September 15, 2017

An interesting article on gathering issues in the Middle East and North Africa, and beyond.
Africa has become a new competing arena between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Both states have turned their focus to the continent, developing ties with a number of African states on both economic and security issues

Was Jesus Just a Mythical Person?

From my correspondence with a graduate student friend, a Christian, who asked, Was Jesus a mythical hero rather than a real person? The idea seems to be expressed in some recent statements on television and on the web.

Hi J.

I am unimpressed that an archaeologist found an object with an image of someone on a cross and naked; that tells us nothing.  The Romans crucified thousands of people that way, so it was not necessarily Jesus.  I was surprised that the argument [that you mentioned] made no mention of the paucity of references to Jesus in the ancient secular sources, which is an argument I am familiar with.  I think the earliest mention of Jesus outside of the New testament and the works of the Church scholars is from Josephus and I looked up what he had to say.  He was writing in possibly AD 70-90, published his book in 93, in Rome.  I was struck by how much he actually said.

But even if there were no such publications about Jesus in the first century I don’t see how archaeology would establish one thing or another.  What they have clearly established is that there was a church in Palestine and that it gave central place to Jesus in their iconography.  If you argue that Jesus never existed then did Paul exist?  Did Luke Exist?  Eventually you have to discount the writings of the New Testament merely as religious fiction created many years later — and as you know there are people who argue that.  What they seem unwilling to think about is the power of the movement, which gained so much influence within a few decades that that the shrines in Asia Minor ceased to be visited by many people.  Also, the people who claim this simply disregard the NT writings.

Have you read the book by FF Bruce, The New Testament Documents; Are they reliable? This was the first work by Bruce, who had been an antiquities scholar before taking up the NT documents.  Also, anyone who reads the NT would have a hard time fitting the story into the narrative that the deniers would have to construct.  The NT story is that the movement began almost suddenly, a few weeks after Jesus was crucified, beginning only a few hundred feet from where he was supposed to have been buried, and it became a major social problem to Herod, who therefore executed James in order to satisfy the Jewish leaders [to say nothing of the Stephen event], and that the message that Jesus taught and healed many and then rose from the dead had spread all over the circum-Mediterranean within a few decades.

Recently we read through Acts; I have heard that the details of the shipwreck in Acts are considered useful in understanding the way ships were rigged, etc.  The New Testament works books were deliberately crafted in historical settings, meant to tell about actual events. I now am inclined to read Luke-Acts as some version of the brief that must have been presented to Caesar as part of the legal case for Paul; it ends, note, with Paul waiting for a decision.  Also, the last time I read Hebrews I was struck with how early it must have been written, given what it was teaching:  This is a teaching about the eternal status of Jesus written before 70 AD [when Jerusalem was destroyed]: the author had no idea that the sacrifices were no longer being practiced, a good sign he was writing before 70 AD. Such a concept of Jesus as the High God was being taught within the lifetimes of hundreds of people who could have seen Jesus face to face.

Something important, seems to me, is the power of the twelve as the crucial witnesses of Jesus. When you get my book [Walking Blind, And Other Essays about Biblical Texts], look at the chapter on the Twelve Jewish Men.  Their influence was crucial.  They provided a united statement of what Jesus did and taught including of course the resurrection; their role was crucial.  They produced the early written statements of what Jesus did, in opposition to the fanciful myths that surely were swirling all around Palestine (note the so-called NT apocrypha).  Their unity in affirming the early short statements about Jesus, the “Q”, were fundamental to what we know about Jesus [used by the writers of the Synoptic Gospels].  And then you note that virtually all of them, except John, suffered violent deaths claiming that their stories of Jesus, including the Resurrection, were actual events.  This is part of my argument [in Walking Blind] for the Resurrection in the chapter on why I believe.

Anyway, it seems to me that those who claim that Jesus never existed have much to explain that they don’t address. History is a field that is always contested, which is another sign of how wise it was the Jesus assigned twelve men — twelve! — to be his “witnesses”.  They had to agree on what the movement would claim.  They may seem to be invisible now, but they did a wonderful service in providing us with — actually authorizing — a set of texts that reflect their teaching, their claims.

J., you are brilliant and so able to, and inclined to, read widely. This is all the more reason you need to be reading through the great texts of scripture.  Make it your daily habit to “listen” to what they have to say.

It’s such a privilege to know you and interact with you on these issues. We will be praying that God will lead you though the issues that you are struggling with, and will use you and prepare you for even great use for Jesus.

Best, Bob

On Evolution and Christian Faith

On Evolution and Christian Faith

My correspondence with a graduate student friend who is struggling with Evolution. Wondering if her study of evolution could undermine her faith in God.

My first letter

Hi J.,

Thank you for writing me.  Rita and I prayed for you after I read your letter to her.  We have all struggled with doubt, but on various levels and on different issues.  I will do my best to respond to your feelings and questions.

My first concern is what is happening to you spiritually.  The one thing we all need to be doing is reading through the scriptures.  This is especially necessary for those of us in the scholarly world.  Somehow engaging closely with the text has helped me to find grounding when I am struggling and find it nowhere else.  I so much appreciate your sharing your thoughts because my experience is that the usual things that we hear in church don’t suffice.  You and I need to be seeking answers from the word ourselves.  I wonder if I have sent you a copy of “Walking Blind,” a book of essays about things I have gotten from scripture that I don’t see other people talking about.  Nothing in that book deals specifically with questions/issues of your interest but the essays reveal, even though I don’t say so, how many issues of interest to me are not much addressed in Christian books or sermons.  I would love for you to see it if I haven’t sent you a copy.

Anyway, my first response is that you need to be examining the scriptures daily for what they have to say to you.  Do you have a habit of exploratory reading?  Set aside 10 minutes beyond whatever you do in your Quiet Time just to read parts of the Bible you have never read before. If you are thinking, you will often find things there that you didn’t know were there, and that no one talks about.  Paul (Rom 15:4), after quoting from a relatively obscure verse in the OT, says that “these things were written down for out instruction, that through patience [steadfastness] and the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.” The Bible was written that we might have hope.  And this point he demonstrates by quoting from an obscure passage from the OT.  Anyway, my prayer for you is that you will find anchorage in the texts of scripture.

Now, to respond to the issues that trouble you.  You are impressed with the number of scientists whom you respect who don’t believe in God. And you feel that now the great questions are “now answerable through science”. And you wonder if the “why” could be answered through science.

You are right to be terrified if it should turn out that there is “no reason” for what is going on in nature. If we take the view that the universe is expanding endlessly into space then we can be sure that our world will grow cold, the stars will disappear, that human beings will die out along with all life on earth, and there will be nothing to follow.  That seems where the kind of “science” you are looking at takes us.

I keep wondering what else your author believes that makes him certain that belief in God is a myth:  How does he know?  Does his scholarly ventures into the mechanisms of the world order entitle him to take such a leap of faith and declare it to others with confidence?  I keep wondering if behind such claims there is a deep resentment against God:  “I don’t believe in God because I’m pissed off at him.”

God certainly doesn’t do what we want him to do. Every one of us, not only scientists but we ourselves, have questions about what God is doing in our lives.  Rita and I have a retarded and behaviorally difficult child.  He is now 57 years old. I grieve over what he has missed, and how much he has suffered unnecessarily.  I used to think I would someday ask Jesus why he allowed such tragic circumstances to take place.  I now think, however, I will be so awed by Him that I will respond as Job did: with shame and wonder.

I have found a verse that got me thinking about myself in a different way [again, no one ever talks about this]:  [Eph 3:10] “God’s intent was that now, through the church [i.e, through me and you and all the rest] the manifold wisdom of God should be made known [not to you and me, but] to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.” What is God showing the angels on the basis of what’s going on in my life? What does he see?  What he is saying about me?  Obviously I have no idea.

I have digressed into one of the perpetual problems for all of us: suffering.  If all the “scientific” assertions your author has made are true, then how do we deal with the problem of suffering?  Paul said that if the only realities are worldly then he and the other apostles were of all people most deserving of pity because they were wasting their lives.

But to deal more directly with your author.  I have already challenged his credentials to decide what is fiction and what is myth.  He has some ideas – a just-so story – about how the human creature developed a moral sensibility.  How would his proposal be disproved? And if it turns out to hold up under close scrutiny over time how does that bear on the Biblical concept that the God of creation willed it, or used material means to create creatures like ourselves? Wherever we go with mechanistic-materialistic solutions they still leave us in a material world that operates mechanistically.  On what grounds can I make declarations about God or the workings of heaven of the sort that the apostle Paul refers to in Eph 3?  Note that the author of Chronicles recognized the difference between earthly explanations godly explanations.  In Ch 36 he describes how Jerusalem and all of Judah were destroyed: a mechanistic/materialistic explanation. And then he provides the moral/supernatural explanation that he has been promoting throughout his book:  That Yahweh had tried through many means to bring them to repentance and they refused “until there was no remedy.” Both explanations can be true.

Your author is living by faith just as you and I do.  He does not believe the claims of the gospel.  Kierkegaard challenged those who said that if they could have been present when Jesus did his miracles they would believe. He said there were people present in most of those miracles who did not believe; they were not induced to impute moral significance in the event even though they saw it take place with their own eyes.  Faith, he said, was something else; it arises out of something within the observer that induces him/her to impute to the event something larger, to see in the event a significance that escapes the mundane elements of the instant. [Cf. the parable of the sower.] We believe what we are prepared to believe just as your author believes with great certainty what he believes; for him his interpretation of his material is obvious.

I can only say, he may not know it but he lives in a very pointless world, a dark world in which there is no hope for justice, for purity, for truth, because he lives in a world in which the lies and deceits of worldly human behavior will persist as we all scramble to make the best of our miserable, pointless struggles for what we want before we die to leave nothing of significance behind.

That, as you know, is not the world of the Bible.  There will be a reckoning for the ugliness in the world, and then will come into existence the kind of world we within ourselves deeply long for:

“Look! The residence of God is among human beings. He will live among them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death will not exist any more – or mourning, or crying, or pain, for the former things have ceased to exist.” [Rev 21:3-4].

Best, Bob

My Second Letter

Hi J.

One brief addendum to my earlier note.

Science is by definition an attempt to understand the universe in its own terms.  In no way can God be a factor in the universe as “science” examines it.  We as scientists recoil at those who want to make something of God’s intention in the mechanisms of the universe.  We won’t find God in the universe through the tools of science.

Science is a way of seeing. The tools of the scientist, such as they are, are by definition worldly and “earthly” in the sense that our knowledge develops by analogy from the workings of nature as we find it on earth. As scientists we have no way of finding God or of discerning God’s hand in earlthy affairs. If we see God in the universe we “see” it through other lenses.

And there are elements of the world that, despite many claims, are left out of scientific knowledge.  As science became self-conscious and formalized other traditions of thought — ways of seeing — developed alongside it.  Literature arose as a vehicle through which human beings could express their moral and emotional sensibilities. Also, the “essay” developed as a vehicle through which to examine the human condition dispassionately.  These other ways of seeing developed alongside of science as it became more clearly defined as a discipline — evidence that thoughtful human beings felt a need to draw attention to other features of the human condition, overlooked or poorly examined by the techniques of science.  The essay became a vehicle for examining and critiquing moral practice in human affairs, for at this time the new world was enabling philosophers to reflect on other ways of organizing social life.  The notion of divine right gave way to the Rousseauan concept of a populace whose consent a government should have in order to govern. The moral imagination is a topic worthy of rational inquiry, both as it is expressed in private thoughts and as it is deployed in social affairs [often to masque unseemly agendas].  There are rational ways of examining human beings as moral creatures but the tools of science, valuable as they are, can lead away from what is actually interesting about human beings.

Anyway, please forgive this deluge of ideas. They are meant to help you deal with the issues that now seem to challenge your relationship with God.

Best, Bob