Tag Archives: Bible

Can the Gospels be trusted since they are based on oral recollections?

Skeptics have long questioned the trustworthiness of the Gospels. They contend that the Gospels cannot be reliable since they are based on oral recollections of the events surrounding the life and teaching of Jesus. As political satirist Bill Maher quipped, the Judaism of his mother and the Christianity of his father are based on “a long, 2,000-year-old game of telephone.”[1]

Nearly all scholars agree that the accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry were passed along by word of mouth for at least 20 to 60 years before being written in what we commonly call the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John).[2] But does this fact mean that they are filled with half-truths, misrepresentation, and fabrications?

More than a century has passed since popular and highly publicized scholars first began to wonder if the gospels were fairy stories based on faulty memories and exaggerations that are part and parcel with oral transmission. Today, however, studies confirm that complicated and nuanced narratives can be faithfully passed along orally. Folklorists have found examples in cultures all over the world where long oral narratives were accurately passed down over many generations. These narratives typically contain a longer plot line together with various smaller units that compose the bulk of the story. In fact, when the subject matter is highly meaningful to a community, everyone in that community—not just the storyteller—is concerned with accurately and faithfully preserving it.[3]

Additionally, memory studies tell us that people are much more likely to accurately remember events when they are unique, consequential, and image-rich—just the kinds of experiences shared by the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life and ministry.

There are two final points to consider. The first is that the Scriptures themselves tell us that the accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry were codified and established before the first four books of the New Testament were penned (Luke 1:1–2). Second, the historical distance between the original events and actual text is so short compared to other ancient texts—less than 100 years—that it seems to render this point moot.[4]

[1] In an NPR interview in 2008 http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=95210724

[2] The oldest existing biblical text fragment is dated to the 2nd century AD with places it within 100 years of the original events it describes.

[3] See The Jesus Legend (252-254) and Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (305-306).

[4] The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts http://www.csntm.org/manuscript;

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Why do Christians disagree so much about the Bible?

The Bible is an ancient and complex book, and not always easy to understand. That is why so many people have differing views about subjects as foundational as the Lord’s Table and baptism, and even more variation on topics like church government, spiritual gifts, and end times. Entire denominations and church movements have been formed around a collective understanding of what they believe the Bible teaches on these subjects.

Many assert that disagreements are a result of others who are unwilling to follow what the Bible “plainly” teaches. “Those churches,” they may think, “just don’t take their Bible seriously.” The problem with this kind of thinking is that it is often not true. The closer we get to the people we disagree with, the more we find that they are often godly, sincere, and informed individuals who desire to do and believe what the Bible teaches just as much as we do.

“It’s clear we just have two different opinions on this topic,” my friend jested. “You have yours and I have His.” Watching his finger point to the heavens, I couldn’t help but think how this humorous gesture communicated so much about how I often mistake my understanding of what the Bible says for what the Bible actually does say.

If we really listen to those we disagree with, we might not only start seeing their biases, but ours, as well. Our beliefs—like theirs—are affected by culture, economic status, family, place in history, and even our own denomination’s emphasis on certain doctrines and issues. Is it possible that we often don’t see another person’s perspective because we are looking to ourselves, not Christ, as the ultimate source of truth? Perhaps a way forward is to humbly and honestly admit our own imperfections and shortcomings. Then we can begin to work through our disagreements together with a focus on Jesus Christ.

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Do natural disasters signal the end of the world as we know it?

Natural disasters are not unique to our time. Terrible losses of life and destruction from many natural disasters and epidemics have occurred for millennia.[1] So no one can say for certain that such events mark the end of this “present age.”[2]

Jesus’ disciples once asked Him what would “signal” His return and the end of the world as we know it.[3] In his reply, Jesus cautioned them not to assume that natural catastrophes such as famines or earthquakes or even man-made cataclysms such as wars meant the end of the age was just around the corner. Instead, He told His followers to view such catastrophic events as “the first of the birth pains, with more to come.”[4]

Jesus’ caution is as applicable for us today as it was for His first disciples. Every generation since the time of Jesus has had to deal with disasters of all types and scales. But there is no way for us to know when a recent disaster might signal the end of the world as we know it. Jesus Himself told His followers that only God knows for certain “the day or hour” when Christ will return.[5]

Natural disasters do show us that the earth is not the way it’s supposed to be. It is groaning and longing for the day when Jesus returns and all of creation will be renewed.[6]

[1] Earthquakes: Antioch, Syria, ad 525, 250,000 killed; Aleppo, Syria, 1138, 230,000 killed; Shaanxi Province, China, 1556, 830,000 killed.

Famines: “Great Famine” of Europe, ad 1315–17, millions died; Indian famine of 1896–1902, millions died; Chinese famine under Chairman Mao, 1958–61, 20-40 million died.

[2] In Jesus day, Jewish teachers, (including Jesus Himself) divided history into two ages; the “present age” and the “age to come”—the good news of God’s Kingdom coming to earth as it is in heaven that Jesus preached.  Many who read the New Testament believe that these two ages began to overlap when Jesus rose from the dead, and that the “present age” will come to an end and the “age to come” will come in its fullness when Jesus returns to our present earth. Others believe that the “age to come” will not begin until this “present age” ends at the time of Christ’s return.

[3] Matthew 24:3

[4] Matthew 24:4–8

[5] Matthew 24:26

[6] Romans 8:19–21; Revelation 21:1–5

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Were the early Christians capable of producing the Gospels?

Skeptics of the historical accuracy of the New Testament often think that first-century Jews living in the Roman Empire were overwhelmingly illiterate and hence incapable of producing an accurate written record of Jesus’ life and ministry.

Some of the reasons given for the low literacy rates within the Roman empire are 1) there was no need for writing among the lower classes, 2) the lack of public education inhibited literacy, and 3) the prohibitive cost of writing materials made it difficult for people to afford to learn the skill.[1]

We now know that literacy within the first-century Palestinian and Roman cultures was much more widespread than these skeptics assume. Literacy was actually highly prized in the first-century Roman Empire. It allowed people to read publicly posted documents, deal with legal matters, and operate businesses.

Many surviving examples suggest literacy levels were relatively high and widespread. These examples include personal letters, legal deeds, divorce certificates, writing on coins, and household inscriptions that were clearly not written by scribes. [2]

But the primary reason to believe that Jesus’ first followers were capable of producing the documents that would later become the Gospels is that the witnesses of Jesus’ life and ministry were not just run-of-the-mill inhabitants of the Roman Empire; they were Palestinian Jews.[3]

Jewish culture, more any other ancient culture, was founded on familiarity with a written document—the Mosaic Law.[4] Every synagogue in every small community, no matter how rudimentary and humble, was a center for religious teaching that included passing on the ability to read and discuss the Scriptures.

Internal evidence within the New Testament reinforces the view that written records were made of Jesus’ teaching long before the Gospels were written. We have good reason to believe that the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry were supported by written as well as oral sources from the very beginning.[5] The early followers of Jesus were more than capable of faithfully chronicling His message for future generations to read.

[1] Where literacy exists, people have always been highly motivated to learn to read and write. Just as parents would pass along other skills to children, they pass along any literacy they had gained. Even rudimentary skills in reading and writing are useful, and anyone who wants to learn how to read could certainly find ways of doing so. Within the Roman Empire, even the lower classes were highly motivated to attain a degree of literacy and adept at improvising less expensive writing materials than papyrus and parchment.

[2] (The Jesus Legend, p. 244).

[3] The great volume of writings found at Qumran testifies to a high degree of Jewish literacy. Jesus’ followers “were not all illiterate peasant laborers and craftsmen, as the form critics supposed, but evidently included people who studied the Scriptures with current exegetical skills and could write works with the literary quality of the letter of James. Leaders who were not themselves literate could employ the services of other believers who were” (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, p. 287).

[4] “These are the commands, decrees, and regulations that the Lord your God commanded me to teach you. You must obey them in the land you are about to enter and occupy, and you and your children and grandchildren must fear the Lord your God as long as you live. If you obey all his decrees and commands, you will enjoy a long life. Listen closely, Israel, and be careful to obey. Then all will go well with you, and you will have many children in the land flowing with milk and honey, just as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, promised you.

“Listen, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.* And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength. And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today. Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up. Tie them to your hands and wear them on your forehead as reminders. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:1-9 NLT)

[5] Luke notes, quite incidentally, that “many” before him had attempted to write accounts of what went on among the early Christians (Luke 1:1). In addition, some of Paul’s sayings in his letters parallel sayings in the Gospel traditions. This may suggest that sayings were written down and circulated well before the Gospels were written. Even more forceful, however, are the strong verbal similarities between Mathew and Luke when recording material not found in Mark. These similarities can be accounted for most easily by supposing that Matthew and Luke shared a common written source (Q). And, as a number of scholars have noted, there is ample evidence of early collections of Old Testament proof-texts (testimonia) in written form that were apparently used in preaching and in apologetic settings in the early church (The Jesus Legend, p. 250).

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Do the genealogies of the Bible tell us how old the earth is?

A cursory reading of the genealogies of the Old Testament could lead to the view taken by Archbishop Ussher that the world was created in 4004 BC.

But the genealogies of Genesis are not intended to determine the amount of time that has elapsed between the creation of man and the coming of Christ. For instance, the Genesis genealogies would allow for only 300 years between Noah and Abraham, yet at the time of Abraham there were already great civilizations in such widespread places as Egypt, China, India, Mesopotamia, and Greece. In addition, detailed archaeological evidence demonstrates that in some of these places dynasties had already come and gone, and civilization was already ancient.

The solution to the apparent conflict between archaeological evidence and the biblical record lies in the fact that the genealogies don’t include unimportant individuals. The Hebrew word for son, ben, didn’t only mean son, but was also used to refer to grandsons and descendants. Similarly, the Hebrew word yalad (bear) also can have the meaning of “become the ancestor of.” Isaiah 29:23 is an example of yalad being used in this way.

There are a number of good examples of how genealogies tend to omit all but the most important individuals in a line. For instance, Matthew 1:1 names only Abraham, David, and Christ. Even though there are only four generations listed between Levi and Moses,[1] Numbers 3:39 states that Levi’s descendants already were numbered at 22,000 males. (The genealogy shown for Ephraim seems to show 18 generations between Ephraim and Joshua. This genealogy is found in 1 Chronicles 7:20–27.) The list of kings in Matthew 1:2–17 omits a number of names that are listed in the list of kings in the Old Testament.

These and other examples demonstrate that the genealogies of the Old Testament patriarchs are given in order to demonstrate the common descent of the entire human race from Adam and Eve, not to provide a complete chronology of the time that has elapsed from Adam to Christ.

[1] Exodus 6:16-20

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