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Posts by Jonathan Sherwin on the Bible.


Read Michael Kruger's response to Bart Ehrman on the Gospel Coalition blog
Read Michael Kruger’s response to Bart Ehrman on the Gospel Coalition blog

Michael J. Kruger on The Gospel Coalition has posted a response to a challenge presented by Bart Ehrman. The challenge is this: because we don’t have the physical, first copies of the books of the Bible, we can’t trust what the Bible says. Erhman states,

What good is it to say that the autographs (i.e., the originals) were inspired? We don’t have the originals! We have only error-ridden copies, and the vast majority of these are centuries removed from the originals and different from them . . . in thousands of ways.

Kruger examines this claim and in his persuasive answer looks at:

  1. The role of the autographs (i.e. those first writings)
  2. The nature of the corruption of the manuscripts

Bart Ehrman’s attack follows in a long tradition of scholars attempting to undermine the strength of the Bible. This particular challenge is a little different to the ones that have come before and it is worth the time the understand the argument and the good reasons we have for rejecting it.

In the last Big Questions article we saw how well established Jesus is in the historical record. History indeed shows Jesus as a man whose life and death had a huge impact on the communities, governments, and religions around him. So what was it about Jesus that produced these momentous tremors on the historical seismograph? The answers can be found in the four accounts of the life of Jesus: the gospels.

The May-June edition of Sorted Magazine is available in W.H. Smiths now
The May-June edition of Sorted Magazine is available in W.H. Smiths now

Now the four gospels of the New Testament claim to be based on eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus. The thing is, as far as historians can tell, none of the four gospels were written in the location they were set in. Countries like Syria (Matthew) and Egypt (Mark) are thought likely locations for the origin of these texts, so also is the Greek city of Ephesus (John). The Gospel of Luke may well have been written in Rome or Antioch and yet in the opening of his book Luke says that his writing is based on accounts, “handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses.”

Well it is all very nice claiming eyewitness testimony you might say, but isn’t it a far simpler explanation to conclude that actually the origins of these books show that these so-called accounts are fabricated stories, made up far away from where the events supposedly took place?

To begin to answer this objection we must first take into account the style of writing of the gospels. Scholars agree that the gospels are presented to us as straightforward historical account. That is, they are full of facts such as names of places and names of people etc. Tom Clancy may fill his novels to the brim with every last detail but historical fiction didn’t bother with such exactitude. It just wasn’t the way it was done. The story was much more important that than the finer points. However, historical account was very much concerned with the facts.

Well, of course, showing that the style was historical account in no ways shows that what we have is a faithful account. What is does show however is that the authors were presenting their accounts to their readers as history. In that age historians thought that history had to be written during the time when eyewitnesses of the historical events were still available to be cross-examined. Polybius – a 2nd C. BC Greek historian – said that the role of the historian was “to believe those worthy of belief and to be a good critic of the reports that reach him.” The obvious benefit of this is that names, dates, people involved etc. – these could all be corroborated or disputed by the eyewitnesses themselves. In this way, the gospels leave specifics to be examined.

In the film Ronin, there’s a great scene the where CIA agent Sam, played by Robert De Niro, confronts Spence (Sean Bean) who claimed to be have been in the SAS. Spence is defending his tactics and Sam isn’t buying it so he pushes him on his story. “What’s the colour of the boathouse at Hereford?”, he demands. Spence falters, his story crumbling as a detail that would have been known to him if he had ever been around the SAS training base caught him out. Spence wasn’t in Hereford, he didn’t train with the SAS, he didn’t know the details.

Jesus and the Eyewitnesses is available to buy on Amazon
Jesus and the Eyewitnesses is available to buy on Amazon

Richard Bauckham published a book in 2006 called Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. One brilliant piece of research highlighted in this book looks at the difference between Jewish names in Palestine in the 1st Century, and Jewish names in Egypt in the 1st Century. The popular names were different for the two countries despite common culture and language.  An author writing in 1st Century Egypt, who had no knowledge of Palestine, would simply not know this information. Yet, when we read the Biblical accounts we see two things. Firstly, the frequency of the names used throughout the Gospels correlates extremely well to the names recorded by wider history from Palestine at that time.

Secondly, and quite incredibly, the popular names are well qualified. Let me explain. In my GCSE maths class there were four Jonathans in the room, and we all sat next to each other on purpose. To our 16-year old minds it was hilarious when our teacher would shout “Jonathan!” and we would all simultaneously express complete innocence. But it didn’t work when our surnames were snarled at us from the front.

Similarly, when we see a popular name mentioned, like Simon (most popular in Palestine at the time) we see a qualifier e.g. Simon Peter or Simon the Zealot. That is how a guy called Simon would have been known to his friends, because there were many Simons around. But someone with a less popular name wouldn’t need a qualifier, and indeed, the gospels show this too.

The fact is that the gospels are full of precise details that scholars have since verified as authentic. We see place names, distances, and the names of people involved all matching up. The four gospels were presented and accepted in the 1st Century as true historical accounts. 2000 years on after much research our studies still continue to show how incredibly trustworthy these documents are. The court has admitted the evidence and now it is up to each of us to decide if we will accept Jesus for who he, and history, says he is.

This article appeared in the May-June edition of Sorted Magazine.

The Historical Jesus

February 25, 2013 — 1 Comment
The March-April edition of  Sorted Magazine is available in W.H. Smiths now

The March-April edition of Sorted Magazine is available in W.H. Smiths now

The great, British philosopher Bertrund Russell once said,

“Historically it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all, and if He did we do not know anything about Him.”

Outside of the Bible – which incidentally is an incredibly reliable document – what kind of evidence is there that Jesus ever existed? Jesus Christ is arguably the most influential man in the whole of human history, indeed our entire calendar system pivots around his birth. Surely dear old Mr. Russell must be wrong? Surely there must be more evidence than the Bible for the life of Jesus?

Well, there is.

Non-Christian History

Jesus was born in Bethlehem and grew up in Roman-occupied Nazareth. The Roman Empire covered much of Europe, Northern Africa, and parts of the Middle East at the time. So what of the Roman historical record? Here’s Tacitus, one of the great Roman historians:

“Christus … suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus.”

This small excerpt is part of a longer piece on how the Romans treated the early Christian church. Tacitus, writing in the second half of the 1st Century, corroborates Biblical facts about Jesus and the beginnings of the early church.

A well-worn objection to the Bible, and the New Testament accounts of Jesus in particular, goes something like this: “The early Christians made up the stories about Jesus because they needed to spread their false message.” Well, Tacitus and the Romans certainly didn’t need to spread the message. Quite the opposite; the Romans wished that the Christians didn’t exist! Christians were viewed as a nuisance and as law-breakers for not worshipping the emperor. The last thing that the Romans would have wanted to do would be to lend credence to the Christian message. Tacitus’ record is simply an honest historical account of the facts.

Jewish History

Another group of people not exactly tickled by the arrival of Jesus were, surprisingly enough, the Jews. Many Jewish leaders, keen to keep the peace with Rome, saw Jesus as a threat to the status quo. So let’s see what the Jewish historical record says.

Here we have Josephus. Writing in the early 90s (first Century) this Jewish Historian says:

“Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct to this day.”

Hmm. Jesus, Pilate … the historical record of Jesus does seem to be emerging clearly.

Christian History

We also have written records from early Christians. We have the Bishop of Rome, Clement, here writing to the church in Corinth:

“The Apostles received the Gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ was sent forth from God. So then Christ is from God, and the Apostles are from Christ.”

Or how about Ignatius? Just one of the many Christians murdered in Rome by the Romans. He wrote of the crucifixion, as did Justin Martyr. In fact, both of these men quote facts, places, and names – all things easily checked by their readers.  Additionally, both of these men were martyred for their faith in Jesus Christ.

It was the 16th Century French mathematician, Blaise Pascal, who said, “I believe those witnesses who get their throats cut.”

That’s the thing; these historical records were composed by people who didn’t have much to gain, but had plenty to lose. Reputation, peace, or even their lives were at stake.

So let’s return to Mr. Russell’s argument. It may be that one would not want Jesus to have existed for any number of reasons but the plain facts of the matter are that the historical record has overwhelming evidence for the remarkable life of Jesus Christ. As one New Testament scholar has put it, “The theory of Jesus’ non-existence is now effectively dead as a scholarly question.”

If Jesus didn’t exist then we can forget about Christianity. It would just be another myth and should be treated with as much respect as the hairy sky monster. But Jesus did exist and his very existence challenges us today. Will we ignore him, or will we brave further investigation of the man who changed human history more than anyone else in all time?

This article appeared in the March-April edition of Sorted Magazine.

Do Unto Others

March 25, 2011 — 4 Comments

Brian McLaren has recently responded to an article John Piper wrote in the aftermath of the horrific earthquake and resulting tsunami in Japan. Both men exhibit compassion and sympathy towards the victims of this tragedy and encourage Christians to help where they can.

In reading McLaren’s response, I was however slightly bemused that McLaren went after Dr. Piper’s theological position, which differs from his own, with the argument that it is sometimes hard to draw absolutes, “black and whites” as it were, from the Bible. Here is what McLaren says to John Piper’s response in an opening paragraph (emphasis mine):

“This response will no doubt be deeply satisfying for many people of a certain theological bent, those who want simple answers to go along with their aid and empathy. This clean and clear theodicy, an explanation for how evil and suffering can exist, resonates well with the old saying, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.

But as I’ve suggested elsewhere, for all its air of confident piety, that axiom is more than a little misleading. I think the underlying meaning of the saying could be more accurately rendered like this: “The Bible says something which I interpret in a certain way, and I believe that interpretation, and that settles it!” Yes, acknowledging the complexities of the interpretive process has a way of reducing the simplicity of one’s answers. But in the interest of truth and honesty, we often have to let black-and-white, open-and-shut simplicity at least temporarily dissolve into the grays of complexity and even the darkness of perplexity.”

The ironic twist as that towards the end of McLaren’s piece, he then turns to Scripture, and the “jagged history of our planet”, himself to argue his black and white position. He makes statements about who God is, what He is like, what His purpose is for us:

“To me, as I reflect on the Scriptures and on the jagged history of our planet, it is better to say that God’s sovereignty is not totalitarian. God isn’t the kind of king interested in absolute control. God wouldn’t create that kind of relationship with the universe because God isn’t that kind of God. Instead, God creates space and time for a universe to be, to become, to unfold in its own story, its own evolution. God’s kingship is God’s absolute commitment to be with us, whatever happens, always working to bring good from evil, healing from suffering, reconciliation from conflict, and hope from despair. This is the God I see imaged in Jesus, born as a vulnerable baby, growing as a vulnerable boy, living as an unarmed man with courage and kindness. This is the God imaged as a king who washes the feet of his subjects, a king whose power is revealed not by killing and conquering but by suffering and dying . . . and rising again.”

I appreciate that theology can be hard, and I can support robust discussion between differing scholars as we seek to understand God through the Bible and the work of Jesus. No one person or stream holds a monopoly on the truth, although there may be more truthfulness found in some than in others.

In the process of our continuing theological discussions, surely it would be wise to employ ground rules and acknowledge common points of reference? The first of these could perhaps be the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:12.

Tough theological positions differing from our own that others hold, palatable or otherwise, need to be critiqued in the same manner with which we would want our own to be examined. At the end of the day we have a responsibility before God to continually pursue truth ourselves (Philippians 2:12), not for personal goals but as a continuing testament to the glory of God.

Bible Study Magazine, from Logos, has an interesting article in this month’s edition, where, “Jeff Struecker recounts how studying the Bible helped him during the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, which was portrayed in the book and movie Black Hawk Down, as well as during his career as an Army Ranger and chaplain.”

You can read the full article (pdf) here.

Here are my extended notes from my talk at Bath City Church on Sunday 14th June.

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might. Put on the full armour of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore, take up the full armour of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.” (NASB)

Chapter 6 of Ephesians concludes the book. The introductory word “finally” leads us into a section that sums up and concludes the epistle.

  • Ephesians 1-3 are what D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones calls the ‘fundamental postulates’, how to become a Christian etc.
  • Ephesians 4-5 tells us how to live, including a plea to “live in a manner worthy of your calling. (Eph. 4:1)”
  • Ephesians 6 tells us that there is a very real adversary and calls  us to action.

The illustration of the text is that we’re in a war. So what are we going to stand and fight for?

Now an interesting point here, is that the language used further on in chapter 6 is descriptive of OT Israelite warfare, first and foremost and this would have been the image in Paul’s mind rather than a Roman soldier. There are many similarities between the two soldiers of course, but Paul consistently uses OT themes to show how God planned salvation from the very beginning. Paul was keenly aware of the overall message of Scripture and carried this in in his writings. We’ll see a corresponding link to an image presented to us in Isaiah later on.

With a topic such as this one, it’s very easy to use emotive language to get a response. I could think of pictures of great military victories such as Trafalgar, Battle of Britatin or the yomp to Port Stanley. It’s fairly easy with a subject such as warfare to create an emotional response but we’re hungering for what God would say to us through His Word.

Taking Apart the Scripture

v.10 be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might – Paul lays out the idea that ‘we can’t’ but ‘God can’. It’s not our strength that makes us warriors. In fact, there’s no power that we possess that enables us to fight against the enemy. Indeed, before we were Christians we were in fact on the same side as Satan (Rom. 5:10). It is only, and totally, in the power of the Holy Spirit that we can display strength.

v.11 & v.13 “stand firm” – The power of the Holy Spirit allows to stand firm. To hold the line. We stand on the immovable foundation of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 3:11) and from it we cannot be shaken.

v.11 “schemes of the devil” – The enemy is a scheming, plotting enemy. He is cunning and he plans and plots destruction. We should not be fooled into thinking that our adversary is weak, powerless, and easily defeated. Remember, it’s only in Christ’s strength that we have victory. We used to participate ourselves in these evil schemes, but no more. We stand firm against them. (See Isaiah 32:7 and Ephesians 4:14).

v.12 “rulers … powers … world forces” – See 2 Corinthians 10:4-5. One key principle of the spiritual warfare that we are involved in is that we are fighting against the lie. There are “arguments” and “lofty opinions” that oppose God. Do we allow these lies to flourish or do we take action by proclaiming the truth. It’s a two-fold attack: 1) against the lies directly, in response 2) proclaiming Jesus frequently, loudly, repeatedly. Jesus is King, Jesus is victorious, Jesus is the answer – to everything, all of the time!

v.12 “this darkness” & v.13 “the evil day” – The darkness is real and days we live in are evil. Sin is the curse of the fall and affects the whole world. Wherever there are people there is sin and evil abounds. The Bible tells us that we are in a wicked time (Eph. 5:16).

v.13 “Therefore take up the full armour of God” – Paul’s use of repition, within just a couple of verses, emphasises to us the importance of what he is saying. This is serious stuff my friends!

Fighting Boldly

Now we know that there is the truth, and there is the lie. The lie first came into the world at the fall (Gen. 3) through the sin of Adam and Eve and has affected every part of Creation, and every man (Ps. 14:3). The attacks of the enemy come at us from many different angles, both within the church and outside of it. The question that we must ask ourselves is, “Am I defending truth on all fronts?” The lie will come in many different ways, at different times in history, and in different guises. We must be fighting where the attack is now. Martin Luther says it this way:

“If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all the battle front besides is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.” Martin Luther quoted by Francis Schaeffer in ‘The God Who Is There

We should be asking ourselves where the battle is raging. Where is the attack on truth? Where is the enemy spreading his lie right now?

Wayne Grudem at WEST

June 7, 2009 — 3 Comments

This week I shall be hopping on the train from Tuesday to Friday to head to Bridgend, to the Wales Evangelical School of Theology (WEST). WEST are in the middle of their Summer Season and this week I have the immense privilege of sitting in on Dr. Wayne Grudem’s ‘Doctrine of Scripture’ week. This is what WEST has to say on the week:

Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology is a core text in numerous seminaries around the world. This week presents a rare opportunity to hear the much esteemed Professor of Bible and Research at Phoenix Seminary reassert and defend the absolute integrity of the Bible in the light of current threats and misunderstandings.

I believe that this week is going to be really useful to me. In my time with the YWAM in Maui, I learnt much on the need to rigorously defend the integrity of the Bible. More than this, we need to be postively asserting the truth of God’s word. We cannot keep quiet on this matter for their are many voices shouting their anti-truth objections, from within as well as outside of the church.

It is also perhaps an interesting week that leads me up to next Sunday when I have a sermon entitled, ‘The Church as an Army.” Armies are trained to fight, and to fight objectively. What will the church in the UK fight for? Will perhaps part of it’s objectives be the defense of the inerrancy, infalliabilty, and ultimate authority of the Bible. Do we realise that if we lose Scripture, we lose Jesus and are left leaderless, hopeless and utterly lost?

I look forward to learning much from Dr. Grudem and posting some of what I have learned here.

“This saying is carted out whenever someone wants to suggest that Christians talk about the gospel too much, and live the gospel too little. Fair enough—that can be a problem. Much of the rhetorical power of the quotation comes from the assumption that Francis not only said it but lived it.

The problem is that he did not say it. Nor did he live it. And those two contra-facts tell us something about the spirit of our age.”

Mark Galli with some very interesting thoughts, on Christianity Today.

I’ve run into this very quote and situation numerous times, each time the implication being that we need to be ‘actionally active’ and ‘verbally passive’, or something like that. It’s as if we read the book of Acts and ignore the great sermons (which to me seem to be the thrust of much of the book) and say that actually we just need to keep quiet and get on with it.

Of course, this isn’t true; the gospel needs to be preached verbally and through the effective preaching of the Word the Holy Spirit regenerates hearts to serve Him well too, providing another effective witness.

But our culture has for much part lost the value of words, and so little mantras like the one above (for it really is like a religious chant) slip in, sound cool, but if left unchecked can be quite dangerous, especially to a young Christian mind.

So let us continue in the renewing of our mind (Rom. 12:2) so we might use wisdom and discernment in dealing with the bombardment of ideas jumping our way, that we might sift out truth and discard error.

We’re in a shooting war and we can’t afford to put down the rifles that God has given us to advance his Kingdom. The preaching of the Word by the Holy Spirit is powerful, life-changing and glorious. He has promised the power of it to us (Isa. 55:11) and we have witnessed it ourselves. We must not get muddled and confused where God has spoken plain and clearly.

At last night’s service in Bath with Dr. J. I. Packer we were treated to a quick question and answer time before the main message (which incidentally was taken from Luke 1:67-80 entitled, “Safety, Certainty, and Enjoyment.”) From this Q & A session I want to highlight three questions and their answers that I found particularly insightful and helpful.

1. What advice would you give to Christians young in the faith?

  • “Soak yourselves in Scripture.” Packer hit first and foremost the absolute neccesity that we need to be in the Bible often. Packer is in his 80’s I believe and he mentioned that fact that people don’t read their bibles as their fathers and grandfathers once did. What does that mean for me who could be his great-grandson?!

    At this point he talked about the ESV Study Bible for which he served as Theological Editor and mentioned that is much more than just another study Bible, but rather it is, “put together as a resource for the Christian life.” That is, that the study Bible complete with articles, notes, charts, maps etc. was designed to help the Christian in all matters of their faith.

  • The next point that he made was that we need to be in prayer. We were exhorted to, “practice prayer, both in company, and on your own.” As well as having a life of personal prayer we need to, “get into a prayer group.” Packer stressed the importance of the Christian walk being that as a walk of fellowship, and not isolation.

    I thought that was great coming from a man who might actually be able to remember the beginning of modernity. I find that many among the crowd who want to do church in a ‘post-modern’ way seem to think that they have discovered ‘community’ for the first time. Ahh, but not so. Because it, as with other doctrines, have been dismissed by some in some generations in the past does not mean that it is a new or bold discovery.

  • Dr. Packer also told us that we need to be actively seeking to discover what gifts God has given to us. When we discover our gifts we can then begin to use them! We are “saved to serve” and church is not a place to sit idly by without joining in and fulfilling our own unique role in the body (Col. 1:24 – verse added).

And what about Christians at the other end, those much older in their faith?

  • “Remember that the Good Lord never changes.” I’m only 25 so I’m nodding appropriately and writing and thinking that hopefully one day this might mean a little more to me. All I can take it for is that when you have seen a lot of life, and a lot of change, we must remain strong and take heart in the Unchanging One.
  • “Remind yourselves of the works of God.” This is one that I think is good for us all. We must remember to be thankful and give praise to God for the wonderful things that He has done in our lives.

3. For what can we pray for you?

Finally, the question was asked for what can we pray for Dr. Packer? As you may know, Dr. Packer and others from his church have been having a rough run of it of late. The whole sad ordeal to me highlights the state of some parts of the church. The glimmer of hope to be found is in the people who made a stand, take God at His word and take His Word very seriously.

It is a brave man who is still very much passionate about His God to stand firm, when He has been standing so strong for all his life. Dr. Packer in this regard is an inspiration to me and a testimony of the Holy Spirit’s grace that enables sinners to run hard, run strong, and finish well. My prayers will be with him and his church over the next few weeks.

90 Days

May 8, 2009 — 2 Comments

I wanted a bit of a challenge, and now I have one. Reading the Bible, all of it, in 90 days. There’s a big push for this in the summer, called, The Bible in 90 Days. Actually, there’s quite a few resources at that site so take a look. There’s help for the church as a whole, as well as small groups, and Joe who wants to do it on his own.

I however, have jumped the gun. I found out about the whole thing through Twitter, linking back to this post. Instead of waiting til the first of June I’ve just started going. So the challenge was laid down; and the challenge has been accepted. As I reckon it’s day 3 tomorrow and Genesis will be all but done …