Is the Bible more of a book or a library?
For those who are interested, Jonathan Burke has posted the second video in his series responding to my views on Satan and demons in Paul and the Gospels. (Click here for the previous post containing part 1.) I’ll refrain from making any substantive comments for the time being but I’ll reiterate what I said in the previous post: Burke is careful not only in articulating his view on the issues but also my own. I’ll also note that he and I agree on a whole host of issues, including Paul’s view of the origin of sin (i.e., hamartiology).
So, have a look at Burke’s latest in this series. It’s much longer than the first but well worth the time.
To see other posts in this series, please go to the series’ page.
When I was a kid, summertime meant trips to Rudy’s. For those unfortunate readers who know not the joy of Rudy’s, it is a popular seasonal seafood restaurant situated along Lake Ontario in Oswego, NY. We would go probably five or six times throughout the summer months, enjoying fried haddock sandwiches, hamburgers, scallops, and more as we sat on picnic benches on the shore of the Great Lake. My dad usually kept a pair of binoculars in the back of our family van, and I would get them out to look out over the water at the boats coursing across the horizon and imagine I could see all the way to Canada. (In case you were wondering, I couldn’t.) I had such an amazing childhood and Rudy’s, Lake Ontario, and my dad’s binoculars form core memories with which my nostalgia is frequently revved up.
Early in the summer, after Rudy’s had just opened, I would sometimes look out over the vast body of water and see in the distance dark, foreboding clouds. As they rose above the horizon and made their way toward the shore, a breeze would pick up and the sky would grow darker. A raindrop would pelt the roof of the covered picnic area and sometimes I could see rain pouring over some patch of the lake. This was our cue to head to the safety of our van, finish our meal, and make the twenty-minute drive back home.
Clouds and rain are two aspects of the hydrologic cycle, “a continuous process by which water is transported from the oceans to the atmosphere to the land and back to the sea.” The process is relatively simple to understand: water in the earth’s oceans, lakes, rivers and other bodies of water is evaporated by the sun and condenses in the atmosphere to form clouds which will then release the water back to the earth in the form of precipitation (e.g., rain, snow, etc.) at which point the cycle begins anew. According to Ray Comfort in his book Scientific Facts in the Bible: Amazing Truths Written Thousands of Years Before Man Discovered Them, this cycle, though “not fully understood until the 17th century,” is “so well brought out in the Bible.” In support of this thesis, the apologist martials four texts:
At first glance, these texts seem to support Comfort’s thesis. But, as we’ve learned throughout this series examining Scientific Facts in the Bible, the devil is often in the details.
That the biblical authors had some understanding of the hydrologic cycle is not impossible to believe. But given the subtitle to Comfort’s book – Amazing Truths Written Thousands of Years Before Man Discovered Them – we would expect for their knowledge to be far more intimate. Instead, the texts that Comfort invokes to support his contention are better explained by appealing to the authors’ observation of the natural world, not divine revelation.
Consider Psalm 135. In this hymn, Yahweh is depicted as sovereign over all things: the gods, creation, the nations, Israel, and Jerusalem. Verse 7 describes him as the one “who makes the clouds rise at the end of the earth” which is then coupled with “lightnings for the rain” and “the wind from his storehouses.” In short, the psalmist is depicting a thunderstorm and observes that from his vantage point it begins far away as clouds rising from the earth. But what about this requires that the text be a unique revelation from God? Did the psalmist lack eyes? Was he kept under lock and key in a house with no windows?
Similarly, Ecclesiastes 11:3 with its statement that “[w]hen clouds are full, they empty rain on the earth” requires nothing more than knowing clouds bring rain. This knowledge does not depend on divine inspiration. Moreover, in texts older than the book of Ecclesiastes and the Bible generally, the association of clouds and rain converge in the Canaanite deity Baal. He is oft described as the “Rider on the Clouds” who brings with him rain. Do these non-biblical texts, by virtue of their age and their mentioning of clouds and rain, mean that Baal is the true lord of the cosmos? Of course not. Like the author of Ecclesiastes, whoever composed the Baal Cycle and other ancient Ugaritic texts were observers of the natural world, connecting it to their pantheon of gods.
That the biblical authors knew something about where rain came from is not surprising. It would have undoubtedly been on the mind of nearly everyone in the ANE given the importance of rain for agriculture. Thus, the association of clouds with precipitation is found not only in ancient Israelite texts but the texts of other cultures as well. There is no need to posit divine inspiration.
 Warren Viessman, Jr. and Gary L. Lewis, Introduction to Hydrology, fourth edition (Glenview, IL: HarperCollins, 1996), 5.
 Ray Comfort, Scientific Facts in the Bible: Amazing Truths Written Thousands of Years Before Man Discovered Them (Bellflower, CA: Living Waters Publications, 2016), 11.
 Unless otherwise noted, all translations of biblical texts are from the New Revised Standard Version.
 Mark S. Smith, The Ugaritic Baal Cycle, vol. 1 – Introduction with Text, Translation & Commentary of KTU 1.1-1.2 (Leiden: Brill, 1994), 1.
The book of Revelation has enthralled and mystified readers for the last two thousand years. What is it about? Who wrote it and when? Why is it sometimes referred to as an “apocalyptic” text? Mark Edward joins me to answer these questions and more.
I’ve teased it in some episodes of Amateur Hour but it is finally here – the first episode of my new podcast Bible Study for Amateurs. Below is the YouTube version of the episode but you can also listen to it over on anchor.fm. I’ll be trying to get it uploaded to other podcast platforms as soon as I can.
Let me know what you think!
Last month, I wrote a brief post reacting to an episode of the Religious Learning podcast in which Christadelphian Jonathan Burke discussed his beliefs on the existence of Satan and demons. As I noted in that piece, while Burke and I are in agreement that neither Satan nor demons exist, we disagree on whether individuals like the apostle Paul or the historical Jesus believed in them. I am convinced that they did while Burke thinks this misses the mark. After reading my post, Burke stated that he would publish a video that would not only respond to my take but would lay out his own views on the matter. Well, today he published the first video in what looks to be a two-part (?) series on the subject.
I’ve got a lot of thoughts about (and disagreements with) Burke’s views but I’d rather wait for part two before I even start to think about putting pen to paper (well, fingers to keyboard, but you get the idea). However, I would like to say a couple of things now. First, Burke spends considerable time laying out my view, doing so both charitably and accurately. In fact, as he was working on the video he and I dialogued some via Twitter DMs because he wanted to make sure he got my position exactly right. In the modern culture of click-bait articles and trollish YouTube clips, this is virtually unheard of. So, many thanks to Burke for taking the time to do this. Second, Burke’s presentation is clean, concise, and informative. Not only was he easy to follow, but I learned a few things while watching! He is clearly well read and has a deep appreciation for the texts we are dealing with. It’s one of the reasons I’m posting his response directly to my blog here (and will do so for part two).
The video is 26 minutes so you may have to carve out some time later in the day to watch it. However, I promise you it’ll be worth your while.
I’ve decided to resurrect the “roundup” posts that I used to put out a long time ago. This time, however, rather than being weekly, it’ll be whenever I feel like putting one out. (Cut me some slack. I ain’t getting paid for this!) “The Roundup” will just be a short list of interesting posts, books, videos, podcasts, and whatnot that I have recently enjoyed and think that maybe either one of my readers will as well.
That’s it for now. The next Roundup will be in the form of the Biblical Studies Carnival which I will be posting to my blog on October 1st. In the meantime, enjoy!
In this episode I have a conversation with Michael, AKA Mira Scriptura, on the subject of mirror reading, a technique used to reconstruct what the biblical authors were responding to in their writings.
For more book reviews, check out the book reviews page.
Author: L. Michael White
Page count: 528 pages
Price: $28.99 (hardcover)
Nine years ago, I walked into a bookstore known as Hastings to peruse the shelves for used books that I might want to take home. Back then I was a Christian committed to both Reformed theology and the doctrine of inerrancy. I would often look for books by John Piper, R.C. Sproul, and others who were beloved by those in the “young, restless, and Reformed” camp. But this day as I looked at the shelves, a different book caught my eye. It was L. Michael White’s Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite. I had never heard of White before and I only skimmed the back cover. Regardless, I went to the front of the store, paid the $5.99 + tax for the book, and took it home with me. But I didn’t read it, at least not until a couple of years later not long after I became an atheist. Since then, I’ve read it two more times and I will, no doubt, read it again in the future.
Of the many reasons I’ve returned to this volume repeatedly the one that stands at the forefront is White’s highly readable style. In essence, he is condensing a century and a half’s worth of scholarship on the Gospels into a single tome with the aim of showing the literary artistry of the Gospel writers. Far from being impassioned historians, White makes the case that the Evangelists were true authors, working creatively with their source materials. And once you see how they do so, you simply can’t unsee it.
Scripting Jesus opens with a preface (pp. vii-xii) wherein White offers an overview of the volume as well as an explanation in brief of what he means when he says that the Evangelists (i.e., the authors of the canonical Gospels) were “storytellers. “In the present study I focus…on the stories about Jesus in the Gospels as literary and dramatic productions,” he writes (p. x). In the prologue (pp. 1-16), the author emphasizes that though many consider the canonical stories about Jesus to be scripture, “first they were stories – stories scripted about Jesus, stories forged out of belief, but stories nonetheless” (p. 3). He contests the view (popular among many Christian apologists) that the Gospel accounts are based on eyewitness testimony, akin to four witnesses of a car wreck.
The remainder of the book is divided into three acts which are further subdivided into chapters. Act One, comprised of chs. 1-4, is entitled “Casting Characters,” and its first chapter (pp. 19-38) is an overview stock characters in Jewish as well as Greco-Roman literature, the meaning and import of the term “messiah,” the rise of the apocalyptic worldview and its corresponding literature, and more. In ch. 2 (pp. 39-50), White contends that the Lukan Gospel depicts Jesus as a wise philosopher, akin to Socrates or Diogenes, and in many ways bridges the Jewish wisdom tradition with Greek philosophical thought. He surveys a variety of sources including the apocryphal works of Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon as well as that of Philo of Alexandria and his discussion of the logos. With ch. 3 (pp. 51-65) comes a discussion of “divine” men, i.e., an individual who is often depicted as doing extraordinary things not only as an adult but often as a child. White includes a helpful chart laying out the characteristics of a divine man on pp. 57-58. In ch. 4 (pp. 66-83), White discusses a range of subjects including apotheosis, and mystery religions.
Acts Two of the book, “Crafting Scenes,” opens with ch. 5 (pp. 87-105) and a look at oral tradition and other sources that lie behind the Gospel narrative as a lead in for ch. 6 (pp. 106-123) which attempts to look into the sources behind the Passion narratives. The earliest stratum, per White, is that of Paul’s explanation of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7. In addition to this, Paul also provides an early look into what would become known as “the Last Supper” (1 Corinthians 11:23-25), noting Jesus’ words that suggest a sacrifice. White concludes the chapter by writing that “by the time of Paul, in the 50s CE, there does not yet seem to be a cohesive narrative or a unified dramatic telling of the story of Jesus’s death. A full ‘life’ of Jesus does not yet exist” (p. 123). Chapter 7 (pp. 124-160) continues the discussion of Jesus’ Passion as it is portrayed in the canonical Gospels. White contends that the “nodes” found in the earliest strata found in Paul are elaborated in the Gospel accounts. In particular, he shows that some of this expansion happens under the influence of the Jewish scriptures. In ch. 8 (pp. 161-187), the author moves onto a discussion of miracle workers in Jewish and Greco-Roman literature. He notes that miracle stories often had a basic form that included, in broad terms, a description of the situation that the miracle worker was getting into, the actions performed by the miracle worker, and, finally, the response of those who witnessed what the miracle worker did. This pattern holds even for the miracle stories of Jesus. White turns our attention to parables in ch. 9 (pp. 188-225), noting that each Gospel has its own “spin” on the parables Jesus tells: “The way in which parables convey meaning is heavily dependent on literary context and internal shaping, by which any one parable may take on vastly different meanings. Consequently, the parables vary significantly from Gospel to Gospel both in their literary presentation and their meaning” (p. 208). To close out Act Two, ch. 10 (pp. 226-256) features an examination of the Matthean and Lukan birth narratives.
Act Three focuses on the Gospels themselves beginning with Mark’s (ch. 11), then Matthew’s (ch. 12), then Luke’s (ch. 13), and then the Gospels of John and Thomas (ch. 14). In ch. 15 (pp. 374-404), White talks about non-canonical Gospels of the narrative and dialogic varieties. Readers will appreciate the helpful table on pp. 376-381 that breaks down these texts into the type and title of the work, its main features, and its relative date. In the epilogue (pp. 405-422), the author wraps up his work, concluding that the Gospel texts should be viewed “primarily as scripts of, or for, an oral performance” (p. 422). For White, this helps explain why later Gospel writers had no difficulty with changing and reinterpreting earlier works.
To round out the volume, there are five appendices on the geography of Palestine (pp. 423-427), the solution to the Synoptic Problem (pp. 428-431), the Gospel of Peter (pp. 432-436), the contents of Q (pp. 437-448), and the narrative world of the Lukan author (pp. 449-453).
That the Gospel authors had their own viewpoints and emphases is not foreign to even the most ardent defender of inerrancy. But White, unburdened by evangelical commitments to inspiration and infallibility, casts his gaze deeper into the text. “The Gospels are pieces of religious literature that seek to promote a set of beliefs in Jesus,” he writes. “In that sense they are closer to what we call advertisement or propaganda, even though these terms have a far more negative connotation in our culture” (p. 7). Far from being even handed reporting of history, the Gospels consciously present a singular viewpoint, that of a devotee of Jesus of Nazareth. And in the manner of ancient bioi, they tell the story the way they want it to be told, focusing on those salient moments that portray their subject in the best light possible.
I emphasize the word “possible” because there is one event in Jesus’ life that is hardly flattering: the crucifixion. Of all the events in Jesus’ life, his death on a cross registers as one of the surest. Our earliest sources found in the epistolary work of the apostle Paul declare unashamedly that Jesus was crucified. “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures,” Paul tells Corinthian Christ-followers (1 Corinthians 15:3). By his use of the language of “handing on” (paradidōmi), White writes that Paul was employing a formula that “was regularly used for passing on oral tradition and is also found in rabbinic sources” (p. 108). In other words, Jesus’ death was not an invention of Paul but was part and parcel of the earliest strata of the Christ-following movement.
But death-by-crucifixion was an ignoble end for one that could be considered kyrios and christos. It “was a miserable death,” notes John Granger Cook, a form of public execution that, Helen Bond observes, “symbolized the complete destruction not only of the physical body but also of the person’s identity.” But how could one identified as ho christos, the messiah, end up in such a sorry state? And who was he before this moment in history? These two questions would be taken up in the form of “passion narratives with extended introductions,” to quote Martin Kähler. The first was Mark’s and then, taking their cue from Mark, over the course of the next few decades would come Matthew’s, Luke’s, and John’s. And it is here that the Evangelists’ work as storytellers shines. In White’s view, the Gospels are “literary and dramatic productions” (p. x) with the aim of telling the Jesus story afresh. That is, while the canonical Gospels offer a similar story, their versions of it are distinctive and, at times, contradictory.
Consider, for example, the rejection of Jesus at his hometown of Nazareth. In Mark’s account, the scene unfolds in ch. 6 and follows on the heels of Jesus’ parables (4:1-34) and a series of miracles (4:35-5:43). “In effect, these miracles, by virtue of the misunderstanding and scandal they engender, are the proximate cause of [Jesus’s] rejection, at least in the Markan version.” White writes. “They epitomize key elements of the Markan theme of secrecy and misunderstanding” (p. 300). But in Matthew’s redaction of his predecessor the story changes. Instead of being the culmination of miraculous activity, the rejection at Nazareth (Matthew 13:54-58) is the climax of a flurry of teaching, an expansion of the Markan parable section. The miracles, says White, “have nothing to do with the rejection at Nazareth” (p. 300).
The most radical “repositioning” of the Markan scene comes from Luke’s account. Instead of appearing after a flurry of miracles (as in Mark) or a flurry of teachings (as in Matthew), the Lukan version (Luke 4:16-30) comes immediately after Jesus’ return to the region of Galilee following the temptation in the Judean wilderness (4:1-15). White notes that in the Markan account, the rejection scene came at the end of the Galilee section, serving as a kind of transition between it and the “beyond Galilee section” (p. 322). Had Luke been following Markan chronology here, he would have placed it somewhere near the end of ch. 8 and the beginning of ch. 9. But Luke decides to move it so that it fronts the Galilee section, setting the tone for what follows. Another way he does this is by expanding Mark’s version of the rejection scene such that it becomes “consciously constructed around the text of Isaiah” (p. 327). As White goes on to document, Luke’s rearrangement and expansion of the rejection scene functions as a signal to the reader that, “from the very beginning, Jesus intended to welcome Gentiles” (p. 328).
All of this serves as a reminder that we are not dealing with eyewitness accounts. Either the rejection happened shortly after Jesus returned from Galilee as in Luke or much later after Jesus was well into his public ministry as in Mark and Matthew. And while this shouldn’t cause us to conclude that there is no historic verisimilitude to this narrative, it should cause us to question what the scene purchases for each of the Synoptic Evangelists. After all, none of them were obliged to including it and it is fairly obvious that they must have excluded a treasure trove of stories now forever lost to history. The inclusion of the scene, therefore, and its placement in their respective narratives, is intentional. It had storytelling-power. And that is White’s main point. “Each [Gospel] had its own spin and message and its own image of Jesus” (p. 421).
White’s volume, now over a decade old, is in my view a classic demonstration of both Markan priority and the general literary sophistication of the Evangelists. While some in my camp may dismiss the biblical texts as primitive or simplistic, I feel that they are exactly the opposite. They are colorful and vivid, communicating to us visions of Jesus that in many ways have become lost to us thanks to harmonization. But when we allow each Evangelist to tell the Jesus story in his own way, we are left with something beautiful – the unique perspective of an author who lived well before our time. History is about people and as historical documents the canonical Gospels tell us something about people. But only if we are willing to listen.
 John Granger Cook, Crucifixion in the Mediterranean World (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2014), 418.
 Helen K. Bond, The First Biography of Jesus: Genre and Meaning in Mark’s Gospel (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2020), 224.
 Martin Kähler, The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ, translated by Carl E. Braaten (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1964), 80n11.
 Bond (The First Biography of Jesus, 258), opines that “it is no great surprise to find Mark’s work inspiring those of Matthew, Luke, and John.” Consequently, when we read these later bioi, we are reading in some sense Mark’s. “Whether we like it or not,” she concludes her volume, “the story of Jesus is Mark’s story of Jesus.”