RESPONDblog: Do the Gospel Writers Speak the Truth?

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The Gospel writers claim to have recorded what Jesus said and did. How do we know they haven’t embellished history beyond the bounds of ancient biography as they did so? Should the Gospels be trusted or rejected as hopelessly un-historic?

 

Professor Simon Greenleaf didn’t think they were un-historic.

He lived in the 19th century, practiced law throughout his life, held the Royal Professorship of Law and Dane Professorship at the Harvard Law School, and played a major part in forming Harvard’s coveted reputation. The London Law Journal of 1874 said of Greenleaf, “It is no mean honour to America that her schools of jurisprudence have produced two of the first writers and best esteemed legal authorities of this century…Judge Story…and…Professor Greenleaf.”[1]

 

Greenleaf believed that the New Testament Gospel writers would be taken as reliable witnesses in a court of law. Their writings should be viewed as historic. Greenleaf proposed five tests that led him to that conclusion:

 

Greenleaf Test #1 – Are the Witnesses Honest?

Do they honestly say what they believe to be true? The Gospels show many instances of the writers’ openness and sincerity. Historians sometimes call this the criterion of embarrassment.

The writers deal with such uncomfortable situations such as:

  • The many failures of Jesus’ disciples.
  • The occasional harshness of Jesus’ teaching.
  • Jesus’ anguish as he faced his own death.

Greenleaf concluded the gospel writers were, “good men, testifying to that which they had carefully observed and considered, and well knew to be true.”[2]

 

Greenleaf Test #2 – Do the Witnesses Have Ability?

Did they have the opportunity to observe the situations they record? How well were they able to evaluate what they had seen and researched from other eyewitnesses? What about their ability to remember things?

Peter (Mark), John and Matthew had many opportunities to observe these events first hand. All three claim to have seen the resurrected Christ.

Luke was a physician and Matthew a tax collector. Both occupations required exactness in evaluation and reporting.

There’s no reason to question their mental abilities.

“the writings…indicate…mental vigour, as well as cultivated intelligence. The Gospels…reveal that elegance of style and lofty imagery which are invariably characteristics of intellectual depth and culture. The ‘ignorant fishermen’ idea is certainly not applicable to the Gospel writers…”[3]

 

Greenleaf Test #3 – Are there Sufficient Numbers of Witnesses and are they Consistent?

Greenleaf reports that the number and authenticity of the witnesses would satisfy any court.

“There is enough of a discrepancy (their own form and style) to show…no previous concert among them…[yet] substantial agreement as to show that they all were independent narrators of the same great transaction.”[4]

 

Greenleaf Test #4 – Does the Testimony of the Witnesses Conform to Our Experience?

This might be where things get tricky. After all, the Gospels report various miraculous events, culminating in the resurrection of Christ from the dead. Who’s seem a real miracle in their lives?

It turns out, MANY people have experienced what they believe are miracles. Craig Keener has done one of the biggest studies into miracle claims of all sorts in every human culture, and has come to this conclusion on miraculous physical healing:

“Hundreds of millions of people worldwide claim to have experienced or witnessed what they believe are miracles. Eyewitness claims to dramatic recoveries appear in a wide variety of cultures, among Christians often successfully emulating models of healings found in the Gospels and Acts. Granted, such healings do not occur on every occasion and are fairly unpredictable in their occurrence; yet they seem to appear with special frequency in cultures and circles that welcome them.”[5]

 

Greenleaf himself urges an attitude of following the facts to their conclusion, even if the testimony is unusual. On the Gospel reports of Jesus healing miracles, he states:

“In every case of healing, the previous condition of the sufferer was known to all; all saw…restoration…these…were facts, plain and simple…comprehended by persons of common capacity and observation.

If they were separately testified to, by different witnesses…the jury would be bound to believe them”[6]

These witnesses were credible.

 

Greenleaf test #5 – Does the Testimony of the Witnesses Coincide with Contemporaneous Facts and Circumstances?

There are various instances where the Gospel writers clearly speak accurately about the geography, history and social factors at work in their day.

For example:

1 – The Pavement

Jesus trial before Pontius Pilate is reported to have occurred in an area known as “the Pavement.”

“When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha.”[7]

If the pavement is fabricated, maybe the whole trial is?

But there’s good evidence to suggest that the pavement is not fabricated, because the archaeological evidence suggests it has most probably been located.[8]

 

2 – The Pool of Bethesda

This is mentioned in John chapter 5 with reference to a healing miracle of Jesus. This pool is apparently not referenced by any other historical document, yet was excavated and identified recently.[9]

 

 

In summary, dishonest witnesses tend to be guarded in what they say, avoiding detail that might reveal them as dishonest. Yet the Gospel witnesses are refreshingly open with details that are cross checked with what else scholars have learned about life in those days.

 

The evidence suggests therefore that the Gospel writers speak the truth.

 

 

Image courtesy of http://www.pexels.com.

[1] Cited in Ross Clifford, Leading Lawyers’ Case for the Resurrection, (Edmonton: Canadian Institute for Law, Theology, & Public Policy, Inc), 43.

[2] Clifford, 45.

[3] Cited in Clifford, 46.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Craig S. Keener, Miracles The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic), Kindle Edition, 2012, Loc 5814.

[6] Cited in Clifford, 48.

[7] John 19:13, NRSV.

[8] Pavement Stone at Fortress of Antonia, Bible History, http://www.bible-history.com/past/jesus_trial_pavement.html, accessed 26th July 2017.

[9] The Bethesda Pool, Site of One of Jesus’ Miracles, Bible History Daily, http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-sites-places/jerusalem/the-bethesda-pool-site-of-one-of-jesus%E2%80%99-miracles/, accessed 26th July 2017.

Facing Blue Monday

This morning, the British Press have been talking about the “Blue Monday” effect. Monday 16th January is reportedly the lowest point in the year for many of us. I think the British Press have a point.
The credit card bill following Christmas has popped into our inbox, the weather is cold and grey, all the decorations are gone and the the traffic is heavy and the journey to work grim.

Add to that the sadness many of us felt as we began to come to terms with the loss of childhood heroes in 2016. David Bowie, George Michael…the list goes on. Their loss underlines our own mortality…their stardom however bright…was temporary. How much more temporary are dull and mundane us?

As a Star Wars fan since 1977, I felt the loss of Carrie Fisher keenly over Christmas. She was a big childhood favourite of mine. A mix of nostalgia and excitement about the new Star Wars movies for these past 12 months has made her loss that much bigger for me. She has fallen “from a bigger height”, as she herself said of her mother recently.

Blue Monday sucks. It leaves me feeling low, maybe ripped off. Resigned to an uncertain and temporary future.

And it reminds me of a quote by the author C S Lewis:

If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.

— C S Lewis, Mere Christianity

I desire for there to be a future that is bright. I long for something to look forward to. Yes – I can book a holiday in the sun…or a new movie to watch…but actually that too will end. But there is something in me that longs for the joy NEVER to end. That’s why I’m continually chasing it in my purchases, in my relationships, in my distractions. Yet I never seem to find it. When I think I have found it…I find myself suddenly looking towards a further hill a distant horizon that I must now get to. And so on.

This is a recipe for disillusionment. 

Unless. 

Unless we consider what C S Lewis himself became convinced of. That you and I…and he are actually built for another world. That this world is going to come up short. It’s predictable. Its inevitable. In our life here – we will be left with a sense of disappointment and disillusionment. Let’s face it together.

But – this is not all there is. In fact – we can tell that this world is not all there is from the constant longing that seems never to be filled within us. We are built for more. It’s written thru our cells, it bursts out of the thoughts and the emotions that rush thru us. 

The Bible points towards the truth that…while this world will mean suffering…the future will be glorious. It’s what we are actually built for. Where the fulfilment finally awaits us.

Friends, when life gets really difficult, don’t jump to the conclusion that God isn’t on the job. Instead, be glad that you are in the very thick of what Christ experienced. This is a spiritual refining process, with glory just around the corner.

— 1 Peter 4:13, The Message

For myself – I choose not to reject God when life is hard. Rather – I choose to walk thru this veil of tears with the guidance of the one who has made me especially for that coming fulfilment and glory.

Tell you what. The little green dude from Star Wars was right!

Luminous beings are we. Not this crude matter.

— Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back

RESPONDblogs: Truth Will Out

The Jehovah’s Witnesses group was first formed in 1872 by Charles Taze Russell and seem to have become famous the world over for what they DON’T do.

  • They don’t celebrate people’s birthdays (no, really! What a shame, eh?)
  • They don’t allow blood transfusions
  • They don’t believe the Bible teaches that the Father, the Son and the Spirit are each persons of the one God. This is often called the doctrine of the Trinity

Jehovah’s Witnesses are taught to believe a form of Arianism. Arius was a Christian leader who lived in the second century and put forward a view of Jesus that was challenged strongly by the early Christian church leadership – he taught that Jesus was a created creature rather than God himself. This led to the development of the Nicene Creed in 325 AD which attempted to clearly document the Christian Church’s understanding of Jesus’ identity as taught by the New Testament. Arius refused to sign up to this statement – and so lost his job in the Church.

 

“Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, that is from the substance of the Father. He is God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father.” Nicene Creed

 

There’s one God who is revealed in Scripture in three persons. Father, Son and Spirit. In other words – Jesus is not a created being. Although he experienced a miraculous human birth – he is and was God before that birth. And he still is today. Mind bending stuff.

 

The Witnesses have stuck to their guns and persist with Arianism to this day. And to justify their position they have their own Bible Translation that they work from – the New World Translation – that has been written to support their Arian position. So here’s something else the JW will not do. They WILL NOT use a Bible translation UNLESS it is the New World Translation. To my mind, this is a cause for suspicion right there.

 

The problem as I see it – is this. They have written their translation in such a way as to try to avoid seeing Jesus as the second person of the Godhead. The problem is that – the Bible is FULL to the brim of this teaching! To try and remove it all…you would need to throw the Bible away and start again from scratch. Marcion attempted this in the first century, but his movement died out quickly. Rather than taking this approach, instead the JW translators have tried to “plug the holes” as they see them in the Bible text. But like a sieve with hundreds of holes in – you can’t plug them all. It’s a pointless task – the water…or the truth will always leak through the sieve eventually. And it’s the same with the Bible. The truth will always leak through…however hard you try to stop it.

 

Here’s a great example.

Lets look at the JW translation of John chapter 1 verses 1 to 3 (you can find the 2013 edition of the NWT here -> http://www.jw.org/en/publications/bible/nwt/books/john/1/)

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What’s the problem? Well look at verse 1. Speaking of Jesus, their translation says, “the Word was with God, and the Word was a god.” The JW understanding of Jesus’ identity is coming thru in their translation here. They view Jesus Christ as a being that God has created. If that created being is with God…then he cannot also BE God himself. So they are forced to describe Jesus as “a god”.

This is an example of the JW trying to plug the holes in the sieve. Look how a typical New Testament translation puts this verse:

In the beginning the Word already existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1, NLT)

Do you see the difference in the translation? The Word is not “a god”. The Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Is the JW New World Translation a good translation of John chapter 1? Does it accurately represent what the original Greek intends to say? According to Greek Scholars like Bill Mounce, no it isn’t. And the reason is very simple.

There is NO INDEFINITE ARTICLE in Greek. “a god” is an impossible phrase in Greek.

This might sound tricky…but it’s really simple. Look at an everyday example. If I say in English that, “I read the book” then I would be referring to my book using the DEFINITE article – “the”. However – if instead I said, “I read a book” – then I would be referring to my book with the INDEFINITE ARTICLE – “a”.

 

The New World Translation refers to the Word in verse 1 using the INDEFINITE ARTICLE – “the Word was a god.” But that cannot be what the Greek text said originally. Why? Because there is NO INDEFINITE ARTICLE in Greek. The verse cannot have said this.

Actually if you translate the Greek into English word by word (thank you Doctor Mounce!) the text reads…

 

In [the] beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and God was the Word (John 1:1, MOUNCE)

 

The section in dispute actually reads “God was the Word”. Can you see why the JW would object to that? So they have squeezed an “a” into their text to change the meaning OF the text.

So the New World Translation of John 1:1-3 does not work for language reasons. It is not accurate – don’t believe it.

 

But it goes deeper than this. The New World Translation version of John 1:1-3 simply does does not make any sense. What do I mean? Well – let’s look again at the passage and look this time at verse 3.

 

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Verse 3 of the NWT tells us that all things came into existence through him. Not a single thing that does exists began to exist without his activity. Who is him? The Word!

Here is the irony. The JW translation breaks verse 1, but the truth still seeps though in their Bible. Because John 1:3 restates AGAIN what John 1:1 is trying to teach.

  • He is responsible for creating all things. If all things were created by Jesus – then he cannot also be one of the things that was created because he is personally doing the creation!
  • the Word is not created, rather he is God.
  • all things came into existence through him. Who is he? He is the Word, he is Jesus, he is God.

 

You will often hear this expression outside a court of law – “Truth will out!” However hard people try to bend the Bible to their own will (and this is a risk facing all of us…myself included)…God’s truth WILL come through in the end. I want to grasp his truth…because I know that it will do me good! I can’t think of anything worse than shutting the door on God’s truth for other people. But even when people try to do this, God’s good, positive and life changing truth is powerful – it will burst through anyway!

 

RESPONDblogs: Is the Jehovah’s Witness “Jesus” the Genuine Article?

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I was getting ready to go out on Saturday morning when our front doorbell rang. I opened the door to a young lady who greeted me and began to talk to me about “religious” issues. My heart sank – I was just on my way out to a friend’s wedding! But – she seemed very earnest. And I felt a tug to stay and talk for a while. I let her speak…and then she asked whether these religious issues interested me.

 

I scratched my head a bit. “I’m a Christian”, I responded, “so God is very much at the centre of life…I’m not so keen on religion tho. However – let me ask you something.”

 

She nodded expectantly.

 

I asked, “Who do you say that Jesus is?”

 

Without a blink she responded, “Well he is God’s son.” I nodded – “Yes…but what does that mean?” She began to look a bit puzzled now. “Well I guess it means…” She stopped. I volunteered an ending to her sentence. “You reckon it means that God created Jesus? He is created BY God?” She nodded. “Yes – that’s it”, she said.

 

“Okay – that’s interesting because my view of Jesus is completely different from yours. He’s God. He’s not created BY God.”

 

She nodded and without a thought she shot back, “Let me ask you then. When Jesus taught his disciples to pray…who did he teach them to pray to?” It was my turn to look puzzled now. However many times I engage with a Jehovah’s Witness…this bit always strikes me as incredible. I carried on.

 

“You are right. The Bible records that Jesus taught his disciples to pray to God the Father. But you know what else the Bible shows us? That Jesus himself RECEIVED worship…personally. More than that, the Bible’s overall presentation of God has always been that three persons exist. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” She looked at me incredulous. This bit in the conversation that always hits me hard. I’m gutted that the Jehovah’s Witnesses teach their poor people to ignore and deny such a central biblical doctrine as the Trinity.

 

I really felt for this young lady. I was glad I’d stopped to chat with her. My heart so wanted her to get who Jesus really is! I decided to leave her with a statement and a question.

 

“You know, based on what we read in scripture the early church wrestled with but ultimately agreed on Jesus identity. The Jesus I am describing to you – the one who points to the other members of the Trinity and receives worship also for himself – is the prevailing view. Yes it’s tough to wrap our heads around. It looks like what I am saying has mystified you. Let me ask you. If there was no mystery to God…if we understood everything there is to know about God…it wouldn’t make him much of a God. Would it?” She smiled and nodded. And as my time had gone – we said goodbye.

 

As I closed the door – my heart ached. It matters who we understand Jesus to be. Why? If Jesus is NOT God – then we are completely lost! Why do I say that?

The Bible explains what humanity’s main problem is. Actually it’s not poverty or petrol prices or religious terrorism. It is sin. We underestimate the extent of our problem.

“all people…are under the power of sin.  For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.” Romans 3:9 – 23, NLT

Why is sin a problem? Because it ruins any connection we could have with God, it messes up our relationships with other people and it ultimately leads to our demise…physically, spiritually, completely.

“For the wages of sin is death…” Romans 6:23, ESV

“It’s your sins that have cut you off from God. Because of your sins, he has turned away and will not listen anymore.” Isaiah 59:2, NLT

We all limp along carrying this crippling sin problem. It leads to our demise and our isolation from the God who made us.

Only God himself can sort out this problem. It is too big an issue for anyone else to fix! And so the Bible tells the tale of God preparing the nation of Israel and then coming in person…Jesus Christ…to give all people…you and me a way out of our sinful rebellion against God. He came to Earth to forgive sins. Only God can do that job. Because at heart, sin is mankind’s direct rejection of God.

“Then Jesus said to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven.””, Luke 7:48, NLT 

“For this is how God loved the world; He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16, NLT

 

That’s not me disagreeing with my friend at my front door. It’s the Bible I share with my Jehovah’s Witness friend (although her New World Translation has been slightly modified by un-scholarly people to trip her up in her understanding – outrageous!). It’s also the Church Fathers who studied under Jesus Disciples and led the first Christian Churches.

 

And then it struck me. It’s only valuable items that are counterfeited. People only go to the effort of creating fake 50 pound notes…because the real ones are so valuable. There’s no one in human history more valuable than the God-man Jesus Christ. Not to me…not to the writers of the Bible…not to all true Christians down thru history. No wonder there are counterfeit versions available to anyone who is unfortunate enough to accept them.

RESPONDblog: Is Jesus Birth Really Prophesied in the Old Testament?

god with usHappy 2015 – hope it’s a good one for you!

 

During the Christmas period, I heard this verse from Matthew’s Gospel being read during the Carol services I attended.

“Look! The virgin will conceive a child!
    She will give birth to a son,
and they will call him Immanuel,[a]
    which means ‘God is with us.’” Matthew 1:23, NLT

 

This is Matthew quoting from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, who is thought to have lived in Israel’s Southern Kingdom of Judah 700 years prior to Matthew. The original passage from Isaiah says this:

All right then, the Lord himself will give you the sign. Look! The virgin[a] will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God is with us’).  By the time this child is old enough to choose what is right and reject what is wrong, he will be eating yogurt[b] and honey. For before the child is that old, the lands of the two kings you fear so much will both be deserted. Isaiah 7:14-16, NLT

I wonder why Matthew took Isaiah’s ancient words…and understood them as pointing towards Jesus? Can we know for sure that this passage looks forward to the birth of Jesus as Matthew’s gospel affirms that it does?

 

Well – the historical setting of Isaiah’s original passage is an interesting one. Around 730 BC the Assyrian empire was expanding and threatening Israel. King Ahaz of the Southern Kingdom Judah faced the might of the Assyrian Army – and he didn’t know what to do.

The prophet Isaiah came to King Ahaz and prophesied that the Assyrian King, and eventually the conquered Northern Kingdom’s King, would not defeat him. Isaiah invited King Ahaz to ask God for a sign confirming this – but Ahaz refused.

In response – Isaiah declared that God himself would give King Ahaz a sign. A child would be born during Ahaz’s lifetime. A child that would still be living when the scary Kings of Assyria and Israel would finally be defeated.

 

So Isaiah is talking about a virgin conceiving a child. But in his day, that wasn’t the Mary we hear about in the Nativity. She wouldn’t be born for another 700 years. And the child that was conceived in Isaiah’s day wasn’t Jesus. Isaiah was originally referring to different people altogether. So the question is – why did Matthew cite Isaiah’s  prophecy and say that it pointed toward the birth of Jesus?

 

Well here’s the thing that the New Testament writers discovered. Jesus Christ is the key to understanding God’s work in the past…and his plans to rescue the human race in the future. To understand the meaning of the Old, you need to view it thru the lenses of the New.

 

Actually we see this happening throughout the New Testament. In the Acts of the Apostles, for example, the first Christian preachers spoke about Israel’s history and how it reached its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. They quoted the Old Testament prophets and they pointed to Jesus as the ultimate fulfillment of their words.

For David himself never ascended into heaven, yet he said ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit in the place of honour at my right hand until I humble your enemies, making them a footstool under your feet.”’ “So let everyone in Israel know for certain that God has made this Jesus whom you crucified, to be both Lord and Messiah!” Acts 2:34-36, NLT

Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of all God’s work.

“For all of God’s promises have been fulfilled in Christ with a resounding “Yes!” 2 Corinthians 1:20, NLT

 

So why did Matthew cite Isaiah’s prophecy to old King Ahaz when talking about the birth of Jesus? Yes – there was an immediate purpose behind Isaiah’s words that related to the onslaught of the Assyrian army. But God also held a bigger purpose back when Isaiah originally spoke those words to King Ahaz. The ultimate purpose of these words didn’t just benefit King Ahaz – but the whole human race. Over time, God was putting the pieces together that would finally lead to the birth of Jesus.

 

Here’s one final thought. Both Isaiah and Matthew make a point of naming that child as “God with us.” Now, fast forward now to the end of Matthew’s gospel. Do you know what the final words of Jesus are to his followers?

“And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:20, NLT

I AM WITH YOU ALWAYS. Jesus literally is  – God with us. From start to finish.

As we all face a new year – how great would it be to have God in our corner? How great to start this year knowing that we have God’s resources and his encouragement each day. How can we know that God’s got our back in 2015? Thru Jesus – who wants to be God with you and me in 2015 and beyond!