Thursday, October 5, 2017

Noah Questions

Two questions about Noah today. Maybe the floods, hurricanes, and boat rescues is reminding the denizens of Quora (where I usually answer these first) of the Biblical deluge.

Q: Where did the idea of Noah preaching to the people about the flooding come from? I can't seem to find any account of it in the book of Genesis.

A: For Christians this idea may have come from the New Testament book of 2nd Peter 2.5 where Noah is depicted as “a preacher of righteousness… when He [God] brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly.”

Peter and many 1st century Jews would have heard these stories from the midrashic commentaries of the rabbis that elaborated on the stories of the Hebrew scriptures.

Q: How did Noah transport the 87 species of human parasites (

A: Inside the humans, I would suppose. Except for the parasites that also afflict animals; they might take a different route.

Of course that's presuming that the story of the Deluge is a strictly historical account, as we modern westerners tend to expect, rather than a story probably based on an actual event (Mesopotamia is known to have had some pretty bad floods) and intended to teach the lessons it teaches: monotheism (as opposed to the multitude of panicky gods who can’t even control their own flood in the old Mesopotamian stories), the incorrigible evil in the heart of man, that evil will be judged, that God requires obedience, that, in the end, God forgives and shows mercy, etc., etc.

Oh yeah, and the origin of wine and need to drink responsibly. Very important. ;)

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Are Gnostic Gospels Authentic?

A question I was asked back in August:

Q: What is the authenticity of Gnostic Gospels? Couldn't they have been written for selfish interests?

 A: Several Gnostic works claim to record the words or acts of people mentioned in the New Testament such as the apostles Thomas and Phillip, or Mary Magdalene and Judas. If by “authentic” you mean were they written by these people, then the answer is no, they are not authentic. Most scholars believe these books were written in the 2nd and 3rd centuries or later, although the so-called Gospel of Thomas was probably written around AD 100 - 110 and has portions that seem to be traditions from the earliest days of the church.

Could they have been written for selfish interests? Of course, but they also may have been written to publicize their teachings and provide teaching materials for their followers. When these books were written Jesus was just getting famous as the latest ‘mystic master’ in the Roman Empire. Gnosticism had been a tendency of long standing in the Mediterranean world deriving from the platonic teaching that matter is evil and the liberation of one’s soul from matter was the aim in life — and afterlife.

"Christian" Gnostics appeared at the end of the 1st century attempting to link the cache of Jesus’ name with this very popular Platonic philosophic idea. After all, the actual Christian teaching of Jesus and hi apostles with its bloody crucifixion, its ridiculous idea (to Greeks and Romans) of a man returning bodily from death, and its rigorous insistence that no other gods be worshiped — including emperors — was seen as woefully unsophisticated by many.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

A Question of Throats

Image by FotoFyl / Erifyli Tsavdari
Sometimes answering anti-Christian questions on Quora doesn't require any special knowledge of biblical scholarship or Jesus' teachings. Sometimes it just requires a little logic. And this time it seemed like some people might take my answer more easily if I approached it the way an evolutionary biologist might, then transpose it into the key of Christian belief. That may make it a bit easier for the questioner to see why we aren't "bothered" by God's design of the human throat.

Q: Why aren't Christians bothered by the fact that God made man with a throat that is used for breathing and eating? It’s a highly inefficient design.

A: From an evolutionary viewpoint, regardless of our opinions of the efficiency of this design, it's widespread development in numerous animal groups (e.g., birds, reptiles, mammals, etc.) suggests that it’s a dependable, tried-and-true mechanism. Although other designs are found in nature (e.g., the spiracles and air sac design found in bees), natural selection has seemingly chosen the ”throat design” for most land animals, including humans.

Therefore Christians who see humans as designed by God needn't worry. Although their God may not have chosen a design favored by modern engineers, he has installed a mechanism in his birds, reptiles, and primates, including humans, that has proven over time to be quite satisfactory.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

What Became of the Churches Paul Wrote To

'Church of Mary' in Ephesus, site of the
Third Ecumenical Council in 431
Paul the apostle wrote his part of the New Testament in the form of letters to Christian groups in several cities or areas. Have you ever wondered what became of the churches on those places? Well, some people must (including me) because I received this question on Quora the other day...

Q: Were the churches Paul wrote letters to foundational to post-Biblical Christianity, for example, after Constantine?

A: Rome.

Rome is the most obvious foundational address Paul wrote to. The church father Irenaeus writing around AD 180 described the influence Rome had on post-biblical Christianity:
“For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its pre-eminent authority,that is, the faithful everywhere,inasmuch as the apostolical tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.”
Against Heresies, Book 3, chapters 3-4 Irenaeus
Paul’s other destinations had varying degrees of influence after the apostles were gone. Here is some information I’ve put together on them:
The non-biblical (but quite orthodox) letter called 1 Clement was written to Corinth by a Roman church leader (probably before the last New Testament books were finished). This letter shows that the old issues of factionalism and quarreling which Paul had addressed continued among Corinthian Christians; referring to their letters from Paul, Clement rebukes some younger believers who have thrown off the leadership of the elders.
Eerdman’s Dictionary of the Bible, art. Corinth.
Dionysius, Bishop of Corinth around AD 170 wrote a letter preserved in the Church History of Eusebius to the bishop of Rome, Soter, defending the way churches in Achaea traditionally celebrated the feast later called easter, which then was a matter of debate in the church since Rome figured it differently.
Corinth was the capital of the province of Achaea and the bishop there oversaw the smaller churches in the province making him what Orthodox Christians call a metropolitan bishop. Corinth's bishops were present at many of the early church councils and so helped to formulate statements of what Christians do (and do not) believe that are still used to this day.
There are actually two areas in modern day Turkey that were called "Galatia" in Paul's time, a north and a south, and no one is certain which one Paul wrote to. If Galatians was sent to north Galatia they would be in the area of Ankara and Pessinus while south Galatia would include Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe where Acts tells us he and Barnabas established churches.
If we go with the southern Galatia theory and look at what roles the cities mentioned in Acts played later on, we can say that Iconium played no important part in later church history, although the apocryphal but popular "Acts of Paul and Thecla" may have been written there "out of love for Paul." Acts of Paul and Thecla - Wikipedia
The church in Antioch was the capital of the province of Pisidia. Partially due to this the bishop there oversaw the smaller churches in the province. The names of many bishops of Pisidian Antioch are recorded and they attended several of the important church Councils.
Lystra did not play a major role in subsequent Christian history, though the foundation of a Byzantine church has been discovered at the site.
Eerdman’s Dictionary of the Bible, art. Lystra
Not much is recorded of Derbe's part in post-apostolic Christianity. The church continued there however and its bishops attended three important Councils: Constantinople (AD 381), Ephesus (AD 431), and Chalcedon (AD 451) Derbe (Diocese) - Wikipedia.
Ephesus is the traditional residence, in later life, of John the Apostle (Eusebius HE 3.1), who was thought to have lived into the reign of Trajan (98-117; Irenaeus Adv. haer. 3.3.4). According to tradition, he wrote his Gospel at Ephesus (HE 5.8.4), and was eventually buried there (3.39.5-6; 5.24.3). The Basilica of St. John was erected on the traditional site of his tomb during the reign of Justinian (527-565). Timothy is remembered as the first bishop of Ephesus (HE 3.4.5), a tradition probably based on 1 Tim. 1:3. Ephesus is also the site for Justin’s dialogue with Trypho the Jew (Dial. 2-8; Eusebius HE 4.18.6).
Eerdman’s Dictionary of the Bible, art. "Ephesus"
The city was destroyed by the Goths in 263, and although rebuilt, the city's importance as a commercial centre declined as the harbour was slowly silted up by the Küçükmenderes River. It was partially destroyed by an earthquake in 614 AD...
The Church of Mary near the harbour of Ephesus was the setting for the Third Ecumenical Council in 431, which resulted in the condemnation of Nestorius. A Second Council of Ephesus was held in 449, but its controversial acts were never approved by the Catholics. It came to be called the Robber Council of Ephesus or Robber Synod of Latrocinium by its opponents.
Wikipedia, art. Ephesus
In the second century, Ignatius, bishop of Antioch of Syria, passed through Philippi on his way to Rome to face martyrdom. The Philippian church later sent a letter to Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, requesting his assistance in collecting Ignatius's letters. Polycarp responded favorably to their request in his only letter that has survived (see Pol. Phil. 13.2), though Irenaeus claims that he wrote several others (Irenaeus Haer. 5.33.4). Polycarp's letter (c. the mid-second century A.D.) is helpful in understanding the continuing witness of the church in Philippi in the second century, its concern for those in prison because of their faith and its hospitality. Like Paul, Polycarp also addressed the presbyters (bishops) and deacons (Pol. Phil. 5.2-3; 6.1; cf. Paul's Phil 1:1). In the post-Nicene era, the city became an important Christian center and had a metropolitan bishop.
Dictionary of New Testament Background, art. "Philippi"
After a major earthquake in the Lycus Valley that destroyed Colossae and Laodicea (c. A.D. 60-64; Tacitus Ann. 14.27), Colossae was never fully rebuilt, and by the eighth century it was abandoned. The site has not yet been excavated.
Dictionary of New Testament Background, art. "Colossae"
For centuries the city remained one of the chief strongholds of Christianity, and it won for itself the title of "the Orthodox City," not only by the tenacity and vigor of its resistance to the successive attacks of various barbarous races, but also by being largely responsible for their conversion to Christianity... It was also the scene in 390 AD of the famous massacre ordered by Theodosius the Great, for which St. Ambrose excluded that emperor for some months from the cathedral at Milan.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (2002 edition), art. "Thessalonica"
It still stands today. Thessaloniki - Wikipedia

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Jesus at the Hard Rock Cafe

Photo by Paweł Sikora Sikorr
Larry Hurtado, who is a favorite Bible scholar of mine and whom my wife, son, and I got to hear lecture recently, is probably the world's leading expert on how exactly Jesus' followers wrapped their minds around what for them psychologically was an utter impossibility: that this guy they knew was actually God. We can go into that sometime.

Another topic he is studying is just how unique in the world the early Christian movement was. He recently wrote a book called Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, where he points out that a lot of what we take for granted about the whole idea of religion came from Jesus' movement, from Christians.

A little while back he blogged on one example he came across...


Passing by the Hard Rock Café in Edinburgh today, I noticed again their slogan: “Love all, serve all,” and noted that it reflects the (likely unconscious) influence of the NT upon western culture.  For the motto self-evidently owes to the sentiments first expressed in NT passages such as Matthew 5:43-48, with its distinctive injunction to “love your enemies” as well as your “neighbour”, and Matthew 20:26 (and Mark 10:43-44), with the striking demand that “whoever would be great among you must be servant of all.”

I suspect, however, that neither the founders (nor the Seminole Indians of Florida who now own the restaurant chain) are aware of this.  It just shows how the values and themes of the NT have now become part of the conceptual “ground water” of western culture.

My recent book, Destroyer of the gods:  Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, 2016) makes the points that early Christianity (in the first three centuries) had distinctive features, and that these once-distinctive features have now become cultural commonplaces for us.  I don’t refer to the Hard Rock Café or its slogan, but there’s lots of other (and, hopefully, more interesting) stuff that I hope will address our “cultural amnesia.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Those Mysterious Dead Sea Scrolls

The War Scroll
Courtesy of Matson Photo Service 

Have you ever wondered what's really in those Scrolls? Yes, the Bible but what else? Yesterday someone asked me this on Quora. True, it's not "Christ and him crucified" but the Dead Sea Scrolls are still cool. They give us an idea of what was going on in the background while Jesus and his students trod the dusty pathways of Judea.


Q: What are the other books that were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls besides the books of the Old Testament?

A: Of the 944 scrolls found at Qumran, 211 are “biblical” and 733 are “nonbiblical.” This latter group contains all sorts of writings. For example books from the Pseudepigrapha were found such as Jubilees and 1 Enoch along with apocalyptic books related to Enoch, such as The Book of Giants (1Q23) and Melchizedek (11Q13). (FYI, the notations with a Q in them tell you what cave they were found in and the manuscript number. This is how scholars denominate the different scrolls and fragments. “Etc.” after a notation just means there are too many copies to list them all).

There are numerous songs and liturgies thanking God for his deliverances, while other psalms claiming to be authored by David and Solomon are for exorcising demons causing various ailments, such as a "fever demon" or a "chest-pain demon." The Psalms Scroll contains not just the biblical psalms but a number of others, some of which were already known from different sources while others were entirely new to us.
The community that produced the scrolls (we’re not as sure it was the Essenes nowadays) penned several scriptural commentaries using a particular type of interpretation called "pesher" so as to find themselves featured in the Hebrew scriptures. The Commentary on Habakkuk (1QpHab) is an example of this. They also wrote directly about themselves, producing procedures and regulations such as the Rule of the Community, The Halakhic Letter, and the Damascus Document. There are many copies of these, and Damascus Document was originallly found in the 19th century all the way up in Syria, long before additional copies were discovered among the scrolls.
They produced their own apocalyptic prophecies, the most famous of which is The War Scroll which details the final battle between "the Sons of Light" and "the Sons of darkness." Wisdom literature has been found, including Wiles of the Wicked Woman (4Q184), Mysteries (1Q27, etc), and Instruction (1Q26, etc.). A copy of Sirach (aka Ecclesiasticus), which has long been known through the apocrypha, was there. A set of beatitudes, rather different from Jesus', was discovered there too (4Q525).
This really just scrapes the surface but should give you an idea of what was found besides the biblical texts.
The Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library has all the scrolls and intends to provide complete transcriptions and translations in the future.
Two excellent translations of the nonbiblical scrolls are The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated by Florentino Garcia Martinez, and The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation by M. Wise, M. Abegg, and E. Cook.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Production Note: Continuing On

Photo by Onomatomedia
So, as I told my Facebook page members last week (which you can 'Like' and 'Follow' by clicking here if you have the notion, although I think you may need to join Facebook first. But who hasn't joined Facebook, right?) I am going to finish up the three series I have running on this page. That would be Life After Death, The Great Announcement (about what the Gospel really is), and the Trinity. And partly due to the death of my father last year, contemplating which is part of the reason I haven't posted since January (well, that and probate), I plan first to dive back into the subject of Life After Death.

If you'd like to catch up with that series you can  Part 1, Part 1.5 (aka A Revelation About Revelation), and Part 2.

Part 3 is still "in progress" and won't appear right away so until it does (which won't be long) I will be sure to post other interesting things. For instance, tomorrow I'll answer a question someone asked me just the other day: What was in the Dead Sea Scrolls besides Old Testament books...?