All posts by Stephen Bedard

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.


5 Reasons Why I Love History

FiveI have loved history for as long as I can remember. When my friends were reading superhero comic books, I was reading comic books about World War Two (Sgt Rock was my favourite).

My interest in military history has continued but has also expanded. There are many areas of history that I enjoy, both ancient and modern.

Even as a I did graduate work in biblical studies, I often came at the subject from a historical perspective.

I don’t know if you appreciate history like I do, but I thought I would share five reasons why I love history.

  1. We can learn from the mistakes of the past. People throughout history have made many unfortunate choices. This includes the church (the subject of this podcast). I do not intend to cover up the mistakes, but I hope we can learn from them.
  2. We can learn from the successes of the past. On occasion, people have made good choices that have helped people and changed lives for the better. We need to hear their stories.
  3. We can be inspired by the individuals and events of the past. Much of history is not just a list of events but includes story. Ancient historians expected that their writings would have some sort of positive effect on their readers.
  4. Studying history connects us to a larger story. Who we are is much more than just our personal life or even the experiences of our parents. We are connected to people and events across the globe and throughout the generations. One of my relatives pushed back our family tree to the late 1400s and even that is only a small part of the picture.
  5. History is interesting. There are some pretty strange characters throughout history. I’m always shocked when people say history is boring. If you think history is boring, you are not looking close enough. They say that truth is stranger than fiction and history demonstrates this to be true. I study history not to impress people but because it is fun.

What about you? Why do you love history?




Did the Apostle Paul Create Christianity?

Apostle PaulA lot of people, Christian or not, have great respect for Jesus. He may be seen as a great ethical and religious teacher. He may even be considered a prophet of some kind.

Some of those who have respect for Jesus, have much less respect for Christianity. They like Jesus but dislike some of the theological assertions of organized Christianity.

Where did the church go wrong? For some the answer is clear: Paul.

I have read criticisms by Muslims who have suggested that Christianity veered off from the teachings of Jesus because of Paul’s innovations. I have read similar things by some Jewish writers who wish to reclaim Jesus for Judaism.

It is a valid historical questions to ask whether Christianity as it is now finds its origin in Jesus or Paul.

One of the challenges in answering this question is the dating of our sources. It is likely that Paul’s letters predate our written Gospels. How can we tell if Paul changed anything if his writings are the earliest that we have?

I would say that the burden of proof is on those who insist that Paul changed the teachings of Jesus and introduced new ideas. Having said that, I believe that the weight of the evidence is on Paul being consistent, if not with Jesus, than at least with the earliest Christian teachings.

For example, some of the distinctives of Christianity include the resurrection of Jesus and divinity of Jesus. These are found throughout Paul. But did Paul come up with these ideas?

Paul seems to cite in 1 Corinthians 15 an earlier creed about Jesus’ resurrection. There is evidence that the clearest statements about the divinity of Jesus in Colossians and Philippians are earlier creeds that Paul adopts.

Paul also addresses the question of whether he had a different gospel in what is likely his earliest letter:

But from those who were influential (whatever they were makes no difference to me; God shows no favoritism between people)—those influential leaders added nothing to my message. On the contrary, when they saw that I was entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised just as Peter was entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised (for he who empowered Peter for his apostleship to the circumcised also empowered me for my apostleship to the Gentiles) and when James, Cephas, and John, who had a reputation as pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we would go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. They requested only that we remember the poor, the very thing I also was eager to do. (Galatians 2:6-10)

Of course, this could be Paul trying to cover up his involvement in changing Christianity. But we would need positive evidence for that before dismissing what he says in Galatians.

What about the conflict that Paul seemed to have with some Jewish Christians?

It is true that Paul did have some issues with some Christians from a Jewish background. But that conflict was not about what we would consider the key doctrines of Christianity. The question was about the process by which Gentiles would become followers of Jesus. Were the Gentiles required to convert to Judaism first or were they able to directly follow Jesus? It is interesting that Luke reports that it was not through Paul, but rather Peter that the Gentiles first were able to directly follow Jesus (Acts 10).

Was Paul influential in developing Christian doctrine? Absolutely. Much of what Jesus taught was aimed specifically at a Jewish audience. There were many topics that Jesus gave no clear teaching on how things worked in the kingdom of God. Paul took what Jesus taught and applied to a Gentile context.

However, I would suggest that evidence is lacking that Paul created his own form of Christianity distinct from the teachings of Jesus.




Can Christians Do Critical Church History?

Church HistoryAs I work on this podcast about Christian history, one could challenge me on how appropriate it is for me to do this. Not only am I a Christian, but I’m a pastor as well. Doesn’t that bias disqualify me?

I have seen discussions questioning the ability of believers to do either biblical research or Christian history. A Christian will always defend what they believe and therefore cannot be impartial.

I’m not convinced that Christians are unable to do real church history. In fact, it has often been from within the church that the harshest criticism about the church has emerged.

Although I believe the Bible to be a reliable report about Jesus and the early church, I have no intention of ignoring the mistakes of the church.

Do I have a bias? Absolutely. I think that despite all its mistakes and failures that the church is something special. I wouldn’t be a pastor otherwise.

My bias will influence what I present in my podcast. But the same thing would happen if I was Jewish, Muslim, Mormon or atheist. I believe we need to own our bias.

My philosophy for historical research is to look for different perspectives. For example, when I get to the crusades, I will want to look beyond church accounts. I will want to look at modern secular treatments as well as Muslim interpretations of the events.

The presence of a bias does not disqualify something as valuable. It only means that we need to be aware of the bias and attempt to balance it with other perspectives as we are able.

My goal for this podcast is not to defend the actions of the church. Rather, I want to put the actions of the church in their historical context. Not only do I love the church, I also love history.

I hope that you will join me on this journey.

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