Archive for the ‘Biblical Issues’ Category
“The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1601-1602)
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us.” 1 John 1:1-2
This is a summary of Steve White’s presentation on an argument for the resurrection on the 27th August 2015. (more…)
On the 18th of September Dr. Stephen Spence, professor of New Testament studies and theology at Tabor College, spoke at Reasonable Faith Adelaide about the nature of the oral tradition that is behind the New Testament and about how we can date when the New Testament documents were written.
Dr Stephen Spence
This is a brief summary of his talk. A video of his talk and the subsequent discussion is available on You Tube.
On the 27th of November Brian Schroeder provided a presentation on Faith and reality.
He covered the following issues:
- Is faith believing without evidence?
- What is the nature of faith?
- Is faith reasonable?
- What should we put our faith in?
A You Tube recording of the meeting is available from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ff59zUuSCUs and Brian’s summary of his talk is provided in Faith and Reality Summary.
Is the Old Testament Reliable?
This is a summary of the presentation given by Steve White to Reasonable Faith Adelaide on the 24th of July 2014.
This is a summary of the presentation by Stephen White on “The Reliability of the Old Testament” given to Reasonable Faith Adelaide on the 24th of July 2014.
Since the Adelaide Chapter commenced meeting about two years ago much of its debate and arguments have been about the reliability of the 27 books we know as the New Testament (NT), which are the specifically Christian writings of the Bible. However, for many Christians, the NT is just a progression of God’s revelation that commences at Genesis Chapter 1 and continues through the 39 Bible books we know as the Old Testament (OT). Is there evidence to support for reliability of the OT?
As a starting point the 39 OT books accepted in the English Protestant Bible are those defined in Jesus statement at the end of Luke (Ch 24 v 44): ‘These are the words which I spoke unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the Law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me’:
This grouping of the OT books was as follows:
- The Law of Moses (Jewish Torah): Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy
- The Prophets (Jewish Nebi’im): Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings and the 12 minor prophets
- The Psalms (named after the first major book of the group) also known as the Writings (Jewish Kethubim):
- Psalms, Proverbs, and Job
- Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther
- Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and 1 and 2 Chronicles
Other Jewish writings of that time largely confirm this list of books as being the accepted Holy texts.
The following presentation focuses on a sample of the books found in the OT, especially the early chapters of Genesis whose reliability is most often questioned. Evidence for the Flood account of Genesis 6-9 has been covered by Ray Lakeman previously and will not be presented here.
2. Evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls
In November 1946 an Arab shepherd boy threw a rock into a cave while searching for his flock at Qumran on cliffs above the Dead Sea – he heard jars smash and discovered the Dead Sea scrolls. Scrolls continued to be discovered in the same area until 1956.
A Qumram Site
The scrolls (972 documents) are believed to be buried by the Jewish Essene sect and can be dated from 400 BC to 135AD based on the style of writing and the coins found with them. The documents contain all books of our OT except for Esther (the only book not to mention God) as well as other books and Essene communal rules. At that time all Hebrew was written in consonants only.
Prior to 1946 the oldest Jewish OT was dated about 980 AD in the Masoretic Text (MT) which is still used as the basis for the English Bible OT translation. The MT style of copying the OT books added vowels after about 600AD and also marks to assist copy accuracy. Some 60% of the OT Dead Sea scrolls can be easily correlated with the MT used for our Bible OT, especially the Law of Moses and some of the prophets, such as Isaiah. Another 20% are in a Qumran specific style based on MT, with 5% from the Greek OT translation and another 5% with the Samaritan OT. So now we can compare our OT to sources from over 2200 years ago. This has verified that the MT maintained a remarkable accuracy over that time.
The Qumran scroll of Isaiah is a 95% match to the MT used for our OT translation of Isaiah. The other 5% is largely spelling differences. Of the 166 Hebrew words in Isaiah 53, the great a prophetic chapter of God’ servant suffering for others sins, only 17 letters differ from that used for our English translation.
The Isaiah Scroll
The Quality Assurance process of OT reproduction was highly effective in preserving the meaning of Isaiah passed down to us 2200 years after the Qumran scrolls and probably – by the demonstrated process in use – for a further 500 years to Isaiah’s original writing.
Apart from Genesis, Daniel is probably the OT book whose purported 6th BC date of composition is most under attack. This is because of Daniel’s accurate prediction of Persian and Greek history to succeed that of Babylon with inference of one more world power before God’s anointed Messiah. The book also predicts the Messiah would appear 483 years after the order to rebuild Jerusalem – subsequently made by the Persian King Artaxerxes in 445 BC. Sceptics maintain it must have been written about 165 BC because of its many accurate predictions of rivalry between the Greek kingdoms in Syria and Egypt that affected Judah culminating in the Maccabean revolt against Antiochus IV (ruler of the Seleucid Empire from 175 – 164 BC).
The Qumran writings show that by about 200 BC the book of Daniel was accorded the same reverence as other OT books and could hardly have been written at that time.
Internal Historic Evidence from Daniel Chapter 5
Chapter 5 of Daniel narrates the last feast of Belshazzar King of Babylon when he saw ‘the writing on the wall’ and offered the third place in the Kingdom to whoever could declare its meaning. This accurately reflects that Belshazzar was made co-regent with his father Nabonidus, and could only offer the third ranking place in the kingdom. This is a detail that was unlikely to be known in Judah after centuries of Persian and Greek rule. Records of Belshazzar and his co-regency were not known in recent times until the Nabonidus Cylinder was discovered in 1853.
3. Dating of the Sinai Covenant and its Renewals
The Covenant given to Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus 20 through Leviticus) has the structure of treaty between a sovereign and his vassals or subjects. Such treaties are known from other civilisations through history and can be compared with that in Exodus, Leviticus and its renewal in Deuteronomy and finally at the end of the book of Joshua after the people of Israel enter their promised land. The structure of the Covenant matches that of a Hittite treaty of 1400-1200 BC and not that of Aramean or Assyrian treaties 900-650 BC, indicating a date of the events and composition of Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Joshua parallel with Hittite treaties.
4. External Evidence for Genesis Chapters 10-11
Customs match the era
Genesis 11-24 record the following customs that break the Law of Moses yet match those recorded for the Mitani Kingdom 1500-1350BC, indicating composition that is faithful to historic accuracy rather than being consistent with Jewish law:
- Abram marries his half-sister Sarai
- Sarai gives her maid to Abram to bear a child
- Abram’s servant was his heir until he has a son.
Names match the area
Genesis Chapter 11 verses 20-26 list Abrams ancestors whose names can be matched to names of towns in the area of Haran in south-east Turkey:
- Great Grandfather Serug to modern town of Suruc as well as Assyrian texts.
- Grandfather Nahor to Assyrian and Mari texts of a town matching that name.
- Father Terah to Til Turahi (mound of Terah) mentioned in 9thC Assyrian text.
The Ziggurat of Babel matches archaeology
Genesis 11 verses 1-8 describe the Tower of Babel made from brick, tar and mortar common in Mesopotamia instead of stone used in Canaan.
Verse 4 describes Babel as ’a tower that reaches to heaven’, similar to titles of other Ziggurats found in the area e.g. Ziggurat at Larsa – The House of the Link between Heaven and Earth.
Shem’s generations timeline match known population growth
Genesis 11 verses 10-26 list nine generations from Shem, son of Noah, to Abram including the ages of the father when each son was born. This amounts to 350 years from birth of Shem’s son Arphaxad, two years after the Flood to birth of Abram at about 2000BC.
The world’s population was approximately 600 million in the year 1650 and increased to about 2,400 million by 1950. This means that it would have doubled twice in 300 years, or doubling every 150 years,
According to Genesis 6-11 only Noah and his family—eight in total—survived the deluge about 4300 years ago. That population has to double 29½ times to get the current world’s population of ~7,000 million, at an average doubling rate of once every 152 years.
Shem’s generations timeline match DNA evidence
The spread of population from the Tower of Babel about 4200 years ago is consistent with latest Genome dating of Australian aborigines (as far as the evolutionary paradigm will allow):
Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, reported “evidence of substantial gene flow between Indian populations and Australia about 4,000 years ago”. They analysed genetic variation from across the genome from Australian Aborigines, New Guineans, Southeast Asians and Indians. “Long before Europeans settled in Australia humans had migrated from the Indian subcontinent to Australia and mixed with Australian Aborigines,” according to the study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It found “substantial gene flow from India to Australia 4,230 years ago ie… well before European contact,” it said. Reference: cosmosmagazine.com/news/ indians-broke-australian-isolation-4000-years-ago-study. 15 Jan 2013.
Ancient Greek history of foundation of Babylon matches Shem’s generations timeline
Babylon was founded 1903 years prior to its conquest by Alexander in 331BC according to Simplicius work De Caelo (Latin: About the Heavens), from work by Aristotle: ‘Astronomical observations made by Babylonians were taken to Greece by Callisthenes at Aristotle’s request’.
Historic accuracy in Genesis Chapter 10
Chapter 10 lists Noah’s descendants such as Mizraim (Egypt in Greek), Ashkenaz, Eber (Hebrew), Javan (name for Greeks elsewhere in OT) and Asshur population groups still identifiable today.
Chapter 10 lists Shinar (Sumer) and city states Erech and Akkad whose ruins and language have been reconfirmed by archaeology in the last 150 years as well as Babylon and Nineveh which have been known throughout history.
5. External Evidence for Genesis Chapters 4-5
Sumerian King List
The Sumerian King List is an ancient record (circa 1800 BC) of the kings of Sumer and Akkad, originating in the late 3rdM during the reign of Utu-hegal king of Uruk (Erech in Genesis 10).
Its preamble begins with: ‘when the kingship was lowered from heaven’. It goes on to list the succession of kings, the length of their reigns and city which they ruled. The King List lists an early group of kings who lived extraordinary long lives – like Genesis 5. After a great flood the subsequent kings lived shorter but still very long lives – like Genesis 11.
Figure Sumerian King List
Wikipedia.org comments on the King List:
- The King List seems to have had a ‘profound influence’ upon both the Hellenistic Greeks and upon the book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible.
- For example William Hallo has demonstrated that there is a similarity between the Cainite Genealogy (Genesis 4), and the Sethite Genealogy (Genesis 5), with the duplication of names (Enosh and Enoch, Jared and Irad, Methusaleh and Methushael, Lamech and Lamech), being inspired from the seven generations of pre-diluvian kings in the King List.
- Uanna-Adapa appears in Borosus (Greek era Babylonian author of History of Babylon) as Oannes, and in the Bible as Adam.
- Exaggerated lifespans of the Sumerian King List.. seems to have been an artefact of the conversion from an early numerical system based upon 360 to a base 10 system for enumerating years.
6. External Support for Genesis 1 Creation Account
According to Dr Clifford Wilson in The Stones Still Shout p12 – A creation tablet found at Ebla in Syria dated circa 2200 BC ascribes the works of creation to one great being, ‘Lugal’, literally ‘the Great One’ who brought creation into being from nothing.
Whereas the later creation account Enuma Elish (‘When Above’) are Assyrian copies of earlier Babylonian creation story collected by Assyrian King Ashur-bani-pal about 700-626B. Earth was created by the God Apsu (freshwater ocean) and Tiamat (saltwater ocean). They then created other god’s but these displeased Apsu, and he decided to kill them all. Ea another god heard this and killed Apsu. Marduk patron god of Babylon was then born. Soon other monster gods were created.
Thus the Genesis 1 account of creation matches that of the simpler earliest account rather than the fantastic account recorded from early Babylonian records in Assyria.
The Qumram scrolls demonstrate that the transmission of the OT text has been reliable since 400 BC. It seems reasonable to extrapolate this back to the times of their authorship, but this does not prove that the original accounts are historically accurate. There is currently no explicit external evidence for the events of the Bible prior to Kind David (about 1000 BC). This is mainly due to the fact that the evidence fades out the further we go back. However, there is a significant amount of circumstantial evidence that shows that the historical events described in these ancient stories match the habits of their times and are at least plausible.
Did Paul Hijack Christianity?
This is a brief summary of the presentation by Kevin Rogers on “Did Paul Hijack Christianity?” given to Reasonable Faith Adelaide on the 29th of May 2014. The presentation was partially in response to Laurie Eddie’s talk on “The Origins of Christianity” on the 24th of October 2013 (see http://reasonablefaithadelaide.org.au/the-true-origins-of-christianity-a-sceptical-view/). This summary does not address the issues that Laurie raised. The response to Laurie is included in the video of the full presentation and discussion, which is available on You Tube. See also the Power Point Slides for the full presentation of Did Paul Hijack Christianity?
Many sceptics have argued that Christianity, as we know it, is not a direct reflection of the person and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, but is a distortion and creation of the apostle Paul. It is said that the early followers of Jesus believed that he was a great teacher, but that it was Paul who transformed the human Jesus into the divine Christ who was the atonement for our sins.
The Conversion of Paul by Carravaggio (1600)
There is no doubt that Paul has had an enormous influence on Christianity. About 30% of the New Testament is either about Paul or written by Paul. The issues are:
- Did Paul enhance our knowledge of Jesus’ intent or did he distort it?
- Are the gospels and other letters independent of Paul or are they distorted by Paul’s influence?
2 Typical Arguments for Paul’s Hijack
Firstly I will present some of the arguments that are used to support the contention that Paul is the creator of the divine Christ.
The letter from James may be one of the earliest books in the New Testament and it was supposedly written by James the brother of Jesus who also became the leader of the Jewish church in Jerusalem. However, the letter from James contains no information about the life of Jesus. In fact, it only mentions Jesus twice. It mainly contains ethical teaching that is similar to the Sermon on the Mount. This tempts us to ask, “Was Jesus initially just considered a great teacher rather than son of God or Messiah?”
Compared with the gospels, there is very little in Paul’s letters regarding Jesus’ life or ministry. Thus Paul often is accused of being neither knowledgeable nor interested in Jesus’ life. Rather, he seems more interested in Jesus’ theological significance and Christian belief and practice. One passage that could be used to support this view is where Paul says, “Therefore from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer”. (2 Corinthians 5:16)
Some people also criticise Paul for some of his extensions to Jesus’ ethical teachings as recorded in the gospels. For instance, Paul reinforces the Old Testament negative view on homosexuality and also teaches specific roles for men and women. These views are currently unpopular and are deemed politically incorrect. Also these particular views are not explicitly mentioned by Jesus. Thus Paul is accused of adding ethical teachings that are inconsistent with Jesus.
3 The Nature of the New Testament
Before considering counter arguments I will remind readers of the structure of the New Testament.
The New Testament contains the following books/letters:
- 4 gospels
- 13 letters from Paul
- 8 letters from other authors (Hebrews, James, Peter, John, Jude)
- The Revelation of John
The 4 gospels contain narrative information about Jesus’ birth, ministry, teaching, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. Acts is a narrative of the life of the early church after Jesus’ ascension for the next 30 years and the last half is mainly devoted to Paul’s activities. The 4 gospels are called Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Matthew, Mark and Luke are called the “synoptic” gospels because they see together. They share common material and sometimes their verbal agreement is exact. The common view is that Matthew and Luke had access to Mark and used some of his material, but Matthew and Luke also have common material that is not in Mark. Thus scholars believe there was another document (Q = Quelle, which is German for “source”) that Matthew and Luke had access to. Q is considered very early and predates Paul’s letters. Matthew and Luke also had their independent sources (M & L) and John was probably independent of the synoptic gospels.
4 The Dating of the Gospels
Sceptics usually promote a late dating for the gospels. They often claim that all 4 gospels were written after 70 AD, well after Paul’s death. Supposedly this would have given time for Paul’s version of Christianity to be incorporated into the gospels. However, there are very good reasons for believing that at least Mark and Luke were written much earlier than this.
Acts is a sequel to Luke and Luke uses material from Mark. Thus the sequence of these 3 books is Mark, Luke and then Acts. However, Acts finishes abruptly in 62 AD with Paul under house arrest as follows:
For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ. (Acts 28: 30-32)
What happened after that? In fact, there were quite a lot of significant events:
- Paul would have had his trial before Nero soon afterwards,
- The Neronian persecutions were in 64 AD,
- Peter, Paul and James the brother of Jesus were all executed in the mid-60s,
- The Jewish Wars commenced in 66 AD, and
- The temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD.
Luke records absolutely nothing about these events. Thus, common sense would tell us that Luke did not record these events because he completed the Book of Acts prior to these events. Thus it is reasonable to conclude that Acts was written in 62 AD, Luke was written prior to 60 AD and Mark was written before that.
5 Paul’s Influence
Did Paul have a significant impact on the 4 gospels? There is certainly a link between Luke and Paul. Luke accompanied Paul during the latter part of his missionary journeys. Irenaeus also claims, “Luke, Paul’s associate, also set down in a book the gospel that Paul used to preach.” For instance, Luke’s account of the Last Supper is very similar to Paul’s account in 1 Corinthians 11. However, it is likely that Luke was in Jerusalem between 57 AD and 59 AD while Paul was imprisoned at Caesarea. During this time he probably conducted his investigation for the material that he used in his gospel. Thus much of Luke’s material is not dependent on Paul.
Mark was probably written concurrently with Paul’s letters. Mark and Paul’s letters were written from separate locations. It would take several years for Mark and Paul to influence each other. They also seem completely independent. As well as this, Matthew and John also seem independent of Paul.
There were tensions between Paul and the church in Jerusalem, but what were these tensions? The initial followers of Jesus were almost completely Jewish and were considered part of the Jewish culture and faith. The church in Jerusalem saw Jesus as the fulfilment of Jewish hopes. They saw themselves as having continuity with the Jewish faith and other Jews regarded them as a Jewish sect. They continued to worship in the Jewish temple and early evangelism only targeted Jews. When persecution arose, the Hellenistic Christians were scattered and started spreading the gospel to Samaritans and then to gentiles. This was extremely radical at the time. As gentiles came into the church, a number of issues arose, such as:
- Is it Ok for Jewish Christians to eat with gentile converts?
- Should gentile Christians follow the Jewish law?
- Should gentile Christians be circumcised?
However, there is no evidence that there was an issue regarding the claim that Jesus was Messiah, Son of God or Lord. However, is there solid positive evidence that the Jerusalem church believed in the divine Christ?
The letter to the Hebrews is relevant to this discussion. The writer does not mention his own name although he was known to his readers at that time. In the 2nd century Irenaeus admits that by then no one knew who wrote this letter. However, it was written by a Jew to the Jews in Jerusalem and it was not written by Paul. It was written prior to the Jewish wars (66-70 AD), as priestly sacrifices were still being offered in the temple. Its early date means that it was independent of Paul. However, it commences as follows:
“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven” (Hebrews 1:1-3).
This clearly claims a very high view of Jesus. Hebrews also strongly affirms that Jesus was the atonement for our sins. Thus the divine nature of Jesus and the theology of the atonement were taught in the early Jerusalem church and these teachings are not invented by Paul.
6 Paul’s Knowledge of the Earthly Jesus
Even though Paul’s letters do not specifically contain narrative information about Jesus’ ministry, Paul still provides quite a bit of information about Jesus’ life and ministry:
- Paul provides intimations about Jesus Birth: “But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5). Note that Paul says “born of a woman” and does not mention a man. This may indicate that he had knowledge about Jesus’ special birth, but this example is not definitive.
- The kingdom of God was a distinctive part of Jesus’ teaching. This is considered an undoubted element of Jesus teaching, as it was subsequently largely ignored by the early church. Why invent a theme that is not a significant part of church life? Ironically, the only New Testament letter writer who refers to the kingdom of God is Paul, who mentions it numerous times.
- 1 Corinthians 11: 23-26 provides an account of the last supper, which Luke has incorporated in his gospel.
- Paul is of course well aware of the crucifixion and resurrection.
- Romans 12 is very similar to the sermon on the mount and many of his other ethical teachings are similar to Jesus.
Thus, Paul did have a significant knowledge of Jesus’ life and ministry.
There are 8 other New Testament letters that were not written by Paul. None of these letters contain narrative information about Jesus. That was not their purpose. Their purpose was to address issues regarding theological understanding and Christian practice and they presumed a prior knowledge about Jesus. In general they are similar to Paul’s letters, but they were written independently of Paul and demonstrate that Paul did not pull Christianity into a significantly different direction.
Does the lack of narrative information in the other letters indicate lack of knowledge or interest in Jesus’ ministry? Well, consider John’s 3 letters. These do not include any narrative information about Jesus’ ministry. From this we should conclude that John was neither interested in nor knowledgeable about Jesus’ ministry. However, the same author also wrote John’s gospel, which exhibits considerable knowledge and interest in Jesus’ ministry. Thus it is wrong to conclude that absence of narrative information necessarily indicates lack of knowledge or interest.
There is no doubt that Paul is highly significant and has had an enormous impact on the development of Christianity and consequently on the whole world. Paul was doubtless an outstanding missionary and established many churches. However, his significance should not be exaggerated. There were obviously many others who were spreading the gospel and establishing churches all over the Roman Empire at the same time as Paul. Many of these people are now unknown to us. The significant thing about Paul is that we have a written record of his acts and his letters.
Paul was formerly a zealous Pharisee and student of the Old Testament and Jewish traditions. He did not believe in Jesus and persecuted the Church. Even though we have no evidence that Paul had seen Jesus in the flesh, he obviously had a great deal of knowledge about Jesus and this new Jewish sect. However, he claims that he received a revelation of Christ on the road to Damascus. This forced him to radically revise his understanding of the Old Testament. He based much of his theology on his interpretation of the Old Testament and his claimed revelation from Christ.
Paul was always very much a Jew and saw the whole ministry of Jesus through Jewish eyes. Although he was a highly educated man who was aware of Greek philosophy, it is highly implausible that he would have sought inspiration from pagan sources. Paul did not have first-hand knowledge of Jesus’ life. He had significant contact with the apostles and with members of Jesus’ family but his information was 2nd hand, even though it is better than ours. We have to rely on the testimony of other New Testament witnesses for this information.
The gospels were written within the context of Jesus’ life at that time. They proclaim a progressive revelation of the person of Jesus. It is the letters that disclose the significance of Jesus’ life. Most of the gospels were probably written concurrently with Paul’s letters. They were written from different locations and so it is highly likely that the gospels and Paul’s letters are largely independent. Although Luke was closely associated with Paul, it seems as though he conducted an independent investigation and got most of his gospel information from other sources.
The Roman Empire
The New Testament is a collection of documents written by different authors from different locations throughout the Roman Empire. We can read the whole of the New Testament, but we are in a relatively privileged position. Paul did not take a photocopy of his letters prior to sending them. It took many years for his letters to be copied and disseminated to other churches. The same applies to all other books in the New Testament. Nobody within the 1st century had visibility of all of the New Testament documents. Thus we have a bird’s eye view that was never available to any person within the 1st century. Thus it is impossible that a single person could exert monolithic control of such a diverse movement. If Paul deviated from other movements within early Christianity then it should be clearly visible within the New Testament collection; but it is not. What you see in the New Testament is what you get. There is no conspiracy to trick you. It is a collection of books written by different authors that provides us with their view of Jesus of Nazareth and his significance to us.
Director, Reasonable Faith Adelaide
An Argument for the Resurrection from Paul’s letters
by Kevin Rogers
This is an argument for the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth based primarily on Paul’s letters. Most arguments for the resurrection are based on the gospel accounts, but this one is based almost entirely on Paul’s writings (mainly Galatians and 1 Corinthians). I believe this is quite a strong argument that is quite evident from a close examination of Paul’s letters. However, most people (Christian or non-Christian) are almost totally unaware of it.
Before I commence the argument I will remind you of the nature of the NT.
If we construct an argument from the NT, then some may object, “Oh you can’t believe that. That is written in the Bible.” Some may envisage that the Bible was constructed by a committee to fool gullible 21st century people. However, that is not the case. Neither did the NT suddenly emerge out of heaven. The New Testament is a collection of 27 separate documents written by the following 9 authors:
- The writer of Hebrews
All of the authors were Jewish, except for Luke who was probably a highly educated, Greek God Fearer who attended synagogue prior to his Christian conversion. The New Testament documents were written at different times mostly in the latter half of the first century, from different places and to different readers. It is debatable whether the authors were conscious that they were writing sacred scripture. They may have simply been writing to meet local needs at that time. However, the readers perceived their value, copied and distributed them to other churches and also formed them into collections for reading within local congregations and for personal use. For instance, Paul wrote 13 letters to various churches. It is likely that they were formed into a collection near the end of the 1st century and then widely distributed to churches. Scrolls were expensive and laborious to produce. Thus it would have taken a significant number of years for them to be widely distributed within the Roman Empire and to gain acceptance by the churches. The New Testament documents are both independent and interdependent. Paul’s letters are very early and he probably had no access to any of the 4 gospels. For this argument I am not treating the NT as the divinely inspired word of God. I am simply using it as the work of men, like any other ancient document.
2 The Argument
Most arguments for the resurrection are based primarily on the 4 gospels with significant support from Paul. For example, historical arguments are raised to claim that Jesus was crucified, died and was buried in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea. However, when the women visited the tomb on Sunday morning, it was empty. It is then argued that many saw appearances of Jesus and that they genuinely believed that Jesus had risen from the dead. I fully support this mode of argument. However, sceptics often claim that the gospels were written late and they were not written by eyewitnesses or by people with access to eyewitnesses. Thus their testimony is the result of exaggerated legendary development. However, these objections don’t work with Paul and I will explain why later.
I will use a little supporting information from Acts to gain information on Paul’s conversion, but can Acts be trusted? It is traditionally believed that Luke is the author of the gospel of Luke and Acts. The authorship of Acts is not critical to my argument. The critical point is that the author (let’s call him Luke) knew Paul very well. Luke accompanied Paul on a number of his missionary journeys and would have often heard Paul retelling the story of his conversion on the road to Damascus. Thus we can take Luke’s testimony about Paul seriously. Paul does not describe his conversion in narrative form in his letters and so we have to rely on Acts for this information.
The core of my argument from Paul is:
- Paul had excellent access to information about Jesus
- He claims Jesus appeared to him
- He was converted from persecutor to follower
- He was sincere unto death
- Why die for a belief you know is false?
I will now expand on each of these points.
2.1 Paul’s Letters
Paul wrote 13 letters out of the 27 books in the NT, just less than 30% of the whole New Testament, and in each of his letters Paul identifies himself as the author in his initial greeting. Virtually all historical and biblical scholars accept that the majority of Paul’s letters were indeed written by Paul. His style is strongly personal, spontaneous and even controversial. There is no way that his letters were constructed or contrived by a committee. Galatians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Romans, Philippians and Philemon are virtually undisputed by scholars of all persuasions as being originated by Paul.
We can also be very confident that we have a good record of what he wrote. Many copies of Paul’s letters were disseminated widely, diverging into multiple branches like leaves on a tree. Scholars can compare multiple copies and derive a very reliable text. Thus, there is scholarly agreement that we know what Paul wrote.
Within his letters Paul refers incidentally to dateable events. Thus the contextual information that is contained in these letters enable some of them to be dated quite accurately. Paul’s letters were also written very close to Jesus’ ministry. His earliest letter may be within 15 years of the crucifixion. All of his letters were completed prior to Paul’s death in about 65 AD. There are 2 theories for the destination for the Galatian letter (the South and North Galatian theories), which result in authorship dates of 49AD or 55 AD respectively. 1 Corinthians was written in approximately 53 AD.
In summary, for most of Paul’s letters, we know who wrote them, what he wrote and when he wrote them. We also know they were written within a generation of Jesus’ crucifixion. Thus sceptics cannot claim that Paul’s letters were the result of legendary development. They need another ploy.
2.2 Biographical Information
2.2.1 Paul’s conversion
Paul makes numerous allusions to his conversion in his letters, but he does not provide a narrative description. Three narrative descriptions of his conversion on the road to Damascus are provided in the book of Acts. On his way to Damascus, Paul claims he had an encounter with the risen Christ. According to Acts a bright light appeared from heaven, Paul fell to the ground and he heard the voice of Jesus. This appearance was more than a vision that occurred in his brain. His companions saw the light and heard a sound, but they could not understand the voice. So something physical happened. Paul was temporarily blinded by the light. So Paul was also physically affected. (This is the only information from Acts that I use. The rest comes directly from Paul’s letters.)
Even though Paul does not provide a narrative description of his conversion in his letters, he does refer to it on a number of occasions. A couple of Paul’s allusions to an appearance of Jesus to him are as follows:
- Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? (1 Corinthians 9:1)
- Last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (1 Corinthians 15:8)
2.3 Paul’s letters
We can get a huge amount of biographical information about Paul from his letters. However, I will just make use of Galatians and 1& 2 Corinthians.
The biographical information that Paul provides in his letter to the Galatians has little to do with the resurrection. He provides this information incidentally to justify his authority as an apostle and to validate the content of his gospel message. Since this information is provided incidentally, it increases its credibility. You will see what I mean.
Paul starts his letter as follows:
Paul, an apostle — sent not from men nor by a man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— and all the brothers and sisters with me, To the churches in Galatia: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen. (Galatians 1:1-5)
The points to note from this section are that Paul identifies himself (which is common to all of his letters) and that he highlights that he received a special call from God. He then goes on:
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse (Galatians 1:6-10).
Note Paul’s provocative style. He is driving his point home in a very emphatic way. This is the voice of a distinct individual, not the consensus of a committee.
I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus. (Galatians 1:11-17)
Paul affirms the Acts account that he persecuted the church prior to his conversion but then he received a unique and special revelation from Christ. This special revelation probably corresponded with his conversion experience and it was sufficient for him to completely change and to commence preaching the gospel without any reference to the other apostles.
Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas [Peter] and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother. I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie. (Galatians 1:18-20)
Paul visited Jerusalem 3 years after his conversion, stayed with the apostle Peter for 15 days and also met James, the brother of Jesus. What did they discuss? He does not say, but we can safely assume that they did not just have cups of tea and talk about the weather. This meeting is extremely significant. On this extended occasion, Paul had the opportunity to have in-depth discussions with a key disciple and also with one of Jesus’ blood brothers. Paul later visited Jerusalem again and met John the son of Zebedee, another key disciple. For the sake of space, I will not list the passage. Trust me; or look it up yourself.
2.3.2 Paul and the Corinthians
Corinth is a city in Greece, where Paul established a church. Paul stayed in Corinth for 18 months from late 49 AD to mid-51 AD. This can be dated fairly precisely from 2 key events. When he first arrived, he was joined by Prisca and Aquilla who had recently left Rome due to the expulsion of Jews from Rome by Claudius. The Roman historian Suetonius dates that as occurring in late 49 AD. Acts also records that Paul appeared before Gallio. Gallio was proconsul of Achaia (Greece) from the 1st of July 50 AD to the 30th of June 51 AD. Paul wrote 1 Corinthians from Ephesus in about 53 AD. 1 Corinthians is mainly of interest due to Paul’s discussion of the resurrection in chapter 15, but this letter also contains other interesting incidental information. Consider this:
Do we not have the right to eat and drink? Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? (1 Corinthians 9:4-6)
Obviously Paul was acquainted with the other apostles and Jesus’ blood brothers. This passage also tells us that Jesus’ brothers are now believers (including James) and are also itinerant preachers (like Paul). This information is just dropped incidentally but the implications are quite stunning. Jesus’ 4 brothers are named in the gospels. During Jesus’ ministry they did not believe in him. As a matter of fact, they thought he was crazy and on one occasion they wanted to quietly take Jesus back to Nazareth where they could look after him or perhaps consign him to a loony bin. Subsequently their worst fears were realized and their crazy brother got himself executed. So, he claimed to be the Messiah. Well crucifixion was a great encouragement. But now they believe in him. What caused the change? Something dramatic must have happened for them to change their mind.
2.3.3 Biographical Summary
The information that we have gathered so far establishes the following facts with a high level of certainty. Paul was probably not an eye-witness to Jesus’ earthly ministry. Prior to his conversion, Paul was a Pharisee who was zealous for the Jewish traditions. He saw the rise of Christianity as a threat to Jewish traditions and obtained authority to persecute the church. He had Christians put in jail and even executed. However, on the road to Damascus a dramatic event occurred where he believed that Jesus appeared to him. This appearance was not just a vision inside his brain, but was accompanied by various physical phenomena that were visible to his companions. This appearance was sufficient to completely change his attitude such that he suddenly began to teach that Jesus was indeed the promised Messiah and the Son of God. The revelation that he received was clear enough that he commenced preaching the gospel without any reference to the other apostles. Three years later he went to Jerusalem and stayed with the apostle Peter for 15 days and also met James the brother of Jesus. At a subsequent visit he also met John the son of Zebedee and also other apostles. He also knew of Jesus’ other brothers. Thus Paul had access to key eye-witnesses of Jesus’ family life and ministry. He was very close to the action.
Paul’s main record relating to the death and resurrection of Christ is contained in 1 Corinthians 15. We will examine some sections of this chapter.
2.4 1 Corinthians 15
1 Corinthians chapter 15 is Paul’s main account of the resurrection.
Verses 1 – 8 are as follows:
Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
The section in red is a creed where Paul is quoting a prior record. Most scholars believe that Paul received this creed when he stayed with Peter and met James 3 years after his conversion. Thus this creed originated within 5 years of the crucifixion/resurrection. Paul passed this creed onto the Corinthian church in 50 AD during his 18 month stay. There are a number of interesting aspects to this passage.
- Paul lists the essentials of the gospel, such as the death, burial, resurrection and appearances of Jesus. Considering the early date, the general format of the gospel, including belief in the resurrection, cannot be due to legendary development.
- Jesus appeared to Cephas, The Twelve, more than 500 at one time, James, all the apostles, and finally to Paul. This list includes Cephas (Peter) and James the brother of Jesus. These are the exact same people with who he stayed or met on his first visit to Jerusalem.
- The list also includes 500 people at one time. Strangely, this is not mentioned in the gospels, although some have suggested that it corresponds to the great commission at the end of Matthew’s gospel. However Paul mentions that most of the 500 are still living although some have died. He seems to be suggesting to the Corinthians that they can still consult many of those 500.
Verses 12 – 19 are as follows:
But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.
What Paul is saying here is that if Christ is not raised then:
- Our preaching and your faith is useless and futile,
- We are liars,
- Those who have died are lost, and
- We are to be pitied more than all people.
Verses 29 – 32 are as follows:
Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them? And as for us, why do we endanger ourselves every hour? I face death every day—yes, just as surely as I boast about you in Christ Jesus our Lord. If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus with no more than human hopes, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”
Paul knew what was at stake. If Christ is not raised then why suffer for the gospel? Rather, why not eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.
2.5 Paul Suffered for his Beliefs
Just to emphasize this last point, consider the following passage from 2 Corinthians 11:21-29 (written in 55 AD):
Whatever anyone else dares to boast about—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast about. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have laboured and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?
Obviously Paul devoted his life to the gospel and endured enormous suffering, but note also his unique and personal style. Eventually Paul was arrested and put in prison for the 7th time. The NT does not record his death. However, there is strong testimony from other sources that Paul was eventually beheaded just outside of Rome during the Neronian persecutions in about 65 AD.
The crux of our argument is that Paul was in a good position to know whether the resurrection occurred and yet he affirmed its truth in the most emphatic terms and was willing to pay for his profession with his life. We will now briefly consider some objections to this argument, as summarised below:
- Paul was not an eye witness of Jesus’ ministry
- Paul had little knowledge of the earthly Jesus
- Paul did not actually meet Peter and James the brother of Jesus
- Paul was crazy and deluded
- Witnesses suffered hallucinations
- Resurrection was non-physical
- Many people suffer and die for false beliefs
- Dead people do not rise
3.1 Paul not an eye witness
It is probably true that Paul had not encountered Jesus during his earthly ministry, but Paul was familiar with the Christian message prior to his conversion. He also had his own experience of Jesus and had significant contact with direct eyewitnesses. Thus, even though the objection is probably true, Paul was still close enough to the events to know whether Jesus rose from the dead.
3.2 Paul knew little of Jesus
Paul provides little narrative information about Jesus’, as is contained in the 4 gospels, and so some claim that Paul neither knew nor was interested in Jesus’ earthly ministry. This is an argument from silence, which is always a suspect form of argument. Even then, consider the following.
- Paul’s ignorance of Jesus’ ministry is exaggerated. Paul shows familiarity with Jesus earthly ministry. In Romans 12 Paul teaches ethics that are very similar to Jesus’ sermon on mount. Paul also provides a description of the Last supper (1 Cor 11), the fact of the crucifixion, his trial before Pontius Pilate (1 Tim 6:13), and of course the resurrection.
- None of the letters by other authors contain narrative information. The purpose was to encourage churches and address problems and so including narrative information would have being “going over old ground”. Consider John’s letters (1 John, 2 John & 3 John). These letters do not contain any narratives about Jesus. If these letters were considered in isolation, then we should conclude that John neither knew nor was interested in Jesus’ earthly ministry. However, John is also the author of the 4th gospel, where he demonstrates considerable knowledge and interest in Jesus’ ministry.
3.3 Paul did not actually meet Peter and James the brother of Jesus
George A. Wells is the professor of German at the University of London. He was also the president of the London Rationalist Society and is a strong critic of the reliability of the New Testament.
He claims that the meeting between Paul, Peter and James, the brother of Jesus, 3 years after Paul’s conversion never happened. He claims that Paul stayed with Cephas, who was a church leader in Jerusalem, but that Cephas was a different person from the apostle Peter. He also claims that all Christians were generically called brothers and that the James referred to was not a blood brother of Jesus. However, Matthew specifically equates Cephas with Peter. Also Paul refers to Peter 6 times within Galatians, 3 times as Cephas (Aramaic) and 3 times as Petros (Greek). Peter and Cephas are obviously the same person. Besides this, in Paul’s list of appearances he says that Jesus appeared to Cephas, who is the same person he stayed with, so who cares? As for James, the term “the Lord’s brother” is applied specifically to him, as it is in Acts and a James is identified as one of Jesus’ brothers in the gospels. Thus Well’s argument is particularly weak and can be confidently rejected.
However, what this argument does illustrate is how critical and significant is the meeting between Paul, Peter and James. Wells is an ardent critic of Christianity and he does not like the thought that Paul was in such a good position to know the facts.
3.4 Paul was crazy and deluded
One objection is that Paul was crazy. Maybe Paul had eaten too many magic mushrooms. Indeed, when Paul presented his experience to the Roman governor, Festus interrupted, “You are out of your mind Paul! Your great learning is driving you insane!” Paul replied, “I am not insane, most excellent Festus. What I am saying is true and reasonable”.
On one level, we could conclude that Paul was crazy. He was an extraordinary man who totally dedicated his life to spread the gospel and suffered a great deal. Who in their right mind would do the same? However, if you read Paul’s letters, you will find that they are quite rational and well argued. He does not seem crazy. Antony Flew was one of the most eminent and well-respected philosophers in the 20th century.
He was the darling of atheism until he changed his mind in 2004. However, Flew stated that “Paul is an intelligent man and has the mind of a first class philosopher.” So Paul does not seem like a looney.
3.5 Witnesses suffered hallucinations
Another common objection is that the witnesses to the appearances suffered hallucinations. However, there are a number of factors that make this unlikely.
- Firstly, hallucinations are relatively rare. Personally, the last hallucination that I can recall was as a young child. I was sick in bed with a fever and I cried out to my mother because I thought there were red spiders in my bed. Ever since that time, my life’s experiences have had a good correspondence with the real world. Thus, for me at least, hallucinations are extremely rare.
- Secondly, it is highly unlikely that multiple people would hallucinate at the same time, let alone 500.
- Thirdly, a hallucination is internal to an individual’s brain. It is not a shared experience. It is highly unlikely that more than one individual could share the same hallucination. However, the appearances occurred at many times over a period of 40 days to different people and to multiple people on some occasions. Thus is seems highly unlikely that the resurrection experiences could be explained by group hallucinations.
3.6 Non-physical Resurrection
Another objection is that the resurrection that Paul was referring to was spiritual and non-physical. For instance, the Romans believed that the emperor was divine. They even referred to the emperor as the son of God. When Augustus Caesar died it was claimed that his spirit rose to heaven. Could Paul be talking in the same manner? After all when Paul is speaking of our resurrection body he says, “it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.” Does spiritual then mean non-physical? Are we reading the gospels back into Paul’s letters and imposing a meaning that is not there?
There are a number of reasons why this cannot be the case.
- Firstly visible appearances suggest that the resurrection was physical. How can we see a non-physical spirit ascend to heaven?
- Secondly, Paul defines what he means by spiritual by using a series of parallelisms. Paul says, “The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable”. Thus the natural body is perishable and the spiritual body is imperishable, but he nowhere says that it is non-physical.
- Thirdly the Jews at that time believed in a physical resurrection of the dead at the last judgement. Paul shared their context and would have had the same thought patterns in his mind.
3.7 Many people suffer and die for false beliefs
Paul died for his faith but so what. Many people die for their beliefs and, in many cases, it seems highly likely that their beliefs were false. So dying for your beliefs does not make them true. However, in Paul’s case, he was in a great position to know whether Jesus in fact rose from the dead. Why suffer and die for a cause that you know is false?
Paul was willing to pay with his life for his belief in the resurrection. Now, dying for your beliefs doesn’t make it true. News reports of suicide bombers dying for their belief in Islam is almost a daily occurrence. But there is a key difference for the apostles. The apostles were eyewitnesses to the events and knew if their claims were true. Likewise, Paul was in an excellent position to know if the resurrection claim was untrue. Why die for a cause if you know it is not true. For this reason, even sceptical scholars that do not believe in the resurrection will still admit that the apostles really did believe that they had seen the risen Christ.
3.8 Dead people do not rise
The final objection is the root of all the others. Many people approach this topic with a materialist view in mind. They believe that everything happens according to the laws of physics and so miracles just do not happen; full stop. Thus it is impossible that Jesus rose from the dead. They think, “I don’t care how strong the evidence is. Any alternate explanation is preferable, no matter how improbable.”
However, if God is able to create the universe and the laws of physics, then it seems quite logical that God can perform miracles, even if they do go beyond our common experience of the laws of physics. If God created the universe, “then the odd resurrection here or there is chicken feed”.
Thus we seem to have very strong historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. So, conversely the resurrection of Jesus seems to imply that we do indeed have a divine miracle on our hand; and so it also reinforces our belief that God exists.
In summary, I believe that Paul provides a solid testimony to the historicity of the resurrection of Christ and the truth of the gospel for the following reasons:
- Paul had access to eye witnesses to the risen Christ within 5 years of the event.
- Paul had his own experience where he claims that he had seen the risen Christ.
- Paul’s conversion was completely unexpected as he was a former persecutor of the church.
- Paul had no motive to give a false testimony.
- Paul was willing to endure suffering and death for what he believed. Why do that if you know it is not true?
From the information that we have examined so far, we can conclude the following:
- We have solid information about Paul regarding when he wrote his letters, the places he visited and whom he met.
- We know that prior to his conversion, he was a passionate Pharisee who opposed the apostles’ message and persecuted Christians
- However, on the road to Damascus, he had a dramatic experience where Jesus appeared to him. This experience was sufficient for him to suddenly and completely reverse his prior mission.
- Three years later he stayed with Peter for 15 days and also met James, the brother of Jesus. Later on he met another key disciple, John the son of Zebedee, and also met other disciples.
- He also knew Jesus’ other 3 blood brothers
- He knew many significant eye witnesses to the resurrection
- He was also fully aware of the criticality of the objective truth of the resurrection. If the resurrection claim was false then his whole mission was futile and he was guilty of a horrible lie.
- Thus Paul had excellent access to key eye witnesses and was in a good position to know whether Jesus’ resurrection really happened; and yet he was willing to suffer and die for his beliefs. Why die for something you know is false?
This presentation is an argument but it is not a mathematical proof. However, hopefully it does demonstrate that the profession of the Church that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate and that God raised him from the dead on the following Sunday morning is not just a wishful hope but also rests on strong historical evidence.
This argument may be historically interesting, but what are the implications for us? Well the implications are huge. God demonstrated that Jesus was indeed the Son of God by raising him from the dead. His resurrection is the guarantee of ours.
In John 11:25 Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
Luke’s Eye-witness Accounts in Acts
This is a summary of a presentation by Kevin Rogers on the 6th of February 2014 at Reasonable Faith Adelaide. The presentation was video recorded on You Tube. See also the Luke We Power Point slides.
Christianity is a historic faith in this sense. Its validity is dependent on the truthfulness of actual historic events. Christians claim that God is there and He has spoken. He has intervened in human history. But how can we know that this is all true? The writer of Hebrews commences his book by saying, “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” How do we know? Well witnesses recorded what they saw and heard and their testimony to these events is primarily recorded in the pages of the Bible. In this article we are going to look at this through the eyes of a single person whom we know as Luke.
2 The Nature of the New Testament
Before I start on the main topic I will firstly summarize the nature of the New Testament (New Testament). The New Testament did not emerge suddenly out of heaven, nor was it contrived by a committee. The New Testament is a collection of 27 separate documents written by supposedly the following 9 authors:
- The writer of Hebrews
All of the authors were Jewish, except for Luke who was probably a highly educated, Greek God Fearer who attended synagogue prior to his Christian conversion.
The New Testament documents were written at different times mostly in the latter half of the first century, from different places and to different readers. They were originally written on papyrus scrolls, which limited their maximum size.
It is debatable whether the authors were conscious that they were writing sacred scripture. They may have simply been writing to meet local needs at that time. However, the readers perceived their value, copied and distributed them to other churches and also formed them into collections for reading within local congregations and for personal use. For instance, Paul wrote 13 letters to various churches. It is likely that they were formed into a collection near the end of the 1st century and then widely distributed to churches.
Scrolls were expensive and laborious to produce. Thus it would have taken a significant number of years for them to be widely distributed within the Roman Empire and to gain acceptance by the churches.
The New Testament documents are both independent and interdependent. Paul’s letters are very early and he probably had no access to any of the 4 gospels. On the other hand, both Matthew and Luke seemed to have borrowed from the Gospel of Mark, but they also had access to their own independent material. The gospel of John seems to be completely independent of the other 3 gospels.
There were other documents around. Some of these were orthodox but written later and did not offer anything new. Others were forgeries from heretical groups. The churches had to decide and agree on which ones were authoritative. There were various canons (approved lists) constructed over the years in which there was substantial consensus, but the final canon was eventually agreed by church councils in the latter part of the 4th century (Council of Rome 382, Synod of Hippo Regius 393, Council of Carthage 397).
3 Introduction to Luke
The 2 documents that I will discuss are the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. Acts is a sequel to Luke and it is certain that they were written by the same author. The early church fathers identified the author as Luke, which will be assumed in the rest of this presentation. This is difficult to prove with certainty, but it is not highly contested, nor does it greatly matter. Luke is a minor figure who is only mentioned briefly 3 times by Paul in his letters. We know most about Luke from what he wrote. Luke is a highly polished Greek writer. His Greek is better than the rest of the New Testament. He is adept at changing his style between formal and colloquial Greek to suit the context. It seems as though Greek was his first language, unlike the other Jewish, New Testament authors.
The key focus of this presentation is on the “we” passages in the Acts of the Apostles. In Acts there are distinct passages where the author writes in first person plural, using pronouns such as “we”, “our” and “us”. If these really indicate when Luke was with Paul, then this has strong implications on the dating and reliability of the Acts of the Apostles and Luke’s gospel.
The use of “we” is done in a very natural and nonchalant manner. It is very easy to miss. I did not notice it myself for a number of years until it was brought to my attention. I also know of a fellowship group who studied Acts for a whole year and did not notice this critical feature at all. However, it is a well-recognized, distinctive feature amongst Biblical scholars.
For the 1st half of the Acts of the Apostles, Luke describes the activities of the protagonists using the third person (e.g. “he” or “they”). However in chapter 16 he makes a sudden switch and starts using the 1st person plural using such pronouns as “we, our and us”. The obvious conclusion to draw is that Luke had joined Paul during these phases of his missionary journeys. This is not a constant feature. Luke swaps between 1st person and 3rd person at distinct points. This allows us to track segments in Paul’s travels where it seems reasonable to infer that Paul was accompanied by Luke.
4 We Passages
The “we” sections are summarized in the following table, but we will consider each section in more detail.
|Sections in Acts
|16:10 to 16:18
||Troas to Philippi
|20:4 to 21:19
||Philippi to Jerusalem
|27:1 to 28:30
||Caesarea to Rome
5 Troas to Philippi
The 1st “we” passage occurs in Acts 16:6-10. Note the sudden transition
6 Paul and his companions travelled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. 7 When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. 8 So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. 9 During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.
This transition occurred at Alexandrian Troas, which was an ancient Greek city on the north eastern tip of Turkey.
Troas to Philippi
From Troas the company sailed to Samothrace, Neapolis and then travelled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia (Acts 16:11-12).
In Philippi, Paul cast an evil spirit out of a fortune-telling slave girl, taking away her gift. The owner complained to the authorities and so Paul and Silas were imprisoned. After Paul was released, he told the magistrate of his Roman citizenship and so the magistrate politely asked him to leave the city. At this point the “we” passages stop for a significant time. Luke seems to have been left behind in Philippi.
6 Four Year Interlude
Paul & Silas then travel to Thessalonica, Berea, Athens and then to Corinth. Paul then stayed in Corinth for 18 months (Acts 18:10). This sojourn can be accurately dated from the end of 49 AD to mid-51 AD. While he was in Corinth, he wrote two of his letters, 1&2 Thessalonians.
Paul then travelled to Syrian Antioch via Cenchrea, Ephesus (in Turkey), Caesarea (Palestine) and Jerusalem. His subsequent travels are illustrated in the following diagram:
He then visited various places in Galatia and Phrygia (Turkey) and then returned to Ephesus again, where he stayed for just over 2 years.
Paul then travelled to Macedonia and then Achaia (Greece), where he stayed for 3 months. He then returned to Philippi in Macedonia.
7 Luke Travels to Jerusalem
When he sailed from Philippi to Troas, the “we” passages resume. The interlude has been over 4 years. Note that Philippi was the drop off point for Luke and Luke rejoined Paul from the same location.
After staying in Troas for 7 days (Point 9 above) Luke then sailed to Assos but Paul went by foot. Paul was then taken on board at Assos. They then sailed to Caesarea via Mitylene, Kios, Miletus, Cos, Rhodes, Patara, Tyre and Ptolemais.
[Some commentators split out 20: 17 to 20:38 as not being as we passage when Paul sends a message to the Ephesian elders to meet him in Miletus. However, Luke’s presence is assumed as 21:1 commences with “After we had torn ourselves away from them”.]
From Caesarea, they travelled overland and arrived at Jerusalem (Acts 21:17), probably in 57 AD.
Luke then provides us with some very important information:
“When we arrived at Jerusalem, the brothers received us warmly. The next day Paul and the rest of us went to see James [Jesus’ brother], and all the elders were present.” (Acts 21: 17,18)
From this reference it is reasonable to infer that Luke was introduced to James, Jesus’ brother, as well as to the church in Jerusalem. This would have included other eye-witnesses to Jesus’ life and ministry.
8 Paul at Caesarea
Paul then participated in a purification rite at the temple to show that he still adhered to the Jewish law. However, he was recognised by some Jews from the province of Asia and they started a riot. To cut a long story short, Paul was arrested and taken to Caesarea, having been in Jerusalem for only 12 days. Paul was then imprisoned at Caesarea for 2 years. When Paul was taken to Caesarea, the “we” passages stop. So, where was Luke while Paul was at Caesarea? It seems reasonable to suppose that he stayed with the church in Jerusalem.
Paul initially appeared before Felix but Felix left him in jail for 2 years until he was replaced by Porcius Festus in 59 AD. Paul was then interviewed by Festus and Herod Agrippa II. Even though Paul is assessed as innocent he is sent to Rome because of his appeal to Caesar.
9 Journey to Rome
As soon as Paul is released from prison and sent to Rome under Roman custody, the “we” passages recommence and it is “we, we, we, all the way to Rome.”
Journey to Rome
10 The Sea Voyage from Caesarea to Malta
Acts chapter 27 describes the sea voyage from Caesarea to Malta. It is quoted below and I encourage you to read it carefully. Note all the vivid details regarding the places visited and details regarding operation of the ship during the storm. Judge for yourself whether you think that Luke was actually there.
27 When it was decided that we would sail for Italy, Paul and some other prisoners were handed over to a centurion named Julius, who belonged to the Imperial Regiment. 2 We boarded a ship from Adramyttium about to sail for ports along the coast of the province of Asia, and we put out to sea. Aristarchus, a Macedonian from Thessalonica, was with us.
3 The next day we landed at Sidon; and Julius, in kindness to Paul, allowed him to go to his friends so they might provide for his needs. 4 From there we put out to sea again and passed to the lee of Cyprus because the winds were against us. 5 When we had sailed across the open sea off the coast of Cilicia and Pamphylia, we landed at Myra in Lycia. 6 There the centurion found an Alexandrian ship sailing for Italy and put us on board. 7 We made slow headway for many days and had difficulty arriving off Cnidus. When the wind did not allow us to hold our course, we sailed to the lee of Crete, opposite Salmone. 8 We moved along the coast with difficulty and came to a place called Fair Havens, near the town of Lasea.
9 Much time had been lost, and sailing had already become dangerous because by now it was after the Fast. So Paul warned them, 10 “Men, I can see that our voyage is going to be disastrous and bring great loss to ship and cargo, and to our own lives also.” 11 But the centurion, instead of listening to what Paul said, followed the advice of the pilot and of the owner of the ship. 12 Since the harbor was unsuitable to winter in, the majority decided that we should sail on, hoping to reach Phoenix and winter there. This was a harbor in Crete, facing both southwest and northwest.
13 When a gentle south wind began to blow, they thought they had obtained what they wanted; so they weighed anchor and sailed along the shore of Crete. 14 Before very long, a wind of hurricane force, called the “northeaster,” swept down from the island. 15 The ship was caught by the storm and could not head into the wind; so we gave way to it and were driven along. 16 As we passed to the lee of a small island called Cauda, we were hardly able to make the lifeboat secure. 17 When the men had hoisted it aboard, they passed ropes under the ship itself to hold it together. Fearing that they would run aground on the sandbars of Syrtis, they lowered the sea anchor and let the ship be driven along. 18 We took such a violent battering from the storm that the next day they began to throw the cargo overboard. 19 On the third day, they threw the ship’s tackle overboard with their own hands. 20 When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days and the storm continued raging, we finally gave up all hope of being saved.
21 After the men had gone a long time without food, Paul stood up before them and said: “Men, you should have taken my advice not to sail from Crete; then you would have spared yourselves this damage and loss. 22 But now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed. 23 Last night an angel of the God whose I am and whom I serve stood beside me 24 and said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.’ 25 So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me. 26 Nevertheless, we must run aground on some island.”
27 On the fourteenth night we were still being driven across the Adriatic Sea, when about midnight the sailors sensed they were approaching land. 28 They took soundings and found that the water was a hundred and twenty feet deep. A short time later they took soundings again and found it was ninety feet deep. 29 Fearing that we would be dashed against the rocks, they dropped four anchors from the stern and prayed for daylight. 30 In an attempt to escape from the ship, the sailors let the lifeboat down into the sea, pretending they were going to lower some anchors from the bow. 31 Then Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved.” 32 So the soldiers cut the ropes that held the lifeboat and let it fall away.
33 Just before dawn Paul urged them all to eat. “For the last fourteen days,” he said, “you have been in constant suspense and have gone without food — you haven’t eaten anything. 34 Now I urge you to take some food. You need it to survive. Not one of you will lose a single hair from his head.” 35 After he said this, he took some bread and gave thanks to God in front of them all. Then he broke it and began to eat. 36 They were all encouraged and ate some food themselves. 37 Altogether there were 276 of us on board. 38 When they had eaten as much as they wanted, they lightened the ship by throwing the grain into the sea.
39 When daylight came, they did not recognize the land, but they saw a bay with a sandy beach, where they decided to run the ship aground if they could. 40 Cutting loose the anchors, they left them in the sea and at the same time untied the ropes that held the rudders. Then they hoisted the foresail to the wind and made for the beach. 41 But the ship struck a sandbar and ran aground. The bow stuck fast and would not move, and the stern was broken to pieces by the pounding of the surf.
42 The soldiers planned to kill the prisoners to prevent any of them from swimming away and escaping. 43 But the centurion wanted to spare Paul’s life and kept them from carrying out their plan. He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and get to land. 44 The rest were to get there on planks or on pieces of the ship. In this way everyone reached land in safety.
Do you think that this account is from an eyewitness?
11 Dating of Acts and the Gospel of Luke
Acts 28 describes the subsequent trip to Rome where Paul is placed under house arrest and the book of Acts finishes with the following statement:
30 For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. 31 Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul would have arrived in Rome in AD 60 and Luke mentions that he was under house arrest in Rome for 2 years. That is where Luke’s writings end, but what followed was tumultuous.
- Paul was due to appear before the emperor Nero, but what was the outcome of Paul’s trial? We are not told.
- The Neronian persecutions commenced in 64 AD.
- Paul, James and Peter were all executed in the Mid-60s. Acts records the martyrdoms of Stephen and James the son of Zebedee. Why not these latter ones?
- The Jewish wars commenced in 66 AD and
- The Jewish temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD.
Why did Luke not mention these things? The obvious explanation is that Luke completed the book of Acts shortly after Paul’s house arrest and he probably wrote it during that time. It is quite possible that Luke was also a victim of the Neronian persecutions.
12 Is Luke Reliable?
Now that we have looked at the book of acts, what are the implications on the gospel of Luke?
The gospel of Luke was written prior to Acts in which Luke commences with the following words (Luke 1:1-4)
1 Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. 3 Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
Luke makes 5 key claims within this prologue:
- He consulted prior writings
- He spoke to eyewitnesses
- He conducted a careful investigation
- He wrote an orderly account
- So that the reader may have certainty regarding what actually happened.
When did he do most of this investigation? It was probably during his 2 year stay in Jerusalem while Paul was imprisoned at Caesarea. During this time we know that he at least met James, the brother of Jesus, who could have provided him with the family background information on Jesus that is provided in the first 2 chapters.
Although there currently exists no scholarly consensus on the “we” passages, three interpretations in particular have become dominant:
- the writer was a genuine historical eyewitness,
- the writer was a redactor, or
- It was a stylistic convention.
These theories are discussed below:
13.1 Historical eyewitness
The historical eyewitness interpretation states that the “we” passages indicate that the writer was a historical eyewitness. This remains the most influential opinion within current biblical studies. Objections to this viewpoint mainly take the form of the following two interpretations, but also include the claim that Luke-Acts contains differences in theology and historical narrative which are irreconcilable with the authentic letters of Paul the apostle.
The redactor interpretation claims that the “we” passages are an earlier written or oral source incorporated into Acts by a later redactor. This view still acknowledges the apparent historicity of these texts and that they were eyewitness accounts but it views the “we passages” as being distinct from the main work. However, this view has been criticized for failing to provide sufficient evidence of a distinction between the source text and the document into which it was incorporated.
13.3 Stylistic convention
The stylistic convention interpretation claims that the use of the first person plural is a deliberate stylistic device that was common to this type of genre, but which was not intended to indicate a historical eyewitness. Since a number of the “we” passages are associated with ship voyages, some scholars claim that the “we” passages are a literary convention typical of shipboard voyages in travel romance literature of this period. This view has the following problems:
- Nobody has found such appropriate parallels or the existence of such a stylistic convention, and
- Acts does not belong to this genre.
Apart from the above commonly held views, sceptical New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman claims that the “we” passages are deliberate deceptions, designed to convince readers that the author was a travelling companion of Paul, even though he was not.
According Ehrman, the “we” passages are written by someone falsely claiming to have been a travelling companion of Paul, in order to present the untrue idea that the author had first-hand knowledge of Paul’s views and activities, and Acts of the Apostles is thereby shown to be a forgery. Ehrman’s view is not widely supported but it does indicate how threatening the “we” passages are to sceptics.
13.5 Early Christian Writings
By far the most predominant view is that Luke was an actual eye witness who accompanied Paul on some of his missionary journeys.
Early Christian Writings is a predominantly sceptical website. Even so, the commentator from the Early Christian Writings website (http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/luke.html) provides this assessment.
This nonchalant and matter-of-fact dovetailing convinces me that the author of Acts was among those who were left behind at Philippi and joined up with Paul to sail from there later. The distinction between Paul and “us” discredits the idea that the first person perspective in these passages is some kind of literary device, which would take the perspective of Paul (for example increasing the drama of Paul’s adventure or increasing the connection of Paul to the group), and for which there is no precedent in ancient literature. The alternative is that the author of Acts was making a false affectation to being a companion of Paul. This prompts the question of why the author made this claim in such a subtle way, instead of ensuring that the reader could not miss it by emphasizing the point, as apocryphal writers often did. It also leaves us wondering as to why the false claim to participation is restricted to a few passages, leaving Paul alone for most of the narrative–though this is understandable if the author’s participation was in fact sporadic. The most probable conclusion is that Luke had travelled with Paul at times, a fact of which Luke’s patron Theophilus was already aware.
It seems fairly certain that Luke accompanied Paul on many of his missionary journeys between about 49 AD and 62 AD. He accompanied Paul to Jerusalem and met James the brother of Jesus. He thus had direct access to eyewitnesses and family members of Jesus of Nazareth.
One of the characteristics of the gospel of Luke is his numerous accounts of Jesus’ contact with women. It may just be that many of those women were still part of the church at Jerusalem while Luke was there between 57 and 59 AD. Mary the mother of Jesus was at least an initial member of this church. The she may have still been there during Luke’s visit. If not, there would have been others who could have recalled Mary’s testimony.
Our last word from Luke is at the end of Acts while Paul is under house arrest. However, it is not the last word about Luke. Paul’s 2nd letter to Timothy was Paul’s last letter. It was written after his first defence, which seems to have gone poorly. He is no longer under house arrest. He is now bound with chains in a Roman prison and he states that “the time has come for my departure”. The Neronian persecution is about to begin. Many of Paul’s friends had either deserted him or had left Rome for other cities, except one. In 4:11 Paul states, “Only Luke is with me”. At that time it was very dangerous to be associated with Paul. The next personal information about Luke comes about 100 years later from Irenaeus in “Against Heresies” where he records “Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the gospel preached by him [meaning Paul].”
Luke does not identify himself in his writings. He only intrudes his personality in a subtle and nonchalant way. However, if you have eyes to see, then you can feel his personality. I am sure that Luke would agree with John when he said, “We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you may also have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete.” (1 John 1:3)
When I studied this feature it really gave me a fresh insight into Luke’s writings and I really could feel the man. It is clearly there for all to see. I encourage you to reread Luke’s writings and identify these features for yourself.
Most of this material is derived directly from the Acts of the Apostles and the gospel of Luke. However, the following websites are also helpful:
Christmastime, Christ-mas and the birth of Jesus
by Peri Forrester
This is a summary of a presentation given on the 5th of December 2013 by Peri Forrester on the Case for Christmas. See The case for Christmas for the Power Point slides. See the Case for Christmas Presentation and the Case for Christmas Discussion for the video recordings.
Peri’s transcript is given below:
Is the 25th Jesus birthday?
Is the 25th Jesus birthday? No it’s not. Jesus was probably born in spring since that was the time the Shepherds Luke refers to would have been out. Matthew’s star may refer to a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn whose astronomical effect impressed others. There are a number of suggestions on this point, but even if the Magi visit was strictly historical, which I think it probably was, it did not happen at the time of Jesus’ birth, but rather during his toddlerhood.
Celebrating Christ-mas on the 25th of December was instituted in 385 by Pope Julius 1 as a direct subversion of a pagan celebration.
Some say this is evidence of a Mithra connection but Mithra was not born on the 25th of December either.
The 25th of December simply was (and is) a popular annual festival for celebrating the change of seasons or something like that. It was later changed to celebrating Jesus birth.
Does that mean it is invalid to celebrate Jesus’ birthday in December? Of course not. My birthday was yesterday and I am celebrating it this coming Saturday and I hope people don’t refuse to come to my party just because it is not on the historically correct day.
That said, the spectacle of what we call Christmas has perhaps become sufficiently focused on consumerism and its insatiable drain on world resources and disempowered human producers that we may wonder whether Jesus would likely show up to such a party himself (READ Horsley, 1993 intro). Though of course Jesus showed up to many a party that offended religious sensitivities, to establish and enjoy relationships – so who knows.
While very few Christians would have their world- view rocked by the revelation that Jesus was not born on 25th December, the question of if it is worth defending the date and thereby the cultural power invested in that date as a Christian celebration or not is a much more complicated question.
What we first need to think about, in order to answer those who question or poke scornful fun at our faith, are the historical facts behind the Biblical story and the significance both of those facts and the way they are interpreted and told by the Evangelists Matthew and Luke.
There are a number of questions that are commonly and sometimes sincerely raised about the Biblical account of Jesus’ birth concerning:
- The narratives at the start of Matthew and Luke’s Gospel are not referred to elsewhere in the NT
- There are a few differences in what the two narratives tell us about Jesus’ infancy
- Mary’s virginity and Jesus’ conception by the Holy Spirit (Did it happen, how and what is that all about?);
- Problems with details about the Census
- The historicity (or otherwise) and significance of the Shepherds and Magi visiting Jesus, and, those who prophesied over Jesus in the Temple;
- What was meant by calling the baby Jesus Lord, Savior, Son of God, King and the fulfillment of Hebrew prophecy; and is it connected to the titles of savior and son of God that was given Caesar and others?
- Does the whole story reflect common ancient mythological motifs and is therefore not true?
We can look at most of these, but first let’s think just for a moment about what is at stake
- Scriptural ‘inspiration’ or ‘inerrancy’? If there are real historical contradictions in the text that do not harmonize and instead make either Matthew wrong or Luke wrong on a point of historical fact, does that mean that the Bible is not God’s inerrant word? Could your faith cope?
- The trust worthiness of Matthew and Luke as Evangelists? Do such contradictions, if found to exist mean that either of the Evangelists were not good history writers?
- Key Christian doctrines? If some elements of the accounts are deemed to be more mythological or legendary than historical in genre, does that affect any key Christian doctrines, or does it lend weight to one denominational view over another?
- More personally, is there a loss of face if some things we have proclaimed need modification or recantation? I certainly know that I have needed to modify my own truth claims a number of times in my Christian journey as I have continued learning – but none of that has detracted from my core belief in who Jesus is or who his salvation is making me, nor has it changed the good news I have to share with others. God’s gift is the forgiveness of sins and eternal life in Jesus the Christ. But there may be some people who fear their faith would not survive revision of any belief connected to it- and surely we need to be careful with them even as Paul instructs us in 1 Cor 8
Now I know many of you will be keen to get to the punch lines of: does the Scripture really mean, and is it historically true that Jesus was born without Mary having ever had sexual intercourse before? And, were the Evangelists influenced by mystery religions when they wrote their accounts about Jesus? Hopefully you will be satisfied with what I have to say about these things. We will start by examining a few terms commonly used as they apply to the narratives.
History and history writing, mythology/ mythological, legend/ legendary, Midrash.
History and History writing
The first point here is that we do not have the past. We only have the effects of the past. Writings about the past necessarily cherry pick elements of an event or cluster of events and filter out what is not important to the purpose of the writer in communicating with her or his audience. For example, the Evangelists do not tell us if the manger Jesus lay in had clean or dirty straw in it- or if it had some other kind of animal food, or was in fact empty, but, had they told us such a detail we would wonder why they told us- what was meant by their having told us; Getting to what was meant by the writer choosing to tell us something is the literary literal meaning of the text, just as getting to what in the empirical ‘real’ world at the time was the referent of the text is ascertaining the historical reality behind the text- if indeed the text is historical writing. (cf. Vanhoozer, 1998, 303- 308).
It is possible to get so caught up with trying to get behind the text to grab hold of the events referred to that the communicative point of the text is missed altogether- such as when we boggle our brains trying to understand just how God’s Spirit overshadowing Mary put the X and Y chromosomes together in her womb (and yes I have heard people seriously talk about this, as though it matters). It is just as possible to explore the possible symbolic meanings and the essential truths derived from those meanings implied by an account of an event to the extent that one floats away entirely from the historical referent. Much critical scholarship in the 20th C (termed the new hermeneutic and characterized by the work of Paul Tillich and Rudolf Bultmann, (Longenecker, 1975:52,53) erred in this direction.
To be clear: I understand the narrative beginning Luke and Matthew to be historical writing, that is I believe the main historical referents being actual are important to the meaning and truth of the text, even while I acknowledge that the events are selectively depicted and interpreted and possibly at points embellished by the Evangelists to suit their theological communications to an extent that would not be acceptable in the top end of modern history writing. Even so, the gospel accounts do reflect what really happened certainly above and beyond what we can know about what really happened behind most ancient writings.
Mythology/ mythological and Legend/ legendary
The definition of these terms is relevant because there are many who say that the conception and birth narratives are mythological or legendary. Often the people who so dismiss the narratives don’t actually know what mythological and legendary even means, and often when we defend the narratives against the allegation and consequent dismissal on such grounds we don’t really know what those words mean either. What is sometimes meant by those terms as they are commonly used in this way is that the narrative does not match expectations about history writing, as we noted, and are by critics therefore deemed to be not true to events at all, such that ‘mythology’ is put on the spectrum between fiction and fact; closer to fiction.
Mythologies, properly understood however, are accepted as true stories about ‘gods’ of various kinds and divine origins of the universe by their believers. Mythology usually involves the remote past and is often central to a meta-narrative that discerns and integrates meaning for believers in experience and history (Horsley, 1993: 11). By this definition Genesis one is indeed a creation myth- but that does not mean it is not true. The biblical nativity narratives are part of the meta narrative of salvation history which I believe to be true, though they are not central to that narrative as is evidenced by the fact that they are not referred to in the rest of the NT (that is not to say that the history behind the story is not important- that Jesus was born is critically important to salvation history- but the stories about his birth are less important to our understanding of salvation- evidently Paul was unaware of them- these stories are not critical integration points of the Gospel of or about Jesus). The nativity narratives involve a God: Jesus, but they are not primarily about the remote past and the origin of the universe; rather they are about events recorded close to the time of their happening. So they cannot properly be called myths.
Legends on the other hand usually involve human or human/ divine heroes, and their birth and development from the less remote past, as viewed through adoring eyes (Horsley, 1993:12). So by such a definition it is reasonable to speak of the conception and infancy narratives as legends if you view Jesus as a hero- and certainly I do. It should not be surprising that legends develop about the birth and childhood of people who in adulthood become as important as Jesus, as NT Wright notes (1999: 175). However this does not mean that Jesus fits the mould, or more pointedly is made from the same mould as other legendary persons, or even that such a mould exists (regarding the many parallels made see web site: http://www.rightreason.org/2009/the-virgin-birth-of-buddha/). As Strobel quotes to us, “those who claim Christianity was derived from these myths manufacture out of the various fragments of information a kind of universal mystery religion that never existed” (Schweitzer in Strobel, 2005:43).
So, yes we can say the birth narratives are legendary in one sense, but understanding them as historical writing is a more helpful and robust rubric for understanding what their authors intend them to mean and signify. If you are interested in reading in depth on these issues of the genre and meaning of the infancy narratives you may like to refer to Raymond Brown’s comprehensive and widely respected book “the Birth of the Messiah” (1993).
Midrash is an interpretive reading of a text which goes beyond the primary literal referents and seeks a deeper meaning (Longenecker, 1975:32); it seeks to actualize the past as a lesson or fulfillment for the present (Bloch in Brown, 1993: 558). As I understand it, it is entirely reasonable to say the infancy narratives involve Midrash intentions on the part of the Evangelists, and it is true to say that modern history writing tries to rid itself of such, though of course it cannot and if history could be known without relevance for the present it would be of questionable value to know any anyway.
When Matthew tells us that Jesus’ birth is foretold by the text in Isaiah talking about a child being born to us, this is a kind of Midrash interpretation of the OT text.
Let me give you an example of a different kind of Midrash: I am currently a member of a volunteer acting team taking a theatrical interpretation of the nativity into schools. Today we preformed at two primary schools in the western suburbs. The play is set in “grandma’s house” where family members are dressing up as characters from the nativity for Christmas. In explaining the shepherds’ role to her family ‘grandma’ says that shepherds were looked down on in Jesus day, and the Midrash point she derives is that the Good News is that Jesus is for everyone including the poor and marginalized (she words it differently). Now I entirely agree with ‘grandma’s’ interpretation and it reflects a proper Christian interpretation about the role of the shepherds in the story. This interpretation goes beyond the empirical facts of history, however, and from the text we cannot be sure whether this interpretation is true- it is possible that the shepherds being appeared to first, was just because they were close by and that it had nothing to do with their social status and the universality of the Gospel. So while the interpretation goes beyond the facts, the facts are important to the interpretation. If the shepherds were not historically real, and Luke told us they were real in order to get to point to the truth that the Good News is for everyone, that would go beyond Midrash and rightly be taken as pious fiction.
Ok so let’s talk about Mary’s (lack of a) sex life and the biblical accounts of Jesus’ conception. Whatever differences there are in the two nativity accounts both Matthew and Luke tell us that Mary was a virgin and the context makes it clear that, in this case, virgin means not having had sex.
18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about[a]: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet[b] did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus,[c] because he will save his people from their sins.”
22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”[d] (which means “God with us”).
24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
Matthew tells us that Mary was found to be pregnant before Joseph and Mary had come together and that she gave birth before they consummated the marriage- we can have no doubt that Matthew intends his reader to believe that Mary was a virgin in that she had not had sex, and not simply that she was a young woman. This is an instance of history writing and while there are arguments out there that depend on a symbolic meaning divorced from the referent of an actual virgin birth, they ignore the basic and first meaning of the text. Such interpretations, therefore, are not faithful to the text. It is possible that Matthew was mistaken about Mary’s sexual history- but- that he believed her to be a virgin needs to be affirmed.
Matthew explains that the events concerned are connected to the OT text Isaiah 7:14. Often critics and defenders of the historical virginal conception of Jesus assume in their arguments that the main point of prophesy in the Isaiah 7:14 as it applies to Jesus’ birth is Mary’s virginity and so they play a game of who knows more about ancient language use. A game that in my view Christian linguists win when both sides are heard, but not a game I think worthy of getting into tonight. (Brown, as referenced before is THE scholarly and fairly considered book to read, http://www.frontline-apologetics.com/Virgin_Birth_Jesus.html a credible, well researched website favoring the view that the Isaiah text is indeed prophetic of Jesus). Suffice to say the word Isaiah uses can mean virgin as we understand it and it can simply mean a young woman without reference to her sexual status.
In the first instance Isaiah was predicting that a series of political events were going to take place in his own context and would take place in the time it would take a child, not yet born or even conceived, to grow to such an age as to be able to tell right from wrong, and that his prediction coming true would be evidence of God’s being present and active in those events. Isaiah was not telling us that the young woman would remain a virgin until the birth of her child. While there is a possible connection with the word virgin which applies to Mary in a way beyond what Isaiah intended in the first instance, for those of us, and I include myself, willing to believe that God super-intended that meaning, the connection between the name Immanuel (God with us) and God’s actually coming to us through the body of any woman seems the grander and more important fulfilment of the Isaiah prophesy as Matthew applies it to Jesus. The point is that Jesus is the ultimate evidence of Immanuel because in his very self Jesus is God with us.
Let’s look at the only other biblical account we have of the virgin conception of Jesus in Luke’s gospel.
New International Version (NIV)
26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.”
38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.
We can first notice that Luke’s describing Mary as a virgin like Matthew’s needs to be read as literally meaning that Mary had at the time the angel appeared to her not had sex. Unlike Matthew though, Luke makes no reference to OT prophecy.
Instead Luke tells us (and just maybe we will allow that he was roughly paraphrasing the angel’s communication to Mary based on Christian theological reflection) that the child would be called the “Son of God”. This could be understood as conveying much of what Matthew says by referring to the Immanuel prophesy, but to Luke’s audience who did not know the OT the way Matthew’s did. Each of the four evangelists develop the theme of Jesus being the Son of God in their own way: Mark tells us Jesus was always the Son of God but was only publically recognized as such after his crucifixion, John develops the theme by focusing on Jesus’ pre-existence and relationship with God, and Matthew and Luke use these infancy narratives to demonstrate Jesus is Son of God.
Of course other lords of the time of Jesus were given the title of Son of God and savior and I think that it is fair to say that calling Jesus the Son of God did serve a counter-cultural, implied revolutionary purpose just as calling Jesus Lord and savior did. We forget this when we read that it is only by the power of the Holy Spirit that anyone can call Jesus Lord (1 Cor 12:3) and imagine that just saying “lord, lord” (cf. Matt 7:21) without any courage of conviction- against the cultural grain and sometimes worldly gain- is truly Spiritual. Horsley (1993) develops this theme, I think too far and way beyond the facts of the matter, but though he makes too much of it I think that the basic tenet is true- Christians did know that in saying Jesus was savior and lord, the true Son of God they were calling Caesar, where he took on such designations, a fraud. Certainly spiritual courage was required on their part when they did so. In a way these titles are counter- revolutionary rather than revolutionary though because the ‘Powers’ of this world first usurped God’s own divine authority before Jesus reclaimed it. In any case, these reasons and purposes do not detract from the truth, if it is true, that Jesus is the Son of God, because and primarily, as John shows, he had pre-existent relationship with God as his Father, but also it is consistent with his earthy conception being by the creative and miraculous intervention of God as Matthew and Luke say and his recognition as divine by many through his life, death and resurrection as Mark shows. The fact that others were called such things does not at all detract from the validity of the truth claim that Jesus is the true Son of God, the True Lord, the true Savior of the world- it only puts those claims in context.
Now outside the Gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke there are no historical evidences that Mary was a virgin when she had Jesus. So if we believe in the virgin birth as history we do so because that is the literal meaning of the text; that is what Matthew and Luke believed- and unlike us they were around the people who were around Jesus. I am willing to believe in the virgin birth on the strength of the testimony we have, especially since it is God’s book and even apart from that, but at the same time, it is not crucial to my faith. The main thing for me is that Jesus is Immanuel, not that Mary was a virgin.
However there are theories within some Christian communities that depend on the virgin birth, one being that since the fall sexual conception itself is the means of original sin being passed on so it is because of the virgin birth that Jesus was sinless (theologians as diverse as Augustine and Carl Barth affirm this) (Brown, 1993:530). It seems a bit down on sex but maybe that is right, I don’t know, but it does fit into the category of religious speculation and is beyond my own call to defend the gospel. Biblical theologians are usually hesitant to base doctrines on isolated texts and so it surprises me many do in this case. (The Immanuel theme of course is anything but isolated, but the virginity of Mary as we understand virginity is).
So are we all happy to affirm with Matthew and Luke that Mary was indeed a virgin?
Some may still wonder at other stories, many of them wild and clearly not written with the historical intention and care of Matthew and Luke who refer to virgin conceptions, but they have little, probably no connection to the story about Jesus, Raymond Brown, who I spoke of earlier tells that the “validity of the parallels hinges on three points…read 1993:522). Lee Strobel says much the same thing on p 43, as we’ve already read.
Jesus Birth at Bethlehem
Some critics say, following C Berger, in 1970 that Jesus’ birth at Bethlehem was a historicized theoloumenon- that is it was made up by some and come to be believed by others because of the prophetic tradition it supports. It needs to be remembered that bold, attention getting statements of refutation can be made about any point of history (there are those who deny the holocaust) and likely will be when the issue is attached to such a widespread faith. Maybe it seems funny, but most critics who say Jesus was not born at Bethlehem say he was born at Nazareth, but there are critics who say Nazareth as Jesus childhood home also is a historicized theoloumen.
Differences and Possible Contradictions between Luke’s And Matthew’s Narratives
I read a passage before that identified the points of agreement between Matthew and Luke, and I have photocopies of the page available. Brown tells us that “Matthew and Luke wrote independently of each other, without knowing the other’s work, agreement between the two infancy narratives would suggest the existence of a common infancy tradition earlier than either evangelist’s work- a tradition that would have a claim to greater antiquity and thus weigh on the plus side of the historical scale” (p.34). Brown also notes that “it is striking that all but the last [nativity events told of by both evangelists] are found in one section of the Matthean narrative (1:18-2:1), and the last is something that could have been known by both evangelists from [Jesus’] public ministry” (p. 35).
Possible contradictions suggested are that while Luke tells us Mary lived in Nazareth, Matthew makes no mention of that fact. This presents a real problem for some, but not for me. If that was something Luke knew but Matthew did not, what is the big deal? More difficult is understanding how the family ended up back in Nazareth. Matthew tells us they were refugees in Egypt for a time, avoiding Herod, having been visited by Magi but Luke (2:22-39) tell us they went to the temple and then back to Nazareth. It seems from my reading that scholars seem more inclined to question Matthew’s account than Luke’s.
Matthew does have a ‘this is that’ approach to drawing allegorical meanings from history recorded in the OT and Raymond Brown, whose scholarship is so profound, says that it is possible Matthew is embellishing the story for theological effect.
Brown writes “The two main lines in popular scholarly thought about the Magi story are that it is history or that it is a product of reflection on OT themes.” The usual OT theme recognized in this story is the Balaam story in which King Balak, who equates to Herod, wants an occultist seer to curse Israel, but the seer who is identified with the magi, having perceived the situation rightly from God despite his pagan background, refuses to (p193). Horsley (1993) in his liberation theology reading of the narratives develops these themes, characteristically taking them further.
Brown raises questions about the historical likelihood of Matthew’s story because the explanation of a star coming to rest over a house is problematic, because there is no hint of these events in Luke and because Herod’s surviving son has no knowledge of Jesus later on, which Brown reflects seems strange if his father had been so stirred up at the report of Jesus’ birth. Brown goes on to point out plausible resolutions to these questions noting that there were a number of strange astronomical happenings reported in the period around Jesus birth, and Magi with a special interest in them may have drawn leadings from them not perceived by most (Brown 1993:165-201). Even so Brown favors the theory that Matthew made some bits up. As a scholar of historical writing who has analyzed the text, we need to respect his expert if not his religious opinion – it is not to be dismissed with so many internet rumors. However, as to Matthew telling a story Luke does not it seems fair to ask why might Luke have left it out as well as why might Matthew have put it in. And one very possible reason for Luke’s omission is space. We need to remember they wrote on scrolls, not computers or reams of paper. Luke’s Gospel is as long as it possibly could be and still fit on one scroll. Maybe, since the story added nothing for his audience and purpose he left it out. Maybe the themes were relevant to Matthew’s audience because of OT motifs, and Matthew’s twin message that Jesus fulfills the OT religion, even as he manifests the universality of Israel’s God. In this understanding the Midrash is vital to Matthew’s message, but the history is still important. There is no problem with Luke saying the family offered sacrifice at the temple during the period Matthew places the family in Bethlehem because the city of Jerusalem and its satellite village, Bethlehem were only 8km apart.
Personally my view of Scripture does allow for one or other of the evangelists to have been mistaken on minor points, but if, as a matter of fact the family never went to Egypt that would seem to be a major point. Not Gospel killing major, but major like if Mary conceived in the natural way.
Similarly it also seems that when Luke writes the songs of Elizabeth, Mary and Zechariah, he is drawing on OT themes to elaborate on the actual historical content of the Spirit filled outbursts of joyful communication he reports Elizabeth and the others having. My view of literary literal meanings and of Scripture has no problem with that understanding of the Evangelists’ poetic license here in these instances. As Howard Marshall tells us “the hymns attributed to some of the principal actors are unlikely to be spontaneous compositions, but serve, like the speeches in ancient histories, to express the significance of the moment in appropriate language” (p.46). However, that poetic license would be mightily stretched for me if, for example, the wise men were only representative figures and not actual ones.
So now let me tell you the story of Jesus’ conception, birth and infancy as I understand it to have happened, adding in possible expletory details, remembering of course that none of it has anything to do with the time of year we call Christmas except as the public consensus continues to make it so.
Mary was a young girl of about 13 when she learned from God, through an angel that she was going to have a special baby, by a miracle of God and not involving any kind of sexual intercourse. Embarrassed though she was, she told her betrothed, Joseph, who was about 18. He assumed that Mary had had sex with someone until an angel told him in a dream that Mary was telling the truth. Then the couple, embarrassed though they were, told their parents, and, what their parents believed we do not know. But Mary was sent to stay with her aunt away from the eye of the townsfolk for much of her pregnancy, and her aunt, who knew from personal experience that God can do miracle pregnancies, did believe her and sensed the import of their auspicious unborn babies. Later in Mary’s pregnancy she and Joseph were sent away to Bethlehem- probably again to escape the notice of those who may be able to add up the months and realize conception came before marriage- this was likely the real reason for the move even if a coming census was the ostensible reason, the family justification for a move.
Mary and Joseph, when they arrived in Bethlehem, camped out the back of someone’s house in something like a sleep-out where animals were let in during the cold until 40 days after Jesus was born (the full period of Mary’s ritual uncleanness- and recovery). Shepherds, who had seen a host of angels, came prophesying just after Jesus birth. After 40 days Mary and Joseph took Jesus to Jerusalem and in the crowded court of women at the temple at least two people came and prophesized over the baby. When the couple went back to Bethlehem they intended to settle down there and they became established in a house- probably the house of relatives- rather than the animal’s sleep-out.
Star-gazers from Babylon or Arabia came, because God told them to, not through means of angels as conceived of generally, but through astronomical and astrological means. They were sufficiently bold enough to seek an audience with King Herod, though, while they were from the intelligentsia of their own people, they were not kings. They found the baby Jesus in the small village of Bethlehem and avoided Herod on their way back home after hearing from God in a dream (it is possible they also heard from other humans what Herod did to his own son, and others, in defense of his throne).
After a prophetic dream Joseph took his family to Egypt, which was beyond the jurisdiction of Herod. Herod did something quite in keeping with his character having all the male infants in Bethlehem killed in an attempt to get rid of the child he was told might be a rival to his kingship. There were probably only 20 or so male infants and compared to his regular brutality such a murder did not even warrant a mention in official records.
Though presumably Joseph had intended returning to Bethlehem after Herod died, he was led by God to move back to Nazareth- which was in a more politically stable region. It would seem likely by then that enough time had passed that most people would not be able to figure out that the conception of Jesus happened before the marriage of his parents- but it also seems clear from later rumors of illegitimacy that some people did still wonder.
Brown, R.E., (1993), “The Birth of the Messiah, a commentary on the infancy narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke”, Doubleday: New York
Horsley, R.A., (1993) “The Liberation of Christmas, the infancy narratives in social context”, Continuum: New York
Longenecker, R.N., (1995), “Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period”, Paternosta: Carlisle
Marshall, I.H. (1978), “The Gospel of Luke, a commentary on the Greek text”, Paternosta: Exeter
Strobel, L., (2005), “The Case for Christmas, a journalist investigates the identity of the child in the manger”, Zondervan: Grand Rapids
Vanhoozer, K.J. (1998), “Is There a Meaning in this Text, The Bible, the Reader and the Morality of Literary Knowledge”, Zondervan: Grand Rapids
Wright, N.T., (1999), “The Meaning of Jesus, two visions” Harper Collins: SanFrancisco
The True Origins of Christianity – A Sceptical View
On Thursday the 24th of October Laurie Eddie, the founder of the SA Skeptics, presented his views on the “The True Origins of Christianity”.
Laurie Eddie is a joint founder of the South Australian branch of the Australian Skeptics in 1983. Laurie was formerly the president of SA Skeptics and is the current vice president. Prior to retirement Laurie was a clinical psychologist and also worked for the Department of Correctional Services.
Laurie gave a one hour Power Point presentation on The Origins of Christianity, which was then followed by discussion. His main thesis was that:
- The early church in Jerusalem was Jewish and mainly followed Jesus’ teachings but did not believe in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God or that he rose from the dead.
- Paul took the gospel to the gentiles and introduced the divine aspects of Jesus, based on Gnostic teachings and influenced by Roman mystery religions. It was Paul who taught that Jesus was Son of God and that he rose from the dead. The majority of the New Testament is largely unhistorical, contradictory and reflects Paul’s views.
- The Jerusalem church was nearly completely wiped out during the Jewish Wars and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. The survivors moved to Pella (across the Jordan) and subsequently declined in influence.
After his presentation, we had an open discussion. Laurie also invited a number of his friends from the SA Skeptics and so we shared a diversity of views. Laurie’s presentation and the subsequent discussion is now available on You Tube. There was insufficient time to fully engage with all of Laurie’s material; so we will be reviewing his material in subsequent meetings next year.
Laurie’s views are not the same as ours. However, Reasonable Faith Adelaide wishes to engage with people who disagree with us. We encourage dialogue and it is our full intention to listen carefully to and honestly evaluate the opinions and arguments of those with whom we disagree. Laurie previously participated in a debate with us on the existence of God. He takes an interest in what we do and has attended a number of our meetings. Thus we welcome his participation.
Did NT writers copy pagan religions?
On the 10th of October Dr Stephen Spence presented the current status of comparative religious studies and especially the influence of pagan myths on the New Testament.
During the debates between Lawrence Krauss and William Lane Craig, Krauss claimed that Jesus is nothing new. Krauss claimed that Dionysus, Perseus, Attis, Krishna, Horus, Mercury and Romulus were also born of a virgin. In particular, Dionysus (the Greek God of wine) was born of a virgin mother, fathered by the king of heaven, returned from the dead, transformed water into wine and was the liberator of mankind. Krauss also claimed that Osiris (the Egyptian God of life) rose from the dead and all mortal men could be resurrected if they followed the correct religious rituals.
The claim that Jesus is a copy of pagan deities is a common ploy from sceptics. However,
- Are the parallels real?
- Are these claims supported within academic circles or are they just believed within populist, non-academic sceptical circles?
- What are the implications of these parallels?
- Is Jesus of Nazareth really unique?
In response, Dr Spence provided a background on Comparative Religion and the historical background and current status of the School of History of Religions. This also included an assessment of the degree of influence of pagan religions on the NT. He also provided an assessment on the plausibility of the virgin birth and the nativity narratives.
Steve went over his time budget, but he is forgiven. It was a really interesting talk and well worth viewing the video recording on You Tube. Stephen provided us with Overhead slides and handouts as well as a Review of Kyrios Christus by Larry Hurtado. Kyrios Christus was one of the key publications from the School of the History of Religions, which first proposed that the divine view of Christ was derived from pagan sources.
The Reverend Dr Stephen Spence is the Deputy Principal (Academic) of Tabor College in Adelaide. He is also the Professor of New Testament and Theology. Dr Spence has international theological training, including a PhD from Fuller Seminary, and has also been a pastor in several churches in Victoria. Stephen is married to Colleen (who is also on staff at Tabor), and has two children. He supports the Richmond Tigers, and won the 2008 Tabor football tipping! – See more at: http://taboradelaide.edu.au/schools/school-of-ministry-theology-culture/faculty#spence.