Tag Archives: Bible

Is the gospel of Mark early? Is it based on eyewitness testimony?

Investigation in progress
Investigation in progress

Sean McDowell tweeted this interesting article from BeThinking.org, written by New Testament historian Peter J. Williams. It contains reasons why Mark is early, eyewitness testimony. I want to focus on the criterion of embarrassment, which says that if a passage contains embarrassing information about the author or the author’s cause, then it’s likely to be historical.

Excerpt:

If it were not for Mark’s Gospel, Mark would be a very minor figure indeed in the beginnings of Christianity. He is certainly not someone you would ascribe Mark’s Gospel to in order to give it more authority, because according to the book of Acts (Acts 13:13 and 15:37) he abandoned Paul, one of the early Christian leaders, during a mission. We can take it therefore that the Gospel is ascribed to him because it genuinely is by him. If it is by him then it has to be written within the lifespan of someone who was an active adult in the 50s and 60s of the first century AD.

Yeah, if you’re going to make up a gospel, and you want people to believe it, then you pick an author who is more famous, like Peter.

More:

Though the Gospel makes extraordinary claims about Jesus’ miraculous activities, it seems to make no attempt to cover up the failures of the early Christian leaders. The disciples are said to misunderstand (8:14–217), argue about who is the greatest (9:34), get angry with two of the leading disciples (10:41), and ultimately abandon Jesus (14:50). The leading disciple, Peter, denied Jesus three times (14:66–72). The most unusual claim that it makes is that someone who underwent a shameful execution designed by the Romans to show that he was a loser, was in fact the Son of God.

It is not just the narrative which tells embarrassing stories, the things said by Jesus could also be profoundly embarrassing. According to 15:34 Jesus died asking why God had forsaken him. It is not likely that people would make up such a saying if it hadn’t really occurred. According to 7:27, Jesus told a non-Jewish woman (a Gentile) that it was not right to take that which belonged to the Jews and throw it to ‘dogs’, meaning Gentiles. This is not something you would make up if you were writing a Gospel and wanted gentiles to become Christians.

Although Williams is right to say that Mark is typically dated to the early 60s, the atheist historian James Crossley dates it 37-43 in his book about the gospel of Mark.

There is a podcast by J. Warner Wallace that has some more interesting information about the gospel of Mark.

The M4A file is here.

Details:

In this blast from the past, J. Warner examines the Gospel of Mark for signs of Peter’s influence. Papias, the early church bishop, claimed Mark’s Gospel was written as he sat at the feet of Peter in Rome. According to Papias, Mark scribed Peter’s sermons and created the narrative we now have in our Bible. In this audio podcast, J. Warner applies Forensic Statement Analysis to Mark’s text to see if Peter’s fingerprints are present.

You can also read a post on some of what is in the podcast, if you don’t want to listen to the podcast.

Here is the part I thought was most interesting:

The Omissions of the Gospel Are Consistent With Peter’s Influence

There are many details in the Gospel of Mark consistent with Peter’s special input and influence, including omissions related to events involving Peter. How can Mark be a memoir of Peter if, in fact, the book contains so many omissions of events involving Peter specifically? It’s important to evaluate the entire catalogue of omissions pertaining to Peter to understand the answer here. The vast majority of these omissions involve incidents in which Peter did or said something rash or embarrassing. It’s not surprising these details were omitted by the author who wanted to protect Peter’s standing in the Christian community. Mark was quite discreet in his retelling of the narrative (other Gospel writers who were present at the time do, however, provide details of Peters ‘indiscretions’ in their own accounts). Here are some examples of Petrine Omissions grounded in an effort to minimize embarrassment to Peter:

Peter’s shame at the “Miraculous Catch”
(Mark 1:16-120 compared to Luke 5:1-11)

Peter’s foolish statement at the crowded healing
(Mark 5:21-34 compared to Luke 8:42-48)

Peter’s lack of understanding related to the parable
(Mark 7:14-19 compared to Matthew 15:10-18 and Acts 10:9-16)

Peter’s lack of faith on the lake
(Mark 6:45 compared to Matthew 14:22-33)

Peter’s rash statement to Jesus
(Mark 8:31-33 compared to Matthew 16:21-23)

Peter’s statement related to money
(Mark 10:23-31 compared to Matthew 19:23-30)

Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s denial
(Mark 14:27-31 compared to Luke 22:31-34 and John 13:34-38)

Peter’s behavior at the foot-washing
(Mark 14:22-26 compared to John 13:2-9)

Peter’s denial and Jesus’ direct stare
(Mark 14:66-72 compared to Luke 22:54-62)

There are a number of places in the Gospel of Mark where details related specifically to the words and actions of Peter have been omitted in what appears to be an effort to protect Peter from embarrassment. This doesn’t mean Peter failed to talk about these things. He may very well have included them in his sermons and teachings. But Mark, his scribe and close friend, simply chose to omit these details related to Peter, either at Peter’s request or on his own initiative.

Mark doesn’t want to annoy his source, Peter, by calling him out for making mistakes. He has to include the embarrassing stories, but it’s less harsh than in other gospels.

Here’s another blog post from Cold Case Christianity on the same topic.

How to respond to an atheist who complains about slavery in the Bible

Lets take a closer look at a puzzle
Lets take a closer look at a puzzle

I often hear atheists going on and on about how the Bible has this evil and that evil. Their favorite one seems to be slavery. Here are three things I say to atheists when they push this objection.

The Bible and slavery

First, you should explain to them what the Bible actually says about slavery. And then tell them about the person responsible for stopping slavery in the UK: a devout evangelical named William Wilberforce.

Here’s an article that works.

Excerpt:

We should compare Hebrew debt-servanthood (many translations render this “slavery”) more fairly to apprentice-like positions to pay off debts — much like the indentured servitude during America’s founding when people worked for approximately 7 years to pay off the debt for their passage to the New World. Then they became free.

In most cases, servanthood was more like a live-inemployee, temporarily embedded within the employer’s household. Even today, teams trade sports players to another team that has an owner, and these players belong to a franchise. This language hardly suggests slavery, but rather a formal contractual agreement to be fulfilled — like in the Old Testament.3

Second, inform them that moral values are not rationally grounded on atheism. In an accidental universe, there is no way we ought to be. There is no design for humans that we have to comply with. There are no objective human rights, like the right to liberty (that would block slavery) or the right to life (that would block  abortion). Although you may find that most atheists act nicely, the ones who really understand what atheism means and live it out consistently are not so nice.

Atheism and moral judgments

Second, inform them that moral values are not rationally grounded on atheism. In an accidental universe, there is no way we ought to be. There is no design for humans that we have to comply with. There are no objective human rights, like the right to liberty (that would block slavery) or the right to life (that would block  abortion). Although you may find that most atheists act nicely, the ones who really understand what atheism means and live it out consistently are not so nice.

Dawkins has previously written this:

The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.

(“God’s Utility Function,” Scientific American, November, 1995, p. 85)

When people like Dawkins talk about morality, you have to understand that they are pretending. To them, morality is just about personal preferences and cultural conventions. They just think that questions of right and wrong are arbitrary. Things that are wrong in one time and place are right in another. Every view is as right as any other, depending on the time and place. That’s atheist morality.

What’s worse than slavery? Abortion!

Third, you should ask the atheist what he has done to oppose abortion. Abortion is worse than slavery, so if they are sincere in thinking that slavery is wrong, then they ought to think that abortion is wrong even more. So ask them what they’ve done to oppose the practice of abortion. That will tell you how sincere they are about slavery.

Here’s Richard Dawkins explaining what he’s done to stop abortion:

That’s right. The head atheist supports killing born children.

Bible study: what does the Christian concept of “grace” mean?

A good shepherd rescuing a lost sheep who had no hope
A good shepherd rescuing a lost sheep, who had no hope

My friend Wessel sent me this sermon a few days ago because I was looking for a good sermon on grace. Some of my friends pitched in with sermons, but this one from a South African church was BY FAR the best. I’ve listened to it 3 times already. The speaker sounds exactly like one of best friends from university, Andrew, who is from South Africa.

I’m testing out a new file download service, so I hope this works… here is the MP3 file. (7 megabytes, 30 minutes) [FIXED!]

Let me know if you can’t download that.

The text of the sermon is Genesis 48:1-20:

1 Some time later Joseph was told, “Your father is ill.” So he took his two sons Manasseh and Ephraim along with him.

When Jacob was told, “Your son Joseph has come to you,” Israel rallied his strength and sat up on the bed.

Jacob said to Joseph, “God Almighty appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan, and there he blessed me

and said to me, ‘I am going to make you fruitful and increase your numbers. I will make you a community of peoples, and I will give this land as an everlasting possession to your descendants after you.’

“Now then, your two sons born to you in Egypt before I came to you here will be reckoned as mine; Ephraim and Manasseh will be mine, just as Reuben and Simeon are mine.

Any children born to you after them will be yours; in the territory they inherit they will be reckoned under the names of their brothers.

As I was returning from Paddan, to my sorrow Rachel died in the land of Canaan while we were still on the way, a little distance from Ephrath. So I buried her there beside the road to Ephrath” (that is, Bethlehem).

When Israel saw the sons of Joseph, he asked, “Who are these?”

“They are the sons God has given me here,” Joseph said to his father.

Then Israel said, “Bring them to me so I may bless them.”

10 Now Israel’s eyes were failing because of old age, and he could hardly see. So Joseph brought his sons close to him, and his father kissed them and embraced them.

11 Israel said to Joseph, “I never expected to see your face again, and now God has allowed me to see your children too.”

12 Then Joseph removed them from Israel’s knees and bowed down with his face to the ground.

13 And Joseph took both of them, Ephraim on his right toward Israel’s left hand and Manasseh on his left toward Israel’s right hand, and brought them close to him.

14 But Israel reached out his right hand and put it on Ephraim’s head, though he was the younger,and crossing his arms, he put his left hand on Manasseh’s head, even though Manasseh was the firstborn.

15 Then he blessed Joseph and said,

“May the God before whom my fathers
    Abraham and Isaac walked faithfully,
the God who has been my shepherd
    all my life to this day,

16 the Angel who has delivered me from all harm
    —may he bless these boys.
May they be called by my name
    and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac,
and may they increase greatly
    on the earth.”

17 When Joseph saw his father placing his right hand on Ephraim’s head he was displeased; so he took hold of his father’s hand to move it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s head.

18 Joseph said to him, “No, my father, this one is the firstborn; put your right hand on his head.”

19 But his father refused and said, “I know, my son, I know. He too will become a people, and he too will become great. Nevertheless, his younger brother will be greater than he, and his descendants will become a group of nations.”

20 He blessed them that day and said,

“In your[c] name will Israel pronounce this blessing:
    ‘May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.’”

So he put Ephraim ahead of Manasseh.

So, in this story, God continues his tradition of choosing the lowly people in the world instead of the people who are seen as “better”. God does this in many cases, because he has a big heart for people who are born in a bad position. Normally in the world, people always choose what they think is best for them. They choose the prettiest girl. They choose the most tallest man. Those who need a little extra help or care are passed over. God sometimes does the complete opposite of this. Instead of choosing the obvious “best person”, he chooses a much lower person, and he lifts them up to do great things.

Consider 1 Corinthians 1:26-31:

26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called.Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.

27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.

28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are,

29 so that no one may boast before him.

30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.

31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”

The speaker in the sermon explains the idea of grace by talking about sheep and shepherds. He explains that unlike clever homing pigeons, sheep are prone to wandering off and they aren’t able to find their way home. Sometimes, they get lost, and sometimes they even wander into danger. A bad shepherd would just say that he only wanted to have the best sheep – the smartest ones or the richest ones or the best looking ones or the most popular ones. But a good shepherd is sorry for the sheep that needs the most help, and is the most lost, and in the most danger. God is like a good shepherd. God sends his Son to die to atone for the sins of the bad sheep in this world, even when they didn’t deserve it. (John 3:16-17) That’s grace. But he also arranges the world in a way that bad sheep have an opportunity to reach out and find him. (Acts 17:24-27) That’s grace, too.

In my own life, I have often found myself being excluded or discounted by people, usually because of my skin color or because of my early childhood poverty or because I just struggle to understand what I’m expected to say and to do. But a funny thing often happens. Right when I am feeling the worst about being excluded, God comes along and gives me something special to do, that makes me forget about being excluded. And that’s been my experience of grace, ever since I was little and even to this day. The honor of being allowed to participate in God’s plan makes me forget what it feels like to be excluded. The very best things I’ve achieved in my life are the times where God showed me someone who started out life in a terrible situation (usually because of the selfish decisions of their irresponsible parents) and then I participated in God’s plan to lead them out of the mess they started out from.

I think one of the biggest reasons why some Christians stick with Christianity through thick and thin is that they have this experience of grace. This experience of grace means that no matter what, that sheep is going to loyal to that shepherd who chose him when he was at his lowest and most vulnerable. The first part of the choosing is obviously Jesus dying on the cross to atone for your rebellion. But after that, God carefully reveals himself to the sheep. And then there is the guidance that helps the sheep to avoid destroying himself with sin. If the sheep makes mistakes, the good shepherd has already laid down his life to pay for them. This is a lot of effort being put into this rescue operation. It’s difficult for people who have never experienced grace to realize how real and life-transforming it is. For those who have not experienced it, I really recommend that you pray to God, in the name of Jesus, and ask him to give you grace.

There are still things in my life where God has decided that he is not going to fix it. And, strangely enough, that doesn’t make me disloyal to him at all. Why not? Well, you have to read the Bible and understand that Jesus was not spared from suffering or death in his loyal obedience to God. He wasn’t given everything he wanted to feel happy all the time. When you understand that this is the character of your shepherd, then it’s much easier for you to put up with the things you lack, too.

Don’t dismiss best practices for Christian living as “legalism” and “denying grace”

Telling a woman how to make wise decisions protects her
Telling a woman how to make wise decisions protects her

On Sunday, I listened to a very interesting discussion between Sean McDowell and Jessica van der Wyngaard on Justin Brierley’s Unbelievable show. The topic was on the pros and cons of purity culture. I didn’t know a thing about “purity culture”, and had never read any books about it. I didn’t really disagree with anyone on the podcast, but I did want to say something about it in a blog post.

Description:

20 years ago Joshua Harris was the poster boy of the evangelical ‘purity movement’ having authored the bestselling book ‘I Kissed Dating Goodbye’. Today, Harris regrets writing the book, and has also recently changed his mind about Christianity.

Justin is joined by Jessica van der Wyngaard, director of the documentary film ‘I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye’, and Christian apologist Sean McDowell, to discuss purity culture, singleness and the Joshua Harris story.

The MP3 file is here.

First, here’s a brief summary of what everyone said on the podcast:

  • JW: the book urged people to give up dating in favor of courting and suggested other rules that would guarantee a successful marriage to your soul-mate
  • JW: some of the rules proposed by the book were not Biblical
  • JW: I’m not a virgin and I’m in early-30s, but I accept that we should teach what the Bible says about abstinence
  • SM: purity culture is the idea that if you remain sexually pure, God will give you a spouse and bless you in the future
  • SM: purity culture is the idea that if you have premarital sex, you will be tainted forever
  • SM: I’m afraid that those reacting against purity culture will build a sexual ethic solely based on their shame, their hurt, their concern about legalism, and this will not help the next generation
  • SM: let’s have a balanced Biblical approach to sexuality instead
  • SM: there is scientific data to back up the Bible’s teaching that marriages work better when sex occurs only within a marriage
  • SM: it’s a mistake to define your spiritual standing based on whether you are a virgin or not
  • SM: following the Bible’s rules for sexuality is an important part of discipleship
  • SM: the Bible is replete with examples of people restoring their standing before God through forgiveness and redemption

Right now, we are living in a secular culture where people are hooking up, having premarital sex, living together, and breaking up far more often than in the past. There is this pattern of choosing partners based on secular criteria: outward appearance and ability to entertain. And this approach to dating – choosing people for the wrong reasons, and trying to force a commitment using premarital sex – is now common practice, even among Christians.

I think people should have a plan to counter this trend that’s realistic and guided by studies and evidence. For example, studies show that people who have no sexual partners before marriage are more likely to still be married 10 years later. Studies show that cohabitation negatively impacts the stability of a future marriage. It’s difficult to accept that this is the way the world is, but if a stable marriage is a goal for you, then you should care about the best practices for having a stable marriage.

Take a different example. Suppose you have a lot of shame and bad feelings over having run up $90,000 of student loans. Now your retirement will be much more difficult. The answer to these feelings of shame is not to say that you can invoke “grace” and that will make everything OK. It won’t. It might help you to make better decisions going forward, but that debt is going to affect your future spouse, your future marriage and your future children.

There are real costs to these behaviors for your future, and being forgiven through Jesus’ atonement isn’t going to instantly make the effects of those choices disappear. It’s good to warn young people about these costs. It’s also good to help people who have made mistakes undo the damage by investing in them. I don’t want us to throw out evidence-based best practices as “legalism”, because they help us to reach the discipleship goals specified for us in the Bible.

The goals of the Bible (e.g. – not aborting, not divorcing) are good goals. If we find out from science that premarital promiscuity or cohabitation reduce our odds of achieving that goal, then it’s a mistake to dismiss that evidence because it make us feel bad about our past. It’s not legalism to investigate evidence and consult wise advisors in order to choose how best to achieve goals like marriage. That’s actually being wise.  Making good decisions doesn’t give you the right to be proud and compare yourself to others, but it is good to make good decisions for yourself, and to share your reasoning with those who ask you.

I agree with the speakers that purity culture is wrong to promise people a happy marriage if they only keep their virginity. That’s just the prosperity gospel, and it really is not a Biblical view of the Christian life.

People who choose to have premarital sex haven’t separated themselves from marriage. But studies indicate that they have damaged the stability of their future marriage if they do nothing to counteract the effects of their choices. And I think there is more to counteracting these bad effects than just stating to your partner “Jesus forgives me, so you can’t judge me”. The focus of the “no-rules because I feel ashamed” crowd doesn’t seem to be on taking the damage seriously and fixing it. Their focus seems to be on not being judged.

I don’t think that a cursory response (“don’t judge me!”) is adequate to undo the damage from premarital sex. But if a person is willing to be honest about their past, and put in the work to understand the effects of premarital sex on their future marriage, renew their minds, and re-establishing their bonding ability, then they should be able to fully counteract the damage. I have met people who have done this, and you can see in their choices and lifestyle that there’s been a complete turning against their former use of sex for fun and attention and self-esteem. It’s not “idolizing virginity and idolizing marriage” to look at the data, and make choices that are likely to lead to a stable marriage.

How should we respond to doubts and challenges to Christian beliefs or practices?

The tracks are out ahead, and Spider-Man has to save the day
The tracks are out ahead, but Spider-Man arrives just in time to save the day!

Something happened this week that really provided the watching non-Christian world with a good example of what it means to be an authentic Christian. It was such a good story, that I shared it with my non-Christian co-workers. They were so impressed that they asked me to go to lunch with them so they could tell me why they abandoned their faiths after being raised Christian.

The story starts with a famous Christian musician named Marty Sampsons expressing doubts about Christianity, because he was exposed to challenges to his faith, and not getting any answers from people in the church. Instead, when he expressed his doubts, people who had formerly treated him very well started to insult him and post condemning Bible verses on his Instagram. Instead of listening to his questions, and actually putting in some effort to craft a plan and where everyone could work together, his critics just refused to learn anything or do anything with him to work on the problem.

To be honest, this is often what church people do when they are confronted with challenging thoughts or behaviors. In my office, one of my co-workers who had been raised in the church and then left it in college asked me “what did you expect? People leave the church all the time because this is how Christian parents and church people respond to doubts and challenges. They insult you, drag up everything personal that you ever told them, and slander you to other people. It’s a hate mob. They specialize in being judgmental. They don’t put in any effort to actually solve the problem. And that’s exactly why people DON’T go to church.” He actually used the word “unchristian” to describe church-trained Christians who responded to Mary Sampsons.

I have to admit, my co-worker had a point. I’ve experienced the unwillingness of Christians to take doubts and challenges seriously myself. When I express concerns about whether the church is preparing young people for the challenges of college, the church parents and leaders always stand above me, and reply with Bible verses, sermons, commands, judgments or worse. They don’t want to get down into the trenches and work with me to solve the problem. And there’s always the offer to “pray about it”. That response seems to just dump every problem on God. What I’d really like to see is people in the church who interrupt their happy lives in order to do something self-sacrificially with the people who have the challenges, in order to solve the problem.

Most of the people who responded to Marty Sampsons on his Instagram were not effective to solve the actual problem. But there were two exceptions.

CBN had the story:

Two Christian apologists have reached out with some helpful ideas for Marty Sampson, the former worship leader and songwriter for Hillsong Worship who publicly announced he was struggling to believe anymore.

Using their online platforms, they’re offering resources to assist the singer. Apologist and author William Lane Craig made Sampson the subject of his Aug. 26 podcast titled A Musician Struggles With His Faith. In the 23-minute program, Craig answers Sampson’s questions dealing with his doubts about the Christian faith.

[…][Dr.] Craig also recommended for fellow believers to support Sampson in his search for the answers to his questions, instead of blasting him with judgmental comments.

“Now is not the time for condemnation and criticism,” Craig told his listeners. “Now is the time to say, ‘Here are some resources that can help you in your search, and I’ll come alongside you and help you as I can.'”

Craig is a research professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology and a professor of philosophy at Houston Baptist University and the founder of the ministry Reasonable Faith.

Likewise, apologist and author Mike Licona and his wife, Debbie, posted a YouTube video in which they discuss Sampson’s questions for those Christians who may find themselves doubting their faith. In the 38-minute video, the couple talks about several books and other resources for people to use.

In the video, Licona, associate professor in theology at Houston Baptist University and the president of the ministry Risen Jesus, said the questions “are difficult questions, and they’re deserving of thoughtful, reasonable answers.”

Debbie Licona, the wife of famous evidential Christian apologist Michael Licona, also arranged a discussion between two Christian scholars and an atheist scholar about the resurrection.

And here’s why this was the right thing to do:

  1. Marty felt edified by the Debbie-arranged discussion, and he was not insulted by it. It was certainly much more practical and thoughtful than the responses on his Instagram, where some Christians just posted Bible verses threatening him with Hell.
  2. The right way to engage a non-Christian is always self-sacrificial love. If you are taking your time, money and effort to think of a plan, and then self-sacrificially invest in that person co-operatively, then you are doing love the right way. Debbie’s approach is correct because she is putting in work in order to get involved in the other person’s life from alongside them, not standing over them.
  3. Debbie’s approach follows the evidence-focused model in the Bible. God is always having his prophets or his Son use evidence to confirm their claims to non-believers. Just think of Moses and Pharaoh, or Elijah on Mount Carmel, or Jesus with the healing of the paralytic or the resurrection.
  4. Salvation is a gift from God. God is the General who is in charge of the overall effort to save someone from their rebellion against him. Individual Christians are just some of the tools he uses to achieve his aims. Outcomes are none of our business. Our business is to pursue his goals for other people in a manner that is consistent with Christ’s example of self-denial, self-sacrifice, humility and use of evidence.

So, the next time someone asks you questions about Christianity, or refuses to go to church, or whatever, you need to remember who you are working for, and respond like Debbie did. Don’t act in a way that pushes them further away from God. Take challenges to Christian belief and practice seriously. Control your tongue. Read books. Invest yourself. Come alongside the challenger, and solve the problem co-operatively.