A Historical Approach to Jesus

In the context of criticism of the Jesus Seminar, it has been claimed that the actual Gospel accounts are of high reliability, and further that no Christian who reveres Christ would dare “make anything up”.

Such a view is a faith view, not the view of a historian.

First, we know that Christian scribes frequently amended the texts of the canonical gospels. We know this beyond all doubt from the literally thousands of variant Greek manuscripts which exist to this day [1]. It is not a matter of speculation, but of observation that some Christians made stuff up.

One might argue that such glosses and “corrections” and emendations were minor. However, it appears that the story in John’s Gospel of the woman caught in adultery is, from manuscript evidence, not an original part of John’s Gospel. But perhaps it was a independent tradition that found a home there.

Fine, what about Christians making up whole books? There are several collections of these in the book stores now. Christians wrote Gospels by the scores! I would just mention two of them which are probably earlier than the rest of their fellows: The Infancy Gospel of James and the Gospel of Thomas. These are either real history or they are made up–which is it? There is the possibly early fragment from the Gospel of Peter. whose account of the resurrection cannot be reconciled with that of the canonical gospels. How about pseudo-Matthew in the 6th century who added details to the birth narrative in canonical Matthew based on his reading of Isaiah. Continue reading

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The Historical Jesus vs. the Christ of Faith

I’m a practicing Christian, and that means that I go to church and I participate in ritual actions and I speak ritual phrases. We have a canon of scripture and a body of doctrine. The Bible which we hold sacred was written by the faithful — that is, the story is told through the viewpoint of other Christians who also had their ritual and doctrine.

On the other hand there is historical research in to the life and times of Jesus. While there are no contemporary accounts of Jesus outside Christian Scripture (and someone like Schweitzer in The Quest of the Historical Jesus concludes that the historical Jesus must remain unknown), there is material about the times: about the culture, society and government; and there also those who try to uncover the layers in the Christian texts themselves to learn what lays behind them (for example as is done in The Historical Jesus by John Dominic Crossan or E. P. Sanders in his Historical Figure of Jesus).

The picture of Jesus which emerges from Historical Jesus research is wonderful and compelling — but it doesn’t look much like the Christ of Christian doctrine.

I’d like for it to all fit together and make sense and maybe it really does. Continue reading

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The Great Flood(s)

Often, in discussions of the Great Flood of Noah, someone says that there are many ancient legends and myths about floods. But what is less-widely known is that there are two flood stories in the Bible. This is somewhat difficult to see until the two stories are pulled apart.

I took the verses from the Bible story in Genesis 6-8 and divided them into two piles (based on notations in the Moffatt translation of the Bible); then I took each pile and put its verses together to make a story. The result is two rather complete (albeit shorter) stories about Noah and the Flood.

Flood Version 1:

(Genesis 6 NRSV) When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, {2} the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose. {3} Then the LORD said, “My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years.” {4} The Nephilim were on the earth in those days–and also afterward–when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.

{5} The LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. {6} And the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. {7} So the LORD said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created–people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.” {8} But Noah found favor in the sight of the LORD.

(Genesis 7 NRSV) Then the LORD said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you alone are righteous before me in this generation. {2} Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and its mate; and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and its mate; {3} and seven pairs of the birds of the air also, male and female, to keep their kind alive on the face of all the earth. {4} For in seven days I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights; and every living thing that I have made I will blot out from the face of the ground.” {5} And Noah did all that the LORD had commanded him.

{10} And after seven days the waters of the flood came on the earth.{7} And Noah with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives went into the ark to escape the waters of the flood. {8} Of clean animals, and of animals that are not clean, and of birds, and of everything that creeps on the ground, {9} two and two, male and female, went into the ark with Noah, as God had commanded Noah. {16} And those that entered, male and female of all flesh, went in as God had commanded him; and the LORD shut him in.

{12} The rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights. {22} everything on dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. {23} He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, human beings and animals and creeping things and birds of the air; they were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark.

{6} At the end of forty days Noah opened the window of the ark that he had made {2} the fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed, the rain from the heavens was restrained, {3} and the waters gradually receded from the earth. At the end of one hundred fifty days the waters had abated; {7} and sent out the raven; and it went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth. {8} Then he sent out the dove from him, to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground; {9} but the dove found no place to set its foot, and it returned to him to the ark, for the waters were still on the face of the whole earth. So he put out his hand and took it and brought it into the ark with him. {10} He waited another seven days, and again he sent out the dove from the ark; {11} and the dove came back to him in the evening, and there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf; so Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth. {12} Then he waited another seven days, and sent out the dove; and it did not return to him any more.

{13} In the six hundred first year, in the first month, the first day of the month, the waters were dried up from the earth; and Noah removed the covering of the ark, and looked, and saw that the face of the ground was drying.{20} Then Noah built an altar to the LORD, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. {21} And when the LORD smelled the pleasing odor, the LORD said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. {22} As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.”

{18} The sons of Noah who went out of the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Ham was the father of Canaan. {19} These three were the sons of Noah; and from these the whole earth was peopled. {20} Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. {21}

Flood Version 2:

(Genesis 6 NRSV) {9} These are the descendants of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation; Noah walked with God. {10} And Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth.

{11} Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. {12} And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. {13} And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth.

{14} Make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. {15} This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits. {16} Make a roof for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above; and put the door of the ark in its side; make it with lower, second, and third decks.

{17} For my part, I am going to bring a flood of waters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die. {18} But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you.

{19} And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. {20} Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every kind shall come in to you, to keep them alive. {21} Also take with you every kind of food that is eaten, and store it up; and it shall serve as food for you and for them.” {22} Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.

{6} Noah was six hundred years old when the flood of waters came on the earth. {11} In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. {13} On the very same day Noah with his sons, Shem and Ham and Japheth, and Noah’s wife and the three wives of his sons entered the ark, {14} they and every wild animal of every kind, and all domestic animals of every kind, and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth, and every bird of every kind–every bird, every winged creature. {15} They went into the ark with Noah, two and two of all flesh in which there was the breath of life.

{17} The flood continued forty days on the earth; and the waters increased, and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth. {18} The waters swelled and increased greatly on the earth; and the ark floated on the face of the waters. {19} The waters swelled so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered; {20} the waters swelled above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep. {21} And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, domestic animals, wild animals, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all human beings;{24} And the waters swelled on the earth for one hundred fifty days.

(Genesis 8 NRSV) But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided;{4} and in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. {5} The waters continued to abate until the tenth month; in the tenth month, on the first day of the month, the tops of the mountains appeared.{14} In the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth was dry. {15} Then God said to Noah, {16} “Go out of the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons’ wives with you. {17} Bring out with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh–birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth–so that they may abound on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply on the earth.” {18} So Noah went out with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives. {19} And every animal, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that moves on the earth, went out of the ark by families.

(Genesis 9 NRSV) God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. {2} The fear and dread of you shall rest on every animal of the earth, and on every bird of the air, on everything that creeps on the ground, and on all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered. {3} Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. {4} Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. {5} For your own lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning: from every animal I will require it and from human beings, each one for the blood of another, I will require a reckoning for human life. {6} Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind.

{7} And you, be fruitful and multiply, abound on the earth and multiply in it.” {8} Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, {9} “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, {10} and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. {11} I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” {12} God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: {13} I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. {14} When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, {15} I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. {16} When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” {17} God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”

{28} After the flood Noah lived three hundred fifty years. {29} All the days of Noah were nine hundred fifty years; and he died.

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The New International Version of the Bible

The NIV is a Bible translation first published in 1978 by the International Bible Society coming out of work started by the National Association of Evangelicals. If you wish to learn more about this version from the publisher’s viewpoint, this link is provided to their web site. The publisher holds this version in much higher esteem than I do. I flat out don’t trust it.

I first became aware of the NIV when involved in a USENET discussion where I said that the Bible said one thing and someone else argued that it said no such thing. This started happening a lot, and at the root of the disagreement, there always seemed to be a NIV Bible. I eventually bought a copy of the NIV and made little marks in it whenever something came up. I never went looking for problems in the NIV; they came to me. [The New American Standard Bible is taken as the reference translation for this article; King James equivalents are linked at the bottom of the page.]


Let’s start at the beginning:

(Gen 2:17 NASB [KJV]) “but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die.” Continue reading

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Feelings – Thoughts on Mark 6:10-12

The following started as an e-mail reply I made to someone on the Internet. This letter is representative of many I receive and of many articles posted on the USENET from sincere individuals who look at the “God of the Bible” who see a deity who is arbitrary and violent, and who look at Jesus and see someone preaching hell fire and brimstone belying all the Christian talk about Love. Because such persons contact with Christianity is with Biblical literalists and inerrantists, it’s difficult for someone like me to credibly defend my faith with scholarship and a kinder, gentler way of interpreting scripture. The original writer commented:

Still, I think you missed my point slightly, which is my personal serious stumbling block with Christianity, for which I asked these questions in the first place, so that I might be given an answer that would soothe me:

Jesus said (severely paraphrased): “If you go to a town and they reject me, shake the dust of that town from your shoes and be off; because it would be better if that town were Sodom when I get through with it!” He also said: “No one is saved except he comes to know the Father through me.” (He said MANY more things in this same vein than this, either.)

This does not leave open much possibility for a “way of life characterized by love and trust” to all, only to a limited few who believe in Jesus, right?

You raise some good points. The answers I have are not all that clean or simple, but I will share them. Continue reading

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Authentic Sayings of Jesus

Matthew 5:17-20

Why do I consider Matthew 5:17-20 inauthentic?

(Mat 5:17-20 NRSV) “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. {18} For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. {19} Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. {20} For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

There’s a short answer, and a long answer. The long answer deals with why I might think any saying of Jesus in the Gospels is inauthentic. Let me deal with the long question first, and then with the particular verses.

The first question is whether the New Testament Gospels are “supernaturally accurate”. That is, do they record events and words to a degree impossible for normal humans to have remembered them? Continue reading

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Why have you forsaken me?

A discussion of Mark 15:34 and Psalm 22.

This article was originally written in reply to a particular person, but it has general application to the critics of Christianity who read the saying of Jesus from the cross, “My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?” as an expression of failure and despair. This text has been updated since its original appearance on the talk.religion.misc newsgroup.

The fundamentalist Christian often interprets this saying as marking the point at which Jesus took upon himself the sins of all mankind requiring God (who they say cannot look upon evil) to turn away. I strongly disagree with this idea also, but that is another discussion for another article. Continue reading

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Luther and the Jews

I guess everybody has heard of Martin Luther, the 16th German Christian reformer who may be credited with starting the Protestant Reformation and loosing the Roman Catholic Church’s hegemony in Europe. Better-informed folks will know that Luther made an important translation of the Bible into the German language and perhaps something about Luther’s theology, including the doctrine of Justification by Faith alone, and his Theology of the Cross. One can read in Luther’s Table Talk and other writings that Luther was an earthy man who said what he thought without sugar-coating it. Most of Luther’s writing is argumentative, regularly trashing the Papists, the Anabaptists and others. What is particularly troubling is some of Luther’s writing about Jews.

What Luther Wrote

The best-known tract on the subject is entitled Über die Juden und Ihre Lügen (On the Jews and their Lies). There are copies of this on the Web that one can read for themselves, and I won’t summarize it except to say that it talks about harassment of Jews including burning of their homes and destruction of their places of worship. Until recently, a companion work to On the Jews and their Lies was not available in English. This work, Vom Schem Hamphoras und vom Geschlecht Christi (of the Unknowable Name and the Generations of Christ) appears in the appendix to Gerhard Falk’s excellent book: The Jew in Christian Theology: Martin Luther’s Anti-Jewish Vom Schem Hamporas, Previously Unpublished in English, and Other Milestones in Church Doctrine Concerning Judaism.

It is important to note that On the Jews and Vom Schem were both written in response to alleged Jewish statements cited by Salvagus Porchetus de Salvaticus, a 14 century Cartesian monk in Victoria adversus impios Hebraeos. Luther was not simply out to bash the Jews in these works but to refute their “lies” and to defend Christ. These alleged statements were pretty offensive and Luther was obviously quite angry about them. Attacking the views of others was what Luther did best. Continue reading

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The Verdict? A Reply to Josh McDowell

I had been avoiding reading Josh McDowell’s Book, Evidence that Demands a Verdict: Historical Evidences for the Christian Faith, largely out of prejudice. I was pretty sure that what McDowell was trying to do was impossible, and that his book would be a disgraceful propaganda piece. But when I found the book at a used bookstore, I figured that I really should read it and here are my thoughts.

Usually in a trial, both sides get to make their argument. It is the defense lawyer’s job to represent his case in the best possible light. McDowell’s book is such a defense. I don’t mean to take the “other side” because I am a Christian myself, but I do have some problems with McDowell’s arguments. I also think that a good defense lawyer will answer the hard questions that his opponent asks; Evidence ignores the hard questions substituting easy “straw man” questions.

When you reduce any argument about Christianity down to the most basic level, everything hinges on the Bible. There is no other contemporary source for what happened during the first 3 decades of the first century in Palestine or in Israel in the centuries before. You either believe that the Bible contains 100% literal, reliable, historical accounts (McDowell’s premise), or you don’t. There’s no external evidence to compare with.

One annoying thing that McDowell does is to quote other people at length. Citing someone else’s opinion is not evidence. If I had turned in an English composition paper with this much quotation in it, I would have gotten a bad grade. I think McDowell intends for all this material to be convincing since it comes from “books”, but again, opinion is not evidence. Some of the cited material is obsolete, and some of it misrepresents the authors views, and some of the citations are patently false. In fact, it looks like there is more quoted material than there is original material (didn’t actually measure it). Continue reading

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I believe that God will reconcile us all to himself in some way.

The Christian scriptures clearly set out the hope of eternal life to the Christian. I’m not sure that the early Christians were any more in agreement about everyone else than we are today.

If one believes that Revelation (20:14 for example) is an inspired doctrine about the afterlife (rather than a message of hope in symbolic language to 1st century readers) and if one takes the symbolic language about Gehenna in the Gospels as both literal and authentic, then there is some support for the common Christian notion that non-Christians go to hell. And indeed, when I was a kid, people in my Baptist church thought many (but not all) Catholics were going to hell, too. There is a huge black and orange billboard on Interstate 85 with the phrase:

But I think that it is clear from the teachings of Jesus that God does not DESIRE that anyone perish, and I for one pray “Thy will be done”. Continue reading

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