What is the Torah?

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

There are many debates on how to handle the law of the Old Testament. We have many questions. How much of it is binding on us today? What are the specific meanings of certain laws? What is the purpose of the law and how should we take it? There are many other questions. There are all kinds of problems trying to interpret the law.

The Hebrew word for law is Torah. It can mean to the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), the specific portions of Law contained within the Pentateuch, or all of Scripture.[1a] The ideal translation for Torah into English is not ‘law’, but ‘instruction’.[1a][2] This is an important distinction that will be revisited below.

Not all laws in the Torah are of the same kind. For example, there are dietary and purity laws that only apply to Israel, to show their special status to God.[1b] These laws do not apply to Gentiles.[1c][5] There are laws that only apply to Levites and priests. Because not all laws are the same kind, their relative applicability and importance are not equivalent. Therefore, we can make no specific judgments about a law solely because it is included in the Law portion of the Torah.

For example, this article shows that Genesis 2:23-24 (“shall cleave” and “shall become one flesh”) describes both the act of marriage and sex as equivalent.[3] However, later the claim was made that the rules on a virgin making vows and having sex found in the Law[4] are a valid exception and that the marriage never happened even though sex took place.

I wrote:

“[The father] can’t change the fact that a marriage (sex) took place and the two became one flesh.”

The reply:

“By definition, the agreements get reviewed *after the fact* and the father has the authority to forbid them…when it comes to the Law of Marriage, this situation is an exception due to the authority of the father.”

This claim says that the there is an exception to the Genesis rules on marriage. A father can make it so that the two were not one flesh even though they had sex, that is, the marriage never happened even long after it did happen.[6] This is absurd. The authority of a father laid out in the Law of the Torah is not able to override the precepts of the designed marriage plan in Genesis[8], for there is nothing about being in the Law of the Torah that makes it automatically of highest moral authority (see the discussion on the morality of the law below).

Now if, as laid out in Genesis 2:24, a man and virgin woman become one flesh and are married when they have sex, then a father ending the relationship would necessarily be a divorce. In Matthew 19:4-6, Jesus replies to a question on divorce by saying that from the beginning (quoting Genesis 2:24) a man and woman have sex and become one flesh, a joining that God brings together that no man may separate. He then explains that divorce was allowed in the Law because their hearts were hard.

Notice what Jesus says: the law permitting divorce is not normative solely by virtue of it being in the Law of the Torah. The existence of a law that permits divorce does not mean that divorce is fine. The Law is just a regulation of things to do or not to do.

Jesus affirmed that God’s design for marriage from the time of Creation up to the giving of the Law was unconditional.[8] When a man and woman have sex, they are married. The father is indeed permitted by the Law to end the marriage, but because Jesus declared that sexual immorality is the only valid reason for divorce, the father should not exercise his legal right to cancel the marriage unless that is the reason.[7]

In response to the definition of “sexual immorality”[9], another claim was made that pertains to the understanding what Law of the Torah is:

“Immorality is a violation of the Law”

This has already been demonstrated to be false as not all laws in the Law are moral laws, including the purity regulations. Moreover, while much of the law is based on morality, it is not morality itself. One must look at a law and ask what the purpose behind that law is.[2a] While the law regulates things to do and not do, it does not cover every situation or always explain its purpose. This is why the meaning of Torah is best described as “instruction.”

Jesus, in Matthew 18:18 use the terms “binding” and “loosing” to tell his disciples that they would have this authority. This is rabbinical language to permit and forbid teachings of the law. That is, they would be have authoritative explanatory power under God’s direction.[2] Torah is instruction that must be authoritatively explained. Legalistic, that is especially formulaic, explanations must be avoided. This is, of course, why the Rabbis existed in the first place: to explain the Law. There was great disagreement about how to interpret the Law and what actions qualified as a violation of the Law.

Jesus weighed in on a number of these issues. It’s why he taught that the laws on divorce should further restrict divorce. Not because there was a problem with the Law, but because the binding and loosing of the instruction was wrong. They teachers of the Law did not explain it properly. The permissive law on divorce (like the permissive law on a father’s right to cancel his daughter’s marriage) must be subjected to the restrictions set down by God’s initial design.

Some instructions in the Torah are for specific people, times, and places. There are civil, legal, ritual, dietary, priestly, and moral instructions. It would be a great mistake to treat the entire Torah as if it should be interpreted in exactly the same way. The only reason to use a legalistic and simplistic interpretation is if it supports preconceived notions that support a particular doctrine.

[1] “Paul was Not a Christian.” Pamela Eisenbaum.

  [a] p.75

  [b] p.77

  [c] p.78

[2] Binding and Loosing“. Truth or Tradition. Spirit & Truth Fellowship International.

  [a] “if a man’s fire got out of control and burned up his neighbor’s crop, he was responsible to replace what was burned (Exod. 22:6). The point of the Instruction (Torah) is not that we are responsible only for fires we cause, but that we are responsible for the consequences of our actions, and must repay people who are hurt by what we do.” — The man is not immoral, but he is responsible.

[3] See the formal proof: Genesis 2:24 uses ‘dabaq’ (translated ‘shall cleave’). Matthew 19:5-6 quotes Genesis in Greeek using the word ‘kollao’. 1 Corinthians 6:16 uses the term ‘kollao’ in the context of having sex and becoming one flesh with a prostitute. Therefore ‘shall cleave’ must be equivalent to having sex. There is no other marriage ceremony.

[4] See: Numbers 30:3-5, Exodus 22:16-17, and Deut. 22:28-29.

[5] Pamela Eisenbaum later argues that not only don’t they apply to Gentiles, but that Paul specifically states that they cannot apply to Gentiles because only those who convert to Judaism are under those Laws. Gentiles have not entered into that covenant with God and therefore have no legal right to the duties and benefits specific to that agreement. In other words, while Gentiles may be God’s children, they are not his special chosen people.

[6] This is implicit time travel, extreme legalism, and/or hocus-pocus. The man and woman are husband and wife (married by having sex) up to the time when the father of the bride decides to revoke the marriage at his discretion. This could literally be many years later and they may have had children together. At this point, the sex that took place is retroactively undone, they are instantly no longer one flesh, and the marriage never happened. This horribly twisted absurdity is described here. It is illustrative of the depths and lengths sometimes taken to justify a particular doctrine.

[7] Logically at least some, if not all, seduction of a virgin woman must be considered sexual immorality for two reasons. (1) There is an unconditional penalty for the seduction, the payment of the bride price, so we know that something wrong took place; (2) The teaching on divorce was in the law because there existed at least one legitimate use of it (divorce due to sexual immorality), therefore there must be at least one legitimate use of a father’s power to end his daughter’s marriage. Because sexual immorality is the only legitimate reason to end a marriage and the father’s right to end the marriage is optional, then at least some seduction must be immoral. The conclusion, therefore, is either that all ‘premarital sex’ or some seduction (deceiving the woman) is immoral.

[8] Is it possible that Genesis 2:23-24 is conditional? That is, are there cases where sex does not lead to a joining of flesh? I have not been presented with any argument that proves this but would be eager to hear any possible explanation for this notion.

[9] Sexual immorality is participating in sexual acts that are immoral or wicked. All sex outside of a husband and wife marriage (which includes the initial sex that created the marriage) is immoral because it is adultery.

Adventures in Biblical Interpretation: Incest and Polygyny

Today’s adventure in biblical interpretation is Leviticus 18:17-18. This was brought to my attention in a comment by Artisianal Toad, a proponent of polygyny. While you can read the comment quoted below, you can also read his full rationale on his blog.

“Oh, did you notice that not only is there no prohibition of female homosexuality in the Law, but the incest statutes that apply to polygyny (Leviticus 18:17-18) presume sexual contact between wives in such a marriage?”

There is a lot packed into this short statement. It is saying that polygyny is acceptable, that female genital contact is accepted in a polygynist relationship, and that there is nothing wrong with female homosexuality in general. While a lot could be written on these three topics, I’m only going to address the notion that this passage of Bible is about incest and that it presumes that wives in a plural-marriage will be making genital contact with each other.

Leviticus 18 is a passage that condemns various sexual practices. Most of the practices forbidden are incest, but there are a few others cases (such as sex with an animal) that are also forbidden. Verses 17 and 18 read:

17You are not to uncover the nakedness of a woman and her daughter. You are not to take her son’s daughter, or her daughter’s daughter, to uncover her nakedness; they are near kinswomen. It is wickedness. 18You are not to take a wife to her sister, to be a rival, to uncover her nakedness while her sister is yet alive.” (REV)

Let’s start with verse 18. A man is not to marry two sisters because this would most likely cause significant rivalry. The case of Jacob and his wives, sisters Leah and Rachel, is a classic illustration of this and possibly the reason behind this regulation.[1] While this is an interesting regulation as it pertains to polygyny, there is no indication in this verse that marrying sisters would necessarily result in genital contact among sisters.[6]

One argument is that this command (v18) comes immediately after the other instances of incest (v6-17), so it is inferred that this must also be incest. However, the following verse (v19) is certainly not about incest. There is no reason to infer from the placement of v18 that it is describing incest when it explicitly gives the reason for the command as rivalry, not incest. If it is not incest, then genital contact cannot be inferred.

The other argument requires quoting the verse from the KJV:

“Neither shalt thou take a wife to her sister, to vex her, to uncover her nakedness, beside the other in her life time.”

The interpretation goes something like this: “don’t marry the sister of your wife for it would upset her if you had sex with her sister beside her.” “Beside the other” is taken to literally mean that the two women are beside each other while the man is having sex. But that is obviously not the correct meaning. It makes no sense to say that they should not have threesome sex during her lifetime, as if it would be fine to have all three having sex in bed as long as one of them were dead.[2][10] This very strange interpretation is only due to the way the text is translated in the KJV. It is not supported by other translations[3] or commentaries[1][4][5][6].

So we must back up to verse 17 and see if that supports the original claim. It explicitly forbids marrying your wife’s daughter or her granddaughter. (It also applies in reverse: to marrying the mother or grandmother of your wife.)

The argument is that because it says “and” that it is implying that the wife and daughter are married at the same time and that this is incest because the women are having sexual genital contact with each other. But the text does not say this. Incest is not defined as genital contact between two women[7], it is defined as a man marrying[8] a blood-relative or near-relative (v6). Verse 17 just continues the prohibitions against marrying an in-law (v12-16). The prohibition against marrying your wife’s daughter or granddaughter or any in-law or any blood-relative applies even if your wife dies.[4]

The original premise does not hold up to scrutiny. Verse 17 isn’t even about polygyny, so it can’t be used to to make any statement at all regarding genital contact between women. Only verse 18 has anything to do with polygyny, yet it still has nothing to do with genital contact.

In a previous adventure, I showed how some biblical interpretations take after the biases of those performing the interpretations, even if the face of absurdities. In this adventure, it is plain that the suggested interpretation suffers from a significant amount of reading a conclusion into the text, or eisegesis. This yields itself to weak arguments that don’t hold up to scrutiny. While it obviously isn’t impossible for a non-traditional interpretation to be correct, the proposed alternative better have a rock solid argument to back it up.[9]

[1] See the Adam Clark Commentary section on Leviticus 18:18.

[2] As this is a particularly evocative statement, let’s break it down logically. If the vexing is seeing her sister have sex with her own husband, then why even mention her lifetime? There is no need for a lifetime ban on the marriage if that was the source of vexation. Why not just command that the wives have separate bedrooms? Or you could allow the marriage of two sisters if they agreed that threesome sex was not vexing. If the concern was that the threesome would be uncomfortable, the lifetime of the participants would not be the logical solution to the problem.

[3] http://biblehub.com/leviticus/18-18.htm

[4] See John Gill’s Exposition of the Whole Bible section on Leviticus 18:17-18.

[5] “Beside the other – Law against polygamy” in Expanded Biblical Comments – Commentary of the Old and New Testament. Charles Taze Russell, 1916

[6] “Leviticus 18:18 is quite clearly a ban on a particular type of polygamy, in the context of law-order which permitted polygamy in general…If a man has a barren wife, he is not to seek a woman capable of having children among his wife’s kin.” in Man and Woman in Biblical Law. Tom Shipley, 2010. p.128.

[7] According to his own argument that the Bible does not treat genital contact by women as sex. Therefore, it can’t be incest.

[8] That is, having sex with.

[9] Notice also what I don’t say. My response does not preclude the possibility of approved genital contact between women, it only rejects Leviticus 18 as support of that possibility. There may be other evidence for or against that premise, but it can’t be found here. My conclusion is restricted to the narrowly argued case that I presented.

[10] This argument was made at http://www.christianpoly.org/lev18.php

Criticizing the Bible, Interpreting the Law

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

When it comes to criticizing the Bible, one of the most common cheap-shot objections is to point to the obscure laws laid out in the Torah. Various approaches are taken, from showing how out-of-date they are, to how Christians don’t bother to follow them even though Jesus said they should, to how they contradict each other, and to how immoral they are (just to name a few). One of the most classic examples of this distortion is the claim that the Bible advocates rape as laid out in an evilbible.com article in the section “Death to the Rape Victim” on Deuteronomy 22:23-24:

It is clear that God doesn’t give a d**n about the rape victim.  He is only concerned about the violation of another mans “property”.

For anyone discussing the Bible with non-believers, this type of objection is quite common. Tyler Graham, of the Tyler Journeaux blog, recounts his own experience (see the uncut original):

Recently I was treated to a somewhat nostalgic experience: being called upon to act as an apologist for scripture … I was presented with a passage from Deuteronomy by two young women who had interpreted it as a justification for rape and a very peculiar kind of victim blaming … The passage had scandalized them and they turned to me to see what I might say in its defense … I have always found that upon closer inspection one finds that understanding more of the historical, legal and literary context mitigates the scandal we originally feel … I tried to balance reading the passage (along with the surrounding context, etc.) with keeping up in conversation with them over the phone as they jumped from one related issue to another

The two young women acted in much the way you would expect for those who were not seekers. They had questions, yes, but were not eager to understand the defense. Tyler points out that closer inspection usually mitigates the surface problems in the text, but I want to suggest something even stronger: That accurate biblical interpretation is normally not very difficult, it just takes a (rare?) honest look. Yes, there are some very difficult passages and almost any can be twisted, but most are pretty straightforward.

It is important to use the principle of charity. A great many apparent contradictions and difficulties in the Bible will simply disappear. For example, the notion that the Bible would advocate the acceptance of rape, when it has laws condemning rape, would violate this principle.

So let’s walk through the original passage and see exactly what can be made of it:

22“If a man be found lying with a woman married to a husband, then they must both of them die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman; so you must put away the evil from Israel. 23If there is a young lady who is a virgin pledged to be married to a husband, and a man find her in the city and lie with her, 24then you must bring them both out to the gate of that city and you must stone them to death with stones; the lady, because she didn’t cry out, being in the city, and the man, because he has humbled his neighbor’s wife, so you must put away the evil from the midst of you. 25But if the man find the lady who is pledged to be married in the field, and the man force her and lie with her, then the man only who lay with her must die; 26but to the lady you are to do nothing; there is in the lady no sin worthy of death, for as when a man rises against his neighbor and kills him, even so is this matter; 27for he found her in the field, the pledged to be married lady cried out, and there was none to save her. (Deuteronomy 22:22-27; Revised English Version)

To the critic, the meaning of this passage is clear: The bible punishes rape victims with death. Is this the meaning you got out of reading this passage? Let’s examine the passage in more detail by looking at the what is being said.

No one has sexual rights to a married woman other than her husband, on pain of death.

When a man and a married woman are caught in the act by a third party, this means two things: (1) the woman, if she was raped, was in hearing range of a third party; and (2) that third party was a witness to either adultery or rape. The primary question is then: would the woman be punished if this were rape? This is not stated in this verse, so we need to continue reading. Later verses make it clear that if the woman was raped (evidenced by her crying out), then only the man was punished.

The punishments given were for the crime of adultery, not rape. Note that if a woman was betrothed (rather than married) it was still considered adultery. Even if the woman is raped (verse 27), the man is still committing adultery.

There is an underlying assumption that if the woman were being raped (not committing adultery), she would be resisting her rapist and attempting to seek help by crying out. She is not permitted to decide later whether or not it was consensual.

The man is presumed guilty while the woman is presumed innocent. The man would be put to death whether or not rape or adultery took place. This is a progressive feminist stance that borders on unfair by putting the duty on the man to behave responsibly.

Now back to the question of what happens to a woman being raped and the man being caught in the act? Clearly he is going to be put to death. But do we really think that the magistrate would discount the witness’ statement that it was a rape and execute the woman, especially given the innocent-until-proven-guilty approach towards the woman? I think not.

So let’s summarize what this passage teaches about women:

  • A man has no sexual rights of any kind to another man’s betrothed or wife. The punishment for violating this is death, unconditionally.
  • A woman is presumed innocent of adultery (that is, a victim of rape) until positively proven guilty. Not seeking help (crying out, fighting back) is, however, considered evidence of consensual sex.
  • A woman has no right to commit adultery, even if consensual. The punishment for this, if proven, is death.

Does the Bible advocate rape here? Is it blaming the victim? Absolutely not. It treats women as innocent until proven guilty, but does not give a woman the right to commit adultery. It is certainly different from modern laws, no doubt about that. Rape is treated as a very serious crime.

Had the two young women simply applied the principle of charity to the text and attempted to give it an honest read, everything would have been fine. The feminist-like pro-woman stance might have even had some appeal (although admittedly not for the sex-anytime-you-want-for-whatever-reason feminist).

The lesson here is that when interpreting the Law critically, you really do have to leave your preconceived notions behind. It isn’t hard to understand this particular set of laws. The irony of the critic’s bias is that conclusion is completely wrong: the Law actually treats women preferentially.

Adventures in Biblical Interpretation: Sodom

The biblical story of Sodom from Genesis 18 and 19 is a popular story for many people. Biblical skeptics argue that it shows that God approves of rape. Conservative Christians use it to show that homosexuality is one of the greatest sins. Searching the internet for “Sodom”, “Lot”, and “rape” yields many results. Many of the comments about the text are absurd, both from Christians and non-Christians alike. Some of this is highlighted in the following completely absurd paraphrase of a section of Genesis 19.

Two men, angels in disguise, arrived at Sodom in the evening. Lot was waiting at the city gate and invited them to stay at his house. The men declined, saying, “We’ve heard the reputation of this town and wish to take our chances on the street. Maybe we’ll have a good time.” Lot begged them to come to his house for their own safety and they relented. Soon every man in town, every last one of them a homosexual, came to Lot’s door and demanded access to the guests so that they could gang-rape them. Lot replied “No my closest friends, the laws of hospitality forbid it! Please, I have two virgin daughters. Please gang-rape them instead.” The gay men had no interest in having sex with any woman and got angry. “You are a stranger to our town, how dare you judge our hospitality!”

Let’s ask the following questions: Were the sins homosexuality and lack of hospitality? Was the rape condemned? Was the Bible merely reporting Lot’s actions or approving of them? Do either the traditional explanations or the skeptical objections make sense?

Steve Wells, author of The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, writes of this passage under the title “Lot Offers His Daughters For Rape”, condemning the Bible for advocating rape. In response to a criticism by National Catholic Reporter Thomas L. McDonald On Genesis 19:8, Steve writes:

Mr. McDonald sums this one up this way: “We don’t have to believe that Lot is in the right to understand the point of the story.” But he’s wrong about that, if you believe the Bible anyway.

How can this be? How can the Bible sanction Lot offering his daughters up to be raped, calling him righteous? Yet, 2 Peter 2:7-8 reads:

7and rescued righteous Lot, worn down by the unrestrained manner of life of the lawless 8(for that righteous man while living among them day after day, kept torturing his righteous soul by what he saw and heard concerning their lawless works); (Revised English Version)

The numerous times that Christian apologists claim that the Bible wasn’t approving of Lot’s actions are simply wrong. Steve explains:

Lot was a just and righteous man; the only one in the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah that was righteous enough for God to save.

What to do with this? How could God declare righteous a man who advocated rape of his own daughters? There are two possible explanations.

The Trolley Problem Explanation

The trolley problem is a well known thought experiment in ethics. A runaway train is headed towards a group of 5 strangers who will certainly be killed if you do nothing. You, standing next to the lever, can choose to do nothing or redirect the track to kill a single person, your own child, standing on the other track. Assuming there are no other options, which is the most ethical and moral choice?

According to the traditional view, Lot was faced with the following problem: if he gives up the guests to the men in the town, the following sins would have been committed: rape, homosexual acts (a crime punishable by death under the later law), and a violation of hospitality. If he gave up his daughters, then only rape of betrothed women would have occurred (a crime also punishable by death under the later law). Given the choice between the two, he chose the one with fewer laws broken, the lesser of two evils.

It has also been pointed out that since he called them “brothers” in the text, he presumably knew that they would reject his daughters, so he was really just bluffing in an attempt to distract them and make them see their sin and leave.

This explanation has the advantage of making sense of both the immediate text and the 2 Peter text declaring Lot to be righteous, but it is still uncomfortable, like killing your own daughter to save five lives in the trolley problem. Offering your own daughters to be raped is not something many would be comfortable with, no matter the alternatives.1 Other alternatives might include fighting a losing battle against the men to defend both the guests and his daughters. That probably would have meant the death of himself and perhaps his whole family, but he would have not sullied himself.

The point of this explanation is that there was no good way out of it. Lot attempted to peacefully negotiate his way out of the situation, but ultimately he was forced to choose between all bad choices. That doesn’t make him unrighteous or God immoral. The explanation also has a ring of truth: It’s the kind of no-win situation that we have all experienced from time to time.

The Hospitality Explanation

The other option is much more reasonable, but it requires readers to abandon the notion that this was about homosexual acts or virgin gang-rape.2 We know from the wider passage that Lot had not been living in the city for long. Even though he called them brothers, they accused him of being an outsider. The word “know” is ambiguous. It is sometimes used to mean “have sex with”, but this is not the most common biblical use. It is also never used in the Bible to describe homosexual acts. Some have suggested that when the village men wanted to “know” the visitors, what they meant was “interrogate”, that is, “get to know them and their motives”. Why? Because the men of the city thought that the visitors were spies or troublemakers.

Lot objected to the violation of hospitality. The visitors were his guests, and turning them over to the city to be interrogated was offensive. As a member of the community, he was willing to vouch that the visitors would cause no harm. So he offered up his daughters as hostages, to act as surety that the visitors were harmless. At this point the men become angry, saying they will treat Lot in the same way as the visitors: as outsiders.3

The advantage of this explanation is quite clear: It adequately explains everything that happened and is completely consistent with the Bible’s broader teachings. The ‘disadvantage’? Christians can’t use this particular explanation if they want Sodom to represent the ultimate evil of homosexuality.


What seems plain from the discussion of Sodom is that many sides, both skeptic and Christian alike, are most interested in using this passage of Genesis to further their own agendas. The result is a lot of intellectual blindness. I’m not sure which of the explanations is the correct one, or even that there are not other explanations. I don’t know if this will satisfy the skeptics, perhaps not, but the explanations do seem both logical and morally satisfactory.

In all the discussion of homosexuality and rape, the purpose of the passage seems to have been completely missed. Lot was a righteous man and God protected him. The city of Sodom was destroyed for the choices that they made. There are still many lessons that can be learned.

1 Is is then perhaps ironic that Lot was eventually raped by the very daughters he had offered up to be raped.

2 Sodom’s crimes are not explicitly stated in Ezekiel 16:49-50 as being homosexuality and rape, while a number of other explicit reasons are given. See the discussion by Dr. Benjamin L. Corey.

The great irony is that the men of the city were absolutely correct: the angels were troublemakers; sent there by God to save Lot and destroy the city.

The Life of Jesus: The Important Parts (#4)

This article is part 4 of an 8 part series. Go back to part 3.

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

The Beginning of the End

As the end of the ministry of Jesus came closer, all the gospels stressed two points:

  • The anointing by Mary and its symbolism of death, sacrifice, and forgiveness.
  • The acceptance of the kingship of Jesus in the triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

The Anointing by Mary

There is debate as to whether the four accounts of anointing are the same event and the same women.1 I’m focusing on the simple harmonized details. We know this much: all four gospels agree that a woman poured perfume on Jesus and that someone objected to the anointing.

In Matthew, Mark, and John, Jesus insists that the expensive perfume was not wasted, even though it could have been sold and the money used for the poor. He points out that the money raised would not have solved the problem of poverty. In contrast, the anointing served as preparation for the burial of Jesus, a symbol of the great value of his death as sacrifice for sin.

In Luke, Jesus defends the anointing by suggesting that the sinful woman’s sin-debt was so great that the forgiveness was more meaningful to her. The greater gift (the perfume) represented her sacrifice in proportion to her sin. The anointing was a symbolic foreshadowing of the sacrifice of Jesus for the forgiveness of sin.

Through the anointing we have a picture of Jesus setting up the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. Jesus understood what his death and resurrection would mean for the forgiveness of sin and salvation from spiritual poverty.2 Contrary to the objections raised against the anointing, he wasn’t approving of sin or ignoring the reality of physical poverty. But he was pointing towards the greater purpose of his life.

The Triumphal Entry

At the start of the final week of the life of Jesus, he sent his disciples into town to retrieve a colt of a donkey so that he could ride it into Jerusalem. He then rode it into Jerusalem. On the way the crowds gathered, laying down their garments and tree branches so that the colt would ride over them. They shouted praise to God and to Jesus as God’s kingly representative, acknowledging him as a prophet of God and the King of Israel come to rule and save them.3

Throughout the ministry of Jesus to that point, Jesus had refused to accept the title of King publicly. He chose this time to make his claim and the people accepted his claim.

Preparing the Death of a King

It is no real surprise that the prelude to the death of Jesus was his declaration of kingship. Jesus had always resisted accepting the kingship because doing so meant a near certainty of death. The Roman rulers would not take kindly to, as they saw it, an upstart king sowing political dissent and fomenting violence.

The gospel writers all preceded the triumphal entry with the anointing: the declaration of death, sacrifice, and forgiveness of sin. What was the point of accepting kingship if he knew he would be dead before the week ended?

The answer to this question leads to one of the core principles of Christianity: That we must acknowledge Jesus as our King to receive his sacrifice as payment for our sin. We acknowledge that Jesus is our Lord by following his commands and becoming his followers. We acknowledge that his kingdom, that is, authority from God, leads to forgiveness and a path to God.

1 John describes “Mary of Bethany”. Luke identifies the woman as “sinful” (traditionally interpreted to be a prostitute).  Tradition also identifies the woman as Mary Magdalen. Another difference is whether the perfume was poured on the head or the feet (presumably both). Luke differs with Matthew, Mark, and John in discussing the anointing. There are plenty of resources that discuss the differences in greater detail, so I won’t discuss them here.

2 Jesus consistently viewed the spiritual as relatively more important than the mundane. He was not without compassion, but he realized what was most important. This was the motivation behind the Lord’s Prayer and his healings.

3 They shouted “Hosanna”, which was a shout of praise. The meaning of Hosanna had an ancient meaning of “save”. They were acknowledging Jesus as their King (and by implication their savior).

The Life of Jesus: The Important Parts (#3)

This article is part 3 of an 8 part series. Go back to part 2. Go forward to part 4.

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

The Ministry of Jesus

The ministry of Jesus lasted for an estimated three or four years. There are many events described in the four gospels about who he was with, what he did, and what he said. Excluding the events at the beginning and end of his ministry, only two were recorded by all four gospels.

John 21:25 says:

There are many other things which Jesus did. If they were all written down, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

While perhaps a bit of hyperbole, the point is valid. There were so many things that Jesus did, that the four gospel writers did not see fit to write about all the same things. Perhaps the author of John knew about the synoptic gospels and didn’t feel the need to repeat most of what they had to say. Whatever the reasons, they picked two very different events to highlight two important points.

Feeding of the 5,000

After extended preaching and the death of John the Baptist, Jesus was tired. So he fled the crowds. But the crowds found out where he was and followed him. Instead of turning them away, he spoke to them about the Kingdom of God and healed the sick. The day grew late and the crowd was hungry. The disciples wanted to send the people into town to buy food. Jesus asked for the food they had, five loaves and two fish, said a prayer, and divided the food up. They proceeded to distribute the food. 5,000 men were fed. Starting from five loaves there were 12 full baskets of scrap bread left over.

There are a few details taught about Jesus in this passage: He taught about the Kingdom of God, he healed the sick, he performed supernatural miracles, and he was so popular that they were ready to force him to be their king.

Of all the acts of Jesus, why did all four gospels choose to include one of the most outrageous miracles that Jesus did? I suppose if the feeding of the 5,000 is true, the other miracles must seem simple in comparison. It’s easy to reject healings as having natural causes, demon possession as mental illness, and other scientific explanations for miracles. But the feeding of the 5,000 appears to violate the very laws of physics. Or does it?.

Some posit that the real miracle was that Jesus got the crowd to work together, share what they had, realize that they had brought way more than enough to feed everyone. This has been called a “miracle of sharing”, although this isn’t really a miracle under the normal definition of miracle. That said, knowing he could get over 5,000 people to share their food enough to have food leftover is not to be scoffed at.

Others make the case the Jesus didn’t perform any miracles but that these were used as literary devices.

There is a detailed write-up about how the four accounts bolster each other to give additional legitimacy to the account and an air of authenticity that would be difficult to fake:

  • John says Philip is from the town of Bethsaida in Galilee. Luke tells us the miracle took place in the outskirts of the town. Combine the two and it is clear why John says Jesus consulted Philip, who is hardly ever mentioned elsewhere.
  • In Matthew Jesus denounced Bethsaida for ignoring the miracles performed there, but Matthew never stated any miracles were specifically performed there. When combined with Luke, it becomes clear that Matthew was referring to at least this event.
  • Mark describes the grass as green. In Galilee the grass is brown for most of the year. Except that John states that it was right before Passover, the only time of the year when the local grass could have been green.
  • Mark says many were “coming and going”, but does not say why. When combined with John, we realize that this is traffic related to the coming Passover feast.

Whether you believe that this was a supernatural miracle, a “miracle of sharing”, or a non-literal literary device, the passage demonstrates the authority of Jesus. This event represents a summary of the main purposes of his public ministry: preach the gospel of the kingdom of God, healing the sick, and performing great acts.

There has been lots of debate about the authenticity of scripture, whether the events described happened exactly as described or whether they were fictionalized accounts (possibly of real events). Over the centuries much ink has been spilled by scholars and non-scholars on these issues. Regardless of your take, the essentials of Jesus are clear.

Peter’s Profession of Faith

I debated including this point. The synoptic gospels contain almost the same exact story, but John’s description of peter’s profession of faith is different. All of them do occur in context after the feeding of the 5,000. Ultimately, even if they don’t describe the same event, they do all describe Peter declaring who Jesus was.

Matthew 16:16 says:

You are the Christ, the Son of the living God. (REV)

Mark 8:29 says:

You are the Christ. (REV)

Luke 9:20 says:

The Christ of God. (REV)

John 6:68-69 say:

…You have the words of life in the Age to come. And we have believed and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God. (REV)

Peter recognized that Jesus was the Christ (or Messiah), the holy Son of God, who was sent by God as holy messenger to preach the “life in the Age to come” (the kingdom of God).

The Essential Jesus

The two stories of Jesus show him in both his public and private light. Publicly he was a teacher of the Kingdom of God who did great deeds. Many wanted to him to be King of the Jews. In private with his disciples they saw him as the long awaited Messiah, the Christ. In only two events the whole purpose of the ministry of Jesus, prior to his death, can be seen. Jesus filled the role of prophet (as Christ Messiah) and heir to the kingdom. He would later fulfill the role of both priest and sacrifice.

The Life of Jesus: The Important Parts (#2)

This article is part 2 of an 8 part series. Go back to part 1. Go forward to part 3.

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

The Baptism of Jesus

The ministry of Jesus began with his baptism. While each gospel writer chose to introduce Jesus in a different way, they all talked about his baptism.

The baptism of Jesus was remarkably simple, taking only a few sentences to describe. He was baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. John did not want to baptize the Messiah, thinking himself unworthy. But Jesus talked him into it.

Once the baptism was complete, Jesus came out of the water and the sky opened up. God’s power¹ descended “like a dove” onto him. A voice from the sky proclaimed that Jesus was God’s beloved son.²

With the power of God upon him, the ministry of Jesus could begin.

The Ritual of Baptism

The origins of baptism as a ritual are debated by scholars. Did it derive from another group, the Levitical cleansings, or some other source? It really doesn’t matter. That baptism is a ritual of cleansing, repentance, and renewal is not really debated. John’s baptism of water does not differ in any meaningful way from the practice as it is done today. John baptized those who confessed their sins (repented) and the washing was clearly a symbol of a person’s inner state.

Both the early church and the church today baptized whenever there was a confession of sins and a pledge of fealty to Jesus as the savior. The pair of baptism and repentance is the only entry ritual used when becoming a follower of Christ. Of the pair, Jesus only required repentance.

Baptism, along with the Lord’s Supper, are the only Christian rituals described by all four gospels. It is remarkable given the ritualistic nature of Judaism and most other world religions how little emphasis Jesus placed on ritual. Jesus never set up religious observances, like prayer and fasting, as rituals. This is especially true of public rituals, such as prayer, where Jesus instructed that they be private affairs between a person and God.³

The Power of God

There is no reason to understand the Spirit mentioned here as anything other than the power of God. The power of God came upon God’s own Son, giving him the power he would need to do his ministry. This is why the baptism marks the beginning of his ministry.

Jesus at all points was the loyal subject of his heavenly father. It was because of his complete submission and obedience to God that he was granted power and glory. Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit, or God’s power, would come to his followers as well. All Christians require the power of God in order to do God’s will.

Jesus as God’s Son

The identity of Jesus was wrapped around two essential points: That he was the Messiah and that he was God’s Son.

Jesus, time and again, kept his status as the Messiah private, constantly evading the question when it was raised publicly because of two things: (1) his time had not yet come to die and be raised, and (2) he was not yet ready to be king (See “Jesus as Heir” below). It is quite clear that the Jews did not expect the Messiah to come in two stages, first to die and be raised, and second to return to earth, resurrect [believers] and rule as king. So Jesus kept his status secret until such time as it was appropriate to let it be known.

Instead he was known as God’s Son. The purpose of this was to show that he was not God, but was speaking on his behalf. In Jewish custom, a son was always subordinate to the father, never greater. Fathers would, however, frequently send their sons as their legal representatives, or agents. The name was obviously vague enough that it sounded more like a Messiah rather than the Messiah. It was sufficiently different from the messianic prophecies that it was ambiguous.

That the voice from heaven calls him God’s Son and not Messiah should be enough to conclude that this title was preferred.

However, Jesus was known most commonly by the term he used for himself: Son of Man. Over the centuries there has been no consensus among biblical scholars about what was meant by this term. I will not attempt to define it here, only note that the term was used alongside Messiah and Son of God as the primary titles for Jesus.

Jesus as Heir

Why did Jesus wait until he was 30 years old to begin his ministry? The clue to this can be found in the genealogies of Jesus. Matthew opens his book with the genealogy and Luke gives the genealogy of Jesus immediately after the baptism. Both genealogies emphasize the decent from David. We get another clue in John 2 at the wedding feast where Jesus’s mother asks Jesus to solve the problem of a lack of wine.

In order for Jesus to take up his inheritance of the throne of David, he had to be heir to the throne. Legally speaking, this means his father had to be dead. He started his ministry at 30 years old because Joseph was dead. That is why only his mother is mentioned at the wedding feast and the crucifixion. When Jesus returned to his home town, the people wondered if this was the same Jesus that was the son of the carpenter. They remembered him as if a long period of time had passed. Joseph had been dead for a good number of years, and Mary, a widow, was no longer living in the same town. She would have been the responsibility of Jesus, her firstborn son.

James E Talmage wrote in 1922 that Jesus was the rightful heir to the throne of what would have been the kingdom of Judah, had the Romans not been occupying it. Bruce Charlton adds: “It would explain why Jesus was regarded as a credible political threat.” Both the Jews and Romans considered it possible that Jesus could have been “King of the Jews”.

It is for these reasons he was called the Son of David, a Messianic title of kingship.

This will be discussed more in later parts.

¹ The different terms used, “Spirit”, “Spirit of God”, and “Holy Ghost”, all mean the same thing: God’s power. These differences in terms only pose a difficulty for the doctrine of the Trinity where the “Holy Spirit” is defined as a “unique person of a triune God.” God’s power also descended on the believers in Acts 2, this time in the form of tongues of fire.

² There are a few minor word choice differences between the accounts. For example, Matthew says “This is my beloved Son”, while Mark and Luke say “You are my beloved Son”. These are merely narrative choices that pose no contradiction at all. The synoptic gospels call Jesus “God’s beloved son” while John calls him “the Son of God”. These are the same thing.

³ That the Lord’s Prayer has become a ritual is not strictly in keeping with the teachings of Jesus. Jesus was teaching how to pray, not what to pray.

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


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.


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.


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.