Book Review: ‘The Case for Miracles’ by Lee Strobel, part 6

“For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:16-19, NRSV).


To view all posts in this review series, please go to its index.

Strobel’s volume has taken us on a journey beginning with skepticism (a la Michael Shermer) all the way to a consideration of the fine-tuning of the universe (a la Michael Strauss). And now we come to what is perhaps the most important miracle in all of Christianity: the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. To discuss such a pivotal event, Strobel interviews J. Warner Wallace, a homicide detective turned pop-apologist.

INTERVIEW #6 – J WARNER WALLACE

Wallace is no doubt familiar to many Christians and non-Christians due to his books which include Cold-Case Christianity and God’s Crime Scene. His work in law-enforcement has left him with the impression that he is qualified to rigorously examine the Gospels of the New Testament to check their validity. And his claim of a youthful atheism gives him a degree of “street cred” with the apologetic community. Beginning at age thirty-five, Wallace “subjected the gospels to months of painstaking analysis through various investigative techniques, including what detectives call ‘forensic statement analysis'” (190). His investigation led him to the conclusion that “Christianity is true beyond a reasonable doubt” (190).

Examining the Gospels

As Strobel begins his interview with Wallace he is given a Bible that Wallace had marked up during his investigation of Christianity. “I went to the gospel of Mark,” Strobel writes, “and saw that it was thoroughly annotated” (193). According to Wallace, he used forensic statement analysis to analyze the Gospels and with regard to Mark’s Gospel he “was looking for the influence of Peter” (193). The examination of the Gospel accounts took six months and at the end Wallace concluded that “the gospels recorded true events” (193).

“But that presented a problem for me.”

“Why?”

“Because they talk about the resurrection and other miracles,” he said. “I could believe the gospels if they said Jesus ate bread, but what if they said the loaf levitated? C’mon, I couldn’t believe that. I didn’t believe miracles could happen, so I rejected them out of hand.” (193)

But Wallace was able to do away with his anti-supernaturalism by simply considering the origin of the universe and the existence of absolute moral values. With that removed, it became far easier to believe that a dead man came back to life.

Wallace notes that he tested the Gospels “through the analysis of eyewitness testimony” (196) and asserts that each of the Gospels have eyewitness testimony standing behind them in one way or another.

“There’s good evidence that John and Matthew wrote their gospels based on their eyewitness testimony as disciples of Jesus. While Luke wasn’t a witness himself, he said he ‘carefully investigated everything from the beginning,’ presumably by interviewing eyewitnesses. According to Papias, who was the bishop of Hierapolis, Mark was the scribe of the apostle Peter – and my forensic analysis of Mark’s gospel bears that out.” (196)

In addition, the Gospels were all written relatively early which means they are reliable. “I’ve seen witnesses in cold cases say their memories from thirty-five years ago are like it happened yesterday – why? Because not all memories are created the same,” Wallace tells Strobel (197). We may forget some dates but others stick out more than others and that is apparently what we find recorded in the Gospels.

Strobel asks Wallace what he thinks about the discrepancies between the Gospel accounts. “[D]on’t they cast doubt on the reliability of the eyewitness testimony?” he asks (198). Wallace doesn’t think so. Rather, if they were all in absolute agreement we would have grounds for suspicion. If the Gospels “meshed too perfectly, it would be evidence of collusion” (198).

“Think of this: the early believers could have destroyed all but one of the gospels in order to eliminate any differences between them. But they didn’t. Why? Because they knew the gospels were true and that they told the story from different perspectives, emphasizing different things.” (198)

Recalling the work of Michael Licona in his book Why Are There Differences Among the Gospels?1 Strobel notes that when it comes to the various discrepancies in the Easter stories it seems that the authors are using a technique known as “literary” spotlighting whereby

an author focuses attention on a person so that the person’s involvement in a scene is clearly described, whereas mention of others who were likewise involved is neglected, the author has shined his literary spotlight on that person….In literary spotlighting, the author only mentions one of the people present but knows of the others.2

And there is also the phenomenon of “undesigned coincidences” when independent eyewitnesses offer details that explain other independent eyewitnesses. Wallace offers the calling narratives in Matthew and Luke as evidence of such a coincidence with the latter answering the question as to why Peter, Andrew, James, and John so quickly abandoned their livelihoods in the former. “When the testimony is put together,” he tells Strobel, “we get a complete picture” (201).

Wallace comes to the conclusion that the Gospels are reliable and if they are reliable then it means that Jesus must have been raised from the dead. But there are two issues that must be addressed before coming to a sure conclusion on Jesus’ resurrection: the death of Jesus and the appearances of the risen Jesus to the disciples. Doing away with various hypotheses of Jesus not dying upon a Roman cross, Wallace concludes that the crucifixion of Jesus and his death upon the cross is “virtually unanimously accepted” by scholars (204). He also does away with any notion that Jesus was not buried in a tomb following his death, a claim made by some scholars including historian Bart Ehrman,3 or that there was some conspiracy among the disciples to steal Jesus’ corpse or lie about it. In fact, it is surprising to Wallace that the disciples were willing to die for their belief in a resurrected Jesus.

“[T]hey had no motive to be deceitful. In fact, we have at least seven ancient sources that tell us that the  disciples were willing to suffer and even die for their conviction that they encountered the risen Jesus.” (206)

Why would they die for something they knew to be false? Of course not. “They knew the truth about what occurred,” Wallace tells Strobel, “and my experience is that people aren’t willing to suffer or die for what they know is a lie” (206). Wallace also dispels the idea that the disciples hallucinated a risen Jesus, telling Strobel that “groups don’t have hallucinations, and the earliest report of the resurrection said five hundred people saw him” (207). Furthermore, the person who was the least likely to have a hallucination of Jesus was the apostle Paul yet he records that he was the recipient of just such a visit by the risen Jesus (207).

What does this add up to for Wallace? It is all evidence against philosophical naturalism and for supernaturalism. Since “the gospels passed all the tests we use to evaluate eyewitness accounts” it forced him to believe that Jesus had indeed been raised by God from the dead (208).

“The more I understood the true nature of Jesus, the more my true nature was exposed – and I didn’t like what I saw. Being a cop had led me to lose faith in people. My heart had shriveled. To me, everyone was a liar capable of depraved behavior. I saw myself as superior to everyone else. I was cynical, cocky, and distant.” (208)

But Wallace’s faith in Jesus changed him into something altogether different.

Before ending their time together, Strobel asks a question that Michael Shermer asked him during his interview: why don’t the Jewish people accept the idea of resurrection? Wallace offers Strobel three reasons. First, they feel they are too smart for it. Second, there are emotional issues having to do with conversion from Judaism to Christianity. Finally, they are proud of their following of the Torah (209). “Humans love works-based systems because they can measure their progress and compare themselves favorably with others,” Wallace said (209). But a true investigation into the claims of Christianity reveals that Jesus did indeed rise from the grave in Wallace’s estimation. And some Jews have discovered just that (210).

Wallace’s Assumptions

It should go without saying that Wallace’s take is devoid of any serious scholarship. Wallace himself is nothing more than a pop-apologist who seems to think his experience in law enforcement has made him something of an expert on the New Testament. Consider his claim that he used “forensic statement analysis” on the Gospel of Mark (193). Forensic statement analysis examines the language a person uses to determine their proximity to an event. One law-enforcement consultant agency describes it as

a process by which a person’s own written or spoken words are scientifically analyzed to determine truth and deception. Given the opportunity a person’s words WILL betray them, in spite of their prior training, education and best efforts to avoid detection.4

But this rests on the assumption that a person is an eyewitness to something. This is simply not what we find in the Gospel of Mark. Nowhere do we ever get the impression in Mark’s Gospel that his account is either that of an eyewitness or even based upon eyewitness testimony. As Luke Timothy Johnson observes,

The current favor accorded Mark began with pioneering literary-redactional studies. They showed that Mark’s peculiar emphasis on Galilee (esp. 14:28; 15:41; 16:7) was a theological symbol. Likewise, Mark’s anachronistic use of the term “gospel,” euangelion, revealed a self-conscious awareness of the multilayered theological nature of his narrative (see 1:1, 14, 15; 8:35; 10:29; 13:10; 14:9). As a result, Mark’s Gospel was seen less as a direct witness to the life of Jesus or to the period of oral transmission than as a witness to the Christian communities of Mark’s day.5

We must also note the literary artistry the Markan author used when composing his Gospel. For example, we find throughout Mark intercalations or “sandwich stories” wherein the author begins a story, interrupts it with another, and finishes the story that he had begun. Such a technique “serves to create suspense and also either to contrast one narrative with another…or to interpret one narrative by another.”6 We also find chiastic patterns, triads, and much more.7 In other words, Mark is trying to tell a story. No doubt, it is a story in which he finds meaning and even truth but it is a carefully constructed story nonetheless and it cannot be considered “historical” in any modern sense of the word.

A Test Case on Eyewitness Testimony

We can put his claim that the Gospels were based on eyewitness testimony to the test. Consider the Markan and Johannine Passion narratives. In the Gospel of Mark, heavy emphasis is placed on the fact that Jesus had been abandoned by his followers. Not only does he predict it will happen (Mark 14:27-31) but it becomes part of the narrative itself when Jesus is arrested at Gethsemane (14:50-52) so that when he is crucified he is utterly alone with only his female followers “looking on from a distance” (15:40). But not so in the Gospel of John. While Jesus does predict that the disciples will desert him (John 16:32), at the crucifixion “the disciple whom he loved” is there are the foot of the cross with Jesus’ mother (19:26-27). If Mark’s account is based upon Peter and John’s account on John, how could they get this all so wrong? Was Jesus all alone as in Mark or was “the disciple whom he loved” present as in John?

And on what basis does Wallace make the assertion that in Mark’s Gospel “Mark’s first and last mention of a disciple is Peter, which is an ancient bookending technique where a piece of history is attributed to a particular eyewitness” (196). Why should that be the case? All such an inclusio would suggest is that Peter plays an important role in the narrative of the Gospel, which he does. To assert that this means Peter was behind the Markan narrative is a non sequitur. It may also show Petrine importance in the Markan community, i.e. that he was a known leader of great importance. Again, there is no need to assert then that Peter is behind it all.

Gospel Discrepancies

Wallace thinks that if the Gospels had “meshed too perfectly, it would be evidence of collusion” (198). That is ironic considering that over ninety percent of Mark’s Gospel is reproduced in Matthew’s. If that isn’t collusion I don’t know what it is. But the discrepancies between the Gospel of Mark and Matthew at times reveal their two differing agendas. For example, the Markan Jesus forbids divorce (Mark 10:1-12) despite the allowances made in the Torah. But in Matthew’s redaction of Mark, there is no total prohibition of divorce but rather an exception in keeping with the Torah (Matthew 19:1-19). This is because Matthew’s Jesus didn’t come to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17-18). But the Markan Jesus, though an observant Jew, feels to free to do away with some of the Torah’s demands (see Mark 7:19) so that Gentiles need not follow the law.

What About the Resurrection?

Yet none of this means that Jesus did not rise from the grave. It does mean that getting to whatever historical event that lies behind the resurrection narratives of the Gospels requires peeling back layers of tradition and literary elements. This is what Wallace fails to appreciate or even acknowledge. The Gospels are not impassioned retellings of what really happened but rather they are stories about what those events meant. Often they are based on nothing more than a block of tradition whose origin can hardly be traced. Were they based upon an actual resurrection? Or were they based upon visions of a risen Jesus? Or both? Or neither?

Whatever the case might be, if it did happen, the resurrection of Jesus would be undoubtedly a miracle that would cause even the most ardent skeptic to sit up and take notice. Or at least it would me. Yet nothing in Strobel’s interview of Wallace gave me pause to consider that Jesus is alive.

I suppose pop-apologetics just doesn’t do it for me.

NOTES

1 Michael R. Licona, Why Are There Differences Among the Gospels? What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography (Oxford University Press, 2017).

2 Ibid., 20.

3 Bart D. Ehrman, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (HarperOne, 2014), 157. Ehrman writes,

The point of crucifixion was to torture and humiliate a person as fully as possible, and to show any bystanders what happens to someone who is a troublemaker in the eyes of Rome. Part of the humiliation and degradation was the body being left on the cross after death to be subject to scavenging animals.

Ehrman doubts the burial story of Jesus for a couple of other reasons as well: criminals were generally tossed into common graves and Pontius Pilate wasn’t known to be all that accommodating a prefect. See pages 160-164.

4 Forensic Statement Analysis,” law-tech.net. Accessed 6 February 2019.

5 Luke Timothy Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation (Kindle), third edition (Fortress Press, 2010), loc 3334.

6 John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Sacra Pagina vol. 2 (The Liturgical Press, 2002), 18.

7 See ibid., 16-19.

The Weekly Roundup – 2.15.19

“Slavery is part of the cultural fabric of the world that produced the Scriptures. Though some debate whether servitude or even debt-slavery should be used to describe the institution instead, the presumption of right to sexual access marks Hagar’s status as enslaved.” – Wil Gafney

  • Chris Hansen has another post in his series covering J. Warner Wallace’s Cold-Case Christianity. In this post, Hansen addresses the common pop-apologetic non sequitur that because the New Testament authors got some details correct (i.e. place names, historical figures) that therefore they are correct on the details of Jesus’ life and ministry and therefore Jesus was really raised from the dead. The sarcasm and snark in Hansen’s review had me chuckling a number of times. It is well worth your time for that alone!
  • Mark Goodacre, an accomplished New Testament scholar, has written a couple of posts over Bart Ehrman’s blog on the subject of “editorial fatigue.” Well, it is really from Goodacre’s book The Synoptic Problem: A Way Through the Maze which Goodacre allowed Ehrman to post on his blog. The first post describes what it is and offers an example from the Gospel of Matthew that shows that he was no doubt working from the Gospel of Mark. The second post offers examples from the Gospel of Luke which also shows the Lukan author was working from the Gospel of Mark.
  • Biblical scholar Wil Gafney wrote an entry on Hagar over at bibleodyssey.org. In it she discusses the meaning of Hagar’s name (i.e. “the alien”) and how Hagar’s story relates to the main focus of those texts wherein she appears. Hagar, as Gafney points out, is a sex slave who is used by Abraham to produce an heir and then despised by Sarah for it. She’s a means to an end and nothing more. But Gafney calls on us to think about Hagar more just as she did in her book Womanist Midrash (WJK, 2017).
  • Back in August an interview with Elaine Pagels – an amazing scholar whose expertise on Gnosticism is world renown – appeared on the Religion News Service website. In it she discusses the loss of her husband and son, her experience of sexual assault while a graduate student, and her most recent book Why Religion? A Personal Story (HarperCollins, 2018).
  • Last week I highlighted some of the recent episodes of the Mira Scriptura podcast. I was finally able to get through the rest of those episodes this week.
    • Episode 24 covers the story of Ahab and Obadiah. In the accompanying blog post, @MiraScriptura suggests that the opposing narrative had Obadiah – Ahab’s chief-of-staff so to speak –  at odds with Elijah the prophet. The opposing narrative had Obadiah as someone else’s chief-of-staff and so the conflict becomes one of us (Israel) vs. them. @MiraScriptura also goes into the famous contest between the prophets of Baal and Elijah.
    • Episode 25 covers the story of the leper NaamanThis episode is my favorite of this series. @MiraScriptura thinks that the opposing narrative held that Naaman wasn’t a leper and that the reference to his “flesh” was to his child. The biblical text makes the child into a “little maid” that belonged to Naaman.
    • Episode 26 covers the narrative concerning Elisha at DothanWho was spying for whom? Was Elisha working for the king of Syria or was he always faithful to Israel? The narratives differ.
    • Episode 27 covers the Ben-Hadad prophecyAgain at issue is for whom Elisha was working: Israel or Syria?
    • Episode 28 covers the death of Elisha. The biblical narrative is fascinating on its own terms (especially 2 Kings 13:20-21). The opposing narrative per @MiraScriptura has Elisha’s death be the end of him. Yet the biblical text has Elisha performing a miracle even though he’s dead.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

Book Review: ‘The Case for Miracles’ by Lee Strobel, part 5a

In part one of my review of Lee Strobel’s The Case for Miracles I covered chapters 1-3, a section featuring Strobel’s interview of the skeptic Michael Shermer. In part two I covered chapters 4-6 featuring his interview with Craig Keener. In part three I covered chapter 7 which featured an interview Strobel had with Candy Gunther Brown of Indiana University. In part four I covered chapter 8 featuring his interview with missionary Tom Doyle. Strobel’s fifth interview is with Michael Strauss and covers chapters 9-10. I will cover chapter 9 today.

To view all posts in this review series, please go to its index.

INTERVIEW #5a – MICHAEL STRAUSS 

In his book Just Six Numbers physicist Martin Rees details how if six cosmic parameters were different than what their values are that the universe (and life) as we know it would cease to exist. Reese wrote that the “six numbers constitute a ‘recipe’ for a universe. Moreover, the outcome is sensitive to their values: if any one of them were to be ‘untuned’, there would be no stars and no life.”This is staggering and astonishing. I had first read this book as an evangelical Christian working as a youth director for a small Presbyterian church. So when I read what Rees said next, I was a bit disheartened: “Is this tuning just a brute fact, a coincidence? Or is it that providence of a benign Creator? I take the view that it is neither.”2 In the margin, next to that final sentence, I wrote the word “tragic.”

Rees’ proposal was that the universe was one of a vast number of universes that exist, each with different values for the six numbers so important to life as we know it. Some universes may be like ours while others would be empty of life entirely. It is like playing Russian Roulette but instead of a bullet in one of the chambers you have a cosmic parameter set with a value that prohibits the universe in which we live. One squeeze and it could all be over.

Creation Ex Nihilo

For Christians, the universe is not part of a multiversebut is instead a world intentionally created by the God of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. From the very first verse of the Bible it is clear that the universe was God’s doing. As Strobel writes,

[C]reating an actual universe from nothing, while fine-tuning it to provide a flourishing habitat for human beings, is a primary job description of God – at least, if the very first verse in the Bible is true: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (Strobel, 163-164)

And so chapters 9-10 of The Case for Miracles feature an interview Strobel had with physicist Michael Strauss. Chapter 9 deals with the subject of creation ex nihilo and chapter 10 deals with the topic of fine-tuning.

One of the most important discoveries of the twentieth century is that the universe expanding. This meant that we could extrapolate back in time to a moment when all the material of the universe was condensed into a single point. As Carl Sagan so eloquently stated it,

All the matter and energy now in the universe was concentrated at extremely high density – a kind of cosmic egg, reminiscent of the creation myths of many cultures – perhaps into a mathematical point with no dimensions at all. It was not that all the matter and energy were squeezed into a minor corner of the present universe; rather, the entire universe, matter and energy and the space they fill, occupied a very small volume. There was not much room for events to happen in.4 

But the universe as we know it is no longer a “cosmic egg.” It is a humongous place with a diameter of over ninety billion light-years. So how did the universe go from an infinitesimally small egg to a monstrous cosmos? The answer is: the Big Bang.

Kalam

The Big Bang theory is one of the best attested scientific models in cosmology if not all of science. So it is no surprise that many Christians have latched onto the theory as evidence for God’s existence. One argument employed by Christian philosophers and apologists is known as the “Kalam Cosmological Argument.” Its most ardent defender and popularizer today is Christian philosopher William Lane Craig.5 The argument is simple enough:

  • Premise 1: Whatever begins to exist has a cause for its existence.
  • Premise 2: The universe began to exist.
  • Conclusion: Therefore, the universe has a cause for its existence.

In his interview with Strauss, Strobel asks the physicist what he thinks of the Kalam cosmological argument. Strauss replies,

It’s extremely strong….Think about it: Is there anything that comes into existence without a cause behind it? Some scientists say there may be uncaused quantum events, but I think there are good reasons to be skeptical about that. And we know from the evidence that the universe did come into existence. If those two premises of the argument are true, then the conclusion inexorably follows: the universe has a cause. (Strobel, 172)

It is not my intention to dissect Kalam here. Both premises 1 and 2 above have been contested by philosophers and scientists.6 But I do want to ask the question as to whether the text of Genesis supports Kalam. The answer is a resounding “No!”

“In the beginning…”

Most of us are familiar with the rendering of Genesis 1:1 in the King James Version: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” Other translations generally follow suit with minor modifications.7 And then there are still others with very different readings. Here are three:

  • NRSV – “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth….”
  • JPS – “When God began to create heaven and earth….”
  • Robert Alter – “When God began to create heaven and earth….”8

What is going on? Why do the KJV and many modern translations read one way and the NRSV, JPS, and Robert Alter’s translation read another?

It boils down to whether Genesis 1:1 is a dependent or independent clause. The KJV and others see it as an independent main clause that is either a summary of the six days of creation9 or as the first of God’s creative acts.10 The NRSV, JPS, and Alter translations see Genesis 1:1 as a dependent temporal clause that modifies the main clause that comes in Genesis 1:3 with the words “God said, ‘Let there be light…’.” A note in the HarperCollins Study Bible reads,

The grammar of this temporal clause was clarified by the medieval Jewish commentator Rashi, who noted that the Hebrew word for “beginning” (reshit) requires a dependent relation – it is the beginning of” something – and can be followed by a verb. The traditional rendering, “In the beginning, God created,” dates to the Hellenistic period (as in the Septuagint), when these details of Hebrew grammar had been forgotten.11 

So then does 1:2 fit in with the context? It would have to be a kind of disjunctive clause, offering the reader background for what transpires in verse 3. Elohim takes the “formless void” of the earth and begins to bring structure and order to it. But it is clear that in so doing he is using material already in existence. Consider Robert Alter’s translation of Genesis 1:1-3a.

When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth then was welter and waste and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters, God said, “Let there be light.”12

Alter’s understanding of the passage brings to light what is going on in the text: God using material already present and bringing order to it. This is in many ways what the creation story of Genesis 1 is all about. And it fits with other ANE literature wherein the gods form the cosmos with material already present.13 

So the idea of creation ex nihilo upon which Kalam rests is absent from Genesis. That isn’t to say it is absent from the whole of the Bible. But it does mean that we cannot look to Genesis for support of the principle.14 

Next Time

In part 5 of my review of The Case for Miracles I will look at chapter 10 and Strauss’ views on fine-tuning.

NOTES

1 Martin Rees, Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape the Universe (Basic Books, 2000), 4.

2 Reese, 4.

3 As some have argued, even if there were multiple universes then it would still demand an explanation. Apologists Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek write,

[E]ven if other universes could exist, they would need fine-tuning to get started just as our universe did…. So positing multiple universes doesn’t eliminate the need for a Designer – it multiplies the need for a Designer!

See Geisler and Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (Crossway, 2004), 107.

4 Carl Sagan, Cosmos (Ballantine Books, 1980), 200.

5 See William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, third edition (Crossway, 2008), 111-156.

6 See Sean Carroll, The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself (Dutton, 2016), 199-201; Michael Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (Temple University Press, 1990), 101-106.

7 Most of the modern translations change the KJV “heaven” to “heavens,” reflecting that the Hebrew word shamayim is plural. And some (i.e. ESV) add a comma in between the prepositional phrase “In the beginning” and the clause “God created the heavens and the earth.”

8 Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary (W.W. Norton & Company, 2004), 17.

9 See Bruce Waltke with Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary (Zondervan, 2001), 58.

10 See John Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative: A Biblical-Theological Commentary (Zondervan, 1992), 82, n.2.

11 Ronald Hendel, “Genesis,” in Harold W. Attridge, general editor, The HarperCollins Study Bible (HarperOne, 2006), 5.

12 Alter, 17.

13 For example, see Epic of Creation as well as Theogony of Dunnu. Stephanie Dalley offers a word of warning:

[W]e cannot speak of ‘the Mesopotamian view of creation’ as a single, specific tradition, and this in turn shows the futility of claiming a direct connection between genesis as described in the Old Testament and any one Mesopotamian account of creation. (Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others [OUP, 1989], 278.)

14 Biblical scholar John Walton writes about creation ex nihilo, 

Some believe that Genesis 1 must be interpreted in material terms lest we forfeit the important doctrine of creation ex nihilo. This is not true. The first observation to be made is that other passages in the Bible affirm God as Creator of the material world and either imply or affirm that creation happened ex nihilo. Secondly, the initial formulation of the theology of ex nihilo creation did not have to do with the material world. Rather, it served as the way to argue against Platonic assertions about the eternal existence of the soul. The opposite position, that eventually won consensus in the church, was that the soul is created “out of nothing” when each person comes into existence. It was only much later that the term was applied to the material cosmos. Consequently we can conclude that even though church doctrine in recent centuries has focused on the importance of material creation ex nihilo, it would not be appropriate to drive that doctrine back into the world of the Old Testament. That was not a big issue in the ancient world. Consequently, we need to recognize that there is no question that God is the one who created the material cosmos, and at some point at the beginning of that process he did it out of nothing. Other biblical passages confirm this, as do I—it is essential theology. So we don’t need to try to make this important theological point (God’s non-contingency) with Genesis 1, if this is not an issue it intended to address. After all, just because we have an origins text in Genesis 1 doesn’t mean that it has to offer a comprehensive account of everything that God did at every level. We need to inquire as to what aspects of origins Genesis 1 intends to address.

See John Walton, “Material or Function in Genesis 1? John Walton Responds (Part 1),” Biologos.com. Accessed 18 October 2018.

Mark 1:21-28, AEV

Below is my translation of Mark 1:21-28, a pericope wherein Jesus enters a synagogue in the city of Capernaum and ends up casting out an unclean spirit. This story in some ways sets the tone for the rest of the Gospel because it emphasizes two aspects of Jesus’ messianic ministry: teaching and miracles. As the story begins, Jesus is teaching in the synagogue on the sabbath which causes those hearing him to become “amazed” since he taught “as one having authority and not as the scribes” (1:22). But his teaching is interrupted by a man with an unclean spirit who confronts Jesus and recognizes him for who he truly is: the holy one of God (1:24). Jesus then casts out the unclean spirit telling him to “shut up” (1:25).

This episode ends with a reiteration of how absolutely astounding Jesus’ teaching and authority are – “he commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him!” (1:27) Consequently, Jesus’ fame begins to spread throughout Galilee.


MARK 1:21-28, AEV

21 They came to Capernaum; and then on the sabbath, having entered the synagogue, he was teaching.a 22 And they were amazed at his teaching, for he was teaching themb as one having authority and not as the scribes. 23 Then suddenlyc there was in their  synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out 24 saying, “What do we have in common, Jesus of Nazareth?d Have you come to destroy us? We know who you are, the holy one of God!” 25 Then Jesus rebukede him saying, “Shut upf and come out of him!” 26 Then the unclean spirit, having convulsed him and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 And they all were astounded such that they discussed among themselves saying, “What is this? New teaching with authority: he commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him!” 28 Then the news about him immediately spread out everywhere into all the surrounding region of Galilee.



TEXTUAL NOTES

a The verb edidasken is sometimes translated as “he began teaching” or “he began to teach” (NIV, NLT, NASB, etc.). But there is no reason to consider the imperfect form here as an inceptive imperfect. As Rodney Decker points out (Mark 1-8: A Handbook on the Greek Text [Baylor University, Press, 2014] 24-25), Mark normally uses the verb archomai when he intends to communicate that something “began” to happen (see 1:45, 4:1, 5:17, etc). Thus translations like the NRSV, ESV, and others translate edidasken as “[he] taught” or “[he] was teaching.”

b “[F]or he was teaching them” is ēn gar didaskōn autous and is an example of the Markan use of periphrastic constructions. Simply stated, periphrasis occurs when an author combines an anathrous participle (i.e. a participle lacking the definite article) and a verb of being like eimi (“I am/I exist”) to express an idea. Mark uses periphrasis over two dozen times, about eight times more than the Gospel of Matthew.

c The word I have translated as “suddenly” is the frequently appearing euthus. Here the sense is that the appearance of this man with an unclean spirit has abruptly shifted the focus away from Jesus’ teaching and onto the demon-possessed man.

d “What do we have in common…?” is ti hēmin kai soi, quite literally, “What to us and to you?” R.T. France notes that the force of the expression is to say, “Go away and leave me alone” (The Gospel of Mark, NIGTC [Eerdmans, 2002], 103). A similar formulation is found in the LXX of 2 Samuel 16:10 where David says to Abishai, “What do we have in common [ti emoi kai humin], sons of Zeruiah?”

e “[R]ebuked” is epetimēsen. At its core, the root verb epitimaó means “to rebuke” or “to warn.” Robert Guelich translates epetimēsen not as “rebuked” but as “subdued.” Drawing from the work of H.C. Kee, he notes that epitimaó is related to the Hebrew verb ga’ar which conveys the sense of a command intended to bring another into submission. For more see Guelich, Mark 1 – 8:26, WBC [Thomas Nelson, 1989], 57-58.

f “Shut up” is phimōthēti, an imperatival form of phimoó. The substantive phimos is the term used for a muzzle (though phimos does not appear in the New Testament).

 

Musings on Mark: A Closer Look at Mark 6:45-52, part 2

In the last “Musings on Mark” we began taking a closer look at Mark 6:45-52. Today we finish up looking at that passage.

“He Intended to Pass Them By”

We left off in the last post with Jesus seeing the struggle of the disciples as they tried to row “against an adverse wind” (Mark 6:48). This prompts Jesus to make his way to them, “walking on the sea.” But then we read one of the most bizarre statements in the Markan Gospel: “He intended to pass them by.” What in the world does that mean? Let’s begin by briefly considering the Greek text.

Greek (transliterated)

Translation

kai  and
ēthelen he intended
parelthein to pass by
autous them

The main issues here are what the imperfect ēthelen and the aorist infinitive parelthein mean in this context.

The imperfect ēthelen comes from theló, a word we’ve seen before in Mark’s Gospel. For example, in the pericope of the healing of the leper (1:40-45) the infirmed man says to Jesus, “If you choose [thelēs], you can make me clean” (1:40). Jesus responds, “I do choose [thelō]. Be made clean!” (1:41) We also read in the story of John the Baptist’s death that Herodias “wanted [ēthelen] to kill” John (6:19; cf. 6:22). So it seems that theló expresses the idea of desiring, wishing, or choosing to do something. It involves volition. The aorist infinitive parelthein comes from parerchomai, a verb that simply means “to pass by” or “to pass.” It is a word used only here in 6:48 and in 13:30-31 and 14:35. In this instance it clearly refers to Jesus moving past the boat in which the disciples had been rowing.

But why would Jesus “intend to pass them by”? He had seen their struggle, a struggle which prompted him to begin walking toward them on the sea. So it seems pretty cruel to not intervene to help them. So what do we do with those four important words?

Solution #1

One solution to the problem is found in the Matthean and Johannine versions of the story. If you read those two accounts you will quickly notice that neither include this detail. In Matthew’s version one would expect to see it after Matthew 14:25 while in John one would expect to see it in perhaps around John 6:19. But neither Matthew or John chose to include this information. But we are not redacting Mark; we are seeking to explain it. So we move on.

Solution #2 

In his commentary on Mark, R.T. France suggests that “in the narrative context the clause is best seen not as a statement of what was in Jesus’ mind but of how his approach appeared from the disciples’ point of view.”This is certainly an interesting take but is ultimately not convincing. Had Mark intended for the reader to think that it seemed to the disciples Jesus was going to pass them by he could have done so using the verb dokeó. Instead, Mark is intentional with his words. The implied subject of ēthelen is Jesus. And the narrator is offering his omniscient view of the situation in which he knows the intentions of all the characters, including Jesus.

Solution #3 

One of the more compelling solutions is that when Mark says that Jesus intended to “pass them by” he is actually making a reference to the theophanies found in texts like Exodus 33:17-23. There we read how Moses requests to see Yahweh’s glory. Yahweh consents and tells Moses, “I will pass [pareleusomai] before you my glory and will declare my name ‘(the) Lord’ before you” (33:19, LXX; my translation).Similarly, in 1 Kings 19:11 Yahweh tells Elijah, “Go out soon and stand before (the) Lord upon the mountain: behold (the) Lord will pass by [pareleusetai]!” (LXX; my translation) So the language used is similar leading to the conclusion that Mark is being intentional with it. But does Mark intend for his audience to think that Yahweh himself was about to pass by the disciples? Is this a theophany or a christophany?

The Misunderstood Markan Jesus

To answer that question we need to understand who Jesus is in Mark’s Gospel. Whereas both Matthew and Luke included extensive genealogies and birth stories, Mark does not. It is almost as if Mark 1:1-11 serves as Jesus’ origin story for the Markan community. He isn’t born of a virgin in the city of Bethlehem. Rather, he is “from Nazareth of Galilee” (1:9). In other words, Jesus is just a regular guy. He came from a tiny town where everyone knew everyone else (see 6:2-3). He wasn’t a scribe or a teacher; he was a tektón, a man who worked with his hands for a living (6:3; NRSV, “carpenter”). But that changed when he was baptized by John. It is then that he becomes the messiah, the heir to David’s throne, God’s “Son, the Beloved” (1:11).

So what we find in Mark 6:48 isn’t a theophany so much as it is a christophany couched in the language of a theophany. Jesus in Mark 6:48 was seeking to reveal who he was and to answer the question the disciples had asked during the previous miracle on the Sea of Galilee – “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (4:41) He’s the Messiah, the Son of God! But the disciples don’t understand this. When they see Jesus walking on the water they think he is a ghost and cry out in fear (6:49-50). Jesus immediately tells them, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid” (6:50). The opportunity for the revelation of who he is as messiah is thwarted by their fear and by their lack of faith. For when Jesus gets in the boat and the storm then ceases the disciples become “utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened” (6:51-52). The disciples’ inability to fully grasp what is before them is a recurring theme in Mark’s Gospel. Even when the disciple Peter gets it right (8:29) he gets it wrong (8:31-33). And in the end, they all abandon him (14:27-31, 50) despite seeing all he had done.

Jesus had intended to reveal himself more fully to them (i.e. “pass them by”) but the fear of faithlessness of the disciples wouldn’t allow him.

NOTES

R.T. France, The Gospel of Mark, NIGTC (Eerdmans, 2002), 272.

The future tense form of parerchomai is pareleusomai.

Featured Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Musings on Mark: Mark vs Matthew vs John on Jesus Walking on Water

One of the few stories shared by both the Synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of John is the story of Jesus walking upon water. (Well, almost all of the Synoptics – Luke omits it.) Each version is different in one way or another.

The Markan Version

The Markan version (Mark 6:45-52) comes on the heels of the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand (6:30-44). Jesus forces the disciples into their boat and tells them to head to Bethsaida. He then dismisses the crowd and heads up to a mountain to pray. When evening comes and while he is still on the land, Jesus sees that the disciples are having difficulty crossing the lake due to adverse winds. He then walks towards them on the sea and intends to pass by them. The disciples think he is a ghost and cry out in terror. But Jesus tells them to not fear and identifies himself. He then gets into the boat with them and the wind died down. The scene ends with the classically Markan motif of the disciples’ inability to grasp what they’ve just witnessed and grounds that inability in their hardened hearts, especially with regards to the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand.

Jesus and the disciples end up in Gennesaret (6:53) and not Bethsaida.

The Matthean Version

The Matthean version (Matthew 14:22-33) also comes on the heels of the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand (14:13-21). Jesus forces the disciples into their boat to go to the other side of the lake. He then dismisses the crowd and heads up to a mountain to pray. When evening comes and while he is still on the land, the boat is far from the shore and the disciples are having difficulty with adverse winds. Jesus then walks towards them on the sea. The disciples think he is a ghost and cry out in terror. But Jesus tells them not to fear and identifies himself.

Matthew’s version includes a scene not found in the Gospel of Mark. While in the Markan version Jesus gets into the boat upon identifying himself, in Matthew’s Gospel Peter responds to Jesus’ identifying of himself and asks to come out onto the turbulent waters. Jesus tells him to join him but as soon as Peter notices the strong wind he becomes afraid and starts to sink. He cries out, “Lord, save me!” and Jesus takes his hand, turning the episode into a lesson about faith. Jesus and Peter then get into the boat and the wind died down. The scene ends not with a statement about the disciples’ inability to grasp what they’ve just witnessed but with worshipping Jesus and declaring him to be the Son of God.

Jesus and the disciples then end up in Gennesaret (14:34).

The Johannine Version 

The Johannine version (John 6:16-21) also comes on the heels of the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand (6:1-14). Following that miracle, the crowds wanted to make Jesus king and so he heads up to a mountain so he can get away from them (6:15). When evening comes, the disciples head down to the sea and get into their boat to head to Capernaum. As they are on the sea, it becomes dark and a strong wind begins to blow. When they are three or four miles into their journey, they see Jesus walking on the water and coming toward them. This terrifies them. But Jesus tells them not to fear and identifies himself. The scene ends with the disciples wanting to bring Jesus into the boat and the boat “immediately” reaching the shore near Capernaum.

Jesus and the disciples then end up in Capernaum (6:24-25).

So Many Differences!

Reconciling these stories is an impossible task and here are some reasons why:

  • The Markan version ends with the disciples not understanding what they had just seen (Mark 6:51-52) but the Matthean version ends with the disciples worshipping Jesus and declaring him to be the Son of God (Matthew 14:33).
  • The Matthean version includes a story about Peter (Matthew 14:28-32) that neither the Markan or Johannine versions have.
  • In the Markan version, only Jesus gets into the boat with them (Mark 6:51) whereas in the Matthean we are told that “they got into the boat” since Peter was outside of it due to the added narrative (Matthew 14:32). And in John it doesn’t seem that Jesus gets into the boat at all, merely that the disciples wanted him to get in and that it was apparently unnecessary since they were already at the shore near Capernaum (John 6:21).
  • In the Markan version, Jesus “intended to pass [the disciples] by” (Mark 6:48; a topic we will discuss in a future post). But this detail is omitted by both Matthew and John.
  • In the Markan version, the disciples in their boat are apparently close enough to shore that Jesus can see them struggling against the wind (Mark 6:48) but in the Matthean version the boat was “far from land” and there is no statement about Jesus seeing their struggle (Matthew 14:24). The Johannine version makes this more explicit by stating that the disciples were three or four miles into their journey (John 6:19).
  • In the Markan version, the disciples were to go to Bethsaida (Mark 6:45) but end up in Gennesaret (Mark 6:53) whereas in John they are headed to Capernaum (John 6:16) and end up in Capernaum (John 6:24-25). In Matthew the disciples are to go to “the other side” of the sea (Matthew 14:22) and end up in Gennesaret (Matthew 14:34).
  • In the Markan and Matthean versions, Jesus dismisses the crowd and heads up to the mountain alone to pray (Mark 6:45-46, Matthew 14:22-23). But in the Johannine version he goes up the mountain to escape the crowd trying to make him king (John 6:15).

It is clear then that these are not stories intended to be read as complimentary to one another. They can’t be. But what this does teach us is that the Gospel writers were not giving us literal history. Rather, they were painting their own portraits of Jesus. If the details in their version contradicted previous versions, who cared? They were intended to address the community of which they were a part, not anyone else’s.

And that should only bother the inerrantists.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

Bart Ehrman: Miracle Workers in the Greco-Roman World

Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, sixth edition (OUP, 2016), 46.

What is remarkable is that [Apollonius of Tyana and Jesus] were not the only two persons in the Greco-Roman world who were thought to have been supernaturally endowed as teachers and miracle workers. In fact, we know from the tantalizing but fragmentary records that have survived that numerous other persons were also said to have performed miracles, to have calmed the storm and multiplied the loaves, to have told the future and healed the sick, to have cast out demons and raised the dead, to have been supernaturally born and taken up into heaven at the end of their life. Even though Jesus may be the only miracle-working Son of God that we talk about in our world, he was one of many talked about in the first-century.