Category Archives: Gospels

Rekindling the Word – Review

Rekindling the WordWhen historians look at their sources, they are very interested in how close they can get to the events. It is not always as simple as the oldest sources being the most accurate, but it is a factor.

Carsten Peter Thiede, in Rekindling the Word, argues for some early dates for certain Gospel fragments. Much of the book deals with the Magdalen papyrus of Matthew’s Gospel. This fragment has been dated to a variety of centuries, but Thiede argues for a first century date. This would be remarkable if true. Unfortunately, Thiede’s position is definitely a minority and it is likely that it is later.

Thiede also agrees with the claim that a portion of Mark’s Gospel was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. This would also give us a valuable first century Gospel fragment. In this case, the controversy is not the date but the identity. Most scholars reject that the fragment in question is from Mark.

I wasn’t really convinced by Thiede’s claims. However, the book was quite interesting in terms of Gospel origins, the role of Peter and how manuscripts were created. Anyone interested in Christian origins will appreciate Rekindling the Word, even if they don’t agree with Thiede’s conclusions.

Was the Virgin Birth of Jesus Based on Pagan Myths?

Virgin BirthThis post is not on whether or not Jesus was conceived by Mary while she was still a virgin. I deal with more theological questions at my other website. Belief in the virgin birth is a faith statement and this post is going to deal with history.

To be clear, the New Testament teaches the virginal conception rather than a virgin birth. There is a subtle difference. The doctrine only teaches that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was conceived. However, “virgin birth” will be used as the popular form.

It is also important note that only Matthew and Luke describe the virgin birth. Not only did Mark and John not mention it, neither did Paul. That doesn’t mean that other early Christians didn’t believe it.

What I want to deal with is the claim by people, commonly called Jesus Mythicists, that the virgin birth of Jesus was based on pagan myths, specifically Horus, Dionysus, Mithras, among others.

My response here is not based on a desire to defend the Bible (although I am a Christian) but by looking to the myths of these gods/heroes.

The problem with the claims that the virgin birth was based on pagan myths is that most of the examples given by mythicists are not virgin births. What is claimed as a “virgin birth” are really conceptions with a supernatural element. Often the mother was not a virgin even before the conception and the baby was conceived through intercourse.

So why do they describe it as a virgin birth? I suppose because many of them include intercourse between a god and a mortal, thus not including a human male. But that is not a virgin birth. Nor is that the type of conception described by Matthew and Luke.

My problem with the pagan origins of the virgin birth are not theological but historical. Mythicists, apart from misrepresenting the New Testament, also misrepresent the ancient myths.

What is the Infancy Gospel of Thomas?

One of the highlights when I teach New Testament introduction courses is to have “story-time” with a reading from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. Why would I read from such a book? Critics attempt to cast doubt on the New Testament canon by suggesting that there were plenty of other books that could have been in the canon but were left out, for either theological or political reasons.

I believe that the best response is not to hide these other gospels from Christians but rather to bring them out of the shadows. Read the canonical Gospels and then read these other books and compare.

What exactly is the Infancy Gospel of Thomas? It is not to be confused with the Gospel of Thomas or the Acts of Thomas. This is an infancy gospel, meaning it is about Jesus when he was a child. Other than Luke 2:41-51, the canonical Gospels do not give any information about Jesus between his birth and the beginning of his ministry. It is understandable that people would be curious about this period of his life and so authors used their imaginations to fill in the gap.

You will notice that this infancy gospel assumes that Jesus had his “powers” during his childhood. While the Gospels do not specify, it is my understanding that Jesus did not start to perform miracles until he received the Holy Spirit at his baptism.

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas was written sometime between 140-170 AD. This is another reason, as if it needed more, while it was not included in the canon.

Here are a couple of passages from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.

2 When this boy, Jesus, was five years old, he was playing at the ford of a rushing stream. (2) He was collecting the flowing water into ponds and made the water instantly pure. He did this with a single command. (3) He then made soft clay and shaped it into twelve sparrows. He did this on the sabbath day, and many other boys were playing with him.

This passage is significant in that this story also appears in the Qur’an.

He will say: “I bring you a sign from your Lord. From clay I will make for you the likeness of a bird. I shall breath into it and, by God’s leave, it shall become a living bird.” ¬†(Sura 3:49)

Here is my favourite passage:

4 Later he was going through the village again when a boy ran and bumped him on the shoulder. Jesus got angry and said to him, “You won’t continue your journey.” (2)And all of a sudden, he fell down and died.
(3)Some people saw what had happened and said, “Where has this boy come from? Everything he says happens instantly!”
(4)The parents of the dead boy came to Joseph and blamed him saying, “Because you have such a boy, you can’t live with us in the village, or else teach him to bless and not curse. He’s killing our children!”

Yes, young Jesus does not mind killing other children who bump into him. Why is this not in the canon again?

You can find more about the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, including a variety of English translations, at this page.

Recommended Book: Bart Ehrman’s Lost Scriptures. (USA) (Canada)

This post originally appeared here.

The Relationship of History and New Testament Studies

New TestamentMy training is in New Testament studies and not history. However, I see a very close relationship between the two. I come at New Testament studies from the perspective of history.

How does one go about history in any other area? People who study Alexander the Great, the Han dynasty in China or the Napoleonic wars all go about it the same way. They look at the primary sources and examine the other historical forces surrounding those events.

When I study the New Testament, I do it the same way. I look at the New Testament texts as historical documents. I don’t mean looking at them as inerrant and inspired religious Scripture. I have Christian faith but I come at the New Testament as a historian first.

I then look at the surrounding context, including Hellenism, the Roman empire and early Judaism. I look at both the events that are described and what the texts say about the authors. This is exactly what historians do with other events.

That is not to say that New Testament studies is fully the same as other historical endeavours. Many New Testament scholars (including me) have religious beliefs and introduce theological ideas into the process. A historian of 19th century German philosophy may be inspired by the ideas they encounter but not in the same way as a New Testament scholar with Christian faith.

My basic conclusion is that New Testament studies can be more than history but it is definitely not less.

What Bible Commentaries Should You Use?

BibleBiblical commentaries are a tremendous tool for understanding the Old and New Testaments. The problem is that there is not just one kind of Bible commentary. There are commentaries for preachers, devotional commentaries and scholarly commentaries. Some require some knowledge of Hebrew or Greek and some do not.

But you don’t want to wait until have purchased a commentary before discovering what kind of commentary it is.

Thankfully, you do not have to. One of the best resources on the web is a website called Best Commentaries. You can look up any book of the Bible and see a list of the best commentaries. Not only does this site rank the commentaries, it provides a description of the type of commentary it is.

If you are going to be doing any study on a book of the Bible, I recommend you visit Best Commentaries.

The Dirty Little Secret About Dating the Gospels

CalendarThere is some debate when it comes to the dating of the Gospels. Some would like to date the Gospels in the 50s or 60s. There are others who will argue vehemently that the earliest Gospel must have been written after 70 AD.

The most popular dating of the Gospels puts Mark (as the earliest Gospel) at 70 AD or slightly before, Matthew and Luke in the mid-80s and John in the 90s. But let me tell you a secret.

We don’t really know.

So where do these dates come from?

The early dating of the Gospels is based on some backward calculating from events in Acts. Acts ends with Paul in Rome but still alive. Paul was executed around 65 AD during Nero’s reign. Assuming that Luke (who wrote Acts) would have described Paul’s death if it had already happen, Acts is then dated before 65. Luke’s Gospel is then dated before that. Since most scholars assume that Luke used Mark, that puts Mark fairly early.

However, we don’t know why Luke didn’t describe Paul’s death. It may be because it had not yet happened or he may have had some other literary or theological reason not to mention it. We don’t know.

The later dating of the Gospels revolves around a historical event in Jerusalem. It was in 70 AD that the Romans destroyed the Jerusalem Temple. The Synoptic Gospels include a prediction by Jesus of the destruction of this temple. Since it is impossible for people to predict the future, the Gospels must have been written after the destruction in 70 AD. Some scholars will let Mark be slightly before the event, when it was obvious that something like this would probably be happening.

Would the Gospels have to be dated after 70 AD? Since I’m a Christian, I don’t see it as impossible that Jesus could have made such a prophecy.

However, from a historical perspective I don’t think that the Gospels have to be dated after the destruction. From a purely human point-of-view, it is possible that Jesus could have successfully predicted the destruction of the temple. The tensions that led to the Jewish War of 67-70 were already present in Jesus’ day and it would not require divine sonship to predict that something was coming. In terms of the details of the prediction, Roman military practice was not a secret. Jerusalem was not the first rebellious city that the Romans destroyed. Jesus could have easily described what would happen to Jerusalem.

I appreciate the honesty of New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado in his commentary on Mark:

“For our purposes, we shall allow for the writing of Mark any time between A.D. 50 and 75, as I see no compelling basis for being more precise here.” (p. 8)

The truth is that we don’t know when the Gospels were written. We can place a beginning point as the last event described (death and resurrection around 30-33 AD) and an ending with our earliest manuscripts or quotations from these Gospels in other writings.

What is Multiple Attestation?

Multiple Attestation

One of the tools that historians use is something called multiple attestation. Multiple attestation simply means that something is more likely to be historical if it is attested in multiple sources. It is often used to examine the words and deeds of Jesus in the Gospels.

In general (not just when applied to the Gospels), multiple attestation is not perfect. It is possible that something historical was only mentioned once and there could by multiple records of something that was not historical.

Still, multiple attestation is a helpful tool when looking at historical documents.

However, there are some misconceptions. It is not enough to see an event found in Matthew, Mark and Luke (Synoptic Gospels). If an event is first mentioned in Mark and the version shared by Matthew and Luke is based on copying that report, that is considered only single attestation.

If a story is found in Mark and a separate tradition is found in Matthew and Luke (common tradition between Matthew and Luke not found in Mark is often called Q), that is considered two sources.

Things get complicated when people attempt to throw in the Gospel of Thomas. What is the relation between Thomas and the Synoptics? If Thomas used the Synoptics (which is likely), then Thomas doesn’t help.

Historians love when a tradition is also found in John or Paul. Sometimes, stories such as the arrest of John the Baptist by Herod is found in a non-biblical source such as Josephus. There are a number of overlaps between Acts and Josephus, which is also good.

Multiple attestation is not perfect but it is a helpful tool for historians.

Is the Telephone Game a Good Analogy for the Jesus Oral Traditions?

telephone gameMost scholars are agreed that the traditions about Jesus were passed along as an oral tradition before being written down in the four Gospels. But what does that mean for their historical reliability?

Some people have compared this oral period to the telephone game. The telephone game is a fun activity that children (used to) play. One person starts with a message, whispers it in another child’s ear, who whispers it in another and so on. At the end of the game, the final version of the message is very different from the original, and it is in that difference that the fun is experienced.

If that is the case, could not something similar happened with the oral tradition? Perhaps the oral tradition that was written down by the evangelists was world’s apart from what Jesus actually said and did.

I see a number of problems with this analogy.

One is that we do not live in an oral culture, while the people who heard Jesus and wrote down his life did live in an oral culture. We should expect greater accuracy within that culture.

Another is that the people who were involved were neither children, nor did they consider it a game. They believed that Jesus was the Messiah and they took that very seriously.

Part of the fun of the telephone game was to deliberately distort the message. It is no fun if the message is passed on accurately. There is no reason why the early Christians would choose to change the message.

The oral traditions were passed on within communities. While there was room to adjust style and colour, it was expected that the basic content would remain the same. The community enforced accuracy.

The Gospels were written down during the lifetime of people who had heard Jesus and there would have been opportunities to challenge false reporting.

Finally, we find in our written Gospels a number of independent traditions, and yet there is remarkable agreement among these traditions.

This is not my attempt to prove the inerrancy of the Bible. I’m simply saying that the telephone game is a very inaccurate comparison to what was happening during the oral period.

5 Books on the New Testament That I Recommend

BookAlthough I love history, my formal training is in the area of the New Testament. I have come across some very helpful books over the years and I thought I would share what I think are the top five. Please note that I’m an Amazon affiliate and if you purchase any of these, you are supporting my work here.

What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography (The Biblical Resource Series)

Who Chose the Gospels?: Probing the Great Gospel Conspiracy

Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony

The Historical Jesus: Five Views

Introducing Paul: The Man, His Mission and His Message