not the normal flow of events. It’s a miracle. It’s abnormal.

So why doesn’t God want to rescue us from natural disasters?

Well – the Bible tells us that the core problem of the human condition is that we have chosen to reject God’s sovereign role in our lives. God’s created us to relate to him as God. And we have chosen to make ourselves God instead. We worship people and ourselves instead of God. Think of that as cosmic rebellion.

If God was always to rescue people from every potentially harmful event in life, what would this do? If a divine hand prevented every avalanche, every bullet and oncoming car…what might happen?[1]

First – it would take away the consequences of our rebellion towards God. We would be deceived about the consequences of our separation from God…which is not a good thing. It’s not good to live as if I am my own God. If the real God were to encase us in cotton wool – and prevent us from experiencing the consequences of our choices – then we would never experience the reality of these consequences. If we want to live apart from God then – fine. But, there’s a risk for us in doing so.

Second – it would FORCE people who DO NOT want to worship God, to worship God!! Cos there is a big hand in the sky. People who don’t want to bow the knee, suddenly find themselves thinking they better bow the knee to God. They have to…because of the sky hand…so resentfully, they do. No – that’s not how God works. He wants us to come to him willingly, not under coercion.

Third – as I understand the God of the Bible, I don’t think he wants us to stay comfortable with the idea that its okay to live separated from him by our rebellion against him. He doesn’t want us to think humans can live successfully in separation from him. So – the risk of natural disaster may be a possible event that encourages us to come to God to get right with him. Why? So that when we DO eventually die, we will spend forever with him afterwards as he intended. There’s a hint toward this in the New Testament. Check out Luke 13 for some hints there.

 

 

A Time God DID Save ME From a Natural Disaster

Here’s a final thought. Earlier I said that – sometimes, for his own reasons – God DOES rescue people from natural disasters. So – what’s my evidence for saying this?

It was 21st October, 1971. I was 3 years old. My mother intended to take my baby sister and I to Clarkston shops in Glasgow. My dad had taken the train into work that day, leaving our brand new car at home so we could use it for our shopping trip.

Around lunch time, my mum got us ready and bundled us into the car, strapping us in for the short journey from East Kilbride to Clarkston. She climbed into the drivers seat, and put the key into the ignition and turned it. Nothing. She tried again. Nothing happened. What was going on? My Dad had used the car yesterday! It was – a new car!! They had never had troubles with it before. She pumped the gas pedal, she waited a while and tried again. The car was dead. Frustrated – she realised she wasn’t going to the shops that day. She bundled us OUT of the car again, and went back into the house.

A few hours later on the radio, news of a devastating gas explosion in Clarkston broke on the radio. Twenty two people were declared dead at the scene. It was later described as the worst peacetime explosion in Scotland’s history. And – with a deep sense of shock – my mother realised that if we had managed to get to the shops that day, we would have been in the middle of it.

My Dad came home from work, and my Mum told him the shocking news. They both felt great relief that we had not managed to go shopping that day, and we were safe. And then – a thought occurred to them. What about the car?

My dad took the car keys from my Mum, walked down the drive and opened the car door. He sat in the drivers seat and turned the ignition. The engine burst into life on the first attempt.

 

I think – sometimes, and for his own reasons, God decides to save some people from the effects of natural disasters. I think on 21st October, 1971, that may have been what happened to me, Annie and my mum.

 

[1] Peter van Inwagen, The Magnitude, Duration, and Distribution of Evil: A Theodicy, in Philosophy of Religion A Reader and Guide, General Editor: William Lane Craig, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002), 370 – 393.

Why Is there Something Rather Than Nothing?

Why is there something rather than nothing? It’s a bit of a head scratcher. Can we answer this question?

In the 18th century, German mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz observed that the answer cannot be found within the universe itself because the universe is full of things which also began to exist. The explanation for the existence of the universe must therefore be found externally to it. So, for Leibniz, God becomes a necessary explanation for why anything exists at all.

His argument goes like this:

(1) – Everything that exists has an explanation for its existence.

(2) – If the universe has an explanation of its existence, then that explanation is God.

(3) – The universe exists.

(4) – The universe has an explanation for its existence.

THEREFORE – God is the explanation of the universe.

 

People will often try to tear down this argument by attacking premises (1) and (2).[1]

Premise (1) – Everything that exists has an explanation for its existence.

First attack – if (1) is true, then surely that means God himself must have an explanation of his existence too!

Not so fast. Leibniz said two different kind of things exist:

A – Things that cannot NOT exist (like numbers). They have a necessity in their nature, so they must exist.

B – Things that are CAUSED by something else and aren’t necessary (like people, planets and house plants).

So in answer to the objection – no. God does not need an explanation for his existence, because he is necessary in his nature for the existence of the universe, and so he must be uncaused.

 

Second attack – (1) is true of everything IN the universe, but not of the universe itself.

This sounds like a case of (what Craig describes as) the Taxicab fallacy, which happens when someone seems to arbitrarily jump in and out of a system of thought when it suits them. In this case, someone may just arbitrarily decide the universe cannot have any explanation for its existence when they don’t like the idea that God created it. So this objection doesn’t hurt the argument, but it does reveal our metaphysical preferences.

 

Third attack – the universe cannot have an explanation, because for it to do so requires a prior state of affairs. But nothing existed prior to the universe.

Well – this statement seems to just presuppose atheism! We require atheism to be true, and assert that nothing existed prior to the universe. But this is simply begging the question, and its misrepresenting Leibniz. For him, the prior state of affairs involved God.

 

So we’ve seen that these attacks on premise (1) are not successful.

 

So, what about attacks on premise (2)?

Premise (2) – If the universe has an explanation of its existence, then that explanation is God.

First attack – it’s not God who exists necessarily by his own nature. It’s the universe that exists necessarily!

So here, it sounds like the universe is being seen as a God substitute. The problem is, we can’t really view nature this way.

Why? Think of the things that we know about that exist in the universe. The planets, stars, people, animals, plants…are any of them necessary? To say something is necessary in its nature, is to say that this thing cannot NOT exist. Well – all of the things we observe in the universe COULD very well NOT exist. And – the way things work – none of them will exist forever!

If the things in the universe do not exist necessarily, then how can we logically conclude that the universe itself exists necessarily? That seems arbitrary…the taxicab fallacy again?

 

Second attack – I’m not interested in (2) because actually, if atheism is true then the universe has no explanation of its existence.

Well now the atheist has a problem. He said this:

If atheism is true then the universe has no explanation of its existence.

Well – in that case, an equivalent statement would look like this:

If the universe DOES have an explanation of its existence, then atheism is NOT true!

From our discussion, it seems very reasonable to propose that the universe DOES have an explanation of its existence, so it is not looking good for atheism.

 

Third attack – what does it even mean to say the explanation of the universe is God?

Well surely it means the explanation is not composed of matter, energy and is not part of space and time. All of these are natural aspects of the universe itself. God is outside of these aspects. That makes him:

  • Nonphysical
  • Immaterial
  • Beyond space and time
  • Yet…God is a personal and wilful and creative being

These sound like very basic descriptions of a religious definition of God. And – specifically – they give a basic outline of the Christian conception for what God is like.

 

 

Conclusion

These attacks on Leibniz argument aren’t very successful.

Why is this? I think it is because it seems very reasonable to assume that the universe exists and has a cause that is located outside of it. And this cause is a necessary, nonphysical, immaterial being that is beyond space and time. Which sounds like most people’s definition of God!

[1] William Lane Craig, On Guard Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision, (Lee Vance View: David C. Cook, 2010), kindle edition, loc 839 – 1058, synthesised and summarised.

 

Was the New Testament Canon Assembled Hundreds of Years After Jesus?

Often folks think the New Testament was written and assembled hundreds of years after the fact. I have been responding to the Newsweek article from 2014 that makes this claim, and so rejects the Christian church’s understanding of the Bible. You can find previous posts here and here and also here.

But in this blog, I’m talking specifically about the New Testament canon. Newsweek say that life in the first century Christian church was pretty chaotic. The claim is, there were “no universally accepted manuscripts that set out what it meant to be a Christian, so most sects had their own gospels,”[1] and these sects argued amongst themselves about what was true Christianity.

In fact, Newsweek say, it was not until the fourth century when the sociopathic Roman Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official Roman religion, that Christianity became clear. Writings that met Constantine’s standard were compiled into the New Testament canon and the ones that didn’t meet the standard were destroyed. So – Newsweek say – who knows what Christianity actually was. We will never know, because the only writings we have were chosen hundreds of years after the fact.

Let me respond to their claims by saying the following.

We DO know very clearly what first century Christianity was. First century Christian beliefs are not confused and historically impenetrable at all. And – the New Testament canon was NOT imposed in the fourth century, rather, it emerged in the first century to guide the growing Christian Church. How do I support these claims?[2]

Evidence from the First Century

1 – The early Church were Jews, and so their beliefs were rooted in the original Hebrew scriptures (our Old Testament) which meant their belief system was not open to anything at all. Rather – they were Jewish monotheists, so this cuts out the majority of supposed uncertainty in belief right there.

2 – The first Christians believed Jesus fulfilled the promises of the Hebrew scriptures. The Israelite nation worked in the contest of Ancient Near Eastern covenant, a written agreement between parties. The Hebrew scriptures were the written treaty between God and Israel. The Jewish Christian people were therefore waiting for an additional written document to explain the terms of this New Covenant. So – they were already thinking in terms of Canon in the first century.

3 – There is evidence from 2 Peter 3:16 (dated to first century) that the Apostle Paul’s letters were already being gathered up and treated by the church as scripture, the terms of this New Covenant.

4 – In 1 Timothy 5:18 (dated to first century), Paul refers to both Deuteronomy (a book from the original Hebrew scriptures) and also appears to quote Luke’s gospel. This suggests Luke’s gospel already existed in the first century and was held in high esteem, just as the Hebrew scriptures were.

5 – In 2 Peter 3:2, Peter holds up the first century apostles to be just as authoritative as the prophets from the Hebrew scriptures. This supports the notion that apostolic writing was forming the terms of the written New Covenant documentation in the first century. Can was already forming.

6 – Paul insisted his letters were read in public in 1 Timothy 4:13, just like the Hebrew scriptures were. This practice is further evidenced by Justin Martyr in the second century.

7 – The first Christians were Jews and that made them highly literate, bookish people.

 

So – in the first century alone, there is substantial evidence for an emerging New Testament canon composed of apostolic documents that were held by the churches to be as authoritative as the Old Testament Hebrew scriptures.

 

What about After the First Century?

When we widen the time period to include the second century, even more evidence of an early New Testament canon emerges in the writings of the Church Fathers such as Polycarp, Ignatius, Clement of Rome, the Didache, etc. They all appeal to and quote a canonical body of text that we recognise as the New Testament even today.

Also after the first century, we see evidence of early book publishing technology, the codex. Codex may actually have been a Christian invention for holding the New Testament writings together – much more portable than scrolls. And in these early writings, we find sophisticated scribal techniques. Nomina sacra involves scribal abbreviation of the sacred words Jesus, Christ, Lord and God.

Further, the Muratorian Fragment[3] is (so far) the oldest surviving document that defines the contents of the New Testament canon. This shows that, by AD 180, the church had received and had already been using the following books for decades of time:

  • all four Gospels
  • all thirteen epistles of Paul
  • Acts
  • Jude
  • at least two Johannine epistles
  • Revelation

“The Muratorian Fragment does not appear to be establishing or ‘creating’ a canon, but is expressly affirming what has already been the case within the early church.”[4]

 

Summary Response to the Newsweek article

Did the early Christian church lack documents that documented what Christianity was? No they didn’t.

Did many sects exist with their own gospels? No. Although isolated cases of heretical teaching is challenged in the New Testament, the major challenges to the church (like Marcion) did not emerge until the second century and beyond, well after the core canonical books were established.

Did Constantine define the Christian canon? No he didn’t. This is just false. While later ecclesiastical authorities recognised the New Testament canon officially, and decided upon fringe books that were not part of the core, the core of the canon had emerged in the first century and was already being used as the terms of God’s new covenant.

[1] Kurt Eichenwald, The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin, Newsweek, published 23rd December, 2014, accessed 10th October, 2019, https://www.newsweek.com/2015/01/02/thats-not-what-bible-says-294018.html.

[2] These points summarised from Andreas J. Kostenberger and Michael J Kruger, The Heresy of Orthodoxy, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010),

[3] The Muratorian Fragment, Wikipedia, accessed 23rd October, 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muratorian_fragment.

[4] Andreas J. Kostenberger and Michael J Kruger, The Heresy of Orthodoxy, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 150.

Were there Lost Christianities?

It’s a bit of a long one, this time!

So, maybe the best thing is to just pick one or two headings that jump out at you? This book has had such a negative impact on the marketplace of ideas, I wanted to respond to it as thoroughly as I could. These ideas undercut Christianity and the authority of the New Testament (“authority? lol”, says the internet) in a fundamental way, because it stops us asking whether the Bible is true. It changes the question to, “Why are Christians so gullible to believe a book that is simply the result of ecclesiastical power-plays?”

Now – I enjoyed reading Bart Ehrman’s book, and his writing style appeals to me. Yet his central claims must be challenged. Bart says that Christianity is not the result of:

  • Jesus of Nazareth’s life, death and resurrection
  • the life and writings of his immediate circle (the apostles)
  • the formation of the church based on apostolic witness

Rather, Christianity is the result of the life of Jesus, followed by centuries of battles between equal and opposing groups, for a final set of Christian beliefs that were established long after the fact. I think there are good reasons to reject Ehrman’s claims.

 

1 – Ehrman’s “Text Battles”

Ehrman uses the term “proto-orthodox” to refer to the “winners” of his supposed first century battle for the Christian religion. He says, “we will consider how proto-orthodox Christians engaged in these internecine battles which eventually led to their victory.”[1] The proto-orthodox, to Ehrman, eventually became the Christianity of today.

In using this term, Ehrman neatly imposes an unevidenced assumption into his book. He sets up the idea of various Christian groups in the first century that were all on the same footing and equally valid. Yet they all believed different things. Now, only one of these groups could survive, so they duked it out in a kind of “theological, literary survival of the fittest” contest. Ehrman assumes this without adequately demonstrating the existence of multiple, equally footed first century Christian groups.

Ehrman is popularising an old idea from Bauer in the early 20th century which has since been discredited by the majority of scholars. Bauer assumed there were four centres of Christianity in Asia Minor, Egypt, Edessa and Rome and they were centres of various beliefs like Gnosticism, Docetism and Marcionism. There are many problems here.

  • like all good conspiracy theories, it is an argument from silence, imposing conjecture into the first century.
  • Bauer imported second-century data into the first-century to manufacture his data.
  • Bauer is viewed as having failed to consider the evidence that orthodoxy could have been widespread, while heresies could have existed in small pockets.
  • Bauer fails to consider the possibility that theological standard control could have existed in the first-century church.[2]

Besides, the power was found in the message of the Christian Gospel, not a particular people group. Yes, in Paul’s letters we read him challenging Judaizers (Christians need to follow Judaism) and Gnostic ideas (secret knowledge, material world bad). But these read like localized and fragmented people who were infiltrating the established churches. These don’t appear to be equally valid Christian sects in their own right. Yet some common ideas did exist among these heresies.[3]

In appealing to Bauer’s old thesis, Ehrman fundamentally misleads his audience.

 

2 – Forgery of Sacred Texts

Ehrman claims that some of the New Testament books were forged, written by other people posing as the Jesus’ apostles, so that people would accept their beliefs as true. He states, “forged documents in the names of the apostles … provide[d] authorization for their own point of view, falsified writings … The battle for converts was … the battle over texts, and the proto-orthodox party won the former battle by winning the latter.”[4]

First, this assumption ignores the evidence of the “4 S’s” the set the trajectory of Christian orthodoxy. Think of these as like an early guidance system for Christianity prior to the writing of any books that eventually comprised the New Testament. They challenge Ehrman’s idea that different groups and different beliefs battled for converts, showing there was a core of shared Christian belief before the texts were written down.

  • “Scripture” was the Christian baseline; assuming continuity with the original Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) meant they were rooted in Jewish monotheism.
  • The original Christian doctrines were “Summarised” and recited orally by the church, then passed on in written form.[5]
  • The church “Sang” theology, and the Old Covenant Yahweh themes were applied to Christ in these hymns.[6]
  • Fourthly, the “Sacrament” of communion, practiced regularly by the church, acted out core Christian theology.

Second, Christianity was literary and bookish from the start. These people don’t fit the caricature of dumb goat herders. Christianity was initially rooted in Judaism where all young boys learned to recite the Torah from an early age. As such, there would have been quality control. Yes, forgeries existed in the ancient world, but they were rejected when discovered. Forgeries did occur among early Christian writings, the Gospel of Peter is an example, but they were rejected when discovered. We have no good reasons to assume forgeries made it into the New Testament. Again, Ehrman is importing an idea into his book that serves his thesis, but does not reflect the evidence. Also, note that that authorship of the four Gospels was never in question by the earliest witnesses, although some discussion exists over which “John” wrote that gospel.[7]

 

3 – Is the Canon a Later Thing?

Ehrman suggests that the reason the New Testament canon had to be collected, was so that different second century heresies could be challenged, “prophetic movements such as Montanism from within proto-orthodox circles and opposition to heretical forces outside these circles.”[8] And the final ratification of the canon in the fourth century was the ultimate victory of proto-orthodoxy. They have won the battle of the texts!

While it is true the emerging canonical texts helped maintain orthodox belief, I think this idea misrepresents the culture that gave birth to Christianity. I would suggest the evidence shows that, rather than being imposed later as a final victory of proto-orthodoxy, the canon emerged gradually in the second half of the first century. The letters of Paul, and the later Gospels, were copied and circulated amongst the Christian church, respected as they were written by, or recording the views of an apostolic source. The canon emerged early and naturally, and Ehrman’s view starts from mistaken assumptions:

  • The beliefs of the first-century Christians was steeped in Judaism. They lived in the second temple period, and were waiting for God to finish the story we read in our Old Testament. They believed Jesus of Nazareth completed the story.
  • The first Christians believed Jesus had established a new covenant. Covenants were an ancient near eastern form of agreement that is reflected in the original Hebrew scriptures. The Jewish Christians expected a new covenant to be accompanied by texts from the beginning.
  • They believed the apostles were authorized to write the new covenant text.

Given this cultural, it was natural for the Christians to recognise an emerging canon from the start.[9]

 

4 – Was there Diversity and Disagreement Over Christianity?

Was there diversity in early Christianity? Of course there were different styles, and different ideas that some people had that were not in line with the established and early Christian core. Just because this diversity exists, this proves nothing. It certainly doesn’t prove Ehrman’s thesis that everyone had different ideas about what Christianity was. Just because people disagree on a question, this does not mean there is not one answer to that question.

Was there disagreement over what went into the New Testament canon? Yes. But to suggest there was fundamental disagreement over all the books is misleading. Some of the books were controversial, the core books and letters were not and had been used and respected by the church from the beginning.

 

5 – Can History Be Written By the Winners?

Ehrman has setup a non-evidenced “battle of the texts”, a fight for what Christianity would become. And so, having started there, it is natural for him to state that the final New Testament is an untrustworthy text from the winning, proto-orthodox group. “You can never rely on an enemy’s reports for a fair and disinterested presentation.”[10]

But Ehrman sets up an impossible demand on the New testament authors here. The writers were clearly passionate people, you can see that in the text. And this passion is what Ehrman uses to disqualify them. But aren’t Ehrman’s books and lectures and debates also undertaken with his passionate belief, and so personal bias? Why bother saying anything otherwise? Clearly, Ehrman believes he is able to communicate particular ideas in a passionate way. So what evidence does he have that the New Testament are unable to do the same? Or is Ehrman the only one we can trust to passionately tell the truth? No, clearly, “all writers are biased, including Ehrman!”[11] To require neutrality is an unreasonable standard to apply to everyone.

It is unfair of Ehrman, and others, to make the starting assumption that the New Testament writers hold strong convictions, and this necessarily means they are also dishonest. The earliest faith in Jesus comes from eyewitnesses with a “vantage point,” but this fact does not “necessarily impugn the credibility of the … writers.”[12] To assume that it does leads to a bottomless regress of suspicion on all written communication, including Ehrman’s.

[1] Bart Ehrman, Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 7.

[2] Andreas J. Kostenberger and Michael J. Kruger, The Heresy of Orthodoxy How Contemporary Culture’s Fascination with Diversity has Reshaped Our Understanding of Early Christianity, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010),, 41-68, summarised.

[3] Kostenberger, 99.

[4] Ehrman, 180.

[5] 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 is an example of an early Christian summary.

[6] Philippians 2:9-11.

[7] Jonathan Morrow, Questioning the Bible 11 Major Challenges to the Bible’s Authority, (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2014), 76 – 91, summarised.

[8] Ehrman, 238.

[9] Morrow, 59 – 63, summarised.

[10] Ehrman, 103.

[11] Kostenberger, 73.

[12] Kostenberger, 74.

Three Reasons Why the Gospels Record History

I’ve noticed that folks usually think before the New Testament Gospels got written down, a long time passed where people told taller and taller stories. Those tall tales are our Gospels. Not history, just stories.

This might be the common understanding. But Doctor Peter Williams from Cambridge University says that doesn’t reflect what we actually have in the Gospels.[1] Not close.

 

The Gospels as History

Historians can date pretty accurately when ancient documents were written. For example, the Roman Emperor at the time of Jesus was Tiberius. There are four surviving main biographical accounts of Tiberius. The best is from Tacitus, written around AD 116. That’s 79 years after the death of Emperor Tiberius in 37 AD.

The earliest biographical account of Jesus is Mark’s Gospel, estimated to have been written around AD60 or thereabouts. This dating is based on the hints in the text around the Jerusalem temple (it was destroyed by the Romans in August 70AD) and the dating of the other Gospels which used Mark as a source. That places Mark at around 30 years after Jesus’ crucifixion.

So – let’s consider that for a moment. The first biographical account of Jesus was written much closer to the events it describes compared to Tacitus’ biography of Emperor Tiberius. Yet Tacitus is a respected historical source on Rome.

That shows the Gospels as credible sources. The closer ancient documents are to the events the better. “Ah,” someone says, “they are written by people who are biased.” I’m sorry – but EVERY AUTHOR has a position of bias. That does NOT automatically make them unreliable. In fact, a passionate person concerned with getting the details out there, is more likely to research and get the details correct.

 

So why do scholars respect the Gospels as historical sources?

First – because they get the little details RIGHT.

If they are right on the small things, they will get the bigger things right too.

Location Details:

The writers know a lot about the area where the action takes place. Not just the bigger cities, like Jerusalem, but the smaller areas like Judea and Galilee. Its not just the names they get right, but also the relative location of them.

One of the most famous first century Roman scholars was Pliny the Elder, and he wrote about Israel having never been there. But he’d never visited Israel, and so his geography has mistakes in it. Not so the Gospels. They communicate accurate information about twenty six towns and villages where the events surrounding Jesus life took place. This would have been impossible to fake.

Sometimes you hear people suggest that the Gospel stories were corrupted in the telling, and the miracles are result of fictional additions. Well, you would not expect to find corrupted texts containing big fictional events, surrounded by accurate incidental details like these. No – it doesn’t work that way. Rather, the correct incidental details support the veracity of the bigger claims about Jesus, his life and his death and resurrection.

 

People’s Names:

At that time, Jews had different sorts of names depending on their location. Alexandrian Jews tended to have different names from those in Turkey or Israel. The Gospels get Jewish Israel names right. But even more, they reflect the distribution of names correctly as well. From the most to the least popular. This level of accuracy would have been impossible for a later person to fake.

 

Second, because the Gospels record undesigned coincidences.

These are subtle agreement between different Gospel texts on little trivial details. These details would not have been important enough to have been faked. So, these coincidences give a big sign of authenticity for the Gospels.

For example, Mark records the incident of the feeding of the 5000 in Mark 6 by Jesus. And he makes a throwaway comment about “people coming and going” at the time.[2] What’s that about? The text doesn’t say. Yet in John’s gospel account of the feeding of the 5000, he says “The Jewish Passover Festival was near.”[3] This was the big event in the Jewish calendar. Think Christmas time for us. To understand what all the travelling was about, we need to take Mark and John together to get the full picture. The details dovetail in a way that would be impossible to fabricate.

 

 

But how do we know that the scribes who copied the Gospel manuscripts did a good job of passing on what had originally been written in the Gospels? Could the text have been changed and corrupted along the way?

Scribes made many many copies of these documents over the centuries, and we have a rich catalogue of surviving copies back to the second century. There are minor differences sometimes – spellings, words omitted and paragraphs moved around. But – we reconstruct the originals from the many copies. The earliest manuscripts say essentially the same as the later ones. We know what the New Testament said back in the second century.

But the gospels were written in the first century.

How do we know they weren’t corrupted before then?

Scholars can only extrapolate based on evidence they have, not what they don’t have. They have no reason to suspect the text changed between the first and second century, where our existing copies start.

But also, if you think about it, it would be very hard in the first century to intentionally change the story in one of the Gospels, and get those changes to stick. The day after a gospel is completed, no one knows its going to be one of the important texts in the New Testament. This writing is copied by hand, and many copies are made and shared around. So to modify what the gospel text originally said, you would have to go to the expense of

  • getting a scribe to write a different account,
  • make multiple copies of that, and
  • somehow get people to accept your changes.
  • And then, you just hope that you can get your changes to replace the original copies in circulation.

Its not possible to prove the gospels did NOT change between the first and second century. But there is a lot of evidence suggesting no change occurred.

 

Conclusion

Whether we accept and act on the claims of the Gospels is a different question. But are the Gospels viewed as reliable historical accounts by scholars? Can we view them as history? Absolutely.

 

[1] John Dickson, Undeceptions Podcast, 7. Gospel Truth.

[2] Mark 6:31.

[3] John 6:4.

Were there Many Christianities To Begin With, Or Just One?

I’m exploring the claims of a Newsweek article that portrays the Bible as the result of controversy, disagreement and powerplay. My first blog in this series is here.

Here’s another claim made by the Newsweek article.

CLAIM – The orthodox beliefs of Christianity Emerged and Evolved over Time, and were Solidified Later in the New Testament.

Newsweek claim that “Scribes added whole sections of the New Testament, and removed words and sentences that contradicted emerging orthodox beliefs.”[1] In other words, Christian belief was extremely varied in the first century, and didn’t form properly until under the religious and political control of the third century, primarily under the Roman Emperor Constantine.

Scholar Bart Ehrman has popularised these idea in his book Lost Christianities.[2] Kruger summarises Ehrman’s conclusion, saying “the earliest proponents of what later became orthodox … triumphed over all other legitimate representations of Christianity … [they got the] last laugh by sealing the victory, finalizing the New Testament, and choosing the documents that best suited their purpose and theology.”[3] This leads to the conclusion that Christian “truth is inherently subjective and a function of power.”[4]

It is true that theological disputes arose in the Christian church during the late second, and early third centuries. The church had to decide what they believed about essential Christian doctrines, like the identity of Jesus Christ. Is he to be worshiped as God or not? How do we understand God the Father and God the Holy Spirit? How does Christ relate to them, and what about his divine and human natures? These and many more issues formed later debate in the Church. Ehrman, however, seems to imply these sorts of debates characterise first century Christianity from the very start. In other words, to begin with there was no such thing as orthodox Christianity, just various groups espousing conflicting and incompatible ideas.

The problem with this notion is that it misrepresents the essential unity of Christian belief that existed in the first century. It paints a picture of Christian belief going from diverse to unified much later on under political and religious control.

No. That’s turning things on their head.

I think if we take the evidence from history at face value, then the situation is the exact opposite to this. Christianity DID BEGIN as a unified system of belief, and the New Testament was written within that unified system of belief. It was only as time passed that questions arose and debates ensued around the deity of Christ (for example).

Kostenberger highlights three strands of essential Christian unity from the start that are reflected in the New Testament as originally written and reflected in earliest Christian belief (see previous blog for details):

1 – Monotheism: the belief in a single God Yahweh as revealed in the Hebrew scriptures.

2 – Jesus as the Christ and Exalted Lord: this was the initial, unified Christian belief. Disagreements on how to understand this came much later after the New Testament was written.

3 – The Saving Message of the Christian Gospel

 

Aside from the excellent and early first/second century documentary evidence I pointed to in my previous blog, why would it be reasonable to expect unified early Christian belief anyway? Because this expectation fits with the cultural expectations that Christianity was birthed into. The first Christians were Jewish. They started with the Hebrew scriptures, which read like a story in search of a conclusion. They had the written terms of Israel’s original covenant, and they were waiting for the continuation and completion of God’s covenant with them. The first Jewish Christians believed the words of Jesus and his authorised Apostles to be the terms of this new covenant.

The first Christian beliefs weren’t just unified, they also expected the terms to be written down as scriptures; the terms of this new covenant. They received them in the first century in the canonical books and letters of the New Testament, recognised as the formal New Testament canon much later.

 

Conclusion

Contrary to Newsweek’s claim, the evidence suggests orthodox unified belief wasn’t arrived at later. The church began with an essential unified core of belief, and disagreements around how to understand this unified core came later.

This means that the New Testament is the product of an original, unified belief, not an evolution of beliefs over time. So – we can take the claims it makes about Christ, his life and our need of salvation seriously.

 

[1] Kurt Eichenwald, The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin, Newsweek, published 23rd December, 2014, accessed 10th October, 2019, https://www.newsweek.com/2015/01/02/thats-not-what-bible-says-294018.html.

[2] Bart Ehrman, Lost Christianities, (Oxford University Press, 2005).

[3] Andreas J. Kostenberger and Michael J. Kruger, The Heresy of Orthodoxy, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 32.

[4] Kostenberger, 39.

Has the Teaching in the New Testament Become Corrupted Over Time?

A few years ago, Newsweek magazine celebrated Christmas by publishing a withering attack on the Christian Church and its view of the Bible. You can read their piece here.

Their thesis is that our New Testament does not reflect what the first Christians originally wrote. Rather, we have a hodgepodge of ideas that have been inserted into the original text much later on. We are left with the results of a gradual evolution of religious ideas that were imposed on the Christian Church through the re-writing and downright fabrication of New Testament books. This makes the Bible an unfortunate piece of literature:

  • containing logical contradictions and translation errors.
  • was not written by eye witnesses at all, but later individuals with no connection to the events described.

The Bible is not what evangelical Christians want it to be, Newsweek says. To allow people to continue revering it is pure ignorance, cynicism and laziness on the part of today’s Church. Besides, Christians might claim to revere the Bible but they are just Biblically illiterate. So – Newsweek intends to helpfully set the record straight on what the Bible really is.

How charitable of them!

It’s going to take a few posts to respond to the specific claims. Here’s the first one:

 

CLAIM – We don’t know what the New Testament originally said. What we have are words reflecting the convictions of later scribes.

In other words, you can’t take what the text says at face value because its meaning has been gradually corrupted over the centuries.

One example is supposedly Christian belief in the deity of Christ. They claim that later translators falsely reinforce this idea about Jesus by selectively translating a particular Greek word (“adoro” in Latin) as “worship” when referring to Jesus. When applied to another person, it is translated “bow.”

They say, “with a little translation trickery, a fundamental tenet of Christianity – that Jesus is God – was reinforced in the Bible, even in places where it directly contradicts the rest of the verse.”[1]

So – are they saying that Christ’s deity is not a basic tenet of first century Christianity, but manufactured later on?

If so, this claim is demonstrably false because:

1 – Early second century documents written by the Church Father’s make constant reference to belief in the deity of Christ.

These documents are not contained within the Bible. They were written by Christian leaders to various churches. They give us a window into first century Christianity, and we see early beliefs which match the reading of our current New Testament. So, was Christ’s deity manufactured later on by creative scribes?

Of course not. Here’s what they were talking about amongst the 1st/2nd century church leaders:

Polycarp (AD69 – AD155) – “Now may the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ … build you up … all those under heaven who will yet believe in our Lord and God Jesus Christ.”[2]

Ignatius (AD50 – AD117) – “by the will of the Father and Jesus Christ our God”[3]

Justin Martyr, Melito of Sardis, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, the list goes on. These first and second century Christian leaders affirm the New Testament gospels and Paul’s letters and they refer to Christ’s deity as if it’s a known and purely basic Christian belief.

 

2 – There are Four S’s of Pre-New Testament Christian Belief

The four S’s are:

Scripture – the Christians began with the Hebrew scriptures (our Old Testament) and this was their foundational baseline.

Summaries – in his letters, the Apostle Paul writes down oral summaries, or creeds, of Christian beliefs including belief in Christ’s deity (1 Corinthians 8:4-6).

Singing – Christians took songs and Psalms from the Hebrew scriptures that referred to Yahweh and used them to refer to Jesus. This shows that the first century Christians believed in the deity of Christ. This is incredible for Jewish monotheists, and demands an explanation. We can see one of them in Philippians 2:9 – 11 (a reworking of Isaiah 45:22-23)

Sacraments – When the church practiced Baptism and the Lord’s Supper they acted out their early beliefs of the salvation story.

These four S’s all pre-date the original writing of the New Testament documents so they help us understand what the first Christians really believed and taught.  My crucial point is – the first century Christians used these four approaches to stay on track in terms of their beliefs. Fast forward to the 21st century, these four S’s allow Christians today to show that our New Testament reflects first century Christian belief correctly.

 

So – I’ve pointed to two lines of evidence that Christ’s deity was not manufactured later on, but was present in the initial New Testament documents.

Given that, is it not more reasonable to lay aside scepticism and cynicism around the use of the word “adoro?” New Translator translators are not injecting false notions into their translation. Rather, they are helping the contemporary English audience understand how the original audience would have interpreted the original Greek text. This, after all, is the whole point of a “dynamic equivalent” translation!

 

Conclusion

We can see that the New Testament reflects first century Christian belief, specifically about the identity of Jesus. So Newsweek’s specific claim is false.

Of course, if you’ve read a Book by the scholar Bart Ehrman, you know where the Newsweek article got its inspiration from. Yet Ehrman’s arguments are viewed by so many academic historians as scepticism that has decided to throw out the historical evidence itself. If we do that, we can claim whatever we want. But the evidence is clear. “Devotion to Jesus as divine erupted suddenly and quickly, not gradually and late, among first century followers.”[4]

[1] Kurt Eichenwald, The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin, Newsweek, published 23rd December, 2014, accessed 10th October, 2019, https://www.newsweek.com/2015/01/02/thats-not-what-bible-says-294018.html.

[2] Tim Barnett, Nine Early Church Fathers Who Taught Jesus is God, Stand to Reason, published 24th November, 2016, accessed 10th October, 2019, https://www.str.org/blog/nine-early-church-fathers-who-taught-jesus-god#.XZ8Tvm5Fw2w.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Jonathan Morrow, Questioning the Bible: 11 Major Challenges to the Bible’s Authority, (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2014), 54.