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 New Testament.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 troubling 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.


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.

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 of Constantine when the religion was “standardized” and scripture canonized.

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

His first assumption is that the chain of custody was much “dirtier.”

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.[1]

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.[2]

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.[3] 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.[4][5]

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[6], but we do have reasonable confidence that we can do it correctly. By all indications, the letters were distributed quickly and broadly.[7]

Common Ancestry

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.

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.[8] 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 his assumption falls to pieces and the chain-of-custody must have been better than he assumed.

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.

[1] It is interesting, but certainly not conclusive, that we do not have much in the way of such records. The New Testament writings do contain references to other teachers and other teachings, but not explicit corrections of errors or forgeries to an author’s own previous work, even though we do see citations of those previous works. Seeing as how even personal letters (e.g. Philemon) were cherished by the church at large, how much more so would letters that fixed doctrines caused by critical manuscript errors that Paul himself would have written to correct.

[2] A linear chain of officially authorized messengers is one way to ensure a chain-of-custody, assuming you have some way to authenticate the authorized messages, otherwise the chain is not valuable. But this is not the only way. Rapid mass transmission allows consensus to be determined to find and correct errors among many copies. There is plenty of indication in the existing manuscripts that this is, in fact, what happened, and what we know of as the Bible owes a lot to these acts—whether or not they were accurate or in error. Such an organic process makes it highly resistant to tampering: significant errors (if they happened) would almost certainly be detected, even if not resolved, allowing us to reason about whether significant errors did, in fact, occur.

[3] Have you ever had a child, who was a diligent reader, read Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and then watch the movie? They can immediately and accurately reference the book to show how the content was altered.

[4] The Roman Catholic Church has a history of expounding on non-scriptural doctrines based primarily on later writings, such as the Trinity and the Incarnation.  This is why John C. Wright rejects alternate sects: because they simplify doctrine, losing information (e.g. the Protestant Reformation): “But the truths of the Catholic faith would be compressed and corrupted and suffer simplification into a master idea. [..] Heresies are always simplifications of a complex and interdependent organism of ideas into a single master idea, which, upon consideration, has no warrant for supremacy” It is very hard to change dogma once established. Even the Roman Catholic Church experienced its largest expansion of doctrine early in its existence, mostly during the 4th and 5th centuries.

[5] There are many documented attempts of church scribes attempting to alter passages of scripture to deemphasize or condemn the role of women in the church. This type of major alteration to scripture and doctrine did not go undetected for precisely the reason stated.

[6] As a matter of semantics, this includes the Holy Spirit revealing the correct interpretation of scripture

[7] The creed that Paul cites in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 is thought to originate within 3 to 5 years of the resurrection and to have spread rapidly.

[8] The greater the time elapsed, the greater and more significant the variations must be during that particular fixed time period. Thus, if the original of an extant manuscript were determined to originate in 50AD, we would expect the extant variations for it to be far, far worse than another composed in 180AD, assuming Ehrman’s initial assumption of the error rate in transmission in that period is correct. Moreover, the earlier the divergent origins of different manuscripts are, the more you would expect them to disagree with each other, due to accumulated errors accrued separately.

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

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:

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.