CADRE Comments

A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

Adult Stem Cell Breakthrough in Australia

Back in March 2005 researchers at Griffith Universtiy in Australia announced startling new breakthroughs in adult stem cell research that can be turned into brain cells, liver cells, kidney cells and muscles cells. Details can be read at Griffith University's web site here, and is taken from the research team Eskitis Institute for Cell & Molecular Therapies. Quoting from the article:

In contrast to embryonic stem cells, which are thought to be able to give rise to all cell types in the body, adult stem cells are often argued to have lesser abilities. It is thought that the stem cells in tissue that regenerate, like the skin and blood and olfactory mucosa, can only give rise to the cells in that tissue, like skin and blood and olfactory mucosa. It is often argued that adult stem cells would not be as useful as embryonic stem cells for stem cell therapies. This new research turns this argument on its head.

This recently published research paper, which has drawn reaction form around the world, describes adult stem cells isolated from the olfactory mucosa, the sense organ of smell. Representing four years of work by a team led by Professor Alan Mackay-Sim, the paper demonstrates that these adult stem cells have similar abilities to embryonic stem cells in being able to turn into many different cells types, not just the cells of the sense of smell.

The stem cells from the human nose were able to give rise to new nerve cells, glial cells, liver cells, heart cells and muscle cells when growing in a dish. They gave rise to new heart, liver, kidney, brain, limb, and many other tissues when transplanted into a developing chick embryo. Stem cells from the rat nose also gave rise to new blood cells when transplanted into rats whose bone marrow stem cells were destroyed by irradiation such as cancer patients receive. These experiments show that the adult stem cells from the nose have the ability to develop into many different cell types, not just nerve cells, if they are given the right chemical or cellular environment. In this respect they are very similar to embryonic stem cells. They are very different from embryonic stem cells in one respect, they do not seem to grow in an uncontrolled way, either in the lab dish or after transplantation. It seems that their environment in the dish or after transplantation holds a strong control on the way they develop. For this reason they might be better candidates for cell therapies because they do not seem to form tumours or teratomas.

So these cells not only develop into a great variety of other cell types, they do so without the nasty side effects found in embryonic stem cells such as tumours. Moreover, the cells were easily and quickly obtained with minimal inconenience to the patient, and since they come from the same person into whom they will be implanted, there is no danger of rejection, negating the need to suppress the immune system.

My question is: This has been out for over two months, and is exciting Australia a great deal, why haven't we heard about it in North America?


The Slaughter of the Innocents in Matthew

Unique to Matthew's gospel is his account of Herod's slaughter of the children of Bethlehem:

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: "A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more."

Matthew 2:16-18

Many commentators have expressed doubt about the historicity of this passage because it is not reported by any other source. Because many historical events are only recorded by one source, the argument usually assumes that an event so dastardly was bound to be told by many sources. After all, we are talking about wiping out all of the small children in a city.

As many commentators have noted, however, this assumption is not well founded. Although later traditions ascribed the number of children killed as high as 144,000, that number is too high. Bethlehem was a small town with a population, including surrounding areas, of about 1,000. "[T]he number of infants under two in a population of 1,000, given the birth and infant mortality rates of the time, has been reckoned at less than twenty." Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1-13, World Biblical Commentary, page 37. Obviously the murder of less than 20 children is a heinous crime, "[i]n an era of many, highly placed political murders, the execution of perhaps twenty children in a small town would warrant little attention." Craig S. Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, page 111.

Though Keener may be overstating things a bit, it should also be kept in mind that Herod reined as King for over 30 years (and as Governor of Galilee for 10 years prior to that) and heinous crimes were not uncommon for him. Most of these crimes arose from Herod’s jealousy (and paranoia) regarding his throne.

Josephus records that Herod, “never stopped avenging and punishing everyday those who had chosen to be of the party of his enemies.” Antiquities 15.2. Herod executed 45 of the wealthiest aristocrats and confiscated their property. He was suspected, with good reason, of having the young High Priest (and son-in-law) Aristobulus drowned. In connection with that event, Herod ordered his wife to be murdered (an order he gave again under similar circumstances). Thereafter, he had his mother-in-law executed, as well as his brother-in-law and his sons.

Another important point to keep in mind is that Jesus’ birth occurred near the end of his reign. This period of time can only be described as Herod at his most paranoid and jealous. He had many sons with ten wives, all of whom wanted their son to become King. On top of that, Herod had lost favor with the Emperor because of his conflict with his Arab neighbors. He finally succeeded in killing his wife, and had three of his sons murdered. While he was dying, Herod ordered that “all the principal men of the entire Jewish nation” be executed upon his death so the nation would mourn on the day of his passing. Fortunately, his orders were not carried out. Antiquities 17:172-178.

Finally, there is good reason to think that Josephus – our main source for Herod – did not provide (or possess) an exhaustive catalogue of Herod’s misdeeds. Josephus was largely dependent on Nicholas of Damascus for his information about Herod. But Nicholas was a courtier of Herod and held him in high regard. Furthermore, it appears that Herod engaged in “the repression of the wilderness Essenes” which is otherwise unknown to us from Josephus. Keener, op. cit., pages 110-11. In all, what we can say from the Josephan evidence is that such a deed would have come to Herod easily and Josephus’ silence on the subject is inconclusive.

Another bit of evidence that has come to my attention is that of Macrobius. He was a pagan author of the late fourth century who did refer to Herod's slaughter of the innocents without being directly dependent on the Gospel of Matthew. The reference to the slaughter of the innocents is found in Saturnalia, which is,

a dialogue in seven books which includes a literary evaluation of Virgil as well as valuable quotations from other writers. Also contained in Saturnalia is the text, with commentary, of Cicero's Dream of Scipio, which was popular in the Middle Ages and influenced Chaucer.

Macrobius did not write about Christianity and shows no other awareness of the Gospel of Matthew. Yet in Satunalia, he writes the following:

When [Augustus] heard that Herod king of the Jews had ordered all the boys in Syria under the age of two years to be put to death and that the king's son was among those killed, he said, "I'd rather be Herod's pig than Herod’s son."

We simply do not know what Macrobius’ source of information was for this reference. It is clear that he is not dependent on the Gospel of Matthew. As Paul Barnett notes,

It appears that he has fused two separate episodes into one—the killing of the baby boys and Herod’s murder of a son of his own, who was then an adult and removed in circumstances different from those of the children. It does not seem tat Macrobius merely quotes Matthew’s story, since he was a convinced pagan and the reference to Syria is at odds with Matthew’s version. It is more likely that the killing of the boys was recorded in a pagan source, now lost to us, but preserved in Macrobius.

Paul Barnett, Is the New Testament Reliable?, page 103.

Though I agree with Barnett that Macrobius does not rely directly on a Christian source for his information, we can be less confident that ultimately the tradition Macrobuis recounts is independent of Christian influence. The Gospel of Matthew was written around 300 years before. It was the “first among equals” among Christians. Moreover, Christianity had spread deep into Roman culture by this time. Thus, although it is possible that Macrobius recounts a non-Christian source about Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, it cannot be said that this is likely. At the very least, however, Macrobius demonstrates that pagan authors had no reason to doubt such an account – even though found in a Christian source.

Hallucination Theory: Who’s Imagining Things?

Some skeptics have used the hallucination theory to explain the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus – i.e. the records of Jesus speaking with and eating with groups of his disciples beginning the third day after his public execution. After I briefly review the basic reasons why hallucination theory is implausible in the case of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, I’ll raise some questions about the tenability of the grief-hallucination argument in the broader historical and religious settings.

When we speak of grief hallucinations, it is likely that we may know someone who has had a grief hallucination. I have had people tell me about their own grief hallucinations. But how did they come to know it was a hallucination? People discover their own mistakes because grief hallucinations do not stand the test of close contact, the test of repeated occurrence, and the test of cross-validation by other people at the same time and place. It is not enough to claim that grief hallucinations are common. In order to explain Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances in this way, it is also necessary to maintain that the people all had the same grief-hallucinations and further that they never recognized the unreality of it. In the case of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, we have close contact, repeated occurrence, and cross-validation by other people at the same time and place. One of the distinguishing marks of either hallucination or vision is that other people present do not see and hear the same thing. In the case of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to the disciples, other people present did see and hear the same thing; therefore it was neither vision nor hallucination. Hallucinations have never been especially plausible for explaining close and extended contacts (conversations, meals) with people personally well-known, and in company of other close companions. The hallucination theory is implausible for the kinds of appearances described by the early followers of Jesus in the early Christian records.

Some other quick points about the hallucination theory of post-resurrection appearances in a more generalized context:

  1. If grief-hallucinations of that type are common, then there should be other records like that of Jesus, records in which all of the close companions of a person who died were recorded to have spoken with and eaten meals with the person who had died, and done this in the company of other close companions. There should be other records of resurrections where the witnesses stood by their accounts seriously enough to cause the writing of a number of same-century accounts. Given the supposedly uncritical approach of peoples’ minds throughout most of human history, and the supposed prevalence of mere superstitious bias, it should be no problem for the skeptic to produce a number of bogus resurrections from the historical record with just as solid evidence as that of Jesus – witnesses of death, witnesses of an empty tomb, multiple attestation to post-resurrection appearances to close companions with details of meals eaten and conversations, names of witnesses, dates of events.
  2. Given the importance of the topic of whether there is life after death and the importance of religion in most peoples’ minds, if supposed hallucinations of this extent, detail, and duration had in fact ever happened before, we might expect to find that would have given rise to another major religion which had the same kind of attestations to post-resurrection appearances of their founder.

Lacking that same kind of evidence for other resurrections, we are left with this conclusion: When Jesus’ disciples said they had spoken with him and eaten with him after his execution, they were not hallucinating.

When does Human Life Begin?

A very good article on when embriologists define the beginings of human life can be found in the January edition of First Things Magazine. In his article Embryology: Inconvenient Facts, William L. Saunders, Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Human Life and Bioethics in Washington D.C. writes:

"Every human being begins as a single-cell zygote, grows through the embryonic stage, then the fetal stage, is born and develops through infancy, through childhood, and through adulthood, until death. Each human being is genetically the same human being at every stage, despite changes in his or her appearance.

Embryologists are united on this point. Consider the following statements from standard textbooks: “Human development begins at fertilization.... This highly specialized, totipotent cell marked the beginning of each of us as a unique individual” (Keith L. Moore and T.V.N. Persaud); “Almost all higher animals start their lives from a single cell, the fertilized ovum (zygote).... The time of fertilization represents the starting point in the life history, or ontogeny, of the individual” (Bruce M. Carlson); “Although life is a continuous process, fertilization is a critical landmark because, under ordinary circumstances, a new, genetically distinct human organism is thereby formed.... The embryo now exists as a genetic unity” (Ronan O’Rahilly and Faiola Muller)."

Saunders goes on to explain why many have sought to change the definition of when human life begins by quoting from some of advocates of embrionic stem cell research, as well as defenders of abortion:
"These are the facts, which we can either affirm or deny. Unfortunately, the denial of inconvenient facts has become quite common during the past several decades. Consider, for example, an editorial published in the September 1970 issue of California Medicine, which was then the journal of the California Medical Association. The editorial invited the Association’s members to play a new game called “semantic gymnastics.” The first rule of the game was the “avoidance of the scientific fact, which everyone really knows, that human life begins at conception and is continuous whether intra- or extra-uterine until death.” The goal was to replace “the traditional Western ethic” respecting “the intrinsic worth and equal value of every human life regardless of its state or condition” with “a new ethic for medicine and society” in order “to separate the idea of abortion from the idea of killing.”

...For what public policy reasons was the term “pre-embryo” invented? Princeton biology professor Lee Silver, a noted advocate of all the new biotechnologies, supplies the answer in his Remaking Eden (1997):

* I’ll let you in on a secret. The term pre-embryo has been embraced wholeheartedly by IVF practitioners for reasons that are political, not scientific. The new term is used to provide the illusion that there is something profoundly different between a six-day-old embryo and a sixteen-day-old embryo. The term is useful in the political arena—where decisions are made about whether to allow early embryo experimentation—as well as in the confines of a doctor’s office where it can be used to allay moral concerns that might be expressed by IVF patients.

The debate over the ethics of abortion, cloning, IVF, and embrionic stem cell research requires that we understand what we mean by human life, and especially when it begins. The argument over "personhood" is a diversion, or red herring, intent on introducing dualism into the discussion, and thereby to short circuit any recognition of the fact that we are actually talking about human beings. This is especially important to keep in mind as the debate on the ethics of embryonic stem cell research (am I the only person to note that the media never uses this distinction, and always refers to it as simply "stem cell research" as if they are synonimous terms?). My experience has taught me that people even from the side opposed to such research often accept as a premise that it is a matter of religious faith and belief alone that accepts that human life begins at conception. But the science is, as we have seen above, very clear on this matter: human life begins at conception. So when we are talking about destroying that life, we are, in reality, talking about the killing of human beings. To deny this fact is to argue not with religious beliefs, but, rather, with science itself, and this strikes me as very ironic, since most of the proponents of embrionic stem cell research do so from the point of view of "advancing the cause of science."

Needless, to say, science cannot be divorced from ethics, or we end up in a very dangerous place in very short order.


60 Percent of Doctors Polled Reject Neo-darwinism

Jonathan Witt has an interesting post on a recent poll of doctors and their views on evolution and I.D. The headline of the press release spins the findings of the poll as the Majority of Physicians Give the Nod to Evolution Over Intelligent Design.

A closer look at the details of the poll, however, are quite revealing. Question seven asks, "What are your views on the origin and development of human beings?"

Only 38% of almost 1500 physicisians surveyed were willing to sign on to the following statement: "Humans evolved naturally with no supernatural involvement - no divinity played any role."

Since entrance into the design camp only requires that an intelligent agent played some role, it would seem that only 38% of physicians fall outside the design camp. This would seem to contravene the headline attached to this press release.

As our knowledge of the information systems within the cell grows, look for the number of those willing to cling to the "divinity had nothing to do with it" position to shrink further.

The Cross on the San Diego Hillside

As many people know, the ACLU has fought for the removal of the cross that was erected as a war memorial to fallen comrades following World War I. The cross was originally on a privately owned hillside, but became public when the federal government declared the area a national preserve. Naturally, a cross on public land will offend someone with the ACLU, and that is cause to file a lawsuit to remove the cross. Amazingly, in my view, the courts that have heard the matter so far have both ruled for the ACLU and have ordered the cross removed.

The fact that this privately maintained cross that was originally erected on private land which has been attempted to be deeded to a private non-profit political organization to keep it from being public land (a move refused by the court) is being ordered removed is bad enough. What is worse, in my eyes, is that the taxpayers are paying the ACLU for bringing this civil rights suit on our behalf. According to the Wall Street Journal:

The ACLU, however, has made out quite nicely. Not only has it prevailed in the courts to date, but it has managed to pocket $63,000. Owing to a quirk in civil-rights law, the taxpayer once again ended up paying the ACLU for pressing a highly controversial church-state lawsuit.

The Civil Rights Attorney's Fees Award Act of 1976 specifies that anyone bringing an even partly successful civil-rights suit may have the plaintiff pay all legal fees for both parties, a discretionary award that is routinely granted. Such fee-reversals are not permitted to successful defendants. Congress meant for the law to help citizens with little or no money, but since then wealthy and powerful organizations have perverted that intention. They use the specter of massive attorney fees to force their secularist agenda on small school districts, cash-strapped municipalities and, now, veterans' memorials. According to Rees Lloyd, a former ACLU staff lawyer, such litigation is "manifestly in terrorem," intended to terrify defendants into settling out of court.

And what if the defendants don't knuckle under? For advocacy groups that use staff or volunteer lawyers as plaintiffs' counsel, the result is pure gravy. If they lose their cases, they have lost no money. If they win, defendants pay attorney's fees at the private sector's market rate, which the advocacy groups can keep for themselves.

Certainly, it is appropriate that we somehow lessen the burden of attorney fees when a civil rights suit is brought to encourage those people who are being discriminated against some help in bringing lawsuits that help amend past discrimination. But it is clear to me that this is not the type of lawsuit to which such an attorney fees clause out to apply. This is pathetic.

Discussion Over Teaching ID in Public Schools on the Journal Editorial Report

From the Wall Street Journal:

Culture Clashes
Tune in this weekend for a discussion.

Friday, May 27, 2005 12:01 a.m. EDT

What does the Senate's judicial deal mean for President Bush's Supreme Court nominees? Plus a debate over whether "intelligent design" should be taught along with evolution in public schools.

The program is presented by Thirteen/WNET New York. The more than 300 public TV stations around the country set their program schedules individually, so to find out the day and time when "The Journal Editorial Report" will air near you, please check your local PBS listings or consult the PBS Web site.

If the Journal Editorial Report is not aired on your local PBS station (as it apparently is not aired on mine), it appears that you can see at least partial video clips and transcripts from the program on the PBS site above after the program is aired.

What's Absurd about Christianity?

Michael Martin, Ph.D., has written an essay entitled "Is Christianity Absurd?" wherein he asserts that Christianity is absurd for five reasons, and coincidentally provides credence to the observation of Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., that there is one and only one requirement for believing "any of the one hundred most absurd ideas possible for any human being to conceive -- you must have a Ph.D."

Dr. Martin makes the following claim in his essay:

Is Christianity absurd in the dictionary sense of being ridiculously incongruous and unreasonable? It seems to me that the answer is "yes." Given standard criticisms of Christianity and certain plausible interpretations of it, Christianity is filled with ridiculous incongruities and unreasonable beliefs and practices. I will consider here five aspects of Christianity where absurdity seems to arise: The Path of Salvation, Heaven, Christian Ethics, The Atonement, and God. The incongruity of which I speak involves a conflict between the importance or centrality of these notions to Christianity and their problematic status. In other words, it is incongruous that these notions should be so problematic and yet be so important to Christian thought.

With all due respect to the Professor, I suggest that many of his incongruities -- as is often the case of those who find Christianity absurd -- amount to little more than making a "mountain out of a molehill." His underlying worldview is unreasonably critical of these doctrines of Christian theology, and he therefore is blinded to the underlying Christian teaching. Since a blog is not a place for a long, in-depth analysis of each of the issues, I will merely say in response to Dr. Martin's essay that he approaches the Gospels woodenly, and does not appear to have a clue as to how to reconcile verses that, on first blush, appear to say different things. His is the type of approach I expect to read on the "Secular Web" where skeptics who have an axe to grind against Christianity think that they have somehow defeated Christianity's claims by pointing out that Jesus cannot be fully man and fully God because "fully" means "exclusively." Give me a break.

I will agree with Dr. Martin that when someone says that Christianity is absurd it means that it is incongruous (the definition of the adjective use of "absurd"). But even with this definition, Christianity, while not without difficulties due to our own lack of ability to think clearly, is certainly no less incongruous than any other worldview -- and in fact, it makes a great deal more sense than any other. When using the correspondence test for truth, Christianity appears to make at least as much sense as any other religion (or non-religion). After all, it makes sense out of the creation of the universe from nothing, biogenesis, the difference between man and animals, our great acts of compassion and our great acts of atrocities (often in a single person), our intuitive sense of right and wrong, our feelings of guilt, our desire to reach out to God coupled with our inability to reach out to God, etc. etc. Now, it may be that a person can have questions or problems with the Christian explanations for each of these issues, but the Christian solutions are not garbage. They hang together and they provide reasonable explanations for a whole host of issues.

Greg Koukl, President of the outstanding Stand to Reason, remarks in his teaching "Any Old God Won't Do" that Christians do have to struggle with the Problem of Evil, but that atheism has a bigger problem -- it has to explain the existence of "good" before it can explain the existence of evil and it has no explanation for the existence of "good." In other words, it has two problems to solve instead of just one. So, in this area, which is more absurd -- the religion that has to struggle to explain evil in light of a good God, or a anti-religion that has no explanation for either good or evil?

No, Christianity is not absurd. As in the case of beauty, to the skeptic, absurdity is in the eye of the beholder. To skeptics, Christianity is absurd not because of some overriding critical flaw that is self-contradictory or self-referentially incongruous, but because the skeptics do not want to use their often gifted minds to see beyond their wooden understandings of the Bible to work through problems that may lead them to the conclusion that there is a God out there who exists who makes demands on them.

Differences without Discernment

On the O'Reilly Factor a couple of weeks ago, Bill O'Reilly was speaking with a woman from some gay rights group (I don't recall which one) about whether a certain sex education curriculum should be permitted in the classrooms. According to the newsstory about the case:

The curriculum also ventures into the realm of religion, explaining what Jesus allegedly did and did not say about homosexuality, portraying evangelicals as intolerant and prejudiced, and referring readers to "gay-friendly" religious organizations.

According to the Associated Press story dated May 5, 2005:

For example, the curriculum juxtaposes faiths such as Quakers and Unitarians that support full rights for gays and lesbians with groups such as Baptists, who are painted as "intolerant and Biblically misguided," the judge wrote in his opinion.

"The court is extremely troubled by the willingness of the defendants to venture, or perhaps more correctly, bound, into the crossroads of controversy where religion, morality and homosexuality converge," Williams wrote.

The woman from the gay rights group kept repeating--almost as a mantra--that different religious groups see homosexuality differently. The substance of her argument, it seemed, was that because there were disagreements between various churches over how homosexuality should be treated, there is no way to judge between them and therefore we can get no serious moral guidance from churches.

I find this argument to be seriously flawed, yet it is the common argument used by people who believe that truth (or at least, moral truth) is relative. If one starts with the assumption that there is no true beliefs about morality, then it is easy to point to the sometimes contradictory beliefs of those who profess that they are following the Bible as proof that the Bible provides no value judgment. Of course, it is doubtful that these relativists believe the Bible has any value, but when it can be shown that Christians differ significantly in how they view the Biblical teaching on an issue (even if one side is in a tiny, tiny minority), then that only serves to embolden the belief that there is no absolute right or wrong.

In other words, the person who makes this argument believes that the mere fact that differences of opinion exist is sufficient to show that there is no clear teaching on the issue at hand and we should not look to the Bible for guidance.

What is missing here? The answer is "discernment." Just because there are two possible answers does not mean that each answer should be given equal weight. To accept the viewpoints presented uncritically is akin to asking a group of students to add "2 plus 2", and finding that because 1% of the students think the answer is "5" that "5" is a equally legitimate answer to "4". It simply doesn't follow if you look carefully. While Biblical arguments cannot rise to the certainty of "2+2=4", the same discernment must be applied to the proposed answers to see if they are equally possible. If there is significant support for one viewpoint and marginal support for the other, than such a disparity tells you something about the possible truth of the answers.

This is one of the problems with most of the television programs presented on Jesus. Often, in order to develop controversy, the program invites two viewpoints about the factual claims of the Bible. If we are lucky and the program actually seeks to present a balanced point of view, one will be someone from a mainline or evangelical church which will largely accept the historicity of the Bible. The other viewpoint will be some radical theologian like Bishop John Shelby Spong, Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, or other out-of-the-mainstream theologians from the Jesus Seminar. (Unfortunately, many of these programs will feature in addition to the Jesus Seminar-type scholar, a theologian from a mainline denomination to does not really accept the historicity of the Bible, and that creates a very unfair, lopsided viewpoint about the legitimacy of the Bible and its claims.) Of course, there is no analysis of the viewpoint of the Jesus Seminar-type theologian who is invited onto the program. In fact, the claims are treated as equally legitimate. But such an undiscerning acceptance is not appropriate or even helpful.

In the Christian worldview, there is such a thing as truth, and the truth matters. It is either the case that physically Jesus rose from the dead or he did not. It is either the case that homosexuality is wrong or not. It cannot be both. While it is certainly appropriate and legitimate to listen to other viewpoints and to reevaluate our understanding of the Bible when the evidence and arguments show that it is appropriate to do so, it is certainly not the case that such a willingness to consider new ideas means that we should uncritically accept various points of view as equally valid or proving that there is no single answer.

Wright and Crossan Debate the Resurrection -- Other Distinguished Scholars Comment

In March there was a discussion forum hosted by the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Called the "Greer-Heard Point-Counterpoint Forum," the inaugural forum hosted N.T. Wright and John D. Crossan. The focus of the discussion was the resurrection, and other scholars, such as William L. Craig, Craig Evans, and R. Douglas Geivett attended to comment on the anchor presentation and discussion of Wright and Crossan. Unfortunately, work prevented my attendance. However, I did order the CD set and have enjoyed them very much.

I had planned on providing a summary of the conference, but have been beaten to the punch by an actual attendee. ChrisChillin, host of the N.T. Wright Page, has started a thread in which he will be providing a comrehensive summary of the conference. The first installment is quite detailed.

Check it out. And, if interested, order the tapes. I have found them to be worth every penny.

The Value of a Christian Education

A study of teenage males in England found some marked differences between those who attend Christian schools and those who attend public schools.

First, they were less permissive sexually:

Three quarters of Christian pupils said it was wrong to have sex before the legal age of consent at 16, compared with 29 per cent of other teenagers.

And 73 per cent of the Christians interviewed said abortion was always wrong, compared with 39 per cent of their peers.

Second, their mental health was superior:

Professor Francis, whose research is published in the British Journal of Religious Education, also found that Christian school pupils appeared to have a more optimistic outlook on life.

Teenage boys and men in their early twenties are recognised as being two of the groups most at risk of developing mental illnesses such as depression.

While 30 per cent of boys educated in secular schools said they had considered suicide, the figure at Christian schools was 20 per cent. Some 60 per cent of the nondenominational school pupils said they "often" felt depressed. The same was true of about half of the Christian-educated pupils.

Of course, I expect there is a fair amount of self-selection going on, since Christian parents are more likely to send their kids to Christian schools. But the point about Christian values, whether from parents or teachers, remains.

A Very Welcome New Blog

There is a new blog that promises to be of interest to Christians and others interested in the Bible. Bryan Cox, who has been a member of the Christian Cadre, has started the blog, Biblaridon, which will offer "various and sundry musings on myriad topics but especially on the Bible." As you can see for yourself at his website, Bryan is especially informed about the history of the Bible and its sundry forms and manuscripts. He is also a good friend and a great guy.

I have added him to bloglines so I can keep tabs on his latest.

A Question of World Views

The world view of different cultures as seen through the eyes of popular artists (some users may need to scroll down to see the remainder of the post):

El Greco
Van Gogh

The point? The worldview which gives rise to a popular artist like Dali is deeply distorted.

Post-modernists have claimed that a religious culture distorts someone's view of the world. Just to look at the art, it would seem that an anti-religious culture distorts the worldview. Later artists show a loss focus, or a loss of the sense of beauty or reality. Finally artists like Dali actually prize deliberate distortion (for its novelty or boldness, or breaking the old tired cliches of the dogmatic and rigid past, of course). It's all very intersting and fun as an experiment. (For the record, I actually enjoy the "melting clocks" ... but not nearly as much as El Greco's works.)

The same trends can be seen in a culture's scholarship, but the trends are perhaps seen most clearly in a culture's art. The "melting clocks" reminds me a bit of the Jesus Seminar's view of the gospels.

Note: Typically we have not posted graphics to this blog. If the graphics load too slowly or cause inconvenience, please let us know in a comment.

Resurrection Show on ABC's 20/20 Friday Night

Tonight, ABC's 20/20 is doing a "Special Report": The Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

It will feature scholars such as William L. Craig, a leading defender of the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus, as well as Luke T. Johnson, Paul Maier, Father Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, Lee Strobel, Bishop Shelby Spong, and Ben Witherington.

Broadcast time is 10/9 Central.

Pentecost: A Pentecostal Minister's Thoughts

Since this past Sunday we celebrated Pentecost, in honor of the occasion a Pentecostal minister had posted his thoughts on Pentecost, asking for theological works on a "full-blooded Pentecostal theology".

I saw a piece once that focused very tightly on 2 points about the Holy Spirit and how it manifests itself in the church:

1) As far as "proclaiming the message", on that first Pentecost when Peter was filled with the Spirit, what he preached was Christ crucified and risen. That is the content of the Spirit's message. The prophets, who prophesied by the Spirit, spoke of Christ's life, death, and resurrection; of the atonement he made for us; and of his coming again. If we speak by the Spirit, the main thing we confess is that Christ is Lord.

2) As far as gifts of the Spirit, the greatest are not the showy ones, but faith, hope, and love ... and the greatest of these is love.

Nothing new, but maybe to the point.

What Does Pliny the Younger Really Tell us About Early Christianity?

In the early second century, Pliny the Younger – Roman governor of Bithynia – wrote a letter to Emperor Trajan regarding the treatment of Christians. The Emperor wrote a brief response.

Online discussions of Pliny’s correspondence tend to focus on what this non-Christian reference to Christ tells us about the existence of Jesus. (see here and here). Though I also engage in the Jesus Myth game as time permits, I was reading a book by Paul Barnett, Is The New Testament Reliable?, which took a broader look at the interaction between Pliny and early Christianity. That got me to thinking about the broader contact between Pliny and our early Christian sources.

To begin with, Pliny was writing about Bithynia, which was also a destination of the First Epistle of Peter. It seems likely therefore, that Pliny was persecuting some of the very Christians who had read that epistle. It was interesting to go back and read 1 Peter and then read Pliny’s letter in light of it. It really brings home the alienness of what they believed to the broader pagan culture.

Regarding specific passages, I will quote select passages and discuss their points of contact with early Christianity.

“I have never participated in trials of Christians. I therefore do not know what offenses it is the practice to punish or investigate, and to what extent.”

Pliny is obviously aware of trials that had been going on either in other parts of the Empire or in his own province prior to his assuming the governorship. So the persecution of Christians is not a recent event.

“There were others possessed of the same folly; but because they were Roman citizens, I signed an order for them to be transferred to Rome.”

Pliny’s handling of Roman citizens accused of practicing Christianity is similar to the procedure reported in Acts 25, where the Roman governor tells Paul, "You have appealed to Caesar, to Caesar you shall go." Paul’s status as a Roman citizen entitled him to avoid prosecution by the local officials, even Roman ones. Pliny confirms this practice not only generally, but in the case of charges of religious disturbance.

“Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, . . . and moreover cursed Christ--none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do--these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.”

Pliny notes that some people had been practicing Christianity as much as 25 years prior to his interrogation of them. Skeptic Jeff Lowder’s speculation that some of those who recanted under threat of torture or torture itself might have had first hand knowledge of the historicity of Jesus is rather silly. Most of the people interrogated by Pliny had not been practicing for 25 years (which gets you back to around 80 AD at the earliest). Moreover, Bithynia was a Roman province in north west Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). It hardly seems a likely place for Jewish Christian refugees to seek shelter from the war and destruction of Jerusalem. It is impressive, though, that so many early Christians were willing to die for their belief in Jesus. Whatever their source of information about Jesus, they obviously had much faith in it.

Pliny also notes the exclusivity of the Christian worship of Jesus. Unlike other religions, Christians were known for not tolerating the worship of the Emperor.

Finally, the reference to Christians not being able to curse Christ is similar to Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians that “no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus is accursed’; and no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.” 1 Cor. 12:3.

“They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food--but ordinary and innocent food.”

As Barnett notes, these comments are “the earliest surviving non-Christian description of what Christians believed and how they lived. What is of greatest interest is that these people regarded Christ as a god (or as God). They did not venerate him as a deceased martyr but agreed together by a form of words that he was a divine figure, in some way their living contemporary.” Barnett, op. cit., pages 23-24.

Also of interest is the litany of prohibited activities, which is similar to Paul’s in Romans (no stealing, adultery, murder or coveting, and to love your neighbor as yourself). Rom. 13:8-9. And to Paul’s statement about who would not enter the Kingdom of God (thieves, adulterers, the covetous, idolaters, or swindlers). 1 Cor. 6:9-10. The prohibition against oath taking is also found in James 5:12 (“But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath.”) and Matthew 5:34-35 (“But I say to you, make no oath at all.”). There is also a negative portrayal of oath taking in other New Testament passages. (Matt. 14:7-9; 26:72; Acts 23:12-14; Mark 6:26).

The singing of hymns to Christ as to a god is interesting in that it assumes that the Christians were worshiping a human being as if a god, not just a “false” god. Moreover, the presence of hymns regarding Christ in Paul’s letters indicates how widespread and early this practice was.

Pliny notes that Christians met on a fixed day of the week to worship Christ. This is similar to Acts reference to early Christians “meeting on the first day of the week” in order to “break bread” in Troas. Acts 20:7.

Finally, Pliny’s reference to Christians eating “food—but ordinary and innocent food” seems to be our earliest reference to the pagan attack against Christians as cannibals. This charge, arising from the Last Supper’s emphasis on partaking of the blood and flesh of Christ, provided such fodder for the pagan opponents of Christianity. Here, Pliny indicates he is aware of this charge, has looked into it, and found it wanting. Christians eat bread and wine like the rest of us, they are not eating literal flesh or drinking literal blood. This is further evidence of just how widespread the remembrance of the Last Supper was in early Christianity.

“For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms.”

Christianity apparently had broad appeal. It seems that Paul’s statement in Galatians 3:26-29 found fulfillment:

For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's descendants, heirs according to promise…

It also seems anticipated by Luke in Acts, reporting a speech by Peter, quoting Joel:

And it shall be in the last days, God says, that I will pour forth my spirit on all mankind; and your sons and daughters shall prophecy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams, even on my bondslaves, both men and women, I will pour forth my spirit....

Thus, Pliny confirms Christianity’s appeal to a broad demographic base, irrespective of age, station, and even gender.

“I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses.”

Paul’s letters make it clear that women played prominent roles in the early Church. And the term “deaconess” appears related to the “deacons” referred to in Philippians and 1 Timothy.

“But it seems possible to check and cure it. It is certainly quite clear that the temples, which had been almost deserted, have begun to be frequented, that the established religious rites, long neglected, are being resumed, and that from everywhere sacrificial animals are coming, for which until now very few purchasers could be found.”

Pliny attests to the negative economic impact Christianity could have on the broader pagan culture. Pagan temples were not just sites of religious piety, but important centers and causes of commerce. As Barnett notes:

He confirms that early Christianity sometimes destroyed the business die of the older religions. Like the shrine makers in Ephesus (Acts 19:24-41), the suppliers of good for sacrificial animals in Bithynia were put out of business by the impact of the Christian movement.

Barnett, op. cit., page 24.

On a whole, Pliny – as the first pagan writer to describe early Christianity – provides much useful information that confirms much of what we find in early Christian sources. He is also valuable in that he provides this information and confirmation from a distinctly pagan perspective. That is, we get an early glimplse into how some opponents of Christianity viewed its practices and beliefs.

Nazi Persecution of the Christian Churches

In yet another of the ENDLESS debates over the supposed Christianity of Hitler, a Jewish member of our discussion board provided the following two links showing how Hitler and the Nazis persecuted the Christian Churches.

To: Major William Coogan
From: Lt. Carl E. Schorake
July 10, 1945

This memo was prepared for the Nuremburg Trials. I found the opening paragraph of page 8 especially illuminating:

Throughout the period of National Socialist rule (of Germany), religious liberties in Germany were seriously impaired. The various Christian Churches were systematically cut off from effective communication with the people. They were confined as far as possible to the performance of narrowly religous funcitions, and even within this narrow sphere were subjected to as many hinderances as the Nazis dared to impose. These results were accomplished partly by legal and partly by illegal and terroristic means."

The second reference comes from a UPI report on Nazi vs. Christian conflict and can be found at Analysis: Nazis vs. Christians
"By Uwe Siemon-Netto
UPI Religion Correspondent
Published 1/14/2002 8:46 PM

WASHINGTON, Jan. 14 (UPI) -- The daughter of Hitler's foremost German foe reacted with satisfaction Monday to the news that a Holocaust survivor's granddaughter has drawn attention to a rarely mentioned historical fact: The Nazis planned to destroy Christianity in Germany and beyond.
"This is what my father had been saying since 1937," exclaimed Marianne Meyer-Krahmer, daughter of Carl Goerdeler, who was hanged in early 1945 for his leading role in the attempt to overthrow Hitler's regime.
His family, daughter Marianne included, wound up in a concentration camp and shackled to their beds every night, she recalled in a telephone call from Heidelberg.
Goerdeler, the former mayor of Leipzig, would have become German chancellor in a democratic government, had one of the 30-odd coup attempts against the fuhrer succeeded.
Goerdeler, funded by Robert Bosch, traveled around the world before World War II trying to warn leaders of Hitler's intentions. His message was: Hitler wants to destroy three enemies -- first the Jews, then the Christians and ultimately, capitalism.
"Judaism has inflamed his hatred with its doctrine of the one God who affects man's entire life with his laws and commandments," Goerdeler confided to his Political Testament, which he deposited in New York before war broke out.
"Next, his hatred will turn on the Christian religion. Humility and charity render him rabid ... Hitler puts himself in the place of Christ."
This flies of course in the face of what columnist Joel Miller of, an internet publication, calls the popular myth that the persecution of the Jews was fundamentally a Christian enterprise.
Now, Julie Seltzer Mandel, a Rutgers University law student, published U.S. intelligence papers detailing the Nazi plan to destroy Christianity.
Sounding almost verbatim like Carl Goerdeler, the summary of these papers call this plan "an integral part of the National Socialist scheme of world conquest."
The first document published so far is a 108-page outline the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA's precursor, had prepared for prosecutors at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal in 1945..."

Please read through these articles if the question of the Christianity of Hitler and/or the Nazis is one that interests you. The Internet myth that Hitler was a Christian is well known to many here, of course, and based on the UPI report, it is even propogated by columnist Joel Miller of As the Jews might say... OY VEY!!! I guess that Dan Rather and Newsweek are not the only ones to get their facts grotesquely wrong.



Alternative Explanations for the Resurrection?

This is the final installment of a response to Michael Martin's article, "Why the Resurrection is Initially Improbable," Philo, 1, no. 1 (Spring-Summer 1998): 63-73. Mr. Martin's article is being reprinted this spring in a book by Prometheus Press. The entire response is also available here. The full response includes additional material which was not well-suited to an installment format.

Martin argues that it is not necessary for him to provide an alternative explanation for the historical evidence of the resurrection. But during his writing about other explanations, he placed a precise mathematical figure on the probability of alternative explanations. How is it possible to calculate an exact mathematical probability value without any given alternative theory in mind? How can anyone else assess whether that probability figure is valid? As someone I know has jokingly said, "86.7234% of all statistics are made up on the spot." Without any basis for the figures that he quotes, Martin's numbers will inevitably seem to be of this sort.

It is also necessary that those who reject the resurrection at least look at alternative theories for this very simple reason: if someone claims that some alternative explanation for the facts is more likely, that claim depends entirely on there being an alternative explanation for the facts in the first place. In the case certain types of miracles such as a mysterious healing, the facts can be explained in various ways: the fact that first someone was sick and then someone was well could lend itself to naturalistic explanation. Even in cases where no cure is known for a disease, it may yet be possible (in theory) that a naturalistic explanation exists but has not yet been discovered.

In the case of Jesus’ resurrection, the facts include that first he was dead – having been executed in public – and buried, then three days later he was alive again. Naturalistic explanations may be imagined for healing miracles, but at the point of death, nature no longer works to restore health. There is no natural process that restores the dead to life; that’s why naturalists’ insistence on opposing the resurrection is so strong. There is only one explanation of the facts that he was dead before, then alive after: he was raised from the dead. All the alternative explanations of the facts are not actually alternative explanations of the facts, but selective denial of the facts. Some alternative explanations deny that Jesus died in the first place (swoon theory). Some alternative explanations deny that he was alive afterwards (stolen body, mass hallucinations by disciples).

The evidence that Jesus was seen alive again is strong enough to prompt opponents to create theories in which Jesus never died. The evidence that the tomb was empty is strong enough to prompt opponents to create a theory of a stolen body to explain it. The evidence that many people did in fact see Jesus is strong enough to prompt opponents to create a theory of extended, shared hallucinations to explain it. All of these alternative theories have something in common: they resort to altering the facts which they are supposed to explain. As such, they do not fully count as alternative explanations of the facts, besides being very unlikely themselves. The swoon theory denies Jesus’ death; the stolen body theory denies the post-resurrection appearances; the mass-hallucination theory to explain Jesus post-resurrection appearances denies the reality of the empty tomb.

These are examples of the risk discussed earlier: when someone assumes it is always irrational to believe in a miracle, even granted that miracles are possible, then this anti-miracle view will necessarily lead to denial of facts or distortion of reality in the face of an actual miracle. Martin himself stops short of Hume's "always irrational" view of miracles, and stops short of the far-fetched theories which try to provide alternate explanations for the facts. But he does this at a cost: he has no viable alternative explanation, which is required for his assertion to stand that the hypothetical alternative explanation is far more probable than Jesus' resurrection.

Is it really possible that everyone who claimed Jesus to be dead was mistaken about it, from those who watched him breathe his last, to the guard who pierced his side to make sure of his death, to those who pried him off the cross, wrapped him in a cloth and laid him in the tomb? No, it is not; we can be certain of his death when he was buried. Is it really possible that everyone who claimed Jesus to be alive on the third day and after was mistaken about it, from the women outside the tomb to the close friends who gave him dinner the first night and then saw him come back again to show his wounds as proof to Thomas, from those same close friends who cooked broiled fish with him by the lake to Jesus’ brother who had been skeptical before but afterwards became a leader in the church? No, it is not; we can be certain of his life. There is only one explanation that explains the facts rather than denies them: Jesus rose from the dead.


I appreciate the job that Mr. Martin has done in setting out a number of different lines of thought that bear on peoples’ perceptions of the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. He added much to the conversation with his acknowledgment of the importance of God’s purpose and his recognition that miracles can have value as a sign. The omissions of Mr. Martin’s article are not unique to him, and I would not wish to fault specifically him for them. It is typical that unbelievers, assessing the probability of the resurrection, do not take into account the solidness of evidence for earlier miracle claims associated with Jesus and allow any consideration of that. It is also typical that unbelievers do not take into account the unlikelihood of any given person being the founder of a major religion when considering the probability of Jesus’ resurrection; it is typically assessed no differently than the probability of my next-door-neighbor’s resurrection. Again, it is typical that unbelievers’ grasp of atonement is incomplete; it is a large subject with many aspects, and any one given explanation is almost sure to be incomplete by itself as well.

However, the historical evidence is solid, and God has clear reasons to raise Jesus from the dead as outlined previously. This puts the resurrection of Jesus on solidly trustworthy ground. While disputes will no doubt continue, it is largely a dispute waged against the evidence, fueled on the one hand by those who oppose the idea of Jesus’ uniqueness in God’s purposes, and on the other hand by those who have not yet ventured to hope that God would truly do what so many have asked all along: give a clear sign that this world is not all there is, that he has not abandoned us to the grave, and that he will raise us up at the last day. I'm concerned whether an amateur like myself has given a good enough account, but I hope I have shown why Christians hold to the certainty of Jesus' resurrection.

No Trustworthy Accounts of Jesus after the Resurrection?

This is the next-to-last installment of a response to Michael Martin's article, "Why the Resurrection is Initially Improbable," Philo, 1, no. 1 (Spring-Summer 1998): 63-73. Mr. Martin's article is being reprinted this spring in a book by Prometheus Press. The entire response is also available here.

Martin makes a series of interrelated claims about the New Testament records of Jesus’ resurrection. He claims that there were no contemporary eyewitness reports of seeing Jesus after the resurrection other than Paul and that the other "alleged" eyewitnesses who saw Jesus after the resurrection may not have been reliable and trustworthy. From there he continues to multiply layers, that those who heard the eyewitnesses and passed on their reports may not have been reliable and trustworthy, and that those who recorded the accounts (supposedly third-hand) may not have been reliable and trustworthy. How do Mr. Martin's claims hold up against what we know? We will quickly review the history of the four gospels.

John: Its own value and the added value of the appendix

To begin with, there are not so many layers between the resurrection and our most direct account of it as Mr. Martin suggests. No matter your view of which person is "the disciple whom Jesus loved", the main author of the Gospel According to John, this person still claims to have seen the risen Jesus in person on more than one occasion, each time with a number of Jesus’ other disciples also present. The author claims that he himself had eaten with Jesus and spoken with Jesus on a number of occasions after Jesus was raised from the dead.

There is an interesting claim that certain people make about the Gospel of John, which is that John cannot have written it -- or that it had been "tampered with" -- because there is a separate part at the end, apparently an appendix of sorts, and it includes the comment "we know that his (the author’s) testimony is true." From this, the speculation begins about revisions and late dates. But there is an equally interesting history about the Gospel of John and how it was written. According to an ancient list of authoritative Christian writings, the Muratorian canon or Muratorian fragment, the Gospel of John involved a number of Jesus’ surviving disciples:

The same night it was revealed to Andrew, one of the apostles, that John in his own name should write down everything and that they should all revise it.

While the date of the Muratorian Canon (like everything else involving Jesus) is disputed, the document makes references to events from the mid-100's C.E. as happening "quite recently, in our own time" -- so the most likely date for the Muratorian Canon will remain in the second half of the 100's C.E. The "mystery appendix" to the Gospel of John is actually part of the known history of the document and not an unknown addition. We have separate confirmation of what the document itself tells us, that it was reviewed by other people. In this light, the book’s comment "we know that his testimony is true" (John 21:24) has support for what it claims to be: the confirmation of other eyewitnesses that it happened just as recorded. Contrary to the common skeptical view that the Gospel of John is to be taken less seriously than the other gospels because of its later date and "appendix", instead we have here, even in the latest of the accounts, a strong and direct claim to first-hand material, with support from more than one source that this material had been reviewed and confirmed by other witnesses.

Mark: Traveling companion to Peter, known to other disciples of Jesus

The Gospel of Mark is often lightly dismissed because Mark himself was not a disciple of Jesus. But Mark was a disciple of Simon Peter, the leader among Jesus’ followers and privileged to be with Jesus on certain special occasions when only a few of the disciples were present. Mark was known to have traveled with Simon Peter – see 1 Peter 5:13, where Simon Peter writes a greeting to his readers from Mark. He also here refers to Mark as "son". It was common to call someone "son" if there was a close relationship such as a spiritual mentorship, and this is the usual understanding of the relationship between Peter and Mark. It is against this background, that Peter and Mark were close, and that Mark traveled with Peter, that we can see the implications of our histories of how the Gospel of Mark came to be written.

But was Mark's gospel ever read by those who had known Jesus? Here the early writer Papias quotes what he learned from one of Jesus' disciples, here called the "elder" or "presbyter":

The presbyter used to say, 'Mark, who had been Peter’s interpreter, wrote down carefully, but not in order, all that he remembered of the Lord’s sayings and doings. For he [Mark] had not heard the Lord or been one of His followers, but later, as I said, one of Peter’s. Peter used to adapt his teachings to the occasion without making a systematic arrangement of the Lord’s sayings, so that Mark was quite justified in writing down some things just as he remembered them. For he had one purpose only – to leave out nothing that he had heard and to make no misstatement about it.' -- Papias, quote preserved in Eusebius' History 3:39

Note that this early quote, preserved in Eusebius' History, records one of Jesus' disciples approving Mark's diligence and the contents (if not the sequence) of Mark's writings. So here the person who has written the accounts is not far-removed from true knowledge, but someone who wants to leave an accurate record of what he heard from his mentor, who in this case was Peter, among the best sources of information available regarding Jesus.

Luke: Diligent researcher who met with eyewitnesses

Of other early Christian records, much is made of the possibility of Luke borrowing from Mark. We have good reason to believe that they met and knew each other (see v 24 of Philemon, in which Paul mentions both Luke and Mark among his fellow-workers, probably part of the Christian community in early Rome). But we also have good reason to believe that Luke traveled with Paul (the "we" sections of the book of Acts which suggest that the writer was, at that time, traveling with Paul). Luke had been to Jerusalem with Paul and met some of the key figures of ancient Christianity, including some of the eyewitnesses of the resurrection such as Jesus’ brother Jacob ("James").

When we arrived at Jerusalem, the brothers received us warmly. The next day Paul and the rest of us went to see James, and all the elders were present" (Luke, in Acts 21:17-18).

So Luke is known to have personally met some of those who knew Jesus directly. His writings explain how he has made every effort to write an orderly and well-researched account of Jesus’ life. Again, we do not have some supposedly untrustworthy and far-removed source, but a conscientious person who knows the value of being accurate and talking to the original sources, as he says, "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, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught." (Luke 1:3-4)

Matthew: A complex history but a useful source

Probably the most controversial authorship for the records of Jesus’ life is the authorship of the Gospel of Matthew. The early church records are unanimous that it was written by Matthew (also known as Levi), one of Jesus’ twelve closest disciples, and that it was written in "the Hebrew tongue" for the benefit of Jewish Christians. At some point early in church history, the book underwent at least a translation; the traditional text we follow now is in Greek. The authorship question arises because of textual comparisons: certain sections of Mark’s account and certain sections of Matthew’s are nearly identical.

The different sides of the dispute have made claims ranging from that Matthew had never seen any of the material in Mark (which seems unlikely) to that Matthew "slavishly followed" Mark, which is at least a serious overstatement based on the documents we have before us. Whatever relationship there may be between certain accounts, the majority of material in Matthew is not found in Mark, roughly a quarter of the material in Mark is not found in Matthew either, and a number of the accounts found in both documents are in different order or vary in certain details. There are a number of instances where the accounts preserved in Matthew appear to be older than the corresponding accounts in Mark, and some vice versa where the accounts in Mark appear to be older than those in Matthew, so there is plenty of material to occupy the textual scholars for some time. (One plausible theory is that Matthew and Mark both owe to a previous earlier source. For further discussion and substantiation of the figures quoted, read here.)

While the debate is far from over about the exact relationship between the material in Matthew and Mark, the amount of independent material in Matthew is enough to make it a worthwhile source in its own right regardless of the outcome of that discussion. It seems premature to rule out Matthew’s involvement solely on the basis of shared sections between Matthew and Mark, though of course any particular piece of information would not count as coming from two separate sources in cases where those accounts are shown to share a common source. If it turns out, as seems likely, that Matthew incorporated material from a pre-Markan document instead of from Mark itself, then it will also become likely that Matthew was written at an earlier date than would be supposed if he had the full text of Mark; the earlier date would be consistent with direct involvement of Jesus’ disciple Matthew (Levi) who is referenced in every historical record of how the document was written.

Closing words on the accounts in the gospels

What is left of Martin’s general claims about the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection? Not much. We have first-hand accounts from people who themselves saw Jesus after his resurrection. For most documents we have a reasonably clear picture of who wrote them and how the authors got their information. The authors showed themselves to be careful and earnest in what they recorded. We have records showing that the documents were written early enough that a number of eyewitnesses were still on the scene commenting, giving information, or even (in the case of the Gospel of John) adding notes vouching for the reliability of the reports.

Beyond that, there are even more basic reasons why many people, reading the gospels, believe them: writers who are basically honest do not make up things like that. Writers who are basically sane are not wrong on that level for that length of time about what they see. The gospels come across as having been written by people who are, like most people, basically sane and honest. It is difficult to believe that all of these authors were entirely wrong about everything important in their writings. Leaving aside questions of "infallibility", if the authors were merely sane, honest, and reasonably careful then what they have recorded is of monumental importance.

The response to Mr. Martin will be continued here. For those interested in reading the remainder of the response to Martin at this time, the entire response is also available here.

Was the Number of the Beast 666 or 616?

Some media play has been given to the existence of an alternative manuscript tradition for Revelation which has the "number of the beast" being 616 rather than the infamous 666. Despite the breathless coverage of the issue by some, this is hardly news. Irenaeus, writing in the second century, devoted an entire chapter to the number of the beast and therein explained why he favored the number 666 rather than 616.

What is new is that MSM outlets like National Geographic and the Gaurdian have carried the story as if it is a new discovery. Yes, an early manuscript fragment uses the alternative 616 rather than 666. But as noted above and here, we already knew that both traditions existed in the second century so this does not really tell us much we did not already know. Some scholars think 616 was original, more think 666 was original, and some are agnostic about the issue.

Does it matter? Not really. Both 616 and 666 mean the same thing. As Ralph at the Sacred River explains, they are both numeric representations for variant spellings of "Nero Caesar." The meaning of the Book of Revelation is the same either way.

So while this is an interesting textual criticism question, it is not really a theological one.

Narnia Comes to the Movies

Having grown up with the Chronicles of Narnia, I shuddered a bit when I learned that they were going to be produced as live-action films by Disney. The first rumors were that they were going to secularize it by sanitizing the overt Christian symbolism. Since it does not get any more overt than having a Lion portray Christ, I was left wondering just what would be left of the books. But, perhaps due to the success of The Passion, word came down that they were going to simply portray the books as they were; neither trying to maximize the Christian symbolism or minimize it. I think this is for the best; not only for the artistic intergrity of C.S. Lewis' literary masterpiece, but because the film should be a much greater commercial success if Christians are not alienated from the production.

I saw the trailer today for the first installment: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Very impressive. Check it out.

Pope Benedict XVI -- His Stand and the Remnant Church

A couple of weeks ago, Time Magazine ran an article about Pope Benedict XVI, focusing on his life and his thoughts. As most interested people already know, Pope Benedict XVI has been referred to as an ultra-conservative who takes stands on doctrinal clarity much to the dismay of some of the more liberal catholics, especially here in the United States.

One of the quotes in the article (which I will paraphrase since I do not have a copy of the magazine in front of me as I write) related to his writings that called on members of the Roman Catholic Church to either follow the church teachings or be denied communion. Some feared that this would cause a backlash by the more liberal members of the church would may cause these Roman-Catholic-in-name catholics who stray from the church teachings on such subjects as homosexuality, the ordination of women or abortion to leave the church. Time reports: "Benedict XVI's frequently stated positions appear to accept the inevitability of the decline of Church membership in the industrialized West, rather than to reach out to accommodate the concerns of those who might be drifting away from the Church." I read Pope Benedict's writings as suggesting that he was willing to allow that to happen. Basically, he said something to the effect of "we must stand for correct doctrine, and if that causes the church to shrink to a remnant and become almost invisible to the world, then that is the will of God." Another article in Time seems to agree:

But the more common analysis is that people in the West have left the Church because not only do they disagree with some of its teachings, they are not allowed to disagree out loud on questions such as the ordination of women. The closing down of dissent — which the new Pope had an active part in during his previous job — doesn't sit well with the norms of post-Enlightenment Western cultures.

By that analysis, the Church would continue to shrink in the West under Benedict XVI, unless he turns out to be extremely gifted pastorally. But that would not necessarily bother him that much. He has previously indicated that he would be comfortable with an extremely small Church, preferring a small church of true believers to a larger one whose numbers are swelled by people he would not see as good Catholics. Benedict XVI has previously argued that it is not unhealthy for church to be a counter culture rather than a dominant player in secular Western society. He's willing to see it play the role of an oppositional minority to a cultural drift he sees at odds with Church teachings.

How refreshing. I know that some of my fellow Christians don't see it the same way I do, but I think that is appropriate. A church is nothing if it does not stand by what it believes to be the correct and true Word of God. If God mandates something, it is not for us in the church to hold up our finger to the wind, take a public opinion poll, and follow what the secularized church membership wants us to do. If we really, really believe that the Bible proscriptions on homosexuality and the ordination of women are the Word of God, then we must stand by it regardless of the cost.

Of course, in the protestant church (and parts of the Roman Catholic church) the debate is largely about whether the proscriptions on homosexuality, abortion and the ordination of women are the Word of God or something else. Perhaps we simply misunderstand some of the teachings--after all, some Christians misunderstood the Bible to teach that the world was flat for many years. For example, perhaps when Paul writes that a Elder must be a man, it is not a requirement from God, but a societal way of thinking that invaded his thought, i.e., he may not have had any problem with women elders, but the thought of having a woman elder never crossed Paul's mind. Some would suggest (I would not) that Paul was simply wrong and we have the right to ignore the teachings that suggest that women not be elders. These are problems that plague the protestant church, but in the Roman Catholic Church, the Pope, when speaking on issues is speaking for God and has the final word on the subject. If a particular church-goer doesn't like it, then either they reformulate their thoughts to accept the teaching (since it is the Word of God), they work to have the Pope reconsider his statements by arguing from the Holy Scriptures, or they leave. Those are the only options.

Some may not like this. Some may want to say "I'm a Roman Catholic, but I disagree with the Pope on X, Y and Z." Well, in the privacy of your own home and among friends, you are free to do that, but if you are a Roman Catholic then you also have to accept that the Pope speaks for God. If that is the case, then you are not arguing with another man, but with God. That is the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church -- you are not free to adopt another and call yourself a Roman Catholic.

Will Pope Benedict XVI follow up on this approach? Today's news reports that he is going to take the narrow road -- whether he will deny communion to those who do not follow remains to be seen, but I expect that we will see that happen in the next five years.

Pope Benedict XVI indicated Saturday he will stick to Pope John Paul II's unwavering stands against abortion and euthanasia, saying pontiffs must resist attempts to "water down" Roman Catholic teaching.

Benedict outlined his vision of his papacy in a homily during a ceremony in which he took his place on a marble-and-mosaic throne in the ancient Roman basilica of St. John in Lateran. The ceremony is the last to formally mark Benedict's assumption of the papacy.

The pope "must not proclaim his own ideas, but ever link himself and the church to obedience to the word of God, when faced with all attempts of adaptation or of watering down, as with all opportunism," Benedict said.

That's what Pope John Paul II did when he "underlined in an unequivocal way, the inviolability of human beings, the inviolability of human life from conception to natural death," Benedict said to ringing applause from the congregation.

"Freedom to kill is not a true freedom but a tyranny that reduces the human being into slavery."

In Vatican teaching, the phrase in defense of life "from conception to natural death" refers to its bans on abortion and euthanasia.

"The pope isn't an absolute sovereign, whose thoughts and desires are law," Benedict said. "On the contrary, the ministry of the pope is the guarantor of the obedience toward Christ and his word."

I am not Roman Catholic, but let me say "Amen."

"No Eyewitnesses to the Resurrection"?

This is a continuation of a response to Michael Martin's article, "Why the Resurrection is Initially Improbable," Philo, 1, no. 1 (Spring-Summer 1998): 63-73. Mr. Martin's article is being reprinted this spring in a book by Prometheus Press. For those interested in reading the remainder of the response to Martin, further installments will be published on this blog. The entire response is also available here.

In recent years, I have heard people make the claim that there were "no eyewitnesses to the resurrection". Mr. Martin also makes that claim. This claim is common enough among skeptics, but it is misleading.

The "no eyewitnesses" claim is, if you think about it, spectacularly wrong. One of the earliest written accounts of the events, recorded by Paul in his first letter to the people of Corinth, mentions that there were over 500 eyewitnesses. Later, more detailed accounts mention appearances where Jesus spoke with people -- some of the conversations are recorded for us -- and even ate with people after rising from the dead. Even the latest written account that appears in the New Testament is written by someone who personally claims to have been an eyewitness of Jesus' resurrection himself, to have talked with Jesus on a number of occasions after he rose from the dead.

So how do skeptics make so bold as to claim that there were no eyewitnesses to the resurrection? It seems to be a bit of a sleight-of-hand: Are we discussing the event of the resurrection - the precise moment when Jesus became alive again inside the tomb - or the fact of the resurrection: that Jesus was alive again? No one else was in the tomb with Jesus when he rose from the dead, but many people saw him alive afterwards. The fact that they were not in the tomb at the moment when Jesus rose to life again does not invalidate their testimony that Jesus had risen from the dead. They remain eyewitnesses to the fact of the resurrection, if not the event of the resurrection.

To take the example from the other side, if nobody had seen Lincoln assassinated, but many had seen him later dead, it would be nonsense to claim that there were no eyewitnesses to Lincoln’s death and imply that therefore he might be alive. Lincoln’s death was an event, but also an enduring fact; anyone who saw Lincoln dead was a valid eyewitness of the fact of his death, if not the event of his death. So with Jesus, the many who saw him alive again are eyewitnesses of the fact of his resurrection, if not the event of his return to life inside the tomb.

I would give Mr. Martin the benefit of the doubt as to whether he was misleading deliberately; it could have been accidental ambiguity. Still, the claim that "there were no eyewitnesses of the resurrection" is misleading, bordering on deceptive; in fact many people saw Jesus alive again and were eyewitnesses of the resurrection in a very real and factual sense.

The response to Mr. Martin will be continued here. For those interested in reading the remainder of the response to Martin at this time, the entire response is also available here.

Why Raise Jesus from the Dead?

This is a continuation of a response to Michael Martin's article, "Why the Resurrection is Initially Improbable," Philo, 1, no. 1 (Spring-Summer 1998): 63-73. Mr. Martin's article is being reprinted this spring in a book by Prometheus Press. For those interested in reading the remainder of the response to Martin, further installments will be published on this blog. The entire response is also available here.

Mr. Martin's original article gives prominent place to one particular complaint: there is (he states) no plausible reason why the resurrection should have occurred. In the course of this response, I will discuss a number of the reasons for Jesus’ resurrection.

God's Purposes and Jesus' Resurrection

When discussing the resurrection and God’s purpose, Mr. Martin limits the discussion to theories of atonement. While I will respond to Mr. Martin on the atonement, the discussion of God’s purpose will not be limited to atonement alone. We will also consider the resurrection in light of the view that a miracle may also be a sign which communicates a message.

In preparation, we will first recall some known facts -- our background knowledge for assessing the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. The first thing to recall is that Jesus is among a very rare group of people in the history of the world: people who founded a major religion. While this is undisputed and very likely to be relevant, Mr. Martin does not consider it in his assessment. From a simple standpoint of logic, it can easily have a bearing on whether God has any purpose in resurrecting Jesus from the dead. Another thing to recall is that, in the Judaism of Jesus’ day, previous teaching on resurrection was not especially strong, with no explicit support for it in the Torah and no other officially-recognized scriptures besides the Torah. In that day, it was an acceptable Jewish belief that there was no resurrection from the dead, with the party of Sadducees holding that belief. If the teaching of a future resurrection of all people from the dead is true, it is among the most relevant and important teachings in the history of religion. To be sure, some people had taught as if a resurrection would come. But these had not gained full acceptance as of the time of Jesus.

Jesus’ resurrection is a sign that clarifies the answers to many questions:

  1. It serves as a final answer as to whether there is life after death. As a sign, it clearly indicates that God raises the dead.
  2. It serves as a sign validating Jesus' teachings on the resurrection. It indicates that among the various teachings of what happens after death, Jesus’ teaching on resurrection is true. This gives certainty of Jesus' teaching of a general resurrection in the future.
  3. It shows God’s faithfulness to his creation. From confirming Jesus' teaching of the future resurrection of all people, it follows that it is also a sign that God has not abandoned humanity to pain, meaninglessness, and death. It confirms Jesus' pledge to us that our own tombs will one day be empty, and we will rise to life again as he rose. From this we can see the reason for the hope we have in us.
  4. It foretells the promised renewal of creation to a state of goodness that is no longer subject to death and corruption. Restoring nature to what God intended is one connecting link between Jesus’ healing miracles and his resurrection. Jesus’ work restoring nature is affirmed as God’s own purpose by Jesus’ restoration to life. Together with the background of Jesus’ other miracles restoring the sick, the blind, and the crippled, it shows that any evil, disease, death, or destruction that may confront us still cannot defeat God’s purpose of restoring us and renewing all things.
  5. The resurrection is a sign indicating the final practical resolution of the problem of evil. It is a sign showing the weak and temporary nature of suffering and death, and the truth of Jesus' promises regarding the world to come.
  6. It is a vindication of the goodness of God. If suffering, death, and meaningless had in fact been the final result of our lives, it would be problematic to maintain the reality of God's love of mankind. Instead, the resurrection demonstrates death's inability to destroy us and to undo God's purposes for us. As the generation that saw Christ raised from the dead put it, "Death, where is your victory? Grave, where is your sting?" The resurrection, as a sign of the general resurrection to come, provides a clear indication that God does value mankind.
  7. It confirms the uniqueness of Jesus in God's purposes in the world. Among that very, very small group of people in the history of the world who have founded major religions, Jesus is unique even within that group in rising from the dead. Jesus’ resurrection plainly shows which leader to follow. It renders foolish the argument that God has not made clear which religious leader to follow.

Atonement Theories

The sign value of the resurrection alone is enough reason for the resurrection to have occurred. But the matter of our atonement still needs to be discussed because of the resurrection’s role in it. Martin, oddly enough, discusses in detail only Origen’s primitive ransom theory in which Jesus supposedly paid a ransom due to the devil, a theory which is not fully Scriptural. Martin passes over other theories of atonement just by listing a number of them and stating that he finds "all the historically important theories" do not explain some aspect of the atonement to his satisfaction, referencing his book The Case Against Christianity. This present article will not review every theory of atonement or respond to an entire book. For the moment, let us give Martin the benefit of the doubt and suppose that with every given theory of atonement, he has found some major point that is not addressed. But by refuting theories of atonement singly, it seems likely that Mr. Martin does not appreciate that various theories of atonement are complementary; many of them do not preclude each other but instead work together to explain different aspects of our atonement.

On a Christian view, the whole of atonement requires a number of things. Atonement involves satisfying both justice and mercy, causing us to despise evil, humbling us, leading us to trust in God, cleansing us from the stain of past sin, cleansing us from corruption and the desire to sin, establishing a covenant (binding agreement) between us and God, planting the beginnings of eternal life inside us and making us children of God. The atonement involves Jesus’ incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and sending of the Holy Spirit. It is no legitimate complaint to take one theory that explains one part of it and mention that it does not explain all of it; it was probably never intended to. For example, Martin mentions the Christus Victor theory – that Jesus has won victory over the adversaries of mankind (for example, death). Given the sign value of the resurrection, it is clear that Jesus has won the victory over death; this is most certainly true. That one theory does not address a number of other points that need to be discussed, but that does not make it untrue. It complements other theories, it does not compete with them. Athanasius, writing in On the Incarnation of the Word of God, refers to a number of different theories of atonement and different aspects of atonement and does not confine himself to an either-or view of atonement theories.

Atonement In Action

I would also like to quickly review the two complaints Mr. Martin specifically mentioned about various views of atonement: "that they either fail to explain why God sacrificed His Son for the salvation of sinners or else make the sacrifice seem arbitrary." When we look at our own guilt for various things we have done, we know that our simple regret – as genuine and miserable as it may be – neither works to destroy the evil that is in us nor satisfies those we have wronged. While on the surface the idea seems attractive that God might forgive us without any punishment, if that had been the case then we would have concluded that wrongdoing was not really that serious. And we would have concluded that wrongdoing was not very serious based on what (in that case) would have been fact – that God simply shrugged and forgave. Now, shrugging and forgiving may be fine for a small and accidental thing. But there is a lot worse going on in this world than small and accidental things, and a notable percentage of people are involved at least occasionally in these larger and more deliberate wrongs.

Given that God has the power to heal all the harm done and restore peace and cleanness to all the souls (both the wrongdoer and the wronged), it would be arbitrary if God chose a line of badness and said "beyond this, I will not forgive." But what if God opens his power for all people who turn to him, not just those who were not that bad in the first place? (I expect that many who read this may not suspect that there is much wrong within their own souls, so I write as to those who consider "the worst of sinners" to be someone else. Those of us who follow the example of Paul should hesitate to think that the worst of sinners is anyone but ourselves, as Paul said of himself.) If God only forgave those who were not so bad in the first place, then how could we escape the view that he saved those who were good enough? How could we deny that they owed their forgiveness in part to their own goodness – or worse, to their superiority over those who were lost – as much as to God’s mercy? But if God was willing to redeem anyone, no matter how serious the offense, then how would justice be satisfied? What is the worst punishment that justice can ask? There is no crime for which justice may ask a worse punishment than death, especially the slow and painful death of the cross. Jesus’ punishment – the extreme punishment of death, reserved for the worst of crimes – is sufficient to satisfy justice for the most serious of offenses. In this way our atonement has left no doubt that the wrongs being atoned are not a slight matter but are in fact dreadful. In this way our fear is quieted as to whether our particular sin is beyond the price that was paid. In this way our atonement increases the disgust for wrongdoing, rather than decreasing it, in those who understand their forgiveness.

The question implied at one point of Martin’s article is, "Why Jesus? Why the Son of God?" First, it would need to be someone sinless; otherwise we could never be certain that this person did not simply pay for his own crimes. Notice also that the atonement would leave us in the unique debt of the one who atoned for us, as much to that one as to God. It is fitting that the payment should be taken on by God himself. If our debt had not been taken by God himself, then we would have had cause to honor another as much as God, and cause to doubt God’s love of us, if he had created us but left it to someone else to redeem us. In providing for all wrongdoers, our atonement makes plain that we are indebted to God’s goodness rather than our own. It demolishes boasting about our own goodness and restores us to humility; all alike are in need of mercy. And in God’s providing atonement himself, our atonement restores our trust in God rather than sending us to look elsewhere for our redemption.

The response to Mr. Martin will be continued here. For those interested in reading the remainder of the response to Martin at this time, the entire response is also available here.

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