Sunday, March 31, 2013

Textual Criticism and the Preservation of the NT, Part 2

As a result of this complex process of analysis, comparison, and critical editing of the 5,800 Greek manuscripts, early translations, and citations by the Early Christian writers of the first four centuries, which are the true sources from which the original NT text is reconstructed, textual critics have identified the following four major text-types:

1. The Western Text. This text type came into existence late in the second century, and had a wide geographical spread. Though it certainly contains readings from the original NT, it has a tendency to expand on and paraphrase the text, especially in the Gospels and Acts, which is less true of the other text types. An example of this tendency may be seen in Codex D where in Luke 6, between verses 5 and 6, the following words have been inserted: "That same day, seeing a certain man working on the Sabbath, he said, 'Man, if indeed you know what you are doing, you are blessed. But if you do not know what you are doing, you are accursed and a transgressor of the law.'" This text is represented by several Greek manuscripts, of which Codex D (Fifth century), is the best representative; by the Old Latin versions, which first appeared around 258 A.D.; and in the writings of Tertullian, Cyprian, and Novatian (mid-second to early third century A.D.). Moreover, the evidence also seems to indicate that this text-type had two branches, one associated with Rome and North Africa, the other with Antioch and the East.

2. The Alexandrian Text. This is the second oldest text-type, also dating back to the late second century. It was produced by professional scribes connected with the Christian academy there, who were trained in the textual criticism that was applied to all classic Greek literature by the scribes and scholars of the great Alexandrian Library. "Functioning as the most ancient of the New Testament textual critics, the Alexandrian scribes selected the best manuscripts and then produced a text that reflected what they considered to be the original text." So because of its age and general high quality, it is easy to see why Westcott and Hort favored this text-type over the Byzantine. However, while still regarded as one of the better edited and more reliable ancient text-types, many NT scholars today believe that, on the basis of current principles of textual criticism, some original readings were not included in the Alexandrian Text, and so give preference to the Western, Caesarean, and Byzantine text-types in these few instances. The Alexandrian Text is represented, in part, by P5 (John 1, 16, and 20, 3rd century), P47 (Rev. 9-17, 3rd century), P66 (John, 2nd century), P67 (Luke, 2nd century), P72 (1 and 2 Peter, Jude, 3rd century),P75 (Luke and John, c. 200 A.D.), Codex Sinaticus (4th Century), Codex Alexandrius (5th century), Codex Vaticanius (4th century); the Coptic and Sahidic translations (3rd-4th centuries); and the writings of Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 313-371 A.D.), Clement of Alexandria (c. 180-240 A.D.), and Origen (c. 185-254 A.D.).

3. The Caesarean Text. This is the third oldest text-type, and though it arose in Egypt, early in the third century it became associated with Caesarea. It was marked by the scribal practices current in both Egypt and Palestine, and was a mixed text that combined what the ancient scribes considered the best readings of both the Antiochian/Western Text and the Alexandrian Text. Some scholars, because of affinities with the Alexandrian Text, classify it as a subgroup of that text-type, while others argue that it has enough distinguishing characteristics to set it apart as a separate text-type. The primary witnesses to this text-type are the Chester Beatty Papyri (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Acts, c. 150 A.D.), Codex W (5th century), Codex Theta (9th century), Miniscules 565 and 700 (6th century), the Old Syriac Version (6th century), and the writings of Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 348-387 A.D.).

4. The Byzantine Text. This is the fourth oldest text-type, and is characterized by conflation, or combination of divergent readings, from the earlier text-types, as well as a deliberate harmonization of parallel passages. Though disputed by some, many NT scholars believe the Byzantine Text had its roots in a recension (i.e. a deliberate correcting and editing of a document) of the Antiochian/Western Text by Lucian, the Bishop of Antioch, which he brought to Constantinople prior to the Docletian Persecution (303-313 A.D.). These facts, plus the consideration that the Byzantine Text is not represented in Bible translations or citations by Christian writers of the first three centuries A.D., demonstrate the Byzantine Text to be a late and secondary witness to the original text of the NT. John Chrysostrom (c. 347-407 A.D.) is the first Greek Christian writer whose NT citations have definite Byzantine character. The primary witnesses for the Byzantine Text are Codices A, E, F, G, H, K, L, S (4th-6th centuries) most Miniscules (9th-11th centuries), and the Later Church Fathers (4th-6th centuries).

A Word of Clarification and Assurance

Now, for some who may find what we have said about the copying, distribution, and reconstruction of the original NT text disturbing, we need to make some clarification and give a word of assurance. 99% of the variants that exist between these four text-types are minor in nature, since they are misspellings of words, reversed word order, or words that were confused because they looked or sounded alike to the scribes who made the copies. So there is really only 1% or something in the order of 1,400 words that are in doubt as regards these variants. And none of them adversely affect the truthfulness of any Christian doctrine essential to salvation or godly living. F.F. Bruce states the situation very well:

Something more ought to be said, and said with much emphasis. We
have been discussing various textual types, and reviewing their comparative claims
 to be regarded as the best representatives of the original New Testament text.
But there are not wide divergences between these types, of a kind that could make
any difference to the Church’s responsibility to be a witness and guardian of Holy Writ.
The Authorized Version of 1611, by and large, the Byzantine text. The Revised Version
of 1881 and the American Standard Version of 1901, which were produced under the
influence of Westcott and Hort’s textual theory and work , represent in the main
the Alexandrian text. The Revised Standard Version, New English Bible, and New
International Version reflect the views of contemporary textual scholars, who have traced
the various early lines of textual transmission back to the second century, and represent an
eclectic text, each variant reading of the second-century textual types being considered on
its own merits, without marked preference being given to any single one of these types. But
the words of one of the editors of the R.S.V. are perfectly true of it and of the later versions:
“It will be obvious to the careful reader that still in 1946, as in 1881 and 1901, no doctrine
of the Christian faith has been affected by the revision, for the simple reason that, out of the thousands of variant readings in the manuscripts, none has turned up thus far that requires a
revision of Christian doctrine.”  (F.F. Bruce.  "The Text of the New Testament," The Books
and the Parchments, 2nd Edition, pp.124-125.)

Nevertheless, despite what Bruce and others have said, there are those who, in defending the KJV and the Textus Receptus, insist on making the charge that modern translations, based on any text other than the Byzantine Text, either deny or water-down references to the deity of Jesus Christ. But this is not true, as the following chart on five key NT verses reveals, which compares the KJV (1611), based on the Byzantine Text; the English Revised Version (1881), based on the Alexandrian Text; and the NIV (1984), based on an Eclectic Text (a critical text that incorporates the best readings of all four text-types). And for an additional comparison, the New World Translation used by Jehovah Witnesses has been included in the chart:

Key NT Verses on Christ’s Deity (Y=Yes; X=No)

TranslationJohn 1:1    John 1:18    Titus 2:13    Hebrews 1:8    2 Peter 1:1  

      KJV               Y                  X                  X                   Y                     X

      ERV              Y                  X                  Y                   Y                     Y

      NIV               Y                  Y                  Y                   Y                     Y

      NWT             X                  X                  X                   X                     X

Except for the NWT, which reflects the heretical teaching of the Jehovah Witnesses, all the other translations affirm the deity of Jesus Christ.  However, as can be plainly seen from the chart, it is the NIV and not the KJV, that consistently affirms Christ’s deity. So, at least on this key point of doctrine, I trust no one will glibly tell me or anyone else that the KJV is “a superior witness” to modern translations as regards the deity of Christ.  Clearly, the evidence shows otherwise.

Unfortunately, I don’t have space to go into the pros and cons for the quality and use of every modern translation of the Bible into English.  Yet for those who are interested in this matter, I would recommend Sakae Kubo and Walter Specht’s So Many Versions?: Twentieth Century English Versions of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1975). As for myself, I prefer to use Bible translations written in modern English, produced by scholars who believe in the full inspiration, trustworthiness and authority of the original NT, and that are based on an eclectic Greek New Testament text: The New American Standard Version, the New International Version, the New Living Translation, and the God's Word Translation. Still, I would encourage you to read Kubo and Specht's book, and decide for yourself which Bible translations are best for you.

Now, A Final Word

Unfortunately, I must briefly address issues brought up by a small group of ultra-conservative agitators who are opposed to the use of all modern Bible translations not based on the Textus Receptus, which underlies the KJV.  For this shift from the Textus Receptus and the KJV to modern translations based on the "corrupt" Alexandrian text, they primarily blame Brooke F. Westcott and Fenton J. A. Hort, whom they often portray in a very sinister and diabolical manner.  And so I will now say something about Brooke F. Westcott and Fenton J. A. Hort.

The first thing to be said is that it is true that Westcott and Hort may have not been as conservative in some of their views as are some modern conservative Evangelical Christians. However, that does not, in and of itself, invalidate their NT textual critical theory and work. For there were conservative, orthodox scholars, such as J. A. Bengel and Samuel P. Tregelles whose work anticipated that of Westcott and Hort and which, indeed, was the foundation that Westcott and Hort built upon. And later conservative, orthodox scholars, such as Benjamin B. Warfield, F.F. Bruce, J. Gresham Machen, and Gordon D. Fee have confirmed that the Alexandrian Text is both earlier than the Byzantine Text and is, at many points, a more reliable witness to the original N.T. text. And this is true, regardless of anyone’s negative or positive opinions about these men.

Furthermore, Brooke F. Westcott was an excellent NT expositor and wrote a first-rate commentary on John's Gospel that was both conservative in viewpoint and unsurpassed in its explanation of John's message. Though in some respects more liberal in his opinions than Westcott, it should be noted that Fenton J. A. Hort wrote a short treatise defending "God the Only Son" as the original reading of John 1:18. And please remember that both men were Anglican clergymen, which means that some of their views on baptism and church membership, for instance, would be different from those of Baptists. Can we not recognize the positive contributions of these men without totally writing them off? We talk about unity in essentials, liberty in disputable matters, and love towards all; should we not give them the benefit of the doubt?

Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying we should overlook genuine errors on their part. But the charges made by some KJVO defenders, for instance, that they denied the deity of Christ, or denied the propitiatory nature of Christ's sacrifice, or were even active members in an occult "Ghost Society," are absolutely false!  On the basis of research I was able to do on the Internet, I found that these charges proved to be, for the most part, distortions of comments in certain of Westcott's letters and written works that were made by a rabid "King-James-Version-Only" writer, Gail Riplinger, in her book New Age Versions. Arguments that other KJVO defenders, I must say, have taken up and used without taking the trouble to research and verify their validity. Moreover, a number of scholars have revealed how Riplinger’s book is just full of distorted information, fallacious arguments, and flat out lies.

Christians who, above all others, profess both to love the truth and to love their Christian brothers and sisters, should never engage in arguments that attempt to draw conclusions from a prejudicial selection of evidence available, or from a slanted use of terms, or a slurring appeal to guilt by association, or repeated appeal to false evidence. If anyone does not agree with Westcott and Hort’s textual theory and work, then give us well-reasoned arguments squarely based on the NT textual evidence we possess, and not on Riplinger and her followers misrepresentations, distortions, and falsehoods.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Textual Criticism and the Preservation of the NT, Part 1

In discussions about the NT record of Jesus' life and ministry, especially with atheists and Muslims, one often hears the charge that the NT documents have been corrupted and so are not reliable witnesses to what Jesus actually said and did.  More often than not, those making these charges are unaware that NT textual criticism confirms that of all ancient texts, the NT text is the most well preserved and reliable of them all.  So in this article we will consider the nature and practice of NT textual criticism; what it tells us about the preservation and reliability of the NT text; and how that affects the trustworthiness and usefulness of the various Bible translations Christians use today.

Nature and Practice of NT Textual Criticism

Textual Criticism is the scientific study of various witnesses to an original text, following certain set principles of analysis, evaluation and categorization. By careful examination of these witnesses, and the consistent use of these set principles, textual critics, as nearly as is possible, reconstruct this original text from all the witnesses available. For the New Testament, the evidence for the original text is not only provided by the earliest manuscripts of the Greek New Testament, but also by the earliest ancient translations (e.g. Old Latin, Aramaic and Coptic), from the readings of which the underlying Greek can often be inferred. In addition, there are the quotations from the New Testament in the works of early Christian writers from the second to sixth centuries in Greek, Latin, Aramaic, Coptic and Armenian that are also valuable in recovering the original text of the New Testament.

From the 1st century until the 15th century, all religious and secular books were copied by hand. As consequence, there were common copyist errors that led to variants, or differing readings, between manuscripts copied from a single archetype or primary text: Words were misspelled; word order was reversed; words that looked alike, though different in meaning, were confused and copied, etc. Then there are intentional errors, such as harmonization of all parallel passages when the copyist noted differences in the exemplar (i.e. the primary text being copied), correction of what the copyist perceived as poor grammar in the exemplar, or correcting what is perceived therein by the copyist as a theologically novel or unorthodox reading. And the manuscripts in all the Text-types, whether Western, Alexandrian, Caesarean or Byzantine, contain some variants of these kinds.

So in order to eliminate these copyist errors, and reconstruct the original text as much as possible, there is a four-stage process in a NT critic’s work, as F.F. Bruce explains:

There are four principle stages in the work of the textual critic. First,
he makes a study such individual manuscripts as are available to him,
correcting obvious [copyist] slips and taking cognizance of what appear to
be scribal alterations, whether accidental or deliberate. Next, he arranges
these manuscripts in groups. Those which share some peculiar features
of spelling, wording, or some common error, are probably related to one
another and have a common archetype. There are different ways of
grouping manuscripts, according as their evident relation to one another is
more or less close. Those whose mutual relation can be fairly precisely
established are said to constitute a family. But a number of families, while
they are diverse from one another in many respects, may have a sufficient
number of significant features in common to suggest that they all
represent one rather early textual type. In the third place, when the
arranging of the manuscripts in groups leads to the establishment of an
archetype for each of the groups which have been distinguished, these
archetypes themselves are subjected to comparative study in the hope
that it may be possible to reconstruct a provisional archetype from which
the archetypes themselves are descended; if this is achieved, then we
have arrived as closely as we can to the autographic text (F.F. Bruce, The Books
And the Parchments, 2nd Edtion (1981), p. 212).

As they carry out this four stage task, textual critics follow certain criteria that have to do with both the external and internal evidence we possess. And for any manuscript to be considered a trustworthy witness to the original Greek New Testament, it must pass all these criteria, which include the following:

1. Date of the Text-Type. Other things being equal, an older document may be more authoritative than a more recent one. This is not only true as regards the differences of the oldest manuscripts comprising the four text types, but also of the manuscripts comprising each individual text- type as well. Consider the so-called Textus Receptus, which underlies the KJV of 1611. While it is a member of the Byzantine Text-type, it is now regarded as a late and poor witness of that text-type. This edition of the Greek New Testament was produced and published in 1516 by Desiderius Erasmus (1469-1536), a Roman Catholic biblical scholar and theologian. It was based on seven Greek manuscripts, none older than the eleventh century, and incomplete ones at that. "For the Book of Revelation he had but one manuscript, and it was lacking the final leaf, which contained the last six verses of the book. Therefore Erasmus translated the Latin Vulgate back into Greek and published that. Hence in the last six verses of Revelation in Erasmus's Greek New Testament, several words and phrases may be found that are attested in Greek manuscript whatsoever." When older manuscripts were discovered, between 1650 and 1850, study and comparison of the Textus Receptus with these texts soon revealed it as an inferior representative of the Byzantine Text-type. Hence calls for the revision of the KJV, in the light of these new discoveries, began as early as 1660. So for all their notoriety, Westcott and Hort were at the end of a long process that led to both the criticism and replacement of the Textus Receptus as the sole basis for English translations.

2. Geographical Distribution of the Text-Type. Readings found in manuscripts from widely separated geographical areas indicate it is less likely to be the idiosyncratic error of one local from which the manuscript may have come. So though the various text-types may have originated in Egypt, Asia Minor, Palestine, and Italy, they were not restricted to those locations. The evidence we possess indicates that prior to the Diocletian Persecution (303-310 A.D.) and the ascendancy of Byzantium under Constantine (306-337 A.D.), the other three Text Types (i.e. Western, Alexandrian, and Caesarean) were as widely spread geographically, as was the later Byzantine Text, even though fewer numbers of those earlier texts were preserved. The evidence also indicates that during the second century, a certain amount of "cross-pollination" among the text-types occurred as copies of the NT were being circulated and recopied in the various centers of Christianity; it was only in the third century that they became more fixed and identified with certain locals.

3. Genealogical Relationship. The relationship of the various witnesses to the text-types is important, for if a variety witnesses that support a particular reading from one text type, then this is an indication that they are all copies of copies of copies springing from one main, ancestral archetype. Therefore, manuscripts must be weighed, and not merely counted. This means that though 95% of the existing Greek manuscripts are of the Byzantine Text-type, all are copies of copies of copies of an ancestral archetype that cannot be traced beyond 250 A.D., and the majority of these Byzantine manuscripts date from the seventh century or later. And though it is disputed, a number of scholars, beginning with Westcott and Hort, have argued that the Byzantine text itself originated with a form of the Western text, known as Old Antiochian, brought to Constantinople by Lucian, the former Bishop of Antioch, just prior to the outbreak of the Diocletian Persecution. So, for these reasons, the Byzantine Text, though represented by a larger number of manuscripts, is not now regarded as being superior to the other text-types as a preserver of the original readings of the NT.

4. The shorter reading is preferable to the longer reading. If a scribe makes an intentional change in the NT text, he is more likely to add than to omit, such as a note of explanation, adding a phrase from a parallel passage, or conflating (i.e. combining) two or more readings. For example, consider Luke 11:2, where the good doctor gives us his version of "The Lord's Prayer." In Bible versions based on the critical NT text, it reads, "Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come," whereas some versions based primarily on the Byzantine text read, "Our Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come." A scribe, familiar with the Lord's Prayer in Matthew, might assume (incorrectly) that the version in Luke left out some words, and so would add words from Matthew to make the two versions more fully agree. The problem with this assumption by the scribe, of course, is that one form of the prayer was given while Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount and the second, as Luke plainly tells us (Luke 11:1), some time later, when Jesus and the disciples were alone for mediation and prayer, and his disciples asked for instruction on how to better pray. It was due to the fact that some scribes did not understand how Jesus could teach two different forms of this prayer, to different audiences on different occasions that tended to lead to their harmonization of these passages. Otherwise, if the longer reading was original, then there does not seem to be any good reason why it should have shortened. Therefore, in Luke 11:2, the shorter reading is preferable to the longer reading.

5. The harder reading is preferable to an easier reading. A scribe is more likely to change a word which is difficult to understand into a word which is easier to understand and is related in meaning. For example, consider John 1:18, for which there are these two readings: a) monogenes huios ("the One and Only Son"); and b) monogenes Theos ("the One and Only God"). The easiest reading is clearly monogenes huios, since it is the form found in John 3:16. Monogenes Theos is the more difficult or harder reading; yet it agrees with John's teaching elsewhere, in which he specifically identifies Jesus the Son as being God (e.g., John1:1). "It may make even surer sense, if we assume that the correct text omits the article before monogenes (as do W-H, Merk, Nestle, BFBS 2nd ed., on good mss. evidence), as the emphasis may then be upon Christ's nature: "No one has seen God...He who himself is deity...has set him forth" (J. Harold Greenlee, Introduction To New Testament Textual Criticism, p. 102).  And that is why the NRSV, for example, renders John 1:18 as follows: "No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known."

6. The reading from which other readings in a variant could most easily have developed is preferable. This principle may overlap with the previous two principles, since either a short reading or a hard reading may give rise to alternate readings. In general, the various types of intentional and unintentional errors suggest the bases on which one reading may give rise to another. Again, consider the example of Luke 11:2 above. If the longer reading were original, there would be no apparent reason for its omission. On the other hand, if the shorter were original, it is more likely that a scribe, in order to harmonize this text with Matthew and with the common liturgy of the Church, would add words to harmonize the two texts.

7. The reading which is characteristic of the NT author is preferable. This principle is usually applied only after the previous principles have been rigorously applied, and there is still some doubt as which reading best reflects the original task. In the case of John 1:18, the principle is applied as follows: John characteristically uses the Greek word monogenes (“one and only, unique”) as a synonym for the Greek word agapetos, “beloved, most beloved” when applied to Jesus in 1:14; 3:16; and 1 John 3. Furthermore, in the other passages where it is used of other persons, the word clearly does not mean “only begotten.” In Hebrews 11:17, for example, Isaac is called Abraham’s “monogenes son.” Isaac was “the beloved son,” the son in whom the Abrahamic Covenant was to be initially realized (it has been fully realized in Jesus Christ, the Seed of Abraham, and all who are united to him by the Holy Spirit, cf. Gal. 3:15-4:7). But we know Abraham “begat” other sons in addition to Isaac, as Gen. 25:1-2 makes abundantly clear. So the translation of John 1:18 in the NLT, rather than that of the KJV, is a much better translation: “No one has ever seen God. But the Unique One, who is himself God, is near to the Father’s heart. He has revealed God to us.”

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The NT Writers and Jesus of Nazareth: Did They Get His Story Right?

In our previous article, we examined the contemporary, non-Christian evidence for the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth and the religious community which he founded.  Noting in our conclusion that this evidence confirmed the overall NT portrayal of Jesus and the earliest Christians as historical and reliable, we quoted one of the NT writers who stated that though Jesus said and did much more than he had recorded, he had recorded what was necessary for them to know that Jesus was the Messiah and Son of God, sent to redeem and reconcile lost humanity with God.  And we had also concluded with the statement that only through the NT writings would we get the full story as to who Jesus was and what he had come to do, from the perspective of those who truly knew him and followed him.  Of course, this raises the following question:  Did the NT writers get the story of Jesus and the earliest Christians right?  Is the NT historically reliable, or is it pure religious propaganda that distorts facts to achieve some predetermined agenda?

The Alleged "Bias" of the NT Writers

There are a number of liberal and post-liberal scholars who would say that the New Testament cannot be trusted to give us a historically reliable witness to Jesus' life and ministry, nor to that of his earliest disciples.  The reason for this negative assessment, most of them would argue, is that these writers were "biased" towards the tenets of orthodox Christianity, and being committed to spreading a "message of salvation" would not hesitate to fabricate stories and sayings of Jesus that would promote their religious agenda.  Now, while this argument seems plausible enough, it rests on two unproven and contradictory assumptions:
1.  Any scholar or writer, whether ancient or modern, if committed to a particular religious or philosophical viewpoint, cannot engage in any honest, self-critical, and fruitful investigation and interpretation of historical or scientific data. 
2.  Only the modern scientific investigator, rigorously following the scientific method is "totally objective and value free," and so is best suited to carry on honest, self-critical, and fruitful analysis of data.
However, the problem with this argument and its premises is, as Thomas Kuhn, A.F. Scott, and Cornelius Van Til have demonstrated, that it does not give a true account of how human reason and scientific investigation actually work.  For in their respective fields of science, history, and theology these writers have demonstrated that all investigators, regardless of time and culture, have a dominant viewpoint of reality that shapes their perception and interpretation of the data they examine.

Everyone, consciously or unconsciously, possesses some basic worldview, philosophy of life, or interpretative paradigm through which they analyze and evaluate the data of daily existence.  And whether they recognize it or not, this viewpoint has been derived from the tradition of a community from which they came; from some religious authority, such as the Bible or Koran, which they perceive and accept as divine revelation; or from some common naturalistic philosophy which they believe adequately explains daily reality as they encounter it.  And it is the central axioms of these various worldviews that act as the control beliefs that regulate how an investigator will process, weigh, and evaluate the data presented to them.  Normally, unless these viewpoints fail to pass the tests of rational consistency, rational coherency, existential and psychological resonance, moral stability, and aesthetic symmetry--an investigator will not be moved either to modify his investigative methodology, nor consider acquiring a better "alternative" viewpoint.  Thus no investigator, ancient or modern, at whatever stage of analyzing and synthesizing data, is ever "totally objective and value free" in their judgments.  However, this does not necessarily mean that they cannot engage in honest, self-critical investigation and interpretation of historical data.  Let us consider a modern example of a "committed" historian.

Sir Winston Churchill: Example of A "Committed" Historian

It might be argued, for example, that Sir Winston Churchill's History of the English Speaking Peoples cannot be regarded as a generally reliable and useful history.  Why?  "Because." as some critic might well say, "Churchill, as an upper-class, well-educated British soldier and politician had a 'bias' toward Great Britain and all its achievements in politics, literature, and science.  He could never have written a history that was truly self-critical of the British people and culture, nor that justly and fairly treated the German people and their culture, especially in light of the deadly conflict in which both peoples were engaged during World War II." 

Now, as plausible as this argument may seem, it proves absolutely nothing regarding Churchill or his historical writing.  Nor does it automatically render his writings as historically invalid or worthless.  The question that his critics have to answer, in order to make their charges stick, is this:  Did Churchill present and interpret the facts regarding WW II, of equal concern to all the parties involved, without distorting or suppressing data that was not congenial to his own viewpoint?  Then their task would be to compare his writings with those of contemporary French and German historians who also recorded and interpreted these same historical figures and events, and demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that Churchill had deliberately ignored or misrepresented the facts standing against his own position.  If, after careful investigation and research, it was found that Churchill and these other historians were found to agree on many key points--then on these key points Churchill would most certainly be regarded as a reliable recorder and interpreter of Anglo-American history.  And where they were shown to differ, on the basis of all the historical evidence, it would then have to be demonstrated  in these particular cases whether it was Churchill or the other historians who gave the most faithful record and interpretation as to what actually was said and done during WW II.

The NT Writers As "Committed" Historians  

This rule of historical investigation and verification that we applied to Churchill and his writings holds true as well for the NT writers' record and interpretation of the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.  No one doubts that being "committed" Christians gave a certain "slant" to their interpretation of the historical traditions about Jesus they had inherited.  Both Luke and John plainly tell us, in their respective works (cf. Lk. 1:1-4; John 20:30-31; and 1 John 1:1-4), that what they offer us is a carefully investigated and historically reliable record and interpretation of Jesus' life and ministry, based on trustworthy testimony of eyewitnesses.  But they also tell us that their record is not exhaustive, but selective and geared to meet certain apologetical and pedagogical needs in the Early Church.  So while, as historians, they sought to accurately and faithfully pass on the true story of Jesus' life and ministry, the NT writers never pretended to be "totally objective and value free" in their historical analyses and judgments.

Nevertheless, it is a well-known and demonstrated fact that the NT writers retain a number of stories and sayings of both Jesus and the Apostles that would be quite embarrassing and shocking for anyone seriously attempting to give a "biased, uncritical" account of either Jesus or the Apostles.  For example, the Gospels record that at first John the Baptist and his followers gladly acknowledged Jesus as the promised Messiah; then, not too long after, they started having second thoughts about giving him their support and asked for confirmation that he was indeed the Messiah (cf. Matt. 3:1-16; Jn. 1:15, 19-42; Matt. 11:2-15).  They also record that Jesus, while going up to Jerusalem for the last time, openly predicted his coming death as a ransom for humanity's sin, and was also clearly determined to fulfill his Father's will in this matter.  Yet on the night before he was arrested and then condemned to death, Jesus is also shown as agonizing with God in prayer, pleading that if possible, an alternative to his horrible crucifixion might be provided (cf. Lk. 9:51-56; Mk. 10:32-34; Lk. 22:39-44).  And the Gospels also record that Jesus' twelve Apostles, who had loved him and pledged their loyalty even to death (Matt. 26:31-35; Mk. 14:26-31), when push came to shove, abandoned him and left him alone to face the mercy of his enemies (cf. Matt. 26:47-56; Mk. 14:41-52; Lk. 22:39-62).

Now if, as it is often charged, these NT writers intended to give a "biased, uncritical" account of Jesus' life and ministry, or even one of his Apostles, then how is that they preserved and recorded these "awkward" incidents in their books?  Poor propagandists indeed!  The very fact that they did record them proves that while they were orthodox Christians, the NT writers were also careful to demonstrate the historicity of the Christian faith.  For if their presentation and interpretation of Jesus' life and ministry, however selective it might have been, were not historically reliable and verifiable, then Christianity was patently false.  Indeed, this was the very point Paul made in his defense before Governor Festus and King Agrippa when he said, "I am not insane, most excellant Festus.  What I am saying is true and reasonable.  The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him.  I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner" (Acts 26:25-26, NIV).  And later, regarding the story of Jesus proclaimed by himself and the other Apostles, Paul commanded Timothy, "You have heard me teach things that have been confirmed by many reliable witnesses.  Now teach these truths to other trustworthy people who will be able to pass them on to others" (2 Tim. 2:2, NLT).


Lastly, when we compare compare the key elements of the NT writers' record with that of contemporary Jewish and Roman writers, such as Josephus and Tacitus, we know that they got the Jesus story right and kept the essential facts as the core of their presentation.  Their commitment to Christ did not prevent these writers from engaging in careful research and critical thinking as they sought to explain the true meaning and significance of who Jesus was and what God had sent hin to do in this world.  That is why Luke could write to Theophilus, "Having carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I also have decided to write a careful account for you. most honorable Theophilus, so that you can be certain of the truth of everything you were taught" (Lk. 1:3-4, NLT).  So if you want to know the truth about Jesus, then take up and read the New Testament.  You will not find a truer and more reliable account anywhere else.  

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Jesus of Nazareth: Did He Exist?

As incredible as it may seem, there are still people today who believe that Jesus of Nazareth, as he is depicted in the New Testament, never really existed. They are impressed with arguments by certain atheistic philosophers that Jesus, if he existed at all, was merely a traveling Jewish rabbi who taught some rather remarkable ideas about the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of men. But he never actually claimed to be the Messiah of OT prophecy, nor said or did half of the words and deeds attributed to him in the New Testament. Rather it was his disciples, as first century Jews disenchanted with life in Roman dominatated Judea and needing something to give their existence significance and purpose, creatively remade him into a legendary religious figure or mythical hero. It was they who claimed he said and did those "extraordinary things" that proved he was the Messiah, the Son of God, prophesied of in the Old Testament. "But Jesus, if he did exist, as an orthodox rabbi and practicing Jew of that time," so they would argue, "could never have said and done half of what the NT attributes to him."

Response Of NT Scholars and Historians To Above Arguments

However, a good number of modern biblical scholars and historians of antiquity, who are by no means religious fundamentalists, would judge these arguments as being fallacious, not only because they rest on ill-founded assumptions about God and the created universe, but also because they ignore the weight of the historical evidence. Using long-established criteria of historical investigation and verification (cf. Craig Blomberg in The Historical Reliability of the Gospels), they would argue from various early Jewish and Greco-Roman sources (written by several authors hostile to Christianity), that not only did Jesus of Nazareth, a traveling Jewish rabbi and prophet exist, but also that: 1) That he had been regarded and condemned by the official Judaism of his day as a Messianic pretender and sorcerer; 2) that under Pontius Pilate, Procurator of Judea, he had been condemned and crucified as a rebel and criminal; 3) that his followers, known as "Nazarenes" and "Christians," confessed and proclaimed him as their Lord and God; and 4) that by 100 A.D., they had spread their religion throughout the Roman Empire, gaining large numbers of converts among both Jews and Gentiles.

Examination and Evaluation of Three Witnesses

In this article, we are focusing on non-Christian testimonies regarding Jesus and the earliest Christians. Though we could have consulted several ancient Jewish and Greco-Roman accounts, here we have three ancient writers who give us the fullest account of Jesus of Nazareth and his earliest followers. What we learn from them is very interesting. Our first witness is Rabbi Eliezer (c. 50-100 A.D.), a Pharisaic scribe and teacher. He wrote a commentary on Numbers 23:19, which has been preserved in the Palestinian Mishnah and Talmud. Most scholars agree that his commentary is critique of Jesus and his followers; this is what he wrote:

Balaam looked forth and saw that there was a man, born of a woman, who would rise up and seek to make himself God, and cause the whole world to go astray. Therefore, God gave power to the voice of Balaam that all the peoples of the world might hear, and thus he spoke, "Give heed that ye go not astray after that man: for it is written, 'God is not man that he should lie.' And if this man says he is God, he is a liar, and he will deceive and say that he departeth and cometh again at the end. He saith and he shall not perform" (As quoted from Paul Barnett's Is The New Testament History?, p.26). Though the rabbi doesn't mention Jesus by name, he certainly had Jesus and his followers in mind. For he would have known that the phrase, "a man, born of woman," was a designation given to Jesus by Jewish Christians that pointed to his virgin conception as the fulfilment of Messianic prophecy (Cf. Isa. 7:14 with Matt. 1:18-25 and Gal. 4:4-5).

Furthermore, when he denies that this "man" will fail to depart and return at the end as he promised--i.e., "he will deceive and saith he departeth and cometh again at the end. He saith and he shall not perform"--Rabbi Eliezer is clearly repudiating the teaching of Jesus and his followers that Jesus himself, as the risen and exalted Messianic Son of Man, would return at the end of the age to judge both the living and the dead (cf. Matt. 24:26-31; 26:62-64; Acts 3:11-24; Rom. 2:12-15; 2 Thess. 1:6-10). He clearly not only regards Jesus as a false prophet and Messianic pretender, but his followers as a heretical Jewish sect that has become a religious movement spreading throughout the Roman Empire, leading astray both Jews and Gentiles. This testimony not only confirms that Jesus of Nazareth existed and founded a religious movement bearing his name, but that this movement was also spreading the message that he was the Messianic Son of Man, a message and movement he firmly opposed.  And this testimony confirms the general NT picture paints of Pharisaic Judaism coming to regard Jesus of Nazareth as a false prophet and Messianic pretender, and firmly resisting and even persecuitng his followers--a picture also confirmed by Justin Martyr's Against Trypho and the Jews, as well as by The Martrydom of Polycarp, both of which were written in the second century.

A second witness to Jesus and his earliest followers was the Roman historian and politician, Cornelius Tacitus (c. 55-120 A.D.), a contemporary and friend of Pliny the Younger.  Tacitus began his political career as a Roman senator during the reign of Emperor Vespasian (69-79 A.D.); entered the consulship under Emperor Nerva in 97 A.D.; and served as the Procounsul of Asia under Emperor Trajan from 112-113 A.D.  He was a very capable orator and writer, having the reputation of being a careful and reliable historian of the Empire.  However, Tacitus was very critical of certain earlier emperors and their policies which, in his opinion, had undermined the moral and social-well being of the Roman people.  And he also emphasized the noble contributions and achievements of the Roman aristocrasy, whom he regarded as the true basis of Rome's greatness.

Tacitus wrote five historical works: Dialogue on Oratory, which discusses the decline of Roman oratory after Cicero; The Origins of the German Tribes, recognized as the major source about the German tribes before the barbarian invasions of Rome; The Life of Gnaeus Julius Agricola, a historical biography of a Roman senator and general who was instrumental in the conquest of Britain; The Annals of Imperial Rome, a history of Julio-Claudian Rome from 14-68 A.D.; and The Histories of Imperial Rome, a history of Flavian Rome from 69-96 A.D.  And it is in his Annuals and Histories that Tacitus makes passing, but very illuminating comments on Jesus of Nazareth and his followers.  His best known comment, found in The Annals of Imperial, is as follows:

 But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and all the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration [of Rome] was the result of an [imperial] order.  Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class of people hated for their abonimations, called Christians by the populace.  Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate, and a deadly superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out in Judea, the first source of evil, but also in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world meet and become popular.  Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who confessed; then, upon information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of arson, as of hatred of the human race (ANNALs, 15:44, 2-5).

Since Tacitus was a Roman aristrocat, as well as a historian and politician, his dislike of anything that appeared as a threat to the stability of Roman society and culture comes through very clearly in the passage above.  Yet his having been a Proconsul of Asia Minor, where Christianity thrived despite persecution, convinced him that this new religious movement could not simply be ignored; it had to be properly recognized and dealt with.  Nevetheless, not only does he confirm Rabbi Eliezer's testimony that Jesus had been a Jewish rabbi and founder of a religious movement that was rapidly spreading throughout the Roman Empire, but also that under Pontus Pilate he had been judged and condemned as a rebel and criminal, during the reign of Tiberius Caesar, but that his followers proclaimed Jesus as their Messiah and Lord, and that it was their refusal to acknowledge Caesar as Lord, an act of treason which he refers to as "hatred of the human race," that the Christians had been and continued to be murdered in the Roman arena.  Thus, however grudginly given, Tacitus' testimony demonstrates the historicity of the "Jesus tradition" forming the core of Apostolic proclamation, both oral and written, as being unquestionable and trustworthy.

Our third and final witness is Flavius Josephus (c. 37-100 A.D.).  He was born in Jerusalem as member of a priestly clan, and was educated and trained in the legal tradition of the Pharisees.  His career as a politician and governor of Galilee began during the reign of Emperor Nero.  During the early stages of the Jewish-Roman War (66-73 A.D.), Josephus was a resistance leader and fought agains the Roman army.  When he and his troops were defeated by the Roman forces at Jotapata in 67 A.D., Josephus recognized the futility of the Jewish rebellion, and joined the Roman forces as an interpreter and mediator so as to bring about a peaceful resolution to the conflict.  However, most of his fellow Jews regarded him as a traitor, and so Josephus' attempts at mediating a peace settlement failed.  Consequently, the Jewish rebellion was crushed in 70 A.D., resulting it the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, and with the death or deportation of large numbers of Jews.  Though one contingent of the Jewish rebels was able to escape to the fortress of Masada, and fight on for a time, their fight came to an abrupt end in 73 A.D.  The Jewish-Roman War was finally at an end.

After the War, Josephus went to Rome where, for the services he had rendered, he was made a Roman citizen and a courtier of the Emperor Vespasian.  During his years in Rome, Josephus wrote two of his best known historical works:  History of the Jewish War, which even now is highly valued as a trustworthy account of this tragic conflict, and The Antiquities of the Jews, a history of the Jewish people from the creation of the world to Jewish-Roman War itself.  Now, as would be expected for someone in his situation, Josephus casts the character and achievements of his own people in the best light possible without unduly offending his Roman benefactors--while at the same those whom he considers enemies of either himself or of the Imperial Court he deals with in a harsh and pejorative manner.  "But when all this has been admitted the fact remains that while, as all scholars agree, we must use the greatest caution in accepting at its face value any statement Josephus makes about himself or his personal enemies, when he has no axe to grind and is not engaging in patent exaggeration, he is an informative and reliable historian" (G. A. Williamson, "Introduction," The Jewish War: An English Translation, Penguin Classics, p. 15).

Now that we know something about Josephus as person and as a historian, both as to his strengths and weaknesses, we can better evaluate his comments on Jesus and his early followers.  For in his Antiquities of Jews, he gives one of the fullest and most illuminating testimonies about Jesus of Nazareth and the early Christians.  However, it has also long been known that though he knew of the rise and spread of Christianity, Josephus himself did not believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the promised Messiah of Israel.  So taking this fact into account, here is his testimony:

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man.  For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly.  He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks.  He was the [so-called] Messiah.  When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him.  On the third day, [so they claimed,] he appeared to them restored to life.  And the tribe of Christians  [so called after him], to this day has still not disappeared (Antiquities, 18:63, 64).

Not only does Josephus confirm the testimony of the previous witnesses that Jesus of Nazareth existed and was Jewish rabbi who founded a Jewish sect that became an Empire-wide religious movement, but also that he had been "a wise man...and...teacher" with an extensive ministry throughout Judea, involving not only teaching but the performance of "surprising feats" or miracles.  He also confirms that it was allegations made by the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, along with personal reasons of his own, that Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor had condemned and crucified Jesus as a revolutionary and criminal.  But his disciples, convinced he had been raised from the dead, began proclaiming that the Risen Jesus was the Messiah and Lord of all, resulting in many converts among Jews and Greeks who heard and accepted their message.  And according to Josephus, at the time of his writing, the Christian movement was very much alive and thriving.

Conclusions To Be Drawn

Now if Jesus of Nazareth had never existed, nor had said or done anything that would have led his disciples to believe he was both Messiah and Son of God, then the New Testament would never have been written.  Nor would these ancient Jewish and Roman writers have found it necessary to discuss and debunk Christianity.  Summing up the confirmative value of these ancient witnesses to the NT's portrayal of Jesus and his followers, W. D. Davies has written:

The passages referred to above, both Jewish and Gentile, sufficiently attest the historicity of Jesus.  That Jesus was a crucified teacher who caused embarrassment to Judaism and to Rome is clear.  For our present purposes this evidence is adequate; it does pin down the existence of Jesus of Nazareth beyond doubt.  And it is easy to understand why Jewish and Gentile sources do not reveal more.  Today, Christianity is a worldwide religion, and Jesus has become the object of reverence for millions.  In the first century, the Christian movement and its Lord were insignificant and, for Roman writers especially, objects of suspicion and contempt.  The silence of non-Christian sources, except for the details given above, is understandable.  Beyond the bare fact that Jesus was a crucified teacher, it is from the the specifically Christian sources that knowledge about him and his church must be learned.  This is another way of claiming what was asserted at the end of our last chapter, that Jesus, as a figure of history, gains significance only through those who responded to him ("The Historicity of Jesus," Invitation to the New Testament: A Guide to the Main Witnesses, p. 71.).

Therefore, those who talk as if Jesus of Nazareth never existed betray their ignorance of the historical, non-Christian evidence.  Even so, if we want to know the full story of Jesus and the religious community he founded, then we must turn to the New Testament writings themselves.  For the NT writers state that though they have not recorded everything Jesus was known to have said and done, yet they recorded all that was necessary for us to that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, and that all who trust in him are given eternal life:  "Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  But these are written that you may believe Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name" (John 20:30-31, NIV 2011).  

Saturday, May 19, 2012

How We Got The New Testament

From the beginning, Christianity was a missionary enterprise seeking to win converts, and to answers the objections of its opponents.  And in preaching the Gospel, the Apostles and others had to provide historically reliable presentations and interpretations of the life and ministry of Jesus, along with their giving careful instruction in doctrine and ethics.  This was done through letters, the first of which was The Letter of James (c. 44 A.D.)  written to comfort Jewish Christians persecuted and driven out of Judaea (cf. Acts 11:19), and then through the four gospels, the first of which was the Gospel of Mark, written by John Mark, an associate of the Apostle Peter, in Rome (c. 50 A.D.).  These documents, along with the letters of Paul, Luke and Acts, 1 Peter, and Hebrews, were written in a form of Greek script used by professional scribes for legal and literary works, which means that from the onset both the authors and readers recognized these documents as inspired literature that was to be prized and preserved, as well as read, by the Christian churches. 

Original Compostion and Distribution of the NT Writings

During the period 95 A.D. to 110 A.D., the NT documents were first copied and circulated individually, then in a collection of the Four gospels and Acts, a collection of Paul's letters and Hebrews, a collection of General Letters (James through Jude) and then Revelation as a separate book.  In Syria, where heretical works were first forged in Peter's name and even utilized selections of 2 Peter itself, 2 Peter was disputed as authentic for a long time. (By the end of the third century, when all doubts were finally removed, the Syrian churches accepted 2 Peter as both authentic and canonical.)   However, when the Post-Apostolic writers, such as Clement of Rome, Ignatius, and Polycarp, cite authorities for their teaching, in addition to the OT, they refer to 23 out of the 27 books that now form the NT.  (The four excluded are 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, though it is not clear from their writings why this is so.)
As for the canonization of the New Testament texts, this process actually began with the Apostles themselves.  Long before they were dead, false teachers arose, claiming their erroneous doctrines were only repeating what the Apostles themselves had taught in oral form or in letters.  Paul addresses this issue in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, and then at the end of this letter says:  "Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way.  The Lord be with you all.  I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand, which is the distinguishing mark in all my letters.  This is how I write" (2 Thess. 3:16-17, NIV).  This verse was a reminder that Paul's practice was first to dictate his letters to an associate who was trained as a scribe, then have the associate read back the rough draft for any further additions or corrections, then once put in its final form and approved, he would sign his letter with a personal, final greeting, written in large letters (cf. Gal. 6:11-18).  This was his seal that the document was both authentic and authoritative, and that it was to be accepted as such by the Christian congregations that received it (cf. 1 Cor. 14:36-38). 

In addition, we have Paul authenticating Luke's writings as inspired, authoritative Scripture, and Peter authenticating Paul's letters as inspired authoritative Scripture.  In 1 Timothy 5:17-21, Paul gives instructions regarding the treatment of elders, both those who are faithful in caring for the church and in teaching God's Word and also regarding those who are not.  Now when he quotes the basis for his teaching, he writes:  "For Scripture says, 'Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,' and 'The worker deserves his wages'" (1 Tim. 5:18, NIV).  The first quote is from Deuteronomy 25:4 and the second is from Luke 10:17.  Here is Paul, around 62 A.D., roughly two years before his second and final imprisonment in Rome, quoting from the writings of his friend and associate Luke, as equally inspired and authoritative as the writings of Moses! 

Then in Rome, just before the outbreak of the persecution by Nero (c. 64 A.D.), Peter knew that the end of his life and ministry was near and so wrote his last will and testament to Christians who knew both him and Paul.  In this letter, Peter says this concerning Paul and his writings:  "Bear in mind that our Lord's patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom God gave him.  He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters.  His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction" (2 Pet. 3:15-16, NIV, italics mine).  Not only does Peter affirm Paul wrote with divine wisdom and authority in general, but that his letters were as fully inspired and authoritative as the OT itself!  So early on, the Apostles and their associates knew that they were writing under the divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and that several of the books they had written were on the same level of authority as the OT.

All the books which now form the complete NT canon we possess, were written and put into circulation by no later than 100 A.D. This has been confirmed by the many NT quotations and allusions found in the writings of Early Christian writers such as Clement, Bishop of Rome (c. 60-95 A.D.); Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch (c.70-115 A.D.); Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna (c. 75-150 A.D.); Justin Martyr, a Christian philosopher and apologist who first ministered in Syria, then later established an academy in Rome (c. 90-150 A.D.); and Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons (c. 130-200 A.D.), who wrote the book Against All Heresies.  The evidence from the writings of these Early Church writers, after careful examination, demonstrates three things:
1.  In the geographical areas where they lived and ministered, the Four Gospels, Acts, Paul's 12 Letters, Hebrews and Revelation were already recognized as authoritative Scripture, whereas some of the NT letters (e.g. 2 Peter and Jude), were either unknown or disputed.
2.  The Greek text-types they used were an early form of either the Western Text, or of the Alexandrian Text.  And then the Caesarean Text, a mixture of the Western and Alexandrian Texts, appeared and began to be used in the early third century A.D.  
3.   No early, unambiguous Byzantine Text can be detected in the works of any Christian writers before 280 A.D.   (The Old Antichian Text, a edited combination of the Western and Caesarean Texts, and the precursor of the Byzantine Text, was taken to Constantinople around 300 A.D. prior to the Great Persecution, 303-313 A.D.)  This is historical fact, based on all the evidence we now possess.

The Rise of Marcion and the Roman Church's Confirmation of the NT Canon

Up until 140 A.D., there was no great dispute as to what were canonical and non-canonical books; it was pretty much taken for granted that everyone knew the difference between the apostolic and non-apostolic writings.  But with the appearance of the first great heretical teacher, Marcion, this complacency towards the canon of the New Testament came to an end.  Marcion taught that the God of the OT was vengeful and evil, since he created the material universe and appeared to care solely for the Jews, his "chosen people."  But the God of Jesus, the Ultimate, One Spiritual Being, was a God of grace and love towards all peoples.  Therefore, he rejected the OT as being any part of the Scriptures to be used by Christians, and threw out everything in the NT that smacked of "Jewishness," leaving Luke and Paul's Letters as his Bible, which he called The Gospel and the Apostle.  And then he went about Asia Minor and Italy, using his wealth as an import merchant to establish churches that would promote his form of Christianity, using his writings and his expunged version of the NT as the basis of their belief and practice.

 As a result of Marcion’s teaching and activities, the orthodox churches in Italy, following Rome's lead, came up with the first list of the NT canon, which includes most of the current NT books and rejects all Marcionite forgeries.  A damaged copy of this list, known as the Muratorian Fragment (named after the scholar who discovered it and printed it 1740), begins with a reference to Luke as "the Third Gospel," then to John as the testimony of the Beloved Disciple, then to Acts as "a record of all the apostles’ acts" contra Marcion, then to Paul's letters, Hebrews, 1 and 2 John, Revelation, and 2 Peter.  After again condemning Marcion, it states that while the Shepherd of Hermas is worthy to be read during church services, it is not to be counted among the apostolic writings.  So after this episode with Marcion, in the Western church there was no longer any doubt as to what were and were not authoritative, apostolic writings.

 Development of Threefold Test for Canonicity

In addition to this early Roman list of the NT canon, Irenaeus states in Against All Heresies that it was during this same time that a threefold test was developed to help churches distinguish apostolic from non-apostolic writings that were being circulated:
1.  Apostolic Origin.  Was the book in question known to be the authentic work of the Apostles and their closest associates?  Was it known to have the approval of the Apostles and their associates?  If it was, it was to be regarded as canonical and was to be read in the churches.
2.  Ecclesiastical Reception and Use.  In the churches founded by the Apostles and their associates, was this book both known and regularly used in preaching and teaching during congregational worship?  If it was, it was to be read and accepted by all as canonical Scripture.
3.  Consistency of Doctrine.  Did the book agree with that form or pattern of doctrine summarized in "The Rule of Faith," or "The Tradition," which had been passed on by the Apostles?  If it did, then it was to be accepted and read as canonical Scripture in all the churches.  Now, when you read what Irenaeus says regarding this apostolic tradition, it appears to have been an early creed that in many ways anticipated the Nicene Creed of 325 A.D.  Therefore, any book being considered as a possible candidate for addition to a church's library of authoritative books had to pass all three tests or it was excluded.  During the time between 200 A.D. and 313 A.D., despite the increasing flood of heretical books and the persecution by Emperor Diocletian, these tests continued to be applied. 

Our Conclusion Regarding the NT Canon

So by the time of the Council of Carthage in 397 A.D., the Disputed Books (James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude) were seen by all as passing mustard and worthy of full canonical status.  So I would argue that at this time that the NT Canon received full confirmation as being apostolic and authoritative, not sanctioned and made authoritative by Church decree, as some Catholic apologists would try to persuade us.  For no NT book was ever accepted as canonical that was not apostolically authentic and authoritative.  F. F. Bruce states it best:

What is particularly important to notice is that the New Testament canon was not demarcated by the arbitrary decree of any Church Council.  When at last a Church Council—the Synod of Hippo in A.D. 393—listed the twenty-seven books of the New Testament, it did not confer upon them any authority which they did not already possess, but simply recorded their previously established canonicity.  As Dr. Foakes-Jackson puts it:  “The Church assuredly did not make the New Testament; the two grew up together.”  Divine authority is by its very nature self-evidencing; and one of the profoundest doctrines recovered by the Reformers is the doctrine of the inward witness of the Holy Spirit, by which testimony is borne within the believer’s heart to the divine character of Holy Scripture.  This witness is not confined to the individual believer, but is also accessible to the believing community; and there is no better example of its operation than in the recognition by the members of the Early Church of the books which were given by inspiration of God to stand alongside the books of the Old Covenant, the Bible of Christ and his apostles, and with them to make up the Written Word of  God (cf. "The Canon of Scripture," The Books and the Parchments, 2nd Edition, pp. 103-104).

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Introduction to "Frank Geis--On Things That Matter"

Welcome to On Things That Matter, a place for reflection on and discussion of various topics from a Christian perspective.  It occurred to me that before composing and posting any other blogs on various topics of common interest to this author and any potential readers, it might be wise to layout the foundation, scope, and aims of Barnabas Hall.  First, I will explain the foundation of this blog, its scope, and its main aims. And then I will list some basic guidelines for how future discussions and responses to be conducted at this site.

Foundation of "On Things That Matter"

There is a threefold foundation for this blog that is personal, doctrinal, and ethical.  First, it is personal, in that it is rooted in my own Spirit-gifting and calling as a representative and spokesman for God.  "For we are God's masterpiece.  He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good works he planned for us long ago" (Eph. 2:10, my rendering).  God has called me, gifted me, and trained me, like Barnabas my role model, to be a teacher, counselor, encourager, and equipper of God's people.  And like Barnabas and Paul before me, I also am committed to proclaiming, defending, and confirming the Gospel Faith with all the wisdom, skill, and ability the Holy Spirit has given me.  Moreover, my Spirit-gifting and calling involves a commitment to persistently and faithfully explain and apply the intellectual, moral, and socio-political implications of the Gospel, as best as I can, for today's issues and concerns.  

Second, the doctrinal foundation, or basis, from which I will carry on my discussions here will generally be that of orthodox, Evangelical Protestantism.  And as to the specific and essential Christian doctrines honored and upheld on this site, they are as follows:

Statement of Faith
  1. We believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God, is absolutely trustworthy in all that it truly affirms, and is the final authority for all Christian belief and practice.
  2. We believe in the One Triune God, the LORD God Almighty, eternally existing as Three Equal Persons--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Each Person is distinct and yet equal, fully sharing in divine honor, glory, worship, power, authority, rule, and rank--such that no Person has eternal primacy over the Others.
  3. We believe in the full deity and humanity of Jesus, and in his atoning death; in his liberating and life-transforming resurrection; and in the reality of his present and yet to come kingdom of truth, justice, righteousness, and peace in the Church and in the coming New Heavens and New Earth.
  4. We believe that eternal salvation and restored relationships are possible through faith in Jesus Christ, who died for us, rose from the dead in full victory over sin, death and the powers of darkness.  And this salvation, both present and future in its scope, is offered to all people.
  5. We believe in the work of the Holy Spirit in salvation, and in his powerful sanctifying and transforming presence in the life of all believers.  And we also believe that the Holy Spirit--in full and mutual agreement with both the Father and the Son--calls, gifts, equips and empowers people for ministry and leadership in the church and larger society irregardless of their ethnicity, race, gender, or social status.
  6. We believe all human beings are made in the image of God, and are to reflect that image in the church, home, and larger society.  Therefore, as those made in God's image, men and women are to develop and use their God-given gifts for the good of family, church, and society.
                                                               Core Values

      1.  Everything we say and do must flow out of love, gratitude, and reverence towards God; and
           out of love, respect and a desire to promote the total well-being of our fellow human beings,
           male and female, who are made in his image.
      2.  Christians are called to mutual submission, love, and service.
      3.  All Christians, according to the NT, have equal authority and equal responsibility to exercise
           their God-given gifts and talents for the common good of the Church and Society without
           regard to gender, ethnicity, class, or the limits of culturally-defined roles.
      4.  God's design for human community and intimate relationships embraces celibate singleness,
           faithful heterosexual marriage, and loving families.
      5.  All Christians, both men and women as God's kingdom ambassadors, as mandated by
           Scripture and as enabled by the Holy Spirit, must oppose all injustice and wickedness while
           at the same time promoting truth, justice, and righteousness.

While some readers might think the above doctrinal statement is too narrow, others will think it too broad.  That is because, for some, since it says nothing specific about church polity, church offices, baptism, or eschatology, it appears too broadminded   For others, its statements about Scripture's inspiration and authority, about redemption and reconciliation resting solely in Christ's death and resurrection, about the Spirit's calling and gifting both men and women for Christian ministry and leadership, the "now and not yet" nature of God's kingdom may appear as too narrow.  Nonetheless, these statements best the express what I regard as the essentials of  "the faith that God has entrusted once for all time to his holy people" (Jude 3, NLT). 

Now I should say that my own roots are in the Reformed and Baptist tradition, and so I do have some strong personal convictions about certain doctrinal issues, which I have no reluctance to discuss when appropriate and when it can be done so without any rancor.  However, I am not obsessed with what Alister McGrath has, in his The Passionate Intellect, described as "winning the battle for mental correctness" and not carrying about any other aspect of the Christian faith.   Nor am I committed to being an entrenched intellectualist, "a rigid, argumentative, critical Christian" who champions his particular brand of Christianity as the only valid expression of orthodox Christianity.  The fundamental rule to be followed in this blog as regards both the discussions and accompanying responses is summed up in the rule laid down long ago by St. Augustine:  In necessarius unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas, "In essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; (but) in all things, charity (love)."

Content and Style of Blog Discussion

As for the topical content of the blog, I hope to discuss, in addition to theological and ethical issues, the lessons we can learn for today from key historical persons and events in Church history; significant Christian and non-Christian philosophers, artists, and writers.  And though I may introduce various topics, I hope to carry on discussions with my readers that will be intellectually stimulating, morally enhancing, and spiritually uplifting, even when there is some disagreement.  After all, I don't expect uniformity of opinion on some of these topics.  That is not reasonable, given the diversity existing among Christians due to their denominational, educational, and socio-economic backgrounds.  That is why I will seek, throughout our discussions, to embrace and maintain an essential and generous Christian orthodoxy that accommodates our disagreements within the context of the greater agreements that bind us all together in the Lord Jesus Christ.

However, I do expect those who visit this website to be civil in expressing their viewpoint; to be willing to engage in meaningfull dialogue where different opinions are seriously and respectively considered; that any arguments that are presented be solidly based on Scripture, historical and scientific fact, and be logically consistent and coherent, as much as is possible, in their development.  "Don't use foul or abusive language. Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them" (Eph. 4:29, NLT).

So welcome, friends, to Barnabas Hall.  May God, through his Word and Spirit, lead us on to a mutually fruitful and rewarding journey of exploration and discovery.  Amen.