threw the first handful on the coffin, and then we all done the same.
Black dirt. Just like the coal. There we were, throwin’ dirt in our
Sunday best, just come from church. After that, the boys from down
the hill started in with the shovels, and by God, Pop was all covered
up in no more than fifteen minutes. Smellin’ that dirt set me
coughin’ and hackin’. Up come some slime and I spit it out, black
too, drippin’ and slimin’ down the grass blades, all thick and slow.
I remember the day I come home and told Pop school wasn’t for me. Too much readin’ and writin’, too much talkin’ and thinkin’. I wasn’t fifteen, but I’d had enough of it to know. What I wanted, I told him, was to work in the mine, to pull out the coal, to do a man’s job. Sittin’ in a chair all day, staring at some woman scribblin’ on a chalkboard, everyone talk, talk, talkin’. No sir, wasn’t for me. I got the fever for that coal, I says to him, standin’ over him, tall and proud, him sittin’ there on the porch, in his rockin’ chair, black dust from the day still in the cracks of his face, under his eyes, between his mouth and his cheeks. Wanna be like my Pop, I told him.
In recent posts (e.g., here and here), I’ve been writing about the authorship of the Gospels, and the degree to which Gospel content may be traced back to eyewitnesses of Jesus.
The point of the work has been to counter Bart Ehrman’s view (in How Jesus Became God, pp. 90-91) that the authors of the Gospels were not eyewitnesses or close disciples of eyewitnesses (as traditionally claimed) but rather were Christians of a later generation, whose writings are thereby less historically reliable. I have resisted Ehrman’s view and claimed that, in fact, there is decent (though perhaps not conclusive) evidence for the traditional view.
Mind the Gap
However, even if I’m right, there is still a problem for the historicity of the Gospels, namely the gap between the time of Jesus’s ministry and the writing of the Gospels.
For example, if we assume that Jesus died around 30 CE, then the time between his ministry (late 20s CE) and the composition of Mark (late 60s or early 70s CE), is at least 40 years. Given the apparent reliance of Matthew and Luke upon Mark (discussed in this post), those two Gospels would entail an even longer gap—maybe 50 years. The Gospel according to John is thought to have been written in the 90s CE, suggesting a still longer gap for that Gospel.
Scholars generally agree that during this in-between period the stories and teachings in the Gospels would have been passed on orally. Ehrman claims that such oral transmission would be unreliable, leading to distortions that further call into question the historicity of the Gospels. Continue reading →
Lately, I’ve been thinking about what, exactly, the message of the gospel is. Of course, the term ‘gospel’ means “good news.” The puzzle for me is that, at least the way it is often presented by Christians, the gospel is not obviously good news.
This typical version of the gospel focuses on Good Friday: Jesus died on the cross, taking upon himself God’s judgment and punishment for human sin, so that we sinful humans could be spared and forgiven by God. According to this “Good Friday gospel,” the good news is that we humans have been given a second chance, that God has forgiven us.
Good News, Bad News
But, while it is clearly good news to escape the judgment of God and be forgiven our sins, to accept this as good news we must first swallow a huge piece of bad news—namely that our sins are such that we deserve death (after all, Jesus died for us) and that we require God’s forgiveness. So, at best, this Good Friday gospel is “mixed news.” Continue reading →
In this post I conclude my case for the traditional view that the author of the Gospel according to Matthew (“Matthew,” or the “first Gospel”) was one of the original Jewish disciples of Jesus, namely “Levi” or “Matthew,” the tax collector, mentioned in Matthew 9:9 and 10:3, Mark 3:18, Luke 6:15, and Acts 1:13.
The aim of my case is to respond to Bart Ehrman’s claim in How Jesus Became God that the Gospels were composed by Christians “of a later generation” who wrote after (or almost after) Jesus’s original disciples had died, thereby casting doubt on the link between the Gospel accounts and the historical Jesus.
In my last post, I laid out internal and external evidence for the traditional view of the authorship of Matthew. In this post, I will respond to some popular objections to that view.
Would Matthew Rely on Mark?
As I recently described in this post, the most widely held view of how the three synoptic Gospels were composed—the Four-Source theory—claims that the author of Matthew used Mark as his most significant source in composing the first Gospel. To some scholars, this fact suggests an objection to the traditional view that Matthew was composed by one of Jesus’s original Jewish disciples.
According to this objection, if the author of the first Gospel were really Jesus’s original disciple, Matthew, it seems he would not have chosen to rely on the Gospel of Mark since, according to the traditional view, the author of Mark was not an eyewitness to Jesus’s ministry while the disciple Matthew was. Wouldn’t Matthew prefer his own eyewitness account to the account of a non-eyewitness? Continue reading →
Last time, I looked at the going theory of how the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) were composed. I did this to lay some groundwork for my continuing multi-post response to some of the skeptical claims Bart Erhman makes in How Jesus Became God. Specifically, in this series I aim to answer his skepticism about traditional views of the authorship of the four Gospels of the New Testament.
Ehrman thinks the Gospels were composed by Christians “of a later generation” who wrote after (or almost after) Jesus’s original disciples had died, thereby casting doubt on the connection between the Gospel accounts and the historical Jesus.
In contrast, I think there are good reasons to believe traditional accounts according to which the Gospels were composed by original disciples of Jesus or those close to them. I’ve already argued this point for Mark. Today, I’ll begin to argue it for Matthew. (It will take me two posts to complete the argument.)
As for my examination of Mark’s authorship, I won’t try to definitively settle the question of who wrote Matthew; given the nature of the evidence, I’m not sure that’s even possible. Rather, I’ll just try to show the plausibility of the traditional view.
The Gospel according to Matthew was written anonymously—the author nowhere references himself or herself in the document. However, the style and content of the Gospel give us some clues about the author. Continue reading →
Do the four Gospels of the New Testament accurately represent the historical ministry of Jesus? The case that they do would seem more plausible if the Gospels were authored by eyewitnesses of Jesus’s ministry, or at least by those closely connected to them.
The traditional view is that, in fact, the Gospels’ were authored by such people. As I suggested in my last post, it seems plausible to attribute the Gospel according to Mark (“Mark”) to a close associate of the Apostle Peter. Similarly, traditionalists hold that the Gospel according to Matthew (“Matthew”, or the “first Gospel”) was composed by one of Jesus’s original disciples, Matthew the tax collector, mentioned in Matthew 9:9 and 10:3, Mark 3:18, Luke 6:15, and Acts 1:13.
In chapter 3 of How Jesus Became God, Bart Ehrman rejects this traditional view. He claims that the authors of the Gospels were Christians “of a later generation” who wrote after (or almost after) Jesus’s original disciples had died, thereby casting doubt on the connection between the Gospel accounts and the historical Jesus.
In this post, I continue a series in which I respond to Ehrman’s skeptical claims. (If you’d like to read from the beginning, the series starts here.) In my next post, I plan to defend the traditional view of the authorship of Matthew.
However, first I need to lay a little groundwork by explaining the dominant view of the literary relationships between the canonical Gospels, which I will do in this post. The Gospels are very similar in many ways, and yet they are so different…How should we explain those facts? Continue reading →
Basilica di San Marco, Venice. Photo credit: Ricardo André Frantz, 2005.
According to the traditional view, the four Gospels in the New Testament—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (the “canonical” Gospels)—were written either by eyewitnesses to Jesus’s ministry or by those closely connected with eyewitnesses. For example, on the traditional view the Gospel according to Mark (“Mark” or the “second Gospel”) was written by a personal secretary to the Apostle Peter—one of Jesus’s original disciples.
In Chapter 3 of How Jesus Became God, Bart Ehrman raises doubts about this traditional view. As I noted in my last post, Ehrman argues that the authors of the Gospels were Christians “of a later generation” who wrote after (or almost after) Jesus’s original disciples had died. But, if the authors of the Gospels were not closely connected to Jesus or his disciples in time and space, as Ehrman suggests, then it looks less plausible to attribute the content of the Gospels to the historical Jesus.
In this post I will begin responding to Ehrman’s argument about the authorship of the Gospels by considering who wrote Mark. Continue reading →
The Four Evangelists, by Jacob Jordaens (Louvre Museum)
In Chapter 3 of How Jesus Became God, Bart Ehrman begins with a story from his days as a student at Moody Bible Institute in the 1970s. He tells how, as part of the practical Christian ministry component of his education, he served as a youth pastor at a church in a suburb of Chicago and developed a close mentoring relationship with the senior pastor there.
At that time, Moody was a bastion of Christian Fundamentalism—a late-19th- and 20th-century reaction to liberal currents in Protestant theology. Protestant liberals sought to adapt their theology to developments in the sciences and social sciences, including critical historical analysis of the Bible and evolutionary theory. Fundamentalists rejected this adaptation in favor of biblical literalism and an affirmation of the inerrancy of the Bible.
After his Fundamentalist beginnings, Ehrman pursued advanced degrees at Princeton Theological Seminary. He recounts how, during those studies, he came to doubt some of the central tenets of orthodox Christian theology, including the divinity of Jesus. He was impressed by the fact that Jesus is only rarely referred to as divine in the New Testament, and that Jesus only ever refers to himself as divine in the Gospel of John—the historicity of which is often viewed as dubious.
While wrestling with these doubts, he returned to Chicago to visit his former pastor, in the hope of receiving some guidance. The pastor responded by encouraging him to “hold on to the basics,” and by quoting Jesus’s claim in the Gospel of John, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Ehrman responded, “But what if Jesus never said that?” Continue reading →
During the struggle for the abolition of slavery and the slave trade in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the New Testament letter to Philemon was used by slaveholders and slave traders to justify their wicked practices (Thompson).
Sometime in the middle of the first century, the apostle Paul sent the letter to Philemon, a wealthy Christian slaveholder who hosted a church at his house in Colossae. The occasion for the letter was Paul’s encounter with Philemon’s slave, Onesimus, who had run away from Philemon, found Paul in prison, and become a Christian under Paul’s influence. Paul sent both Onesimus and the letter to Philemon to persuade him to welcome Onesimus generously and not harshly: “welcome him as you would welcome me,” Paul writes in verse 17.
The “Traditional” Reading
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, those who claimed to be Christians and favored slavery saw in the letter scriptural evidence that Paul did not object to slavery, and thus justification for their continued practice of it. On this “traditional” reading, Paul is concerned that he has been harboring a slave who has done something illegal according to Roman law (running away), and thus Paul is motivated by a legal obligation to send Onesimus back.
If this account is correct, then Paul felt some obligation to uphold the institution of slavery, indicating that he did not see it as wrong. Continue reading →
I recently got a spammy chain-letter-style Facebook message from a professing Christian with whom my only contact has ever been on social media. The message seemed to have been sent to his entire list of “friends”. Among other things, the message complained we have excluded God from our schools by banning prayer, and that events like school shootings and terrorist attacks are the result: God is a “gentleman,” said the message, so God will step out of the way, withholding his protection, if we ask God to.
The message was not the first time I’ve encountered this kind of position, and not the first time I’ve been bugged by it. There were too many troubling claims in the message to tackle all at once, so I thought, today, I’d address the question of prayer at school.