The Life of Jesus: The Important Parts (#1)

This article is part 1 of an 8 part series. Go forward to part 2.

life-of-jesus-according-to-four-gospelsThe Life of Jesus According to All Four Gospels

Introduction

We have four gospels that tell us about Jesus. But they do not all record the same story. It is interesting to see what each writer thought was important to highlight that the others did not highlight. But there are only eleven common events recorded in all four gospels. These are the essential elements that every writer considered important.

Most of what Jesus did was relatively unimportant. Only a few details of Jesus’ life were critical. In order to understand the life of Jesus, one must understand the historical context, the Old Testament, as we know it. The letters in the New Testament are important and helpful teachings, but one does not need any of them to access the central truths of Christ’s message.

In the article “Is the Bible Special?“, Ian writes:

The average person would simply not make it through the bible, and most of the few who did would be utterly baffled at what the fuss is about.

And nestled in the comments on that article is this gem by sido:

If the Bible has a series of commands for believers to follow, was it in the interest of say Christ or his Apostles in creating a book like the Bible for following generations? The teachings of the Bible don’t call for such actions, or show any signs that such a project was in progress at the time. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that a book like this will be left for us to follow.

It is simply basic fact that neither Jesus, nor his disciples, nor the apostles, called for the construction of a holy book. Apart from the resurrection of Jesus, there is nothing exceptional about the Bible.¹ Jesus did affirm the validity of the Jewish scriptures, clarifying its purpose and essence, but nowhere did he teach that something more was needed. Everything meaningful about the Jesus can be understood in light of the Jewish scriptures.

The gospels merely inform and they would do so even if our New Testament consisted of a single gospel. The message of Jesus is a simple one that even children can understand and there are relatively few critical points. This is the thesis behind this series on the life of Jesus.

The Pre-Ministry of Jesus

There are a number of stories about Jesus prior to the start of his ministry. None show up in every gospel. It would take too long to discuss every difference, so instead I will focus on just a few.

The birth narratives and early stories of Jesus’ childhood are interesting from a historical perspective, but are not essential theologically. Jesus placed all the emphasis on being God’s Son. We don’t need a virgin birth, choirs of angels, or visiting Zoroastrian priests. That Jesus was the Christ (or Messiah) is the essential point.²

Another feature that is often overlooked are the two genealogies of Jesus. The one showing the blood ties of Jesus to David (through Mary’s family), the other showing the familial ties (through Joseph and thus the legal rights of inheritance). No doubt these were essential points that needed to be made to those who cared about such things, but we no longer consider them to be essential today. They establish fulfillment of a legal requirement to be the Messiah. That is all.

Things get much more important as we discuss the beginning of the ministry of Jesus, which will be covered in the next part.

¹ This is certainly debatable, but it is not an essential point, so I will not do so here. The validity of Christianity rests solely on the validity of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

² This is, of course, fatal to the doctrine of the Trinity that relies on complex theologies about pre-existence and why the Son is God. Proponents of this theology insist that this is essential for salvation, yet another point Jesus himself never taught.

 

What Does Sacrifice Mean?

In a previous post discussing salvation and how it pertains to the sacrifice of Jesus, I briefly touched on the meaning of the blood sacrifice, especially as pertaining to the Passover. I wanted to explain a bit more about the sacrificial system and why Jesus had such an important role to play in it.

When Adam and Eve sinned in the garden of Eden, God established his primary rule: the punishment for sin was death and a “blood price” was required to pay the penalty.¹ God shed blood to provide them clothing to cover their nakedness. The shame of their nakedness was a metaphor for sin, and the shedding of blood to cover their nakedness a metaphor for paying the price for sin.

During the Passover, the Israelites had to sacrifice a lamb and smear the blood on the doorposts. In doing so, the angel of death literally passed by, sparing the family the punishment for sin.

Eventually the law was given to the Israelites setting down a sacrificial system for the payment of sin. When an Israelite gave animal sacrifice, the animal was the physical sacrifice, paying its life. But it was the person, not the sacrifice, that paid the spiritual cost for sin. The person had to pay the price of death for sin (by proxy). He was forced to experience the very real horror of death.

Ultimately the sacrifice was a symbol of the inner state of repentance. The sacrifice was ritually required, but on its own insufficient, to restore the spiritual link to God. God requires both the internal and external forms of repentance.

When Jesus died, it was humanity making the sacrifice. When we accept Jesus as our sacrifice, we must accept the reality of sin and that we are responsible for that horrible sacrifice. And death on a cross was horrible, there is no denying that.² When we do this, his blood washes our sin away.

Jesus then sends the Holy Spirit, God’s power, to dwell within us. This is the restoration of our connection with God. Under the old Covenant, only the High Priest could enter the “Holy of Holies” and be in the presence of God directly. The priest was the “mediator” between person and God. Under the new Covenant, Jesus is our High Priest: he mediates between God and Man allowing us to directly communicate with God through the power of the Holy Spirit.³

Jesus had to die because we needed a sacrifice. We need our spiritual connection with God restored. He didn’t do it for himself, he did it because he loved us.

¹ The cost (or wages) of sin is not pain and suffering, but death. Pain and suffering certainly do shout at us, reminding that there are real consequences of sin. But death is the penalty of sin.

² The horror of death would have been no less had Jesus died of a quiet lethal injection. The pain and suffering of Jesus was not required, only his death. But the brutality of his death forces us to recognize, by proxy, how terrible death is and the horror of sin.

³ Through the Holy Spirit, the connection with God is permanently restored. This is why the sacrificial system is no longer needed. Jesus was a perfect human sacrifice, more acceptable than any spotless animal could ever be. Repentance of sin remains an important part of our lives, but no other sacrifice is acceptable.

Athiesm and the Leper that Returned

I’ve listened to and watched many popular atheists talk about God. When asked what it would take to convince them, the most common response is some sort of personal supernatural experience. It might be an angel shouting from the sky or something equally unscientific but undeniable. But, they say, nothing short of this is enough. Arguments that these types of experiences are common in those who believe fail to sway them because they are not personal. They don’t even count as scientific evidence.

Sunday’s sermon was on the ten lepers who were healed by Jesus. The story is found in Luke 17:12-19:

12And as he entered a certain village he was met by ten men who had serious skin diseases, who stood at a distance. 13And they lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” 14And when he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And it came to pass, as they went, they were cleansed. 15But one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice, 16and he fell on his face at his feet, giving him thanks—and he was a Samaritan. 17And Jesus answering said, “Were not the ten cleansed? But where are the nine? 18Were there none found that returned to give glory to God, except this foreigner?” 19And he said to him, “Get up and go on your way. Your trust has made you whole.” (REV)

Jesus healed all ten men, but only one of them returned in thanks and honored God. Jesus said something curious to him when he said that his trust (or faith) made him whole. Were not the nine also made whole?

In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus was concerned with the Kingdom of Heaven and our spiritual needs. The Bible shouts this theme over and over. What did the one leper get that the others missed? It wasn’t physical healing. It was spiritual wholeness.

The nine were healed and they did what was ritually required when they presented themselves to the priest. They went about their lives. But they were not truly changed.

Throughout my life I’ve witnessed the supernatural in my life on a number of occasions. I’ve witnessed many times in the lives of others. I’ve forgotten most of these events. How can this be? Miracles and the supernatural are relatively unimportant when it comes to proving God’s existence or being a Christian in general.

Ten lepers received a life-changing miracle. They could not have been any lower in society. They were completely isolated outcasts who had to shout every time they saw someone coming. Yet when they experience miraculous healing, only one returned to thank Jesus and praise God. Only one of them had a spiritual awakening.

Miracles are important in the life of a believer to provide confirmation that one is on the right path. They provide assurance. But it is the condition of the heart, the act of searching, that leads to truth. Miracles can, and will, be rejected. When the Pharisees demanded a sign from Jesus, he called them wicked. Jesus understood, as we should, that signs and miracles do not convince those who already decided.

The Lord’s Prayer Retranslated

This article is part of the series Adventures in Biblical Interpretation.

In the phrase “Give us this day our daily bread” from the Lord’s Prayer, the meaning of the Greek word translated as “daily” is unknown. We have no use of the term anywhere else in the entire body of ancient literature. So when it came time to translate it, they came up with something that sounded good to them. They guessed. Sure, it’s a perfectly reasonable guess, but it doesn’t seem to fit smoothly.

Ian from Irreducible Complexity retranslates the Lord’s Prayer like this:

Our father in heaven:
May your name be holy;
May your kingdom come;
May your will be done,
As in the heavens, so upon the earth.
Give us today our supernatural bread.
Forgive us our sins, even as we forgive sinners.
Do not bring us to temptation, but from hardships draw us to yourself.
—Matt 6:9-13

This is an elegant and beautiful translation.

This translation is much more thematic with the life and teachings of Jesus as laid out in the book of Matthew. Jesus did nothing if not go on and on and on about the Kingdom of God/Heaven. Jesus was far more concerned about our spiritual state than mundane daily needs. This prayer is a summary of life in the Kingdom.

We should be sinless even as the father is holy. We should forgive even as the father forgives us. We should seek the kingdom of God on earth as he draws us in, providing us support and spiritual sustenance. We seek to have the father’s holiness permeate our world.

This is a prayer of expectation. It contains the essence of why Jesus taught what he did: as the herald of God’s Kingdom on earth. For one day Jesus will return and all the wrongs will be set right. Peace will reign. And the father’s will will be done. Unconditionally.

Trinities in the Bible

This article is an early attempt to consider the biblical concepts of the trinity along with the body, soul, and spirit as three different (but related) things. The viewpoints expressed here go way beyond tradition and might be shocking. It is an ongoing theological development, an exploration of a theme. Inaccuracies are expected. I’m not completely comfortable with many of the formulations here and will modify this post as time goes on.

Consider it an academic exercise (in progress) rather than a valid and complete belief system.

The Christian Bible contains a number of concepts of trinity. A proper understanding of these vastly simplifies biblical interpretation and eases understanding. Unfortunately mainstream Christianity has gotten it wrong.

 

Trinity

Note that among these trinities, the one thing lacking is, well, The Trinity. The Trinity was legitimized when the pagan Roman Emperor Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea in 325. The Council of Constantinople in 381 solidified this as doctrine.[1] Most modern support for the Trinity comes from tradition, confirmation bias in biblical interpretation, and the King James Version Bible based on insertions to manuscripts that were sourced after these events.[2] The latter of these is the reason why almost all modern translations of the Bible do not include overt references to Jesus as divine. For example, compare the KJV to the NIV. It is interesting to note that Jewish and Islamic traditions consider the Messiah to be a human prophet.

The idea that God is made up of three distinct natures (Father, Son, Holy Ghost) while still one being is difficult to understand. Most traditions label this as a great mystical “mystery”, which is code for “we can’t explain how it would work logically”. It is why many, including thinkers like C.S. Lewis, struggled with the concept.[3]

Shockingly to most, Jesus never claimed to be God, but often spoke to the contrary. He is God’s messenger, God’s Messiah (Anointed One). Jesus is High Priest. He is greater than Abraham, the father of nations. As God’s designated agent on earth, he spoke God’s words with full authority. He is God’s Son. He was the first to be reborn and is our Lord. He sits at the right hand of God the Father. He is lower to no one but God, but is not himself God.

The Bible uses the metaphor of Wind, Blood, and Water to represent the three possible natures of created beings. This use is consistent from Genesis to Revelation.

  • Water. Body. World Awareness. Least.
  • Blood. Soul. Self Awareness.
  • Wind. Spirit. God Awareness. Greatest.

The body is the physical. The soul is the mental, emotional, intellectual, personality. The spirit is the god-connection, the spiritual. The spirit can be thought of as a phone line to God. The soul is where the essence of your being resides, or more accurately it is ‘you’. Note that this is not the same as the Platonic ideas of a mortal body and immortal soul. The Bible, while using common words, is not referring to the same thing.

Plants have bodies. Animals have body and soul. Humans (including Jesus) have body, soul, and spirit. Angels are spiritual beings that have no body or soul.

The creation story notes that man was created in God’s image and God’s own spirit breathed life into man. Your soul, who you are, was created when God breathed his own spirit into your body giving it life. Your spirit is the “spark of the divine” or the “life essence” within all of us. The spirit plus the body produced the soul. The life of animal (in body and soul) is not the same as the human (sentient) life granted by the spirit inside man.

God is made up of three parts: the spirit (the Holy Ghost), the soul (the Father), and the physical (his Word). That God’s physical form is the Word and that the Word became flesh (a literal body) in the person of Jesus does not make Jesus divine. As Jesus represented God, the word of Jesus was the Word of God.[4] But Jesus the human was not God, he only spoke for God as was promised to Moses.[5] In the same way, angels bear the message of God, speaking God’s words, but are not themselves God.

Sacrifice

The tabernacle and later temples had three main parts: the Courts where the common people could be, the inner Holy Place where only the Priests could go, and the innermost Holy of Holies where God dwelt. When the Bible says the body is a temple, this is meant both literally and figuratively. The spirit is the dwelling place of the spirit of God within believers.

The spirit and the body are in a constant fight for the soul of man.[6] Sin separates man from God. It cuts off the spirit of the unbeliever from God. Before Jesus, when a body was defiled or unclean, this defiled the soul and prevented the spiritual connection to God. God can still poke and prod you and you can still pray to God, but there can be no relationship, no true spiritual understanding.

Just as water is required to purify the body, a blood sacrifice is required to purify the soul and restore the spiritual connection. When Jesus died sinless on the cross and was resurrected, he became the final blood sacrifice. This is the great circumcision, the permanent ‘separating’ of the corrupt influence of the world through the body from the soul.[7] No longer is man slave to the sins of the body (that is, the world), but instead ruled by the spirit of God that resides within him. This is why the Old Testament ceremonial laws no longer apply and why no other sacrifice is required.

The Message

The message of Jesus is so shocking: those who accept Jesus as their Lord become literal children of God. This is the priesthood of believers, part of the body of Christ. In the same way that Jesus came and was elevated to be with God after death, the same is promised of his followers. At the end of time when all are judged, Jesus identifies his followers and these are resurrected, given what I can only understand as literal new bodies, to live with God forever in eternal life.

What happens to those who do not believe? The Bible states what while anyone can destroy the body, only God can destroy the soul, the essence of your being.[8] The penalty for sin is [soul] death.[9] Those not redeemed through Jesus are thrown into fire and completely consumed. There is no eternity of pain or bliss. There is only permanent annihilation, as the fire (that is, method of punishment) is eternal and cannot be quenched. This is known as the second death and occurs after judgment.[10][11]

In this God shows his great love. He would rather you experience life for just a little time and be destroyed than to not have been born at all. The punishment will be the knowledge of what you could have had, but God is no sadist and no one will suffer ongoing punishment for eternity. God takes no pleasure in the destruction. He would rather all are collected to him. This is beyond heartbreaking, to have the opportunity to live forever but to chose death instead.

The message of Christianity is simple: Sin destroys the spiritual connection between God and man. The punishment for sin is death. Sacrifice is required to restore the bond, and this sacrifice takes the form of Jesus, who was the Word of God in the body, was sinless, and died to pay the blood price. He was then resurrected, given a new body, and now sits on the throne next to God the Father. We are given the same opportunity to restore the connection to God and live forever by believing in Jesus and following his commands.

The body is weak and the soul easily led astray, but the Spirit of God within believers never wavers. This is why faith is required and works cannot lead to salvation. No matter how good you are, you will eventually slip. Yet your soul is safe in the care of Jesus.

For unbelievers, the reason Christianity often makes so little sense is because the spiritual link with God has been damaged by sin. How can you communicate with God if the proverbial phone cord has been cut? There can be no direct revelation without that connection. This is why we have God’s word in print and why Jesus was sent. It is why becoming a Christian is sometimes described as a “leap of faith”. Salvation is like the opening of a blind man’s eyes to sight. Those who believe understand the nature of God because the Holy Spirit has revealed this to them through the spirit.[12] You can’t see the supernatural if that part of you is dead.

Free will is being able to choose freely. For God to show himself in undeniable proof would destroy free will. Yet there is evidence aplenty for all those who seek it and understanding for those who choose to accept it. Many have been brought to faith in Jesus through the witness/evidence/testimony of other Christians.

The Word of God states that if you seek God, you will find God.[13] Your sincere prayers will be heard and they will be answered. But beware self-delusional, fake seeking. It’s easy to put on a good show. There are preachers in Christian churches who have no relationship with Christ. To avoid self-deception, the search must be honest and an active choice. Belief is never compelled.

Do not believe the delusion that following Jesus is without cost. The reason to choose Christianity is not because it sounds best (it may not), but because it is true. The benefit is eternal life, although that is not to say there are no benefits on earth. Any Christian can attest to that.

 

Theological Implications

Note on Divinity

The notion that Jesus was not or isn’t divinity has relatively little impact on the Christian message itself. A person can believe quite comfortably in either position. Naturally this is the ideal deception: one that is so subtle that it can’t be easily detected and removed. This would only suit Satan’s purpose if it caused real practical problems.

It is unlikely that this difference should matter to existing Christians (although in practice, there have been many fights over relatively inconsequential matters). If you believe that Jesus is Lord and was God’s Word in the flesh, then divinity is irrelevant. It’s just a label. The Trinity is unnecessary. But for non-Christians, the idea of the Trinity just serves to add confusion. If you seek truth and find logical inconsistencies, then this would be a natural roadblock.

For example, how can Jesus constantly defer to the heavenly father if he was his equal? How could God be tempted by Satan with rulership of the earth if it was already his creation and how could God worship anyone? Why did Jesus receive the Holy Spirit when he was baptized if he was already God? Why did Jesus pray to himself? These and other difficulties make the Trinitarian position unpalatable.

Jesus could be a divinity lower than God the Father, turning Christianity into a sort of polytheism. This is roughly what the Mormon meta-religion teaches. Alternate views on the nature of Jesus are not the topic of this post. These alternative views do not cause any of the immediate logical difficulties.

Note on Hell

The notion of eternal, everlasting, on-going torture in fiery Hell is much more damaging. The Bible uses the word “eternal” in the sense of “permanent”, not “ongoing”. If you read the Bible verses about “everlasting” or “eternal” punishment and torment using this definition, the meaning changes dramatically. Satan would like to portray God as capricious, sadistic, and unjust. Speaking of a God who approves of torture is a very good way to scare off seekers.

Never-ending torment hell is a false doctrine of pagan origin.

Note on Resurrection

After the first death, judgment comes. During this time, those who are redeemed are given a new body: Not a body made of earth (“from dust”), but a body made of heaven. When Jesus was raised, he became the firstborn (or first re-born) to have this new body. It is why he sits next to God. After the resurrection, we will again be body, soul, and spirit.

Note on Time

When death comes, the body stays on earth, the spirit returns to God, and the soul awaits judgment. This is outside the time-continuum, so it does not make sense to say that the soul goes anywhere. It awaits judgment, but it isn’t doing anything because is no longer in the realm of time, just as God is outside of time. The English language lacks the proper words to describe eternity outside of a time-continuum. Most descriptions imply a sense of time.

Note on Creation and Sentience

When God created man, he first started with the body. This is important because before man had sentience, there was a body. We know that God created all forms of life before he created man. This means that there was physical life and death before Adam and Eve were created. This is not only compatible with the scientific record, but both a prediction and a confirmation of science. God formed early hominids until he had perfected man. Then he breathed his breath of life (or spirit) into man, creating his sentient soul. In no other creature did he do this, which is why out of all of nature, only man has, and can have, sentience.

These points are often missed by creationists who believe that a “day” meant a literal 24 hour rotation of earth (even before the earth itself was created!). They are also missed by evolutionists who do not believe God had anything to do with creation, even though there is no adequate scientific explanation for sentience.

Note on Death

The notion that there was “no death” in the Garden of Eden refers not to plant or animal death, which obviously had to occur. There is no logical way for the cycle of life to have functioned without physical death and decay. Instead, this refers to spiritual death, what happens when the body is separate from the spirit.

When Adam and Eve sinned, they experienced spiritual death, a separation of God from which all men suffer. This is sometimes called “original sin”, although most traditions define original sin to include a wider understanding than this simple definition.

Note on God

It is not definitive that God is a three part of “Holy Ghost”, “Father”, and “Word”. The first two are obvious, but “Word” might not be the best representation of the physical form. We do know that during creation God’s Word was spoken and that God has directly spoken to humans (such as Moses). But we also know that Jesus was the embodiment of God’s Word. This does not seem like coincidence that the Word took earthly physical form. Maybe it would be more accurate to say “Jesus” instead of “Word”. Or maybe God has a physical body made of the stuff of heaven like the new resurrected bodies of believers.  A three part body-soul-spirit parallel (“Trinity”) of God seems to be implied, but the exact nature is unclear.

Note on Heresy

All Christians are heretics. The sheer number of debated doctrines could fill articles and no one can get it all right. The fact is that many of the ideas in this article could be wrong. A different analysis of the Bible’s competing manuscripts (e.g. Textus Receptus, Majority Text, and Critical Text) could yield a different conclusion.

Christianity is home to many questionable doctrines: the Trinity, immortal soul, transubstantiation, purgatory, veneration of the saints, indulgences, eternal punishment in hell, prayers to the dead, rapture, and the papacy. We live in a time where access to the Bible has never been easier, yet people do not take the time to read and understand. Ignorance allows such deception to continue. Unitarian viewpoints are considered to be heresy by Trinitarians.

Yet none of these heresies prevent salvation. It is why so many different Christian denominations can coexist. You can believe that Jesus saved you even if you don’t understand the mechanics. Understanding is not required for faith or obedience to God. The core doctrine of Christianity remains constant: Jesus saves you from sin.

Note on Prerequisites

This article assumes the following:

  • The Bible is absolute truth and that its message is knowable.
  • The God of the Bible and Jesus are real and the Bible is the authoritative source.
  • The variations of the Bible are either inconsequential to the overall message, or it is possible to derive the correct original text by comparison of manuscripts. This is not to say that it is trivial, but only that it is possible. Debates on the authenticity of scripture may be the subject of a later post.
  • That reason is the primary way we can discern fact from fiction. Revelation is valid but it cannot contradict reason.

With these assumptions in place, the rest of the article follows logically and conclusively.

The Biblical Textual Criticism of Bart Ehrman

Bart Ehrman has become quite (in)famous for his views on the textual accuracy of the Bible. Having read Bart Ehrman’s books Misquoting Jesus and Lost Christianities and watched his debate with James White, I’ve noticed a common thread.

Bart holds that we cannot know the original text of the books in the Bible. His argument boils down to this: the oldest manuscripts we have are also the ones with the greatest number of textual variants. He reasons that, if you go back farther to the period of 50AD to 350AD where we lack manuscripts, these were the periods where the least skilled individuals made copies, thus producing the greatest number of errors. This did not sit right with me from a logical standpoint and it seemed like both an oversimplification and overconfidence.

An obvious problem is that if you keep going back in time, you do not get an ever increasingly larger number of variants, because eventually you must get fewer and fewer copies until you arrive at the single original. When did the percentage of variants and errors reach its peak? Was it closer to 350AD or 100AD? 350AD is just after the time of Constantine. Before this period the church had been expanding in geographic scope consistently. There is no reason to believe that the number of copies (and thus cumulative errors) being made had slowed in any way. On the contrary, we have plenty of reason to believe that the peak of textual variants was towards the end of this period, right around the time Constantine “standardized” the religion.

This is important to keep in mind for the rest of this post, but it was not the point Ehrman was making. He was saying that the chain of custody during that period was far worse before 350AD than it was after, so we can have little confidence that what we have now is anything close to the original. So let’s look at this more closely.

His first assumption is that the chain of custody was much “dirtier.” His second assumption is that the common ancestor (a single document or family of documents) for the diverging manuscripts we have now is late. If they shared a common ancestor from around 120AD, then the chain of custody must have been very good for the later divergent manuscripts to be as close to each other in content as they are. But if they shared a common ancestor from the Council of Nicea in 325AD, then we’d essentially have only one document family stretching in a single line back almost 300 years. In this latter case we would have very little confidence at all that the text was close to the original.

Both probability and intuition would suggest that they must have shared an ancestor that was neither very early nor very late. Still, this is an unknown and being dogmatic on the point is unwise as the margin of error in any estimate will be quite high.

Chain of Custody

Let’s look at what happened to the documents during this period. When the originals were written, they were delivered to a particular Christian community. From there, copies were made, and those were distributed. More and more copies were made at that location and the process continued. Obviously the original didn’t simply cease to exist. It could have stayed at the original location where more copies were made. Or the letter could have been passed on and the copies stayed behind. We don’t know.

Nevertheless, the most accurate early copies would have been the sources that were spread quite rapidly throughout the geographical spread of Christianity. Many of these copies would have been made when some of the apostles were still alive and able to correct false doctrines that may have arisen from forgeries or errors.

One possibility is that the spread of the early copies was extreme and that the early manuscripts we had were based on a broad geographical set of texts. This is important because the faster the spread the more any single error could not be reproduced in all the copies, meaning the original still existed in at least some of the copies. It also prevented corruption from any single authority trying to enforce a particular textual variant.

The earlier the time, the less likely that any meaningful variants could ‘stick’. Factors include the apostles correcting the errors directly. This would extend to the second generation as well: those who knew the apostles directly, church elders, would be able to correct certain errors.

200 years is a long time, but if we’re going to extrapolate what we know about humanity in order make conjectures about the number of variants, let’s use the KJV as an example. This beloved translation is just over 400 years old, and people are still using it. The original texts would have been cherished by the Christian communities. Sure they would have been copied any number of times, but these communities would have formed their own rigid doctrines, much like the communities we are familiar with. The rigidity that the religious are accused of serves to support the idea that they would have kept their copies close.

These were also not the same types of folk that we are. Many were illiterate, but they had superior capacity for memorization compared to the average modern person. These people would have memorized vast sums of the texts that they heard read to them and would have had decades to detect any errors in copies made. Sure errors would and did creep in, but large scale doctrinal changes would be much more difficult to insert and survive to become the only or “most probable” version of what we have now.

Here is a summary of some of the issues at play:

Memorization: Undistributed copies within a community would be vetted by the community itself. Anyone with children has seen how they can spot extremely minor changes in a reading. This is stronger in the oral tradition of a largely illiterate population.

Authorization: The apostles and their authorized representatives would have had an early corrective influence. We can see some hints of this in some of the letters themselves and in the external writings of the time period.

Dogmatism: Religious communities tend to be very dogmatic about their texts, likely to hold on to them dearly, extending their lifespan. They might make dogmatic ‘adjustments’ to the text, but these are likely to be in a theme and detectable (like the gnostic gospels), but also likely to be limited in number. Once a doctrine is established, it is very hard to change it, especially undetected.

It is important to remember that simply because there are textual variants does not imply in any way that we do not have the original. We may have great difficulty deciding between the original and various forgeries, but that’s not the same as not having it. Interpretation of the text cannot be avoided, but we do have reasonable confidence that we can do it correctly. By all indications, the letters were distributed quickly and broadly.

Common Ancestry

If the transmission of documents between 50AD and 350AD was as bad as Ehrman suggests, then the common ancestor of the manuscripts we have must have been late in the period. It is not only a logical deduction based on the initial assumption, but a requirement. If it could be shown that the common ancestor was not late, then the assumption falls to pieces.

Ehrman rightly points out that probability is of little usefulness when determining which manuscripts are more reliable than others. But his statement on the probability of error at a given point in time can be evaluated mathematically. If his statements were true, we would expect a random distribution of document families among the manuscripts we do possess so long as there was no external influence to selectively save some documents while destroying others. We would then expect to see extreme variation among those manuscripts we have to reflect the divergent nature and lateness of their origin. But this is not what we see at all. There are very few highly contested portions in the manuscripts we possess. Yes there are many variations, but most are minor and scholars are not in disagreement over many large issues. Their relative harmony does not coincide with widely divergent origins and a poor chain of custody.

Where did the manuscripts from the assumed widely divergent document families go? The manuscripts we do have come from an assortment of geographic locations and sources. Either there was a widely spread conspiracy to destroy those documents that opposed the ones that survived or the number of errors was much lower than assumed. The latter clearly favors the authenticity of the texts. What about a conspiracy?

A conspiracy implies one of the following:

1) That the documents were selectively and completely destroyed after they were transmitted. This is possible and certainly some documents were destroyed, but where is the evidence that it successfully occurred across the whole spread of Christianity? If it did, why would we still have so many other ancient documents of various competing sub-sects of Christianity, such as the gnostics? On such a widely geographically spread basis, this seems hard to accept.

2) There was editorial control over the chain of custody. This directly contradicts the original assumption that the chain of custody was significantly worse during this period. You can’t have it both ways.

Conclusion

The real problem with Ehrman’s belief is that the incidence of errors in the period 50AD to 350AD is not independent of the manuscripts we have after that period. He is extrapolating backwards based off a theory and existing documents, but he fails to extrapolate forward from his theories. If the transmission was so poor and inaccurate during the period where we have no manuscripts, then we would see evidence of that in later manuscripts, because the error is cumulative.

The evidence that we have suggests not that the documents are unreliable, but that they have a relatively early common ancestor and/or that the chain of custody was more reliable than Ehrman assumes.

Now of course we could discover additional manuscript evidence that pushes our confidence in either direction, but we can only base our belief on what we do know, and what we know is pretty good stuff.

NOTE: While I believe that I have identified inconsistencies in the presentation of the argument, this is not a refutation of Bart Ehrman’s positions. It raises a lot of questions that might be easily addressed. If they become addressed or mistakes are pointed out, I will update this article accordingly.

For a refutation of the book Misquoting Jesus, see this paper by Professor Tom Howe.

Creation vs. Evolution

One of the oddest facets of the creation/evolution debate is the misplaced priorities. On one hand extreme Darwinism is a philosophy that purports to explain the creation of life without any providential influence. On the other hand extreme creationism claims to explain the same without requiring even the hint of scientific consistency. Either God was completely uninvolved in the process or it was all created through magic hand waving.

Neither approach makes a lot of sense.


Evolutionary Theory has a lot of unanswered questions. We have a lot of educated guesses and assumptions, some of them have a very high probability. What we don’t have is scientific repeatability or what would normally constitute proof in scientific study. Fossil records are often ambiguous and incomplete.

We do know a lot about cells, genetics, and many other topics of interest. We can even speculate on how something as complex as the human eye could evolve. Yet for all that, we don’t know the method for which the eye evolved. The existence of “transitional forms” does not prove a causal link, only provides potential evidence. We can’t say that because we have an eye and we know evolution is true that the exact steps do not matter. This is circular reasoning unless you assume that God could not have participated.

When you know that God does not exist[1], then evolutionary theory must be true. It can’t not be true, else how would we all be here? If scientific explanation is the only possibility, then it must exist. And you don’t need scientific repeatability either, because there is really no point. It would be kind of interesting to know the exact details, but the accepted theories are more than good enough. There is no reason to demand the highest scrutiny. It doesn’t matter in a metaphysical sense. Discussion and debate are a complete waste of time.

This is why hard core creationists can’t find any common ground with hard core evolutionists. Evolutionists cannot conceive of a scenario where God would be possible. It does not fit their belief system. It could introduce all sorts of unfathomable scenarios and destroy their picture of the world and the way it is.

At the end of the day, denying God is metaphysics. But if God did exist, it could have a major influence on the way life developed. Even if you didn’t know anything about God, He could potentially change any variable in an unexpected way, changing any scientific theory in an instant. It wouldn’t even have to be miraculous. Just place two genetically mutated creatures in the right place so they mate to produce the desired mutated offspring: Just “tweaking the probabilities” to make astronomically low likelihood events happen.[2] It is roughly analogous to the way that we breed plants and animals now.[3] There is no metaphysical need for God to make sweeping wand-waving changes, although he could because miracles don’t contradict the laws of science.

But this is not the most shocking scenario. Nature is extremely complex, intricate, delicate, and adaptable, all at the same time. The billions of variables in the right configurations required for life to arrive where it is today are beyond human comprehension and should make statisticians shake. We are like newborn babies trying to drive a race car. And yet the notion that God was powerful enough to set an automated system in place that could do this? That is astounding. It is a masterwork.

And yet this is not God’s most amazing work of creation. We are. The human species is unique in the universe. There has never been anything quite like us. Where did our sentience come from? Where did H. erectus, H. heidelbergensis, and H. neandertalensis go? Why are we so different? Are we really just a bunch of genes and cells and random mutations? Is our sentience just an elaborate natural simulation?

God created man in his own image. In God’s image he created him; male and female he created them.” Genesis 1:27 (WEB)

God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” Genesis 2:7 (WEB)

God set the whole thing in motion for the purpose of creating you and I. He granted us sentience. It didn’t happen by accident, but it did happen. And the more we learn about evolution, the more amazing the consequences.

Atheism and agnosticism are not new concepts, but it is in modern times that spirituality has not been the default truth. The default belief has changed. The burden of proof has shifted. Exclusive belief in science has trumped belief in God. But it is still the case that the more difficult belief is the one that does not involve God. It is not enlightenment to believe that God does not exist: it is arrogance.

Science points directly to God, but many cannot or more likely will not see it.

The heavens declare the glory of God.
  The expanse shows his handiwork.”
Psalm 19:19
(WEB)

Nature is not proof of God. It is not evidence of God. It is a message from God.

[1] See this article for one of the various proofs for God from science.

[2] Although popular with creationists, this is the more unlikely scenario. The need for God to intervene directly in nature could indicate a “flaw” in the process. This is not to say that God would not do such things (think the immaculate conception), only that it makes more sense logically that he would not have to.

[3] It is not chance that humans, created in the image of God, engage in acts of creation. We may not have the same ability as God to craft new species, but look at the vast variation in dog breeds or the development of maize as proof of what capabilities we do have.

The Sacrifice of Jesus

One of the most important questions of Christianity is “What Did Jesus Sacrifice?” The concept of sacrifice was briefly touched upon on the discussion of biblical trinities. But what is the mechanism by which the death of God’s son means we are absolved of sin? What does it mean to say that the humanity of Jesus died on the cross? From Irreducible Complexity:

I’ve heard sermons preached with statements such as “Jesus gave up everything, even his life, for your sins.” or “It cost God everything to restore relationship with you.”

These statements might sound good, but they are hard to explain without delving into complex topics such as penal substitutionary atonement or the governmental theory of atonement. It sure seems problematic to suggest that we are not completely sure why Jesus had to die for sins. Isn’t this the primary point of Jesus? Anthony Buzzard states the following in his book on Jesus:

And what drove the whole career and mission of Jesus? Let him answer. “I came to preach the Gospel (Good News) of the Kingdom of God. That is what I was commissioned to do.”. Yes, that is what Jesus was sent by God to do – to announce the Gospel of the Kingdom of God. Since that was Jesus’ mission statement, that is the heart of the Christian faith.

In fact if one scans the words of Jesus, at no point does he state that salvation is based on “believing that Jesus died for your sins”. There is no “Sinner’s Prayer”. Jesus demands one path, and one path only: repent [of your sins] and believe in the good news of [coming] Kingdom of God [on earth].

Jesus taught salvation apart from his death and resurrection. Paul taught that salvation is through the death of Jesus on the cross. Is there a conflict here? What was the purpose of the death of Jesus if we could have salvation without it? Are there multiple paths to God? The solution to this problem is not nearly as difficult as it might seem, but I have never seen this addressed adequately in church.

While Jesus walked the earth, he did not abolish the sacrificial system. How could those who repented and believed in the kingdom of God been saved? Through what they were already doing: following the sacrificial law set down in the Torah. The blood-price that God demanded as payment for sin was still in full force.

During the ministry of Jesus, he preached almost exclusively to the Jews.¹ He did on rare occasions interact with neighboring cultures (such as the Samaritans) that were familiar with Jewish practices, but the purpose of his ministry was to give the Jews one last chance to fulfill their part of the covenant with God. Had they chosen to follow him, he could have brought the Kingdom of God to earth, thrown off the oppressors, raised the dead, granted his followers immortality, and setup the foretold worldwide government of peace. Because he had focused on the Jews, this was their one and only chance to be God’s people, the exclusive fellow rulers with Jesus in his kingdom on earth. Obviously this did not happen. They rejected him and crucified him as prophesied.

Under the terms of the old covenant Jesus was the metaphorical spotless lamb. Instead of the blood of a real lamb, his blood was shed. Just as God accepted the sacrifice of an animal to cover over the sins of the people for a time, so much more does he accept the blood of the perfect human Jesus forever. When we take Communion (or celebrate Passover), we eat to represent the body of Jesus as the sacrificial flesh of the lamb and drink to represent the blood of Jesus as the sacrificial blood of the lamb. The body of Jesus provides us spiritual restoration and the blood of Jesus causes death to “passover” us.

The death of Jesus became the final sacrifice, the one to abolish the sacrificial system for good. The old covenant was replaced by a new one. No longer would the message of Jesus be limited to the Jews only. It is no wonder then that Jesus predicted the destruction of the temple (and with it the sacrifice). It is no longer necessary. Now anyone could believe in the kingdom of God that Jesus preached, accept Jesus as lord and master, and begin their royal training. We just have to wait and be ready for his second coming when he will setup his perfect government and we will be rulers with him over the peoples of the whole earth.

¹ For a fuller discussion see here: https://www.levitt.com/essays/feeding4000/

Miracles Don’t Contradict the Laws of Science

John Lennox, professor of mathematics at the University of Oxford, often uses a particular analogy when discussing the existence of God and miracles. I’m going to adapt it and hopefully lend some insight.

Let’s say that I put a ten dollar bill in the glove compartment of my car. The next day I put another $10 in the glove compartment. A day later, I open the glove compartment to discover zero dollars.

Have the laws of mathematics been violated? Is $10 + $10 = $0? How about the laws of physics? Might the bills have spontaneously disappeared? Or have the laws of the United States been violated?

Of course you immediately know which one of these it is, but how did you arrive at that conclusion? You assumed that the laws of mathematics and physics are valid and that the glove compartment is not a closed system. Therefore, someone must have taken it.

When Peter saw Jesus walking on the water, what should he have done? He knew the law of nature that person sinks in water. This was an undeniable fact. But he also knew that the lake was not a closed system. Because the law of nature was not violated[1], an external force must have acted upon it. Is it such a stretch that the creator of water might be able to do such a thing? Of course not!

When the naturalist/materialist atheist rejects miracles, what he is doing is accepting the laws of nature, but rejecting the open system and thus any possibility of a creator. There is no reason besides a personal philosophical presupposition.

Let’s be very clear: belief in a creator is not a violation of any laws of science, it is a choice to treat the universe as an closed system.

When a scientist is faced with an apparent contradiction to the laws of nature, they do have another choice: to claim that the evidence is invalid. The natural consequence therefore is that because the universe is a closed system, then the evidence must be faulty. In this way, the atheist can, quite conveniently, reject all claims of miracles automatically without addressing the evidence at all. This is nothing more than intellectual dishonesty.

If one did not assume a closed system, then miracles could be treated on their own merits as evidence for the creator. And so they are for many people. Alas, the very evidence that an atheist requires to prove God’s existence is the very evidence they cannot consider by their own assumptions.

I don’t expect this to sway anyone, and by all indications it rarely ever has. But hopefully it will help clarify the assumptions and issues at stake and why you see the reactions that you do from those who reject both a creator and miracles.

[1] A law can only be violated if the law applies. If my wife took the money out of the glove compartment, then no criminal laws were broken. Similarly, if the creator intervenes in his creation, no natural law was broken. A law of nature is merely a description or explanation of observations, but there is no scientific requirement that all observations will conform to expectations. On the contrary, this is why experiments are performed over and over again. Laws (and expectations!) sometimes don’t apply or are incomplete and must be amended.