John the Baptist – Who Was This Guy, Anyway?

Meet one of the most enigmatic figures of the New Testament – the wild man known as John the Baptist. Consider this introduction by the gospel writer known as Matthew:

In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying:

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:

‘Prepare the way of the Lord;

Make His paths straight.’ Now John himself was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire, His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

– Matthew 3:1-12 (NRSV)

What must of us know John comes from his name “the baptized.” Yet, this man clothed in camel’s hair is more than the Baptist – he is perplexing.

Stepping back from Matthew: Who was this wild man? What was his message about? And what is the relevance today?

The Players

To get started, it’s important to know a bit about the cast of characters – people important in the story of the Baptist:

  • Zechariah – of the priestly order – lived in a hill town of Judea, was chosen to enter the sanctuary of the Lord. In the temple, an angel appeared to tell him he would have a son who would “turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.”
  • Elizabeth – wife of Zechariah and descendant of Aaron (first priest), barren “getting on in years,” relative/kinswoman (possibly cousin) of Mary of Nazareth, the mother of Jesus.
  • John the Baptist – son of Zechariah and Elizabeth – born a year before Jesus, he grew to be a man who would “never drink wine or strong drink”. In the 15th year of emperor Tiberius’reign, he “went into the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
  • Mary, mother of Jesus, relative of Elizabeth and perhaps of well-known Jerusalem family – one that traditions says owned Garden of Gethsemane.
  • Joseph, (adoptive) father of Jesus, married Mary only after being talked into it by an angel. A carpenter by trade.
  • Jesus, son of Mary, born 6-4 BC just before the death of king Herod the Great.
  • Herod the Great (died 4 BC) client king of Caesar Augustus at time of Jesus birth. He died shortly thereafter.
  • Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, was made tetrarch of the Galilee by Rome. He was the ruler who would order the beheading of John the Baptist. And later, Jesus would stand trial before Antipas before being put to a temporary death by crucifixion.
  • Phasaelis, first wife of Antipas, daughter of King Aretas IV of Nabatea. Antipas divorced her to marry …
  • … Herodias, 2nd wife of Antipas, who herself was formerly married to Herod II (or Herod Philip I), a half-brother of Antipas.
  • Salome (?) – the unnamed daughter of Herodias is reputed to have danced before Antipas so becomingly that he offered up her to half his kingdom. She asked only for and received the head of John the Baptist on a platter.
  • Elijah – is the Old Testament prophet who some people of Jesus’ day say has returned in the likeness of John the Baptist. Much as Elijah was charged with the mission of challenging the idolatry of King Ahab and his wife Jezebel during Old Testament times, so John would take on the mission of challenging the illicit relationship between Herod the Tetrarch and his wife Herodias (the former wife of his half brother Herod Philip).

John The Baptist – Gospel Chronology

Now let’s scan the major recorded events of the Baptist’s life – including source of information in parentheses ( ):

  • Birth of John – to Zechariah and Elizabeth in Judea (Luke)
  • John’s Baptism of Jesus (all 4 gospels)
  • Jesus begins ministry in Galilee after the arrest of John – moving from Nazareth to Capernaum (Matthew)
  • John and Jesus – or disciples – both baptizing (John)
  • Rumor that “Jesus is baptizing more disciples than John.” (John)
  • John’s disciples come to Jesus and ask why his disciples don’t fast (Matthew, Mark)
  • A 2nd time, John who is now in prison sends his disciples to ask Jesus whether he is the one – the Messiah (Matthew, Luke)
  • Jesus compares his testimony to that of the Baptist(John)
  • John is executed by Herod Antipas (Matthew, Mark)
  • Herod is reported as being perplexed at whether Jesus is “John had been raised from the dead.” – or Elijah. He says: “John I beheaded; but who is this about whom I hear such things?” (Luke)
  • Jesus at Caesarea Philippi asks disciples who people say the Son of Man is, First response is “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah” then Peter says “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew, Mark)
  • Coming down from the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus says that “Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him. Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist. (Matthew)
  • In the Temple, Jesus is questioned as to his authority. He asks a question as to whether “the baptism of John comes from heaven, or was it of human origin?” (Mark)
  • And, finally. after escaping an attempted stoning in the Temple, Jesus says he has a “testimony greater than John’s.” (John)

Introducing Josephus

Before going further, it’s time to introduce one other character. For some added perspective on this wild and woolly Baptist, consider the testimony of a non-Christian, the Jewish historian Josephus. First a bit of background on this first-century historian:

  • Josephus was born a bit after the ministry of Jesus to parents of priestly and royal ancestry.
  • Even before turning 30 years of age, Josephus served as commander of the Jewish forces in Galilee at the beginning of the Jewish insurrection against Rome, before surrendering to the Roman army in 67 AD.
  • Like Benedict Arnold, Josephus then flipped to the other side, becoming an adviser to the Roman General and future emperor Vespasian. In this new capacity Josephus attempted (but failed) to negotiate a surrender by resistance forces in Jerusalem – with the result being the total destruction of the holy city in 70 AD.
  • In later years , Josephus became a prolific historian – who wrote major books still available today: The Jewish War (c. 75) and The Antiquities of the Jews (c. 94).

There are only three persons associated with Jesus and the early church that Josephus mentions in his writings. He does mention Jesus, but only as a one-paragraph (and hotly disputed) sidebar to his main story.

Josephus has much more to say about two other figures in the Jesus movement – John the Baptist and James the leader of the Jerusalem church. The reason he writes about these two followers of Jesus and not others is that they were important figures in the political as well as the religious events of 1st century Judaism. And maybe it’s not coincidence – but the Baptist and James are also both blood relatives of Jesus.

Josephus on John the Baptist

We are now ready to take a look at what the Jewish author and historian Josephus has to say some 65 years after the death of John the Baptist.

Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness.

Now when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late.

Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God’s displeasure to him. 

– Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 5
(bold for emphasis)

What was the punishment of Herod about? Well, Josephus records earlier that it was for the taking of his half brother’s wife unto himself – the same sin that John the Baptist railed against. That divorce got Antipas into trouble not just with John, but with King Aretas, the father of Herod’s first wife Phasaelis.

Conveniently enough, a dispute arose with King Aretas over territory east of the Jordan on the border of Perea and Nabatea, and war ensued. History records that Antipas did not go down easily. He appealed to Roman emperor Tiberius to help but the emperor died before reinforcements arrived. Antipas not only lost a war to the father of his first wife, but he went on to lose his kingdom – under the reign of emperor Caligula  and at the instigation of his nephew Agrippa, who was brother of Herod’s 2nd wife Herodias. Antipas and Herodias would spend the remainder of their days in exile in Gaul (today’s France).

Now you probably have been told more than you ever known or wanted to know about the life of John the Baptist – about his political role as well as his spiritual mission. So, let’s turn to a question about his theology.

The Mikveh / Purpose of Baptism

Based on the seemingly contradictory testimony of gospel writers versus both secular and Christian historians, there is this nagging question: “What is baptism all about?”

For John the Baptist, the purpose as stated by the gospels Matthew and Luke was a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” But, as we just read, the Jewish historian Josephus has a different interpretation – that baptism was primarily for “the purification of the body,” not for anything about repentance.

Writing two centuries later, church historian Eusebius is even more dogmatic in restating John’s purpose – saying that the washing with water was “not in order to the putting away of some sins, but for the purification of the body.”

And we wonder why baptism remains such a touchy subject for Christians of different persuasions today …

For your consideration, here is a different take on this question – driven by wandering among the baptismal pools (or Mikvehs) that are lined around much of the Temple Mount even today in Jerusalem:

  • A Mikveh is a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion in Judaism. Biblical rules require full immersion in water to regain ritual purity after impure incidents contacts ranging from sexual activity to eating meat from an animal that died naturally. A person was required to be ritually pure in order to enter the Temple – creating a thriving business for pilgrims coming to Jerusalem as during Passover.
  • During the time of Jesus, there was an “explosion” of purity among the Jewish population in Palestine. There are countless excavated mikvehs around at least two sides of the Temple Mount. One can literally spend hours wandering around and through baths such as the one pictured on the screen. As you see, this particular mikveh has a low raised partition which is thought to have separated the descending impure person (on the right) from the pure person leaving the bath (on the left).

    Ritual mikveh bath near Jerusalem’s Temple Mount

  • More common are also smaller mikvehs with a single stairway – intended for no more than one person at a time.
  • The wealthy had their own purification baths, right in their own homes.
  • And there were larger pools as at Bethesda and Siloam (pictured as the place where Jesus sent a blind man to wash and receive sight). These were designed to accommodate almost all of the ritual purification needs of the large numbers of Jewish pilgrims who flocked to Jerusalem at festival time.

    Pool of Siloam (an excavation in progress)

  • So we have different pools for persons of different means and needs. An observant Jew would use the pool for purification. John was on to something else when he spoke of and practiced baptism not just for purification, but for the more fundamental requirement of repentance.

Jesus View of John

How are we to deal with John’s message and politics? For an answer, look to Jesus.

Consider the occasion when John’s disciples come to Jesus and asked: “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus avoids taking this head-on but instead responds by comparing himself to a bridegroom –saying don’t fast while the bridegroom is with you; that can wait till later.

And later, after John has been imprisoned, he sends his disciples to ask Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus again avoids a direct answer, telling the messengers to tell John to look to Jesus’ example as one who heals the blind, the lame, the lepers, and the deaf – who raises the dead and brings good news to the poor.

As the messengers leave, Jesus turns to the rest of the crowd and re-assures them that, yes, John is a prophet and a messenger who prepares the way. And he says:

Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Let anyone with ears listen! 

– Matthew 11: 11-15

In effect, Jesus both confirms John’s role and John’s fallibility in preparing the way for the kingdom of God. Despite being given a God-critical mission, John remains as much or even more a questioner of his faith than others who enter the kingdom.

Whether it’s with Jesus relative John or with us far removed from the action 20 centuries later, we don’t always get it. But maybe that’s ok, so long as we demonstrate humility like John, acknowledging that we are not even fit to carry Jesus’ sandals.

In Summary

Based on John the Baptist’s example, the question is posed: how then shall we live? Three observations are noted:

  • God calls some of us to be out on point all the time – or perhaps most of us to be on point some of the time – preparing the way for glimpses of his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
  • Don’t worry that we don’t fully measure up – that we often get confused or need to ask questions along the way. If John the Baptist could question his savior and his theology, then so might you or me. God can use us as we are – even with our questioning and our doubts.
  • When you move down the path of following this master, consider your baptism as an on-going event. The baptism of repentance, the baptism of the Holy Spirt and fire, and the baptism of purification.

And a Prayer

Heavenly Father, thank you that you call people like Elijah and John to prepare the way for your kingdom. Thank you for the courage and the willingness to question and to learn the wisdom that you impart. Help us to do our part when we are called to act as agents on your behalf – whether in matters mundane or monumental.

In your name,


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What Price Predestination?

Predestination is the belief that God long ago chose who was destined for heaven and who would be damned to hell. The countervailing view is that of free will. Rather than being pre-picked by the divine, those that come to God do so of their own volition.

God may offer the initial invite (or call), the individual has the choice of whether to accept or not. And in those cases where the needy soul makes the first call (or plea) for mercy, God is ready to respond, much as the waiting father did in Jesus’ oh-so-real parable of the prodigal son.

In the modern church, tough topics like predestination versus free will are often avoided. Yet for nearly 2,000 years, this has been a hotly debated subject within Christendom. And like it or not, the correct answer carries with it enormous implications for human-kind. Even the non-religious, ranging up to luminaries like Albert Einstein, easily get swept into this vortex.

A Bit of History

The advocates for predestination boast a distinguished line-up of Christian giants of the faith – from Augustine in the 4th century to the early reformer John Wycliff in the 14th. Following Augustine’s lead, Catholics have generally fallen into the predestination trap.

With the reformation of the 16th century, the “protestants” quickly fell into two camps – those led by John Calvin who articulated the predestination doctrine and those coalesced by Jacob Arminius who advocated free will.

Denominations were formed or took positions on this question. Methodists led by the Wesley brothers took the Arminian position while the Presbyterians of Scotland followed in Calvin’s footsteps. Denominations like the Baptists have been a bit schizophrenic – with different groupings of Baptists on both sides of the question. While of different persuasion on many issues, Anglicans also have taken a middle road between Calvinism and Arminianism – arguing for what has been called the “election of some, promise to all.”

So, What Does the Bible Say?

Advocates of both positions come to the debate with quivers of arrows stocked from their favorite sets of scriptures. In the New Testament, the strongest purported advocate for predestination is undoubtedly Paul the apostle. Often cited in support of predestination is Paul’s statement in his letter to the Romans that those “whom he foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of his son.”

What appears to be strong logic for predestination falls apart of closer inspection. Of primary importance, Paul’s argument begins with God’s foreknowledge which is followed by His predestination. Foreknowledge means awareness without direct intervention to force a particular outcome. In effect, God’s destination for the human soul comes on the heels of (and not before) his unguided knowledge of what course the individual will take – of his or her own volition. At its most extreme, God is simply rubber-stamping the free will choice of the individual.

This reading of Paul also certainly comports with what other New Testament writers have to say. For example, in his infamous encounter with the Jewish leader Nicodemus, Jesus makes it clear that “God sent not his son to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.”

“God does not play dice with the universe”

In the 17th century, the first great physicist Isaac Newton saw God as the master clockmaker who wound up the clock and then walked away from his creation. Newton’s universe ran like clockwork as a “pre-established harmony.”  In other words, all according a plan so pre-determined that the subsequent involvement of the creator was no longer required.

Two centuries later, Albert Einstein took physics one step further. His theory of relatively unlocked the nuclear age. Like Newton, Einstein’s universe was bound by unbreakable maxims, in this case the relationship between energy and matter as E=mc2.

Although avowedly atheistic, Einstein could not resist religious metaphors. His pre-destinationist bona fides were sealed with the comment that “God does not play dice with the universe.” No room for chance, certainly not for the exercise of free will.

This dogmatism was to prove the great mistake of the best physicist the world has ever known. Within a dozen years after his general theory of relatively in 1915, quantum physics was would be accepted at the Fifth Solvay conference. The great mystery of quantum physics arises because it deals in probabilities rather than deterministic causality. For example, quantum mechanics asserts a single subatomic particle can occupy numerous areas of space at one time – a concept Einstein couldn’t embrace because it so directly contravened the purity of the cause-effect relationship.

And the debate goes on. Is the universe, is man’s destiny, the product of randomness or intentionality?

So, What’s the Price?

We could go much further with the exploration of biblical and scientific views on predetermined causality versus free-will (or probabilistic) outcomes. But that’s not the point of this discussion. Rather, the objective is to get to the question of what one’s world views (in matters spiritual or material) mean for how we live out our lives day-by-day.

In other words, is there a price associated with predestination versus free-will perspective? If so, what is it?

This post argues that, yes, pre-destination comes at a price – that is both unnecessary and unduly costly in matters material and spiritual. Predestination:

  • Resigns the human world to fate, making it easier to ignore or accept war, violence, economic exploitation and suffering – with the philosophy that “what will be will be.”
  • Similarly negates the opportunity for intentional change to the natural universe – in matters ranging from real or perceived climate change to allowance for stochastic variation in natural outcomes, maybe even parallel universes.
  • Cheapens the human experience – our capacity to experience, to experience shame or pride as a result of intentional actions, and to affect humankind for this generation and those to come.
  • Creates a disincentive to prepare for the life hereafter – as the sole pre-destinationist focus is on a heavenly go/no go which has little to do with what one does for him/herself or others in throughout the bulk of this life.
  • Demeans God – who doesn’t need our robotized glorification but rather interaction with the creatures he created in his likeness. Even on those occasions where we bend his will or even change his mind.

Predestination, Purpose & Partnership

The biggest price of all is that the concept of predestination is diametrically opposed to what God intended as his relationship with human-kind. Rather than play the role of omnipotent puppeteer, God wants something different. Rather than dominance, God seeks partnership.

He gave humans dominion, even naming rights, over the world he created – starting with his first human/spirit creations in Adam and Eve. God even came to walk with them in the garden in the cool of the day, only to experience disappointment and frustration when they hid from his presence.

The form of the partnership has always been tailored made to the personality of the partner. God fought with and blessed Jacob. He let Moses argue with him, and then relented of his own rage. He raised prophets to be his spokespersons, some more willingly than others. He even found in David a man after his own heart.

With the introduction of Jesus, new forms of partnership would emerge. Jesus would let a pagan woman win a debate with him because of her “faith.” He found in John a beloved man who could partner in translating the mysteries of a nearly inexplicable kingdom. In Peter, he found a man willing to engage with more heart than intellect. In Nicodemus, a leader willing to listen and then advocate for the savior in the councils of Jewish authority. And in Paul, a man who would take and adapt the kingdom message to a broader Roman audience.

The partnership is not necessarily one of equal resources or authority. But it is bilateral – dependent on the actions not of just one conductor. But rather, on the conductor together with the consent plus talent of the full orchestra.

Maybe the apostle Paul puts it best in his letter to the as-yet unknown church at Rome, when he writes of our human  roles as “if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified with him.”

We are adopted into the corporation of the heavenly family with rights of joint ownership, advice, even decision-making. What a way to go!


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Faith vs Works: Not Either-Or but Both-And…

Does a ticket to the hereafter come by faith – a belief in God the Father and Jesus the Son? Or by works – doing the will of God?

In the first century AD, the apostle Paul wrote to the Galatians that we humans are “justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law.” Centuries later, Paul’s letter captured the fancy of a priestly Martin Luther who would declare that we are justified by “faith alone.”

None other than James (the brother of Jesus) countered Paul with the pointed observation that “faith without works is dead.” In the fourth century, Augustine taught that faith alone does not save. Rather, Catholic doctrine down through the centuries has been that faith must be accompanied works of love.

Who is right?
Paul or James?
Protestant reformers or the Roman Catholic church?

Faith or works?
Simple belief or adherence to the works of the law?

In this blog, we present the case that setting faith against works represents a false dichotomy. Rather than requiring an answer of either faith or works, the answer is both-and. In other words, the pathway to heaven depends on both faith and works – working hand-in-hand.

Consider our outline of the case … as follows.

What Would Jesus Say?

It is odd that much of the focus in this debate is on the views of apostolic leaders of an emergent church rather than on the one whose opinion really matters – Jesus of Nazareth. What would Jesus say?

Actually, what did Jesus say?

If one relies primarily on the Gospel of John, Paul wins. After all, perhaps the most famous verse in the Bible is where Jesus says “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

And to a crowd, Jesus proclaims: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

The gospels of Matthew and Luke offer a different perspective.

Matthew records Jesus at his most pungent:

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. “Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’

Matthew also records the response of Jesus to the rich man’s question: how to get eternal life? And it’s not about faith but works as Jesus directs the rich man to: “go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

Like Matthew, Luke’s Jesus preaches to “love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High …”

Mark’s gospel is more equivocal; Mark can be found on both sides of the fence.

During the passion week, Mark’s Jesus compliments a scribe who echoes the importance to “love one’s neighbor as oneself.” Jesus comments: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Like fellow synoptics Matthew and Luke, here Mark appears to opt for the works side of the equation.

But Mark also offers echoes of John’s gospel as when Mark quotes Jesus offering that: “All things can be done for the one who believes.”

And longer (canonical but disputed) ending to Mark’s gospel outlines a more succinct path to salvation: “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned.”

By comparison, Matthew’s version of the Great Commission talks not about belief but the imperative to “make disciples.” And Luke’s version is that “repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations.” Again, no mention of the importance of faith or belief, but rather the act of repentance. 

Who’s on First?

Is the path to salvation, to eternal life, to a heavenly reward via faith or works? Which comes first?

The answer is neither and both.

The answer is not to be found only from Paul or James but from the direct words of Jesus.

Salvation is not by faith alone nor is it by works alone. Salvation depends on both faith and works – as inextricably linked.

Sometimes the works come first, as James notes for Rahab the harlot who was “justified by works” when she hid and abetted the escape of Israeli spies in Jericho.  And Rahab is rewarded not only with her life but as a direct ancestor of Jesus (as would be recorded by the genealogy of Matthew).

Sometimes faith may comes first, as Paul suggests for Abraham, noting Abraham “believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.”

And sometimes, there are contending answers. While Paul contends that Abraham was justified by faith. James says it was by works and, in the end, “that by works faith was made perfect.”

Salvation, life after death with the creator. What gets us in the door? Faith and works – they’re inseparable,  two sides of the same coin.

Faith, then works. Or works, then faith. In God’s kingdom, it’s that opposites attract. Faith with works – from now to the end of the age.


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Inspiration vs. Inerrancy – An Addendum

In our two most recent blogs, we have argued for the view that the Bible should be viewed for what it says it is: inspired, not inerrant.

This blog takes a different turn, almost whimsical. But with clear warning signs for church orthodoxy.

We consider four seemingly disconnected observations about Matthew’s gospel and the ensuing aftermath. Taken together, the observations lead to an alternative hypothesis as to how the synoptic gospels came into being – and what that means.

All circumstantial evidence – as yet no smoking gun. But follow the trail with us – as we reveal the pieces of this patchwork quilt. Four themes:

1) The Gospel writer Matthew’s insistence on reinterpreting and distorting Old Testament prophecy to justify New Testament outcomes.

As we have noted in a prior blog, Matthew’s distorting effect is most blatantly evident in Matthew’s quotation of a Greek (Septuagint) translation of Isaiah prophesying that: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive.” The Hebrew Scripture actually says that a “young woman” (who may or may not be a virgin) shall conceive.

In effect, the Matthew available to us today has twisted what the Old Testament prophet said to support the claim that Jesus’ mother was a virgin. This apparent error in biblical translation was pointed out as early as the second century AD by the Christian theologian Justin Martyr.

If the author of Matthew’s gospel was really a Jewish tax collector hand-picked by Jesus, why would he have chosen to use the Greek term parthenos (meaning virgin) rather than the original Hebrew of almah (meaning young maiden – virginal or otherwise)?

The storyline of Matthew – of Hebrew prophecy fulfilled – is interwoven throughout this gospel as we have it today. However, in this gospel Old Testament prophecies that clearly were made for different purposes when written are force fit by the author of Matthew’s gospel onto the life and purpose of Jesus the Messiah. Three examples:

Michelangelo portrays St. Matthew as breaking free to write what church patriarchs describe as the first gospel written -- known down through the ages as "the greatest story ever told."  Free to portray Jesus the Christ "as is?" Or with liberty to also spin his gospel as "prophecy fulfilled?"

Michelangelo portrays St. Matthew as breaking free to write what church patriarchs describe as the first gospel written — known down through the ages as “the greatest story ever told.”
Free to portray Jesus the Christ “as is?” Or with liberty to also spin his gospel as “prophecy fulfilled?”

  • Matthew refers to statements in Samuel and Micah that a ruler of Judah will emerge from Bethlehem. The original citation in Samuel is that of a forerunner to the kingship of David, not Jesus.
  • In describing Herod’s massacre of the young males of Bethlehem, Matthew’s gospel recalls Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” However, Ramah is north of Jerusalem; Bethlehem is south. Jeremiah is writing of the exile of the Northern tribes of Israel to Babylon. Ramah was the point of deportation, with those too frail to make the trip executed in Ramah.
  • In apparent remorse for betraying Jesus, Judas returns the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests. The priests use the money to buy a potter’s field as a place to bury foreigners. This is reported as the fulfillment of a prophecy made by Jeremiah: “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of the one on whom a price had been set, on whom some of the people of Israel had set a price, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.” Matthew’s gospel is mistaken; there is no such verse in Jeremiah. Rather, his quote appears to be a very loose paraphrase of a verse in Zechariah.

Enough of Matthean misinterpretation for now! Let’s move on to the second scrap in our patchwork quilt.

2) The insistence of early 2nd century church patriarch Papias that Matthew was the first gospel to be written.

 The traditional view has been that the gospels were written in the order presented in the New Testament: Matthew, then Mark, Luke and John. This view has been largely supplanted by modern scholars (both liberals and conservatives) who contend that Mark was written first, then Matthew and Luke followed using Mark together with a non-extant “Q” set of Jesus sayings for their gospels.

But go back to those recorded voices closest to the source. Papias is quoted as saying that: “Matthew organized the sayings in the Hebrew language, but everyone has translated them as best he could.” The eminent third century theologian Origen also states that Matthew was written in Aramaic for a Jewish audience.

The mystery deepens: If Matthew knew and even wrote in Hebrew (or Aramaic), how could he have mistaken virgin for maiden? He should have defaulted to the Hebrew almah. Did this mistake occur by sheer accident, as a purposeful sleight of hand by Matthew the tax man, or as the intentional work of a post-Matthean redactor?

But before answering, let’s move on – to observation #3.

3) Clear tampering with the letters of Ignatius to support a proto-Trinitarian theology and submission to the rule of Church authority.

A contemporary of Papias was the late 1st century bishop Ignatius of Antioch. On his way to martyrdom in Rome, Ignatius writes letters to a number of churches with which he was familiar – ostensibly to encourage them in the face of persecution.

What is interesting about Ignatius is that there are varied extant versions of his letters to churches in Ephesus, Magnesia, Tralles, Rome, Philadelphia, and Smyrna. And what are the chief differences between the varied versions about? Two items: a) the divinity of Christ, and b) need for submission to Church hierarchy. All versions of the letters provide evidence of this bent by Ignatius. It’s just that some of the (later?) copyists appear to have amped up the rhetoric – conveniently in support of what would subsequently become official Catholic doctrine.

4) The 20th century suggestion by the pastor of Jerusalem’s Narkis Street Baptist Church that the correct dependency of the gospels begins with an early proto-narrative document (no longer extant) followed by Luke, then Mark, then Matthew.

In 1971, pastor Robert Lisle Lindsey published a pamphlet titled A New Approach to the Synoptic Gospels making a claim previously not conceived by others. Among nearly a dozen observations made in support of this thesis he offers two points of most relevance for this discussion:

  • The observation that Mathew closely matches the pericope (or story) order provided by Mark, but that Matthew also uses the same written source material known to Luke in making minor corrections to Mark’s highly tampered text, especially with direct copying of non-Markan parallels found in Luke.
  • The “remarkable fact” that almost the entire text of Luke’s gospel can be translated word-for-word back to the idiomatic Hebrew (or Aramaic). Mark’s terminology (much of which is used by Matthew) is not easily matched with the Hebrew at all. Surprisingly, Matthew deviates more from the Aramaic than Luke – with the most notable exceptions being those non-Markan parallels that closely match to Luke.

What to make of these four seemingly random observations?

Mr. Lindsey (now deceased) got close – but not quite all the way. We suggest a new hypothesis as to how the early synoptic gospels may have came into being, in something of the following order:

  • Begin with a proto-Matthew (perhaps authored by the real Matthew) written in Hebrew or Aramaic as stated by early church patriarchs – and largely devoid of many of the prophetic fulfillments unique to the Matthean gospel that we have today.
  • Move to the fast-paced, largely parable free account by Mark – the guy who enjoyed changing words just for the heck of it (or to do his own thing).
  • Now proceed to Luke written as a combination document but highly reliant on the Hebrew text of the Aramaic proto-Matthew but also on the story order of the paraphrasing Mark. Luke did his due diligence, looking to multiple sources as he wrote in the introduction of his gospel account to a certain Theophilus: “I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first (meaning multiple accounts), to write an orderly account for you … so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.”
  • End with the subsequent copyist revisions to Matthew, creating the current text which satisfies the integration of Luke and Mark while also incorporating repeated statements to reinforce the concept of Jesus as fulfillment of prophecy – much as the revisons to the letters of Ignatius served to reinforce emerging church orthodoxy. When did this happen? Well, we don’t have a relatively complete text of the New Testament (still extant today) until the early 4th century – about the time that Emperor Constantine converted and then made Christianity the new state religion.

How are all these twists and turns of significance to Christians of the 21st century? For starters, if this hypothesis is anywhere close to the mark, it clearly would serve to further debunk the claim to biblical inerrancy. Rather than treat the gospels as, well, gospel, we are instead faced with a living, ever changing narrative of Jesus as Savior and expositor of the kingdom of God.

Inspiring? Yes, but only as we interpret scripture in the light of historic authenticity coupled with the ever wily breath of the Spirit – all played out uniquely in the lives and communities inhabited by each follower of the kingdom around and before us.

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The Bible: Inspired or Inerrant? (Part 2)

Our last blog took on the question: Is the Bible to be viewed as a book that is inspired by God but with possible errors? Or is it inerrant?

The answer was: The Bible itself claims to be inspired, but lays no claim to inerrancy.

Part 1 of our blog was aimed to refute the case for inerrancy on the basis of inductive reasoning – arguing from the available biblical evidence to reach an empirically supportable conclusion.

With Part 2 we take on two additional questions:

  • Is the case for inerrancy any stronger if one argues from the logic of deductive rather than inductive reasoning?
  • And we address a more fundamental question: Why Does God Prefer Inspiration over Inerrancy?

Let’s take on these questions – one at a time.

The Deductive Approach

In our last blog, we took an inductive approach – arguing from the evidence of scripture that the Bible is to be understood as inspired but not necessarily inerrant.

In this blog, we take pursue the question from the alternative deductive line of reasoning that has employed by many inerrantists. Independent of the evidence of scripture, the logic of this approach is proposed something like this: a) the Bible is the Word of God; and b) God can not lie. Therefore the conclusion: c) Scripture must be wholly true.

Let’s take on these assertions – in the order presented:

  • The Bible is the Word of God. While seemingly innocent on its face, this assertion goes beyond what the Bible itself asserts. The Bible may be evidence of the Word of God. However, this document as received is not necessarily the one and only authoritative source of God’s word. And in some places, the Bible clearly reads as the recording of human opinions, with no clear divine authentication.
    Are there other sources of the Word of God? Yes, the answer is readily apparent from even a casual reading of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures (Old and New Testaments).  We know that God revealed himself and talked directly with Adam and Eve. With Moses, Abraham, countless prophets, Jesus and the apostles of the New Testament.
    Is every word that God ever uttered expressed in the recorded scriptural narrative? Of course not. There are accounts, what the apostle Paul describes as a “a secret and hidden wisdom of God” made available in some cases collectively, in others individually. And writing to the churches of Galatia, Paul further declares that “the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” This is direct personal revelation, some of which makes its way into preserved written documentation, some of which does not.
    Bottom line: The Bible is evidence of the Word of God – but not necessarily the sole evidence.
  • God can not lie.  This is trickier ground. Like beauty, truth is often in the eye of the beholder.
    The God-head may not lie, but may omit crucial details that at some point become pivotal to understanding the whole truth. Case in point: Jesus is recorded multiple times as requesting that those he heals not tell everyone, but rather “ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.” The Son of God time and again wanted to wait to divulge his true mission and divine power until the time had come; avoid or dance around the issue till then.
    And is it lying to say one thing and then do another? As Yahweh so often did when confronted by the Patriarchs of the Hebrew scriptures. For example, the Lord threatens to wipe out (or “consume”) the Israelites of the Exodus due to their creation of a golden calf to worship. Moses argues for leniency. And so the author of this remarkable saga explains that “ the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.”
    Does God lie? Hard to know. But we do know that he feels free to omit details for a later, better time and to change his mind when challenged. Are these forms of lying? What would you say when this happens in your own life? You decide.

The conclusion offered through this deductive line of reasoning is that if the Bible is the Word of God and if God cannot lie, then scripture must be wholly true. The problem is that if either (or both) of the premises are faulty, then so is the conclusion.

The Bible is a major part but not the sole evidence of the Word of God. And if God does not lie, he will nonetheless evade the truth or reverse course on oral commitments when convenient. Consequently, the case that the scripture must be wholly true 100% of the time falls apart.

Scripture reveals but can also evade truth – at least temporarily. Scripture may also obscure truth – as with the parables of Jesus. And scripture can change its mind – suggesting one thing and doing another. Sometimes challenging us – as readers – to reach our own conclusions. Whether due to the imperfect recollections of humans or the preversely human character of the divine (after all, we are made in his image), scripture gets us part of the way but not necessarily the whole way there. For the rest, we rely on our wits or, better, on the day-to-day walk and talk with our creator.

So, Why Does God Prefer Inspiration Over Inerrancy?

Getting this question right is pivotal to our understanding of the divine and our place in this universe. On the 6th day of creation, the God-head gathered and said: “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” And so, at the end of this fateful day, God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was not just good, but “it was very good.”

In this divine image, we humans were created with:

  • The independent spirit or free will of God.
  • An experiential (and experimental) nature.
  • God’s capacity for love and anger.
  • A lust for life – and companionship.
  • The opportunity to choose one path, then change course and choose another.
  • A God-given ability to forgive and, in some cases, forget.

Like the iconic watchmaker, God could have wound up our clock, then let the parts play themselves out in mechanical, predetermined fashion. Yet he took a more experimental role – intervening at times in human affairs, staying away at others, and at yet other times letting nature (or human willfulness) take its course.

As the ultimate (perhaps non-scientific) experiment, we find a God who at times deals in the realm of certainty, at other times in the realms of probability, and yet at others with random chance. As with any stochastic process, there is a wide margin of error.

For God and for his creation, this world is error-prone. He did not dictate every move, nor write every word that came into the heads of the writers of scripture. As Paul says to Timothy, the scripture is “inspired.” Paul never says that scripture is inerrant.

Inspired like Mark Twain’s saga of Huckleberry Finn. Or Dante’s Inferno. Or the multiple dramas and comedies of a William Shakespeare.

This scripture is inspired, God-breathed. It’s what Jesus describes to the Jewish leader Nicodemus in describing the role of the Holy Spirit, when he says: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Like the Spirit, the scripture is often ambivalent, multi-directional. Prone to misinterpretation, but with opportunity for self-correction over time. After all, more than half of the time elapsed since Jesus’ sojourn on earth was accompanied by a corrupted Church that was overly reliant on “good works” (often purchased), until redeemed by Martin Luther just 500 years ago.

God was patient, allowing time to take its course and re-center on the question of: what new lessons should we draw from scripture – relevant to our experience today?

But even as a Martin Luther steered us back to scripture on the question of faith and good works, he may well have missed the boat when it came to questions such as church authority and racial prejudice. And so we come back to Scripture, not without error, but to inspire the next generation.

As always, God remains incredibly patient but unable to resist dabbling now and then – whether with a gentle wind or heavy storm – to encourage rediscovery of those spiritual gems we missed before.


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The Bible: Inspired or Inerrant (Part 1)

So, is the Bible to be viewed as a book that is inspired by God but with possible errors? Or is it inerrant?

The simple answer is: inspired but not inerrant.

The number one reason is simply this: The Bible itself claims to be inspired, but lays no claim to inerrancy.

The terms “inerrant” and “inerrancy” are nowhere to be found in either the Old or New Testament. A related term often cited by inerrantists is “infallible,” used only once (and only in the King James) in the context of Jesus demonstrating his resurrection “by many infallible proofs” during the 40 days after his resurrection. These infallible truths were related to the evidence of his being alive, with no bearing on the much different question of scriptural authenticity.

Creedal statements regarding the role and place of scripture have changed over time. In early church creeds, scripture was given scant attention (in part because a written New Testament was still coming into being). By the time of the Westminster Confession, there is clear affirmation of the inspirational (or God-breathed) role of scripture but, as yet, no statement of inerrancy. By the time we get to a confession like the current 2000 statement of faith of the Southern Baptist Convention, we see a clear enunciation of the idea that the Bible provides no “mixture of error.”

Today, inerrancy generally reflects a viewpoint to the effect that the Bible is “without error or fault in all its teaching.” Or at a minimum, that “Scripture in its original manuscripts (whether those manuscripts are available or not) would not and could not affirm anything that is contrary to fact.

Infallibility has come to be defined with a somewhat lesser standard that what the scriptures say regarding matters of faith and Christian practice are wholly useful and true. However, passages providing historical or scientific details, which may be irrelevant to matters of faith and Christian practice, may contain errors.

 Sample Confessions:

Nicene Creed (325 and as revised in 381): There is no direct mention of the role of scripture, authenticity, or authority except for 381 citation with Council of Constantinople that: “On the third day he (the Son) rose again in accordance with the Scriptures …”

Westminster Confession (1646): “Under the name of holy Scripture, or the Word of God written, are now contained all the Books of the Old and New Testament, which are these: … (names of books) … All which are given by inspiration of God, to be the rule of faith and life… The authority of the holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or Church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the Author thereof; and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God. …The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture, is the Scripture itself; and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it may be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.”

Southern Baptist Convention (2000): “The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is God’s revelation of Himself to man. It is a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy.”

Although “inerrancy” is never attested to by the Bible, the concept of “inspiration” is vouched for by scripture, most directly by the Second Epistle to Timothy. As the reputed writer of this epistle, the apostle Paul declares that:

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. (NRSV)

There remains the bigger question of: What is scripture? (More on this in a moment).

Remarkably, the authenticity of Paul’s writings are vouched for by none other than Peter – the disciple about which Paul once wrote (to a church in Galatia) that he (Paul) “opposed him (Peter) to his face.” In the last paragraph of the second letter attributed to this initial leader of the post-resurrection church, the writer generally identified as Peter writes that:

… our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.

This is a remarkable passage because Peter: a) acknowledges Paul’s other multiple letters; b) puts these letters in the category of the “other scriptures” which at the time consisted of only the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament; and c) at the same time declares Paul’s writings as “hard to understand” and easily prone to misinterpretation.

All scripture is "given by inspiration"  (as quoted from the NKJV translated letter of the apostle Paul to his disciple Timothy).  But what does inspiration mean?  Nothing more and nothing less than "God breathed."

All scripture is “given by inspiration”
(as quoted from the NKJV translated letter of the apostle Paul to his disciple Timothy).
But what does inspiration mean?
Nothing more and nothing less than “God breathed.”

Supporters of inerrancy also point to the statement of Jesus as recorded in Mark’s gospel (and Luke) that “till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.”

A jot is the English translation of “iota,” the smallest letter of the Greek alphabet. A tittle is even smaller, much as the dot over the letter “i.” So, Jesus is in effect saying that the full law is to be fulfilled. This is not the same as saying that all of the Bible will be fulfilled or even that it is necessarily accurate.

In short, inspiration is scriptural, inerrancy is not.

But let’s go on and briefly explore some specific issues with the theological (not scriptural) concept of inerrancy. This following listing is meant to be indicative, not exhaustive:

Literal or Metaphor?

The claims of inerrancy are reduced to the absurd when portions of the Bible best understood as metaphorical or allegorical are claimed as both literal and inerrant. This is best illustrated by the 7-day creation account of Genesis 1. While not intended as an explanation of the physics and bio-chemistry of the universe, the biblical account nonetheless does a good job of laying out the functions that the God of the universe had in mind for this great creation experiment – involving the shaping of reasoning beings in God’s own image, yet capable of exercising independent will and free choice.

In what may or may not be sequential order, the God of Genesis distinguishes light from darkness, separates the waters above and on earth, creates dry land and vegetation, identifies sun and moon as dominant influences on the cycles of this globe, creates animals to populate the waters, land and sky, puts in place His ultimate experiment with humankind, then calls it good and rests.

The human species of Moses’ day had vastly less knowledge of the science (or how) of this creation than we of the 21st century. Humans of the next 100 years likely will know vastly more than we do today. So, for an account that offers timeless value, don’t expect science but rather the purpose that drives the science. And that’s what the Bible offers.

Prophetic Fulfillment

Some of the New Testament writers appear overeager to show Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. This is particularly the case with the gospel of Matthew, as in quoting the prophet Isaiah saying: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.”

  • Matthew’s first citation best illustrates the far-reaching (if not heretical) consequences of this over-reach – and the resulting insult to those steeped in the traditions of Judaism. This is because the virgin described by Isaiah is not necessarily a virgin, but simply an unmarried young woman.
  • Not surprisingly, there is some dispute as to whom or what the “young woman” of Isaiah 7:14 is referring. Some commentators suggest that this refers to the mother of the second son of King Ahaz of Judah, some to a young woman to whom Isaiah was betrothed and who would become Isaiah’s second wife. Yet others suggest that the woman is intended to be a foreshadowing of the virgin Mary – even though the situation at hand with Isaiah has nothing to with a future woman who has yet to experience intercourse. In any event, this original prophecy comes in the context of the prophet Isaiah delivering a message to King Ahaz about his future in the midst of enemies from Israel and Aram.
  • Matthew’s misquotation of Isaiah comes as the result of a mis-translation of the Old Testament from the original Hebrew to the Greek Septuagint (in about the third century BC). While Matthew cites correctly from what he reads of the Septuagint, in the process this author misrepresents the words and the meaning of the original Hebrew.

The Greek term used by Matthew and the Septuagint translation of Isaiah is parthenos, meaning a virgin. However, the word from the original Hebrew of Isaiah 7:14 is almah, more appropriately translated as maiden, young woman or unmarried woman.

Jesus may well have been born of a virgin. This would be a small matter for the creator of the universe to accomplish. However, the Bible’s lead-off gospel tries to make the assertion with a claim that, at best, reflects a misunderstanding of Hebrew or Greek terminology. Or worse, an intentional fabrication.

Manuscript Tampering

Here the trail gets a bit murky. We all know of disputes over where was Jesus and when was he there. Which event came first, then second, etc.?

The focus here is more on substantive differences between different gospel writers, where there may be evidence of tampering with the New Testament scriptures over time. A few notable examples:

  • The earliest known conclusion to the last chapter of Mark’s gospel ends with the women at the tomb, hearing from an angel, who then promptly “went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” The subsequently added conclusion to the gospel doesn’t leave the reader hanging, but softens the conclusion to coincide with other gospels – now including the Great Commission and Jesus’ ascension to heaven. But the added conclusion is not part of the earliest known manuscripts of this gospel.
  • There is a similar potential issue with the last chapter of John’s gospel which appears to add a new epilogue.
  • What is perhaps the signature story of John’s gospel is not included in the earliest known manuscripts of the New Testament. This is the story of the lynching of a woman adultress that Jesus averted by commanding “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” This story is a personal favorite because of what is so powerfully conveyed of divine acceptance coupled with a frank look at first century gender issues. While not in the earliest manuscripts, I’d be inclined to (perhaps hypocritically) give it a pass anyway.
  • A final example is provided by a phrase inserted the first epistle of John apparently by the Catholic theologian Erasmus in his 1552 edition of the Greek New Testament identifying the Father, Son and Holy Ghost as “three in one.” Other than this passage (also found in the King James but which most more recent biblical translations have now removed), there is no other clear, succinct biblical statement in support of this Trinitarian concept.

Conflicting Theology

In some cases, there is no evidence of manuscript tampering yet different gospel writers appear to reach radically different theological conclusions. In the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew’s rendition begins with the beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit”. Luke’s so-called Sermon on the Plain begins with: “Blessed are the poor” (with no mention of spirit).

The meaning of the two sayings is entirely different. As is the case throughout Luke’s gospel, social justice takes front seat. For Matthew, it’s all about individual responsibility. Did Jesus say different things to different audiences – much like a political stump candidate flavoring his message a bit differently in one town than another? Or should one ideology trump the other? Depending on your choice of gospel, the answer can be quite different.

Conflicting Facts

… that Lead to Conflicting Theology. A remarkable factual conflict with added theological implications appears in the recounting of Jesus’ appearance(s) before Roman governor Pontius Pilate. In the Gospels of Matthew and Mark (here recounted by Mark):

“Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” He (Jesus) answered him (Pilate), “You say so.” Then the chief priests accused him of many things. Pilate asked him again, “Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.” 5 But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed.”

The accounts of Matthew and Luke are similar to what Mark has to say (above).

John’s rendition is different. He starts by asking the same question as is recorded by Mark and Luke:

“Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

In Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus answers the question posed by the Roman procurator in just three words. He then goes silent through the rest of the trial. In answering Pilate, John’s Jesus does just the opposite. He gives a detailed response, even putting Pilate in his place as being a lesser ruler of only an earthly rather than heavenly kingdom.

The difference is that the Jesus of these three synoptics goes humbly to the cross, evidencing no remaining affinity to this earth. In sharp contrast, John’s Jesus is anything but humble. Rather, he puts Pilate in his place, causing great angst with the governor in his final sentence of death by crucifixion.

The practical question: when faced with grave consequences is the mission of whether the today’s follower of Jesus is to go down humbly or fighting to the end?

What is Scripture?

Behind all of these conflicts, there is an underlying question. What comprises legitimate scripture? And, on whose authority. For most (but not all) Christians, this question was settled by an Easter (or Festal) letter from Athanasius bishop of Alexandria – in 367 AD when he listed all 27 books of the current New Testament as canonical.

Even Athanasius (also known as the chief defender of the Nicene Creed), included a large caveat with his listing. Also identified are other books that he felt deserved to be read in churches for edification, though not of the same standing as the canonized 27.

A few have challenged this fait accompli – among them Martin Luther. Luther questioned the canonicity of several so-called Catholic epistles – among them Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation. In particular, he objected to the message of James (Jesus’ brother) that “faith without works is dead.” His derogatory term for James’ letter was that of a “right strawy epistle.”

Inductive vs. Deductive?

This blog has essentially aimed to refute the case against inerrancy on the basis of inductive reasoning – arguing from the available biblical evidence to reach an empirically supportable conclusion.

An alternative approach is to use deductive reasoning, with the argument for inerrancy often premised on two pivotal assumptions: a) the Bible is the Word of God; and b) God can not lie. Therefore the conclusion: c) Scripture must be wholly true.

We have not directly addressed the deductive logic in this blog, but will summarily dismiss it in our next post. A hint: if the premises of the argument are incomplete or otherwise in error, then the conclusion may be similarly negated.

God’s Choice?

… Or phrased only slightly more elegantly: Why Does God Prefer Inspiration over Inerrancy? This is a second (and probably the most important) topic that we also will take up in our next blog. Until then, …


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Christmas Past, Present & Future

Christmas 2013 has come and gone. Early U.S. returns suggest weaker than hoped for consumer holiday spending – due to anemic job growth and increased wage disparities (with fewer folks in the middle). The main winner appeared to be internet sales – even if UPS / FedEx didn’t quite get there on time.

This holiday served as a convenience to extend the enrollment period for Obamacare – in hopes that more young enrollees might yet be there.

Amid the din and commercial clatter, some mutter – wasn’t Jesus the reason for the season? Does Christmas really even matter?

Bethlehem's Church of the Shepherds Field:  Designed by Barluzzi, an Italian Franciscan monk and architect. Light penetrates the  concrete and glass dome,  evoking the divine brightness  that so startled nomadic shepherds of two millenia ago.

Bethlehem’s Church of the Shepherds Field:
Designed by Barluzzi, an Italian Franciscan monk and architect.
Light penetrates the
concrete and glass dome,
evoking the divine brightness
that so startled nomadic shepherds
of two millenia ago.



The Right Questions?

Are Christmas traditionalists asking the right questions? Wouldn’t it be better to ask: What’s so important about Christmas to seekers of this baby Jesus?

And here’s where the confusion begins. Because the Christian attachment to this season and to the biblical narrative of the first presumed Christmas is built on a foundation that is … well, shaky. For at least four reasons – having to do with:

1) Timing of Birth. Year 1 of the Western (then Julian) calendar was adjusted in what is now 525 AD by a Scythian monk named Dionysius Exiguus to be 525 years “since the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Later calculations have placed the birth to be in 4BC (or earlier) as this was the year when Herod the Great died (to assure consistency with Matthew’s reported slaughter of the innocents by Herod).

Rather than tying Jesus’ birth directly to the right of Herod, Luke’s gospel links the timing of Jesus birth to Quirinius, the Roman appointed governor of Syria. This is the official who administered a universal Roman census ordered by Caesar Augustus. However, this creates a chronological conflict as this census is generally determined to have occurred in 6 AD (ten years after the death of Herod). There are multiple possible explanations to address this discrepancy – all of which are problematic and, at best, conjectural.

Another question relates to the December 25 date now assigned to Jesus’ birth by most Christian faiths. The origin of this particular date is not fully certain – but is perhaps best explained as a means for Christianity in the first centuries AD to most readily supplant pagan winter solstice festivals. A more likely timing (assuming accuracy of the shepherds’ visitation) would be the lambing season in early spring (when shepherds would be out in the fields actively protecting the flock).  

2) Place of Birth. The two gospels that speak of Jesus’ birth (Matthew and Luke) place the event in Bethlehem – also the birthplace of the man who would become King David about a millennium previous. This is particularly important to Matthew who cites the Hebrew Scripture prophecy of Micah – stating that out of Bethlehem will “come a Ruler who will shepherd My people Israel.”

Assuming the census linkage with Jesus birth to be bogus and the prophetic fulfillment of Micah forced, some modern (typically non-fundamentalist) scholars suggest that the arduous trip to Bethlehem did not have to occur and that Jesus may actually have been born in Nazareth (which is certainly also implied to be the home town of Jesus in the Gospel of John).

3) Historical Narrative. Matthew and Luke are generally in agreement as to major events documented in their respective gospels. So, it is surprising to see that, with the exception of the place of birth, there is almost no correspondence between the major birth events cited by Matthew versus those of Luke.

The sequence of events recounted by Matthew are the dream of Joseph, wise men traveling to Bethlehem, family flight to Egypt, Herod’s slaughter of children in Bethlehem under 2 years of age,  and return of family to Nazareth after Herod’s death.

Luke’s account is more detailed but with virtually no overlap except for a pre-birth journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Luke’s account begins with angelic visits to Zacharias (a priest), then Mary. Mary visits her relative Elizabeth (wife of Zacharias), the Roman census order is given, there is no room at the inn, shepherds appear, Jesus is circumcised at 8 days, there are the Temple testimonies of the aged Simeon and Anna, and the holy family returns to Nazareth (with no mention of Egypt).

None of the events of Matthew are mentioned in Luke; none of Luke’s events appear in Matthew. Even the genealogies provided by the two gospels are different. 

Christmas services and pageants typically conflate (or combine) selected elements of the Matthean and Lukan accounts – simply assuming that both accounts are right (and overlooking the complete lack of correspondence between the two).

There is no help at all from the rest of the New Testament with added empirical evidence. Neither of the other gospel writers – Mark, John – nor Paul nor any of the other New Testament writers describe the birth of Jesus in any way, shape or form.

4) Prophetic Fulfillment. Of the gospel writers, Matthew exhibits a penchant to over-reach in his goal to demonstrate that Jesus’ birth is in fulfillment of Hebrew prophecy. A couple of added examples:

  • Herod’s slaughter of the innocents is portrayed by Matthew as fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy: “A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children …” But wait a minute! Doesn’t this slaughter take place in Bethlehem? Ramah is a town on the other side of Jerusalem from Bethlehem.
  • More puzzling is Matthew’s earlier citation of the prophet Isaiah: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive …” The original Hebrew of Isaiah 7:14 uses the term almah, which is best translated as young unmarried woman (virgin or otherwise). However, the earliest existing versions of Matthew’s gospel draw from the 3rd century BC Greek Septuagint wherein the Hebrew almah is translated to the Greek as parthenos (virgin).

Why Matthew who was a Jewish tax collector might want to quote from the less precise Greek rather than the more precise Hebrew is not known. What is known is that an early 2nd century AD church leader named Papias (Bishop of Hierapolis) wrote that: “Matthew organized the sayings in the Hebrew (Aramaic) language, but everyone has translated them as best he could.” Could the original Matthean version which no longer exists have been spot on, only to be corrupted in a later Greek addition? No one knows – as the textual evidence is no longer available.

Outside of Matthew and Luke, the concept of Mary as virgin is to be found nowhere else in the New Testament. The Almighty God certainly has the power to enable a woman to conceive without intercourse. But did He? Unfortunately, the historicity of this event is clouded by a weak (or misinterpreted) link to Old Testament prophecy.

The Incarnation

One thing that New Testament is not wishy-washy about is the incarnation – the concept that Jesus somehow was both God and human. Consider the following sampling:

  • The very first sentence of Matthew’s gospel tells us that his account is about “Jesus Christ” – the anointed one of God. And it is in Matthew that the apostle Peter Simon firmly declares that “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
  • Luke’ Jesus fends off the temptations of the devil by admonishing Satan not to “tempt the Lord your God.”
  • In John’s gospel, Jesus is quoted as saying that “the Father and I are one.”
  • Even in skeptical Mark’s gospel, testimony is finally offered by a Roman centurion who at the death of Jesus declares: “Truly, this Man was the Son of God.”
  • Extending beyond the gospels, it is the latecomer Paul who never met Jesus in the flesh but nonetheless spreads the message of Jesus’ incarnation over and over. For example, in his opening statement of a letter to the Romans, Paul proclaims “the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.”
  • Finally, even James who regarded his brother Jesus as a bit of a lunatic during his earthly sojourn would eventually be won over to the Christian cause. In his one and only New Testament writing, he begins by declaring himself: “James, a bondservant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

In short, even though the mechanics of incarnation may be a bit fuzzy (and subject to endless debate), the scriptural reality of incarnation is not. The divine and the human wrapped together – it’s fully attested throughout the complete New Testament.

Re-Branding Christmas?

What with all these historical questions combined with the crass commercialization of the season, there are those Christians who would gladly walk away from Christmas altogether. Give it back to the pagan bacchanalia of the season’s pre-historic beginnings.

This approach has been tried before – as when the Puritan Oliver Cromwell banned the celebration of Christmas from England in 1647 as “a popish festival with no biblical justification.” In the end, seasonal merriment always seems to win out over the predilections of more sober minded folk.

But, despite all the excess and corruption surrounding the season, Christmas has one thing going for it – that should be of importance to all Christians. Despite all the politically correct re-labeling away from “Merry Christmas” to “Happy Holidays” – everyone around this globe still knows that this event is somehow about the Godhead and humankind getting together. It’s a celebration of the master of the universe breaking into one little planet in the form of a human baby birthed in an animal feeding trough.

Should anyone in their right mind walk away from a brand that powerful, that global? Of course not!

Live in the moment even as we mix the best of the divine with the most crass of the human. Yes, where possible, aim for authenticity – for those who actually care. Yet for all the rest – even as they toast another year, there is yet the never ending afterglow of this kid Jesus (still the reason for the season).


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