Thursday, January 16, 2014

More People Who Have Issues...

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed (1 Corinthians 15: 1-11).

Dr. Reza Aslan, The author of the New York Times best seller, "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth" was the subject of a "straight from the horse's mouth" interview on Issues ETC the other day (you can listen to the interview HERE). What that means, is that the host, Rev. Todd Wilken, asks his guest probing questions so that they can clearly and concisely lay out their ideas for the listener. These interviews are often painful for the confessional listener, as Rev. Wilken often does not dispute the obvious points of contention with Christian theology in the guest's answers, but they do provide a valuable service. These types of interviews allow Christians to hear just what their detractors in the media and academia, in their own words and in no uncertain terms, think of them.

People see a book like "Zealot" on the shelf and think that it's something it's not. They see a picture of Jesus, a NYT bestseller sticker, and a PhD's name on the cover and think this is some new scholarship regarding Jesus, or the Bible, or Christian theology. What they get instead is 200 year old liberal theology that has one heck of an axe to grind against all of those things.

The Higher criticism method of biblical interpretation, also called Historical Criticism, was a development of liberal theologians over the past 200 years or so, and examines scriptural writings like witnesses in a court of law. It developed out of the the Tübingen School in Germany and can claim Friedrich Schleiermacher, the "father of liberal theology" as a foundation-layer. Scripture, using this method, must be “interrogated” and evaluated primarily according to human reason. Therefore, anything supernatural - such as Jesus rising from the dead - must be discounted, because the dead do not rise. Following this method, scripture is treated as any other human writings, subject to human failings. Higher criticism gives the individual interpreter, not Holy Scripture, ultimate authority and is incompatible with the “Sola Scriptura” principle of Lutheranism.

During the interview Dr. Aslan made three basic points: 1) the ancient mind did not have the same conception of history as the modern mind, 2) the Gospel writers (whoever they really were) intended to convey "truth", not "fact", and 3) the gospels were written long after the life and death of Jesus and are unreliable as historical documents.

That sounds quite scholarly and groundbreaking on the face of it, but it's really the same thing that the disciples of the Higher Criticism method off biblical interpretation have been saying for 200 years. Basically, they're trying to get people to believe that 1) the early Christians didn't care about the facts of the events they experienced, only their "beliefs", 2) they lied about what they wrote, and 3) the gospels weren't written by their purported authors, but developed as mythology written, not by individuals, but by communities of Christian believers well after the fact.

For example, Dr. Aslan claimed as undisputed fact the late date of the gospels. He stated during the interview that Mark's gospel was written in the 90's AD "for a fact". To the contrary, serious biblical scholars don't even consider a date later than the 70's AD for Mark. D. A. Carson, Douglas Moo, and Leon Morris in their work, "An Introduction to the New Testament", believe that the bulk of the evidence put Mark in the late 50's to middle 60's.

Mark, then is to be dated either in the late fifties or the middle sixties. While the latter is the majority view, we favor the late fifties. Indeed, we are required to date Mark before A.D. 60 if our assumptions about the ending of Acts and the priority of Mark are valid...Dating Mark in the fifties does go against the earliest traditions about Mark having been written after the death of Peter. But other traditions affirm that Mark wrote while Peter was still alive, so the early evidence is by no means unanimous on the subject (Carson, et. al., 1992).

And what of the gospels authorship? The gospel of Mark is anonymous, as are the others. The title was probably added later, certainly by the second century, to distinguish it from the others. Early church fathers such as Papias wrote that Mark was Peter's interpreter, and got the majority of his information from him.

Mark's connection with the second gospel is asserted or assumed by many early Christian writers. Perhaps the earliest (and certainly the most important) of the testimonies is that of Papias, who was bishop of Hierapolis in Phrygia of Asia Minor until about A.D. 130. His statement about the second gospel is recorded in Eusebius's History of the Church (Historia Ecclesiastica), written in 325...Those who are skeptical of the reliability of Papias conclude that the author of the gospel is unknown. Yet, as we have seen, there is nothing in the New Testament that is inconsistent with Papias's claim that Mark wrote the second gospel. And since we have no indication that anyone in the early church contested Papias's claim, we see no reason not to accept it (Carson, et. al., 1992).

To the Higher Critics, however, none of this information matters. The testimony of the early church fathers doesn't matter. The actual historical context and content of the gospels doesn't matter. The actual words written on the page do not matter. None of these things matter because, to the Higher Critics, the gospel writers lied about what they wrote. Supernatural things are impossible and, therefore, discounted as mere mythological elements to express and explain the spiritual "truth" that the gospel writers were trying to convey. They did this, the author contends, because the Apostles had to invent a new interpretation of what the Jewish Messiah was so that they didn't look like fools. After all, their leader Jesus failed in his attempt to establish an independent kingdom of Israel, just like all the other zealots before him.

This is a far cry from the method of interpretation used by those who respect Holy Scripture as the revealed word of God. Using the Historical-Grammatical method of biblical interpretation an interpreter seeks the native, literal, or intended sense of the text, derives the meaning from the text and allows Scripture to interpret itself. In order to discern God’s intended meaning, the Scriptures must be read as historical, literary documents. This method of interpretation seeks the meaning of scripture in the text itself, not from some special revelation or extra-biblical source. The interpreter must also recognize that the Holy Scripture is the written word of God – not a primarily human witness to revelation, and thus not subject to human failings. In the historical –grammatical approach, the interpreter must always remember that scripture, like our Lord, has two natures – the human and the divine – and has them equally and fully.

The thing is, if supernatural things are impossible, if the gospel writers - for whatever purpose - lied, if Jesus didn't rise from the dead, I'm not really interested in what the gospels have to say, or who the "historical" Jesus is. St. Paul felt the same way:

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied (1 Corinthians 15:12-19).

We could argue with men like Dr. Reza Aslan all day, and none of it would make any difference because, as he admitted in the interview, Dr. Aslan is not a Christian and does not believe that Jesus of Nazareth was God incarnate. That's fine. As Christians all we can do is be patient, endure evil, and correct our opponents with gentleness so that, as St. Paul writes to Timothy, "God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will" (2Timothy 2:24-26).

The Gospels, however, are not simply some collection of mystical writings which have no real relationship to history. They do not convey some vague spiritual "truth" at the expense of historical fact. They have been demonstrated, time and again to be reliable.

I am not a great theologian or biblical scholar, though I am interested in and do study such things with great eagerness (Incidentally, if you'd like to hear a world class apologist and theologian, Dr. John Warwick Montgomery, respond to Dr. Aslan's interview, you can listen HERE.). There have been many men, more eloquent and better educated than I, who have written to explain, from a scholarly point of view, why we can have confidence in the historical accuracy and overall reliability of both the Old and New Testaments. I could not begin to do those men justice by trying to encapsulate their ideas here. I trust what they say about the number of New Testament manuscripts available to compare for accuracy (over 5,000 to date). I believe their theories, based on scholarly research and evidence, that the Gospels were not written by "communities" of Christians who were trying to justify their faith in a failed zealot, but are reliable historical accounts of what Jesus did and said, as St. Luke claims in his own writings. I accept their evidence showing that, rather than developing over the period of 70 or more years after Jesus crucification, the belief in Jesus' resurrection was proclaimed from the beginning of Christianity, from the time his disciples found the empty tomb. If someone wants to hear the scholars speak on these, and other important issues, the volumes are widely, and inexpensively, available (I would recommend, "The Case For Christ" by Lee Strobel as a starting place for those who wish to introduce themselves into this kind of scholarship).

No, I am moved by the words of St. Paul quoted previously, "And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins." In his letter to the Corinthians St. Paul talks about the things which he and his fellow believers had seen and heard. They claimed to be witnesses of the resurrected Christ. Paul wrote his letters while those who knew and interacted with Jesus were still alive, as he himself testifies. Certainly, if he had been making up the gospel of Christ crucified and risen from the dead as the atoning sacrifice for mankind's sin out of whole cloth, someone who knew the real truth would have opposed him. Someone would have pointed the finger at the fledgling group of Christians for changing their story. No one did. Paul, a die-hard opponent of Christianity bent on murdering it's adherents turned Apostle "untimely born", was opposed by the Jews for teaching contrary to the teachings of the the rabbis and Judaism by proclaiming Christ as Messiah, and atoning sacrifice for sin.

There is no logical explanation for the mass conversion of 3,000 people in Jerusalem on Pentecost if what they heard preached was false. There is no logical reason for the apostles who, with the exception of St. John, suffered martyrdom in some of the most horrible ways that could be devised by the depraved human mind, to keep on professing a lie at the cost of their lives, simply to save face. They were crucified, beheaded, shot with arrows, thrown to wild beasts in the arena, burned alive and used as torches along the road. These horrors were sanctioned by the governing authorities and could have been averted by a simple denial of what they confessed. The Apostles, and scores of martyrs after them, were compelled by the Spirit to listen to God rather than men. The Holy Spirit had created faith in them; though it could not be proven by logic or reason, what they – and we – profess is true (according to the legitimate meaning of the word). Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

Works Cited

Carson, D. A., Douglas J. Moo, and Leon Morris. An Introduction to the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992. Print.

Engelbrecht, Edward, and Paul E. Deterding. The Lutheran Study Bible: English Standard Version. Saint Louis: Concordia Pub. House, 2009. Print.