Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Church Write-Up: Light and Darkness

My church started its weekly advent service this week.

The pastor spoke about light and darkness. Darkness is something that scares us, yet comforts us. When someone is at the door at night and we cannot tell who it is, we get scared. Yet, when we are doing wrong or falling short of perfection, we prefer the safety and anonymity that darkness brings, since there is nobody shedding light on us and judging us. Ancient Israel in the time of Isaiah, who speaks about light, was experiencing darkness, as Gentiles ruled Israel and even influenced her temple. Light can be powerful: it has been said that a candle in the middle of a dark football field can be seen from both ends of the football field. Christians, by forgiving and loving their neighbors, can be that kind of light in the world, but the light is not their own but is reflected from Christ, flowing from their relationship with him.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Book Write-Up: Josiah’s Reformation, by Richard Sibbes

Richard Sibbes. Josiah’s Reformation. See here to download the book.

Richard Sibbes (1577-1636) was an English Puritan preacher. This book contains a series of sermons that he preached on II Chronicles 34:26-28, which states regarding King Josiah of Judah:

“[26] And as for the king of Judah, who sent you to enquire of the Lord, so shall ye say unto him, Thus saith the Lord God of Israel concerning the words which thou hast heard; [27] Because thine heart was tender, and thou didst humble thyself before God, when thou heardest his words against this place, and against the inhabitants thereof, and humbledst thyself before me, and didst rend thy clothes, and weep before me; I have even heard thee also, saith the Lord. [28] Behold, I will gather thee to thy fathers, and thou shalt be gathered to thy grave in peace, neither shall thine eyes see all the evil that I will bring upon this place, and upon the inhabitants of the same. So they brought the king word again.”

Here are some thoughts about this book:

A. The book promoted the usual Puritan emotional roller-coaster: people need to be genuinely sad about their sins, then they can receive God’s forgiveness. This is a difficult teaching. I, for one, do not want intense emotions of sadness to inconvenience my life. That was one reason I could not stand Charles Spurgeon’s The Sinner and His Savior when I read it over a decade ago. At the same time, Sibbes does well to highlight the depth and the intensity of emotion that biblical characters felt towards spiritual matters.

B. There is also the Puritan realism, however: the acknowledgment that Christians may have some hardness of heart and may have difficulty arriving at the tender heart that God desires. Sibbes exhorts people in this condition to press forward with the means of grace. But he also cogently addresses the question of how Christian hardness of heart is distinct from the unbelievers’ hardness of heart: if both believers and unbelievers have hardness of heart, how can one tell that he or she is saved?

C. There is an edifying quality to the book, as Sibbes fields questions in a direct manner and systematically lays out points. For example, he lists reasons that Christians can be assured that God desires to answer their prayers, but also reasons that God may choose not to do so.

D. This passage stood out to me: “Christ, as it were, in the sacrament enters through the senses more lively than in the preaching of the word, for there he enters in by the ears, but in the sacrament he is seen, tasted, handled, felt. So that the soul and body have communion together by way of information.” That makes me wonder about the sense in which Puritans believed that Christ was present in the sacraments. My recollection from Roger Olson’s Story of Christian Theology is that Calvin did not go so far as Zwingli in thinking that the sacraments were mere memorials, but he also did not go so far as Luther and the Calvinists in maintaining that Christ was somehow physically present in the sacraments. Calvin thought Christ’s presence was more spiritual.

E. Occasionally, Sibbes offers an insight into the biblical story itself. For example, God let Josiah die before the destruction of Jerusalem, and Sibbes says that was God taking into account Josiah’s tender heart. Josiah had a fierce regard for his people, as evidenced in his rash challenge against Pharaoh Neco. How would he feel were he to see his people defeated and destroyed by a foreign power, the Babylonians?

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Church Write-Up: Eight, Numbering, Journey

Some items from church this morning:

A. The youth pastor was talking about the numerical symbolism of various items in the church. One concerned the number eight: God rested on the seventh day after creation, but the eighth day marks God continuing to create. On thing that God continues to create is Christians, as he makes them new creations, conforming them more and more to the character of God. That stood out to me on account of a thought that occurred to me in my prayer time this week. Leviticus 14 talks about a plague that afflicts the house. The owner can remove the plague from the house, but sometimes the plague is so deep in the house that it needs to be destroyed and rebuilt. The plague of sin runs deeply in our characters, such that God needs to remake us. The thing is, this is a process, to be completed in the future. For many in the Reformed camp, the process is never complete this side of heaven. For John Wesley, some in this life can arrive at a state at which they love God and neighbor and a sinful nature no longer afflicts them, but, even then, there is always room for improvement.

B. The pastor chronicled examples of God’s numbering of people in Scripture. The Israelites in the Book of Numbers were counted in a census as part of God’s people. Jesus on earth was numbered with the transgressors. The disciples were to rejoice because their names were written in heaven. In the Book of Revelation, there are vast amounts of saints who cannot be numbered. The pastor said that many of us wonder if we are completely anonymous, but we matter to God and are counted by him. There was an error in the bulletin in which one of the Scriptural passages was the wrong one for that day, and the pastor said that he believed that God used that particular Scripture passage to bless someone in the congregation, either to convict or to encourage. In this season of advent, the pastor remarked that he thinks this is why Jesus was born during a census: to remind us that each one of us counts before God. The pastor did mention the examples in Scripture in which numbering is considered negative: the Israelites had to atone for their census in the wilderness, and God punished David for his census. I wonder how that would fit into his theological consideration of the issue.

C. The Sunday school class has been going through Max Lucado’s Because of Bethlehem series. This class has not been my cup of tea for a variety of reasons. It emphasizes small discussion groups, whereas I prefer Sunday school classes that are entirely lecture, with people in the larger group offering their comments. The pastor was even suggesting that we hold a partner accountable on reflecting on one of the questions in the booklet over the week, and that turns me off, as one who over the past twenty years has recovered from being in an evangelical small group. The booklet also seems heavy on law: feel this, do that, etc., whereas I tend to gravitate towards Lutheranism because it emphasizes human weakness and need for God’s grace, plus I am satisfied with my current devotional life and do not intend to add anything new. But I have been sticking with this class for a variety of reasons: people expect to see me there, I have appreciated the pastor’s personal reflections, I should be more interested in other people’s lives and where they think they have experienced God, and, every now and then, Max Lucado has some gem that I am glad to have heard.

D. The class this week focused on the wise men. The wise men were on a journey. Kids like to go on road trips because of the possibility of seeing something new. Parents, however, may prefer to stay home because of the hassle and planning that road trips entail. The wise men were on a journey to see something new, whereas Herod preferred to stay where he was, the status quo, in which he was in power. Others in the Jerusalem establishment were like that, too. The religious scholars in Matthew’s story knew the correct Scriptural answer to the wise men’s question of where the Messiah would be born, Bethlehem, but they did not accompany the wise men to Bethlehem, even though Bethlehem was not far from Jerusalem. Someone in class speculated that they promulgated biblical teaching for their own power, not because they believed it was the truth. While Matthew’s nativity story depicts the Jerusalem establishment rather dimly, Luke records that some in the Jerusalem establishment eagerly awaited the Messiah. Many of us prefer to remain in our comfort zones, even though God wants us to be on a journey, doing God’s will. Some of this resonated with me, and some of it stirred up questions in my mind. First of all, do I like journeys? I have never cared for road trips. Some of that has to do with car sickness, part of it is boredom, and some of it is that I prefer the comfort of home, and I see nothing wrong with that. At the same time, I do like to go on walks because of the possibility of going to new places, even though the new places never turn out to be that interesting, and I enjoy visiting new destinations in my dreams. Spiritually speaking, I do prefer my comfort zone over going on some nebulous adventure for God, though it is interesting to read about others’ adventures for God. Second, the lesson seemed to suggest that people need to be in the right state of mind to be receptive to God, even though Lucado also said that God in Christ pierces where we are with his presence. That may be biblical, since the Gospel depicts many missing the boat because they were in the wrong place spiritually. Still, I would hope that God’s grace can break through that, since I know that I am not entirely in the right place spiritually, as I have my share of pride, lust, desire for personal exaltation, and issues with God.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Book Write-Up: Twelve Ordinary Men, by John MacArthur

John MacArthur. Twelve Ordinary Men: How the Master Shaped His Disciples for Greatness, and What He Wants to Do with You. W, 2002. See here to purchase the book.

John MacArthur is a pastor and author as well as the President of Master’s Seminary. Twelve Ordinary Men is a profile of each of the twelve disciples. MacArthur looks at everything that the New Testament says about the disciples and draws conclusions about their character from that. He also considers various ancient Christian traditions about what happened to them.

Here are some thoughts and observations:

A. MacArthur paints a coherent picture of each disciple, pulling together the various things that the New Testament says about them. To use an example, Thomas was willing to go to Jerusalem and die with Jesus (John 11:16), but he also doubted that Jesus rose from the dead (John 20). In addition, shortly before Jesus’s death, Thomas said he did not know where Jesus was going and wondered how the disciples could know the way (John 14:5). What do all of these statements have in common? Some think that the common theme was that Thomas was a dunce, or that Thomas had his moments of faith and his moments of doubt. More plausibly, MacArthur proposes that Thomas was a pessimist, yet a pessimist who wanted to be with Jesus.

B. MacArthur continually says that the disciples demonstrate that God uses the weak things of the world for God’s glory (I Corinthians 1:27). Yet, MacArthur also thinks that the disciples had natural talents that God used. Peter, for instance, was an apt leader because he was curious and unafraid to ask questions, rushed to be in the middle of things, and boldly got in the forefront and talked. God refined Peter’s character yet used who Peter basically was. MacArthur does not think that everyone has to be like Peter, though. He notes that Andrew quietly brought individual people to Jesus. James the Less and Judas (not Iscariot) were perfectly willing to stay in the background, yet God used them to do great things, just as God used the other disciples.

C. In a few cases, MacArthur tries to work with what little details the New Testament provides. Based on details in the New Testament, MacArthur explores the possibility that James the Less was Matthew’s brother, or Jesus’s nephew. MacArthur acknowledges that these are mere possibilities and is not dogmatic about them. Some details were puzzling: is John 19:25 suggesting that Mary’s sister was also named Mary? What was particularly interesting about James the Less was that his mother and others in his family were followers of Jesus.

D. There were cases in which MacArthur illuminated the Scriptures, or at least offered plausible proposals and interpretations. Why did the Samaritans in the Gospel of Luke have a problem with the disciples passing through Samaritan territory to get to Jerusalem? According to MacArthur, the Samaritans disliked that Jews were going to Jerusalem to worship, when the Samaritans believed that God’s legitimate sanctuary was at Mount Gerizim. How was Jesus responding to the question from Judas (not Iscariot) about why Jesus shows himself to the disciples and not the whole world (John 14:22)? Jesus’s response was that the Father and Jesus appear to anyone who loves him.

E. On pages 98-99, MacArthur contrasts Paul with John. Paul, according to MacArthur, acknowledges that believers struggle with sin (Romans 7), whereas John presents things in black and white: believers obey the commandments, love, do not practice sin, walk in the light, etc. MacArthur states: “From reading John, one might think that righteousness comes so easily and naturally to the Christian that every failure would be enough to shatter our assurance completely. That is why when I read heavy doses of John, I sometimes have to turn to Paul’s epistles just to find some breathing space.” That is a telling statement, since MacArthur’s writings have challenged my own spiritual assurance in the past. Apparently, MacArthur has a similar struggle, at times, and feels a need for breathing space as he reads and processes Scripture.

F. Some of MacArthur’s harmonizations of Scripture are fairly plausible, whereas others are not so much. MacArthur tries to harmonize the different accounts of Jesus’s calling of the disciples. He says that Jesus called them when they were disciples of John, then called them to deeper levels of service, then chose them among other disciples to go out and preach the message of the Kingdom. That makes a degree of sense, for Peter in Luke 5 obviously already knew Jesus. MacArthur’s attempt to reconcile the different accounts of Judas Iscariot’s death was a bit of a stretch, though. What MacArthur seems to be saying is that the priests bought Judas a field with the money that Judas returned to them, and Judas hung himself then collapsed there (cp. Matthew 27:8; Acts 1:19).

G. MacArthur says that Judas left before Jesus and the disciples ate the last supper. This is a significant topic because it is relevant to debates about closed versus open communion. Did Judas partake of communion with the other disciples? For MacArthur, there was no way that Jesus would allow Judas, a greedy, hateful man who had opened himself to Satanic influence, to partake of the holy sacrament of communion. Looking at the Gospels, MacArthur’s interpretation makes sense if one wants to compare John with Matthew and Mark. John lacks a communion service, but it does depict Judas leaving right after Jesus confronts him about the impending betrayal (John 13:21-29). Matthew and Mark depict the last supper occurring after Jesus confronts Judas (Matthew 26:21-29; Mark 14:18-25), so, when one juxtaposes the three passages, it is plausible that Judas left after the confrontation and before the last supper. In Luke 22:15-22, however, Judas appears to be still at the table after Jesus consecrates the bread and the wine, which would imply that he did partake of communion.

H. MacArthur presents an intriguing, albeit distressing, picture of Judas. Judas followed Jesus out of a desire for money and power and was preoccupied with that, even though Jesus continually showed him kindness and spoke spiritual truths to him. Judas was even able to hide his wickedness and to blend in with the other disciples. MacArthur’s picture of Judas was extensive, yet missing a significant element. Why did Jesus make Judas the treasurer (John 12:6; 13:29), when he knew that Judas was a thief? MacArthur does not say. Ellen G. White, a founder of Seventh-Day Adventism, proposed that Jesus was trying to ween Judas from greed by placing Judas in charge of helping the poor.

I. MacArthur assumes that Matthew wrote the Gospel of Matthew. According to MacArthur, Matthew was so knowledgeable about the Old Testament because he studied the Scriptures on his own, since, as a hated tax-collector, he could not hear them read at the synagogues. How plausible is it that Matthew would have his own copy of the Torah, though, when Torah scrolls were expensive and rare? And not only the Torah, but different versions of it, including the proto-MT and the Septuagint? Perhaps that could have happened eventually, since the Scriptures were read in churches and Matthew could have had access to them that way, but I wonder if Matthew, during the lifetime of Jesus, could have had his own copy of the Torah. MacArthur says that Matthew was a lower-level tax collector, so he was not as well-paid as a chief tax collector. Could Matthew still have afforded a Torah scroll, or attained a copy of that and variants through his extensive economic contacts?

J. MacArthur seems to assume that the Old Testament directly predicted Judas’s betrayal of Jesus, even though there are challenges that can be made to this position. John 13:19 applies Psalm 41:9 to Judas’s betrayal of Jesus: “Yea, mine own familiar friend, in whom I trusted, which did eat of my bread, hath lifted up his heel against me” (KJV). The problem with applying Psalm 41 to Jesus is that the Psalmist confesses sin against God in Psalm 41:4. Jesus, according to Christian teaching, never sinned. MacArthur should have wrestled with this question, at least briefly, since he goes deeply into Old Testament background throughout this book.

K. There is not a whole lot of application in this book, but that is all right with me, for constructing a bunch of artificial rules would make the book look, well, artificial. The book is a compelling picture, though, of how a loving and righteous God mentors and uses different kinds of people, as well as the importance of valuing God’s purposes rather than simply how God can meet one’s own needs.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Church Write-Up: Loving God More than Anything Else?

At church this morning, one of the themes was that, when we worship anything or anyone other than God, we will be disappointed. We trust in our 401K for life, meaning, and security? Tell that to people whose 401Ks were wiped out in the 2008 financial crisis!

I have heard this sort of message for years. My problem is that it tries to legislate affection for God. “You have to love God more than anything or anyone else.” What if you don’t? How can that even be commanded? You love what you love.

One way to follow it, perhaps, is to remember and find strength in what God has provided: God has given us eternal life, and the hope of eternal life, in Christ. Christians are righteous and forgiven before God in Christ. God is also the provider, using means to bring blessing to people.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Church Write-Up: Christ as King on the Cross

This week’s Bible study was entitled “Jesus as King” and focused on Luke 23. The reason that the church studied that topic this particular week is that next Sunday is Christ the King Sunday. Here are some items:

A. Even at his crucifixion, Jesus was king. Jesus did not stumble into his arrest and crucifixion but deliberately and willfully laid down his life out of love of his Father and us; Jesus was in control of the situation. At his trial and his crucifixion, Jesus’s enemies spoke the truth, albeit sarcastically. They sarcastically affirmed that Jesus saved others and was king of the Jews, so God’s truth was being proclaimed in this dark time. Jesus on the cross was able to extend membership in the Kingdom of God, as Jesus did to the malefactor on the cross. According to Luke, the Kingdom is wherever Jesus is, for, in Jesus, the Kingdom of God is in people’s midst (Luke 17:21). The Kingdom was present even when Jesus was on the cross. The pastor speculated that this may be why Matthew and Mark specify that one malefactor was on Jesus’s right and another on his left (Matthew 27:38; Mark 15:27; see Luke 23:33): it is a reference to someone sitting at Jesus’s right and left hands in his Kingdom (Matthew 20:20-23; Mark 10:35-40).

B. Jesus told the malefactor on the cross, “Today you shall be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). There is, of course, the view that the malefactor went to heaven that very day and was with Jesus. The pastor, however, went through a more spiritual interpretation of Jesus’s statement. The malefactor’s confession of faith (however incomplete), Jesus’s word of assurance to him, and the presence of Jesus with the malefactor made the malefactor a Christian, and, due to that, the malefactor became part of the new creation, paradise, the Eden that Jesus was restoring in himself. Jesus said “Today” because that term has salvific import in the Bible: today is the day of salvation (II Corinthians 6:2; Isaiah 49:8).

Monday, November 18, 2019

Book Write-Up: Jesus Before the Gospels, by Bart D. Ehrman

Bart D. Ehrman. Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior. HarperOne, 2016. See here to purchase the book.

Bart Ehrman teaches religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. A religious agnostic, he is renowned for his controversial books about the New Testament and theology. Jesus Before the Gospels essentially critiques the idea that the biblical Gospels are historically accurate because they reflect eyewitness testimony.

In this review, I will be laying out key aspects of Ehrman’s argument. Then, I will evaluate it.

Ehrman’s argument:

A. Ehrman refers to memory studies and argues that people often misremember what they hear and see. He cites examples of this, such as John Dean’s inaccurate testimony during the Watergate scandal. Dean was not entirely lying, for Dean said things that made himself look bad. Yet, when the audio recording came out of Dean’s conversations about which he testified, they were revealed to be quite different from how Dean remembered them. Ehrman cites studies about memory that indicate that people fill in the gaps of their memory with similar experiences they have had, that their present influences their memory of the past, and that the power of suggestion and imagination can even influence them to “remember” things that did not actually occur. Being in a group among people who shared an experience does not necessarily guarantee an accurate memory, either, for people can easily subordinate their distinct memories to the memory of the group, or the most assertive person in the group.

B. The transmission of memories, too, leads to inaccuracies. This is like the “telephone game,” in which one person tells something to someone, who then tells someone else, who then tells someone else, etc. Once the story gets to the end of the line, it is vastly different from how it initially was. But do not pre-literate societies accurately pass down oral traditions, since they cannot rely on books to preserve the past? Ehrman argues in the negative. Against a scholar who cited a tribe’s transmission of a tradition as an example of rigorous memorization, Ehrman refers to a study that demonstrates that this tribe’s transmission of the tradition was inaccurate, based on comparison with other primary sources. Ehrman doubts the accuracy of much of the Gospels, too, for at least forty years separate the life of the historical Jesus and the writing of the Gospels. During that time, traditions got altered and embellished, and stories were invented. Against those who argue that students of rabbis could remember vast amounts of their teacher’s teachings, Ehrman notes that the Gospels contain discrepancies about what Jesus said and did, undermining the possibility that disciples were remembering and transmitting Jesus’s teachings verbatum. Ehrman does not believe that the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses, for the disciples spoke Aramaic rather than Greek, the language of the Gospels; moreover, the disciples were illiterate and uneducated (Acts 4:13), not the sorts of people who could write Gospels.

C. Scholars and apologists who believe that the Gospels reflect eyewitness testimony like to cite Papias, an early second century Christian, who states that Matthew wrote a Gospel and that Peter relayed information for Mark, who wrote a Gospel. Ehrman does not find Papias to be overly reliable, however: “Writing many years later (as much as a century after Jesus’s death), he indicates that he knew people who knew people who knew people who were with Jesus during his life. So it’s not like having firsthand information, or anything close to it” (page 112). Ehrman also compares the Gospels of Matthew and Mark with what Papias says about them and concludes that Papias does not necessarily have in mind the Gospels in our New Testament. If Papias was aware of the Gospel of Matthew’s statement that Judas hanged himself (Matthew 27:5), for example, why did Papias narrate that Judas died by swelling and collapsing on the street? Ehrman is open to the possibility, however, that church fathers based their ascription of the biblical Gospels to Matthew and Mark on what Papias says about the writings that he is discussing. Papias says Matthew wrote teachings of Jesus in Hebrew, and the Gospel of Matthew is a Jewish Gospel with a lot of teachings from Jesus. Consequently, church fathers concluded that the Gospel of Matthew is the the writing that Papias means.

D. Ehrman does not think that the biblical Gospels were written by the people to whom they are ascribed. When quoting sayings of Jesus that are found in the Gospels, church fathers prior to Irenaeus (second century) never cite the authors of the Gospels by name. Justin Martyr refers to the memoirs of the apostles, which is not very specific. Here, I will interject Larry Hurtado’s observation that Justin in Dialogue 103.8 says the memoirs were written by apostles and those who knew apostles. Hurtado thinks that is consistent with the traditional ascriptions of the biblical Gospel, for John and Matthew were apostles who knew Jesus, and Mark and Luke were not apostles themselves but knew apostles. Hurtado, in contrast with Ehrman, thinks that Justin was referring to the biblical Gospels and was assuming their traditional ascriptions.

E. Ehrman defines “memory,” not just in terms of recollections of what one personally experienced, but also as a community’s statement about what happened in the past, even if that community did not live during that past. Ehrman does not believe that the authors of the biblical Gospels, the Gospel of Thomas, and the Gospel of Judas personally knew the historical Jesus, but he still calls their writings “memories” because they are making a statement about the past. Their “memories,” Ehrman argues, is their response to what they themselves are experiencing, such as alienation and persecution.

F. Ehrman maintains that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet calling fellow Jews to repent in light of the impending Kingdom of God. Later, as this apocalyptic cataclysm failed to materialize, Christians talked about delay in the second coming of Christ and even came to de-emphasize eschatology. John’s Gospel lacks imminent eschatology, focusing instead on believers going to heaven after they die. In contrast with many scholars, Christian and non-Christian, Ehrman doubts that the historical Jesus even performed miracles, such as healing and exorcism. In part, this is because Ehrman is skeptical about miracles: he refers to an odd occurrence in the Gospel of Peter and simply dismisses it as unlikely. As a historian, Ehrman maintains that historians make judgments about what is likely in the past, and miracles are off the table because they contradict common experience and natural law. Ehrman also notes that miracle stories developed over time and became embellished within Christianity, as can be seen in Christian writings such as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, and he thinks that sort of thing could also have happened by the time that the biblical Gospels were written. In addition, Ehrman observes different views of miracles among the Gospels. The Gospel of John presents miracles as ways that Jesus proved to others his divine identity. The synoptic Gospels, by contrast, deny that Jesus would perform signs to prove his identity (except the sign of Jonah) and instead present his miracles as acts of compassion. Ehrman also refers to synoptic passages, however, in which miracles are indications that the Kingdom of God has come.

G. I am reading John MacArthur’s Twelve Ordinary Men, which is about the twelve apostles, and MacArthur tries to harmonize the different stories about Jesus’s calling of his disciples. For MacArthur, many disciples followed Jesus voluntary, but Jesus later called some of them to deeper levels of commitment (i.e., leaving their jobs) and even sent some out as apostles, proclaiming the coming Kingdom and doing miracles. Ehrman rejects this approach because he believes it compromises the distinct voices of the Gospels. Jesus in the Gospel of Mark tells people to leave all, and they follow, and this demonstrates Mark’s belief that Jesus has an authority that compels people; that cannot be reconciled with John’s belief that people followed Jesus voluntarily and initiated the discipleship.

My evaluation:

A. Conservative scholars have their counter-arguments to the sorts of arguments that Ehrman presents. Against the claim that the disciples could not have written Gospels because they were illiterate and did not know Greek, scholars such as Donald Guthrie have contended that Greek was known in first century Palestine and that some of the disciples, as businessmen, may have been more sophisticated and fluent in it than people realize. Regarding Acts 4:13’s claim that Peter and John were illiterate, Jennifer Dines, who (as far as I know) is not a conservative Christian scholar, points out in her book The Septuagint (pages 112-113) that the Greek word agrammatos refers to a lack of sophistication in writing, not necessarily a complete inability to read and write. Theophilus of Antioch in the second century C.E. says people were saying that the biblical prophets, who wrote books, were agrammatoi; they were obviously literate, since they wrote books, but their books were not deemed to be refined. Conservative scholars also say that the apostles, even if they themselves could not have produced beautiful works, could have had professional writers write down their testimony in a more refined manner, as occurred in antiquity. Ehrman seems to question that Palestinian Christians would be in other countries writing in Greek, but is that so implausible? Paul attests that Christians traveled.

B. Ehrman critiques the work of scholars who hold that the Gospels contain eyewitness testimony, such as Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Ehrman does not engage many of Bauckham’s arguments, such as the argument that the Gospel of Mark is similar to how other ancient sources present the testimony of eyewitnesses. This is not to suggest that Ehrman should have engaged that. Ehrman’s book is popular, and Ehrman manages to pack a punch with the arguments that he does make. Still, readers should know that there may be more to the story than what Ehrman presents.

C. A question that I had in reading this book is what Ehrman thinks got the ball rolling. If Jesus did no miracles, how did people come to see him as God? I have read his book, How Jesus Became God, and he attributes it to early Christians’ belief that Jesus rose from the dead, which was based on visions that they had. I just wonder if that, by itself, would be sufficient to give people such an exalted notion of Jesus. Why wouldn’t they just see him as some prophet who rose from the dead?

D. Christian apologists have argued that the apostles, who had been with Jesus, would have been able to have suppressed any inaccuracies. I decided to read Ehrman’s book to see an alternative scenario to this. The picture I get from Ehrman’s book is that, yes, the apostles were around, but stories got told and retold. Invention and embellishment occurred. The apostles may have heard the story about Jesus walking on water and thought, “You know, I think I do remember that happening,” even if it did not. Their exalted picture of Jesus after Jesus’s resurrection could have influenced them to “remember” such an event. Although the Romans, not the Jews, crucified Jesus, early Christian conflicts with mainstream Judaism could have influenced them to “remember” Jewish authorities playing a greater role in Jesus’s execution. Stories spread, grew, and came to be, and, by the time that people sat down to write the Gospels, the authors drew from those stories, true and false, to paint a picture of who Jesus was. There is a middle ground between saying that the Gospels reflect verbatum what Jesus said and did, and saying that Christians simply made things up, and knew they were making things up. Ehrman presented what that middle ground could have looked like.

E. Ehrman offers explanations as to how the biblical Gospels came to be ascribed to those who bear their names. Luke-Acts, for example, was ascribed to Luke due to parts of Acts that seemed to suggest that the author was a companion to Paul. The Gospel of John appears to refer to eyewitness testimony (John 19:35; 21:24). Ehrman did not adequately address why these factors do not indicate that Luke and John wrote those writings. He may do so in other books, though. A lot of ancient Christian writings purport to be by eyewitnesses to Jesus, even if they were not, as Ehrman talks about in Forged.

F. I am not sure what to do with Ehrman’s argument that eyewitness testimony is unreliable. Even Ehrman does not depict it as thoroughly unreliable: we do remember some things accurately, especially the gist. But there are limitations to our memories. The question is: are those limitations in memory enough to cast doubt on what the Gospels say about Jesus?

G. Do I find Ehrman to be persuasive? He does raise a lot of considerations that make his arguments persuasive. When I read the Gospels, I seriously doubt that they are direct transcripts of what Jesus said and did. There are discrepancies among them. The authors’ distinct theological perspectives influence what they include and how they organize the stories. There are aspects of the Gospels that appear to speak to events after the death of Jesus, such as the persecution of Christians. Apologists have their arguments, though, as to why the Gospels are historical, such as the McGrews’ argument of undesigned coincidences in the Gospels, and those deserve consideration.

H. Ehrman closes the book by saying that the Gospels are still valuable, even if they are historically inaccurate. I was not clear as to whether he thinks they can still be religiously valuable to Christians. Obviously, their interest to him is more historical, since he is an agnostic. Can the Gospels be religiously valuable, even if Ehrman’s portrayal of them were to be correct? Well, they teach good values, such as love for others, including enemies. But I am not sure if their religious worldview—-about God, God’s activity—-can be reliable and authoritative, if the historical foundation of that worldview is inaccurate, if it is solely the product of human beings. I am not saying that the Bible has to be inerrant for Christianity to be true, but certain details should probably be historically accurate, at least.

I checked this book out from the library. My review is honest.

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