Book Review: ‘The Beloved Apostle?’ by Michael Kok

Author: Michael J. Kok

Book: The Beloved Apostle? The Transformation of the Apostle John into the Fourth Evangelist

Publishers: Cascade Books

Date: 2017

Page Count: 186 pages

Price: $24.00 (paperback)

INTRODUCTION

Indispensable to my dad’s conversion to Christianity, an event that happened when he was around thirty years of age, was the Gospel of John. Having received a copy of it from a believing friend, he read it through in one night and then, following the guide printed in the back of the stand-alone edition, asked Jesus to be his savior. Of the many Bible verses my dad has memorized, it is those from the Fourth Gospel that stand out the most:

  • “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1, KJV).
  • “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16, KJV).
  • “And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst” (John 6:35, KJV).

When recommending where Bible readers should start in their journey through scripture, my dad invariably tells them to start with John’s Gospel.

But how do we know that John’s Gospel is John’s Gospel? The only John that appears by name in the text is that of the Baptist, and he surely didn’t write the work. At best, the work is attributed to an unnamed disciple of Jesus given the moniker “the Beloved Disciple” – “This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them” (John 21:24, NRSV).1 But for most Christians, this Beloved Disciple is none other than John the son of Zebedee, a disciple (and apostle) of Jesus of Nazareth. How did that come about? That is the topic of Michael Kok’s book The Beloved Apostle? The Transformation of the Apostle John into the Fourth Evangelist.

SUMMARY

Following a brief introduction to the subject matter (pp. xi-xix), Kok has three projects designed for ch. 1 (pp. 1-29). The first is to delineate the so-called traditional view of the authorship of the Fourth Gospel (pp. 2-10). The second is to present a case against such a view (pp. 11-19). Finally, the third is to figure out the literary role the “beloved disciple” plays in the Johannine narrative (pp. 19-28). In ch. 2 (pp. 30-57), the author ponders the Johannine epilogue found in John 21. Having surveyed what he deems to be “inconclusive” data surrounding textual, stylistic, and thematic issues (pp. 31-42), Kok asserts that there are two “anachronisms” that situation the origins of John 21 in a second century context: authorial self-representation (pp. 43-50) and the crucifixion of Peter (pp. 50-56). Chapter three (pp. 58-102) attempts to explain how John the Elder known to Papias became John the author of the Fourth Gospel. There were three Johns: the brother of James headquartered in Jerusalem, the so-called Revelator (Revelation 1:1), and John the Elder in Ephesus. Through conflation and confusion these became one in the same person. In ch. 4 (pp. 103-126), Kok considers the function of an author in an ancient text like the Johannine Gospel. For ancient interpreters, the authority of the text was directly connected to that text’s source. Thus, if a disciple of Jesus named John did not stand behind the text, then the Fourth Gospel’s authenticity could be called into question, at least for some Christians. To round out the volume (pp. 127-129), Kok writes that for a Galilean fisherman to be “an exemplary disciple who had a close bond with Jesus, an exile languishing on the island of Patmos, an aging patron who shepherded a Christian assembly in Asia Minor, an instructor of influential bishops in Hierapolis and Smyrna, and an author of five writings within the New Testament” constitutes an “impressive dossier” (p. 127). However, it is a wholly unnecessary one as the value of the Fourth Gospel depends not on whatever its authorial backing purports to be but in its own unique contribution to an early vision of Jesus of Nazareth.

ANALYSIS

Most readers of the Fourth Gospel can sense the difficulty with ch. 21 of the work. The previous chapter closes quite naturally: an empty tomb (vv. 1-10), appearances to Jesus’s followers (vv. 11-29), and a conclusion that expresses the aim of the bios (vv. 30-31). It exhibits some of the characteristics of the other canonical bioi. But then suddenly there is in ch. 21 a new story, one about Jesus’s meeting with seven disciples and Peter particularly (vv. 1-19), as well as an addendum that attempts to explain the demise of the Beloved Disciple and its connection with the Parousia (vv. 20-23). In closing the Johannine account, the author attaches it to the “testimony” of this disciple (v. 24). But, as Kok observes, “The disclosure that the beloved disciple was the fount of the whole tradition seems utterly unexpected in light of the character’s absence from everything that happened before John 13:23” (p. 30). Kok argues in ch. 3 of The Beloved Apostle? that the final chapter of the Fourth Gospel doesn’t belong to the work’s original author. And there is not one but two smoking guns: anachronisms that point to an author working sometime in the early second century CE.

In his classic commentary on the Gospel of John, legendary New Testament scholar Rudolph Bultmann was skeptical that the author of John 1-20 was the author of John 21. He wrote, “That the Evangelist himself added it, and put it after his first conclusion [i.e., John 20:30-31], then to append yet a second concluding statement (vv. 24f.), is extraordinarily improbable.”2 He detected in the “postscript” tell-tale signs that the Johannine author was not its original composer. These include language and style, sentence connections, vocabulary, and more. Taken together, they give us pause for reconsidering the claim made in 21:24. But not everyone agreed with Bultmann’s take and, as Kok observes, “specialists are split over whether 21:1-25 deviates enough from the linguistic and stylistic traits of John 1-20 to be statistically relevant” (p. 34). Not even apparent thematic discontinuity is warrant for thinking two hands were involved. “Up until now,” Kok writes, “it may seem impossible to decide whether the evangelist or the redactor was the creative genius behind the Johannine epilogue” (p. 42). Enter the smoking guns.

The first is that of “authorial self-representation.” Drawing on the work of Armin Baum,3 Kok writes, “Unlike the historiographers and biographers in the Greco-Roman world who identifies themselves, the New Testament Gospels were patterned on the history books of the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Near Eastern historians in giving maximum priority to their historical subjects” (p. 43). He also observes that if it weren’t for John 21, the rest of the Johannine Gospel would be “consistent with the Synoptic Gospels in their deliberate anonymity” (p. 44). What happened? In short, the otherwise inconsequential Beloved Disciple received an “upgrade” as it were, going from eyewitness to author. The work’s redactor believed that “the beloved disciple was the most suitable choice for a fictive author based on his exemplary virtue and perceptiveness within the Fourth Gospel” (p. 49). Additionally, the “we” of John 21:24 functions to verify the testimony of this disciple, ensuring its authenticity.

The second smoking gun is the anachronism of Peter’s crucifixion alluded to in John 21:18-19. While in the narrative this is prophetic, its inclusion in the Johannine epilogue is ex eventu. Bradford Blaine, Jr. writes, “Readers are not supposed to know simply that Peter was martyred but that he was martyred in a particular way, by crucifixion, the manner of Jesus’ death.”4 But it is in this description of Peter’s demise that Kok detects “an underappreciated clue to the general dating of the Johannine epilogue” (p. 51). Whether or not Peter was really crucified is beside the point. There was a tradition among early Christians that Peter was the victim of this tortuous form of execution. But as Kok notes, early evidence places Peter in Rome (e.g., 1 Clement 5:4, etc.) and, well, when in Rome you do as the Romans do. Or, better, you have done to you as the Romans do: crucifixion. But these traditions belong to the late first and early second centuries, not earlier. Thus, its presence in the Johannine Gospel’s ending is suggestive of it belonging not to the early first century but later.

Kok observes, however, that even though the redactor’s work happened later than the other sections of the Gospel were written, “the Johannine epilogue was published at an early enough date that the beloved disciple was not yet merged with the apostolic son of Zebedee in John 21:2” (p. 57). And this is where things get both interesting and complicated. Through ch. 3, Kok makes his case that the journey from a beloved follower of Jesus to specifically John the son of Zebedee involved multiple characters and, arguably, a whole lot of stretching. It begins with Papias, the bishop of Hieropolis of whom Eusebius wrote that “[h]e was very limited in his comprehension” (Ecclesiastical History 3.39.13).5 Papias, Kok writes, “was a collector of the Christian folklore floating around” Hierapolis (p. 59) and he claimed to be a disciple of an elder named John.  Despite attempts to connect this elder to John the Apostle and, ultimately, the Fourth Gospel, Kok thinks this is little more than stretching. With Justin Martyr connecting the apostle to the book of Revelation and people like Irenaeus espousing Johannine authorship of the Fourth Gospel, the wires got crossed and the Elder John of Papias, a man who was not an apostle, became the apostle John who wrote the canonical Gospel.

This tradition from Papias through to Irenaeus is not exactly the surest ground upon which to build the case that the author of the Fourth Gospel is, in fact, the apostle John. And as Kok contends, the rather late traditions surrounding John’s authorship of the text betray the idea that authorship alone was a primary concern for canonicity. Rather, it was used in concert with other criteria. (Take, for example, the book of Hebrews.) Does this diminish the value of the Gospel? By no means! It stands as an excellent example of the reception of the Jesus tradition by the community of the Beloved Disciple. It is their own response to previous traditions found in the Synoptics as well as stories that no doubt circulated in their own community.

CONCLUSION

Undoubtedly, much more could be said about Kok’s work but the best advice I can give is to recommend you read it. Because it is not a long work, readers should be able to get through it in a short time and from it they will glean much. Those who hold to traditional authorship of the Gospel will find a respectful discussion of why that position doesn’t seem tenable. Skeptics of traditional authorship will find reasons to remain skeptical all the while gaining more respect for the genius of the redactor of the Fourth Gospel. This is a book to which I will no doubt turn to again and again.


1 Unless otherwise noted, all citations of biblical texts are from the New Revised Standard Version.

2 Rudolph Bultmann, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, translated by G.R. Beasley Murray, R.W.N. Hoare, and J.K. Riches (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1971), 700.

3 Armin D. Baum, “The Anonymity of the New Testament History Books: A Stylistic Device in the Context of Greco-Roman and Ancient Near Eastern Literature,” Novum Testamentum 50 (2008), 120-142.

4 Bradford B. Blaine, Jr., Peter in the Gospel of John: The Making of an Authentic Disciple (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 173.

5 Translation taken from Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, translated by C.F. Cruse (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998).

Invasion of the Bible Snatchers: Ray Comfort’s ‘Scientific Facts in the Bible’ – Seed of a Woman

To see other posts in this series, please go to the series’ page.

INTRODUCTION

In Scientific Facts in the Bible: Amazing Truths Written Thousands of Years Before Man Discovered Them, Ray Comfort quotes Genesis 3:15 and writes,

This verse reveals that a female possesses a “seed” for childbearing. This was not common knowledge until a few centuries ago. It was widely believed that only a male possessed the “seed of life” and that the woman was simply a glorified incubator.[1]

Presumably, by “seed of life” Comfort is referring to the ova carried by females of our species. But is this what the biblical author had in mind when referring to the woman’s seed?

THE SEED OF THE WOMAN

At the outset, it should be noted that in the NKJV from which Comfort quotes the words “Seed” and “His” are capitalized. The reason for this stylistic choice can be inferred from the preface to the NKJV.

[R]everence for God in in the present work is preserved by capitalizing pronouns including You, Your, and Yours, which refer to Him. Additionally, capitalization of these pronouns benefits the reader by clearly distinguishing divine and human persons referred to in a passage. Without such capitalization the distinction is often obscure, because the antecedent of a pronoun is not always clear in the English language.[2]

While “Seed” is not a pronoun, the translators of the NKJV thought of it as a reference to a divine person. Specifically, as many Christians do, the reference is to Jesus. Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke writes about this passage,

The pronouncement that the woman’s seed will crush…the Serpent’s head is called the protoevangelium (the first gospel message). The reach of this prophecy extends from Eve to the future of her seed throughout history. Though Eve deserves only death, God does not turn his back on her. Instead, in his kindness God restores her through the mission of her seed. His purpose will not be defeated. Humankind will yet be crowned with glory and honor, bringing all things under their feet as God originally intended.[3]

This restoration to glory and honor, Waltke contends, comes through the suffering of Jesus.[4] Thus, from the very beginning we have an utterance of the good news.

While this may be a favored interpretation of Genesis 3:15 among many Christians, there is nothing in the text itself that gives us the impression it is the correct one. Nor does Comfort employ this passage as a prophetic text about Jesus. Instead, for him the passage’s value is scientific: the verse is referring to women’s ova.

“Seed” renders the Hebrew substantive zeraʿ,a term that, per BDB,[5] can refer to a sowing (of seed), a seed from which a plant grows, semen, offspring/descendants, and moral fruit. Which is it here? The clue is found in the language of the second half of the verse: “he will strike your head, and you will strike his heal” (NRSV).[6] The presence of the masculine pronoun hûʾ (“he”) and the pronominal suffix (“his”) found in the verb təšūp̄ennū (“you will strike his”) points to zeraʿ not being an impersonal ovum but a dynamic agent with the ability to strike at serpents. Specifically, since zeraʿ is a collective noun, the idea may be that all of humanity (i.e., the descendants of the first woman) are in view. In the words of Nahum Sarna, the “curse [on the serpent] seeks to explain the natural revulsion of humans for the serpent.”[7]

CONCLUSION

Far from referring to the gamete of females, Genesis 3:15’s reference to the woman’s “seed” is likely referring to her descendants. We may thus see Genesis 3 as a kind of etiology, an attempt by the biblical author to explain the status quo. Comfort has once again misunderstood the biblical text.


[1] Ray Comfort, Scientific Facts in the Bible: Amazing Truths Written Thousands of Years Before Man Discovered Them (Bellflower, CA: Living Waters Publications, 2016), 14.

[2] “The New King James Version: Preface,” helpmewithbiblestudy.org.

[3] Bruce K. Waltke with Charles Yu, An Old Testament Theology: An Exegetical, Canonical, and Thematic Approach (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 266.

[4] Waltke, An Old Testament Theology, 266.

[5] The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, edited by F. Brown, S. Driver, and C. Briggs (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2000 [originally published in 1906]).

[6] All quotations of biblical texts, unless otherwise noted, are from the New Revised Standard Version.

[7] Nahum M. Sarna, Genesis: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation Commentary, The JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia, PA: The Jewis Publication Society, 1989), 27.

‘The Bible Told Them So’ by J. Russell Hawkins: A Brief Review

Subtitled How Southern Evangelicals Fought to Preserve White Supremacy, J. Russell Hawkins book The Bible Told Them So (Oxford University Press, 2021) demonstrates with clear lines of evidence how white Christians in South Carolina did all that they could to promote segregation in the wake of the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Pastors who opposed segregation were ousted and institutions were created to combat what many felt was an ungodly mixing of the races. Of particular interest to me was the way in which believers coopted texts from the Bible to support their views, the subject of ch. 2 of Hawkins’s work. For example, in the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11), segregationists saw a deity who preferred separation over unification. Hawkins quotes Stuart Landry, a Louisianan businessman who peddled the gospel of segregation: “Let it [the church] not try to rebuild the Tower of Babel, and to attempt to bring together in concordance, discordant and disintegrating elements of the great human family, separated by God thousands of years ago” (p. 49). This appropriation of a polemic against Babylon for the purposes of keeping black Christians from worshipping alongside white Christians was hardly unique. Hawkins notes other texts, including Acts 17:26, which he says was “the biblical verse cited most by white Christians in the twentieth century to defend segregation” (p. 52). 

The theology that defended segregation fueled its existence in Southern seminaries, colleges, and grade schools. In ch. 5, Hawkins lays out the origins of many Southern private schools. He writes, “Unquestionably…the growth of white support for private schools in the mid-twentieth century was directly tied to public school desegregation” (p. 134). When the United States government began to enforce desegregation, white supremacists in the South found a workaround: private schools. Hawkins observes that in South Carolina, following a ruling by a district court judge in Columbia in 1963 that denounced segregation and forced school districts to admit African American students, private schools began to proliferate in the state. This “mirrored a broader phenomenon that occurred across the southern United States. The meteoric growth in southern private schools that began in the mid-1960s reached its peak in the wake of the 1971 Supreme Court decision in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, a court decision that sanctioned busing as an acceptable instrument to achieve school desegregation” (p. 145). I had no idea the racist past behind so many private schools, but I should have suspected it.

The Bible Told Them So was eye opening in so many ways. What it describes is relatively recent history, the effects of which remain to this day. The picture Hawkins offers his readers is disturbing, a clear-cut example of the way in which the Bible can be weaponized against those without real power. Given our current historical moment with debates raging over Critical Race Theory, without a doubt The Bible Told Them So should be considered as evidence that systemic racism existed in the past. What are we doing to dismantle it in the present? 

Invasion of the Bible Snatchers: Ray Comfort’s ‘Scientific Facts in the Bible’ – Circumcised the Eighth Day

To see other posts in this series, please go to the series’ page.

INTRODUCTION

In Scientific Facts in the Bible: Amazing Truths Written Thousands of Years Before Man Discovered Them, pop-apologist Ray Comfort quotes from Genesis 17:12 (NKJV) and writes,

Why was circumcision to be carried out on the eighth day? Medical science has only recently discovered that blood-clotting in a newborn reaches its peak on the eighth day, then drops. This is the day that the coagulating factor in the blood, called prothrombin, is the highest.[1]

Is this why circumcision was to be done on the eighth day following birth? Or is there are more mundane explanation rooted in the world of the biblical author?

CIRCUMCISED THE EIGHTH DAY

When my son was born, he was almost immediately given a shot of vitamin K. The reason for this is that virtually all infants come into the world with deficient levels of vitamin K. Because vitamin K is an important component of blood clotting, a shot of it decreases the likelihood that an infant could bleed out. The Centers for Disease Control notes that vitamin K deficiency bleeding (VKDB) is a risk for babies from birth to even past the six-week mark. Given that VKDB has a 20% mortality rate among those who have not received the shot, getting it to an infant as soon as possible can be lifesaving.[2]

My son received vitamin K minutes after birth and was circumcised just two days later with no issues, no doubt thanks in part to the shot. In fact, there is evidence to show an 82% decrease in the risk of bleeding following a circumcision in infants who received vitamin K versus those who do not.[3] Given that this practice of bolstering infants’ clotting mechanisms didn’t begin until the 1960s, the risks to babies who were circumcised before that time would have been greater. And since VKDB is not merely a risk for infants in the first few days of life, even circumcising on the eighth day would have posed a risk in antiquity. To be on the safe side, wouldn’t it have been wiser of God to command that sons be circumcised closer to their first year of age?[4] Why then the eighth day?

In Genesis 17, Yahweh appears to Abram and instructs him that the covenant between the deity and Abram as well as his offspring entails the rite of circumcision. “You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you” (v. 11). This act of circumcision, per divine command, is to be done when a male is eight days old (v. 12). The text never explains why the sign is to be administered when the infant is eight days old as opposed to the first day or at a year old. And unfortunately for Abram, his thirteen-year-old son Ishmael, and his male slaves, the rite of circumcision was given well after the eight-day mark (vv. 23-27). (It is easy to imagine that the pain a ninety-nine-year-old man might experience having his foreskin removed is of a different quality than that of an eight-day-old.) As noted above, Ray Comfort thinks the ritual was to be done at eight days because that is when the ability of a newborn’s body to clot reaches its peak. But is this the most parsimonious explanation?

The rite of circumcision was not unique to Israelites, and it certainly did not originate with them. In his book Circumcision: A History of the World’s Most Controversial Surgery, historian David Gollaher observes that the earliest extant evidence of circumcision comes from the middle of the third millennium BCE in ancient Egypt. On the wall of a tomb, one finds “a well-preserved bas-relief of temple priests in the act of cutting the genitals of two young noblemen.”[5] Inscriptions on the wall give the impression that the surgery could lead to intense pain such that the recently circumcised might pass out. “The Egyptian ritual must have presented an opportunity for a youth, on the threshold of manhood, to demonstrate his mastery over bodily pain,” Gollaher opines.[6] Indeed, among cultures that practiced it, circumcision was often tied to puberty or marriage.[7] What set the Israelite practice apart was that instead of being performed on adolescents or adult males, it was administered on sons that were but eight days old. Consequently, circumcision was no longer tied to puberty or marriage. But this doesn’t mean that it was entirely untethered. Within the corpus of the biblical texts, there are some hints as to why the rite was given to infants on the eighth day following birth.

In Leviticus 12, Yahweh tells Moses that when a woman gives birth to a son, she is unclean for seven days (v. 2). The seven-day formula is connected explicitly to menstruation which, per Leviticus 15:19, results in a seven-day period of uncleanness. If the woman is unclean for seven days, naturally this would mean that she is clean on the eighth. Her renewed status coincides with the timing of her son’s circumcision which, Leviticus 12:3 tells us, is to happen on the eighth day following birth. The question then is, Why the eighth day? The answer is that in all likelihood the child was considered unclean. In Leviticus 15, it is explicit that anyone who comes into contact with what a menstruating woman has touched is unclean. Moreover, a man that has a sexual encounter with a menstruating woman that results in him coming into contact with “her impurity,” that is her, her menstrual flow, is also unclean for seven days (v. 24). Given the explicit connection between childbirth and menstruation and that the child would have necessarily come into contact with his mother’s sexual organs and blood, it stands to reason that the text of Leviticus 12 is implying the newborn son was also unclean.[8] It is only when this ritual impurity begins to subside on the eighth day that the male infant is given the sign of Israel’s covenant with Yahweh. Shaye Cohen notes that the connection between circumcision and impurity not only existed in other cultures but that the removal of the foreskin signifies some kind of purified status.[9] This is almost certainly implied by Yahweh’s command to Abram in Genesis 17 for he warns the patriarch in v. 14 that “[a]ny uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

CONCLUSION

Comfort’s definitionally eisegetical attempts at understanding circumcision on the eighth day demonstrates his ignorance of the Bible, his disrespect of it, or both. A likely explanation for circumcision on the eighth day following birth is readily available simply by reading these texts in their own context.


[1] Ray Comfort, Scientific Facts in the Bible: Amazing Truths Written Thousands of Years Before Man Discovered Them (Bellflower, CA: Living Waters Publications, 2016), 13-14.

[2] See Centers for Disease Control, “Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’s): Vitamin K and the Vitamin K Shot Given at Birth” (last reviewed 1.1.21), cdc.gov.

[3] Rebecca Decker, “Evidence on: The Vitamin K Shot in Newborns” (updated on 4.9.19), evidencebasedbirth.com.

[4] Or, were he an intelligent designer, why not allow infants to be born with a sufficient level of vitamin K?

[5] David L. Gollaher, Circumcision: A History of the World’s Most Controversial Surgery (New York: Basic Books, 2000),1.

[6] Gollaher, Circumcision, 2.

[7] Nahum Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 125.

[8] Matthew Thiessen, Jesus and the Forces of Death: The Gospels’ Portrayal of Ritual Impurity Within First-Century Judaism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2020), 33.

[9] Shaye J.D. Cohen, Why Aren’t Jewish Women Circumcised? Gender and Covenant in Judaism (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005), 19.

Amateur Hour #7 – “The Anti-Strobel” w/Vi La Bianca

In this episode, I have a conversation with Vi La Bianca, the “Anti-Strobel,” on journalism, the Bible, and more.

Bible Study for Amateurs #10 – Is the Synoptics’ Three-Hour Darkness a Solar Eclipse?

When Jesus died, the Gospel of Mark says that there was darkness over the world for three hours. What in the world happened?

Invasion of the Bible Snatchers: Ray Comfort’s ‘Scientific Facts in the Bible’ – Wearing Out Like a Garment

To see other posts in this series, please go to the series’ page.

INTRODUCTION

Ray Comfort in his book Scientific Facts in the Bible: Amazing Truths Written Thousands of Years Before Man Discovered Them, quotes Hebrews 1:10-11 (NKJV) and writes,

The Bible tells us three times that the earth is wearing out like a garment. This is what the Second Law of Thermodynamics (the Law of Increasing Entropy) states: that in all physical processes, every ordered system over time tends to become more disordered. Everything is running down and wearing out as energy is becoming less and less available for use. That means the universe will eventually “wear out.” This wasn’t discovered by science until fairly recently.[1]

Has Comfort gotten this one right?

THE ETERNAL GOD

Let’s begin with asking a related question: Why does Comfort quote Hebrews 1:10-11 and not Psalm 102:25-26? It is possible that the apologist was simply unaware of the source of the citation in Hebrews. But if we examine Psalm 102, we can quickly see how Comfort has misappropriated the biblical texts.

Psalm 102 is a prayer to Yahweh, a request for help in a time of dire need (vv. 1-2). The psalmist laments that his “days pass away like smoke” (v. 3) and that he is wasting away, all alone (vv. 4-7). He is taunted by his enemies (v. 8) and has been “thrown…aside” by God (vv. 9-10). “My days are like an evening shadow; I wither away like grass,” he laments in v. 11. The language used here evokes ancient sundials used in various cultures, including Israel.[2] As the sun begins to set, the shadow cast by the dial grows longer. But there comes a point when the shadow is gone completely, when the sun’s light no longer reaches the dial and night sets in. The writer of Psalm 102 is acknowledging the impermanence of his own life.

“But you, O LORD, are enthroned forever,” the psalmist begins in v. 12, “your name endures to all generations” (v. 12). In stark contrast to his own existence, the author asserts that Yahweh will forever be king. In the verses that follow (vv. 13-22), he requests that Yahweh restore Israel to a place of prominence among the nations. In vv. 23-24, the contrast between human mortality and divine immortality is once again brought to the foreground: “’O my God,’ I say, ‘do not take me away at the midpoint of my life, you whose years endure throughout all generations’” (v. 24). This is the immediate context of the verses quoted by Comfort from Hebrews 1:10-11.[3] Thus, when the psalmist says in v. 26 that earth and heaven “will perish, but you endure,” he is extrapolating from his own experience and observation that the only thing that has remained constant throughout his people’s history is their god, Yahweh, a being whose eternality “makes even the heavens seem ephemeral.”[4]

In the final verse of the psalm, it is clear that it is Yahweh’s eternality that secures Israel’s hope for the future: “The children of your servants shall live secure; their offspring shall be established in your presence.” Note the way the psalmist’s language; it is not merely the servants who have this hope but their children and offspring. Why? Because, in the words of v. 27, Yahweh’s “years have no end.” Again, the emphasis in this psalm is upon the impermanence of the human experience and the permanence of Yahweh.[5]

CONCLUSION

While it is arguably the case that the psalmist is speaking of the entropy of earth and heaven, we have no evidence he was aware of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Instead, he drew upon personal experience and observation to extrapolate that even the ground beneath his feet and the sky above his head were prone to wearing out. Specifically, because he viewed the god of Israel as the only eternal entity, it followed that everything else in creation was contingent and would one day pass away. But the psalmist’s main point is theological: Israel can rest assured because its god doesn’t wear out. He remains as he ever was, as the Great I Am.


[1] Ray Comfort, Scientific Facts in the Bible: Amazing Truths Written Thousands of Years Before Man Discovered Them (Bellflower, CA: Living Waters Publications, 2016), 13.

[2] Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary, vol. 3 – The Writings (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2019), 237. E.g., 2 Kings 20:11, Isaiah 38:8.

[3] Setting aside, of course, that the author of Hebrews is quoting from the LXX.

[4] Alter, The Hebrew Bible, vol. 3 – The Writings, 239.

[5] Walter Brueggemann and William H. Bellinger, Jr., Psalms, New Cambridge Bible Commentary (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 437.

3 Bad Reasons to Believe the Bible Is Inerrant

Dr. Danny Akin has three reasons for believing the Bible is free from error. And they’re really bad.

Bible Study for Amateurs #9 – Is the Atheist the Fool of Psalm 14:1?

A look at an oft-misunderstood verse in the Bible.

‘Paul the Apostle’ by J. Albert Harrill: A Brief Review

In J. Albert Harrill’s 2012 volume Paul the Apostle: His Life and Legacy in Their Roman Context (Cambridge University Press), the professor of classics brings to life one of history’s most enigmatic characters. Situating him in his ancient Jewish and, fundamentally, Roman contexts, Harrill offers readers a glimpse of a man who commitments to apocalypticism ran deep. And with this apocalyptic outlook, Paul employed his rhetorical training to convince non-Jews to follow the Jewish messiah. The work covers six main topics: Paul’s journey from a Pharisee who persecuted Christ followers to an apostle of the risen Lord (ch. 1), the formation of Christ-following communities in the Mediterranean (ch. 2), Paul as influenced by his Roman context (ch. 3), Paul’s reception among early Christians following his death (ch. 4), the tug of war over the apostle’s legacy in the second century and beyond (ch. 5), and, in a chapter entitled “How the West Got Paul Wrong,” a conversation about appropriation of Paul by people like Augustine and Luther and how they distorted the apostle’s words. At the end of the volume, readers will find appendices covering the order in which Pauline and Deutero-Pauline material was composed, a reconstruction of the Corinthian correspondence, and a list of ancient Christian works that offer stories about the apostle.

Harrill’s work is informative in several ways. As already noted above, it places Paul within his Roman context, not as an anti-imperialism apostle but as one at home with Roman forms of rhetoric and ideals. Harrill writes, “We need to move beyond thinking about Romanness as a bounded entity against which the ‘opposing’ cultural identity of Paul can then be contrasted or otherwise measured. Paul’s experience of Roman culture, his way of ‘being Roman,’ involved various subcultures, including Jewish ones” (p. 79). Take, for example, “Paul’s language of authority” (p. 80) in which he used his clout (auctoritas) to influence his readers. That is, Paul didn’t attempt to sway his readers on the grounds he was an apostle imbued with authority but instead sought to persuade them because of his deeds. To Christ-followers in Thessalonica, Paul describes the events of the initial mission and his work with them, writing, “Though able to throw our weight around as Christ’s apostles, we instead came into your midst with gentleness, as a nurse who cares for her own children” (1 Thessalonians 2:7, my translation). Elsewhere, Paul rejects the rights he possesses an apostle, preferring instead to what he has done rather than who he is (e.g., 1 Corinthians 9:1-6, 12-18). This use of auctoritas, Harrill observes, “resembles [the emperor] Augustine’s refusal of honors in the Res Gestae” (p. 83). Paul, in other words, argued like a Roman.

Though only a little more than 200 pages in length, Paul the Apostle should prove to be an invaluable introduction to one of Christianity’s most eccentric and perplexing personas. Coupled with works like Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle by Paula Fredriksen, Paul and the Gentile Problem by Matthew Thiessen, Reading Paul within Judaism by Mark Nanos, and others within the Paul-within-Judaism camp, this book will give its readers the opportunity to see a Paul that is more in tune with his historical context.