Today, I want to say something this article about lambs in Scotland, written by Sheila Walsh in the The Stream.
I am very fond of sheep. I grew up on the west coast of Scotland with sheep all around me, field after field of white wool and incessant crying when things seemed a little off.
[…]Of all the lessons I have learned from these defenseless, gentle animals, the most profound is the most painful. Every now and then, a ewe will give birth to a lamb and immediately reject it. Sometimes the lamb is rejected because they are one of twins and the mother doesn’t have enough milk or she is old and frankly quite tired of the whole business. They call those lambs, bummer lambs.
Unless the shepherd intervenes, that lamb will die. So the shepherd will take that little lost one into his home and hand feed it from a bottle and keep it warm by the fire. He will wrap it up warm and hold it close enough to hear a heartbeat. When the lamb is strong the shepherd will place it back in the field with the rest of the flock.
“Off you go now, you can do this, I’m right here.”
The most beautiful sight to see is when the shepherd approaches his flock in the morning and calls them out, “Sheep, sheep, sheep!”
The first to run to him are the bummer lambs because they know his voice. It’s not that they are more loved — it’s just that they believe it.
I am so grateful that Christ calls himself the Good Shepherd.
“He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. After he has gathered his own flock, he walks ahead of them, and they follow him because they know his voice.” (John 10:3-4 NLT)
My older brother and I grew up with a mother who was very much focused on her career and earning and saving money for her retirement. We were both stuck in daycare very early after being born, so that she could go back to work right away. (Me after 6 weeks) My older brother has shown the ill effects of our parents (especially our mother) not having any plan for us, especially morally and spiritually. He dropped out of college after failing his first year, never had a career. Although he has normal intelligence and mental health, he never could stick in any real job.
Although there were early warning signs when his grades started to drop in Grade 5, my parents never took responsibility to make a plan to solve it. Oh, they would yell and scream at him at report card time, but just for a day or two, and after that, nothing constructive. My brother decided that he could just ride out the flak my parents gave him on report card night, and keep going with his plan of having fun and being popular. My parents just forgot about it until the next report card day, because they did not want to be distracted from their careers, hobbies and retirement planning. When dispensing rewards, my brother was always given the same as me, despite our different levels of achievement. And my parents considered this equal dispensation of rewards regardless of performance to be a great virtue, and excellent parenting.
I had the exact same upbringing as my older brother. He actually did pretty well until Grade 5 just like me, but then our paths diverged. From Grade 5 on, his grades deterioriated. He got tired of having to study and he was more interested in the opinions of his peers and conforming to popular culture. In my case, from Grade 5 on, my grades were always high-90s. I remember taking the same classes as he did, in the same high school, with the same teachers. He got a 44 in data processing, I got a 96 with the same teacher and won the award for the entire grade. Every class I went to, the teachers would speak fondly of my older brother – he was a nice guy, very popular with his peers, good at sports. But not a very good student. How was it that I was winning awards when he had scored so poorly. Was I really his brother? How could we be so different?
The difference is that in Grade 5, he got a Gideon’s New Testament and he read it and he didn’t put it into practice, and in Grade 5, I got a Gideon’s New Testament and I read it twice and I did put it into practice. That was the difference. I had the awareness of the moral law (i.e.- wisdom) that allowed me to judge my parents and judge my peers and judge my teachers and stand alone. When you cannot rely on anyone to lead you, be able to judge when others mistreat you is very important. That is what allows you to maintain appropriate boundaries and minimize the influence of friends and family who are teaching you self-destructive behaviors. Awareness of the moral law is what allows you to stop trying to please people who do not want what is best for you. On the other hand, God is always willing to give you wisdom if you ask Him for it, and you can find out all about him because he has left plenty of evidence concerning his existence and character for you to find. It is in knowing God as he really is that you can find your sense of value, purpose and meaning. The God of the New Testament is the God of people who are lost and need a Savior.
For me, Christianity was a simple matter of being willing to go along with what was true, and not insisting on having fun or conforming to peer expectations. The essential characteristic of my faith, in contrast to my older brother’s lack of faith, was this – I did not mind being different, so long as I never lost a debate about what was true. My obedience to Christ has never been conditional on things going my way, on being liked, or anything like that. The only thing that mattered was being factually correct. It never bothered me what other people were doing, or what other people expected me to do, so long as I was acting on what I knew to be true. And God helped me to find out what was true by motivating me to study, and leading me to him with good evidence, and good mentors. Thanks to Jesus’ death on the cross, the mistakes I made early did not count against me, and they never will. Jesus’ death on the cross gives me the imputed righteousness that I need to stand before God holy and blameless. This is what allows me to keep learning and keep trying no matter how much I fail on any given day.
How has this affected me? Well, this is the second thing I wanted to say about the bummer lamb analogy. Since I was a victim of this hands-off, me-first style of parenting, it’s caused me to be extra sensitive about being a good spiritual leader to others in the same predicament. The people I mentor can see it in the way that I treat them . I treat them the opposite of the way that my older brother and I were treated. I care what people read. I care what courses they choose. I care what they eat. I care how they feel. I care about their finances. I care about their plans to serve God. I care about their romantic relationships. I care whether they get recognition for doing good. I care whether their life is going in the right direction. One person I mentored who once considered taking her own life wrote to me when she graduated from a STEM program, and she said this: “I wish you could have been here at my graduation. My parents only paid for this degree. You were the one who got me through it”. We have never met in person, but she is going to continue to make a huge difference for Christ and His Kingdom going forward.
I think when you have been a bummer lamb, you are extra careful to make decisions that will enable you to be a good shepherd to other lambs. Being a good shepherd does not mean being pious, spiritual, mystical, etc. Being a good shepherd does not mean making the lambs feel good about making bad decisions. Being a good shepherd means understanding what God has done to lead you, and then reflecting that love back to others in practical, self-sacrificial actions that solve actual real-world problems for other people who want to know and serve God. If you are about to jump off a cliff, the last thing you need is someone with no wisdom or experience telling you that God is OK with you doing whatever feels good to you. What you need is someone practical and competent to give you good advice, however much that advice may make you feel bad, or block your pursuit of fun.
One of my friends proof-read the draft of this post and told me that it made her think of 2 Cor 1:3-5:
3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort,
4 who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.
5 For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.“
Nothing else I do in life matters to me as much as taking care of the people I mentor, especially the ones who are lost and lacking guidance and care. I have good health, good education, good career, and great finances. But by far the most important thing I do is following the example of the Shepherd by caring for other lambs.
I sometimes hear this odd objection that the books that were to be included in the Bible were not decided until the 4th century. I think it comes from some Hollywood movie, or maybe a TV show. Anyway, this post should help fix that myth.
One of the key data points in any discussion of canon is something called the Muratorian fragment (also known as the Muratorian canon). This fragment, named after its discoverer Ludovico Antonio Muratori, contains our earliest list of the books in the New Testament. While the fragment itself dates from the 7th or 8th century, the list it contains was originally written in Greek and dates back to the end of the second century (c.180).
[…]What is noteworthy for our purposes here is that the Muratorian fragment affirms 22 of the 27 books of the New Testament. These include the four Gospels, Acts, all 13 epistles of Paul, Jude, 1 John, 2 John (and possibly 3rd John), and Revelation. This means that at a remarkably early point (end of the second century), the central core of the New Testament canon was already established and in place.
Although there is still dispute about some books, that does not negate the fact that the main books we use (the gospels, Acts, the letters of Paul) are all considered to be canon by 180 A.D., much before any famous church councils ever happened. And those books were decided on because they were in widespread use and respected by everyone.
What about the books that were in dispute? Do they throw any core doctrines into doubt?
Second, if there was a core collection of New Testament books, then the theological trajectory of early Christianity had already been determined prior to the debates about the peripheral books being resolved. So, regardless of the outcome of discussion over books like 2 Peter or James, Christianity’s core doctrines of the person of Christ, the work of Christ, the means of salvation, etc., were already in place and already established. The acceptance or rejection of books like 2 Peter would not change that fact.
By the way, I’d actually heard that the date for this fragment was 170 A.D., so it might even be earlier than Dr. Krueger says.
I did search around a bit for something to break the tie between me and Krueger, because I couldn’t remember my source for the date. I found this book “Jesus, Gospel Tradition and Paul in the Context of Jewish and Greco-Roman Antiquity” by David E. Aune, and he writes on p. 22:
The four Gospels are also referred to in the Canon Muratorianus, a seventh or eighth century manuscript originally translated from Greek into a deponent form of Latin and widely regarded as having been produced ca. 170 CE. Though the beginning of this canonical list is fragmentary (though obviously referring to Mark), the first two clear references to New Testament books are to Luke and John (lines 2, 9): tertio euangelii librum secando Lucan guard evangeliorutn lohannis ex decipolis.” (“The third book of the Gospel is that according to Luke … The fourth of the Gospels is that of John, [one) of the disciples”).
So, that’s why the date in the title of this post is 170 A.D., and not the later 180 A.D. he mentions. And that’s why there’s no reason to be skeptical that the Bible we have today is any different than the Bible that everybody in the early church had.
Have you ever heard Gary Habermas, Michael Licona or William Lane Craig defend the resurrection of Jesus in a debate by saying that the resurrection is the best explanation for the “minimal facts” about Jesus? The lists of minimal facts that they use are typically agreed to by their opponents during the debates. Minimal facts are the parts of the New Testament that meet a set of strict historical criteria. These are the facts that skeptical historians agree with, totally apart from any religious beliefs.
So what are the criteria that skeptical historians use to derive a list of minimal facts about Jesus?
The other way, more influential in contemporary New Testament scholarship, is to establish specific facts about Jesus without assuming the general reliability of the Gospels. The key here are the so-called “Criteria of Authenticity” which enable us to establish specific sayings or events in Jesus’ life as historical. Scholars involved in the quest of the historical Jesus have enunciated a number of these critieria for detecting historically authentic features of Jesus, such as dissimilarity to Christian teaching, multiple attestation, linguistic semitisms, traces of Palestinian milieu, retention of embarrassing material, coherence with other authentic material, and so forth.
It is somewhat misleading to call these “criteria,” for they aim at stating sufficient, not necessary, conditions of historicity. This is easy to see: suppose a saying is multiply attested and dissimilar but not embarrassing. If embarrassment were a necessary condition of authenticity, then the saying would have to be deemed inauthentic, which is wrong-headed, since its multiple attestation and dissimilarity are sufficient for authenticity. Of course, the criteria are defeasible, meaning that they are not infallible guides to authenticity. They might be better called “Indications of Authenticity” or “Signs of Credibility.”
In point of fact, what the criteria really amount to are statements about the effect of certain types of evidence upon the probability of various sayings or events in Jesus’ life. For some saying or event S and evidence of a certain type E, the criteria would state that, all things being equal, the probability of S given E is greater than the probability of S on our background knowledge alone. So, for example, all else being equal, the probability of some event or saying is greater given its multiple attestation than it would have been without it.
What are some of the factors that might serve the role of E in increasing the probability of some saying or event S? The following are some of the most important:
(1) Historical congruence: S fits in with known historical facts concerning the context in which S is said to have occurred.
(2) Independent, early attestation: S appears in multiple sources which are near to the time at which S is alleged to have occurred and which depend neither upon each other nor a common source.
(3) Embarrassment: S is awkward or counter-productive for the persons who serve as the source of information for S.
(4) Dissimilarity: S is unlike antecedent Jewish thought-forms and/or unlike subsequent Christian thought-forms.
(5) Semitisms: traces in the narrative of Aramaic or Hebrew linguistic forms.
(6) Coherence: S is consistent with already established facts about Jesus.
For a good discussion of these factors see Robert Stein, “The ‘Criteria’ for Authenticity,” in Gospel PerspectivesI, ed. R. T. France and David Wenham (Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, 1980), pp. 225-63.
Notice that these “criteria” do not presuppose the general reliability of the Gospels. Rather they focus on a particular saying or event and give evidence for thinking that specific element of Jesus’ life to be historical, regardless of the general reliability of the document in which the particular saying or event is reported. These same “criteria” are thus applicable to reports of Jesus found in the apocryphal Gospels, or rabbinical writings, or even the Qur’an. Of course, if the Gospels can be shown to be generally reliable documents, so much the better! But the “criteria” do not depend on any such presupposition. They serve to help spot historical kernels even in the midst of historical chaff. Thus we need not concern ourselves with defending the Gospels’ every claim attributed to Jesus in the gospels; the question will be whether we can establish enough about Jesus to make faith in him reasonable.
And you can see Dr. Craig using these criteria to defend minimal facts in his debates. For example, in his debate with Ehrman, he alludes to the criteria when making his case for the empty tomb.
Here, he uses multiple attestation and the criteria of embarrassment:
Among the reasons which have led most scholars to this conclusion are the following:
1. The empty tomb is also multiply attested by independent, early sources.
Mark’s source didn’t end with the burial, but with the story of the empty tomb, which is tied to the burial story verbally and grammatically. Moreover, Matthew and John have independent sources about the empty tomb; it’s also mentioned in the sermons in the Acts of the Apostles (2.29; 13.36); and it’s implied by Paul in his first letter to the Corinthian church (I Cor. 15.4). Thus, we have again multiple, early, independent attestation of the fact of the empty tomb.
2. The tomb was discovered empty by women.
In patriarchal Jewish society the testimony of women was not highly regarded. In fact, the Jewish historian Josephus says that women weren’t even permitted to serve as witnesses in a Jewish court of law. Now in light of this fact, how remarkable it is that it is women who are the discoverers of Jesus’ empty tomb. Any later legendary account would certainly have made male disciples like Peter and John discover the empty tomb. The fact that it is women, rather than men, who are the discoverers of the empty tomb is best explained by the fact that they were the chief witnesses to the fact of the empty tomb, and the Gospel writers faithfully record what, for them, was an awkward and embarrassing fact.
There are actually a few more reasons for believing in the empty tomb that he doesn’t go into in the debate, but you can find them in his written work. For example, in his essay on Gerd Ludemann’s “vision” hypothesis. That essay covers the reasons for all four of his minimal facts.
So, if you are going to talk about the resurrection with a skeptic, you don’t want to invoke the Bible as some sort of inerrant/inspired Holy Book.
Try this approach instead:
Explain the criteria that historians use to get their lists of minimal facts
Explain your list of minimal facts
Defend your list of minimal facts using the criteria
Cite skeptics who admit to each of your minimal facts, to show that they are widely accepted
List some parts of the Bible that don’t pass the criteria (e.g. – guard at the tomb, Matthew earthquake)
Explain why those parts don’t pass the criteria, and explain that they are not part of your case
Challenge your opponent to either deny some or all the facts, or propose a naturalistic alternative that explains the facts better than the resurrection
Don’t let your opponent attack any of your minimal facts by attacking other parts of the Bible (e.g. – the number of angels being one or two, etc.)
And remember that there is no good case for the resurrection that does not make heavy use of the early creed in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8.
The best essay on the minimal facts criteria that I’ve read is the one by Robert H. Stein in “Contending with Christianity’s Critics“. It’s a good short essay that goes over all the historical criteria that are used to derive the short list of facts from which we infer the conclusion “God raised Jesus from the dead”. That whole book is really very, very good.
Mike Licona is one of my favorite Christian historians, and so I’m happy to feature a lecture where he answers questions about the four gospels. He explains why the four biographies in the New Testament should be accepted as historically accurate: (55 minutes)
What a Baltimore Ravens helmet teaches us about the importance of truth
What happens to Christians when they go off to university?
The 2007 study on attitudes of American professors to evangelical Christians
Authors: Who wrote the gospels?
Bias: Did the bias of the authors cause them to distort history?
Contradictions: What about the different descriptions of events in the gospels?
Dating: When were the gospels written?
Eyewitnesses: Do the gospel accounts go back to eyewitness testimony?
This is basic training for Christians. They ought to show this lecture whenever new people show up, because pastors should not quote the Bible until everyone listening has this information straight.