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Showing posts with label New Testament. Show all posts
Showing posts with label New Testament. Show all posts

Monday, September 11, 2017

Yes Jesus Existed: Even Romans Outside the Bible Wrote About Him

It seems that given enough of a shine, any bad idea can gain traction. For most of history, scholars have debated the events of the life of Jesus recorded in the biblical accounts. However, the vast majority of New Testament scholars, both those who are of the faith and those who are critical of it, have held that it as historical fact that a man named Jesus of Nazareth lived in first century Palestine, had disciples follow him, and was eventually put to death. While a few fringe elements doubted the idea of a historical Jesus, not even most atheist New Testament scholars believe that Jesus never existed.

But with the advent of the internet and the ability to self-publish, that fringe has grown a much larger following. Now there are very popular atheists who hold that the entire account of Jesus's life, teaching, and death, are simply made up, setting a fictional stage for a fictional tale of a mythical messiah. They claim that if Jesus was such a big deal he would surely have been noticed and written about by more than just the biblical authors.

While that argument isn't valid—in comparison to the events of the Empire in circa 30 A.D., the goings on in Palestine wouldn't be considered newsworthy to those living in Rome—the fact is that Jesus does get mentioned in ancient Roman sources. In his book Jesus Outside the New Testament, Dr. Robert E. Van Voorst pulls together citations from Roman writers such as Thalles, Pliny the Younger, Seutonius, Tacitus, Mara bar Serapion, Lucian of Samosata, and Celsus, along with Jewish sources such as Josephus and other rabbinic writings. Of his Roman sources, Van Voorst underscores that this is a pretty diverse group:
The famous Roman writers on history and imperial affairs have taken pride of place: Suetonius, Tacitus, and Pliny the Younger. On the other end of the spectrum, the comparatively unknown writers Mara and Thallos have also contributed their voices. Philosophic opponents to Christianity such as Lucian and Celsus have also written about Christ. These writers have a range of opinion: from those perhaps sympathetic to Christ (Mara); through those moderately hostile (Pliny) and those fully hostile but descriptive (Tacitus, Suetonius); to those not interested in description, but who vigorously attack Christianity and in the process attack Christ (Lucian and Celsus). A variety of languages is also notable: Latin, the official language of Rome; Greek, both a common literary language and the language of trade; and Syriac, a main language of the eastern Mediterranean. Together, they speak of a variety of topics about Jesus' teachings, movement, and death. And they know that Jesus is worshiped by Christians, which they relate to his founding of a movement.1
Van Voorst is cautious not to make too much of these mentions, as he notes most of the outside accounts of Jesus's life are coming from Christians who do believe He existed. He even states "by the strictest standards of historical evidence we cannot use them to demonstrate the existence of Jesus. On the other hand, given the nature of the evidence on Jesus from classical authors, neither can one use them as conclusive evidence to disprove the existence of Jesus."2 But these sources cannot be counted out as of no value at all. After all, some of these sources were very hostile to Christianity and they would have motive to point out the fact that such a man as Jesus was mythical. Instead, Van Voorst sees them as secondary sources of historical accounts. After making the above points, he continues:
…Although independent confirmation by contemporary classical writers is excluded, we do gain a later corroboration of certain key elements in the life of Jesus. Corroboration of knowledge is important, in historiography as in the natural sciences. If classical writers had never mentioned Jesus, or especially if they had argued that he was a product of Christian myth­making, then it would be a different matter. They did treat Jesus as a historical person, the founder of his movement, and had no reason to doubt his historicity. It would have been easy (if Jesus never existed) to deliver a strong blow against Christianity by showing that it was based on a myth when it claimed to be based on history. But these writers accepted Jesus as historical, and all but one used the events of his life as arguments against Christianity: he began a movement that they called a pernicious superstition, and he was executed as a criminal.3
Van Voorst concludes that ultimately to do good history, we must do what scholars have done for centuries. We have to take the New Testament accounts themselves as what they are, documents of ancient history. The evidence there is very strong that the New Testament authors were writing in a specific genre of ancient biography, meaning they were writing about a real person. And given that both Jewish antagonists and Roman antagonists argued that the events of the life of Jesus proved he wasn't worthy of worship, it seems a much more reasonable to conclude that Jesus was a real person rather than that he never existed at all.


1. Robert E. Van Voorst. Jesus Outside the New Testament: an Introduction to the Ancient Evidence. W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 2000. 68.
2. Van Voorst. 73.
3. Ibid.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Why You Can Be Confident We Have the Original Bible Texts

Earlier this week, I mentioned the Newsweek cover article entitled "The Bible: So Misunderstood It's a Sin" written by Kurt Eichenwald that set the text of the New Testament in its cross-hairs. There, I showed why the translation of the Bible we have today is not like a game of telephone, being translated from a translation from a translation.

But Eichenwald doesn't argue that multiple translations are the only problem in discovering the original text. He also mentions the fact that we don't have the original writings of the New Testament, but "hand-copied copies of copies of copies of copies, and on and on, hundreds of times."1 There is a bit of truth to this claim. If the manuscripts from which we are translating the New Testament are themselves corrupt or wrong, then it really doesn't matter how well we have translated the text. We're simply translating an error. Let's examine this critique and see if it holds up.

First, it is true that we don't have the originals, or the first generation copies, or even the second generation. While we don't know just how many times the text was copied prior to the earliest copes we do have (called manuscripts), it is safe to say they are for the most part dozens of times removed from the originals. What makes things seem worse is the earliest pieces we do have are not large portions of text, but small fragments. For example, the earliest gospel portion is the John Rylands fragment (P52) that only contains part of John 18:31-33 on one side and John 18:37-38 on the other. The more complete manuscripts are from hundreds of years later.

Doesn't the fact that we are separated by hundreds of years from the originals to the copies we have cause concern? Actually, not at all. New Testament scholars—both Christians and skeptics—have the greatest confidence that we know just what the original authors wrote. How can this be? I can explain with an example: tracing my family's recipe for spaghetti sauce.

Nonna's Family Sauce

My great grandmother came to the United States from Sicily in 1921. With her, she brought a recipe for spaghetti sauce that her mother had cooked. She in turn taught it to her three daughters, of which my grandmother was one. My grandmother passed that along to her four children, including my mother. She taught it to my wife and my siblings and my wife taught it to my daughter-in-law. The other daughters passed the recipe onto their children who passed it to theirs as well.

Now, suppose the descendants of my Great grandmother all get together at the 200th reunion of her arrival and say, "we want to make the sauce, but we want to make sure that it is the exact sauce she would have tasted in Sicily as a little girl." Would such a feat be impossible? Not really. In order to find the original, all the families would write down their recipe as they now fix it. There would be more than a hundred copies of the recipe, and there would no doubt be variations in the ingredients, amounts, and preparation. However, because we have such a large collection, we can begin to compare them one to another.

We may notice that all the recipes use crushed tomatoes except for 20 which say tomato sauce. We also not the crushed tomatoes show up nearly unanimously in the recipes supplied by the older generations. It is a strong bet that crushed tomatoes is right. Secondly, we notice that one group of recipes call to use twice as much garlic in the sauce. But all of these recipes come from the family of one uncle who liked the strong taste of garlic. Another group tell us to add sugar, but that cousin was known to have a sweet tooth. Some are missing ingredients, others have the preparation steps reversed, and a few add meat. However, because we have so many copies, we can reasonably rebuild the original recipe. Those copies coming from the older generations are less likely to deviate from the original since they have gone through fewer iterations. Overall, though, the receipt they come up with is probably the one my great grandmother was served as a little girl.

Thousands and Thousands of Copies

Those who reconstruct the text of the New Testament do basically the same thing on a larger scale. They have many thousands of manuscript copies, partials, and portions from different places all over the ancient world. New Testament scholar Dr. Daniel Wallace places this in perspective when he writes:
Altogether, we have at least 20,000 handwritten manuscripts in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Coptic and other ancient languages that help us to determine the wording of the original. Almost 6000 of these manuscripts are in Greek alone. And we have more than one million quotations of the New Testament by church fathers. There is absolutely nothing in the Greco-Roman world that comes even remotely close to this wealth of data.2
This is why scholars today have a 99% confidence level that the text of the New Testament we have is what the original authors wrote.

I've only scratched the surface of Eichenwald's article; there are many more claims about the Bible he makes that fail to take modern scholarship into account. These two points, though, should give you confidence that his claims about no one today "has ever read the Bible"3 are unjustified. We do have the books as the New Testament authors wrote them. I would bet a plate of pasta on it.


1. Eichenwald, Kurt. "The Bible: So Misunderstood It's a Sin." Newsweek 23 Dec. 2014: n. pag. Web. 26 Jan. 2015.
2. Daniel B. Wallace. "Predictable Christmas Fare: Newsweek's Tirade against the Bible." Daniel B Wallace. The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts, 28 Dec. 2014. Web. 30 Jan. 2015.
3.Eichenwald, 2014.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Truth-Value of the Resurrection

Jim Wallace had a job they make TV shows out of: he was a cold-case detective in Southern California. Wallace had spent most of his career as an avowed atheist, and by relying on forensics and science in his job he naturally elevated them in the rest of his worldview. But after some fifteen years, his views changed. In his book, Cold-Case Christianity, he tells of how he began believing that Jesus' teachings could hold some merit to the full realization that Jesus Christ really did rise from the dead. The amazing this is that it wasn't in spite of his trust in forensics and the dispassionate weighing of testimony that that he believed, it was because of those techniques. Wallace writes, "I began to use FSA (Forensic Statement Analysis) as I studied the Gospel of Mark. Within a month, in spite of my deep skepticism and hesitation, I concluded that Mark's gospel was the eyewitness account of the apostle Peter."

But Cold-Case Christianity isn't the first book that documents an atheist who becomes a believer using his professional skills in a different context. Most people are familiar with Lee Strobel and his best-selling book The Case for Christ. Lee has told his story many times. He was a journalist with the Chicago Tribune and an atheist who began to use investigative journalistic techniques to find out the truth about Jesus. Like any good journalist, he interviewed experts, and sought to make sense of the accounts as they were presented. After two years of studying the evidence, Strobel became a Christian within five years of that, he became a teaching pastor at Willow Creek Church.

Even before Strobel, though, these kinds of events would happen. Frank Morison would get my vote for the Less Strobel of the Al Capone era.  Morison regarded Jesus highly, but he also loved the physical sciences and 20th century how something like a resurrection could never happen. Morison decided to write a book debunking the resurrection, "to strip it of its overgrown and primitive beliefs and dogmatic suppositions." But, as Morison puts it, that book refused to be written. Instead, after years of thought and investigation, Morison's book, Who Moved the Stone?, became a testimony for the truthfulness of the resurrection.

Of course, we can go back farther and we see similar stories with similar results. Most people may not know that every court case in the United States bears the fingerprints of Simon Greenleaf. A legal scholar in the early 1800's who helped establish the Harvard School of Law, his three volume Treatise on the Law of Evidence set the standard for what counts as evidence in legal trials and became the standard textbook for most law schools up until the 20th century. Greenleaf was challenged at one point by some Christian students to apply those same rules of evidence to the gospels and see what he found. The result was Greenleaf's book Testimony of the Evangelists, Examined by the Rules of Evidence Administered in Courts of Justice.

There are probably many more examples but these four are accessible enough to make my point. Why do such stories exist and why do they become so popular? Certainly, every Christian has some kind of testimony so why do these stick out and why to people buy the books that hold their stories? I think the answer is simple. As we have developed as a society, we've come up with some pretty good tools to weigh the truth value of testimony. Reporters, jurists, and criminal investigators use these tools in their perspective professions because they have found that the tools serve them better than anything else to date. When those professionals then use that same trustworthy approach on the gospels, they find that the gospel accounts are in fact what they claim to be: true accounts of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The only reason that one would reject such a claim is if one rejected the supernatural aspect of the accounts ahead of time. But that's an assumption that isn't warranted by the evidence. In fact, the resurrection of Jesus is the only explanation that accounts for all the facts of the New Testament. No other explanation fits the bill.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

How to Know the Bible is Really from God

When asked why they hold to certain beliefs or why they feel acting in a certain manner is a wrong, Christians will usually point to the Bible. The Bible is the standard of our faith. Why should we put so much faith in a collection of ancient texts? What about the holy texts of other faiths? Join us to see why the Bible is completely trustworthy.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

How did Reza Aslan Discover the Zealot Jesus?

Stop the presses.  Jesus is just a man.  That seems to be the reaction of the media to Reza Aslan's new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Aslan has been making the media circuit, getting coverage on popular television news programs such as Fox News and Piers Morgan Live, along with featured articles in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, and many others . Aslan is currently on tour, and you can even check his web site to find out when he's coming to your city.

Who would have thought that a book on the life of Jesus would garner so much attention?  Actually, it could have been expected, though the clumsy interview Lauren Green gave on Fox News definitely lifted Aslan's profile to the other outlets. (What's that saying, again? The enemy of my enemy is my friend?) But we have seen this kind of attention given to authors who wrote similar books previously. The Jesus Seminar has had great coverage throughout the 1980s and 1990s when it was active.  Two of its prominent members, Robert Funk and John Dominic Crossan, would be regularly seen in documentary specials and feature stories.  Debunking the Christian story is a draw, and the media knows it.

It seems that when any new theory about Jesus as someone other than whom the Gospels portray Him to be pops up, there is a new batch of faith-debunkers ready to jump on the bandwagon.  Of course, depending on your preference, each of these faith-debunkers have their own take on the matter. As Charlotte Allen wrote in her review:
"To be sure, all of the historical-Jesus people put their own idiosyncratic spins onto the basic narrative. Jesus is variously presented as a love-your-neighbor moralist (the Enlightenment view); a cynic philosopher (Crossan); a balding, overweight rabbi (Chilton); or a secular sage who hated organized religion (the Jesus Seminar's late founder, Robert Funk). Aslan's take is that Jesus was a fanatic Jewish ideologue and would-be messiah whose 'Kingdom of God' was a 'call to revolution' against the occupying Romans, and who envisioned 'blood-soaked streets' once the revolution got underway."
Isn't it interesting that those who claim to have the inside scoop of the real view of Jesus—the one that only dispassionate scholarship produces—all come out with different stories? It should give you pause when you hear claims that this new book or that one will disprove our Sunday school stories about Jesus. Why, if the scholarship is so convincing, do these scholars have such different conclusions on who Jesus really is?  They all use the same source material; the Gospel accounts, Paul's writings and some other historical texts are what both liberal and conservative scholars rely upon to build their understanding of Jesus' life and deeds. There are no new revelatory discoveries in the source material, so what's going on?

New Testament Scholar Craig A. Evans explains that "Aslan has canvassed much of the responsible scholarship in the field, but he does not always choose his options prudently. He often opts for extreme views and sometimes makes breathtaking assertions." Yes, it has been the practice by the historical Jesus crowd for a while not to take the whole of the source documents as reliable, but to cherry-pick only those facts that paint the picture one wants to portray. As Allen observed, "While Aslan describes the Gospels and other New Testament narratives as 'propagandistic legend' in which 'factual accuracy was irrelevant,' he quotes from them — when it serves his purposes — as often as any fundamentalist preacher." So Aslan dismisses miracles or the Resurrection as myth, but he somehow can discern just which passages are mythical and which are not. We are never told of the method he uses to do so, we are just to trust him to make these judgments for us.

In a court of law, when an attorney wishes to counter the testimony of a witness, they seek to discredit the witness entirely. In other words, the cross-examiner doesn't try to tell the jury "you have heard Mrs. Jones tell us that the robber was wearing a black shirt and blue jeans and he sped away in a red car. I think you should believe Mrs. Jones about the car, but she's making up the shirt and jeans part." That would never fly. Aslan needs to weigh in on the bits he dismisses as fable and answer just how he is able to so shrewdly discern the text. Otherwise we're left with Evan's summation that "at points Aslan's book is informative; it is often entertaining. But it is also rife with questionable assertions. Let the reader beware."
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