Thursday, May 28, 2009

Video Review: Skeeter and the Mystery of the Lost Mosquito Treasure

I’m always looking for things that will both entertain and educate or edify my kids, so I picked up a (review) copy of Skeeter and the Mystery of the Lost Mosquito Treasure (DVD).

The story is of a mosquito named Skeeter who, through a treasure-hunting adventure with his cooler and more popular brother, learns to appreciate the things that make him unique. It’s typical kids’ movie fare.

Did the kids like it? Well, the three-year-old wandered off about two minutes into the cartoon (not counting the opening live-action scene with Max Lucado). The five-year-old got a little restless at one point, but she got into it in the end.

Can the parents stand it? It’s ok. I’m sure we’ve all seen some kids videos that made us wish for an early death. This isn’t that bad. That’s not to say parents will love it, but it’s not bad.

Any cause for concern? There was no violence or scary scenes. I am mildly concerned about one scene where two of the characters talk to God and God talks back. Audibly. I wouldn’t want my kids to think that’s normal, but it’s not a terribly big deal.

So is it any good? The show is a little too blunt with the moral of the story. As for the story and music, well it’s no Veggie Tales (of course, sometimes neither is Veggie Tales), but it’s not bad. If you’re in that place where you really need your kids to watch something different, this is worth picking up.

3 out of 5 stars

Monday, May 25, 2009

Can We Trust the Gospels? 2

Did the evangelists know Jesus personally?

That’s a question people often ask of the Gospels, even though a modern biography written by the subject’s friends is generally viewed as at least a little bit suspect.

Of course, the flip side is that, especially in the ancient world, the farther you stray from the subject the more likely you are to encounter legendary material. So perhaps it’s best that the canonical Gospels are supposed to be written by either Christ’s disciples or theirs.

But are they?

Roberts addresses this question in Chapter 3 of Can We Trust the Gospels? by looking at both the internal and external evidence, though he admits there is scant internal data.

For the external evidence he points to three ancient works:

Papias, writing about 125AD, specifically identifies Mark as not knowing the Lord but as transmitting Peter’s teaching. He also describes this as an established tradition he received from an elder. The reference to Matthew isn’t clear, though I think it’s implicit that Papias accepted it as apostolic when combined with other things Eusebius quoted.

The Muratorian Canon, written about 170AD, describes Luke as not knowing the Lord and John as a disciple of Jesus.

Irenaeus, in Against Heresies, written about 180AD, identifies all the Gospel authors, specifying that Mark and Luke were not original disciples and that Matthew and John were.

A brief aside regarding Irenaeus: His work gets a little weird, by modern standards, in one section; he goes into great detail about why it is fitting that there are exactly four Gospels, and some of it seems a bit out-there. This doesn’t affect his ability to know who wrote the Gospels. It’s simply his rather unusual case against the Gnostic versions.

Another aside: It’s interesting that both Papias and Irenaeus say Matthew wrote his Gospel in Hebrew, and most scholars are convinced the Gospel bearing that name was first written in Greek. Ben Witherington has floated the notion, based on Papais’ wording and other things, that what we’ve taken to calling “Q” may actually be the work they’re referring to. If it was combined with Mark by an editor, Witherington says, the new Gospel would have taken on the name of its most notable source – Matthew. It’s an interesting idea; we’ll have to wait and see if anything comes of it.

Back to the topic at hand, is this the best we have? The quote from Papias is easily 50 years after the Gospel of Mark was likely written. Why should we believe these guys? Roberts offers a few reasons to think they’re right.

First, 2nd century Christians wouldn’t make up Mark or Luke. The Gnostics were attributing their Gospels to Peter, James, and other apostles. If they were going to get creative about the authors of the canonical Gospels, they wouldn’t have chosen those who never met Jesus. And as Craig Blomberg points out in The Case for Christ, Matthew would probably be the last apostle anyone would pick too.

Roberts also says, “the anonymity of the biblical Gospels bears the stamp of truth whereas the pseudonymity of the noncanonical Gospels suggests their falsehood” (emphasis in original, p49). That their enemies were disseminating Gospels with famous names on crazy teachings lends credibility to the traditions that were passed along in the anonymous Gospels.

Second, “the fact that the second Gospel was so quickly accepted by the early church (including the other evangelists) lends credence to the notion that it was based on reliable source(s), like Peter, as Papias claimed” (p49).

Third, he also notes that “in recent years many have come to believe that the first and fourth gospels reflect the memory and the perspective of Jesus’ own disciples” even if they weren't the actual scribes (p49).

I would add an observation I read elsewhere: Just because the Gospels are anonymous, that doesn’t mean no one knows who wrote them. They were written to specific communities, and they would certainly have known who they came from and passed that on.

We can sum up the case this way: Despite the temptation to combat Gnostic Gospels with apostolic names, the early church openly acknowledged that two Gospels were written by non-apostles, supporting the authorship of Luke and Mark and the honesty of the early church (p50).

And even though we can be reasonably confident that the authors of the canonical Gospels are who tradition says, Roberts tells us “the reliability of the New Testament Gospels does not depend on who wrote them so much as on the nature and purpose of the writings themselves” (p49).

I want to end with this thought:
“Why … would a scholar in the twenty-first century doubt the traditions that go back into the second century? Doesn’t it make sense to think that those early traditions were based on actual testimony? Wouldn’t you suppose that those who passed on the Gospels also passed along information about who actually wrote them? All of this seems quite reasonable, unless you approach the tradition with a hermeneutic of suspicion, in which the claims made by church leaders are presumed to be ‘guilty until proven innocent’” (p48).

The blog form of the book: Are the NT Gospels Reliable?

Previous installments:
Can We Trust the Gospels? 0
Can We Trust the Gospels? 1

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Ascended to Intercede

“After his suffering, [Christ] … gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: ‘Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’

“After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight” (Acts 1:3-5, 9).

“…when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God” (Heb 10:12) “with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him” (1Pet 3:22).

“For Christ … entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence” (Heb 9:24).

“Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us” (Rom 8:33-34).

“Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Heb 4:14-16).

Monday, May 11, 2009

Can We Trust the Gospels? 1

Can we know what the original Gospel manuscripts really said?

As we begin working through Mark D. Roberts’ Can We Trust the Gospels?, that’s the first question we come to.

The Gospels are the source of the majority of what we know about Jesus. If we can’t trust them, we really know little about Him, so it’s appropriate that Roberts begins by addressing whether we can know what the originals said.

Chapter two starts with an introduction to the nature of manual copying and scribal errors, then launches into four standards by which we can evaluate the reliability of our existing Gospel manuscripts.

1. Antiquity of Manuscripts – obviously, the older the manuscript, the closer it is to the original.

The oldest known copy of any portion of the Gospels is a fragment of John known as Papyrus 52 (P52). It is dated to about 125 a.d. The next oldest manuscripts are from the latter second and early third centuries. These are more complete but “about a century later than the original writings” (p30).

Roberts points out that this compares quite favorably with other ancient documents, but we’re not being asked to make life-changing decisions based on those documents, so it’d be really nice to have older copies. But we don’t.

So how do we know these copies bear any resemblance to the originals given 100 years separate them? We’ll address this question in a bit. First, let’s look at the rest of Roberts’ criteria.

2. Multiplicity of Gospel Manuscripts – the more manuscripts we have available, the better our chances of determining what the originals looked like.

We have a couple of thousand manuscripts containing some or all of the Gospels. That is about 20 times greater than all other ancient documents, which isn’t surprising when you consider how our ancestors valued the NT.

Why is that important? Two reasons. First, it gives textual critics much more to work with.

Second, it tells us that if someone wanted to change the Gospels – replace the real version with a false version – they would face the impossible task of rounding up all of those copies. The farther you get from the originals in time, the more difficult that task would become.

3. Trustworthy Scholarly Methodology – if textual critics, those who look at all these manuscripts and try to figure out what the originals looked like, have “reliable methods … that maximize objectivity,” we can be more confident in our modern Bibles.

Of textual criticism, Roberts says, “It is by far the most objective discipline in New Testament studies. If you were to take two different teams of text critics and ask them to work independently … they would agree more than 99 percent of the time” (p32-33).

4. Quantity and Quality of Textual Variants – our confidence in our modern Gospels is dependent on what kind of and how many textual variants we have in our source manuscripts.

Here Roberts goes into detail I won’t repeat explaining how this works, but the short version is that many textual variants is actually a good thing. Because the number of variants is a function of the number of manuscripts, the fact that we have a very large number of variants is ok, even helpful to those who work with the texts.

As for the kind of variants, “the vast majority … are insignificant, either because they appear so rarely that they are obviously not original, or because they don’t appear in the older manuscripts, or because they don’t impact that meaning of the text. In fact, the majority of variants that show up in enough older manuscripts to impact our reading of the text are spelling variations or errors” (p34).

Also, the remaining troublesome variants are in less important places. “If you actually took out of the Gospels every word that was text-critically uncertain, the impact on your understanding of Jesus would be negligible” (p34-35).

An Ehrman Aside
Bart Ehrman has made quite a name for himself questioning the Gospels. His Misquoting Jesus made a big splash a few years ago, and the ideas he taught continue to pop up – namely that the Gospels are so hopelessly corrupt that we can have no idea what Jesus actually said or did. Well, that was his sound-bite version, anyway.

When you actually read the book you see that he is, as Roberts put it, “too good a scholar not to tell the truth.” Though he wants to pull the rug out from under the Gospels, his book actually does the opposite.
“One would expect Ehrman to put forth dozens of examples where we simply don’t have any idea what the autographs actually said. … In virtually every case, Ehrman confidently explains what the change was, what the earlier manuscripts actually said, and what motivated the copyist. In other words, Ehrman’s book … actually demonstrates how the abundance of manuscripts and the antiquity of manuscripts, when run through the mill of text-critical methodology, allow us to know with a very high level of probability what the evangelists and other New Testament authors wrote” (p37).
The Point
So, given that we have a large number of mostly insignificant textual variants in manuscripts that are, in many cases, extremely old, we can be confident that modern textual criticism can give us copies of the Gospels that are, to a high degree of confidence, very similar to the originals.

But 100 Years is a Long Time
Still, I’m less than thrilled that the closest we can get to the original Gospels is 100 years, barring a couple of sentences from John. How do we know there weren’t lots of changes in that period?

Roberts never addresses this question directly, but some of the things he says in this chapter and elsewhere are applicable. The rest are simply my thoughts or things I’ve read elsewhere.

First, we know the Gospel writers and the community of early Christians were committed to honesty and the preservation of Christ’s words. This is seen in what they left in and left out of the Gospels as well as elsewhere. If the early Church felt free to edit the Gospels, we would not expect passages that were embarrassing to Christ (e.g., John 7:1-5) or the apostles (e.g, Matt 20:20-28) or were simply inconvenient (e.g., Matt 3:13-17, Mark 6:1-6).

We also would expect Jesus to say something about problems the post-Pentecost Church encountered, e.g., the Gentile controversy. Instead, we see the community dealing with these problems without resorting to convenient sayings of Jesus and even differentiating between the word of apostles and the Lord (c.f., 1Cor 7).

Even Bart Ehrman said, “For the most part, [the scribes’] intention was to conserve the tradition, not to change it” (quoted by Roberts, p36).

Second, as we’ll see in a later chapter, when the early Christians were presented with an opportunity to “clean up” the Gospels by Tatian’s Diatessaron, they declined.

Third, even though we don’t have the original Gospels, within 100 years of their writing we would expect people to be familiar with them and to have reasonably recent copies. We believe the Gospels spread fairly far fairly quickly because the aforementioned P52 fragment of John, which originated in Asia, was found in Egypt. If someone wanted to doctor the Gospels, they would have been forced to contend with those who were familiar with the originals or at least their contents.

Fourth, unless someone was actually able to track down and destroy all the originals, any changes in the Gospels would show up in the manuscript history. No changes like that appear. Yes, there were attempts to harmonize the Gospels, but not right away, and that shows up in the manuscript evidence.

Though I would probably give a limb in exchange for one or more of the original Gospels, we will probably never have them. But we can be confident beyond a reasonable doubt that the copies we do have faithfully represent what the evangelists wrote.

This book in blog form: Are the NT Gospels Reliable?

Can We Trust the Gospels? 0

Friday, May 8, 2009

The Controversies Over Large Families

My wife’s sister just gave birth to a cute little boy named Caleb. He’s her seventh child.

The reaction to such a feat is usually a mix of awe and horror. To most folks it’s amazing that someone could keep up with that many children. And to many it’s somehow unseemly to have so many.

I must admit that I was once in both of those camps. Ok, I’m still in the first one.

After having my own kids, the notion of having that many is no longer quite so amazing. Even though I don’t want seven, I can see how someone could.

Now I’m more astounded by those who are offended by large families.

I’d like to address a few of the objections I’ve heard.

You can’t love that many children properly.” Baloney! Love is not a pie that has to be sliced smaller for each new child. I didn’t love my first child less when my second came along, and – having seen them up close – my in-laws don’t love theirs less with each passing child. We should remember that only a few generations ago large families were the norm, and our grandparents seemed to be reasonably well-loved.

That many children are a burden on society.” Ok, in some cases (I’m thinking the “octomom”) this may be true. You shouldn’t have more kids than you can feed. But if you can feed your kids, if society is not paying for them, then the end result will be more taxpayers – hardly a burden on society. This is especially true given that most western countries have declining populations.

So many children are bad for the environment.” Another load of hooey. I don’t believe we’re anywhere near the planet’s sustainable population, and as our population has grown, so have our farming techniques and water purification ability. And large families learn to be more efficient in their use of resources simply because of costs.

You don’t need that many children.” And you don’t need an HD TV. Butt out.

(Have you heard any more? Would you leave them in the comments?)

Large families – specifically large numbers of children – divert resources away from mom and dad and toward the kids. People today cannot imagine having more than a couple of kids largely because they can’t imagine not being able to afford nice vacations, good restaurants, and boats. If our society learned to see children as a treasure rather than a burden, we’d all be better off.

But there is another side in this debate that goes too far. The first thinks it unconscionable that someone should have so many children; the other thinks it unconscionable that you don’t.

Why do you tell God how many kids you’re going to have?” Um, are you talking about the God described in the Bible? The all-powerful, sovereign Lord of the universe? God’s ability to send children is not hampered by barrenness or virginity. Birth control poses no problem for Him.

I’ve known people who struggled for years to have children and people who had children in spite of their birth control attempts. God is sovereign over both situations.

I think of it much like wearing a seatbelt. I get in my car and strap myself in, letting God know I’d like to make it to my destination alive. Whether I do or not is up to Him. Birth control is the same kind of thing.

In my case, God seems to have decided two is all we can handle. He’s probably right. Some He has seen fit to bless with seventeen, and some have been moved to adopt. In all cases God is in control and He is pleased by our attempts to raise our children – however many they may be, and whoever may have given birth to them – in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.
May the LORD make you increase, both you and your children.
May you be blessed by the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth. (Psalm 115:14-15)

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Can We Trust the Gospels? 0

The comments on the Objections to the Resurrection posts quickly became a disjointed mess largely because we were starting in the middle of the conversation. So I’d like to back up and start over.

Why should we believe what the Gospels tell us about Jesus? That is the fundamental question we have to answer before we approach the resurrection or any other topic relating to the life and ministry of Jesus.

To that end, I’d like to work through Mark D. Roberts’ Can We Trust the Gospels?

This book started on Roberts’ blog as a series of posts called Are the New Testament Gospels Reliable. If you’d like to read along with me, you can purchase the book or read the posts (though I have no idea how much has changed for the book).

Some preliminaries:

Mark D. Roberts received his Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard University. He has been a pastor and author and currently is senior director and “scholar-in-residence” at Laity Lodge.

In chapter one he recounts a bit of his journey through the skeptical halls of Harvard. Some professors tried more than others to be fair, but he found lots of challenges to his faith.

His faith survived, though, as he saw that the Bible wasn’t always treated fairly. He found that any differences between the Gospels were assumed to be a contradiction unless proven otherwise and that sometimes “academic consensus was built on the shifting sand of weak philosophy, peculiar methodology, and atheistic theology” (p16).

He also found that his professors rarely “entertained perspectives by scholars who didn’t share their naturalistic worldview” (p18) whereas students at more conservative seminaries were expected to engage opposing views.

Why bring this up? Because if he was thoroughly immersed in this skeptical environment, he probably has some reasonable insights into it. And if he survived this experience with his faith intact, there is reason to hope that he might have something useful to offer us about answering the skeptical objections that are so common in our culture.

To that end, Roberts takes a cautious approach to the evidence in this book. I remember when it first came out, he was taken to task by some for taking more liberal/skeptical positions on certain issues, but he explained that his goal was to use the evidence that was acceptable to most non-evangelical scholars for the purpose of appealing to the broadest audience – especially those who are, like he once was, steeped in “modern scholarship” and reeling from the blow to their faith.

He says,
“My basic point in this book is that if you look squarely at the facts as they are widely understood, and if you do not color them with pejorative bias or atheistic presuppositions, then you’ll find that it’s reasonable to trust the Gospels” (p20).
Let’s see if he can prove that, shall we?