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All the Gospel accounts disagree with one another!

26 Mar

Sometimes when I’m speaking with people who are moderately to well-informed about the New Testament, they bring up some of the seeming discrepancies in the Gospel accounts. The objection is raised by pointing to two Gospel accounts of the same narrative and noting the differences. This is sometimes easily explainable and sometimes very difficult to make sense of. I am convinced that there are no actual contradictions in these accounts and that those who wish to invest the time studying them will come to a similar conclusion. These examples will specifically focus on the Resurrection narratives in homage to Easter – but the idea holds for all of the Gospels.

I won’t tackle every single issue that exists because that is beyond the scope of this blog. Instead I’ll cover some of the basic types of objection as well as a general response when dealing with this sort of thing.

X mentions _____ and Y doesn’t!

Someone might mention that Jesus appears to two disciples on the road then to the eleven in Luke’s account, but he appears to women at his tomb in all the other accounts. Luke records the women encountering the empty tomb just like everyone else, but choses to describe Jesus’ appearance on the road to Emmaus instead of his appearance at the tomb. We can’t be sure why he does this, perhaps for theological reasons, but it doesn’t exclude a tomb appearance by Jesus. In the same vein, if I mention that Bobby, Joe and Suzy were at the party, that doesn’t mean LeBron and Dwyane weren’t at the party unless I also claim that my list of attendees is exhaustive.

Seriously, who saw what? And can we determine once and for all if Legos were involved?

Seriously, who saw what? And can we determine once and for all if Legos were involved?

X mentions ____ and Y mentions _____ (different thing!)

Who saw Jesus first? Mary Magdalene, the eleven, the eleven minus Thomas, and two disciples on the road are all options. This variation falls prey to the same response as our last objection. The Gospel authors focused on different aspects of the same narrative, sometimes for theological reasons and sometimes in order to communicate more effectively with their intended audience.

X and Y contradict one another clearly!

There aren’t as many objections that claim this, but generally they require a nuanced answer and specific study. A simple example would be the women’s reactions as they leave the empty tomb of Jesus. Each account records different emotions: fear, joy, grief over the stolen body, and no emotion recorded by Luke. I recommend inviting your friend to study the alleged contradiction with you, getting academic resources from both sides of the debate. Most of us will not be able to make sense of these alleged contradictions offhand, so an invitation to study is a great response: it shows commitment, interest, and humility.

At this point it would be worth reminding your friend that it would be more reasonable to be skeptical of texts that aligned 100%. Even if an event is fresh in the mind of an eyewitness, different vantage points offer different perspectives. If the accounts all read exactly the same we would be suspicious that they were not four separate accounts (as claimed and believed) but one account, possibly forged. The accounts agree on the majority of the information presented and they all harmonize perfectly concerning the major points: Jesus’ virgin birth, his divine identity, his miraculous ministry, his death and resurrection. Again, because the perspectives are different we should expect the accounts to differ – but push for investigating whether or not the accounts contradict one another or if they simply seem to.

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You’re a Christian because you’re American!

21 Mar

This post will conclude the series examining some recent interactions I had on Facebook. The first two are here and here. One of the objections that cropped up in several forms (and also appeared in the comments section of a recent post) has to do with the sociological causes of belief. In his book “Why Should Anyone Believe Anything at All?” James sire distinguishes between reasons for belief and causes. When asked to explain why people believe what they do, most people respond with things like family, culture, place of birth, etc. Sire believes that these aren’t reasons at all, they are causes. Here is one of the comments from the thread last week: muhrica son

The objection here is less severe than the objection from my comments section the other day (“Why are you a Christian? Because you were born in America.”) The objection isn’t actually on the surface, it’s implied; the logic looks like this:

1)      There are many religions, each dominant in different parts of the world

2)      Each religion claims it is the correct path to God

3)      Therefore, thinking you are on the correct path to God is a product of where you are born.

american-jesus

Jesus loves everyone, Americans included; but he isn’t from here guys…sorry.

Another subtle and more insidious assumption is that we have no way to discern religious knowledge: it’s assumed such a thing doesn’t exist! The sheer fact of a plurality of religions is seen as a trump card which proves that none of them could be right. However, just because people disagree on something doesn’t mean that both of them must be wrong.

My reply has always been that while people’s religious affiliation is caused by their sociological circumstances, they are free to accept or reject this. This happens frequently as there are plenty of Christians in Africa, Muslims in London and Buddhists in the United States. What matters isn’t the cause of religious belief but whether the reasons we hold for accepting or rejecting the belief of our upbringing are sound. There will never be any proof, and we are all inclined to be convinced by data that supports beliefs we already hold. That being said, people change their deeply held beliefs and values in the face of new information all the time – and this happens with matters of faith too.

I believe Jesus is the only way to God not because I was born in Roanoke, Virginia or because I am a white male but because the human condition, the circumstances of our universe and the facts of history are best explained by this solution.

Attempting to re-route a conversation

20 Mar

Monday I wrote about stirring the pot a little bit on a Facebook post, and mentioned that some of the comments were worth reflecting on. The first that really stuck out to me was this one:

“…you read through the Bible and find stories of it supporting mass genocide, slavery, incest and adultery.”

The implicit objection is: The Bible isn’t a good source of moral truth because it endorses actions which are clearly immoral.

My first instinct is to make a nuanced defense of God’s goodness in light of the above accusations – which is not difficult to do, but would likely fall on deaf ears. Simply conceding (or ignoring the accusation, which is the same as conceding) is also not an option. I remembered my favorite advice about spiritual conversations: ask questions; and tried asking (what I thought to be) a provocative question. I simply responded by asking “on your view, what is wrong with mass genocide, murder and incest?”

The night wasn't THAT slow, and yes - I did ask you that.

The night wasn’t THAT slow, and yes – I did ask you that.

I did this to get them to ground their (implied) assertion that objective moral values exist. What I know is that an atheistic framework provides no ground for believing there are objective morals. Using words like ‘right, wrong, should, and ought’ means the atheist is trading with borrowed commodities.

**Aside – this doesn’t mean ‘atheists are bad people’ or ‘you need the Bible to know right from wrong.’ Everyone has access to moral knowledge. My question points at the foundation or grounding of that knowledge: what makes something right (or wrong)?**

No one had an answer for me. Several guys kept saying that a person with empathy wouldn’t need to ask that question. I responded that empathy just means understanding another person’s feelings, and I still wanted to know what was morally wrong about causing pain and/or death.

Ultimately no one had an answer because you can’t get there. See my earlier posts on objective morality here for more info, or leave a comment if you disagree.

This may or may not have been the best approach, but the lesson for me is that we shouldn’t feel the need to always launch into a defense (even if one can be made). Instead we can look for questions that might help our cause.  Asking a question keeps people engaged, keeps us from doing all the heavy lifting and helps to clarify the points being addressed.

Resource:

A cursory google search will help you if you’re looking for answers to the ‘immoral God’ objection above. If you’re looking for a full length treatment I highly recommend “God Behaving Badly” from Intervarsity Press.

Some objections are better than others…

18 Mar

I’ve written before about engaging folks through social media – this time I’d like to break down a series of interactions I had last week. It started when a friend posted the following:

That's not insanity...it's false!

That’s not insanity…it’s false!

I just couldn’t let it slide, because frankly it’s misleading on several levels. I’ll use todays post to break down this picture which you may see floating around and then Wednesday and Thursday I’ll detail some of the fallout. I think all of it will be helpful in your conversations with non-believers, even though you may not encounter the exact same circumstances and objections that I did.

So, what’s wrong with the information in the picture?

Facts that mislead intentionally

–          There were and still are no original texts to translate This is only scary if you don’t know about the world of ancient documents, which most of us don’t! Because we’re dealing with thousands of years, original documents are unlikely to exist. Some other ancient works for which we have no originals: Plato, Homer, Caesar, and basically any other ancient author. We still read their works as if they are accurate however…why? Because we trust the transmission of the text. The average age gap between original and oldest copy for the authors above? Around 800 years. There are fragments of the New Testament from 125 CE, 200 CE and completed manuscripts from the 4th century (200 years or so). This is not a hurdle for scholars of antiquity.

 –          Over 8K manuscripts, no two alike What the person who made this complaint doesn’t want you to know is that we can use such a wealth of information (dwarfing any other ancient document in terms of number of manuscripts) to verify which text was most likely original. There are variances, but the text is estimated to be 99.5% pure which is again unheard of when compared with other ancient documents.

 

–          4th century scrolls that claim to be copies of lost first century letters If they are copies of those letters, then the letters aren’t really “lost” are they? Even if we lack the original documents, the content lives on – which is what’s important in the first place.

 Facts that have a plausible explanation

–          “Contradictory” manuscripts The vast majority of errors in the manuscripts can be traced to scribal error: substituting “we” for “you” and similar slip ups. Almost every other error is a clear example of a copyist inserting or deleting something from the text in order to clarify an existing point of doctrine. Nowhere has a critical belief or teaching been added or subtracted. The remaining discrepancies – while interesting academically – do not impact in any way any doctrine of the Christian Church.

Falsehoods

–          The oldest manuscripts we have were written down hundreds of years after the last apostle died The oldest manuscripts we have were copied within 100 years of the likely death time frame of the Apostles. This margin is the historical equivalent of a photo-finish when compared with the gaps from other trusted ancient documents!

 

–          21st century Christians believe the word of God is (a) the KJV (b) a book Christians are not committed to the idea that there is one authorized or specific translation of the Bible. Some sects (more often these are technically cults) will advocate that any non-KJV translation isn’t the true word of God, but this is a fringe belief and unsupported by any evidence. Christians do believe that the Bible contains the words of God, but the Word (the Logos in Greek) is Jesus (the Word made flesh). To the degree that it accurately depicts what God has communicated about himself, the Bible is God’s word to humanity – but this isn’t the fullest expression, that title is held by Jesus of Nazareth.

All in all, I think this particular piece of propaganda falls under the category “sensationalist misinformation.” While most of what it reports is true in the technical sense, the rhetoric compels the reader to come to false conclusions because not all the data is given. Don’t let someone steamroll you with an argument like this one.

Resources for further reading:

Stand to reason – A brief article focusing on the overall reliability of the New Testament

Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry – Charts comparing the NT docs with other ancient manuscripts

*books*

Misquoting Truth – my all time favorite book dealing with NT reliability and transmission

In the Beginning – a fascinating look at the story behind the production of the KJV Bible

The NT Documents: are they reliable? – originally published in the 1940’s it was reproduced in 2002 because the logic and conclusions are still relevant today. The only things that have changed have all changed in favor of the reliability of the NT

So a dead guy walks out of his own grave…

14 Mar

Ah, Easter. Chocolate bunnies and a risen Lord…maybe not in that order. Like a Christmas sale in late October, I’m trying to beat the rush by posting about the significance of Easter now instead of two weeks from now. The resurrection of Jesus is the historical truth claim upon which the entire Gospel hangs. Don’t believe me? Just ask the apostle Paul:

14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith… 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 cor 15:14, 16-19)

It’s easy to think of Jesus’ resurrection as a story from the Bible, but it’s important to know it as a fact of history. Believing in the historical reality of Jesus emerging from his tomb is not only critical for your faith, but critical for your evangelism. The resurrection reorders reality by proving that God has intervened in history and affirming that Jesus’ claims were true. Believing in the truth of the resurrection has innumerable consequences of which I’ll highlight two that have impacted me personally.

I have no idea what eggs have to do with the beginnings of the Christian faith...

I have no idea what eggs have to do with the beginnings of the Christian faith…

The resurrection power…in me!?

The same Spirit who raised Christ from the dead resides in the believer (Rom 8:11, Eph 1:18-19). This is an outstanding truth which should revolutionize our faith. For me, the truth of the power of the Spirit in me was never more evident than when I was at my lowest.

Several years ago I was dealing with the consequences of personal sin: I felt repentant, but my desire for things to magically return to normal outweighed my desire for God. As I studied the resurrection academically, the truth of Jesus’ triumph over death began to spill out of my brain and into my heart. I knew that not only did I need God more than I needed things to be “ok” I also had access to the Holy Spirit who resurrected Jesus and this power would enable me to humbly submit to the Lord and overcome my obstacles. This process wasn’t immediate but it was sparked and sustained by the realization that there is an immense power indwelling me; all I had to do was access it.

Yes, I DO believe that Jesus is the only way…

Christian exclusivism (the claim that Jesus is the only way to God) rubs people the wrong way. How can we possibly be so arrogant!? My answer is that Jesus is the only figure in history to come back from the dead, and this is verifiable (see below).

Our Gospel presentations focus on salvation, the forgiveness of sins, as they rightly should. The earliest sermons recorded in Acts did the same thing, but to prove their claim they pointed to the resurrection of Jesus. We mention the resurrection as well, but not usually not as evidence – it’s more a “this crazy thing happened too, and that’s part of it.”

Believing not only that the resurrection happened, but that it’s the best explanation of how the church formed gave me the confidence I needed to approach people who I formerly thought off limits. Instead of hoping that I could answer the questions of the skeptics, I began routing all of my conversations back to the resurrection of Jesus. I found that most people had not even considered the possibility that the story of Easter had roots in history. When I began to make the case that Jesus resurrection actually makes more sense than the leading theories in academia, it surprised people enough to listen a little longer. Some of them were so intrigued that we met regularly to discuss the historical evidence, and the likelihood of a miracle like this. I don’t believe anyone has ever been argued into the Kingdom, but I do believe reasoned dialogue can help people overcome hurdles of doubt.

But I don’t have a Master’s degree in Apologetics…

That’s ok – all you need to do is familiarize yourself with a few facts, and I’ll give you a head start. If you want to learn more check out the suggested links at the bottom of this post. The most critical aspect of the following assertions is that the majority of scholars – skeptics included – will agree that they can be considered historical facts.

1)      Jesus died by Roman crucifixion

2)      The message of the resurrection was central to the preaching of the church from it’s very beginning

3)      The disciples were transformed from shocked grievers into bold proclaimers based on experiences of the resurrected Jesus

4)      Skeptics James and Paul (Saul) converted to Christianity based on experiences of the resurrected Jesus.

 

There are more, which make the case more compelling – but these will do. The swoon theory, the twin theory, the conspiracy theory, the legend theory, and the hallucination theory are all undone by these simple historical details. I encourage you to familiarize yourself with them and understand why historians consider them “facts” even though the information comes from the Bible.

Go ahead and crack open a plastic egg this Easter, I’m hoping for starburst jellybeans and Reese’s pieces. While you do – remember that you’re celebrating a real thing, a fact of history: the resurrection of Jesus. Let this truth wash over you and transform your own spiritual journey; then go into your world and boldly proclaim the truth and pray that it transforms others as well.

Additional Resources

Short video featuring Dr. Gary Habermas

Top 10 resurrection myths

Succinct article expounding on the ‘minimal facts’ approach

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