Thursday, December 31, 2009

Best of the Blogroll: 2009

I like to close out the old year by celebrating the best post(s) of the year from various blogs on my blogroll. Welcome to the Best of the blogroll, 2009 edition:

I'd also like to bid a fond farewell to Aardvark Alley, who has gone inactive this year. Best wishes, whatever your endeavors, and thank you for the many years of blogging!

Friday, December 25, 2009

Knowing God

Much of human history can be summed up as the desire to know God, to serve God, to bring about the kingdom of God. Every idol carved out of a rock or tree-stump and every systematic theology shows our thoughts about God. And we've often found ourselves looking at projections of our own minds: many of the systematic theologians have built paper idols not so much better grounded than the idolaters of old. The net effect of the modern approach to idolatry has been to enthrone our ideas or ideologies in our religions, denominations, or sects.

How do we escape the trap of mistaking our thoughts about God for the realities of God? How do we come to a true knowledge of God? Where do we look to see God as he really is?

On this day, we proclaim that the answer is, "In a trough." Not any trough in general; a trough where one particular baby was sleeping for lack of a more comfortable or expected place.

I think, of all the modern religions, only Islam shows signs of really grasping what we are saying. "Do you mean to tell me that God, the mighty and merciful, is that baby? Are you saying that the eternal creator of heaven and earth is a day-old infant?" They can't quite figure whether we're lunatics or blasphemers; most have decided on blasphemers.


Unless God wants us to know him. Unless God loves his people more than our misguided ideas would have ever imagined. Unless God's splendor and majesty and sovereignty mean nothing to him, and he would gladly lay them aside to show himself to his people in a way we could understand. Unless God decided to live among us as one of us so that we could see his character as he really is. Unless God himself is humble. Unless he calls our ideas of greatness the real idols. Unless God wants to be with us. Unless God reveals himself not as God the Ideology, or even as God the Unknowable, but as God With Us.

"In him, all the fullness of the Godhead dwells in bodily form." (Col 2:9) This was written by a Jew in roughly the year 60 A.D., while the memory of Jesus' time with us was still very much alive in those who had known him in person.

So in a trough begins the story of how God is not found in the comfortable or expected place.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Notes on the Liturgy of the Gospel of Matthew

In compiling this order of service, I kept the liturgical format because it sticks so close to Scripture and makes a conscious effort to encompass all of the Bible in its readings, all of Jesus' life and ministry in its scope, all the world in its prayers and outreach. Still, I wanted this liturgy to have not just its words but also its structure -- its table of contents, as it were -- shaped by how Matthew shows us Jesus. With that in mind:
  • Because Matthew's gospel starts with John the Baptist then Jesus baptizing and calling to repentance, the order of service starts with the invocation from the baptismal words and the call to repentance.
  • The prayer for enemies is a separate section in its own right and follows the thanksgiving for our own forgiveness, like the Lord's prayer and Jesus' comments on it, or the parable of the unmerciful servant. Jesus' call to pray for our enemies shapes the liturgy.
  • The preparation for the offering includes Jesus' call to reconcile first with those we have wronged, as Jesus taught us.
  • The seasonal sentences acknowledge the practice of thanking God especially for certain blessings commemorated at certain times of the year.
  • The confession of faith -- the Nicene Creed -- is included both as the church's historic confession and because of how it is itself framed on Scripture.
  • As Matthew's gospel ends with Jesus sending forth his people to make disciples, this order of service ends the same way. Jesus' concluding promise to be with us is the final word of Jesus in Matthew's gospel, and is here the final proclamation of the minister to the people.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Liturgy of the Gospel of Matthew, with Scripture citations

This summer I mentioned a long-term project of mine: liturgies in which every word closely tracks Scripture. Here is the first real milestone; the text to this liturgy is now usable. Most of the key texts here are from the Gospel of Matthew. I suppose I'm more of an arranger than anything else in this, since the words are none of them originally mine except in the arrangement. I've made this as creative commons (CC-NC-SA). Other notes will follow in an upcoming post. If anyone uses this as a worship service, please mention anything that may need smoothing to flow smoothly in a worship service. This version includes the Scripture citations, but I expect to post one that is either without the citations or formatted so they're more inobtrusive. I will make a better-formatted version available (MSWord or pdf) as time permits.

P: In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. (Matt 28:19)
C: Amen

P: Our Lord Jesus calls us to repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near (Matt 3:2, 4:17). He has said, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners." (Matt 9:12-13)

C: Lord, I confess that my heart is unclean. (Matt 12:35). Out of it come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, and slander. (15:19). I have spoken careless words (12:36). I have loved the place of honor and importance (23:6). I have neglected justice, mercy, and faithfulness (23:23). Yet you have not come to call the righteous, but sinners. (Matt 9:13). Lord, forgive us our sins. (Matt 6:12).

* Kyrie or other penitential song may be sung here

P: The Lord desires mercy, not sacrifice. (Matt 9:13) Our Savior has taught us, "The Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins. Take heart; your sins are forgiven." (Matt 9:6, 2).


* This or another song of thanksgiving for God’s mercy may be sung

Praise the LORD, O my soul;
All my inmost being, praise his holy name.

Praise the LORD, O my soul,
And forget not all his benefits.

Who forgives all your sins
And heals all your diseases

Who redeems your life from the pit
And crowns you with love and compassion

The LORD is compassionate and gracious,
Slow to anger, abounding in love.

He will not always accuse,
Nor will he harbor his anger forever;

He does not treat us as our sins deserve
Or repay us according to our trespasses.

For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
So great is his love for those who fear him;

As far as the east is from the west,
So far has he removed our transgressions from us.

(Psalm 103:1-12)

Prayers for our enemies

P: The Lord has also taught us to pray for our enemies. Being thankful for his forgiveness, let us pray: (Matt 5:44)

P: Lord, we praise you and give thanks to you, for you are good. (Ps 106:1)
C: Your mercy endures forever. (Ps 106:1)

P: While we were yet your enemies (Romans 5:8-10)
C: You died for us (Romans 5:8-10)

P: The righteous for the unrighteous (1 Peter 3:18)
C: To bring us back to you. (1 Peter 3:18)

P: Lord, have mercy on us. (Luke 18:3)
C: Have mercy on us sinners. (Luke 18:3)

P: Lord, if you kept record of our sins (Psalm 130:3)
C: Who could stand before you? (Psalm 130:3)

P: Do not bring your servant into judgment, (Ps 143:2)
C: For no one living is righteous before you. (Ps 143:2)

P: When I hid my faults (Psalm 32:3)
C: I wasted away. (Psalm 32:3)

P: When I confessed my transgression (Psalm 32:5)
C: You forgave the iniquity of my sin. (Psalm 32:5)

P: You oppose the proud (1 Peter 5:5)
C: But give grace to the humble. (1 Peter 5:5)

P. You, O Christ, came into the world to save sinners (1 Tim 1:15)
C: Of whom I am the chief. (1 Tim 1:15)

P: You have taught us to pray: Forgive us our sins (Matt 6:12)
C: As we forgive those who sin against us. (Matt 6:12)

P: Let mercy be the measure we use for others; (Matt 5:7, 7:2)
C: May their cups overflow with blessing. (Ps 23:5)

P: We remember before you all our enemies: (Matt 5:44)
C: May knowing you bring peace. (2 Peter 1:2)

P: We remember before you all who have wronged others. (Matt 5:44)
C: May your mercy turn hearts of stone to hearts of flesh. (Ezekiel 11:19)

P: We remember before you all who hide secret guilt: (Ps 19:12)
C: Create clean hearts, O Lord, and renew a right spirit. (Ps 51:10)

P: Let the sinners turn back to you: (Ps 51:13)
C: No one will be condemned who takes refuge in you. (Ps 34:22)

P: Let us proclaim your righteousness in the great assembly (Ps 40:9)
C: Let us not seal our lips or hide your righteousness (Ps 40:9-10)

P: Let us speak of your faithfulness and salvation (Ps 40:10)
C: Let us not conceal your love and your truth. (Ps 40:10)

P: Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven. (Psalm 32:1)
C: Whose sin is covered (Psalm 32:1)

P: Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; (Psalm 106:1)
C: His mercy endures forever. (Psalm 106:1)

Scripture Readings

P: Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. (Matt 4:4)

Old Testament Reading


Epistle Reading

The leader may choose the introduction most fitting for the gospel text of the day.
P: God has proclaimed, “This is my Son, whom I love. With him I am well pleased. Listen to him.” (Matt 17:5)


P: Jesus has called us, “Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke on you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matt 11:28-29).

Gospel Reading

The leader may choose the conclusion most fitting for the gospel text of the day.

For readings containing commands or exhortation
P: Whoever hears the sayings of the Lord and does them is like a wise man who built his house upon a rock. When the storm came that house did not fall. (Matt 7:24).

For readings containing miracles, promises, or blessings
P: May the whole earth know the Scriptures and the power of God. (Matt 22:29)

For readings containing proclamations or other teachings
P: What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the rooftops. (Matt 10:27)

Hymn of the day

* A hymn or other song may be sung


Preparation for Offering

If we have a gift to bring to the Lord and remember that our brother has anything against us, we should leave our gift at the altar and first go and be reconciled to our brother. After we reconcile, then we may offer our gift. (Matt 5:23-24).

Silence for self-examination


In keeping with our Lord’s calling, let us help the poor (Matthew 19:21), and give unto God that which is God’s (Matthew 22:21).


Jesus invites us to ask, to seek, to knock, to come before God expecting good from him (Matt 7:7, 11). For our Father knows what we need before we ask him. (Matt 6:8)

Lord, wherever you traveled among the people, you were sought out by the sick, by their friends and family, by those for whom they worked. We, too, come to you on behalf of our loved ones. (Matt 8:1-17; 9:1-8, 18-24; 17:14-23).

Special prayers and intercessions may follow

Seasonal sentences

Let us praise the Lord and hallow his name ... (Matt 6:9)

Advent: who blessed Mary with a son, Jesus Christ our Lord, to save his people from their sins. (Matt 1:21)

Christmas: for it was fulfilled what the Lord spoke by the prophet: They shall call his name Emmanuel, which means God With Us. (Matt 1:22-23)

Epiphany: whose Christ was sought and worshiped by the wise men. (Matt 2:11)

Lent: for Jesus taught that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things, and be killed, and be raised again on the third day. (Matt 16:21)

Resurrection: for on this blessed and glorious day, the angel first proclaimed the joyous news at the grave: “He is not here. He is risen!" (Matt 28:5-6)
Congregation: He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Pentecost: who sent John the Baptist to baptize with water, and sent one greater to baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. (Matt 3:11)

Sundays after Pentecost: who has promised that wherever two or three are gathered together in his name, he is here with us. (Matt 18:20)

End Times (Troubled times): who compared the kingdom of heaven to a wedding banquet for the king’s son, and has invited us to come to the wedding banquet. (Matt 22:2, 4)

End Times (Untroubled times): who has urged us to watch, for we do not know at what hour our Lord will come. (Matt 24:42)

The Lord’s Prayer

Our Father in heaven
Hallowed be your name
Your kingdom come
Your will be done on earth,
As it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread,
And forgive us our trespasses
As we forgiven those who trespass against us.
Lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from the evil one. (Matt 6:9-13)

Confession of Faith

Nicene Creed (ancient ecumenical form)

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth, (Hebrews 1:2)
of all that is, seen and unseen. (Col 1:16)

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, (John 1:14, 1:18)
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, light from light, true God from true God, (Col 1:19, Heb 1:3)
begotten, not made, (John 3:16, 3:18)
of one being with the Father; (John 10:30)
Through him all things were made, (John 1:3, Col 1:16, Heb 1:2)
For us, and for our salvation, he came down from heaven, (Phil 2:7)
was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, (Matt 1:21, Luke 1:34-35)
and was made man. (Matt 1:25)
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate.
He suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures. (Matt 27:11-28:10 and parallels)
He ascended into heaven (Luke 24:50-51, Acts 1:9)
and is seated at the right hand of the Father. (Mt 22:44, 26:64; Mk 14:62, Lk 20:42, 22:69, Acts 2:33, Heb 1:3)
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, (Acts 1:11)
and his kingdom will have no end. (Luke 1:33)

We believe in the Holy Spirit,
the Lord, the giver of life, (John 6:63; Rom 8:2, 8:10; Gal 6:8)
who proceeds from the Father, (Luke 15:26)
who in unity with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified; (Mt 28:19, 2 Cor 13:14)
who has spoken through the prophets. (Acts 1:16, 1 Peter 1:10-11, 2 Peter 1:21)
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church. (Eph 4:3-5; Matt 10:2 and parallels; Acts 1:2-4)
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. (Acts 2:38)
We look for the resurrection of the dead (Matt 22:29-31, 1 Thess 4:16)
and the life of the world to come. (1 Thess 4:17)

The Lord’s Supper

The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “Take and eat. This is my body.” Then he took the cup, gave thanks, and offered it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. (Matt 26:26-28)

* The Agnus Dei may be sung, or other song that proclaims Christ as the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world


* During the distribution, hymns or other songs may be sung

Sending Forth

Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything the Lord has commanded us. And surely the Lord is with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matt 28:19-20)

* A hymn or other song may be sung

Sunday, December 13, 2009

God's singing and music

When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. (Matthew 26:30, Mark 14:26)
If we view God through Jesus, if Jesus can do nothing apart from the Father as he says, then here we see an occasion on which God was singing.

After considering God's joyfulness recently, this week's lectionary reading from the prophets seemed well-timed:
The LORD your God is with you,
  he is mighty to save.
He will take great delight in you,
  he will quiet you with his love,
  he will rejoice over you with singing. (Zephaniah 3:17)
Here we see that not only does God take delight and rejoice; he also sings. I wonder if someone trying to defend God's honor will rush to say this is a figure of speech or some such. But if we say that God "spoke" and speak of his "word" in a meaningful sense, then by the same path we can just as meaningfully consider his song.

Depending on how you view the Bible, you may even consider it telling that the word of God contains a couple of books of poetry. At least one book (Psalms) contains poems that were meant to be sung. If these songs of the Bible are God-breathed in any sense, then God may be more conscious of music than we have allowed ourselves to seriously consider.

Our human leaning toward music and song may be another way in which we are in the image of God.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Question for readers: Adding to the blogroll

Hi all

I've noticed that some of the blogs on my blogroll have gone inactive. Usually in December I clean out the blogroll and usually add some new ones to replace the ones I remove.

Does anyone have a suggestion -- a blog that you like, that I might consider adding to my blogroll? Let me know if you have a favorite, & I can go see if it's the type of thing I want to read regularly.

Take care & God bless

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The joyful God

Previous in this series: The humility of God
Another attribute of God that we often miss is his joyfulness. When we take Jesus' words to heart, "He who has seen me has seen the father," that opens us up to different ways of understanding the mind of God.

When the Bible shows us Jesus, we usually see him in the company of his friends. Time and time again, the Bible portrays him joining in festive occasions such as dinners where guests are invited. He surprised his disciples by taking small children into his arms. When he was asked why his disciples did not fast, Jesus invoked the Jewish custom of not fasting during times of celebration; he said that being with him was like being with the bridegroom at a wedding. Being with him was a festive occasion. Jesus describes the kingdom of God as being like a wedding feast. And he performed his first public miracle by providing wine for a wedding feast. Jesus was joyful, time and again he was joyful. If seeing Jesus is seeing God, then we might need to rethink how we see God.

In the parable of the prodigal son, he portrays a father - that is, God - celebrating gladly when his lost son came home.

So a sour, dour approach to life is actually ungodly. The God who has called us and welcomes us home is a joyful God.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Why I like giving gifts for Christmas

I know I'm deviating from the Expected Christmas Routine by writing this. Denouncing the commercialism of Christmas is supposed to be a Christmas tradition, right up there with drinking eggnog, hanging tinsel, and singing "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel." So it's true confession time: I like giving gifts for Christmas. I have a personal rule: no gift cards for the people on my gift list. I like spending some time pondering each person in my family, turning over all the different things they like to do, maybe even learning something new about them. I like to hunt for a gift that will fit with their interests but still be a surprise. It starts at Thanksgiving with some sleuthing. For each person, "What have you been up to? Any big plans?" And something will make their eyes light up with enthusiasm. And I start scheming how I can give a gift that will become a part of that, a part of what makes this life good for them. And I do it in the name of Jesus. I hope even the non-Christian relatives have some happy memories of Christmas.

Are the merchants taking advantage? Oh, no doubt. But I have a bigger problem with the low quality and predictable nature of the merchandise than with the fact that they're trying to make a sale. It doesn't have to be a decadent spending frenzy; nobody is making me spend any particular amount. And the gifts don't have to upstage the reason for the celebration. I'm glad for a license to reconnect with the people in my family.

So I like giving gifts for Christmas. I expect I'm not alone.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Jesus in the Roman tax/census archives

It was several years ago that Dr. P. made a reference to an interesting thing: early Christian writers appealed to the Roman tax and census archives when discussing the birth of Christ. As the type of person who likes to see the source, I tracked down the early references.

Justin Martyr, attempting to persuade the Roman government to stop persecuting Christians, refers the Romans to their own tax registers to verify Jesus’ birth. After mentioning the prophecy of the Messiah’s birth in Bethlehem he continues:
Now there is a village in the land of the Jews, thirty-five stadia from Jerusalem, in which Jesus Christ was born, as you can ascertain also from the registers of the taxing made under Cyrenius, your first procurator in Judæa.- Justin Martyr, First Apology XXXIV (circa 150-155 A.D.)
Tertullian, emphasizing Jesus’ true humanity and actual birth against the Gnostics, makes the same type of appeal to the Roman imperial archives.
His enrollment in the census of Augustus — that most faithful witness of the Lord’s nativity, kept in the archives of Rome – Tertullian, Against Marcion 4:7 (circa 210 A.D.)
Often, early evidence supporting Christianity is written off as a forgery made by Christians. To be sure, we don't have the archives in hand to examine ourselves; Rome has been sacked since then. But the dates here are very early for a charge of Christians rewriting the history books. Christians weren’t in any sort of power at the time; their enemies held the upper hand in government and therefore would have controlled the archives. That is the very thing that makes Justin Martyr’s appeal so powerful: that he can appeal to his persecutors’ records in demonstrating a part of his case as to why the persecution against Christians is unjust.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

The humility of God

"Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls." -- Jesus (Matt 11:28)
God has revealed himself in Christ; whoever sees Jesus sees the Father. As the Father is, so Jesus is, accurately reflecting the image of God. When the Word of God poured himself out and became man, God's own nature and self were revealed. Since that day when the Word of God took on human flesh, God is no longer an unknown God. We live in a world where we have seen God, where we have known God -- and he was not what we expected.

He has often shown how he values humility. He chose Abraham as an old man to become a father and Sarah to become a mother. He chose David the shepherd-boy, youngest of his brothers, to become king. He chose Mary the peasant girl to bring the Messiah into the world. He has asked us to be humble; he has proclaimed blessings on the meek. And for the mother of Christ,
He has regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden; from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. -- Mary (Luke 1:48)
When we know God through Christ, we see that God's desire for us to be humble is not because he wishes to exalt himself. It is because God himself is humble. When we take up humility, we do not separate ourselves from God, but join him. When we look at Christ and understand that we are seeing the character of God, we understand about God: He is "humble in heart", or "lowly in heart" (AV), giving rest to our souls. It is mind-boggling to me, but we see it in Christ: God is humble.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Whatever is not proclaimed is lost

Have you ever looked at countries where civil unrest is common and thought to yourself, "What is wrong with this place?" There are countries where angry mobs are among the realities of life, always just one step away from forming, where people on the wrong side live in fear of their lives. Have you ever watched TV footage of a screaming, enraged mob and thought to yourself, "How do things get this bad?" These people have probably never heard it proclaimed, "Do not let the sun set on your anger" (Ephesians 4:26) or "Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice." (Ephesians 4:31). They may have never heard, "Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who mistreat you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven" (Luke 6:28 & Matthew 5:44-45). These words are touchstones of life, words that keep us sane and steady. Without them, entire cultures can become prisoners of hatred and rage. It happens when we fail to proclaim God's word to them, which could heal their land.

In our own land, the political parties have sunk to new lows of mutual hatred. The rhetoric on each side routinely dehumanizes people who disagree with the party line. "Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice" needs to be proclaimed again in our own lands, and boldly.

Whenever we see personal or cultural self-destruction, erosion or decay, one of the fenceposts of sanity has been uprooted -- or has never been planted. When we proclaim the words that Christ and his followers spoke, we are working to reclaim lives from despair and anger, from bitterness and malice, from lust or greed, from being swept along by our lowest passions which are unthinking, unloving, and destructive. "Blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness" are words that need to be proclaimed from the rooftops again. "Everyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell" needs to become part of our national conscience again. I have trouble remembering the last time I heard a heated argument where the language was as mild as "You fool"; worse insults than that are now passed off as jokes, and mocking those who disagree is routine. God help us.

I have seen that many Christians face a crisis of confidence in proclaiming God's word. And so the decay continues wherever the Christians lack confidence, or wherever Christians have not yet ventured to proclaim Christ's words. The words of Christ bring healing to the land; knowing God is a blessing.

Monday, November 23, 2009

What is the right response to "sell your possessions and give to the poor"?

Jesus answered, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." (Matthew 19:21)
I have heard much effort put into interpreting this verse, and much of it centers on justifying us as we ignore what was said. Was Jesus talking to us? Was it meant for everyone? What about other examples of other people he spoke to? If everyone did this, wouldn't everyone be poor?

I'd very much like to see this trend turned around. If we took it as seriously as the instruction to pray, we'd sell something of ours daily. If we took it as seriously as the instruction to come meet together to encourage each other, we'd sell something of ours weekly. With consignment stores, eBay, garage sales and so forth, it may never have been easier to live out these particular words of Christ.

How should we envision this teaching of Jesus in our day?

Should each church have an annual garage sale with 100% of proceeds going to the needy? Should each child think of that as part of their Christian experience, that at least once a year they literally take a thing of theirs and sell it and give the money to the poor?

Should charitable causes have places where you can list your goods on eBay and they receive the proceeds? Should churches help make the arrangements?

Let me know if you all can envision other ways this might work out. I'd like to mull over some proposals and present them to some of the elders at our church.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Breaking boundaries: Jewish "exclusivist" prayers and Christian evangelism

I know, I'm behind on updating. I got sick, & today is the first day I'm feeling up to par again. I hope to be back on schedule now. This is more of a low-weight piece than I'd intended for this weekend, but I wasn't doing the "serious research and concentration" bit the last couple of days. :)

While reading up on the history of the liturgy (same book by Elbogen that I referenced a few posts earlier), I came across an intriguing thought. Here a Jewish author looked at some of the traditional Jewish prayers. One traditional Jewish prayer includes giving thanks to God "who has made me a Jew, who has not made me a woman, who has not made me an ignoramus" (or, in some versions, "who has not made me a slave" rather than "ignoramus").

He reads Paul's letter to the Galatians as taking on that prayer, targeting it (and thereby in part helping establish a date for it): "There is now no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28). I wonder if Jesus' own teaching about the Pharisee and the publican -- where the Pharisee prayed about himself, "I thank God I am not as other men" -- may also target this same type of prayer.

I am not so much speaking here about the history of the prayer or the specters of hatred and oppression we see when we read it; there is something else I'd like to point out. We have read from the Hebrew Bible that the reason God blessed the Jews -- and for which the Jews had every cause to give thanks -- was that they might be a blessing to the Gentiles, for the sake of Abraham and for the glory of God's name. Human nature being what it is, for some people that Jewish pride became simply a form of racism against Gentiles. Whenever racism ruled, the mission to be a blessing was forgotten. Or consider the example of men and women, also mentioned in the same prayer: back in the days when so many jobs required size and strength, the man's generally greater size and strength put him in a unique position to be a blessing to the family. Or its greatest oppressor, on occasion.

I have no interest in pointing fingers at this Jewish daily prayer; the application I would like to make here is about Christians. There's a lot of resentment against us in some quarters. Some is stirred up by people who hate us without cause; that is not my point at this moment. Some resentment is stirred up by ourselves whenever we take on the attitude that our religion is blessing for us and not for them, that it makes us better than the next, holier than the next, more moral or ethical than the next, better in God's sight than the next. In Christ, there is a call to reach out and be his ambassador: that if we are blessed, it is not instead of them but for them that they, too, might know the blessings that come only in Christ. Is knowing Christ a blessing? Absolutely. The question is what we make of it, whether we present ourselves to the world "I give thanks that I am not as other men", or whether we remember that we are, first and foremost, beneficiaries of God's mercy that we are to proclaim to all.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Little-known facts about some non-canonical gospels

This post should wrap up my current series on objectively observable differences between the canonical gospels and the non-canonical gospels. Thank you all for your patience with this; it's an interest of mine.
Many people are familiar with the canonical gospels; that is, familiar with the type of material they contain. The canonical gospels exist to convey accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus. They have a biography-style presentation. Matthew and Luke start just before Jesus' birth and quickly move on to Jesus' entry onto the public stage; Mark and John begin with Jesus' debut as a public figure at his baptism. From there, all four canonical gospels relate a series of teachings and events. Large parts of the narrative are event-driven, particularly the confrontation with the religious and political powers, a trial on capital charges, and an execution recounted in some detail including Jesus' death and burial. All four continue with an empty tomb and the announcement of Jesus' resurrection; three continue with additional events past that point. When we hear the word "gospel", we therefore tend to think of that type of document: a narrative of Jesus' life and teachings recounted in the form of biography.

A little-known, little-acknowledged fact about the "alternative" gospels is that many of them are not this sort of document at all. The best of the lot are probably the (Coptic) Gospel of Thomas, which is a collection of sayings attributed to Jesus, and the Gospel of Peter which does follow a narrative framework. These documents have certain problems, but at least they intend to recount the life or teachings of Jesus.

One other gospel does intend to give a sort of account of part of Jesus' life. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas is supposed to be a retelling of Jesus' childhood. It could nearly be subtitled, "Bad-tempered child with superpowers terrorizes village" -- at least for the first half. By the end, he has learned to use his powers for good instead of evil, and it finishes with "the boy Jesus at the Temple" account known to us from Luke's gospel. Quotes from bad tempered little Jesus include, "You godless, brainless moron" (right before he strikes another child dead) and "I taunted you! For I know that you are amazed by little things and have minuscule minds." The people of his hometown are in awe of him and his many miracles. An interesting feature comes to light when studying the text: the part borrowed from Luke contains the only mentions of events occurring in a specific geographical place (Jerusalem) and the only mention of the name of his mother, Mary. It is also the scene with a noticeably stronger Jewish context: we see the Pharisees and the Temple, along with the Feast of Passover, here and only here in the narrative. I find it interesting that a number of tangible and realistic supporting details are found only in the part that is borrowed from the canonical gospel of Luke.

Of the other well-known alternative "gospels", most show relatively little interest in giving a biographical account of Jesus' life or in giving a collection of his sayings. Based on what they actually contain, these other gospels may not have been intended to convey accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus.

  • The Gospel of the Savior briefly recounts a couple of events from a single night of Jesus' life. The text never identifies Jesus by name. The events recounted are part of the Last Supper and the prayer afterward. In keeping with the non-geographical nature of the actions recorded in the text, the trip to Gethsemane from the canonical gospels is replaced here with a vision of heaven, where the prayer occurs before the Father's throne. Those are the only events from the life of Jesus that are recounted. A good section of the text consists of the main character -- presumably Jesus -- leading a responsory prayer largely centered on himself and his importance as their leader. The responsory prayer looks like an excerpt from an early Christian worship service; that section may be of more interest in the field of the history of worship than in the events of the life of Jesus.
  • The Gospel of Mary, like the Gospel of the Savior, never identifies Jesus by name; but here the unnamed "Savior" is not the central character. Granted, again we are working with fragmentary pieces of surviving text, but the surviving pieces mainly consist of a vision that Mary is supposed to have seen. No events from the life of Jesus are recounted. In certain places there are some sayings attributed to the unnamed Savior, which can be divided into two categories. Many of the things attributed to the Savior are generically applicable known sayings of Jesus; "he who has ears let him hear" is used twice within the space of a few verses, and the variant "he who has a mind to understand, let him understand" makes an appearance too. In between such stock and generic phrases from the canonical gospels, the Savior's other sayings sound as though they were taken from Greek philosophy, such as "the nature of matter is resolved into the roots of its nature alone."
  • The Gospel of Philip may possibly recount Jesus' baptism, though even that is uncertain because the text is only partially complete. That is the only event from the life of Jesus that may have been recounted in the way that we would have expected from the canonical gospels. The Gospel of Philip consists of more general discussion of religion and philosophy from its own perspective, and is not particularly centered on Jesus. In the surviving text, the phrase "bridal chamber" appears more often than the name "Jesus". As a point of interest, the author of the Gospel of Philip quotes Matthew, John, 1 Corinthians, and 1 Peter, expecting the readers to be familiar with them and to consider them authoritative.
  • The Gospel of Truth is fairly long as non-canonical gospels go; it is roughly 40% of the length of the Gospel of Mark, or 1/4 of the length of the Gospel of Luke. The name "Jesus" occurs a mere four times in the translation I've found. It does not give an account of any events in the life of Jesus. It is largely a theological interpretation, not what we would think of as a "gospel."
  • The Protoevangelium of James mostly follows the story of Mary in the years leading up to Jesus' birth. It ends shortly after Jesus' birth and the visit of the astrologers. As most of the narrative happens before his birth, its purpose is not to record the life of Jesus.

I've had to rein myself in, to make myself stop here. The measurable differences in quality between the canonical gospels and the non-canonical gospels are many, and the differences run deep. The non-canonical gospels are generally shorter, generally later, generally less Jewish, generally have less context as far as place and time, and are often less interested in recording the life of Jesus. For some of them, I think the appropriate genre is not "gospel" but "fan fiction". For others, I think the appropriate genre is not "gospel" but "theological interpretation". Some never identify identify Jesus by name in the surviving text. One is a sayings-only collection without enough background on the conversations from which the sayings are taken.

I'm not saying the non-canonical documents are without any merit; I have found points of interest in them. I may yet do a write-up on my favorite parts of the non-canonical gospels. But I am saying that even the whole collection of them together tells you measurably, objectively less about the historical Jesus than, say, the Gospel of Luke by itself.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The historical Jesus' movements can be mapped: Gauging a gospel's historical view of Jesus

Another thing that struck me as a point of difference between the canonical gospels and the non-canonical gospels is how they handle geography: that is, the question of where things happened. The canonical gospels we have these days usually come with maps. The Bible I have in hand right now has a detail map of the region described in the gospels with the location of a number of towns, cities, rivers, and lakes. The maps are necessary because the canonical gospels name so many places in a region where very few of us have lived. These places are already familiar to us from the events recorded in the canonical gospels: Bethany, Bethlehem, Bethphage, Bethsaida, Cana, Capernaum, Galilee, Jericho, Jerusalem, the Jordan, Nazareth, Sidon, Tyre, and others. My Bible also has a detailed map of the Jerusalem area showing the location of the Temple, various named gates and pools, and the Mount of Olives. This detailed map also helps the reader find the places mentioned by the writers of the canonical gospels. The canonical gospels have actions that you can trace on a map.

Maps would be little help in studying the non-canonical gospels. In the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of the Savior, the Gospel of Thomas, and the Gospel of Truth, I have not found a reference to any city, town, river, or lake in that region. What is recorded in these gospels does not have a specific location. These particular non-canonical gospels do not have much connection to any geographical context; they show no interest in the question of where things may have taken place.

Other non-canonical gospels may not be completely silent about where things took place, but they fall far short of the level of detail found in the canonical gospels. The Gospel of Philip mentions Jerusalem and the Jordan; the Protoevangelium of James mentions Jerusalem and Bethlehem; the Infancy Gospel of Thomas mentions Jerusalem. None of them mentions Bethany, Bethphage, Bethsaida, Cana, Capernaum, Galilee, Jericho, Nazareth, Sidon, or Tyre. The complete lack of mention of Galilee in these seven non-canonical gospels is especially remarkable when we compare those seven to the four canonical gospels, which mention Galilee sixty times all together.

This is not yet an exhaustive study; it is more just checking my general impression against readily available facts. I hope to do a more comprehensive study in the future with an actual read-through of all the canonical and non-canonical texts to make sure every angle has been covered. Still, what is available through on-line text and searching is enough to confirm the general impression: the non-canonical gospels have relatively little interest in where things happened. I expect a more thorough study would show the difference to be greater than the initial review, as the canonical gospels at times even locate the action not just within a city, but even in the home of a particular person or near a particular landmark.

Here again, if we have an interest in the historical Jesus, we have to ask ourselves which sources are better: the sources that make more effort to identify the location where things happen, or the sources which rarely (or in some cases, never) identify the location where things happen. Once again, the canonical gospels have more to say about the historical Jesus in an objectively measurable way.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

The historical Jesus is Jewish: Gauging a gospel's historical view of Jesus

It has become increasingly common for skeptics to say that there is no real difference of quality between the canonical gospels -- the ones in the New Testament -- and the non-canonical gospels. The claim is increasingly made that equally viable gospels were "suppressed" by political means as an exercise in the winners writing the history books.

When I first decided to see whether there was anything to this, I set out to read the non-canonical gospels. I was forcefully struck by an impression that these were very different in general quality from the New Testament gospels. But I wanted to be sure, and I asked myself, "Is it simply a matter of my familiarity with the canonical gospels, or is there something objectively, measurably different about the non-canonical gospels?" I set about seeing if there was a way to actually measure differences in a way that anybody could fact-check for themselves.

In this post, I'll cover one of the first things I noticed: the non-canonical gospels, by and large, have a Jesus who is not particularly Jewish, and disciples who are not particularly Jewish. I've done a more thorough write-up previously; for now I want to mention that I'm hardly the only one to have noticed this.

As a case in point, I'd like to introduce a book to you that demonstrates this fairly well. It's a Jewish book on the history of the liturgy. My regular readers will know I'm very fond of liturgical prayer. In my research on the history of the liturgy, I came across a book described by its dust jacket as "the most complete scholarly study of Jewish liturgy in existence today." Naturally, I couldn't resist getting a copy. The book is Jewish Liturgy: A Comprehensive History by Ismar Elbogen. The original edition (1913) was in German. At the time of the 1993 English translation, it was noted (again, from the dust jacket), "Eighty years after its first appearance, Elbogen's magisterial work remains the most thorough academic study of the Jewish liturgy ever written." His primary sources are many and varied, including the Talmud, Josephus, Philo of Alexandria, a host of Jewish writers through the ages, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Paul's letter to the Galatians, the Didache, Justin Martyr, and the Apostolic Constitutions, among others. Curiously (or not so curiously), I have not been able to find any references in this book to the Gospel of Mary, or the Gospel of Philip, or any of the non-canonical gospels.

Before we look at why this might happen, I should mention why this work takes so much notice of certain Christian writings: it uses them to establish historical facts about Jewish liturgy and worship, especially as it is practiced in the synagogue. The canonical gospels contain first-century evidence of what Jewish worship was like. There is a record of Hanukkah being celebrated in Jerusalem under the name the Feast of Dedication; it is applicable to the discussion of the history of Hanukkah. The book considers parallels between traditional Jewish prayers and other prayers recorded in the canonical gospels, and uses that to show how far traditional Jewish prayers were already developed at that point in time. The canonical gospels were referenced for peoples' reactions to the practice of giving scholars preferred seats in the synagogues, for whether the Jewish synagogue worship already included readings from the prophets and sermons on those readings, for whether the twice-weekly fast was already in place before the fall of the Temple. There is evidence on the development of the role of the synagogue leader in speaking to people who were out of order; when Jesus heals on the Sabbath, the fellow who objects has the proper title for the person who was supposed to maintain order in the synagogue. There is even evidence in the New Testament for some very detailed aspects of the Jewish liturgy: that the person who gave the sermon was first called to read, that the reading occurred while standing, that the sermon occurred while sitting. The gospels are used as evidence for the location of certain particular synagogues, and for the practice (also known elsewhere) that non-Jews might contribute to building a synagogue. All these very Jewish facts in the New Testament are placed alongside a continuum of Jewish writings to form a coherent whole of which they are an integral piece. Here I have focused only on the gospels, but the book takes the same approach to the book of Acts and Paul's letter to the Galatians.

So this author's interest in the New Testament comes down to this: how much historical information can you learn about first-century Jewish worship in general, and in particular the liturgical worship common in synagogues? The Jesus in the canonical gospels is a regular at the synagogue.

As for the non-canonical gospels, I have looked through the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of the Savior, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Truth, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, and the Protoevangelium of James; I have found on-line electronic editions of these to double-check my searches. I have not found a reference to a "synagogue" in any of them. Exactly how Jewish is a Jesus who never goes to a synagogue?

If the historical Jesus is a Jewish figure of interest in the area of religion, that's a huge point, that some gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) can be used by historians of Jewish liturgy and provide useful data on first-century Jewish worship, while other gospels do not even mention a synagogue, much less provide detailed information on first-century Jewish worship practices. That is a measurable difference in the quality of the works. The works that are measurably better in telling us about first-century Jewish religious life just happen to be the ones that the early Christian church found to be better sources in general. Large numbers of non-canonical gospels have a Jesus who never goes to a synagogue; the works are of no historical interest for scholars of first-century Judaism. Their Jesus seems ... out of context for a first-century Jew. If we grant that the historical Jesus is Jewish, then here is one objectively measurable point in favor of the canonical gospels having more to say about the historical Jesus.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Did the gospels retroactively invent Jesus' prophecies to fit the facts?

Another common claim of your basic internet skeptic is that the gospels retroactively invented Jesus' prophecies to fit what later happened. In particular, the prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem and of the Temple is a favorite target for such a claim. The prophecies are fairly specific about the Temple building being desecrated and ultimately completely leveled, the urgent need to flee when the time comes and the intensity of the suffering when the city comes under siege. Based on the very specific details of the prophecy that were fulfilled, skeptics naturally assume that it was retrofitted.

When I weigh this claim to see if it has any merit, I have to notice how often the gospels mention prophecies being fulfilled. I actually did a fairly in-depth study of that at one point. Luke is almost compulsive about it, once you put Luke and Acts side by side and consider them both. If he mentions a prophecy, he's going to mention the fulfillment if he's aware of it. He'll even go out of his way in the narrative to mention the fulfillment. I wonder if people these days have any idea what a big thing it was for the people of that day and that culture for Jerusalem to be sacked and the Temple leveled. It was their 9/11. I can't see any way that someone would record the prophecy of it at so much length, then not even mention the fulfillment of it.

The Gospel of John is a case in point. Nearly everyone agrees that it was written after the fall of Jerusalem (probably 25 years after, give or take a few years). It is the one gospel in the New Testament that doesn't go on and on about the prophecy of Jerusalem's upcoming destruction; it no longer mattered so much, twenty-five years after its fulfillment. When it is mentioned, it is lumped together with other things in the past. If someone wanted to retroactively invent a prophecy, the Gospel of John would have had all the opportunity in the world -- but it doesn't show much interest in the prophecy. It's old news.

The other three gospels go on at great length about the prophecy, but despite their track record (especially Luke's) of making a point to mention the fulfillment, there's no mention of the fulfillment here. None. After they make a point of recording prophecies and their fulfillment, and after basically whole chapters devoted to this particular prophecy, still no mention of the fulfillment.

I don't really buy that the prophecies were retroactively invented to point to a fulfillment. If that's the case, why in the world not mention it?

A note on the dating of the gospels: I would bet on Mark and Luke being written before the destruction of the Temple. This is based partly on a detailed study of how prophecies are used in each of the gospels, but also on the fact that Luke gives a play-by-play of certain figures in the early church -- and has it on his agenda to record early martyrdoms -- but suddenly stops in the early 60's A.D. without mentioning the martyrdoms of Peter or Paul. What are the odds that he'd stop where he did, given his agenda, if he knew of Peter's and Paul's martyrdoms? The most plausible explanation is that the narrative was up to then-current times when he stopped. Mark was a source for Luke, so Mark would have been completed before that. However, since we have evidence that Mark and Luke knew each other in person, it need not have been much earlier.

I would also bet on the first edition of Matthew -- the Hebrew/Aramaic one -- being written before the destruction. I have not found any details on when the translation and/or second edition of Matthew was written, but based on the deeply Jewish nature of that particular gospel and the non-mention of the destruction, I'd give decent odds that the main sayings of Jesus in Matthew were already in a set form (if still possibly in another language than the received text) before the destruction.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Did the early church have any critical scholarship of Biblical texts?

Many people speak as though critical scholarship of Biblical texts is a recent phenomenon, something of which the early church knew nothing. Some familiarity with scholars of the early church should serve to make our impressions more accurate.


Origen (d. circa 254 A.D.) was a textual scholar with exceptional devotion to the task. His passion was largely directed towards ensuring that an accurate translation of the Old Testament existed in Greek. To the best of my knowledge, he is the first Christian scholar to mark up Biblical texts to show comparative additions and omissions with respect to another edition of the same text. He writes to Julius Africanus about his marked-up version:
Again, in Genesis, the words, “God saw that it was good,” when the firmament was made, are not found in the Hebrew, and there is no small dispute among them about this; and other instances are to be found in Genesis, which I marked, for the sake of distinction, with the sign the Greeks call an obelisk, as on the other hand I marked with an asterisk those passages in our copies which are not found in the Hebrew. (From a letter from Origen to Africanus, see #4 on the linked page.)
To the best of my knowledge, this is the first critical edition of a book of the Bible by a Christian scholar; it was made in the 200's A.D. Africanus' letter which drew this response is worth a read also. While he doesn't mention comparing editions side-by-side, he does direct a keen mind to the question of the authenticity and originality of certain passages. The correspondence of these two is the earliest instance I have been able to find of Christian scholars discussing the originality of and evidence for (and against) Biblical passages which are considered questionable. The greetings in their letters suggest that a scholarly community may already have existed that was interested in the topic at hand.

Origen's contributions to comparing the Biblical texts extended far beyond comparing two individual texts and marking additions or omissions. He also completed the monumental task of compiling a side-by-side comparative study of the Old Testament in its entirety, including four Greek translations of the Old Testament together with a Hebrew and a transliterated Hebrew edition. This resulted in a total of six editions laid out side-by-side to allow for easy comparisons among them; the work was known as the Hexapla.


Pamphilus (died 309 A.D.) was an influence on Eusebius and Jerome; Eusebius is sometimes known as "Eusebius Pamphilus" or "Eusebius Pamphili" as a tribute to this scholar. Pamphilus created one of the more well-stocked libraries of the early church at Caesarea in a day when not only was there no, there was also no printing press. Jerome remembers him as the one who had obtained a copy of the Gospel of Matthew in Hebrew which still existed in Jerome's day in the library (On Illustrious Men, comments under #3). Jerome relates that Pamphilus was also impressed with Origen's scholarship: "he transcribed the greater part of the works of Origen with his own hand and these are still preserved in the library at Cæsarea." (On Illustrious Men, #75.) Anyone who is familiar with the volume of Origen's works will appreciate the size of effort taken to make copies of the majority of Origen's works. Pamphilus is said to be, along with Eusebius, "a most diligent investigator of the Holy Bible" (On Illustrious Men, #81). He provides a historical link in collecting, preserving and transmitting the scholarship of earlier Christians for the next generation of scholars. He also wrote an Apology for Origen, who was apparently rash enough to have needed it.

Eusebius the Historian

Eusebius (died circa 339 A.D.) was another prolific scholar in the early church, and another admirer of Origen's work. Though he is best remembered for his Church History, he also tried an ambitious project to compile the known histories of various nations into a more comprehensive world history. The general historian may be interested in the early histories he has passed on from various nations. For our present purposes, when he tries to chronicle the events from Jewish Scriptures, he decides to make separate treatment of the Hebrew text, the Septuagint translation into Greek, and the Samaritan Pentateuch. Eusebius mentions in his introductory notes to the Hebrew chronicle:
There is considerable disagreement among the Hebrews about their own chronology, so it will be good to commence by examining their differing accounts. By evaluating and comparing all of them, the truth will be arrived at. The five books of Moses describe the creation of the world, life before the flood, the history of the ancients after the flood, the generations of the Hebrews, and the passing of Moses. The Jews and the Samaritans, who were foreigners who came to live among the Jews, have differing versions of the books of the law. The characters of the Hebrew alphabet used by the Jews differ from those used by the Samaritans. The correct and original [alphabet] is not the one used by the [contemporary] Jews, because their descendants corrupted it. Yet there was no conflict between them [the Hebrews and the Samaritans] until the alteration of the letters. Furthermore there are numerous disagreements between the two with respect to chronology, as will become clear in the comparison below.

The Greek translation [of the Bible] also differs from the Hebrew, though not so much from the Samaritan [version]. There is disagreement [in chronology in the versions] up to the flood, but thereafter, until the time of Abraham, the versions are in harmony. The text we use was translated collectively by seventy Hebrew men from their language into Greek during the reign of Ptolemaeus Philadelphus. [Their translation] was placed in the library in the city of Alexandria, where it was carefully preserved. Now we shall set forth historical information from each of the versions, one after the other, so that it will be easy to distinguish the discrepancies.
At some point since Origen's Hexapla, Christian scholarship of the Old Testament had expanded to become aware of the Samaritan Pentateuch.

Eusebius is also the probable creator of a valuable textual study tool, now known as the Eusebian Canons, for locating parallel passages among the four gospels. This became a standard research and reference tool for those studying the gospels. Here, Eusebius built on and acknowledged the earlier work of the scholar Ammonius (probably early 200's A.D.). It should be difficult to imagine that nobody had noticed the parallels among the gospels in ancient times, given that reference tables had been compiled to locate parallel passages.


Jerome (died 420 A.D.) stood in what is, by now, a long line of Christian scholars with an interest in the text. He stands as a bridge between the rich history of Greek-speaking scholars of the text and a new generation of scholars who spoke Latin. Jerome is most famous as a translator, producing the Latin Vulgate edition of the Bible which was used in western Christendom for many centuries. Rather than belabor all the work which would go into translating the entire Bible into Latin, it should be mentioned that he also prepared critical editions of some books, using the same system of marking that we already saw in Origen two centuries before. Here we see none less than St. Augustine writing Jerome about two critical editions/translations of the book of Job, one prepared from the Greek (with comparative critical marks to the Hebrew) and the other straight from the Hebrew:
In this letter I have further to say, that I have since heard that you have translated Job out of the original Hebrew, although in your own translation of the same prophet from the Greek tongue we had already a version of that book. In that earlier version you marked with asterisks the words found in the Hebrew but wanting in the Greek, and with obelisks the words found in the Greek but wanting in the Hebrew; and this was done with such astonishing exactness, that in some places we have every word distinguished by a separate asterisk, as a sign that these words are in the Hebrew, but not in the Greek. Now, however, in this more recent version from the Hebrew, there is not the same scrupulous fidelity as to the words; and it perplexes any thoughtful reader to understand either what was the reason for marking the asterisks in the former version with so much care that they indicate the absence from the Greek version of even the smallest grammatical particles which have not been rendered from the Hebrew, or what is the reason for so much less care having been taken in this recent version from the Hebrew to secure that these same particles be found in their own places. I would have put down here an extract or two in illustration of this criticism; but at present I have not access to the Ms. of the translation from the Hebrew. Since, however, your quick discernment anticipates and goes beyond not only what I have said, but also what I meant to say, you already understand, I think, enough to be able, by giving the reason for the plan which you have adopted, to explain what perplexes me. (Letter from Augustine to Jerome, from #3 in linked page)
To this Jerome replied rather sharply that Augustine should "desist from annoying an old man, who seeks retirement in his monastic cell," and that "As for me, a soldier once, but a retired veteran now, it becomes me rather to applaud the victories won by you and others, than with my worn-out body to take part in the conflict." (Letter from Jerome to Augustine, see #3 on the linked page.) Augustine's marvel over the "astonishing exactness" of the young Jerome's critical editions may have led to his disappointment when, in his old age, Jerome no longer had the time or energy to produce new critical editions on the same level as before. For my part, I can't help but feel that Jerome's rest was well-deserved; he had already made enduring contributions to the life of the church.


Here I have surveyed the early scholars who are familiar to me, or who are friends or key sources of those familiar scholars. I cannot imagine how anyone familiar with these men and their work could say that early church had no true scholars of the texts. The modern scholar assumes study tools and critical approaches to the text that the early church helped to develop. While we may disagree with them at points, we still stand in the debt of the textual scholars of the early church.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Did the early church have any concept of using scholarship to shed light on questions of authorship?

Many people assume that the early church had no concept of using a scholarly approach to consider the authorship of a sacred text. It is quietly taken for granted that applying objective scholarship to Biblical matters was an innovation introduced only in recent centuries. Didn't the ancient church simply accept whatever they were told? Were there actually any proper scholars among them? If a scholar had questioned the authorship of a work, would they have suffered any adverse consequences for their intellectual freedom? Would they have experienced a suppression of their ideas? I'd like to consider early examples of Biblical scholarship to get a clearer picture of the situation.

Origen is considered one of the fathers of the early church, born in the late 100's A.D. and continuing well into the 200's. He was one of the respected scholars of his age. In his day, there was some question as to whether the epistle to the Hebrews was written by Paul or by someone else. Some had presented it as Paul's; others doubted that. Origen approached the question as a scholar, asking: what can we tell from the text? In his Homilies on the Epistle to the Hebrews he forms his opinion based on the author's eloquence in Greek. He notes that Paul's Greek was rough, while the Epistle to the Hebrews was in better Greek than the acknowledged writings of Paul. Based on this, he concludes that Paul could not have been the author. He also records that, along with some churches suggesting Paul as the author, others had suggested Luke or Clement as the author, while admitting that who wrote it is "known to God alone." (Summary from Eusebius' History 6:25; see items 11-14 on the page at CCEL for the details)

Another prominent scholar in the 200's A.D. was Dionysius of Alexandria, whose career as a scholar included being head of the catechetical school of Alexandria. He also became Bishop of Alexandria, one of the most respected episcopal offices in ancient Christendom. He addressed questions in the church as to whether the same person wrote the Gospel of John and the book of Revelation. His findings were that the books had different authors; his methods include many of the same points considered by modern scholars. Here, briefly, are his lines of research:
  1. Comparing the use of the name “John” in the texts: Revelation makes use of the name John again and again, while the Gospel of John and the letters attributed to John do not.
  2. Framing and introduction: the emphasis on the beginnings and on what they had seen or beheld as the starting point for both the Gospel of John and 1 John, but not Revelation.
  3. The number of prominent themes shared between the Gospel of John and 1 John that are not really concerns in Revelation: the Life, the Light, turning away from darkness, truth, grace, joy, the flesh and blood of the Lord, judgment, forgiveness of sins, God’s love for us, the command to “love one another”; Dionysius compiles a still lengthier catalog of items he has compared, things which he has found as themes in both the Gospel of John and 1 John, but not in Revelation.
  4. Phraseology and skill with the Greek language in which both are written. The Gospel of John and 1 John are written “not only without any blunders in the use of Greek, but with remarkable skill with regards diction, logical thought, and orderly expression.” As for Revelation, “his language and style are not really Greek; he uses barbarous idioms, and is sometimes guilty of solecisms.”
The findings of Dionysius is recorded at more length in Eusebius' History (7.25); the scholarly review of Revelation begins at item 6 on the linked page.

Here we see two respected scholars in the early church using objective methods to consider questions of authorship. In both cases, the scholars applied themselves to a dispute about who wrote a document; in both cases, there were Christians who considered the book to be canonical -- that is, these works being subjected to scholarship were already considered by some to be Holy Scripture. In recognition of their scholarship, both were commemorated and commended by the church historian Eusebius.

From Origen, from Dionysius of Alexandria, and from Eusebius who valued and preserved their work for posterity, we see that the early church did understand that the authorship of a proposed work could be questioned. We also see that the early church had scholars who approached the question by studying objective, observable facts of the texts. It is interesting to note that they also reached essentially the same conclusions as modern scholars on the authorship of the works in question. And they did it in the 200's A.D.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Did any of the gospels claim to have been written by an eyewitness?

Many of the Christians I know are aware that the fourth gospel contains an explicit claim to be written by an eyewitness: "This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down" (John 21:24). This is common knowledge among Christians who discuss the Bible with non-Christians; it is basic "Apologetics 101" level material. Yet the charge has been circulating that no gospels claim to have been written by an eyewitness. This charge bears the marks of someone who is simply not that familiar with the material.

This claim has been made by Bart Ehrman. In his book Lost Christianities he asserts that none of the canonical gospels "claims to be written by an eyewitness or a companion to an eyewitness" (p. 135 of the 2003 Oxford U. printing available at my library).

It is unfortunate that his book contains a misstatement of fact that could have been easily avoided by a more thorough knowledge of the subject. Sometimes, when meeting claims against Christianity, it helps to remember that the level of Biblical literacy in our society is at very low levels, and some patience is called for as we seek to inject some more knowledge of the texts into the current discussions about them.

Have Protestants missed the point of the Reformation?

Most Protestants are familiar with the traditional account of the Reformation: how a German monk posted debating points on the church door, challenging a corrupt system. And the church of that day plainly was corrupt. The 95 Theses generally focused on particular aspects of the sale of indulgences and fund-raising practices centered around purgatory, with some notable other comments on the general way that forgiveness was being taught and practiced.

Protestants have taken to heart that the sale of indulgences was wicked and corrupt; no risk of repeating the same mistakes there. But were those the only mistakes we're at risk of repeating? The most radical challenges of the 95 Theses tend to be missed; they aren't actually in the text, but in the act of posting debating points to challenge the church:
  1. The church is not infallible.
  2. True orthodoxy traces its roots to Christ and his witnesses.
  3. The church exceeds its authority whenever it teaches on God's authority anything it has not received on God's authority.
The Reformation in its small beginnings was not intended as a schism or a blame game, but as a house-cleaning. The minute it becomes an opportunity to feel smugly superior to Rome, it becomes a religious corruption in itself. This becomes a temptation when we are sure that the problems needing reform are unique to the Church of Rome. That may be so for the 95 Theses posted for debate that day. But the deeper message should be considered posted on every church door every day.
  1. The church is not infallible.
  2. True orthodoxy traces its roots to Christ and his witnesses.
  3. The church exceeds its authority whenever it teaches on God's authority anything it has not received on God's authority.
Since the Reformation, we do not owe allegiance to a supposedly infallible hierarchy that cannot imagine the possibility of error. But do our churches have the same spirit? I cannot think of a single church body without at least one teaching that is beyond what we have on Christ's authority, nor one that does not demonize its would-be reformers on the unspoken assumption of their own group's infallibility in at least one matter.

If we want to celebrate Reformation Day, I hope we do it by admitting the fallibility of the church and by listening to our own reformers.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Has modern scholarship disproved the traditional authorship of the Gospel of John?

Of the four canonical gospels of the life of Christ, the one I have most often seen dismissed outright for historical value is the Gospel of John. The early church agreed that it was the latest written of the four. In the early church, the name attached to the gospel was that of John the Apostle. But scholars have found signs of editing; was it tampering? There is also clearly an appendix in Chapter 21 with multiple authors referring to themselves as "we" (John 21:24). Could anything refute the traditional attribution to John more clearly? Can anything in an altered document be trusted?

That depends very much on whether the author was aware of the editing process and whether he approved of it. Does the early church have anything to say about how such editing might have happened? As a matter of fact, it does. This excerpt is from the Muratorian Canon, probably dated to the late 100's A.D., commenting on how the fourth gospel came to be written:
When his fellow-disciples and bishops encouraged him, John said, “Fast along with me three days from today, and whatever may be revealed to each, let us relate it one to another.” The same night it was revealed to Andrew, one of the apostles, that John in his own name should write down everything and that they should all revise it. (from the Muratorian Canon, likely dates ranging from 170 A.D. – 200 A.D based on internal evidence. Emphasis added.)
The very early church, still in the 100's, retained this information on how the fourth gospel came to be written, how it came to be edited, and why it has an appendix. One of the names of the editors is retained for us: Andrew the apostle, who was Simon Peter's brother.

I would say that not only has modern scholarship not disproved the traditional authorship of the Gospel of John, I'd say that the Muratorian Canon's comments explain all the concerns that have been raised about the appendix and editing. The more interesting question to me is this: I'm curious whether modern scholarship has interacted with the Muratorian Canon's more detailed description of how the Gospel of John came to be written which would explain both editing and the appendix. I'm very curious whether modern scholarship has interacted seriously with the witness of the early church on how the fourth gospel came to be written.

For my own part, in the Muratorian Canon I see an explanation from the early Christian church that covers all the known facts and objections to traditional authorship. Unless a better explanation should be found, I will work under the view that this explanation is correct for the authorship and editing of the fourth gospel.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

How long before Luke had a copy of Mark's Gospel?

It is taken for granted, given the similarities between the gospels of Mark and Luke, that Luke used the Gospel of Mark as a major source of information on the life of Christ. In some peoples' minds, there is an assumption that runs like this: Mark's gospel must have been in circulation awhile before it was widely enough distributed to fall into the hands of Luke. After all, this was in the days of hand-copied manuscripts. It took longer for a document to become widely known, longer for any potentially-interested people to obtain a copy. It could easily have taken years -- possibly a decade or more -- for Mark's writings to come into the hands of Luke.

All of this works on the assumption that Mark and Luke didn't know each other. The early Christian community was tightly-knit; the lists of personal greetings at the end of various letters should be some clue to that. But the lists of personal greetings also contain evidence that Mark and Luke knew each other directly. Bear in mind that, whether or not you accept the writings attributed to Paul as being from Paul, they still bear record of Mark and Luke being closely associated with each other on several different occasions.

Consider the personal greetings from the letter to Philemon:
Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers. (Philemon 23-24).
The most plain interpretation of that would mean that Mark and Luke knew each other directly. From the language used, they may have known each other as closely as I know my own co-workers.

Consider again the personal greetings from the end of Colossians, where many of the same people also appear in another set of greetings:
My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas. ... Our dear friend Luke, the doctor, and Demas send greetings. (Colossians 4:10, 14).
Here we have another record of Mark and Luke being together among the companions of Paul at that time.

We have an additional record from Paul's second letter to Timothy:
Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry. (2 Timothy 4:11)
Here we have two passages listing Mark and Luke as being together among the same group in the same city, and a third making arrangements for Mark to come back and join Paul and Luke. Whether or not we accept the attribution of these letters to Paul, they still bear witness to the fact that Luke and Mark were closely associated in the mind of the early church. Based on the early documents we have, it is likely enough that the two knew each other directly. There is no reason to suppose a lengthy delay between Mark finishing his gospel and Luke obtaining a copy.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Did the early church care if a document's attribution was accurate?

When we look at the number of documents passed along under the names of the apostles, one thing is plain: there were plenty of forgeries. Is "forgery" too harsh a word? Was it an accepted practice? If someone other than the apostle Peter had claimed to be Peter and had written under his name, would the church have had a problem with that? Or would that have been seen as "in bounds", given how many examples we have of the practice of borrowing a famous name?

The Wisdom of Solomon was not written by Solomon, and yet had acceptance among both Jews and Christians. According to the Muratorian canon, Wisdom was "written by the friends of Solomon in his honor." How much does this show an acceptance of the practice of name-borrowing, and how much does this show that the attribution to Solomon is still openly -- if politely -- denied? Here the early Christian community shows a desire for accuracy in its attributions, so that a worthwhile book might be included in the canon even while its traditional attribution was tactfully disowned.

There are other examples of the early church paying attention to genuine authorship. The Muratorian canon records that some letters circulating under Paul's name were said to be "forged" and that there was some dispute over an Apocalypse of Peter. Origen noted the second letter of Peter was "disputed" as to its authenticity; he also notes of 2 John and 3 John, "not everyone agrees that these are genuine". Origen, again, openly discusses the uncertainty and various conjectures about who may have written the letter to the Hebrews, if not Paul. All this is early in church history, from 100's and 200's A.D., in which we find open and frank discussion of such things in the church, including among the church's scholars such as Origen. Again, so as to make this conversation accessible to skeptics, I have limited these quotations to documents available in Bart Ehrman's book Lost Scriptures, here under the section titled Canonical Lists.

Based on the original source materials cited by Ehrman, we can see that the early Christian community had some experience rejecting claims of famous authorship which were not well-founded, and had a track record of calling attention to attributions about which they were uncertain.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Would using an apostle's name guarantee acceptance in the early church?

Some people do not believe that anyone who knew Jesus directly -- whether his followers or his family -- were involved in writing any of the documents that were eventually accepted as part of the New Testament. It is commonly assumed that it was a standard thing for people to forge writings in the name of famous people, and of course the early church would have accepted any writing uncritically if it had the name of an apostle attached to it, or one of Jesus' family.

While there were plenty of documents falsely written under the name of someone famous in the early church, it does not follow that the early church would accept them uncritically. In fact, we know that they did not. There are quite a few writings with the apostles' names attached which were rejected by the early church as pseudonymous forgeries. Again Bart Ehrman, no friend of orthodox Christianity, has collected some of these works in his book Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament. Here we see 5 works ascribed to Peter (as opposed to 2 in the New Testament) and one more mentioning both Peter and James, 3 that drop the name Thomas in the title (none in the New Testament), 9 others variously claiming a connection to James, John, Philip, Mary, or Paul. One writing even claims co-authorship of eleven surviving apostles (John, Thomas, Peter, Andrew, James, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Nathaniel, Judas Zelotes, and Cephas) -- which would form something of a mandate to accept and propagate the writing as coming from the best possible sources on Jesus ... if it were considered genuine.

Once again, Mr. Ehrman has provided a valuable service by showing just how often dropping the name of a famous figure of early Christianity -- even a follower or a relation of Jesus -- was not enough to persuade the early church to accept a writing. The early church also wanted some assurance that it actually came from the named source. Apparently, they were aware that some people might resort to forgery to promote their own views and wanted some guarantee of authenticity. It is a fair question what, exactly, their methods were; but to say they were swayed by mere name-dropping is disproved by how many texts with big-name attributions were regarded as forgeries in the early church.

In the companion volume Lost Christianities, Ehrman provides a chart with approximate dates for these non-canonical writings. By examining it, particularly with an eye to which writings claimed a connection to followers and family of Jesus, the reader may gain another useful clue as to why the early church did not necessarily accept these documents as coming from the claimed sources. Per Ehrman's chart, these rejected documents have conspicuously late dates compared to the lives of the supposed authors. They were written no sooner than the second century, quite a few not until the middle of the second century, the third century, or in one case even the fourth century for a document claiming to come from Paul. It seems reasonable enough, on the surface, that documents that were never heard of by the first few generations -- or centuries -- of Christians might be suspect whether they were really from the apostles. While I don't recall Dr. Ehrman anywhere drawing attention to the reasonable suspicion of authorship that would fall on a document written centuries after the supposed author's death, the early church seems to have been well aware of a chronological problem here with the historical plausibility of the claim.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Would the early Christian church have accepted any writing?

One of the arguments I hear bandied about by skeptics is that the early church would have accepted anything. They weren't sufficiently skeptical about the writings they received and passed along; they were predisposed to take any writing that had a good story behind it. The 27 writings the early church did finally accept as the canonical New Testament haven't been properly screened; they were just accepted at face value by people who were in the habit of accepting things at face value.

This argument does not pass the most basic of all B.S. detectors: the sheer amount of contrary evidence. Don't take my word for it; look at the collected writings of Bart Ehrman, proud opponent of Christian orthodoxy. His book Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament lists an additional 17 gospels, 5 additional books of acts of the apostles, 13 non-canonical epistles and related writings, and 7 non-canonical apocalypses and revelatory writings. Ehrman's work doesn't list every single piece of early Christian writing, but it does tally up an impressive 42 additional works. If you compare the 27 writings that did make the New Testament with the 42 that Ehrman lists that did not, we find that the church was, actually, fairly selective. If we just work with these two simple numbers -- the list that the early church ultimately accepted and the list that Ehrman proposes -- we find that the church screened out just over 60% of the proposed writings.

It's a legitimate question: On what did the early church screen works as being "in" or "out"? But it's not legitimate to say they weren't screening.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Is the NT reliable? Stock arguments against that I find unconvincing, and why

There are a number of stock arguments circulating among skeptics that target the reliability of the New Testament. I would not ask a skeptic to assume divine inspiration; I simply intend to point out some historical realities in the early Christian church that may not be widely known among skeptics, and how these verifiable historical situations tend to make certain arguments non-starters. These selected arguments are ones that I find glaringly at odds with facts that anyone who took the trouble can easily verify. The remainder of this discussion won't assume anything about the New Testament documents beyond this: that they were in circulation in the early Christian community, that the early Christian community believed them to be honest. That is a fairly minimalist starting point and should allow us to start out on common ground on which both parties agree.

Here are some of the arguments that I intend to review and show why I think they are non-starters. In upcoming posts, I will go into the basic background on each and show why I think that, given the known facts, these arguments are non-starters.