Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Can We Trust the Gospels? 4

The Gospels: What, Why, and How?

Finally(!) getting back to Mark Roberts’ Can We Trust the Gospels?, we come to the question of the nature of the Gospels.

What are the New Testament Gospels?
Knowing the genre of the Gospels helps us interpret them correctly. They are not contemporary anythings – whether history, biography, or novel. We must use ancient categories or nothing at all.

Modern scholarship, Roberts says, has tended to view them as “Hellenistic biographies” – i.e., short biographies that focus on a particular part of the subject’s life that is deemed to exemplify certain virtues. They are not pure Hellenistic biographies, but that is the closest genre we know.

One characteristic of the Hellenistic biography that is useful to our discussion is the freedom of the biographer. Living in a time before tape recorders, no one expected a “quote” to be a perfect quotation. In fact, whole speeches could be manufactured based on a general outline of what the speaker actually covered. It’s said that ancient Greek had no quotation mark and saw no distinction between a quote (in the modern sense) and a paraphrase. This is something that should be considered when discussing the small variations in detail between the Gospels.

Roberts suggests the proof of this is that the early church took both Matthew and Mark to be authoritative even though they differed.

The Gospels, he tells us, give us the ipsissima vox (“his own voice”) rather than the ipsissima verba (“his own words”) of Jesus. His message can be communicated without using the exact words He used. We can consider the Gospels as reliable “sources of genuine knowledge of Jesus,” but we have to consider the intent and process of the Gospel writers in the endeavor.
“Naysayers who deride the reliability of the Gospels because of such things as verbal inconsistencies between the Gospels are making an error of anachronism. Their negativity is almost as silly as criticizing the Gospels for failing to include digital photographs of Jesus” (p92).
Of course this does raise questions about how we should approach ideas like “inspiration” and “inerrancy.” But we don’t need to do that now.

What Difference Does It Make That There are Four Gospels?
It is important that we have not one but four of these Hellenistic biographies.

In interpretation, the four help us get a fuller picture of the Christ they describe, but they serve an apologetic purpose too.

Even if Matthew and Luke truly are dependent on Mark, they do not contradict him. If they are not distinct sources, they certainly “second” his description. Though they do not agree on every detail, they paint the same picture. They did not take the opportunity to “correct the record,” so they at least support his story.

John, however, is certainly independent of Mark. For all the differences between John and the Synoptics, they tell essentially the same story. Roberts lists two pages of details that are common to all four Gospels (here available online); among them:
Jesus ministered during the time Pontius Pilate governed Judea. He was connected with, and His ministry superseded, John the Baptist who saw the Spirit descend on Jesus.

Jesus gathered students around him (as opposed to being sought out like normal Rabbis), and His followers included women (again, unlike normal Rabbis). He taught in the synagogues and was popular with the masses but often left the crowds for solitude.

Jesus had conflict with supernatural evil, used the title Son of Man, and saw His mission as leading to His death. He did many miracles of various sorts including nature miracles, multiplication of food, and raising the dead.

Jesus implied that He had a unique connection to God and referred to God as Father. He was misunderstood by almost everyone, including His disciples who abandoned or denied Him during His crucifixion in Jerusalem at Passover under Pilate with the cooperation of some Jewish leaders.

Jesus was raised from the dead on the first day of the week, and some of His women followers were the first witnesses.
This is the basic story to which four authors of the earliest church attest.

Are There Contradictions in the Gospels?
But beside that basic story, aren’t there lots of contradictory details in the different Gospels? There are certainly variations among the Gospels, but do those constitute contradictions?

Roberts deals with some of the different kinds of variations in the book, among them:

Chronology – Though we tend to arrange events chronologically, in an ancient Hellenistic biography, thematic arrangements were perfectly acceptable. Thus, one author could use a chronological arrangement and another thematic or both could use different thematic arrangements. Objecting to this is nothing more than expecting ancient writers to conform to our standards.

Conflicting theology – The differing theological emphases of the various Gospel writers cause them to highlight or even include different details. This does not necessarily constitute a contradiction.

Ancient quotations – In ancient literature, paraphrases and composite speeches (i.e., speeches manufactured from various quotes) were perfectly acceptable.

Roberts points the reader to Craig Blomberg’s Historical Reliability of the Gospels for a fuller treatment of this issue.

I would like to mention one thing Roberts does not bring up: Translation. The Gospels “happened” in Aramaic and were written in Greek. The problems of translating and transliterating between languages were the same then as they are now, and different authors may have handled various issues differently.

Roberts says, “Many of the apparent contradictions turn out to depend on superficial or rigid readings of the text” (p108) – a problem that can afflict both conservatives and liberals.

In light of all of this, the supposed contradictions either melt away or are revealed to be trivialities that were unimportant to ancient audiences.

Roberts suggests we think of the Gospels as paintings as opposed to photographs. Paintings may not be “’literal’ in the photographic sense,” but they can “capture a slice of reality that eludes the photographer” conveying “mood, feeling, and insight.” They can be “profoundly ‘true’ without being literalistic” (p111). In that light,
“If you had access to only one of the four Gospels, you would have a trustworthy picture of Jesus. It wouldn’t be as detailed or literal as a photograph. But you could trust it to reveal the truth about Jesus. With four Gospels, you’re able to see different things in Jesus and to know with greater accuracy what he was like” (p112).
Finally, Roberts points out that these difficulties with the Gospels are hardly new. They have been recognized from the beginning, and the early church chose to keep the Gospels messy with all the variations rather than trying to turn them into one picture.

“[T]here was no conspiracy in the early church to clean up the Gospels. The truth needed to be protected and preserved, even if it was messy” (p114).

Next time: Can the Gospels be theology and history?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Militant Pacifists

If a pacifist is someone who will not use violence, even to defend himself, a militant pacifist is someone who won’t let you, either.

Recently a group of Christian pacifists calling themselves the Bonhoeffer Four hid in a military training facility to prevent joint exercises between the US and Australian militaries. Their leader pointed out that Jesus calls us to be peace makers.

I have a hard time understanding how this makes peace. It’s far more likely to get someone killed.

More than that, though, I’m not sure how I feel about militant pacifism. Now, Christians are well known for thinking everyone should follow our moral code, but I think this is different.

When the issue is a universal moral – e.g., murder, stealing – I’m ok with saying you shouldn’t do it at all, ever. But pacifism is not like that.

Christian pacifists will generally explain their stance as one that honors Christ, that imitates His peacefulness, and that points toward His kingdom. It’s not a universal moral rule. Asking the unwilling, especially non-Christians, to become pacifists to honor Christ makes no sense.

That said, kudos to them for being willing to put it all on the line to make peace.

On the same day I ran across this story, I rented a movie that, surprisingly, reinforced some of those ideas.

**spoiler alert**
By now most people who are interested have probably already seen the latest Clint Eastwood movie Gran Torino. If not, you can stop reading now, though the movie’s worth seeing even if the twist at the end has been spoiled.

Short version: After bad people do bad things to someone he cares about, Clint Eastwood’s character decides to take matters into his own hands to make sure they are brought to justice.

Does he kill everyone within sight? That’s what I expected. No, he martyrs himself. He lays down his life to protect those he loves.

Justice is served, the innocent are protected, and the only person who dies is one who was willing to do it.

[end spoilers]

Though I question the actions of the “Bonhoeffer Four,” I appreciate their willingness to live out what they believe. It’s not easy to do. We all fail to do it every day in ways that wouldn’t really cost us that much. These guys are going to go to jail.

May we all be as committed to our Master’s commands. May we all be as be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves and, much like Eastwood’s character, be creative in finding ways to do the right thing no matter the cost.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Spirituality During the Flow

Everyone’s life has its ebbs and flows. Some days you’re desperate for something to do, and some days you feel like you’re trying to drink out of a fire hose.

It’s been the fire hose for me for a while. We’ve been short-handed at work for months, and when the new guy finally arrived, a project came up that has had to consume pretty much all of my time.

When you truly have no free time, how do you handle devotions?

I’m not sure if there are solid right and wrong answers, but if there are, I’ve probably gotten a few things wrong. Still, this is how I have approached the question.

No Guilt
First, if there is anyone who really knows how terribly busy you are, who knows that you’re burning the candle at both ends, that you’re desperate just to catch your breath, it’s God. And if there is anything we should know we will receive from our Father in heaven, it is compassion and understanding.

Second, it’s not all about you and your devotions. You need God, but there may be people – your spouse, your kids – who need you. If you really only have two minutes, they’ll probably be best spent giving your spouse a kiss and looking that latest thing your kids have colored, listening to their stories, or however they need you to give them some attention. Part of our spiritual life is how we take care of our families. If you’re neglecting (important word choice!) your kids to pray, you’re not pleasing God.

Third, when you’re spent, you’re spent. When you’ve finally got that one minute of time, if your eyes won’t focus on a page, if a Bible will be no more meaningful than the phonebook, you’ll simply be wasting time you could have better used elsewhere by ignoring that and trying to read the scriptures. It’s better to apply that time and energy where it can be meaningfully used – even when that’s watching Dora the Explorer with a three-year-old.

Fourth, you can keep the evangelical imperative on scripture reading in perspective by remembering this one fact: For hundreds of years, few Christians had their own Bible. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take advantage of the easy availability of Bibles today. We have a precious gift past generations could only dream of, but not reading your Bible every day is not a sin – it was once an impossibility.

(Am I completely off base here?)

No Waste
However, we can probably recover countless little spans of time during the day that can be claimed for devotional use.

Pray on autopilot. Time you’re engaged in something that doesn’t require your full attention is a great time to pray. I’m not saying that it is good to make that your only prayer time in your life, but short term (even long term) that can be a good use of those empty times when you don’t need to think about other things. Time in the shower, brushing teeth, or in light traffic can be put to good use even by those who aren’t ridiculously busy.

Listen in the silence. If you’re not listening to something pressing, and, again, if you don’t need to concentrate, you can also use quiet moments to listen to the Bible on audio. On your commute, on the treadmill, and at work (if your duties allow), you can listen the Bible (and sermons and audio books) to better use those moments.

Sneak a peak. No matter how busy you are, you still have to wait in line at the grocery store. A little Bible in your pocket/purse or on your smartphone/PDA can turn a two minute wait into a chance to read a passage or work on memorizing a verse (which you can meditate on in other quiet moments).

Devotional tunes. Do you normally read a daily devotional? Good worship music (i.e., theologically solid, meaningful hymns or worship songs) is really just a devotional set to music. Listen (or sing along) to a song, hit pause, and ponder. Isaac Watts is just as good as Oswald Chambers. Chris Tomlin can be too.

(Did I forget anything?)

Not for the Long Haul
No, you can’t live off this long-term. But it can help you keep going for a while.

One of the things I’ve learned during my wife’s obsession with survival shows is that even a few bites of food can give you some much needed energy. It can steady your hand and help you focus on the immediate task.

And when the crisis is over, you can feast.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Christ’s Model of Humility

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,

Who, being in very nature God,
made himself nothing,

Who, being in very nature God,
[took] the very nature of a servant,

Who, being in very nature God,
[was] made in human likeness.

Who, being in very nature God,
humbled himself

Who, being in very nature God,
became obedient to death— even death on a cross!