Ἀρχὴ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ [υἱοῦ θεοῦ]. – Mark 1:1
The word “of” is a funny little preposition. Not only does it look weird to me every time I write it, it is also one of the most versatile of all the prepositions and perhaps one of the most prolific. In that last sentence I was forced to use it three times. “Of” is used almost exclusively of words in the genitive case, the case of possession. But possession is not the genitives’ only use.
In English grammar, genitives can be of many varieties. A genitive of source may indicate where something comes from as in the sentence, “My son is of my lineage.” A genitive of composition (i.e. partitive genitive) may indicate that something is made up of something else as in the sentence, “The dinner tonight will consist of Beef Wellington, glazed carrots, and cream potatoes.” There are many different uses for the genitive in the English language.
The same is true of Koine Greek. The genitive case is one of five cases that a noun, article, or participle may find itself in, the other four cases being the nominative, dative, accusative, and vocative. When studying Greek syntax, you begin to see that the genitive has myriad uses that, depending on which grammarian you read, may fall into any number of categories. And in many cases, these categories overlap or are subsumed by other categories by differing grammarians. There are
and many more. And for some genitives in the Greek New Testament, there is some debate over the kind of genitive that it is. Here in Mark 1:1, we have such a genitive.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ
The opening verse of Mark’s gospel reads in English, “[The] beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (ESV). There are four genitives in this sentence: “of the gospel,” “of Jesus Christ,” “son” (genitive in form) and “of God.” The first, third, and last of these genitives are the easiest to identify. The first – “of the gospel” – is a genitive of reference (Decker, 2014, 1). If we ask, “Of what is this the beginning?” the answer would be, “The gospel.” The third – “son” – is coupled with the fourth – “of God” – to form a genitive of simple apposition. If we ask, “Who is Jesus Christ?” the answer would be, “Son of God.” The final genitive – “of God” – is a genitive of relationship. If we ask, “Whose son is Jesus Christ?” the answer would be, “God’s son.”
But it is the second genitive – “of Jesus Christ” – about which there is some discussion. We can narrow it down to the general categories of objective and subjective genitives. But which is it?
If the genitive in question is a subjective genitive, then the force of it would be “the gospel from Jesus Christ.” This would make sense given that later in the first chapter we read, “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel'” (1:14-15). That passage is significant in Mark because it comprises the first words Jesus speaks and is therefore the first exposure his audience has to the words of the Messiah as he is presenting them. Everything Jesus says and does should be in a way filtered through his first words.
Alas, this view is problematic for a few reasons. First, Mark didn’t begin his Gospel with verses 14 and 15. He could have kicked off his work with Jesus’ words but he chose to begin it with verse 1. Therefore, we should be interpreting verses 14 and 15 in light of verse one, not vice versa. (Guelich, 1989, 9) Second, there is no verb to be found anywhere in the first verse! We have six nouns and an article but not a single verb. This lends weight to the idea that verse 1 is serving as a sort of title or for the book (Garland, 2015, 182) or, at least, a prologue for the opening verses of Mark’s gospel (Guelich, 6-7; White, 2010, 282) and that the genitive in question is not subjective but objective. (Whether 1:1 is the introduction and title for the entire book or simply that of an opening section like 1:2-8, 1:1-13, or 1:2-15 is up for debate and may be the subject of a future blog post in my “Musings on Mark” series.)
If the genitive is objective then the text would essentially read, “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ” (Decker, 1), or, “The beginning of the gospel concerning Jesus Messiah” (Guelich, 6). The difference is clear: Mark is introducing the story of Jesus and his ministry of the gospel. But are the two ideas mutually exclusive? Are the gospel from Jesus and the gospel about Jesus two discordant themes? R. T. France lays out the case that we may not have to choose between the two.
The genitive Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ may, in theory, be read either as subjective (‘the good news proclaimed by Jesus Christ’) or objective (‘the good news about Jesus Christ’). Some commentators take position on one side or the other, but most prefer to have it both ways. Guelich will not allow this since ‘one or the other emphasis has to dominate.’ [Guelich, 9] Syntactically this is no doubt true, but if Mark is deliberately exploiting the ambiguity of the genitive construction, he would not be the first to do so, and either sense is entirely appropriate; moreover, ‘the gospel of God’ in 1:14 allows the same suggestive ambiguity. There are no other uses in Mark of the genitive after εὐαγγέλιον; the noun used absolutely refers in three cases to a message to be believed (1:15) or proclaimed (13:10; 14:9) rather than to the act of proclamation, though in the remaining two uses (8:35; 10:29) either sense is possible. It is therefore probably more natural to read the genitive after εὐαγγέλιον here as objective (the gospel about Jesus Christ), and this is the more normal usage in the rest of the NT (though note to the contrary Rom. 2:16; 16:25, etc., and, denoting the recipients of the gospel, Gal. 2:7). But vv. 14-15 will make it clear that the εὐαγγέλιον is in fact preached by Jesus as well. Whatever the dictates of syntactical pedantry, I think it likely that Mark would have approved, and may well have intended, the double entendre which the genitive construction allows. (France, 2002, 53)
This seems right. France’s assertion that the author of Mark is employing a kind of double entendre makes sense of the available data. And it isn’t unknown in the rest of Greek New Testament. Paul writes, for example, that “the love of Christ constrains us” (2 Corinthians 5:14). Well, is it his love for believers or their love for him? Why must we choose?
Daniel Wallace in his very thorough work on Greek syntax considers cases like 2 Corinthians 5:14 and our genitive in Mark 1:1 to be examples of what he calls a “plenary genitive.” In these instances, “a noun in the genitive is both subjective and objective. In most cases, the subjective produces the objection notion.” (Wallace, 1996, 119) Here I think we have such a genitive and France’s point stands. This need not bother us; Mark could have written in such a way that we must fall on one side or the other. The fact that he did not should perhaps cause us to consider that he intended for the ambiguity to remain.
It is cases like these that make biblical studies so interesting. We can spend some serious time going over what this or that phrase or construction means. And it is well worth our time to consider their meaning, regardless of your personal belief. The text is interesting even if it isn’t straight from the mind of God. In fact, the fact that it probably isn’t only makes it more interesting in my eyes.
Printed Works Cited
Rodney J. Decker. Mark 1-8: A Handbook on the Greek Text. Baylor University Press, 2014.
R. T. France. NIGTC: The Gospel of Mark. William B. Eerdmans, 2002.
David E. Garland. A Theology of Mark’s Gospel. Zondervan, 2015.
Robert A. Guelich. Word Biblical Commentary: Mark 1-8:26, vol. 34a. Thomas Nelson, 1989.
Daniel B. Wallace. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Zondervan, 1996.
L. Michael White. Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite. Harper One, 2010.
I’m frequently on Twitter interacting with theists and atheists alike. Both sides have a tendency to be woefully ignorant of biblical passages and both have a tendency to want to display that ignorance by commenting on or using biblical passages in this or that argument. The atheist wants to find some contradiction or historical and scientific error and the theist wants to find some proof-text for a doctrine to support their belief. Others still want to use the Bible to support their political affiliation: peace and love Jesus for the liberal and fire and brimstone Jesus for the conservative. Now, these are all generalizations, I know, but if we were to take a random sample of Christians and atheists and surveyed them for their political affiliations and views on the Bible, by-and-large we would find these very trends among them.
One of those politically charged Christians is Greg Locke, pastor of Global Vision Bible Church in Mt. Juliet, TN, who recently took to his Twitter feed to show his appreciation for the recent Supreme Court decision upholding some aspects of the President’s travel ban.
This is par for the course for Locke who loves to use his Twitter account and his pastoral title to support the Right’s politics and to alienate the Left. But he always gets push back.
Donald Bowlin has a point. Locke could have left that entire last sentence off and it would not have affected the tweet at all. In fact, had he done so it would have largely been innocuous seeing as how SCOTUS’ lift of the ban was not a complete lift and they would consider the ban more in the future. But Locke simply cannot resist putting down his detractors, especially “leftists.” And fortunately for him, he has his own minions to come to his defense.
“I don’t see an attack.” Of course she doesn’t. Claiming that “leftists…love chaos” and engage in “violent protests” surely isn’t an attack. To blind followers of blind guides, it is merely the truth! Thankfully, Donald Bowlin responds.
Now, if I were Locke and felt that Bowlin’s tweet was erroneous, I would have said something like, “I didn’t insult or name call. I’m simply telling THE TRUTH,” or some such cop-out. But instead, Locke goes to his trademark move of sticking the Bible where it doesn’t belong.
“Oh, it’s not okay to insult and name call? Well, Matthew 10:34!” I could not help but interject at this juncture.
Proof-texting? In what way was Locke proof-texting? Well, let me explain.
What is Going on in Matthew 10?
Matthew 10:34 is not a verse that stands by itself. It is part of a larger context wherein Jesus sends the twelve disciples on a mission (10:1-4), gives them specific instructions for that mission (10:5-15), prepares them for the inevitable persecution to come because of that mission (10:16-23), teaches them the proper response to that persecution (10:24-33), and explains what effect the mission will have (10:34-39). But what is the mission? Jesus tells us: “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.'”(10:7*) In other words, the mission is the proclamation of the gospel. It isn’t proclaiming this or that political party’s position. It isn’t trying to alienate a whole swath of political opponents. Those things have nothing to do with the mission.
Locke’s reading of Matthew 10:34 is definitionally eisegesis because he 1) ignores the context of the passage and 2) employs it as evidence that he has the right to insult, name call, and stereotype. But the division Jesus speaks of in verses 32-36 is the result of proclaiming the gospel, the good news from Jesus. Politics doesn’t come into it.
Though it is clear Locke is using Matthew 10:34 as a proof-text, he tries to skirt the issue.
Now, I’ve listened to excerpts of Locke’s Wednesday night series’, particularly on the book of Revelation, and what he means by “verse by verse” exposition and what I mean by “verse by verse” exposition are two entirely different animals. For example, in his video on Revelation chapter one he says, “Normally, you see me I just kind of read the text and go with it but I’ve got some things I’ve jotted down tonight.” To me, you don’t come to a text as complicated as Revelation with “some things” you’ve jotted down. And you don’t ever just read the text and “go with it.” That isn’t expositional preaching; it is reading an English translation on the fly and trying to make sense of it. Now, he admits also in that video that he is doing an overview but that isn’t the opposite of exposition. In fact, an overview can only be derived from doing exposition of the text. But it is his pulpit and he is free to do with it as he pleases. Nevertheless, the fact of the matter is that Greg “Context is My Life” Locke used Matthew 10:34 as a proof-text.
And now, ladies and gentlemen, the doubling down.
Locke freely admits that he used Matthew 10:34 “to refute the ‘Jesus taught us to act the opposite’ statement” of Donald Bowlin. So now we must ask, what was the context of Bowlin’s “Jesus taught us to act the opposite” statement? Here it is again.
So in response to Bowlin’s claim that Jesus taught us to do the opposite of insulting, name calling, and grouping those that don’t agree with us, Locke inserts Matthew 10:34. And yet Locke somehow thinks that he isn’t proof-texting. So much for the claim that “context is [his] life.”
Evangelical eisegesis, everyone.
*All biblical passages, unless otherwise noted, are from the New Revised Standard Version (National Council of Churches, 1989).
There is a moving scene that appears toward the end of the book of Genesis involving the ageing and ailing patriarch Jacob, his long-lost son Joseph, and Joseph’s two children. Joseph is told that his father is ill and so he takes Manasseh and Ephraim, his two sons, to see Jacob. Jacob is lying in bed but when he is told Joseph has come to see him he musters whatever strength he has left and he sits up in bed to recount to Joseph the promises of El Shaddai given to him. (Genesis 48:1-2)
“God Almighty [El Shaddai] appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan and blessed me, and said to me, ‘Behold I will make you fruitful and multiply you, and I will make of you a company of peoples and will give this land to your offspring after you for an everlasting possession.’ And now your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, are mine; Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine, as Reuben and Simeon are. And the children that you fathered after them shall be yours. They shall be called by the name of their brothers in their inheritance. As for me, when I came to Paddan, to my sorrow Rachel died in the land of Canaan on the way, when there was still some distance to go to Ephrath, and I buried her there on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem).” (48:3-7) *
There is a lot going on in this text that we must briefly touch on.
A Life Summed Up
First, Jacob begins not with some of his rather dubious deeds like the stealing of his brother’s birthright (Genesis 27) but instead with the contents of a dream. Like his son Joseph, Jacob’s journey begins with visions and dreams and in this case the dream was of a ramp leading to heaven and the LORD (Yahweh) standing on top who tells Jacob that he will give him the land upon which his head rests and will make his offspring like the dust of the earth. When Jacob awakes he sets up a pillar and renames the city he was in Bethel in lieu of its old name of Luz. Bethel is Beth-El, the house of El or the house of God. (28:10-22)
Second, in an attempt to explain why the tribes of Israel include sons of Joseph, Jacob tells Joseph that his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, would now be his two sons just as Reuben and Simeon are. This is interesting for a couple of reasons.
In the first place, the text again and again lists the sons of Joseph in reverse order. Ephraim is not the oldest; Manasseh is (41:50-52) This is one of the major themes in the book of Genesis, that the younger is preferred to the older: Abel, not Cain; Isaac, not Ishmael; Jacob, not Esau; etc. They are, in a way, literary devices to show that the nation of Israel’s struggles in the land against neighboring enemies has been a part of their existence from the get-go. (Coogan, 2014, 73)
We also see that the de facto adoption of Ephraim and Manasseh is intended to explain why the two sons Jacob mentions in his speech, Reuben and Simeon, aren’t major tribes in the land. (Knight & Levine, 2011, 280) In chapter 49, Jacob gathers his sons together so that he “may tell [them] what shall happen to [them] in the days to come” (49:1). In other words, the author is providing national Israel with an etiology. Of Reuben Jacob says,
Reuben, you are my firstborn,
my might, and the firstfruits of my strength,
preeminent in dignity and preeminent in power.
Unstable as water, you shall not have preeminence,
because you went up to your father’s bed;
then you defiled it – he went up to my couch!
Jacob is, of course, referring to Reuben’s taking and sleeping with Bilhah, Rachel’s servant and Jacob’s concubine (Genesis 35:22). For this violation, Reuben’s status as “firstborn” appears to be given to the sons of Joseph (see 1 Chronicles 5:1-2) and his preeminence removed. Over the course of time, Reuben loses its status as a distinct tribe and ends up mixed in with Judah and Gad. And when the kingdom is rent in two, the northern tribe, known commonly as Israel, is also referred to as Ephraim (see Isaiah 7:17, 11:13; Hosea 5:12; etc.). However, it must be acknowledged that Ephraim is generally not cast in a positive light in prophetic literature. One of their vices is idolatry (Hosea 5:17).
Simeon is in a similar boat. Of him and his brother Levi Jacob says,
Simeon and Levi are brothers;
weapons of violence are their swords.
Let my soul come not into their council;
O my glory, be not joined to their company.
For in their anger they killed men,
and in their wilfulness they hamstrung oxen.
Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce,
and their wrath, for it is cruel!
I will divide them in Jacob
and scatter them in Israel.
Here the etiology is explicit: “I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel” (v. 7). Levi was never given an allotment of territory but instead remained keepers of the tabernacle and some were dispersed throughout Israel (Numbers 18:21-24; 35:1-8; Joshua 21:1-45). Simeon’s territory ends up being an allotment of land within the tribe of Judah’s territory (Joshua 19:1-9). Simeon, then, could not attempt to expand to its neighbors territories because it had no neighbors; it was stuck in Judah.
The reason for their scattering is, per Jacob’s words, due to their “anger, for it is fierce, and their wrath, for it is cruel” (v. 7). This anger and wrath was displayed when they tricked the rapist of their sister Dinah into circumcising himself and his men, and then, when they were in pain from their impromptu bris, Levi and Simeon killed all those involved. (Genesis 34:1-29). When Jacob discovers what they have done, he grows concerned that the surrounding inhabitants will team up against he and his small family and kill them all. (34:30) But this seems incongruous a reaction to what happened to Jacob’s daughter and their sister and so the two brothers respond, “Should he treat our sister like a prostitute?” (v. 31) The story in Genesis ends with that seemingly rhetorical question.
Reuben and Simeon are effectively replaced with Ephraim and Manasseh in territorial prowess. Reuben’s right as firstborn, by which he would received a double portion of his allotment of the inheritance, is instead given to Joseph via his sons. In the nation of Israel, a full sixth of all the tribes are from Joseph. Given that the book of Genesis was compiled centuries after the events it reports, this section gives us a fascinating glimpse into how later generations tried to explain the history of Israel by appealing to its patriarch, Jacob.
Now that Joseph’s children are no longer his own, what will his legacy be? His father tells him that “the children you fathered after them shall be yours. They shall be called by the name of their brothers in their inheritance” (v. 6) There is no indication in Genesis that Joseph had any other children so this seems problematic. As Alter notes, Joseph by this time had already been married for twenty-five years and there isn’t great warrant to translate the verb rendered as “fathered” in the ESV as a future tense verb. (Alter, 2004, 278) Regardless, what Jacob intends here is that the other children of Joseph would enjoy the inheritance of Ephraim and Manasseh.
Here we must pause. What follows next is Jacob’s story of the death of Rachel but it seems almost a non sequitur. He begins with El Shaddai’s promise to make him a great nation and then, by taking Manasseh and Ephraim as his own along with his other sons, indicates that it is through those children the promise is to be fulfilled. Why bother with the story of Rachel’s death? Without it, the narrative is whole. With it, we seem to have a hiccup.
John Sailhamer observed this as well and commented on it in his very helpful The Pentateuch as Narrative: A Biblical-Theological Commentary. He wrote,
Verse 7 has long puzzled biblical interpreters. Why the mention of Rachel at this point in the narrative and why the mention of her burial site? If we relate the verse to what precedes it, then the mention of Rachel just at this point could have been prompted by the fact that just as she bore Jacob “two sons” (44:27, Joseph and Benjamin) at a time when he was about to enter (48:7) the land, so also Joseph gave Jacob “two sons” just at the time when he was about to enter Egypt (48:5). Such symmetry suggests that Ephraim and Manasseh are seen as a replacement of Joseph and Benjamin, and thus it serves to further the sense of divine providence behind the events of Jacob’s life. (Sailhamer, 1992, 231)
This is a possibility but it forces us to ask the question on Sailhamer’s view, Why the need to replace Benjamin? It is possible that this, again, is an etiology connecting future events from Jacob’s perspective (i.e. the rape of the Levite’s concubine [see Judges 19-21]) to the tribe’s replacement on Sailhamer’s view here in Genesis 48. Though I am not fully persuaded by Sailhamer on this, I do not have an alternative explanation to offer. I will need to do some more research and perhaps blog on it at a later date.
The next episode in Jacob’s story involves Joseph’s mother Rachel. After his dream at Luz wherein El Shaddai promises to make of him a great people, Jacob fast-forwards over thirty years to the death of Rachel: “To my sorrow, Rachel died” (v. 7). He glosses over his fourteen years of labor for Rachel (see Genesis 29:1-30) and the myriad other events that took place in his long, complicated life. Jacob’s story begins with the promise of life (“I will make you fruitful and multiply you”) and ends with his beloved wife’s death (“Rachel died”).
Why does Jacob bring this up? What exactly is going on here? Alter suggests that this obviously emotional episode stems from Jacob’s recognition that he is on his way out. He has lived a long, hard life (see 47:9), he has outlived the love of his life, and perhaps he sees the adoption of Ephraim and Manasseh, Rachel’s grandsons by her firstborn, as replacements for the children she never got to bear because of her untimely death. (Alter, 278) If this is the case, then we should read this text with our hearts open to feel the emotion Jacob felt. As we shall soon see, this entire episode is filled with powerful emotions.
Finishing his narrative, Jacob turns to see Joseph’s two sons.
When Israel saw Joseph’s sons, he said, “Who are these?” Joseph said to his father, “They are my sons, whom God has given me here.” And he said, “Bring them to me, please, that I may bless them.” Now the eyes of Israel were dim with age, so that he could not see. So Joseph brought them near him, and he kissed them and embraced them. And Israel said to Joseph, “I never expected to see your face; and behold, God has let me see your offspring also.” (48:8-11)
We can imagine the exchange. The aged Jacob sees two figures with Joseph but because of his poor eyesight, he does not immediately recognize them. And why should he? Before this moment he has never set his eyes on them. And upon hearing they are his grandsons, Jacob asks Joseph to bring them near to him so that he can bless them. He kisses them and then he says something that still brings tears to my eyes whenever I read it: “I never expected to see your face; and behold, God has let me see your offspring also” (v. 11).
Remember, Jacob had believed that Joseph was dead for the longest time. His brothers, jealous of his status with their father, threw him into a pit and sold him into slavery. And to convince Jacob that Joseph was dead, the brothers killed a goat and dipped Joseph’s robe in its blood. Upon hearing that his beloved son, the firstborn of his beloved wife Rachel, was dead, he tore his robes and mourned for days. And though his family tried to comfort him, he was too distraught. “No,” he said, “I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” (Genesis 37:12-35)
But people move on and so did Jacob. Perhaps he had come to terms with the notion that Joseph was gone, never to return. Perhaps he had built up walls so that no one could touch that part of him. He was not aware that he was tricked. He, the one who tricked his own father into blessing him instead of Esau his brother, tricked by his sons. Joseph was dead and there was nothing to be done about it.
Except Joseph wasn’t dead. As Joseph told his brothers years later, “Do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life.” (Genesis 45:5) God himself was working to keep his promise to Jacob to make of him a great people. And he did that through the trickery of his own children. And now here at the end of his life, Jacob was getting to see Joseph again.
Quite often when atheists and even Christians read the biblical texts, they do so without recognizing that this is first and foremost literature. People told these stories to one another for a variety of reasons, yes, but they exist for us as literature. We should read them with the emotion that is on display in them; not with cold hearts looking for contradictions or doctrine. So read verse 11 with that emotion.
I never expected to see your face; and behold, God has let me see your offspring also.
“I never thought I’d ever see you again,” Jacob says to his long-lost son Joseph, “and here I am seeing my grandchildren!” If you can read that without feeling some warmth in your heart, I feel sorry for you. Even if you suppose that these are mere fairy tales and have very little truth to them, you can still imagine what it would be like to be a father who thinks his child is forever gone only to see him again and to see the grandchildren he has brought you at the end of your life. This is brimming with emotion.
What follows next (vss. 12-22) concerns the blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh by Jacob and there are some interesting parts in their as well. But we must leave that for another time. For now, let me leave you with this to consider.
Biblical texts are messy and while many of them contain historically accurate details, by-and-large they betray any notion of inerrancy. And while we may approach them with an eye to discredit them or to derive particular doctrines from them, we should never forget that these texts are telling stories about human beings just like us. I’m all for asking the tough historical questions like “Did Jesus exist?” or “Was Abraham a real person?” But let’s not forget that people told these stories and wrote them down and people tell stories to convey human experience and human emotion. So at least, every so often, pick up the Bible and read it with an eye for the human experience.
*All biblical citations unless otherwise noted are taken from the English Standard Version (Crossway, 2008).
Printed Works Cited
Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004.
Michael D. Coogan, The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures. 3rd edition. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Douglas A. Knight and Amy-Jill Levine, The Meaning of the Bible: What the Jewish Scriptures and Christian Old Testament Can Teach Us. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2011.
John H. Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative: A Biblical-Theological Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992.
When I originally started this blog I had no plans of venturing into the muddy waters of Christian apologetics. Though I’ve been reading on and studying the topic for about seventeen years, my obsession as of late has been the biblical texts themselves and how to understand them properly. But lately my Twitter feed has been clogged up with would-be Christian apologists making outlandish claims like this:
This is an oft-repeated argument, namely that one of the evidences for the resurrection of Jesus is that the disciples were ready and willing to die for their belief. For example, in his 1977 book More Than a Carpenter, apologist Josh McDowell made a similar claim:
But a few weeks after the crucifixion, in spite of their former doubts, the disciples were in Jerusalem proclaiming Jesus as Savior and Lord, the Messiah of the Jews. The only reasonable explanation that I can see of this change is 1 Corinthians 15:5 – “He appeared…then to the twelve.” What else could have caused the despondent disciples to go out and suffer and die for a crucified Messiah? He certainly must have “presented Himself alive, after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days” (Acts 1:3).
Yes, a lot of people have died for a good cause, but the good cause of the apostles died on the cross. Only the resurrection and resultant contact with Christ convinced his followers that he was the Messiah. To this they testified not only with their lips and lives, but with their deaths. (McDowell, 1977, 76)
The argument seems reasonable enough; after all, why would anyone die for a lie? For some Christian apologists, the fact of the willingness to die for their belief in Jesus constitutes powerful circumstantial evidence in favor of the historicity of the Resurrection accounts in the canonical Gospels. J. P. Moreland told Lee Strobel in the latter’s interview with him in The Case for Christ,
When Jesus was crucified…his followers were discouraged and depressed. They no longer had confidence that Jesus had been sent by God because they believed anyone crucified was accursed by God. They also had been taught that God would not let his Messiah suffer death. So they dispersed. The Jesus movement was all but stopped in its tracks.
Then, after a short period of time, we see them abandoning their occupations, regathering, and committing themselves to spreading a very specific message – that Jesus Christ was the Messiah of God who died on a cross, returned to life, and was seen alive by them.
And they were willing to spend the rest of their lives proclaiming this, without any payoff from a human point of view. It’s not as though there were a mansion awaiting them on the Mediterranean. They faced a life of hardship. They often went without food, slept exposed to the elements, were ridiculed, beaten, imprisoned. And finally, most of them were executed in torturous ways.
For what? For good intentions? No, because they were convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that they had seen Jesus Christ alive from the dead. What you can’t explain is how this particular group of men came up with this particular belief without have had an experience of the resurrected Christ. There’s no other adequate explanation. (Strobel,1998, 244-245)
No other adequate explanation? Are skeptics in a corner here, frantically wringing their hands trying to come up with an alternate explanation? Perhaps, or perhaps not.
The Death of the Disciples
Before we attempt to dissect the argument, we should consider who the apostles were and what we know or do not know about their ultimate demise. I can remember all of their names because of a catchy song I learned in New Testament 101 my freshman year of college:
There were twelve disciples / Jesus called to help him: / Simon Peter, Andrew, James, his brother John, / Phillip, Thomas, Matthew, / James the son of Alphaeus, / Thaddaeus, Simon, Judas, / and Bartholomew!
We, of course, do not need the song as we have a list of all the disciples written down for us in the earliest of the four Gospels, Mark.
And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons. He appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder; Andrew and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him. (Mark 3:14-19; cf. Matthew 10:1-4, Luke 6:14-16, Acts 1:13)*
The deeds of many of the apostles are laid out for us in various stories in the four Gospels as well as in the book of Acts. But we only know about the death of two of the disciples from the pages of the New Testament. The first, of course, is Judas Iscariot who according to Matthew’s Gospel, felt so guilty for betraying Jesus to the Jewish authorities that he hung himself (27:3-10). This is contradicted by the author of the book of Acts who claimed that Judas bought a field with the silver he was given for betraying Jesus and then apparently fell headfirst causing his insides to become outsides (1:18).
The only other disciple of Jesus whose death is recorded for us in the New Testament is that of James, the brother of John. We read in Acts that “about that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. He killed James the brother of John with the sword, and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also” (12:1-2). So who was James?
As Acts 12:1 tells us, he was “the brother John” and if we look at Mark’s list of disciples, he and his brother were the “Sons of Thunder.” Along with Peter and Andrew, James and John were among the first to follow Jesus (Mark 1:19-20). Their fates, according to Mark’s Gospel, were foretold to them.
And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What do you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.” (Mark 10:35-39)
The “cup” and “baptism” Jesus speaks of are metaphors for his impending death at the hands of the Romans and under the jeers of the Jews. James and John, Jesus says, will face similar ends. (Evans, 2001, 117)
So the New Testament records for us how James, a Son of Thunder, died at the hands of Herod. But what about the other disciples? If the New Testament doesn’t tell us how they died, what can be known? For virtually all of them we must rely on tradition and hearsay. Let’s briefly detail some of what has been said about their deaths.
Much of what we know about most of the disciples’ activities are based on later sources and are often quite unreliable. Christian historian Igor Davidson writes,
Apart from our evidence regarding Paul, Peter, John, and James the Lord’s brother, and some glimpses of the vitally important work undertaken by other relatives of Jesus in Palestine and perhaps beyond, we know relatively little about the ways in which the apostles and their associates spread their message to their diverse constituencies, or even about the places they eventually reached….For the most part…we cannot be sure where the apostles and their co-workers finally traveled.
The apocryphal Acts of the apostles, produced in the late second and third centuries, claim that various remarkable missionary feats were accomplished by others among the Twelve. Thomas is said to have taken the gospel to Persia and to India, where he was eventually martyred for his faith. Andrew is reported to have engaged in evangelism in northern Asia Minor and Greece, especially in some of the territories evangelized by Paul, including Philippi and Corinth, and to have been martyred in Patras.
It is impossible to gauge the reliability of these claims….Many of these traditions are…simply pious fictions, designed to embellish the spiritual sanctity of particular localities. (Davidson, 154)
In other words, we simply do not know what most of the disciples did following their time with Jesus let alone how they met their end. Is martyrdom a possibility? Of course. But is it a certainty? In short, no.
Dissecting the Argument
Nevertheless, the likelihood that some of the disciples gave their life believing in a risen Jesus is very high (mythicists notwithstanding). If we are to believe the book of Acts then James was beheaded for his faith in Jesus. And there is a good chance that both Peter and Paul, two pillars of the early Christian movement, were executed by Rome. Do their deaths, and the deaths of numerous martyrs throughout time, constitute evidence that the Resurrection narratives are true? Is this proof Jesus threw off Death’s shackles and appeared to the disciples alive three days after a brutal form of execution? Let’s begin with one version of the argument laid out by S. J. Thomason, a pop-apologist, in a blog post entitled “An Extra-Biblical Case for Christianity.”
Critics often note that Muslims and Buddhists have also willingly been martyred for their beliefs, yet unlike Muslims and Buddhists, James, Peter, and Paul had personally seen the risen Jesus.
- Peter James, and Paul saw the risen Jesus.
- Peter, James, and Paul changed their initial views/doubts about Jesus.
- Peter, James, and Paul braved gory deaths for Jesus.
- Why? See item #1
It is easy to see the problem with Thomason’s argument: it is a tautology. She begins with the unproven assertion that the disciples “saw the risen Jesus” and effectively concludes with it. We could frame a similar argument.
Item number 3 is in no way an indicator of whether item number 1 is true. And therein lies the problem with McDowell’s, Moreland’s, and Thomason’s view on this issue. To assert that the disciples’ willingness to die for the cause of Christianity is evidence that the claims of Christianity are true is an exercise in non sequitur. In other words, the sincerity with which one believes a proposition is in no way an indicator of whether that proposition is true.
Islam and Sincerely Held Beliefs
Consider for a moment the early followers of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Most of what we know about him comes from collections of his sayings and deeds known as hadiths. The Qur’an, the central holy text of Islam, is Allah’s revelation to mankind through Muhammad.
According to his wife Aisha, Muhammad would go into the caves near Mecca where he would worship Allah. But one day in the year 610 C.E. Muhammad entered the caves and something miraculous happened.
He used to take with him the journey food for the stay and then come back to (his wife) Khadija to take his food likewise again till suddenly the Truth descended upon him while he was in the cave of Hira. The angel came to him and asked him to read. The Prophet (ﷺ) replied, “I do not know how to read.” The Prophet (ﷺ) added, “The angel caught me (forcefully) and pressed me so hard that I could not bear it any more. He then released me and again asked me to read and I replied, ‘I do not know how to read.’ Thereupon he caught me again and pressed me a second time till I could not bear it any more. He then released me and again asked me to read but again I replied, ‘I do not know how to read (or what shall I read)?’ Thereupon he caught me for the third time and pressed me, and then released me and said, ‘Read in the name of your Lord, who has created (all that exists), created man from a clot. Read! And your Lord is the Most Generous.” (Sahih al-Bukhari, 1.1.3)
The angel orders Muhammad to read (also translated as “recite” – see below) but Muhammad cannot – he didn’t know how! And yet we read in the Qur’an his own recitation of the words the angel ordered him to reproduce.
Recite in the Name of thy Lord who created, created man from a blood clot. Recite! Thy Lord is most noble, Who taught by the Pen, taught man that which he knew not. (Surah 96:1-5)**
For devout Muslims, this is miraculous! The greatest miracle of Muhammad is the Qur’an itself. One author writes,
…I have come to believe that the real reason the Quran reiterates and reaffirms these foundations [i.e. the miraculous foundations of Judaism and Christianity] is because the Quran wants to challenge this questioning itself. In this respect, the Quran can be perceived as saying, “If you want to challenge these foundations, discredit my miraculous nature first, and if you cannot, then accept these foundations as truth.” (Hassan, 2012, 21-22)
But not everyone in Mecca was comfortable with the new religion being promoted by Muhammad. And as his following grew, so did his opposition. Yet when challenged by scoffers to produce a miracle like those of the ancient prophets, Muhammad didn’t throw a staff on the ground or turn water into wine. Instead, a challenge was issued.
This Quran could not have been fabricated [by anyone] apart from God; rather, it is a confirmation of that which came before it, and an elaboration of the Book in which there is no doubt, from the Lord of the worlds. Or do they say, “He has fabricated it”? Say, “Then produce a surah like it, and call upon whomsoever you can apart from God, if you are truthful.” (Surah 10:37-38)
In other words, if the Qur’an is the product of human invention, then it can be replicated quite easily by human means. The apparent fact that no one could produce a single surah was an indicator that Muhammad was indeed the prophet of Allah.
But this line of reasoning failed to convince his opponents and the persecution against these early Muslims only continued and escalated. By 613 C.E. Muhammad had expanded his preaching which created severe backlash against he and his followers. Some fled to Ethiopia while others remained with Muhammad. (Haleem, 2016, xi) For some of those who remained, the decision to stay proved fatal. In 615 C.E. Sumayyah bint Khayyat, a slave and one of the first followers of Muhammad, became the first martyr for Islam. The ruling tribe of Mecca – the Quraysh – deliberately targeted Muslims of lower social status and pressured them to recant their belief in Islam. Sumayyah, her husband, and her son were all tied up and beaten for their and when she refused to recant, Sumayyah was stabbed to death.
Why did she die? After all, her life may have been spared if only she had recanted. But she didn’t. So what does that say?
And, of course, she was not the only one to die on behalf of Islam in the seventh century. Others died in battle defending themselves against those who would wipe Islam off the face of the earth. They had seen various miracles performed by Muhammad ranging from the splitting of the moon (Surah 54:1-2) to invoking rain and willingly gave their lives so that their faith would not be destroyed.
We must now ask the question, Is Islam true because the Qur’an is a “miracle” and some gave their lives because of their belief in that miracle? According to the logic of Thomason, yes it is.
Clearly, there is a problem. Islam and Christianity are mutually exclusive ideologies. Christianity declares that only belief in the crucified and risen Jesus provides salvation (1 Corinthians 15:1-4; Romans 10:9). Islam, on the other hand, explicitly denies that Jesus was killed on the cross and instead someone made to look like Jesus was on there instead, confusing onlookers (Surah 4:157-158). What are we to make of this? They cannot both be right.
But they can certainly both be wrong.
Why the Argument Fails
If we are willing to concede that dying for a cause is evidence of that cause’s veracity, then we must concede that Islam is as valid as Christianity. According to each religion’s adherents, we have examples of men and women who were witnesses of extraordinary events and miracles who gave their lives for their belief in those events. So, if we can ask the question, “Why would the disciples die for something that wasn’t true?” then we can also ask the same question of the first followers of Muhammad.
“But,” comes the objection, “none of the followers of Muhammad saw the risen Jesus.” This does nothing more than beg the question as the supposed evidence for the Resurrection is that the disciples were willing to die for their belief. That, unfortunately, doesn’t get the job done.
Furthermore, in the case of both the disciples and the early followers of Muhammad, we need not assume that they were lying about what they saw. As far as we know, the moon has never split in half before coming back together as the Qur’an reports. But people can be tricked or duped or hallucinate or not see things properly. They can be convinced by powerful leaders or extremely stressful situations that something that isn’t the case is. No, the disciples didn’t die for a lie. They died because of their sincerely held belief that Jesus was alive. Christian apologist Sean McDowell, author of The Fate of the Apostles (2016), wrote in a blog post,
Here is the bottom line: the willingness of the apostles to die for their faith does not prove Christianity is true; it merely shows the apostles sincerely believed Jesus had risen to them. They did not invent the story. They believed Jesus rose from the grave and appeared to them personally. Their willingness to pay the ultimate price for this conviction shows the depth of their sincerity.
And he is right.
The sincerity with which we hold a belief is no indicator of whether that belief is true. As my old pastor was fond of saying, “People may be sincere, but they can be sincerely wrong.” Therefore, we should be cautious of any argument put forward that depends on notions of sincerity.
* All Scripture verses are taken from the English Standard Version (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Bibles, 2008).
** All Quranic verses are taken from The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, editor (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2015).
Printed Works Cited
Yahiya Emerick. The Life and Work of Muhammad. Indianapolis, IN: Alpha Books, 2002.
Igor J. Davidson. The Baker History of the Church: The Birth of the Church, From Jesus to Constantine, AD 30-312, volume 1. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2004.
Craig A. Evans. Word Biblical Commentary: Mark 8:27 – 16:20. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2001.
William Byron Forbush, editor. Fox’s Book of Martyrs. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1967.
Ahmad Hassan. The Science of the Quran: Proving God’s Existence through Established Modern Science. Arlington, VA: Lido Horizons Publishing, 2012.
M.A.S. Abdel Haleem. The Qur’an. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2016.
Josh McDowell. More Than a Carpenter. Wheaton, Illinois: Living Books, 1977.
Philip Schaff, History of the Apostolic Church with a General Introduction to Church History. New York, NY: Scribner, Armstrong, and Co. 1874.
Lee Strobel. The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998.
Many things could be said about the Gospel of Matthew but perhaps the most obvious is its attempt to portray Jesus as the new and better Israel. Let me explain.
Throughout the book, the author either alludes to or explicitly cites biblical passages that in their original context are about the people of Israel. In Matthew 2:13-15, after Joseph is warned in a dream to flee to Egypt and told to come back when Herod was dead, Matthew writes, “This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet,” ‘Out of Egypt I called my son'” (Matthew 2:15). But look at the actual passage from the prophet he cites.
When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more they were called,
the more they went away;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals
and burning offerings to idols. (Hosea 11:1-2)
Clearly, the prophet Hosea is speaking of the people of Israel and their flight from Egypt, not Jesus and his return from Egypt. Matthew is using Hosea for his own purposes and that purpose is to show that Jesus is the superior “son.”
Consider also the temptation of Jesus by the devil in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). He is taken into the wilderness and fasts for “forty days and forty nights” (v. 2). But why the wilderness? Because that is where God drew his people to after they left Egypt and it is where he would meet with them in the Christian vision of the coming of the Messiah. We read in Deuteronomy 8:1-3 that Moses told Israel,
The whole commandment that I command you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land that the LORD swore to give to your fathers. And you shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what is in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.
Notice anything familiar? Israel is led by God into the wilderness (Deuteronomy 8:2); Jesus is “led up by the Spirit into the wilderness” (Matthew 4:1). The purpose of this wilderness journey for Israel was to “humble you, testing you to know what is in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not” (Deuteronomy 8:2); Jesus is led into the wilderness “to be tempted by the devil” (Matthew 4:1). Israel is there for forty years (Deuteronomy 8:2); Jesus is there for forty days and nights (Matthew 4:2). Israel is fed by bread from heaven so that they might learn that man lives by every word of God (Deuteronomy 8:3); Jesus cites Deuteronomy 8:3 when the devil tempts him to turn stones into bread (Matthew 4:3-4).
There are other parallels we could consider like Moses going up to a mountain to get the Decalogue (Exodus 19:20) and Jesus going up on a mountain and delivering his famous “Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5-7). Suffice it to say, Jesus is clearly being viewed as a superior specimen to even the greatest heroes of Judaism. For Matthew, at least, Jesus is the new, more obedient, and better Israel.
Most of us are familiar with the general details of the story of man’s sin and expulsion from Eden. But few of us really appreciate all that is going on in the story in Genesis 3. After God makes man in the garden (Genesis 2:7), he plants two trees: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (2:9). He tells the man that he can eat from any of the trees except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The penalty for doing so is death (2:16). Scary!
Next, in contrast to the repetition of the word “good” throughout Genesis 1, in Genesis 2 we find out that God has done something not so good: “It is not good that the man should be alone” (2:18). So he decides to create a helper for the man. He creates animals and brings them to the man so he can name them. But among them there is no suitable helper (2:19-20). So what does God do? He puts the man to sleep, pulls out a rib, and creates a woman.
We come to Genesis 3 and it opens with another animal God had made and that undoubtedly the man had encountered in chapter two: a serpent. He comes to the woman and he asks her, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?'” (3:1) This, of course, is no innocent question. The serpent is leading the woman down a path that leads to her expulsion from the garden.
“We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden,” she replies, “but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.'” (3:2-3) The woman isn’t exactly quoting God correctly. Look back at Genesis 2:16 again. He told the man that he could eat of every tree except from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. She also places the tree of the knowledge of good and evil “in the midst of the garden” despite the fact that both it and the tree of life are in the middle of the garden (2:9). She has fallen for the serpent’s craftiness. What is more is that she has added a prohibition God did not offer, namely that she is not even permitted to touch the fruit. This was not in the original command to the man.
“You will not surely die,” he tells the woman. “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (3:5). We may be taken aback by this contradiction of God’s word but the fact of the matter is that the serpent isn’t wrong. Neither Adam nor Eve die when they take the fruit and eat it. Check it out. Adam lives for 930 years before he dies (5:5). Furthermore, they do become like God knowing good and evil. God says later in the story, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil” (3:22).
What do we make of all this? Well, it becomes clear that the serpent is, for the most part, telling the truth. Though he leads with a question that implies God said something that he didn’t, his outright denial that neither the man nor the woman would die upon eating the fruit and that they would become like God when they did turns out to be completely true! But it is also clear from the text that the serpent knew that what he was doing would lead to the first humans’ downfall.
Genesis 3 is an etiology that seeks to answer questions like, “Why is child-bearing so painful?” and “Why do serpents go on their bellies?” Coming back to the text time and again reveals more and more interesting things. Today its how the serpent gets the woman to eat without telling her to do so and how he tells the truth about what will happen if she does eat.
If you have any thoughts or comments, please feel free to leave them or email me at email@example.com. Keep reading!