Are the Gospels Reliable?


I recently read a blog post by Brett Lunn, on his blog, Capturing Christianity, titled Why Everyone Should Believe that the Gospels are Reliable. If it were that easy, everyone would believe the Gospels are reliable. But, he makes some good points, and one in particular that sparked my interest.

The Gospels, of course, refer to the books we know as the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The earliest copies of those writings don’t actually contain a reference to authorship, which has occasioned a great deal of modern conjecture about who really wrote them. I say “modern conjecture” because the authorship wasn’t questioned for centuries.

In fact, the earliest charge from anyone raising a question about the authorship of the Gospels was advanced in the 4th Century by Faustus. Augustine, the great writer, thinker and theologian took on the skeptic, Faustus, with the response, “How do we know the authorship of the works of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Varro, and other similar writers but by the unbroken chain of evidence?”[1] With the Gospels, we have a history of acceptance that they are authentic writings of the men to whom they are ascribed all the way up to the 4th Century. That’s a pretty good chain of title.

Further, it’s not as if the writings didn’t actually identify the authors, as people suppose. They did identify the authors, but the identification was in the titles (not in the text), and they didn’t uniformly identify the authors in exactly the same format. Some said, “Gospel according to….”, and some simply said, “According to….” Much ado about nothing?

Another criticism is that the Gospels weren’t written by the most officious people. John, of course, was a close disciple of Jesus, and so was Matthew, but Matthew was kind of suspect. He was a tax collector, and tax collectors for the Roman government were persona non gratis in the Jewish outskirts of the Roman Empire. Couldn’t a disciple with better credentials have authored a Gospel?

Mark and Luke aren’t even disciples! Luke was a companion of Paul. He wasn’t even Jewish; he was a gentile! He wrote in the Greek style of the highly educated, using Greek expressions, instead of Hebrew ones. We know him chiefly through Paul’s letters: Luke the doctor (Col. 4:14) who was the last companion to remain with Paul before his death (2 Tim. 4:10-11) among other references.

And Mark? He was a companion of Peter. He was also a companion of Paul, being described as a missionary with Barnabas and Paul (John Mark) in whose house many gathered to pray. Paul also asks for Mark to come to him in the same letter in which he laments that Luke is the only person still with him. (2 Timothy 4:11) Peter referred to Mark as his son, which most scholars take to mean a term of honor and endearment. (1 Peter 5:13)

Mark also had a falling out with Paul at some point, however. (Acts 15:36-39) Luke was a Gentile. Matthew was a despised tax collector. Couldn’t even a fledgling religion come up with credible scribes of the central story?

Sure, if Christianity was nothing but a religion concocted by the imaginations of men. Frankly, why would anyone choose this cast of characters?

I think the answer is that no one would have chosen these guys, and the story wasn’t made up. These are the men who reported what they saw, what they heard and what they knew to be true from firsthand accounts. The truth is kind of like that. It isn’t neat and clean like a story someone made up. It is what it is.

And this is the point that intrigues me by the article that inspires this piece. Continue reading “Are the Gospels Reliable?”

Remembering Palmyra: a Call to Enter Through the Narrow Gate

The destruction of the ancient ruin of Palmyra is a war crime, but we risk a greater loss.

The Palmyran Valley and Oasis
The Palmyran Valley and Oasis by Steve Murray

Sometimes things we read in the news hit close to home, even from halfway around the world in an ancient, foreign land. A friend from college has a personal connection to the ruins of the temple in the Palmyra Valley of Syria. He visited there and took the photos I have published in this blog with his permission. I started this blog article years ago, when ISIS was at it’s public height.

He describes the Valley, sitting about 125 miles north-east of Damascus, Syria, in the desert, as it appears above, “a welcome relief after weeks, months on the road” for the travelers along the Silk Road from the east. The “peaceful place… filled with memories” was no longer peaceful and filled with pleasant memories when I began this piece. I don’t know how things stand today. The news has moved on, leaving whatever ravages that continue out of the pubic eye.

“’Among the great cities of antiquity, Palmyra is comparable only to Petra in Jordan, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and the Athenian Acropolis in Greece,’ argues GW Bowersock, professor emeritus of ancient history at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.” (quoted in Isis’s Destruction Of Palmyra: ‘The Heart Has Been Ripped Out of the City’ by Stuart Jeffries in the Guardian Sept. 2, 2015)

With fond reminiscences of a peaceful time, relationships developed between disparate brothers and sisters who shared good will and historic significance of this desert oasis along the ancient silk road, the utter sadness and ache of the loss of the ruins is deep and vacuous. And more so now that my part of world has largely forgotten the devastation that exploded in front of the world’s eyes just a few short years ago.

Palmyra’s Baalshamin temple ‘blown up by IS’

read the headlines in Britain. Another British headline grimly pronounced,

ISIS behead archaeologist who wouldn’t give up priceless artifacts for terrorists to loot and destroy.

In the Atlantic, the headline read with finality, An Ancient Temple in Palmyra Is Destroyed. “Reports of the site’s destruction come just days after the Islamic State killed Khaled Asaad, an 82-year-old Syrian expert on Palmyra who refused to divulge the location of artifacts despised by the militant group [and coveted for the booty they would bring]. Asaad had run Palmyra’s antiquities department for 50 years.”

“The taking of the historic city of Palmyra by Islamic State represents ‘the fall of a civilisation’, according to Syria’s antiquities chief Maamoun Abdulkarim. Speaking to Reuters today, he said: ‘Human, civilized society has lost the battle against barbarism. I have lost all hope.’” (Mark Woods Christian Today Contributing Editor 21 May 2015)

Temple at Palmyra
Temple at Palmyra by Steve Murray

Barbaric, incomprehensible, brutal, evil, criminal, atrocity …. Words fall short. No regard for history, culture, art, life …. The ISIS militants did not even have regard for their own lives. The wrought unspeakable destruction and the taking of precious life in the Venice of the Sands.

Christians, humanists, peaceful Muslims, people of all stripes condemn what ISIS has done. The destruction of the ancient ruin of Palmyra is a war crime. The killing of Khaled al-Assad, the curator and protector of the Palmyran antiquities, is an atrocity of the worst order. If he had only given his life to protect those beautiful, ancient ruins…, but ruins were destroyed with him. The various reactions to the crime and atrocity are understandable and expected.

The worldwide reports emphasized a common theme: the harsh clash of religious fundamentalism in the nature of the destruction and violence. “ISIS did not merely blast apart old stones—it attacked the very foundations of pluralistic society” (The Rubble of Palmyra by Leon Wieseltier in the Atlantic Sept. 4, 2015). Indeed, ISIS displayed the worst of religion – the worst of humanity.

And the recent destruction of ancient historical artifacts and buildings is nothing new.

“In this iconoclasm – literally, the destruction of religious icons and other images or monuments for religious or political motives – Isis has its place in a rich history of destruction. Moses reduced the Golden Calf, made from Israelites’ golden earrings, to dust. Centuries later, the 93 carved relief sculptures of the life and miracles of the Virgin Mary in Ely Cathedral’s lady chapel, were hacked off during the Reformation. In between Moses and the mutilation of Ely was something called the Iconoclastic controversy in the history of the Eastern or Byzantine Christian church. Between AD 726 and 843, the then emperors of Byzantium believed icons were not only a reversion to the pagan idolatry of the ancient Greeks and Romans, but that their existence was the chief obstacle to the conversion to Christianity of Jews and Muslims, to both of whom the image was anathema. Iconoclasm, then, is by no means only an Islamic thing.” (quoted in Isis’s Destruction Of Palmyra: ‘The Heart Has Been Ripped Out of the City’ by Stuart Jeffries in the Guardian Sept. 2, 2015)

www.yourmiddleeast.com 660 x 390
www.yourmiddleeast.com

As tempting as it is to reel in sadness and righteous anger (something the irreligious seem to have learned well from the religious in recent times) over the destruction of such significant ancient preserves, there is a greater loss.  Ross Burns, adjunct professor of ancient history at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, whose life is devoted to the preservation, study and appreciation of antiquity, appropriately recognized,

“[T]here are more important considerations in Syria in 2015 than the preservation of ancient monuments. ‘The physical damage to monuments has to be assessed against the scale of the human tragedy….’” (Id.)

Continue reading “Remembering Palmyra: a Call to Enter Through the Narrow Gate”

Of Church Heretics and Heroes

Who are the William Tyndale’s in modern culture?

The Tyndale Monument, Gloucestershire, UK was built in honor of William Tyndale, a translator of the Bible, who was born nearby.

I listened recently to the Unbelievable podcast on the subject of William Tyndale. (Unbelievable? Why William Tyndale’s Bible changed the world: Melvyn Bragg and Ben Virgo) Tyndale lived from 1494-1536, during a time in which illiteracy was the rule, not the exception. The Bible was read only by the educated elite.

The 1600’s was also a time of great corruption in the church itself. The church was the largest employer in the land. It had great power, and it was corrupt. The vast majority of people, including clergy, were ignorant of Scripture. According to the experts on the Unbelievable podcast, many clergymen didn’t even know the 10 commandments. This was a very dark period in church history, the culmination of centuries of church/state alliance that twisted the Gospel to serve the power of kings and popes who lived like kings.

Tyndale was influenced by Martin Luther who also a rebel that opposed the church consensus and power structure of the day. Tyndale was influenced by John Wycliffe who a century before had translated the Bible into middle English, but the church opposed the “unauthorized” translation and rejected it. The church even declared Wycliffe a heretic after his death, and many of the Wycliffe Bibles were burned and not widely distributed.

Tyndale made it his life’s mission to translate the Bible into English for the common man. Though Wycliffe had already done that, the Bible was still virtually inaccessible to the vast majority of people, and even clergy were ignorant of it. He suffered exile for his efforts and was eventually arrested, jailed, convicted of heresy, executed by strangulation, and his body was burned at the stake.

We celebrate Tyndale now as a martyr for the faith who took up his cross and followed Christ even unto death, a leader of the reformation that led believers out of the corruption of the organized religion of his day.

He and other “rebels” paved the way for the Bible to be made available worldwide in every language spoken on earth. Tyndale now is the name of a major Christian publishing company. Luther is the namesake of a major church denomination. Wycliffe is the name of the organization that translates the Bible into the rarest languages of the farthest flung tribes of the world.

Just as Jesus opposed the Pharisees and Sadducees in the 1st Century, Tyndale opposed the popes and bishops in the 16th Century. Just as the Pharisees and Sadducees sought to stop Jesus and had him arrested, tried, convicted and executed for spreading the Gospel, the popes and bishops tried to stop Tyndale, had him arrested, tried, convicted and executed for translating the Bible including the words Jesus preached into English.

The main opposition to Jesus, and Tyndale, came from the religious leaders. Those religious leaders employed the power of the state to oppose the spread of the Gospel (in Jesus’s case) and the spread of the translation of the Bible into English (in Tyndale’s case).

When Pilate asked, “Shall I crucify [Jesus]?”, the chief priests said, “We have no king but Caesar!” (John 19:15) I think about these things in light of the current religious and cultural climate.

Tyndale was viewed as a rebel and, a renegade, a heretic. He opposed the status quo, including the status quo within the church. He was despised. He was opposed by the church. He could not even return to his homeland, England, for fear of his life, and he eventually lost his life to the church and state authorities of his day

Today, the church and state are no longer joined in power as in Tyndale’s day. Many modern Christians in the United States rue the loss of power and advantage, while modern secularists would like to negate completely all influence of religion on society. If Hilary Clinton had been elected, instead of Trump, most Christians feared an incremental loss of power and influence in the affairs of our nation. Christians have embraced Trump as the man to fight the tide of growing secularism and maintain Christianity in that position of power and influence.

But is that a good thing? We all know of the challenges, difficulties and even persecution of the church that result from state government that is opposed to the church, but history suggests that the confluence of state power with church governance leads to corruption of the church. Would we rather accept corruption in the church to avoid challenge, difficulty and persecution?

Listening to Tyndale’s story, makes me wonder, “What about the church today is like the church in Tyndale’s time?” What influence lingers or has crept in to modern Christianity that will cause future believers to look back and wonder at the corruption of the 21st Century church?

Who are the heretics of our time who will be hailed as heroes in future generations?

The Roots of Modern Ethics in the Ancient Near East

Of the origins of monotheistic religion and ethics.

Jerusalem: The Temple Mount from the time of the Second Temple

When I was in college, the first class I took was World Religions. Though I graduated with an English Literature major, I also had enough credits to be a Religion major. I didn’t need the dual major. I only took the religion classes because they interested me.

I also became a believing Christian during my college years. It was a transition that took place between that World Religion class and the summer between Sophomore and Junior years. It’s a long story that I might tell in detail some time, but the point for now is that I did a lot of reading and thinking about these things in those years and in the decades since. It doesn’t make me a theologian, but I have more than a passing interest.

Early on I learned that the creation story and flood story in Genesis, among other things, have counterparts in other religions, including other religions in the same area of the world – the Ancient Near East. Phoenicians, Assyrians, Persians, and other people groups had similar myths that have been uncovered from that general time period.

Zoroastrianism, in particular, was said to share many attributes similar to the ancient Hebraic view of the world, including the idea a singular creator God, a dualistic cosmology of good and evil, the ultimate destruction of evil, judgment after death, etc. The scholarly understanding when I was in college was that Zoroastrianism may have predated Hebraic thought and influenced it.

It occurred to me at the time, not having any reason to doubt that speculation, that Abraham may have been particularly open to his encounter with God if, indeed, he had lived in an area of the world and in a time in which there was this kind of influence. It made some sense. He was the right guy in the right place with the right influences setting the table for an encounter with God, the Creator of the world.

Recently I did some research on Zoroastrianism. Wikipedia acknowledges that Zoroastrianism has “possible roots dating back to the second millennium BC”, though “recorded history” of Zoroastrianism only dates back to the 5th Century BC. (Wikipedia). Obviously, dating the roots of Zoroastrianism back to the second millennium BC is just conjecture if records of Zoroastrianism only date to the 5th Century BC.

If we date the accounts of Abraham and his descendants according the biblical chronology and references, that history goes far back into the second millennium BC, but a loose consensus of modern archaeologists and theologians reject that dating in favor of first millennium BC dating. (See Wikipedia, for example) Modern scholars don’t take the Bible at face value. In fact, they presumptively dismiss it for its face value.

Scholarly views are not universal on this issue, of course. Not by a long shot. Some notable evidence and analysis exists that the modern consensus is wrong about the timeline for the life of Moses, the Exodus and other things. (See for instance Patterns of Evidence: The Moses Controversy) The Patterns of Evidence conjecture is that historians and archaeologists who assume a particular timeline for certain events are not apt to see the evidence for those events if they occurred in a different timeline.

The Patterns of Evidence thesis is that evidence for the events described in the biblical narrative is there if we peer through the lens of the right timeline and look for them in the right time periods. Specifically, the biblical accounts of Moses, the Exodus and entry into the land of Canaan are apparent in the archaeological record and historical data on the biblical timeline (second millennium BC), not in the first millennium timeline applied by modern, skeptical scholars.

Certain archaeological finds, like the Ebla Tablets, also raise questions about the modern scholarly consensus. The importance of “looking” in the right places according to the right timelines is explored in Timing the Walls of Jericho.

Back to Abraham, though… he was reportedly from the area of Ur (southeast Iraq), which is quite a distance from the area of Canaan (later Judea) where he ended up – about 1600 miles in fact. In Ur, he may have come in contact with Zoroastrians and other influences. That intrigued me in college, and so I revisit that thought journey again today.

Continue reading “The Roots of Modern Ethics in the Ancient Near East”

Sunday Worship is Evidence for the Resurrection

The sudden change from Saturday observance to Sunday observance in the First Century is evidence of a momentous occurrence that lead to the change.


Many of the things we do have become so traditional and commonplace that we don’t think about when they started and why. One of those things is the practice of Christians gathering on Sundays for “worship” or “church”. After all, Christians have been gathering on Sundays for almost 2000 years!

But why? It isn’t that difficult to figure out from a thematic, theological position, but what is the history? And why is that important?

We are approaching another Easter so the topic of the resurrection is top of mind this time of year. Of course, the resurrection of Jesus is the answer to the questions I have posed.

Christians gather on Sundays because Sunday was the day of the resurrection according to the Gospel accounts (all four of them). While we take the Sunday gatherings for granted (unless you are a Seventh Day Adventist), the change from Saturday gatherings to Sunday gatherings has historical significance that supports the resurrection as an historical fact.

Continue reading “Sunday Worship is Evidence for the Resurrection”

Who Was Jesus?


Who was Jesus? A friend recently asked, “Jesus was a Jew preaching Judaism. Right?” He explained his thought that the people who came after Jesus created a new religion using him as the central figure in spite of who he really was – just a Jewish man preaching Judaism.

This is a popular Internet characterization of Christianity. I am not a scholar on the subject, but I did minor in religion in college. I took all the courses for a religion major, including the thesis course, and I even did the research and wrote the thesis. I would have had a religion major if I had turned in my thesis. I didn’t do it because I didn’t need the major. I took the classes because I was interested in them. I didn’t hand in the thesis paper because I didn’t feel good about it.

A religion major at a small liberal arts school meant majoring in “religion” generally. There were no flavors available for particular study. We looked at all religions, though we focused most heavily on Judaism and Christianity. That is because there was one “Christian” professor and one “Jewish” professor.

The Christian professor took the position that “all roads lead to the top of the same mountain”. Of the Christian road, he was very fond of Liberation Theology that took the position that the God has been changing, progressing and more or less learning to be God throughout time. Liberation Theology was born in South America among the people who were oppressed by the corrupt government and military forces in the 1970’s, and the Catholic priests who espoused this theology believed in taking arms in counter-insurgence against the oppressive political and military regimes.

My “Christian” experience included some very progressive literature. We were encouraged to sit in on lectures given by people like Hare Krishnas and a European Muslim – both lectures that I attended, among others. The Jewish professor was very much the modern, reformed variety – not conservative or Hasidic. This was my introduction to religion and to the Bible.

I did read the Bible from cover to cover in college, not only as an academic exercise as part of my course of study, but because I was drawn to it. In the midst of the all-roads-lead-to-the-same-mountaintop atmosphere in which I studied, I began to be taken by Jesus, who said, “I am the way, and the truth and the life, and no one comes to the Father but by me.” (John 14:6) This is because Jesus stood head and shoulders above all the other religious personalities that I read about. There was something transcendentally different about him.

As I have been thinking about the (largely rhetorical) question my friend posed about Jesus, I think of the sweep of the Bible – Old Testament to New Testament, beginning to end. Having been intimate with it for well over 30 years, having read it many times over, and recounting my own journey of discovery, I feel compelled to tackle the question, but the scope of the answer is daunting.

Continue reading “Who Was Jesus?”

Questions of Greatness and Goodness

Jesus wrote no books, created no great art, built no monuments and spent only three years as a public figure two millennia ago.


“The historian’s test of an individual’s greatness is ‘What did he leave to grow? Did he help men think about new ideas with a vigor that persisted after he was gone?’” H.G. Wells

H.G. Wells, the great English writer considered “the father of science fiction”, was a forward thinker, believing in the progression of man in the vein of the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin. He was no friend of orthodox Christianity, nor of any religion. (See Wikipedia) “None of his contemporaries did more to encourage revolt against Christian tenets and accepted codes of behaviour, especially as regards sex….” (See Britannica).

It’s ironic I suppose, then, that I am thinking about Jesus as I read his words.

Wells expressed a hope in his writing “that human society would evolve into higher forms”. He believed from early on in the “doctrine of social progress”. (See Britannica) World War I impacted the idealistic hopes of youth, but Wells continued to believe that humankind could progress through knowledge and education.

I wonder what Wells would say today? How much have we progressed? Would his waning optimism have shriveled altogether if he had lived long enough? His last written work, Mind at the End of its Tether, written at the outbreak of World War II, suggests some further erosion in the hope of his youth, painting a very bleak picture of the future of mankind in which nature itself rebels against the evils of men.

Though H.G. Wells visited with both Lenin and Stalin, he probably didn’t know all the details of the atrocities that Stalin (particularly ) committed. A grim estimate of people killed at Stalin’s direction is 40 million! (See ibtimes) What would Wells have thought about the progression of mankind if he knew the truth? What if he knew of all the genocides that occurred and would occur in the 20th and 21st centuries alone? (See The worst genocides of the 20th and 21st Centuries)

Should H.G. Wells’ test of greatness by changed to include goodness?

An atheist friend of mine challenged me to prove to him that the world is a better place with religion (and Christianity in particular). I don’t recall exactly how I responded to him, but I have thought about his challenge since then.

We can’t deny that bad things have been done by people in the name of religion, including Christianity. I would not deny it. But what of the good?

H.G. Wells poses a question about greatness. My friend poses a question about goodness.

Continue reading “Questions of Greatness and Goodness”