Monday, July 30, 2012

Evaluating the reliability of the Gospels – Part 2

Following on from my last post with the final two criteria for evaluating the reliability of the Gospels.

6. Memorability An ancient practice of teachers was to form their teaching mnemonically so it could be more easily passed on orally. There is evidence in the Gospels that Jesus used this practice and this increases the likelihood that his sayings have been recorded accurately.

7. Date (which is probably the most important of all)
The relative short space of time from when the events happened to when they were written down gives strength to the Gospels reliability, particularly if you take into account that there were other accounts that are no longer in existence but were used by the gospel writers. Early dates means less time for the material to be distorted.

"The length of time between the events and their recording in the gospels is not much more than two generations, even on the latest dating now proposed. The majority of New Testament scholars still date Mark's gospel shortly before or shortly after AD 70, Matthew and Luke roughly 80-90, and John close to the end of the first century" (France, R.T. in The Gospels As Historical Sources For Jesus, The Founder Of Christianity, 2002).

Also historians are fortunate to have copies that have early dates which they have compared to later copies and the level of accuracy is impressive. The earliest fragment of the New Testament comes from John’s Gospel and is dated 29 years after it was written. No other historical document has a fragment that is so close to the original.

Along with the date another important evidence for reliability is the number of copies that have been found. Matt Slick has produced a chart on the Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry website (here), it compares historical documents. This chart highlights the short period of time between the original document and the earliest copy in existence as well as the high number of copies. This chart indicates the robust strength of the historical evidence for reliability of the New Testament and therefore the Gospels.

A comparison of the dates for the writing of the Gospels to biographies of other religious leaders again reveals a short time gap. For example the earliest biography of Muhammad (AD 570-632) was composed around AD 760 which is 125 years after his death. The first records of Budha (448-368 BC) appeared 350 years after his death. Again it is striking that the New Testament Gospel accounts are written so soon after the death of Jesus.

Even historians who do not profess Christian faith regard the New Testament as a reliable history of the time and believe the contents have been faithfully recorded from what was common knowledge. So Christians can be confident that the Gospels are reliable accounts of what actually happened.

Technorati StumbleUpon Facebook Google Bookmark Yahoo

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Evaluating the reliability of the Gospels – Part 1

Christians and atheists are both surprisingly unaware of how much historical evidence there is regarding the reliability of the Gospels.

John Dickson, in his book, The Christ Files, explains the criterion that serious historians use to examine any historical writings (not just the Gospels). There are seven: multiple attestation, coherence, dissimilarity, archaic style, embarrassment, memorability, and date. We can apply these criteria to the Gospels and determine how reliable they are:

1. Multiple attestation
When historians examine the Gospels they can deduce that there were a number of sources that the Gospel writers used to put together their own accounts. Luke acknowledges this in his opening sentences of his gospels, Luke 1:1-3. It is apparent that these sources were independently giving very similar accounts of the same events and making similar comments about Jesus. Scholars also find in Paul’s epistles evidence that suggests Paul had access to information such as creeds, which were written down prior to the Gospels being written.

2. Coherence
The Gospels show high levels of coherence, that is, the stories are consistent with what historians know from other Biblical and non-Biblical sources about the culture, places, people, events and politics of the time.

3. Dissimilarity
There is enough dissimilarity between Jesus’ teaching and the practices of Judaism and the early church to suggest that the Gospel writers have not just “invented” Jesus’ words or put words into Jesus’ mouth that were already known from another source. Many times Jesus’ teachings were surprising because of their originality. The stories or parables were not rehashed from Jewish traditions. This gives weight, in the historian’s mind, to the evidence for the accurate recording of Jesus’ words.

4. Archaic style
Historians have closely examined the language of the text. Jesus spoke Aramaic but the Gospels were written in Greek. Nevertheless there are places in the text where there is an obvious Aramaic influence which suggests an early date for the writings adding to their reliability. An example of this would be Jesus use of the Aramaic word “Abba” in Mark 14:36.

5. Embarrassment
If the early Gospel writers merely invented these accounts they would not have included embarrassing information, for example women being the first witnesses to the resurrection. This was embarrassing because in that culture women were not considered reliable witnesses. Also incidents where future church leaders were shown in a negative light are numerous – Peter’s denial; James, Jesus brother’s unbelief; John and James ambitious attitude. The only reason for including this information was that it was true and it was known to be true by those who would read the accounts so there was no point trying to make these future leaders "look good".

We will look at the final two criteria next time.

Technorati StumbleUpon Facebook Google Bookmark Yahoo

Friday, July 27, 2012

Devotional Thought : Acts 21:20-21

Then they said to Paul: “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs. Acts 21:20-21

Paul actually didn’t teach the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses nor would he have told them “not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs.” Later Paul would say to them: “My brothers, although I have done nothing against our people or against the customs of our ancestors, I was arrested in Jerusalem and handed over to the Romans” (Acts 28:17).

Paul did teach that keeping Jewish customs would not lead to salvation and it was for this reason that Paul saw no point in teaching Gentiles the Jewish customs. Paul taught the Gentiles what they needed to know and didn’t complicate the message by explaining things that were not essential.

However Paul did regularly kept Jewish customs when he was amongst Jews and I suspect they were very meaningful to him. He had a thoroughly Jewish upbringing and now that he had become a Christian he understood their significance. So many things in the Old Testament pointed to Jesus and Paul could now appreciate the depth of meaning in these customs.

The lesson for us is to start where people are. If they have a background of Christian belief we can better explain the symbols in it, we can correct misconceptions and add meaning to what they already know. Alternatively if they come to Christ with no knowledge of Christianity then we don’t need to complicate the message with non-essentials.

Technorati StumbleUpon Facebook Google Bookmark Yahoo

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Book Review : The three tasks of leadership

The three tasks of leadership is a collection of essays edited by Eric Jacobsen and based on this Max De Pree quote: "The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant and a debtor."

The book is divided into the three parts mentioned in this quote: Defining reality; servanthood; and saying thanks.

I struggled with the first part, defining reality. It seems an odd phrase to me but the essays in this section were basically looking at the role of leadership in the life of a pastor. The essays covered: needing grace, the pastor as CEO or as a shepherd; the influence of culture; church organizational structure; and the role of preaching.

The second part which covered servanthood I found very helpful. The writers in this section wrote about how they understood servanthood and what it means to serve others in a Christian context. The essays also touched on the importance of the pastor’s own spiritual growth and gaining wisdom from others.

The third part on gratitude I particularly enjoyed as it provided much encouragement to show gratitude at all times simply as a response to what God has done for us. The essays also covered showing gratitude by focussing on what is going well at church and to be intentional about showing gratitude especially to those who commit much time and effort to church activities.

Overall I found this collection of essays brought useful insights and differing perspectives on pastoral leadership in a modern context.

Technorati StumbleUpon Facebook Google Bookmark Yahoo

Monday, July 23, 2012

Devotional Thought : Galatians 6:12

Those who want to impress people by means of the flesh are trying to compel you to be circumcised. Galatians 6:12

The well-known Bible commentator, F. F. Bruce made this comment in reference to the Jewish’s desire to maintain the rite of circumcision. "It cuts the ground from under every thought of personal achievement or merit where God's salvation is in view. To be shut up to receiving salvation from the crucified one…is an affront to all notions of proper self-pride and self-help—and for many people this remains a major stumbling-block in the gospel of Christ crucified. If I myself can make some small contribution, something even so small as the acceptance of circumcision, then my self-esteem is uninjured."

In our day it is not circumcision that is the issue. However, we still want to make a contribution to our own salvation, no matter how small, just so that we are not totally dependant on the grace of God. Some like to be involved in rituals and ceremonies as if this somehow earns them credit with God. Others like to invest their time and money in social welfare programs for similar reasons. It is as Bruce says, “an affront”, almost an insult that we can do nothing to earn our salvation and the reason why some will not accept the gospel. It is a death blow to their self-sufficiency and makes them feel inadequate, vulnerable and dependant.

Some maintain that they reject faith in God on purely intellectual grounds. This is unlikely as we rarely make decisions based on intellect alone. More likely it is the thought that in order to receive salvation we have to come to God with “empty hands”. We may impress other people with our generosity and good works but God requires our surrender.

Technorati StumbleUpon Facebook Google Bookmark Yahoo

Saturday, July 21, 2012

My 1,000th post

I started blogging on 2nd June 2005 and here we are a thousand posts later, who would have thought? It reminds me of the ant in Proverbs 6:6. Doing a little bit a lot creates a surprising result in time. 2-3 posts a week ends up being 1,000 posts after 7 years.

I began by writing about the books I read (hence the title for the blog, a-book-look) and progressed to include the inspiration I received from other writings plus the devotional thoughts I write, which I hope may inspire others.

I don't seem to have many regular readers but I get about 1,500 hits per month. Most people arrive at my blog via Google as they search for book reviews or Bible study material. From the key words and resulting 'hit' it would suggest that most people who land on my blog find what they were expecting.

I hope this blog has been a blessing to you in your spiritual journey and hopefully it will continue to be in the future.

Technorati StumbleUpon Facebook Google Bookmark Yahoo

Friday, July 20, 2012

Reflection : Bittersweet

Following on from my last post…

My favourite chapter in Bittersweet by Shauna Niequist was the one Shauna wrote on being a writer. It encouraged me as I related to the discipline of having to devote time to write. However the chapter that spoke to me at a deeper level was the one she wrote about two types of emotional pain. Firstly, "there’s the anxiety and fear I felt when we couldn’t sell our house." Secondly, "there’s the sadness I felt when I lost the baby or when my grandma passed away."

Shauna explains "The first kind, I think, is the kind that invites us to grow. The second kind is the kind that invites us to mourn." And the trick is knowing the difference between the two. The first kind is hardest to deal with because when we reflect we may find at the centre of the pain is the problem, "I’m not getting what I want" which becomes an invitation to grow. This is not what you want to hear when you are in pain!

Nevertheless I found it very helpful to think about "pain" in this way and acknowledge that God uses the difficult circumstances in my life to shape me into the person he wants me to be. Viewed like this, instead of fighting against my circumstances, I can change my perspective and consider, am I actually learning what God is trying to teach me?

Technorati StumbleUpon Facebook Google Bookmark Yahoo

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Book Review : Bittersweet

Shauna Niequist’s book, Bittersweet, has the subtitle, "thoughts on change, grace and learning the hard way". It is a good summary of the contents. Shauna is Bill & Lynne Hybels’ daughter and she is very comfortable sharing details of her personal and family life. She wrote the book after experiencing a series of significant changes which included having a baby, changing jobs and moving house. Not all these changes were welcomed or expected and some involved a great deal of grief.

Shauna is an extravert with a great deal of creative energy and zest for life so she brings a unique perspective to the effect these changes had on her walk with God and how she experienced his grace in the midst of this difficult time. Often she found his grace informally through getting together with family and friends but at other times more formally through church gatherings and seeing a therapist.

Towards the latter part of the book Shauna does get slightly repetitive in her descriptions of the dinner parties she held and while these occasions were obviously deeply healing for her they were a bit loss on me.

Nevertheless overall I found this an excellent read and greatly encouraging. It gave me fresh insights into the ways God uses pain and disappointment to shape and model us into the people he wants us to be.

Technorati StumbleUpon Facebook Google Bookmark Yahoo

Monday, July 16, 2012

Devotional Thought : Galatians 4:29

At that time the son born according to the flesh persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now. Galatians 4:29

The “son born according to the flesh” was, of course, Ishmael. Abraham and Sarah connived to have a son rather than having faith in God’s ability to fulfil his promises.

The “son born by the power of the Spirit” was Isaac. Abraham and Sarah were well beyond the age of having children naturally so God by his Spirit supernaturally enable Sarah to conceive.

Yet despite Isaac’s miraculous birth (or perhaps because of it) Ishmael persecuted him. Paul does not tell us the nature of the persecution but we read this in the original account: “But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking” (Genesis 21:9). Even this does not give us all the details. What was he mocking Isaac about? Nevertheless it bothered Sarah sufficiently to ask Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away, which he did.

However the most surprising conclusion to this verse is, "It is the same now." If we live by the power of the Spirit we will be persecuted by those who do things based on their own plausible ideas and human efforts. We will be mocked by those who are not familiar with the ways of the Spirit.

Some days we may even be the cause of persecution; when we mock the possibility that God may supernaturally intervene, when we don’t support the “Abrahams” in our lives (that is, our leaders), and when we don’t have faith in God to fulfil his promises in the face of barren circumstances.

The challenge is to live by “the power of the Spirit” and therefore have faith in God’s ability to bring about the miraculous.

Technorati StumbleUpon Facebook Google Bookmark Yahoo

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Hanging out upside down

I thought it was time for some light relief after a week of posts on apologetic issues.

This is a photo I took of a magpie who decided to chat to another magpie while hang upside down from a towel I had on the washing line!

Technorati StumbleUpon Facebook Google Bookmark Yahoo

Friday, July 13, 2012

On needing faith

A third point made by my atheistic visitor, see previous posts here and here, was, "Why do you need faith? And then why do you need faith to support that faith?"

Putting the question like that makes it sound like I am deficient in someway as a person, as if I am so weak and inadequate that I "need" faith to help me survive life. This raises a couple of issues. Why does our culture glorify self-sufficiency, independence and the person who is completely self-reliant but is often thoroughly selfish? Other cultures value community, interdependence and selflessness and surely these are better values. Needing faith is not necessarily a negative characteristic.

Furthermore my Christian faith is a most reasonable explanation of the world. It explains how the world came to be, why people are the way they are – at times incredible loving and self-sacrificing and other times completely selfish and destructive. It explains why there is beauty; why justice is worth fighting for; and the sense of right and wrong that humans have but animals don’t. My Christian faith makes sense of suffering and evil because it explains their temporary presence on earth. My faith explains much to me and the further I investigate the more sense it makes. So in a way my faith does add to my faith.

However faith is not just accepting a lot of doctrines as truth. Nor does satisfactorily answering a person’s intellectual questions about faith mean they will become a Christian. True faith makes a response. If I believed my house was on fire but didn’t leave, it is doubtful that I really believed my house was on fire. Likewise if we say we believe in God and the Bible but don’t respond by surrendering our lives to God then we don’t really believe.

Atheists often claim that are atheists because of intellectual reasons but there are at least two other reasons why people believe or don’t believe (which I have mentioned previously but are worth repeating).

There are social reasons. People tend to accept the beliefs of people they already like and trust. Coming into contact with a Christian community will convince some to become a Christian because they see something about their lives and the way they live that is appealing. Alternatively people who have atheistic friends may not have the courage to disagree with this circle of friends. Unfortunately another possibility is that they have only met legalistic, self-righteous Christians and want nothing to do with them.

There are also personal reasons. People believe things that resonate with their own experience or soul. People may sense their personal need of God, perhaps because they want forgiveness, acceptance, love etc. Alternatively people may simply not like the claims of the gospel. It may challenge their independence and self-sufficiency so they may not want to believe regardless of the weight of the evidence.

It is unlikely I will convince my atheistic visitor to come to faith not because Christianity isn’t a reasonable and rational faith but rather because he is not open to seriously examining the Christian faith. Sadly he comes to the discussion with his mind already made up.

Technorati StumbleUpon Facebook Google Bookmark Yahoo

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

On needing evidence

My atheistic visitor, see previous post, also made this comment, "And an invisible entity which has never provided any empirical evidence of it's existence, ever. Yet you choose to believe that there is a god, that the bible tells us all we need to know. I'm constantly amazed that sane, rational people can do so. How do you?"

The thought in this comment seems to be that sane, rational people only believe something if there is empirical evidence which will give us absolute certainty, but how can we know anything with absolutely certainty? We rely on historical accounts and eye witness reports for much of our current knowledge and this cannot be proved empirically. For example we believe Homer wrote two famous epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey based on historical evidence. We believe Christopher Columbus discovered America based on historical evidence. How do we know if these accounts are accurate? Likewise very little in science can be proved with 100% certainty. I read the book, What the bleep do we know? by William Arntz, Betsy Chasse and Mark Vicente, who worked in the area of quantum physics. You soon realize there is much that scientist can’t prove and much they can’t even explain! Scientists, like everyone, rely on strong degrees of probability.

Atheists cannot prove there is no god and make no attempt to do so. Yet that would be the more logical expectation since more than 50% of the world’s population is monotheistic – mostly Christians, Muslims and Jews. Less than 5% of the world’s population are committed atheists and being in the minority would suggest they are more in need of proving their position than Christians are of proving theirs. Nevertheless the evidence for Christianity is based on reliable historical evidence that can be investigated.

I would also argue that God became visible in Jesus Christ and left his imprint on earth. John Dickson, who is a historian and a Christian apologist, makes this point in his book, If I were God I’d make myself clearer. Christianity claims that at a certain point in history, Jesus was born, lived, claimed to be God, died and rose again. His followers wrote letters soon after these events where they quoted names of actual people and places; leaving behind a great wad of information they could be checked. Accounts of Jesus’ life are also quoted in histories outside of Biblical accounts.

God is certainly not "an invisible entity which has never provided any empirical evidence of it's existence."

Technorati StumbleUpon Facebook Google Bookmark Yahoo

Monday, July 09, 2012

On needing wish fulfilment

Some time ago I wrote a post entitled, What helps you hear God? One of the visitors to the post made some atheistic comments. In recent times I have been doing some studies in apologetics which have better equipped me to respond to these types of comments. So in a series of three posts I will write a more thorough response to this person’s comments.

This visitor felt that to claim I heard from God was delusional. It suggests that he considers my faith to be wish fulfilment. That I have made up a god to meet my needs and when I think I am hearing from him, I am merely experiencing something from within myself.

The idea of wish fulfilment seems to have originated with Freud in The Future of an Illusion where he states that religious beliefs are:
“…illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind . . . As we already know, the terrifying impression of helplessness in childhood aroused the need for protection-for protection through love-which was provided by the father…Thus the benevolent rule of a divine Providence allays our fear of the danger of life.”
While this is an interesting theory, it has been discredited over the years by pointing out that equally wish fulfilment could be the basis of atheism. We wish there to be no god to whom we are accountable so we believe there is not. However our wishing does not make God exist, likewise it does not make him non-existent.

Interesting that Freud didn't feel the need to provide any proof to his theory or why love and protection are provided by the father and not the mother. Furthermore it is quite an assumption to suggest that people who believe in God experienced the "terrifying impression of helplessness" as children. Where is the research to bear this out?

Still if people were going to make up a god he/she would be more like the ones we find in Roman and Greek mythology. A god who was a little more powerful than people, one that was not concerned about morals and one that was somewhat compassionate. Yet the God we find in Christianity is not at all like any gods we find anywhere in history.

Firstly he is more powerful than we can imagine. He floods the world; has the ground open up and swallow the disobedient; and parts the Red Sea. Likewise Jesus with a mere breath has a detachment of soldiers fall over. Secondly God is very moral, he is far and above more holy than we could ever envisage. One sin, one disobedience and Adam and Eve experienced spiritual death. His holiness requires the death penalty for one sin. Thirdly God is not slightly compassionate; he is way more loving than we could ever conceive of. Out of love, God became man. The incarnation is an astounding belief, completely unheard of in any other religion. That God would stoop so low to rescue people from his own wrath is inconceivable and the circumstances are unthinkable. Yancey describes it like this: "An angel appeared to some teenage girl who then got pregnant without ever having had sex and traveled on horseback to Bethlehem where she spent the night in a barn and had a baby who turned out to be the Savior of the world."

Not only are these are things people could not have dreamt up, they would not have wished to. We create gods that are manageable, controllable, and understandable. We do not create a God who is more loving than we can cope with, holds us more accountable than we are comfortable with and is more involved in our lives than we can handle.

When God is described like we find him in the Bible, as opposed to being described in the watered down version of an atheist, it is no wonder there are those who wish the God of the Bible was just a figment of Christians' imagination.

Technorati StumbleUpon Facebook Google Bookmark Yahoo

Friday, July 06, 2012

Spurgeon on 2 Timothy 4:13

When you come, be sure to bring the coat I left with Carpus at Troas. Also bring my books, and especially my papers. 2 Timothy 4:13

I love this, Paul asked Timothy to bring him his books! Seems Spurgeon was impressed too:
He is inspired, and yet he wants books! He has seen the Lord, and yet he wants books! He had had wide experience than most men, and yet he wants books! He has been caught up in the third heaven, and had heard things unlawful for a man to utter, yet he wants books! He has written a major part of the New Testament, and yet he wants books!

Technorati StumbleUpon Facebook Google Bookmark Yahoo

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Book Review : The best kept secret of Christian mission

Dickson, in his book, The best kept secret of Christian mission, comes to this topic from a very different perspective to others that I have read. He begins by asking the questions: what is our motivation for mission and what is the most basic doctrine of the Bible? Dickson’s answers are rather surprising. Throughout the Old Testament he points out that we find the reoccurring thought, as expressed in Psalm 96:3, is “Declare his glory among the nations, his marvellous deeds among all peoples.” Our task in mission is to make God’s name known and in fact, it has always been God’s intention for his people to declare to all nations the glory of his name.

Dickson then proceeds to explain in practical terms how we can promote the gospel in our day to day going about – by doing good to others, showing hospitality, praying, giving, helping, caring and sometimes, even speaking! Dickson also discusses the role of the church. Sometimes an ordinary church service where people are engaged, enthusiastic and responsive will be enough to convince some that Christianity is worth investigating.

In the appendix Dickson provides some examples of what to say if we are given an opportunity to share the gospel.

A refreshing look at Christian mission which relieves guilt and makes it seem very possible.

Technorati StumbleUpon Facebook Google Bookmark Yahoo

Monday, July 02, 2012

Devotional Thought : Galatians 2:4

This matter arose because some false believers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves. Galatians 2:4

It seems strange but there are some in our churches who want to “make us slaves”. What is it about the freedom we have in Christ that is so overwhelming to them they feel the need to put restrictions on it?

Firstly freedom in Christ means we cannot measure our spirituality by observable means. We cannot assume spiritual maturity based on our age, or on the amount of Bible knowledge we have, or on what we do or don’t do. There is an interesting line towards the end of the movie, Chocolat, where the young Catholic priest says: “We can't go around measuring our goodness by what we don't do, by what we deny ourselves, what we resist and who we exclude.”

This young priest was right. Spirituality cannot be measured by our actions; if it is measured at all it must be measured by our ability to love. Paul wrote to Timothy, “The purpose of my instruction is that all believers would be filled with love” (1 Timothy 1:5 NLT).

Secondly if we can gain righteousness through observing certain laws, abiding by rules and regulations, then Christ died for nothing as we read, “I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (v.21). If God could have spared Jesus the pain and suffering of the cross he would have, but there was no other way for us to be saved.

We must guard against those who would seek to take away our freedom in Christ by insisting we observe certain laws or practices rather than by being led by the Spirit.

Technorati StumbleUpon Facebook Google Bookmark Yahoo