Tag Archives: Apologetics

#192: Updating the Bible’s Gender Language

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #192, on the subject of Updating the Bible’s Gender Language.

The Southern Baptist Convention, presently the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, created a bit of a stir when it announced that it would be working to update the gender language in the Bible.  Among those outside the church who post on article reaction forums, there were two general types of reactions, the one that it didn’t really matter what one did with texts that were written millennia ago by ignorant peasants and repeatedly altered since, the other that it made no sense to claim that something was a communication from God but that it could be revised by people.

The former group might be excused their ignorance in a field in which many ridiculous notions have been promulgated as if they were true, among them this notion that the writers of the Bible were all ignorant uneducated peasants.  That status was so rare among Biblical authors that the Prophet Amos makes a point of asserting it about himself, as a difference between him and all the other prophets.  As to the New Testament writers, they were generally educated members of the middle class–a tax assessor, a son of wealthy parents, a medical doctor, the owner of a business large enough that he was able to leave it in the hands of subordinates for several years and return to find it still profitable.  Indeed, Paul was a rabbinic scholar, trained by Rabban Gamaliel I, who is one of the scholars whose teaching is included in the Talmud.  They were not ignorant peasants.  As to the alleged alterations of the text, our scientific textual critics have established the original text of the New Testament to within ninety-nine-point-nine percent using sources dating into the first century; very few “intentional” changes were ever made, and those which were were obvious and easily restored.

However, the latter group has a point, which is based on a very subtle misunderstanding of exactly what the Bible is and how we regard the Bibles we read.

The problem is that the Bible is not written in English; it’s written largely in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic (which is a language closely related to Hebrew commonly spoken by Jews in the New Testament age).  When we read English translations of the Bible, we are reading the best renderings of those original texts which translators thought they could produce–but it means that decisions are made regarding the best way to represent the ideas in our language.  Dr. J. Edwin Orr spoke of a man telling a story through a translator.  The speaker said, “My friend was tickled to death.”  The confused native translator told the audience, “I do not understand this myself; his friend scratched himself until he died.”  Translations can be tricky.  And on the subject of gender, four things should be noted about Greek to English translation that will illustrate the overall problem.

The first is the use of the word anthropos.  It means “man”, and it is a masculine word.  (Gender of words is also one of these four things.)  However, there is another word for man, andros, and the words are different.  Anthropos means man in the general sense, the way we use the word “man” to refer to humanity.  In many contexts it would be better to render it “person”–but there are contexts in which it is obvious that the person or persons in question are men, that is, males.  In that sense, anthropos refers equally to men and women; andros refers to men only.  But we tend to render anthropos as “man” because we don’t usually use “human” that way, and because philosophers and theologians sometimes use the English word “person” in something of a technical sense that has nothing to do with whether you’re a human.

So it makes sense that we might want to revise our translations such that the word anthropos is not usually rendered “man” but something more generic like “person” or “human”, sometimes “humanity”.  That would be a revision of gender language that is attempting to produce a more accurate representation of the meaning of the original text.

There is another aspect particularly in Greek that creates great headaches for translators.  The word andros, “man”, has a counterpart, gune, “woman”.  The problem is that in common usage the words “husband” and “wife” were rarely used, the natives speaking of a couple as man and woman, with the sense of a man who belongs to a particular woman and a woman who belongs to a particular man.  Thus particularly in many places where we have the word gune, we are not certain whether it means “woman” or “wife”; it happens also sometimes with andros, but not as frequently.

We also have, as mentioned, the problem of the gender of words.  Anyone who has studied a Romance language (e.g., French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese) knows that nouns in those languages have gender–they can be masculine, feminine, or neuter.  In Greek, the word anthropos is masculine, and thus adjectives and pronouns that are referential to that word must also be masculine, and we have the result that “man” is always “he”, even when it means “person” or indeed when it means “humanity”.  On the other hand, “church”, ekklesia, is feminine, and thus is always “she”.  In English, we tend to reserve masculine and feminine pronouns for people, and thus humanity and church are both “it” or sometimes “they”–although we make exceptions, sometimes personifying objects such as perhaps affectionately calling a boat or car “she”.  The problem sometimes arises that we are not certain whether a writer is referring to a woman or a feminine noun, a man or a masculine noun.  A masculine noun, such as soldier or guard, could be used of a female person, and in the Greek it would be proper for the pronoun to be masculine if its antecedent is the noun, feminine if it is the person.

Finally, there is the problem that Greek does not require the use of pronouns, and thus many statements lack any gender definition.  To understand this, perhaps an example left over in modern English from earlier forms might help.

In the present tense, “I say”, “you say”, “we say”, “they say”, but “he, she, or it says“.  If we see the form says, we know that it is third person singular.  We don’t really need the pronoun to know that, but we always use it.  In Greek, though, all verbs are conjugated for person and number, and because of this a Greek could have said, “says” and the hearer would extrapolate that some third person singular subject is the antecedent, the person or object who says.  That means that in many places where it says “he” does something or should or may or might do something, the “he” is an extrapolation of our Indo-european language, a word that we provide because we need a pronomial subject in English which is not present in the Greek.

This is a much more difficult issue to address, because it will not do to extrapolate in every instance where there is no subject “he, she, or it” says or does whatever the text indicates.  Nor will translating them to “she” or “it” make the text clearer.  Indeed, it is problematic, as there is very little way for the reader of an English translation to know whether that “he” is what the Greek says or what the translator extrapolated to make sense of the English.  Further, Greek is also an Indo-european language, and from Sanskrit to German to Portuguese it is the standard in such languages that where the gender of the subject is not determined by the gender of a noun, the feminine pronoun represents a female person, the neuter pronoun a non-person, and the masculine pronoun a person of either male or unspecified gender.  Thus even if the Greek says “he”, that does not necessarily mean that the author was excluding “she”.

Revising the gender language in the Bible is a challenging undertaking for these reasons and more.  It will not be done perfectly, and it certainly will not be done to everyone’s satisfaction.  Yet it is not as foolish a notion as it sounds.  In many places the specification of gender in the English translations is an artifact of translation, not a certain representation of what the original said.  Language and usage change over time; new translations are created to keep pace with the changes.  This may be one of them long overdue, but difficult to manage.

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#166: A Ghetto of Our Own

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #166, on the subject of A Ghetto of Our Own.

This is not about Christian music.  It is about race and discrimination and prejudice and segregation.  It only happens to start with Christian music.  That doesn’t mean that what it says about Christian music is not true or valuable; it only means that it’s not the point here, and if you’re not interested in the Christian music field you should read that part anyway, because it’s the example.

When I started in Contemporary Christian Music, there was no airplay for it.  The Christian radio stations in the northern parts of the United States considered The Bill Gaither Trio daring and progressive; those in the south played The Speers and Doug Oldman and other artists who were called “Southern Gospel” which meant country that sang about Jesus and avoided any of those modern rock-‘n’-roll tropes–The Imperials went too far, and particularly when they incorporated black singer Sherman Andrus in a “white” gospel band.  “Black Gospel” was also out there somewhere, but mostly in paid programming on Sunday mornings broadcast live from a local “black” church.  The dream of Christian “rock” fans was to have “our music”, Larry Norman, Love Song, Andre Crouch (although some would have niched him as “Contemporary Gospel” rather than “Contemporary Christian” or “Christian Rock”–already the fans were fragmenting) played on major secular radio stations–which in New York generally meant AM Top 40 like WABC or FM Rock like WNEW.

Denzel Washington, two-time Academy Award winner nominated again in 2017
Denzel Washington, two-time Academy Award winner nominated again in 2017

There were a lot of reasons why that wasn’t going to happen, and there is solid evidence that radio station programmers were resistant to including any songs that mentioned God or Jesus in a positive context–but then, there were other reasons as well.  I have the greatest of respect for the artists of those early years, and believe that their abilities were second to none.  However, that was an era in which successful artists in the secular field were spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce a record, and those amounts were not available in the Christian market.  Besides, the segregation of Christian music was already established–you never heard Southern Gospel on Country radio stations save perhaps on Sunday mornings, and stations that played Tony Randall and Frank Sinatra did not also play similar artists singing hymns.  What we got instead, the big success, was our own radio stations–mostly small stations in the suburbs who could not compete with bigger city stations in the crowded metropolitan markets looking for a niche that would create an audience and sell advertising time.  With the rise of the Jesus Movement, this was at least potentially promising, and such stations could also sell airtime to preachers in quarter-hour blocks to help cover the bills.  They began appearing in the early mid seventies.

It wasn’t only in radio that Christian artists felt excluded.  In 1969 the Gospel Music Association launched the Dove Awards, in essence Grammy Awards for Christian artists who couldn’t win real Grammies because of the perceived secular bias of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, although market share undoubtedly had a big part in that.  Since some of the record labels producing Contemporary Christian artists had also been producing (and were continuing to produce) Inspirational and Southern and Black Gospel artists, the Dove Awards soon had categories for Christian Contemporary and Rock genres.

What’s wrong with this picture?

The expression Preachin’ to the choir refers to anyone delivering a message to people who already know it and agree with you.  Politicians do it all the time:  in the main, candidates for office are not trying to persuade you to their position, they are trying to convince you that they already agree with your position so you should vote for them.  However, the Christian Contemporary music of the 1970s and 1980s was dominated by evangelistic music–songs whose focus was on persuading unbelievers to turn to Jesus–and the venues where you could hear these songs were all frequented almost exclusively by believers, people who had already embraced the message.  (This is less true today, but more in the first part than the second:  a substantial percentage of Christian Contemporary music is intended to deliver messages to believers, pastoral/worship and teaching music ministries, with only a small part being evangelistic.)

A guitarist/singer-songwriter named Mark Heard might have been the first to object to this situation in the music field.  In the early 1980s he said that in America we were creating a Christian ghetto, that we were isolating ourselves from the secular world with Christian radio stations, Christian bookstores, Christian decorations, Christian television, all of it sold to Christians and ignored by the world.  Heard took his music to Europe, where there were no Christian venues and the radio stations were all state-run, and focused on competing in the secular market there so that he could reach the secular audience.  Then-major Christian artists Pat Terry and (band) Daniel Amos supported this and followed suit, attempting to create work that would break the Christian mold.  However, there was very little crossover from Christian artists to the secular market, limited to people like Dan Peek whose first solo album had the boost in secular markets that he had been one of the principles in the Pop vocal band America, and his hit song All Things Are Possible was not so clearly a “Christian” song as others on the album.  The Oakridge Boys had managed to crossover from Southern Gospel to Country, but only by abandoning all music with a Christian message becoming effectively a secular band, and when it was announced that Contemporary Christian superstar Amy Grant would be making a secular album (from which she did put a single on the Top 40 charts) there was an explosion of controversy among Christians who did not want to support her in “abandoning her faith” (which she clearly never did despite her rocky marital history).

Part of their argument was certainly that Christians talking to each other do not thereby reach the world, but there was another aspect to it.  In creating our own ghetto, we compete with ourselves but inherently avoid competing with the rest of the world.  On one level the Dove Awards and Christian Charts are a wonderful way for Christians to recognize the accomplishments of each other.  On another level, it’s an admission that we are not good enough to compete in the world, to win Grammies or reach the top of the Top 40 chart–and possibly a decision that we are not going to try.  We give awards to the best Christian musicians, and in doing so say that we do not need to be as good as secular musicians.  We praise ourselves for being second-rate.

Perhaps now that I’ve put that forward, you can understand why it bothers me to see the racism expressed by programs like The American Black Film Festival Honors.  Blacks and Hispanics in the United States have created awards to honor people who perform well but not well enough to earn Oscars, Emmies, Grammies, Tonies, and other awards that are not racially limited.  Those who present the awards no doubt have the honest motivation of a belief that their people, “we”, are being snubbed by “them”, the people who nominate and choose the winners of those other awards.  However, this “ghettoization”, these awards that exclude anyone who is not one of “us”, screams that “we” are not good enough to win awards without excluding those “others”.  It’s like the women’s sports leagues–where there is at least some justification, in the fact that male upper body strength and greater average size give unfair advantages in many sports and co-ed contact sports can be at least uncomfortable.  Yet when Maggie Dubois says that she is the women’s champion fencer and The Great Leslie easily disarms her and responds that it would have been impressive if she had been the men’s champion fencer, it expresses an attitude inherent in sexually segregated sports:  women are not good enough to compete with men, and if they are ever to win they must exclude men from their competitions.  So, too, racially-segregated awards have inherent in them the expression of the attitude that members of this race are not good enough to compete with everyone else, and so must have their own recognition ceremonies for “us” that exclude “them”.

Such awards are definitively racist, that is, inclusive/exclusive based on race; they are excused because they favor “minority” races.  If there were an American White Film Festival award, there would be protests in the streets, but the fact that such programs as do exist favor blacks or Hispanics does not make them less racist.  Worse, they create that same kind of creative ghetto, where members of a minority group are satisfied with being good enough to win these awards that don’t require them to compete with everyone else.

Incidentally, of the twenty actor nominees for the 2017 Oscars (Best and Best Supporting Actor and Actress Motion Picture Academy Awards), six are black–thirty percent.  Given that the United States Census Bureau makes the black population of American less than half that–thirteen percent–that’s an excellent showing.  Blacks do not need their own ghetto awards.  It makes you look racist, and it makes you look inferior.  You are not the latter, and should not be the former.

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#150: 2016 Retrospective

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #150, on the subject of 2016 Retrospective.

Periodically I try to look back over some period of time and review what I have published, and the end of the year is a good time to do this.  Thus before the new year begins I am offering you a reminder of articles you might have seen–or might have missed–over the past twelve months.  I am not going to recall them all.  For one thing, that would be far too many, and it in some cases will be easier to point to another location where certain categories of articles are indexed (which will appear more obvious as we progress).  For another, although we did this a year ago in web log post #34:  Happy Old Year, we also did it late in March in #70:  Writing Backwards and Forwards, when we had finished posting Verse Three, Chapter One:  The First Multiverser Novel.  So we will begin with the last third of March, and will reference some articles through indices and other sources.

I have divided articles into the categories which I thought most appropriate to them.  Many of these articles are reasonably in two or more categories–articles related to music often relate to writing, or Bible and theology; Bible and politics articles sometimes are nearly interchangeable.  I, of course, think it is all worth reading; I hope you think it at least worth considering reading.

I should also explain those odd six-digit numbers for anyone for whom they are not obvious, because they are at least non-standard.  They are YYMMDD, that is, year, month, and day of the date of publication of each article, each represented by two digits.  Thus the first one which appears, 160325, represents this year 2016, the third month March, and the twenty-fifth day.

img0150calendar

Let’s start with writings about writing.

There is quite a bit that should be in this category.  After all, that previous retrospective post appeared as we finished posting that first novel, and we have since posted the second, all one hundred sixty-two chapters of which are indexed in their own website section, Old Verses New.  If you’ve not read the novels, you have some catching up to do.  I also published one more behind-the-writings post on that first novel, #71:  Footnotes on Verse Three, Chapter One 160325, to cover notes unearthed in an old file on the hard drive.

Concurrent with the release of those second novel chapters there were again behind-the-writings posts, this time each covering nine consecutive chapters and hitting the web log every two weeks.  Although they are all linked from that table-of-contents page, since they are web log posts I am listing them here:  #74:  Another Novel 160421; #78:  Novel Fears 160506; #82:  Novel Developments 160519; #86:  Novel Conflicts 160602; #89:  Novel Confrontations 160623; #91:  Novel Mysteries 160707; #94:  Novel Meetings 160721; #100:  Novel Settling 160804; #104:  Novel Learning 160818; #110:  Character Redirects 160901;
#113:  Character Movements 160916;
#116:  Character Missions 160929;
#119:  Character Projects 161013;
#122:  Character Partings 161027; #128:  Character Gatherings 161110; #134:  Versers in Space 161124; #142:  Characters Unite 161208; and #148:  Characters Succeed 161222.

I have also added a Novel Support Section which at this point contains character sheets for several of the characters in the first novel and one in the second; also, if you have enjoyed reading the novels and have not seen #149:  Toward the Third Novel 161223, it is a must-read.

Also on the subject of writing, I discussed what was required for someone to be identified as an “author” in, appropriately, #72:  Being an Author 160410.  I addressed #118:  Dry Spells 161012 and how to deal with them, and gave some advice on #132:  Writing Horror 161116.  There was also one fun Multiverser story which had been at Dice Tales years ago which I revived here, #146:  Chris and the Teleporting Spaceships 161220

I struggled with where on this list to put #120:  Giving Offense 161014.  It deals with political issues of sexuality and involves a bit of theological perspective, but ultimately is about the concept of tolerance and how we handle disagreements.

It should be mentioned that not everything I write is here at M. J. Young Net; I write a bit about writing in my Goodreads book reviews.

Of course, I also wrote a fair amount of Bible and Theology material.

Part of it was apologetic, that is, discussing the reasons for belief and answers to the arguments against it.  In this category we have #73:  Authenticity of the New Testament Accounts 160413, #76:  Intelligent Simulation 160424 (specifically addressing an incongruity between denying the possibility of “Intelligent Design” while accepting that the universe might be the equivalent of a computer program), and #84:  Man-made Religion 160527 (addressing the charge that the fact all religions are different proves none are true).

Other pages are more Bible or theology questions, such as #88:  Sheep and Goats 160617, #90:  Footnotes on Guidance 160625, #121:  The Christian and the Law 161022, and #133:  Your Sunday Best 161117 (on why people dress up for church).

#114:  St. Teresa, Pedophile Priests, and Miracles 160917 is probably a bit of both, as it is a response to a criticism of Christian faith (specifically the Roman Catholic Church, but impacting all of us).

There was also a short miniseries of posts about the first chapter of Romans, the sin and punishment it presents, and how we as believers should respond.  It appeared in four parts:  #138:  The Sin of Romans I 161204, #139:  Immorality in Romans I 161205, #140:  Societal Implications of Romans I 161206, and #141:  The Solution to the Romans I Problem 161207.

Again, not everything I wrote is here.  The Faith and Gaming series and related materials including some from The Way, the Truth, and the Dice are being republished at the Christian Gamers Guild; to date, twenty-six such articles have appeared, but more are on the way including one written recently (a rules set for what I think might be a Christian game) which I debated posting here but decided to give to them as fresh content.  Meanwhile, the Chaplain’s Bible Study continues, having completed I & II Peter and now entering the last chapter of I John.

Again, some posts which are listed below as political are closely connected to principles of faith; after all, freedom of speech and freedom of religion are inextricably connected.  Also, quite a few of the music posts are also Bible or theology posts, since I have been involved in Christian music for decades.

So Music will be the next subject.

Since it is something people ask musicians, I decided to give some thought and put some words to #75:  Musical Influences 160423, the artists who have impacted my composing, arranging, and performances.

I also reached into my memories of being in radio, how it applies to being a musician and to being a writer, in #77:  Radio Activity 160427.

I wrote a miniseries about ministry and music, what it means to be a minister and how different kinds of ministries integrate music.  It began by saying not all Christian musicians are necessarily ministers in #95:  Music Ministry Disconnect 160724, and then continued with #97:  Ministry Calling 160728, #98:  What Is a Minister? 160730, #99:  Music Ministry of an Apostle 160803, #101:  Prophetic Music Ministry 160808, #102:  Music and the Evangelist Ministry 160812, #103:  Music Ministry of the Pastor 160814, #106:  The Teacher Music Ministry 160821, and
#107:  Miscellaneous Music Ministries 160824.  As something of an addendum, I posted #109:  Simple Songs 160827, a discussion of why so many currently popular songs seem to be musically very basic, and why given their purpose that is an essential feature.

In related areas, I offered #111:  A Partial History of the Audio Recording Industry 160903 explaining why recored companies are failing, #129:  Eulogy for the Record Album 161111 discussing why this is becoming a lost art form, and #147:  Traditional versus Contemporary Music 161221 on the perennial argument in churches about what kinds of songs are appropriate.

The lyrics to my song Free 161017 were added to the site, because it was referenced in one of the articles and I thought the readers should be able to find them if they wished.

There were quite a few articles about Law and Politics, although despite the fact that this was an “election year” (of course, there are elections every year, but this one was special), most of them were not really about that.  By March the Presidential race had devolved into such utter nonsense that there was little chance of making sense of it, so I stopped writing about it after talking about Ridiculous Republicans and Dizzying Democrats.

Some were, of course.  These included the self-explanatory titles #123:  The 2016 Election in New Jersey 161104, #124:  The 2016 New Jersey Public Questions 161105, #125:  My Presidential Fears 161106, and #127:  New Jersey 2016 Election Results 161109, and a few others including #126:  Equity and Religion 161107 about an argument in Missouri concerning whether it should be legal to give state money to child care and preschool services affiliated with religious groups, and #131:  The Fat Lady Sings 161114, #136:  Recounting Nonsense 161128, and #143:  A Geographical Look at the Election 161217, considering the aftermath of the election and the cries to change the outcome.

We had a number of pages connected to the new sexual revolution, including #79:  Normal Promiscuity 160507, #83:  Help!  I’m a Lesbian Trapped in a Man’s Body! 160521, and #115:  Disregarding Facts About Sexual Preference 160926.

Other topics loosely under discrimination include #87:  Spanish Ice Cream 160616 (about whether a well-known shop can refuse to take orders in languages other than English), #130:  Economics and Racism 161112 (about how and why unemployment stimulates racist attitudes), and #135:  What Racism Is 161127 (explaining why it is possible for blacks to have racist attitudes toward whites).  Several with connections to law and economics include #105:  Forced Philanthropy 160820 (taxing those with more to give to those with less), #108:  The Value of Ostentation 160826 (arguing that the purchase of expensive baubles by the rich is good for the poor), #137:  Conservative Penny-pinching 161023 (discussing spending cuts), and #145:  The New Internet Tax Law 161219 (about how Colorado has gotten around the problem of charging sales tax on Internet purchases).

A few other topics were hit, including one on freedom of speech and religion called #144:  Shutting Off the Jukebox 161218, one on scare tactics used to promote policy entitled #80:  Environmental Blackmail 160508, and one in which court decisions in recent immigration cases seem likely to impact the future of legalized marijuana, called #96:  Federal Non-enforcement 160727.

Of course Temporal Anomalies is a popular subject among the readers; the budget has been constraining of late, so we have not done the number of analyses we would like, but we did post a full analysis of Time Lapse 160402.  We also reported on #85:  Time Travel Coming on Television 160528, and tackled two related issues, #81:  The Grandfather Paradox Problem 160515 and #117:  The Prime Universe 160930.

We have a number of other posts that we’re categorizing as Logic/Miscellany, mostly because they otherwise defy categorization (or, perhaps, become categories with single items within them).  #92:  Electronic Tyranny 060708 is a response to someone’s suggestion that we need to break away from social media to get our lives back.  #93:  What Is a Friend? 060720 presents two concepts of the word, and my own preference on that.  #112:  Isn’t It Obvious? 160904 is really just a couple of real life problems with logical solutions.  I also did a product review of an old washing machine that was once new, Notes on a Maytag Centennial Washing Machine 160424.

Although it does not involve much writing, with tongue planted firmly in cheek I offer Gazebos in the Wild, a Pinterest board which posts photographs with taxonomies attempting to capture and identify these dangerous wild creatures in their natural habitats.  You would have to have heard the story of Eric and the Gazebo for that to be funny, I think.

Of course, I post on social media, but the interesting ones are on Patreon, and mostly because I include notes on projects still ahead and life issues impeding them.  As 2017 arrives, I expect to continue writing and posting–I already have two drafts, one on music and the other on breaking bad habits.  I invite your feedback.

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#114: Saint Teresa, Pedophile Priests, and Miracles

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #114, on the subject of Saint Teresa, Pedophile Priests, and Miracles.

You probably have already heard that the woman known to most of us as Mother Teresa is now officially Saint Teresa of Calcutta.

The first I saw it was in an article critical of the Roman Catholic Church, in the Salt Lake Tribune.  My initial glance at the piece noted that it somehow connected the canonization of this world-respected woman to the issue of pedophilia among the priesthood, and I thought it was going to say that an organization which so poorly handled that situation had no business making people saints.  I was musing on that, but I hate it when people criticize my articles without having read them, so I went back to read it completely and discovered that his complaint, while I think just as wrong-headed, was much more subtle.

img0114teresa

It is of course rather easy to criticize the church for its handling of these pedophile cases, but difficult to see from their perspective.  After all, they’re older and larger than most countries, consider their priests something like diplomatic envoys to everywhere in the world, and have a long history of handling their own problems internally.  Add to that the necessity of balancing justice with mercy, the concerns for the sinners as much as for the victims, and the awareness that the quickest way for an ordinary parishoner to remove an unwanted priest is to make sexual allegations against him, and you’ve got a very difficult situation.  It is thus easy to say that they handled it poorly–but not so simple to be certain that any of us would have handled it better.  That, though, was not what the article was addressing.

It is also a mistake to think that the Roman Catholic Church “makes” people Saints.  Canonization is rather more a process of identifying those who are.  There are few people in the world, perhaps of any faith, who would say that Teresa was not a saint.  She certainly fit the standards most Protestants hold:  she loved Jesus so much that she abandoned all possibility for a “normal” comfortable western life in order to bring the love of God to some of the most impoverished and spiritually needy people on earth.  Many ordinary Catholics were pressing for the Vatican to say officially what they believed unofficially.  The problem was that the Roman Catholic canonization process has a requirement that to be recognized officially as a Capital-S Saint an individual must have performed miracles.  At least two must be certified by Vatican investigators.

As one of my Protestant friends said, she should be credited with the miracle of getting funding for so unglamorous a work, and probably also for doing so much with what she had.  Those, though, are not the types of miracles considered; there has to be an undeniable supernatural element involved.  The author of the critical article is unimpressed with the two that they certified, but his argument is rather that miracles do not happen, and the events cited in support of her canonization were not miracles.  He then argues, seemingly, that if miracles really did happen, if God really did intervene in the world, then certainly God Himself would have acted to prevent those priests from abusing those children.  No loving father could have permitted that kind of treatment of his own children; how can the Church assert that God is a loving Father, if that God did not intervene on behalf of these victims?

We could get into a very involved conversation about why the writer supposes the conduct of these priests to have been “wrong”.  Certainly it was wrong by the standards of the Roman Catholic Church.  However, the Marquis de Sade wrote some very compelling arguments in moral philosophy in which he asserted that whatever exists is right.  On that basis he claimed that because men were stronger than women, whatever a man chose to do to a woman was morally right simply because nature made the man capable of doing it.  The same argument would apply to this situation, that because the priests were able by whatever means to rape these children, their ability to do so is sufficient justification for their actions.  I certainly disagree because, like the Roman Catholic Church, I believe that God has called us to a different moral philosophy.  The question is, on what basis does our anti-God critic disagree?  If he asserts, as he does, that there is no God, why does he suppose that it is wrong for adults to engage in sexual acts with children?  It seems to be his personal preference; the Marquis de Sade would have disagreed, as would at least some of the men who do this.  To say that something is morally wrong presupposes that that statement has meaning.  We fall back on “human rights”, but the only reason Jefferson and the founders of America could speak of such rights is that they believed such rights were conferred (endowed) upon every individual by the God who made us.  No, they did not all believe in the Christian God (many were Deists), but they did found their moral philosophy on a divine origin.

However, let us agree that the conduct of those priests was heinous.  We have a solid foundation for holding that position, even if the writer who raises it does not.  The question is, why did God not stop them?

It is said that during the American Civil War someone from Europe visited President Lincoln at the White House.  During his visit, he asked whether it were really true that the American press was completely free of government control–something unimaginable in Europe at that time.  In answer, Lincoln handed his guest that day’s newspaper, whose lead story was denigrating the way the President was handling the war.  It was obvious that such an article could not have been written if the publisher had any thought of the government taking action against his paper for it.

If God is able to work miracles, why does He not miraculously silence critics like the op-ed piece in the Salt Lake Tribune?

Perhaps the writer thinks that even God would not interfere with the freedom of the press in America.  Why not?  There is nothing particular about the choice to write something which is offensive to God that would make it less objectionable than the choice to do something which is offensive to God.  God could perhaps have prevented many atrocities–the development of the atomic bombs that devastated two Japanese cities, the rise of the regime which exterminated nearly six million Jews and even more Poles plus many other peoples, and we could fill the rest of this article with such acts.  Yet these are all choices made by men, and just as God chooses not to prevent one writer from criticizing Him in the Salt Lake Tribune, so too He has not prevented billions of other hurtful actions by everyone in the world.  He allows us to make our own choices, and to hurt and be hurt by those choices.  If he prevented all of them, there would be no freedoms whatsoever.

Two footnotes should be put to this.

The first is that we do not know and indeed cannot know whether God has limited human wickedness and disaster.  We can imagine horrors that never happened.  The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union never “went hot” into a nuclear battle despite the many fictional scenarios describing how it might have happened.  We do not know whether God prevented nuclear war, or indeed whether He will do so in the future; we only know that it did not happen.  Our perspective of the “bad” that happens in this world lacks perspective because, apart from horror stories, we measure it against itself.  Be assured, though, that if the worst thing that ever happened in the world was the occasional hangnail, someone would be asking how God could possibly allow the suffering that is the hangnail.  We complain of the worst wickedness in the world, but do not know what might have been or whether God saved us from something worse than that.

The second is that God, Who is the only possible foundation for any supposed moral law to which we could hold anyone accountable, promises that He is ultimately fair and will judge everyone.  He has made it His responsibility to see to it that everyone who has caused any harm will be recompensed an equal amount of harm, and anyone who has been harmed will be compensated an appropriate amount in reparations, so that all wrongs ultimately are put right.  The writer of the article does not want there to be ultimate justice, but present intervention.  However, I expect were we to ask if what He wants is for God to remove from the world the power to choose what we do and have our choices affect each other, he would object to that as well.  There will be ultimate justice, and may God have mercy on us all.  Meanwhile, we are given freedom to act in ways that are either beneficial (as Saint Teresa) or baneful (as the priests), so that we may then be judged.

How there can be mercy and justice at the same time is something I have addressed elsewhere, and is much more than this article can include.  It is perhaps the problem that the Catholic Church has in handling its errant priests.  The bishops are not God, and neither are we, and we all do the best we can, which often is not as good as we might hope.  We all also fail, hurt others, and need forgiveness and correction.  God offers that, and that is the true miracle.

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#106: The Teacher Music Ministry

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #106, on the subject of The Teacher Music Ministry.

This continues our miniseries on what it is to be “called” to “music ministry”.  Our first installment was #95:  Music Ministry Disconnect, making the point that most Christians are not what we call “ministers” and most musicians are “entertainers”.  In #97:  Ministry Calling we examined how to know whether you are “called” to be a “minister”, based largely on who you are, what motivates you and how you relate to others with needs.  Following this we identified five specific “ministries” in #98:  What is a Minister?, and began looking at individual ministries with #99:  Music Ministry of an Apostle followed by #101:  Prophetic Music Ministry and #102:  Music and the Evangelist Ministry.  Last time we considered #103:  Music Ministry of the Pastor, including worship leading.  We previously established that pastor and teacher are not the same ministry, but jointly important in the local church.

The fact that I am a teacher both simplifies and complicates the effort to explain the ministry–simplifies because I know it intimately, complicates it because first it is always difficult to see what makes yourself different from others, and second because it is easy to confuse personal experience with that which is generally true of a group.  I was a Boy Scout, but I did many things as a Boy Scout that probably most other Scouts did not do, and there are many things that were done by many Scouts which I never did.  My experience as a teacher is in some ways unique, and in some ways general, and so the difficulty arises in identifying that which characterizes all teachers, as distinct from that which is specific to me.

img0106Hall

Where the pastor is most concerned with people and relationships, the teacher is most concerned with knowledge and understanding.  Our theology and doctrine is laced with the concerns of teachers, and contains a lot of trivial minutiae that is, in ultimate terms, inconsequential.  To pick on one of the biggest issues, questions of the nature of God as three persons but one God, the doctrine of the Trinity, are not essential to salvation:  even most seminary graduates have trouble with the concepts, and one of the details is one of the major points of disagreement between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox denominations.  People are saved and go to heaven every day with no clue as to how there can be only one God but the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all that one God and are in some sense also distinct persons.  It is better to understand aright than to misunderstand, but what we call the Apostles Creed is not found in the writings of the Apostles.  It is an effort by teachers to make sense of what we know, which is valuable but not essential.  Understanding what you do not believe is worthless; believing what you do not fully understand is sufficient, although understanding helps undergird belief.  Developmentally handicapped and autisic persons who understand almost nothing but trust God through Jesus Christ go to heaven; seminary graduates who do not believe the God about whom they learned exists do not.

Yet the teacher explains things.  It was probably Paul’s calling as a teacher that was behind much that was in his letters.  We see how he takes the facts he knows–that Jesus has come to save not the people who were working hardest at keeping the law as perfectly as possible, but ordinary sinful commoners, and recognizes from this that keeping the law has nothing to do with pleasing God, but trusting God is what really matters.  His application of reason to build significant explanations of soteriology, ecclesiology, sanctification, eschatology, and more, are all efforts to enable us to understand–because understanding is the foundation for both believing and acting.

A teacher is thus someone who is always explaining, always instructing, always trying to help others understand what it is that he has learned.  It is most valuable when he is explaining scripture, doctrine, Christian life and conduct; it expresses itself through his character in that he is always explaining everything.  Just as we cited Tom Skinner’s comment that he would have been a great used car salesman had he not been an evangelist because he is that kind of person, so, too, the teacher is marked by a seemingly irresistible urge to teach, to explain and clarify and help others understand.  Others often find this annoying because they don’t really want to understand, certainly not at the depth and level that the teacher does–because the teacher is driven to learn, to study, to contemplate, to grasp everything as completely, thoroughly, and deeply as possible, and (because we all suppose that everyone is more like us than otherwise) assumes that the student has the same hunger.  Teachers thus want to know, and try to explain, everything in much greater depth and detail than anyone really “needs” to know.

Yet that depth and breadth of knowledge is important within the church.  It is easy for congregations to wander into error simply from failure to understand simple truths–the basic understanding of how the gospel frees us from the law without making us immoral scoflaws; the importance of the concepts of tithing and Sabbath-keeping as they point us to God’s total ownership of all our money and time; the types of ministry within the church, what each accomplishes and how they work together.  What teachers bring to the church is essential.

As mentioned, teachers are focused on truths and facts and explanations, not on people.  We can seem a very uncaring bunch, not because we don’t care but because our concerns are more about whether you understand than anything else.  A teacher presented with someone with a problem will answer with teaching, answers to theological questions, expositions of scripture.  If he remembers to pray with the person, his prayer will probably reflect a belief that understanding these truths will solve the problem.  That is sometimes the case–the prayers in Paul’s letters are nearly always on the order of “God, may my readers understand the truths I am about to explain to them”–and there is a degree to which God brings people to that minister best able to help them.  Such explanations are often the answer to difficult problems, particularly when someone is hearing questionable claims or struggling with challenging issues.  At the same time, such teaching does not replace pastoral ministry:  learning about God and the message is important, but learning to live in relationship with God is not gained by absorbing facts and doctrines, even when such teaching is pointing in the right direction.  One of the truths I had to learn very early in my ministry was that the closeness to God and divine warmth I observed in some of my fellow students was not the result of some truth they had learned, but of time spent in prayer and meditation, communing with God.  Teaching is of great value to the students, but we confuse knowledge with relationship, and we teachers are partly to blame for that.

I observe with my own music that I am often incorporating lessons into the songs, from apologetics to instruction in Christian life and truth.  Songs which answer the questions about being Christian are the heart of the teaching music ministry.  They can be used as introductions to spoken lessons, but can also take advantage of that aspect of music we noted for both the evangelist and the pastor, that people will learn the songs and sing them, reinforcing the lesson long after the concert has ended.  If you leave one of my concerts singing “Lord, you’ve got me convinced”, or “Passing through the portal to the new world”, or “And I’ll trust Him again”, or “How can they hear if we don’t tell them?”, you’ve carried the lesson with you.  That’s the objective.

That completes our consideration of the five ministries identified in Ephesians 4.  The series will continue with some consideration of other ways of serving God that may use music but do not seem to fit these categories.

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#84: Man-Made Religion

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #84, on the subject of Man-Made Religion

A significant (at least to me) discussion was budding on a thread about something else on Facebook with Nikolaj Bourguignon and William Bing Ingram, and Facebook is already not a very good place for such deep discussions and the less so when they are buried in a thread about something else. So I am addressing it here, and if they’re interested perhaps we can discuss it on a new thread there or here.  (I know Nikolaj has a lot on his plate at the moment, so I’ll understand if he’s unavailable.  Everyone is welcome to join.  Initial comments here are moderated, so don’t expect that they’ll post immediately if you aren’t already an approved commenter on this web log, but I usually get to them pretty quickly.)

William suggested:

…one of the things about religion is that nobody ever discovers religion on their own; they always have to be told about it before they “suddenly” find religion.

This is unlike subjects such as math….

Religion is a completely man-made idea. I mean, consider early civilizations. They developed independent of each other and each one developed widely different religions. If there really was one true religion, each culture would have discovered the same one independently.

I take exception to that idea, and hope he will afford me the opportunity to explain why.

img0084Crucifix

It is certainly reasonable to reject religion for rational reasons.  It is entirely different to do so based on errors of fact, and that appears to be what we have here.

Certainly it is true that there are many religions all over the world, and they have often been at odds with each other concerning which is the truth.  However, it is important that we grasp those arguments.  When Missouri Synod Lutherans argue with Wisconsin Synod Lutherans, the points at issue are generally about what is appropriate in church services; they agree on much much more than that on which they disagree.  When Missouri Synod Lutherans argue with atheists about the existence of God, the Lutherans are much closer to the Baptists, the Catholics, even the Muslims, than any of these are to the atheists.  Theologians often talk about the case of the single iota of difference–from a church split that happened largely over whether the right word was homoousios (“same substance”, used in the Nicene Creed and adopted by the western Christian church) or homoiousios (“similar substance”, used by Eusebius of Caesarea and considered the better choice by the eastern Christian church).  After all, if I say that the paint color we chose was lavender and my wife says it was lilac, apart from the fact that I suspect she would be right it doesn’t really prove that we didn’t choose a paint color.  It only means that we disagree in the minutiae.

It will also certainly help if we recognize that nearly all religions can be divided into the ethical portion, the spiritual portion, and the ritual portion.  Certainly they are all different in all three portions–but it must be noted that they are not really so different as we might expect.

Looking first at the ethical portion, we find that there are universal principles underlying all religions from all over the world.  I recommend the appendix in C. S. Lewis’ wonderful book The Abolition of Man, in which he details many of these principles and demonstrates their presence in religions from every continent over many centuries.  We might suppose that the sanctity of life and the protection of property were obvious, but loyalty to family over strangers, obligation of hospitality to strangers, sanctity of marriage, protection of the weak and particularly of children, deference to elders, sacrifice of self, and quite a few other less obvious principles are well represented universally.  The specifics of how these are applied from one culture to another certainly varies, but the ethic itself seems to be universally understood, and discovered by peoples throughout the world.

The ritual aspect is certainly far more varied, but even here we have some haunting similarities.  Nearly all religions recognize some significance in sacrifice.  Nearly all include feasts but also fasts, self-deprivations of some sort and celebrations of some sort.  The rest is generally application of culture and human abilities–the inclusion of music, chanting, speech, body positions indicating deference, and many other aspects which develop.  Modern sociologists are intrigued by the concept of the creation of a “sacred space”, a collection of ritual which humans use to divide part of life from everything else, which is found universally and involves ritual.  It seems that we have all discovered the same thing, and applied it in different ways.

The spiritual portion is the most difficult, but to some degree it also has shared elements.  As noted, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Polytheists, Jews, and many, many others all agree that there is some kind of spirit world, a God or gods; we are all much closer to each other than any of us are to atheism, despite how very different we are from each other.  The atheist would claim that our diversity comes from the fact that we are all inventing ideas to explain realities that we did not understand, but fails to account for the similarities between those ideas.  Certainly in some theologies the gods are like super-people, and in others they are so far beyond our reality as to be unlike people at all.  Some see the afterlife as a lot of individual people continuing an earth-like existence, others see it as everyone losing his selfhood and becoming part of one selfless unity, and others–religious people who believe in a spirit world–see no afterlife at all.  Yet this is the area in which we have the least information, because any of us who might have gone and returned have failed to bring back anything all of us accept as proof.

Except that this is where the Judeo-Christian concept of revealed religion becomes involved.  Unlike so many others, the scriptures of the Jews and the Christians present themselves as historic documents recounting events in the lives of real people, who reportedly interacted with representatives of God.  All those efforts to figure out what the spirit world is like were doomed to failure without information from the spirit world, but Christianity claims that it was provided.  If so, then the Christian faith has an advantage:  first-hand information.

What is the more interesting about this, to me at least, is that what the Christian faith claims as revealed religion seems to be saying that everyone had it partly right.  God is not a monolithic being, but He is a single being with a complex existence best described as three people perpetually interacting with each other.  (There are spirits who are not God nor gods, but in some sense greater than humans, who interact with God and possibly on occasion with humans, and not all of them are friendly.)  The reality of the polytheists contains some truth but not all the truth.  The opposite reality, that God is vastly incomprehensible and beyond anything we would understand as a person also contains some truth but not all the truth.  The image of the afterlife as many individuals living together is affirmed, but so is the image of everyone joined in one entity (the body of Christ).  It tells us that so much that we guessed about the spirit world is true, but not exclusively true, and gives us an image that is barely comprehensible of a place that by definition ought to be completely outside our experience or understanding.

C. S. Lewis seems to have become a Christian (he was an atheist) in large part because he saw that the Christian message provided the critical piece of reality that united everything.  I see some of that sometimes, and I see it here:  if the Christian concept of the spirit world is correct, all the other attempts to understand it are partly correct, capturing some aspects and missing some.  It also suggests that none of these religions are “made up”; they are, in fact, all glimpses of a reality–something akin to the poem about the blind men and the elephant, written to express a similar idea, but when the poem says that the blind men are describing something they have never seen, it fails to recognize that they have experienced something, and so are accurately describing part of something.  That seems to be what is happening in the diversity of religions:  We have all (generally if not individually) experienced something and attempted to understand it.  The fact that we understand it differently does not mean we did not experience the same thing–any more than the fact that Aristotle’s physics is significantly different from that of Galileo and Newton, and Einstein’s different again, does not mean they all lived in different universes.  They simply did not notice the points that others did.

I have other reasons for preferring Christianity, but they are beyond the scope of the present discussion, which is really about whether the diversity of religions proves they are all “made up”.  I think that you can’t support that conclusion on the evidence.

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#76: Intelligent Simulation

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #76, on the subject of Intelligent Simulation.

I saw a news item a few hours ago (I linked it from my Facebook page at the time) reporting on the 2016 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate.  The headline was that Neil DeGrasse Tyson expressed the opinion that there was a “very high” chance that the universe was just “a simulation”.

Director of the Hayden Planetarium Neil deGrasse Tyson speaks as host of the Apollo 40th anniversary celebration held at the National Air and Space Museum, Monday, July 20, 2009 in Washington. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)
Director of the Hayden Planetarium Neil deGrasse Tyson speaks as host of the Apollo 40th anniversary celebration held at the National Air and Space Museum, Monday, July 20, 2009 in Washington. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Tyson is not alone in his opinion, although it is not the dominant opinion among scientists.  However, the essence of it, that the world we perceive is not real but is a programmed simulation of a reality (something like The Matrix) is not considered to be as ridiculous as it sounds to laymen.  According to the report, Tyson says he would not be surprised if the universe was designed by someone.

I hope he did not use those actual words.  He is cited for defending the notion that the world we know might be a simulation, and thus that someone else is responsible for its existence.  That certainly would mean that someone designed it, and frankly whether or not it is a simulation, I agree with the conclusion (expressed long ago by many, notably William Paley) that someone (at least very probably) designed it.  The reason I hope Tyson did not say those words is for his sake, because he is constantly arguing that “Intelligent Design”–the theory that the universe was created by an intelligent being who had a purpose for the act of creation–is nonsense.  He hosted the second Cosmos television series in large part to refute any notion that anything like God or a god might be responsible for the creation of the universe.

Yet now it seems he wants it both ways:  it is not possible that there might be a creative omnipotent divine being who designed and fashioned the real universe as it is, but that same universe might be an unreal simulation of a reality created by a vastly superior being of some sort, and we might be the equivalent of computer simulated intelligences within it.  How can the one be impossible and the other highly likely?

This warrants further consideration.

At the base of the issue of whether the universe is a simulation is the fact that it is probably impossible to prove it is not.  The characters in the video game do not know that they are characters in a video game, and could not possibly reason their way to the conclusion that there is a reality beyond them (Tron notwithstanding).  I have discussed this some in my (hopefully forthcoming) book Why I Believe:

When I was perhaps fourteen or fifteen, several friends and I created “The Great Meditators Society”, which is probably a silly name for a silly group of young teenagers trying to be intellectual.  Our greatest discussion considered the fact that we could not prove that the world around us existed, that is, that what we thought we knew, even our conversations with each other, were not completely illusory.  It might be, we concluded, that we exist as a floating non-corporeal consciousness—that is, one of us has such existence—and that there is some other being who creates the illusion of a universe and of interactions with other persons, giving us all of our sensory information very like a dream.

If you want me to prove that God exists, it cannot be done; I cannot even prove that you exist.  This we realized as teenagers.  My experience is better if I assume the illusion to be true, but a good artificial intelligence driving a direct-to-mind virtual reality would provide the same outcome.  Cooperation with the rules of the illusion makes the game more enjoyable, but this does not prove the reality of the perceived world.  (I should mention that The Matrix would not exist for decades, and was not part of our discussion.)

We of course were unaware that we were rehashing intellectual ground much more ably covered by others, particularly Rene Descartes.  This was the starting point for his major treatise, in which he went beyond us to doubt his own existence, but then found a basis to believe that he, at least, existed in the one statement he made which is known by most people, “I think, therefore I am.”  That then becomes the starting point for his own exposition of the ontological argument, possibly the earliest and certainly the most basic of the formal arguments for the existence of God, propounded earlier by Athanasius.

Yet with our own efforts at creating artificial intelligence, we are forced to ask whether being able to think demonstrates existence.  Descartes recognized that the proof of his own existence was not in itself proof of his self-perception–that is, he could still be simply one mind interacting with a simulation created by another mind.  He argued beyond that to the existence of God and thence to the existence of the perceived reality, but not everyone accepts his argument.  It could be a simulation.

Yet it cannot be a simulation without the existence of someone–the programmer, the simulator, the Intelligent Designer.  Paley’s Watchmaker is more necessary if the universe is not real than if it is.

Fundamental in the discussion at the scientific level is the idea that we are gradually discovering the rules, that is, how the universe “works”.  The thought is advanced that if we can indeed determine how it works that increases the probability that it is a simulation, since it means that we could create an identical simulation given sufficient technology to implement it.  I find this ironic.  In the foundations of western science is the fundamentally religious tenet that a rational intelligence (the Greeks called it the Logos, “word” or “reason”) designed the universe and created us as similarly rational beings, and thus that sharing to a lesser degree the same kind of rational mind that was responsible for the creation of the world we ought to be able to grasp to some degree how that world works.  Now the science that is based on the assumption that the creator of reality is a rational being in the same sense (to a greater degree) as we are is being turned on its head to say that if we can prove that reality follows rational rules we increase the probability that it is not real.  To some degree, we would be completely unaware that the world followed rational rules had we not begun with the assumption that it was rationally designed to work by rules which were rationally discoverable.  How does demonstrating the truth of the assumption invalidate it?

It is certainly a connundrum for Tyson.  If the world might be a simulation, then it must be intelligently designed.  Every scrap of evidence that supports the notion that someone designed our world as a simulation as equally supports the notion that someone designed it as a reality.

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#73: Authenticity of the New Testament Accounts

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #73, on the subject of Authenticity of the New Testament Accounts.

I have covered–or perhaps I should say I will be covering–this in my hopefully forthcoming book Why I Believe.  However, I recently read a work of fiction in which a widely embraced and repeated nineteenth century error was asserted, not once but twice, not casually but in the presence of a person trained in a presumably conservative seminary who instead of knowing better and saying so accepted the mistake and was significantly motivated by it.  The mistake is that the New Testament documents are not historically reliable, and specifically that the Bible contains four Gospel accounts written long after the first century pseudepigraphically (that is, by anonymous authors who took the names of famous persons), to tell the story the Church wanted at that point to tell.

There are so many problems with this view that it is difficult to know where to begin; however, the core problem is that attitude that the New Testament Gospels, which include the resurrection of Jesus, are not authentic historic accounts.

The "Jesus Papyrus", at Magdalen College, showing fragments of the Gospel of Matthew and plausibly dated to the mid first century.
The “Jesus Papyrus”, at Magdalen College, showing fragments of the Gospel of Matthew and plausibly dated to the mid first century.

The root of the problem is a circular argument that was the basis for a lot of what passed for nineteenth century scholarship:  miracles do not happen, and so we need to figure out why certain documents related to the Christian faith report that they did.  The obvious answer was that despite the fact that the church had always believed these documents were written by first century eyewitnesses or investigators, they were actually written centuries later by church leaders attempting to create a history that supported the religion they wanted.  At the same time, there were competing Christian sects which wrote their own similarly pseudepigraphal accounts which presented a different view of Jesus, which are just as valid–which is to say just as invalid–as those generally accepted.  The support for this theory is simply that it provides an adequate explanation for why accounts claiming to be, or be based on, eyewitness testimony report events we want to say never occurred:  the claims of historicity are invalidated by the late dates.

The fact that that is a circular argument is lost on most people, because most modern people buy the premise:  miracles do not happen, and therefore any account that claims miracles did happen must be false, and it’s just a matter of finding a plausible explanation for how such a false account could have been accepted as true.  That in turn is aided by the modern view that our forefathers were gullible idiots who believed many impossible things simply because they lacked the intellect for modern science.  The people who think this have never wrestled with the towering intellectual works of Augustine and Athanasius and Tertullian; they simply assume that people who believed in miracles must not have been very smart, because they don’t believe in miracles and have an inflated view of their own intellectual capabilities, and perhaps more defensibly because they know some other truly intelligent people who don’t believe in miracles.  Yet the events recounted in the Gospels are reported not because the writers thought miracles happened all the time, but precisely because the writers recognized that these were violations of the natural order, that events were occurring that ought to be impossible.  Our ancestors, and particularly the writers of these books, did not believe in miracles because they were gullible, but because the evidence available to them on the subject was overwhelmingly credible despite the seeming impossibility.

Let’s set aside the fact that the accounts read like eyewitness testimony.  There could be explanations for that–it is likely that at least parts, and sometimes substantial parts, of the Gospels themselves were compiled from source materials, short eyewitness accounts that had been put to paper before the Gospels themselves were composed.  This theory explains the kinds of similarities and differences we have, particularly between the three “synoptic” Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  At least part of their work involved compiling the earlier recorded accounts of others.  This, though, makes the accounts more, not less, reliable, as it suggests that the accounts were earlier than the Gospels themselves, and the Gospel writers selected those they thought most credible at the time.  We think that it is possible to invent something that sounds like an eyewitness account, filled with unimportant details, but such fictional accounts were unknown then, and certainly never attempted to report anything resembling historic events.  That is a feature of modern fiction not known in a time when things were written because they were important to someone.

Also, we must dispel the notion that the claimed writers were ignorant peasants who could not read nor write.  Luke is identified by Paul (we’ll get to him) as a “healer”, the word commonly taken to mean doctor, and the educated use of the Greek language in the two books attributed to him reflects that about him.  Matthew was said to be a tax collector, and it is unlikely that the Romans would have given the responsibility to assess and collect local taxes to someone who could not read and write.  What little we know about Mark suggests that he was the son of a wealthy Jewish family–Barnabas was a close relative, probably an uncle, and a propertied businessman.  The possibility of a wealthy Jewish boy not receiving an education in that era is non-existent.  People will claim that John was a poor peasant fisherman, pointing to places in the world in modern times where uneducated peasants eke out a living by lakesides.  However, John was co-owner of a fishing business (with his brother James and their friends, the brothers Peter and Andrew) which had employees, several boats and ample equipment, and was prosperous enough that the four owners could leave it in the care of their employees for most of several years while they took a sabbatical to learn from an itinerant teacher–and note that Peter, at least, had a family that would have to be supported by that business in his absence.  Our image of the peasant fisherman should be replaced by the image of a fishing magnate.  They were the Mrs. Paul’s, the Gorton’s of Gloucester, in their time.  They weren’t independently wealthy, but their business holdings were adequate to support them and their families while they took a couple years away from work.  They, too, were almost certainly educated; Jewish boys became Jewish men by proving at the age of 13 that they could read the Torah, Prophets, and Writings in public.  To think that they could not also work in the commercial language of the age is silly.

Besides, even very well educated persons, such as Paul (son of wealthy businessmen in a Roman city, student of one of the top Rabbis of all time), frequently dictated letters and books to a scribe, called an amanuensis, in the same way that twentieth century executives and authors dictated letters and books to stenographers (or later Dictaphones) to be typed, to ensure a clear and legible copy.  They did not need to write well physically to be the authors; they only needed to be able to tell the scribes what to write.

So these purported first century authors could have written these books; the more significant question is, did they?

To that, we have testimony as early as the end of the first century–Clement of Rome, writing c.90-110 AD, who asserted that there were four recognized accounts of the life of Jesus.  By the middle of the second century those four accounts had names, the same names as the books we have.  That testimony spreads across the Roman Empire, coming from sources in Alexandria (Egypt), Antioch (Syria), Smyrna (Turkey), Carthage (North Africa), and Rome (Italy), and from people who apparently had, and independently preserved, copies of them.  It is impossible to argue that these documents were not well known by the beginning of the second century, and almost as difficult to argue that the persons preserving them, separated as they were by long distances and relying on the documents to preserve the truth they believed, would have agreed to change them.  The hundreds of ancient copies of portions of the New Testament which we have today are traced back to origins in those diverse regions; they are the best attested ancient historic documents in the world.

There are also early fragments of these same books.  The ones pictured above in this article, sometimes called the Magdalen Fragments because they were stored at Magdalen College, more recently called the Jesus Papyrus, have recently been dated to sometime around fifty or sixty AD–the middle of the first century.  They show fragments of the Gospel of Matthew on both sides.  That makes them the earliest known extant copies of any part of any New Testament book–yet it is significant that they are copies, clearly showing evidence that they were copied from a previous version, and thus that the book was already in circulation and being copied and shared across long distances.  A well-known early first century original is thus virtually certain, based on this scholarship.

Yet even if we suppose that somehow they actually are later documents, that does not resolve the problem for those who deny the resurrection.  You still have to deal with the letters of Paul.  No one doubts that most of his letters to churches were written by someone of his name and description in the mid first century.  In almost every one of them the author reinforces the notion that Jesus arose from the grave, that that is the essence of the message; in several he asserts that he is one of the witnesses who saw Him, and he also tells us that he had met other witnesses, of which there were over five hundred.

The essential element of the Christian faith, that Jesus Christ was executed and arose from the grave, is incontrovertibly historically supported.  It is of course possible that it is not true–as it is possible that George Washington was not the first President of the United States, that Hitler did not run concentration camps in which Jews were exterminated, that Sir Isaac Newton did not create the famous laws of motion that are known by his name.  Everything that is historical is open to question on some level.  We evaluate the evidence and reach conclusions; we do not reach conclusions and then use them to discredit the evidence.

I hope to have the book available soon.  It goes into more detail on some of these issues and many others.  Meanwhile, don’t believe the disbelievers without examining the evidence.

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