All posts by Stephen Bedard

Martin Luther – PBS Documentary

One of the most influential figures in all of Christian history is Martin Luther. Love him or hate him, we must admit that he had a great impact and his legacy lives on.

PBS put out a documentary on Martin Luther that you might find interesting.


How Did Oneness Pentecostalism Start?

DovePentecostalism became a major Christian movement early in the twentieth century and continues to have an impact worldwide. Although many Pentecostals are trintarian, there is also segment that are Oneness or Jesus Only Pentecostals.

Oneness Pentecostals deny the trinity but still affirm the divinity of Jesus. It is related to an early division within the church called modalism. Modalism taught that God appeared in different modes, such as the Father or the Son, but not at the same time.

One of the theological origins of this movement came from reflection on baptismal formulas. Here are two passages that were influential:

  • Peter said to them, “Repent, and each one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38)
  • Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 28:19)

So which is it? Are Christians to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit or in the name of Jesus? What if the name (notice it doesn’t say names) of the Father, Son of the Holy Spirit was actually Jesus?

Some early Pentecostals began to get rebaptized in the name of Jesus, since their previous baptism had been in the name of the Father, Son and Spirit. What began as a desire for a correct baptism formula developed into a new understanding of the nature of God. There was one God and his name was Jesus.

This was an influential movement within Pentecostalism. The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada became Oneness for a time and only returned to trinitarianism under influence from the American Assemblies of God. Although the PAOC is now strongly trinitarian, I used to attend a PAOC church and one of the older pastors would use both the Matthew and Acts formula when baptizing.

Oneness Pentecostals are still around, such as in organizations like the United Pentecostal Church. In addition to a rejection of the trinity, they also believe that the baptism of the Holy Spirit, marked by speaking in tongues, is a requirement for salvation.

If you are interested in learning more about Pentecostalism, I recommend this book:

Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements




5 Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About the Apostle Paul

Apostle PaulThe Apostle Paul is one of the most influential thinkers and writers in the history of Christianity. It could be argued that his impact is second only to Jesus.

But how well do we really know him?

Here are five things you may or may not have known about the Apostle Paul.

  1. Paul never mentions his original name of Saul or his hometown of Tarsus in his letters.
  2. Paul’s letters were written earlier than the Gospels.
  3. Paul was not the first to preach to the Gentiles. It was actually Peter.
  4. Paul’s letters are not arranged chronologically in the New Testament but from longest to shortest.
  5. Paul never mentions hell in his letters. This doesn’t mean that he didn’t believe in some sort of judgment, but he never calls it hell.




What Do We Mean When We Say the Gospels Were Originally Anonymous?

GospelsAlthough many Christians accept that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote the Gospels attributed to them, scholars will state emphatically that the Gospels were originally anonymous.

But what does that even mean?

When we hear that the Gospels were originally anonymous, very specific thoughts come to mind. It sounds as if no one knew who wrote the Gospels and that the church had to later pick some names to go with these writings.

While some scholars might believe that, that is not exactly what is meant by anonymous Gospels. All that scholars are saying is that no where in the text of the Gospel does it say who wrote it.

Let me illustrate by giving an example of a Gospel that is not anonymous. The first verse of the Gospel of Thomas says this: “These are the secret sayings which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymos Judas Thomas wrote down.”

I don’t know of any scholar who really believes that Thomas wrote that Gospel, but at least an author is identified. The same is not true for the canonical Gospels. The text itself is silent about the author (other than John being by the unidentified Beloved Disciple).

Does this mean that no one in the first century knew who wrote these Gospels? I’m not so sure about that.

Read carefully the preface to Luke:

“Now many have undertaken to compile an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, like the accounts passed on to us by those who were eyewitnesses and servants of the word from the beginning. So it seemed good to me as well, because I have followed all things carefully from the beginning, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know for certain the things you were taught.” (Luke 1:1-4)

Does that sound like someone who was trying to hide their identity? This author is dedicating his work to a named individual. Presumably Theophilus knew who wrote the book. Perhaps others did as well.

It is true that the earliest Christian writers don’t give the names of the authors. But from my reading of them, it seems that they saw the authority not in the authorship of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John but in the words being spoken by Jesus. It was only later as competing Gospels were being written that the apostolic authorship needed to be asserted.

Am I arguing that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John absolutely wrote those Gospels, without a doubt? While I lean toward that interpretation, my goal is much more modest. I simply want to state that the anonymity of the Gospels is saying that the authors are not identified within the text and that is all.




Why I Read the Church Fathers

Church FathersI have been reading through the Ante-Nicene Church Fathers (church fathers before the Council of Nicaea). As a history podcaster, that might not surprise you. However, I started reading the Church Fathers long before I considered a church history podcast.

Why would I read the Church Fathers?

There are traditions within Christianity that heavily rely on the Church Fathers. However, I’m a Baptist and Baptists are not known for their interest in patristics. In fact some Protestants act as if Christianity jumped from the Apostle Paul to Martin Luther.

While I don’t give the same authority to the Church Fathers as I do the Bible, I find reading their writings to be quite rewarding.

As a person living two thousand years after the time of Jesus, it is good to read from those much closer to the events. Many of these knew people who knew the apostles. Their reading of the Bible can be helpful to us.

These Church Fathers were also trying to integrate their faith into their cultural context. At this point, Christianity was not yet a legal religion, much less the official religion of the Roman Empire. What areas could be compromised and what could not?

It is interesting to read about the reactions to and against philosophy. Some brought the philosophical training over, baptized it and used it for the church. Others, such as Tertullian, warned that Jerusalem had nothing to do with Athens.

Some of the earliest Christian writings were in the area of apologetics. These Christians responded to other religious views and expressed why they believed Christianity to be true.

We also see how they wrestled with what would become orthodox Christianity. Was Jesus only man, only God or both God and man?

While many things have changed in the past centuries, in other ways things are quite similar. Our post-Christian world has much in common with the pre-Christian society of the Church Fathers.

I would encourage you to read the Church Fathers and learn from their teachings.




The Synoptic Problem: Four Views – Review

Synoptic ProblemHistorians who look at Jesus through the Gospel sources quickly notice that there is a relationship between them. Matthew, Mark and Luke (as opposed to John) have similar stories and at times match each other word-for-word. The nature of the relationship is called the synoptic problem (Matthew, Mark and Luke are the synoptic Gospels).

Stanley Porter and Bryan Dyer have edited a nice volume called The Synoptic Problem: Four Views that looks at four ways of explaining the relationship between the these three Gospels. I should note that I have studied under both Craig Evans and Stanley Porter (I even co-wrote a book with Stan).

The basic questions that are addressed revolve around the order in which the Gospels were written and the specific relationship between Matthew and Luke.

Craig Evans presents what is the majority opinion among New Testament scholars today. This is called the Two Source Hypothesis (also called the Four Source Hypothesis). This theory argues that Mark was written first and that it was used as a source by Matthew and Luke. The material that is common between Matthew and Luke but absent from Mark is posited as coming from a hypothetical source called Q. Thus the two sources are Mark and Q. When this theory is called the Four Source Hypothesis, it is from Mark, Q and the material unique to Matthew (M) and unique to Luke (L).

A theory that I have been eager to learn more about is the Farrer Hypothesis, a theory that has breathed new life through the work of Mark Goodacre. This theory shares with the previous hypothesis the priority of Mark. Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source. However, where it departs is when it comes to Q. Instead of having a hypothetical document, this theory argues that Luke used both Mark and Matthew as sources.

One that I was not as familiar is the Two Gospel Hypothesis. This theory, as described by David Barrett Peabody, rejects the idea of Markan priority and Q. This theory accepts the early Christian belief that Matthew was written first. Then Luke used Matthew as a source and finally Mark used both Matthew and Luke as sources. Thus the two Gospels for this theory are Matthew and Luke, since Mark is only a conflation of the two.

The final view is significantly different. The Orality and Memory Hypothesis is offered by Rainer Reisner. This theory argues that the relationships between the Gospels can be explained by their use of oral traditions. This theory is the most difficult of the four summarize but it does have some interesting ideas.

I went into this book with reasonable confidence in the Two Source Hypothesis and I do believe Evans does a masterful job of presenting it. But my confidence was shaken after reading this book. Goodacre presents a simpler view that dispenses with Q but still explains the relationships. While Mark looks like the earliest Gospel to me, Peabody’s theory has support from early Christian tradition. Finally, Reisner’s work on the oral traditions needs to be taken into account.

I really appreciated this The Synoptic Problem: Four Views, including the respectful tone used by the authors when interacting with each other. This is a valuable resource and I intend to use it as a text in a future course I will be teaching.




The Problem With the Criteria of Double Dissimilarity

Bible

One of the criteria that historians use to determine the authentic sayings of Jesus from the Gospels is something called double dissimilarity. Double dissimilarity basically means they look for sayings in the Gospels that don’t look too Jewish or too Christian. If it is dissimilar to both Jewish and Christian teachings, then it probably goes back to the historical Jesus.

For example, take the title of the Son of Man that Jesus uses in the Gospels. The idea of the Son of Man was not a major image in Judaism and it did not become popular within Christianity. Therefore, the self-description of the Son of Man probably goes back to the historical Jesus.

But there are two problems with this.

The first is that Jesus was Jewish. He was raised in a Jewish context, surrounded himself with Jewish disciples and preached to Jewish crowds, often quoting the Jewish scriptures. We would expect that authentic sayings of Jesus would have something in common with Judaism.

The second is that Jesus was the founder of Christianity. The church emerged out of the group of disciples who directly followed Jesus. The sayings of Jesus were the foundation of the Christian faith. We would expect that authentic sayings of Jesus would be picked up by the early Christians.

Is this some sort apologetic defence of Christianity? It could be used in that way, but my observations come from my historical interests.

Let’s look at this in a similar but different context.

The person we know of as the Buddha was originally known as Siddhārtha Gautama. Gautama was raised in a Hindu setting and eventually became the founder of Buddhism. We would expect within the recorded teachings of the Buddha, sayings that overlap with both Hindu and Buddhist teachings. This is exactly what we see.

In the same way, a Jewish Jesus who was the founder of Christianity should have said things that sounded both Jewish and Christian.

I personally do not find the criteria of double dissimilarity to be particularly helpful in studying the historical Jesus.




Did Jesus Exist? by Bart Ehrman – Review

Did Jesus ExistAnything about the Jesus Myth Theory quickly comes up on my radar as it is one of my main areas of research. For that reason, Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? has been on my must-read pile for some time.

In some ways, this is a surprising book for Ehrman to write. Ehrman is a former evangelical who has lost his faith and now identifies as an agnostic (see my article Losing Christianity). Ehrman regularly writes books that are critical of the Bible and Christian theology.

Did Jesus Exist? took two groups off guard. Jesus mythicists (those who deny Jesus existed) are often agnostics and atheists. Ehrman, as a respected New Testament scholar, would be valuable on their side. More than once, Ehrman has surprised mythicists by contradicting their claims about Jesus.

Evangelical Christians, especially those involved in Christian apologetics, have also had to rethink Ehrman. While his other books seem critical of Christianity, at least in its evangelical form, Ehrman provides in this book a helpful resource for refuting the Jesus Myth Theory.

There is much about Did Jesus Exist? that I liked. It must be granted that Ehrman is a gifted writer. Ehrman has done what many scholars cannot do, and that is present technical theories that the average layperson can understand.

I also appreciated Ehrman’s summary of the development of the Jesus Myth Theory. Not only does he he provide the history, he distinguishes between those forms of the theory that deserve a response and those that go beyond the fringe.

Ehrman persuasively argues that the Gospels should be used as historical sources. Mythicists frequently dismiss the Gospels as historical sources because of their status as religious scripture. Ehrman responds:

“The fact that their books later became documents of faith has no bearing on the question of whether the books can still be used for historical purposes. To dismiss the Gospels from the historical record is neither fair nor scholarly.” (p. 73)

While providing a convincing case that Jesus existed, Ehrman also responds to mythicist claims about pagan inspiration. Ehrman clarifies the current scholarly understanding of “dying and rising gods.” While this theme was made popular by James George Frazier (1854-1941), more recent scholarship has been much more skeptical. One scholar who done much to debunk the idea of the dying and rising gods is Jonathan Z. Smith.

One of the things I disagree with Ehrman is his conclusion that the New Testament is “filled with discrepancies and contradictions” (p. 182). My problem with this is not based on clinging to a theological doctrine of inerrancy. Rather, having studied the New Testament and compared them to other ancient writings, I find the New Testament to be rather consistent. There are definitely differences between the Gospels, but they differences are much smaller than even what we get when Josephus records the same event in Antiquities and the Jewish War.

I also disagree with Ehrman’s view that a divine understanding of Jesus was a later invention. Not only do I see evidence of this in Mark’s Gospel, I think it is clear in Paul’s letters, which Ehrman agrees are our earliest Christian writings. I won’t fully respond here, but I will recommend Pauline Christology by Gordon Fee and my podcast episode Jesus: Before the Early Years.

Having said that, I do appreciate this book by Ehrman. I respect him from following the evidence where it leads and not giving in to the mythicist camp, even though they would gladly take him.

Christians will find a number of things in Did Jesus Exist? that they will disagree with. Still, this book provides both a compelling case for the existence of Jesus and a damaging critique of the Jesus Myth Theory.




The Jesus Myth and History

Jesus MythOne of my areas of research is the Jesus Myth Theory. This theory claims that Jesus of Nazareth never existed and the Jesus of the Gospels is based on pagan myths.

I have some major problems with this theory and this is not just because I’m a Christian. Even if I became an atheist, I could never embrace the Jesus Myth Theory.

My problem with the Jesus Myth Theory is not just about what it says about orthodox Christian theology (although I do have major concerns) but how they do history.

I thought that I would share some of the problems with the Jesus Myth Theory. Whether one is religious or not, these are real problems.

  • They do not take chronology seriously when it comes to explaining cause and effect. They will use second to fourth century Gospels as being more original than first century Gospels. They don’t care if our texts about Mithras or Plutarch’s writing about Osiris and Isis are later than the New Testament.
  • They dismiss all texts that contradict their theory. If there is a verse in the New Testament that is evidence against their case, they reject it as a later addition. They do this even if there is no textual evidence for such an addition.
  • They misrepresent the mythological stories. Even if you do not care about the Bible, you should care that they make statements about myths that are simply not true. Most of the claims of the mythicists would not be evident by simply reading the myths for themselves.
  • The standards they use for the historicity of Jesus are not the same standards used by professional historians. Historians accept the existence of other ancient figures with far less evidence. We have a wealth of historical evidence for Jesus.
  • They make an artificial divide between “sacred” and “profane” texts. They reject the New Testament as historical evidence because of its status as Scripture. The truth is that much of ancient writings (including histories) had a religious or philosophical bias. The ancients would never separate religious from secular history. That is a modern construction.

These are just some of the problems with the Jesus Myth Theory.

Paul and the Faithfulness of God

One of my favourite New Testament scholars is N.T. Wright. He is an incredible historian who brings a fresh reading to the text through a close examination of the context. In this video, Wright is interviewed by Michael Bird (another NT scholar I respect). They discuss Wright’s book, Paul and the Faithfulness of God. If you are interested in learning more about Paul, you might find this video helpful.