Archive for February, 2012

First of all, let me admit from the beginning that I do not always practice what I preach. Some of you know that already. I hope you will not let the messenger stand in the way of the message. As we get nearer to the presidential election, I suspect political posts on social media sites will increase. With that in mind, may I share some of my thoughts about the process?

Before posting a comment or sharing a link on a social media site, may I suggest each of us ask ourselves why we are posting it? If my purpose is to make fun of a position, then the content of the post will not matter. If, however, I really wish to encourage those with whom I disagree to consider my position, then sarcasm or ridicule will not be likely to accomplish that goal. Remember that positions that seem so obviously wrong to me reflect someone else’s deeply held convictions. If I engage in ridicule or sarcasm, the other person will likely ignore what I say because of the way in which I say it. I also risk hurting someone who may be a dear friend. Is my desire to vent worth that price?

I would also hope that each of us could learn to consider that there are elements in the other person’s position which I need to consider. Virtually no belief takes into consideration all of the elements involved. Maturity means that I should be able to recognize the legitimate concerns of the person with whom I disagree.

These principles obviously apply to religious posts as well. On a personal note, as a Christian, I do not believe I am reflecting Christ when my comments are mean or spiteful. I am aware that Jesus reserved His most scathing rebukes for the Pharisees. Perhaps He did so, not because their beliefs were wrong, but because they were self-righteous and assumed that only they understood the truth. My observations lead me to believe that there is plenty of self-righteousness to go around, and it can be shared equally by conservatives and liberals alike.

The United States desperately needs thoughtful dialogue among all spectrums of our society, but this will not happen until we approach one another with consideration and respect. My purpose today is to encourage all of us to be more careful of what we say to one another and the manner in which we say it.

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Last night I was watching a television documentary discussing the so-called “Gnostic” gospels. I suspect many of you have heard of these writings and how they present a very different picture of Jesus than we find in our four canonical gospels. It is true that these gospels do describe Jesus differently from what we find in our accepted four gospels, and finding them opened up the opportunity to study a branch of early Christianity which we had previously known only from its opponents. While I have not read all these writings, I have read many of them, and the stories they tell are interesting.

At the same time, I was disturbed by how the “documentary” portrayed these gospels. I was especially concerned when statements were made that virtually any Biblical scholar would recognize as false. I am not speaking of how one interprets these writings or whether or not they might provide genuine information about Jesus that is not found in our four gospels. As I have repeated many times, we all have our beliefs, and these beliefs will influence how we interpret evidence. This was obviously true with those who produced this television program, just as it is true for me. No, what concerns me is not with their interpretation, but their presentation of what they purport to be facts. Interpretation is one thing; facts should be another. If I cannot trust that “facts” will be presented objectively, how can I trust anything that is said?

During the program, the narrator admitted that what are known as the “Nag Hammadi” texts date from the fourth century AD (the 300s), although they were originally written earlier. So far, so good. But then the narrator went on to say that the earliest manuscripts we have of the accepted four gospels date from the same period, so there is no way of knowing which were written first. This statement is simply not true, and shame on the program for saying it.

Here are the facts. We have manuscripts of all four of the canonical gospels that date to the second century. Below are the four gospels with the earliest manuscripts we possess. Obviously, the dates are approximate, but they are generally recognized as accurate.

Matthew — manuscript p45 (AD 225-250)

Mark — manuscript p45 (AD 225-250)

Luke — manuscript p75 (AD 200); manuscript p45 (AD 225-250)

John — manuscript p52 (AD 100-150); manuscript p66 (AD 200); manuscript p45 (AD 225-250).

This means that the earliest manuscripts of the four canonical gospels date from 50 to 100 years earlier than the Nag Hammadi gospels. It is simply not true that the earliest manuscripts of the canonical gospels date from the same period as the Nag Hammadi gospels. Nor is there any real question that the four gospels in our New Testament were all written earlier than the Nag Hammadi gospels, if only because Gnosticism did not really develop until the second and third centuries.

I wish to close by making two points. The first is an appeal to all of us to make every effort to separate our opinions from the facts and to be clear when we are expressing our opinions. This is true in religion, politics, or any other area of our lives. Let us be very clear about what we know to be true, as opposed to what we believe to be true. If I present as a fact what is only my interpretation, I lose all credibility, because facts will eventually come out.

Finally, please do not accept what you see presented in these documentaries uncritically. They are designed to be entertaining and to improve ratings. If they can present or manipulate evidence in a way that is sensational, that attracts more viewers and improves their ratings. It is truly unfortunate that we cannot trust even the “facts” presented in these programs, but regrettably this is the case. I have found two other areas presented by this same network in dealing with Biblical issues in which they presented “facts” that were simply incorrect. If something that is said does not appear to be correct, search it out. What is presented may be accurate, and you can learn something. At the same time, it is also possible that what is presented as “facts” are not correct. We live in an information age, and it is incumbent on each of us to maintain a healthy skepticism about the information with which we are presented.

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Why do I phrase the question like that? For a simple reason. Most biblical scholars, liberal or conservative, agree that the same person wrote both books. Why is this so? Partially, because the book of Acts tells us that. While neither book refer to the author’s name, both of them begin by telling us they were written to someone named Theophilus, and Acts refers to “my first book.” Some people believe this was not an actual person. The name Theophilus is compounded from two Greek words which together mean “lover of God.” So was the author of Luke writing to a real person named Theophilus, or was he being more general? Your guess is as good as mine, although, in the absence of more evidence, I tend to accept the more mundane view that Theophilus was a real person. Names is the ancient world usually had some meaning, so there is no reason a person could not be named Theophilus.

This of course says nothing about who wrote the book. As with so many biblical questions, there are two basic views. The traditional belief is that both Luke and Acts were written by Luke, a physician and associate of the apostle Paul. Many scholars see these books as being written later, even as late as the second century. One of the reasons for questioning the traditional authorship is the apparent differences in theology between the author of Luke-Acts and the writings of Paul. Also, Luke’s discussion of the Parousia (or second coming) suggests a date late enough for that to be an issue.

In answer to that, those supporting a traditional interpretation make several points. First is the virtually universal acceptance of the traditional authorship until modern times, going back to the second century and Irenaeus. The earliest manuscript we have of the gospel of Luke (@ AD 200) gives it the title “According to Luke.” We should also recognize that there is no clear reference to the letters of Paul in Luke’s writing. This has to do not only with authorship, but also with dating. If these books were written in the second century, it would seem likely that there would be references to Paul’s teaching, especially in Acts, which emphasizes Paul so strongly. Since there is not, a logical assumption might be that these letters were either still being written or that they were so recent that they had not achieved a status of recognition as authoritative.

At the same time, there are passages which suggest some degree of association between Luke and Paul. For instance, both of them describe the institution of the Lord’s Supper in very similar terms (Luke 22.19-20 and 1 Corinthians 11.24-25).

Then we must deal with what have come to be called the “we” passages. Several times in the book of Acts, the narrator switches from the third person. Just one of these changes occurs in Acts 16.8-11. “8So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. 9During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ 10After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.11 From Troas we put out to sea and sailed straight for Samothrace, and the next day on to Neapolis.” Notice how the writer switches from “they” in verse 8 to “we” in verse 10. One would logically assume that the writer is indicating that after writing about Paul’s decision to go to Macedonia, the author of Acts joined him in going to Neapolis. Scholars who question the traditional authorship sometimes contend that only the “we” portions represent the original eyewitness portions (and that these may have been written by Luke). They would suggest that later on, someone else wove these passages and other traditions together to form the final narrative. At the same time, the stylistic evidence, upon which modern scholars so often rely, seems to suggest otherwise. There is no real difference between the “we” passages and the rest of Acts.

We should also recognize that Luke was a relatively minor character in the New Testament. If someone in the second century wanted to write in the name of someone else, why would he not pick a more prominent person, such as Paul himself?

For all of these reasons, I tend to accept the traditional view that Luke and Acts were written by Luke, an associate of Paul. This of course, brings up the question of dating, which brings its own series of problems.

Since almost all scholars believe that Luke used the gospel of Mark as one of his sources, it must have been written after that gospel. You may remember that we suggested that Mark should most likely be dated between AD 60 and 70. The conflict we have is that giving Mark and (therefore Luke-Acts) an early date resolves some issues, but giving Mark a later date helps answer other questions.

Supporting later dates for Luke and Acts are some of the issues we have already discussed, particularly Jesus’ prediction of the fall of Jerusalem in Luke 21. Conservative scholars normally see no conflict here, because they argue that Jesus could foresee the future. More liberal scholars tend to reject this and point to this passage as proof that the gospel of Luke was written after AD 70 and the fall of Jerusalem. Even scholars who believe that the passage preserves a genuine prophecy of Jesus might argue that it was emphasized because the author had experienced the fulfillment. Ultimately, arguments such as this really do not speak to me one way or the other. We also discussed the concept of the Parousia or second coming, but this also does not require a late date. In 1 Thessalonians, Paul deals at length with this subject, and 1 Thessalonians is one of the earliest books in the New Testament.

So, what arguments can be given to support an earlier date? First of all, there are the “we” passages which suggest an eyewitness account for at least part of the book of Acts. Other explanations are given for them, but why not accept the simplest explanation as the true one? Acts was written by a contemporary of the events described and an eyewitness to many of them. Of course, the author of the gospel of Luke specifically says he was not an eyewitness of Jesus’ life, but that he consulted a number of sources.

There is also Luke’s description of the Last Supper to which we referred earlier. In addition to matching closely Paul’s description in 1 Corinthians, Luke does something found in no other gospel. He refers to a first cup, then the bread, then a second cup. Could this indicate that Luke was writing at a very early date when the precise order of the Lord’s Supper had not yet become fixed?

One final issue needs to be mentioned, and that is the close of the book of Acts which is very strange. The book closes with Paul in prison, but not apparently in any immediate danger, and it is very different from the description in 2 Timothy 4. While I am aware of the issues regarding dating of the Pastorals, we can assume they rely at least on ancient accounts which describe the final weeks or months of Paul’s life. And it is interesting that the one person described in 2 Timothy upon whom Paul relies is — Luke. If Acts were written after Paul’s death, it seems very strange that Paul’s death would not have been recorded. It would suggest that perhaps Acts was written before Paul’s death. Of course, this brings up another problem. Acts was written after Luke. Even if Mark were written as early as AD 60, Luke would have been very busy writing in order to complete both Luke and Acts before Paul’s death.

So, I must leave you with an uncertain conclusion. I do tend to accept the traditional authorship of Luke and Acts as being written by Luke, the companion of Paul. Dating is a difficult subject, and I am not able to offer a conclusion that satisfies even me. The ending of Acts seems to point to a date before Paul’s death; however, that requires a date too early to fit into the chronology of the gospels as we know it. Two possibilities present themselves. One is that Luke and Acts were written later in the first century which allows Luke to make use of Mark’s gospel. The other possibility is that our accepted chronology of the gospels is wrong. Either Mark was written even earlier than AD 60, or (and this is unlikely) Luke was written before Mark.

I am afraid I must leave us with questions for which there are at this time no good answers. At the same time, I still see no compelling reason to deny that Luke and Acts were written by Luke, the companion of Paul. I have read no convincing arguments to contradict that, and it still appears to be the simplest explanation.

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Update on My Book

I have been extremely gratified at the success of my novel, Time Ship. So far I have received three reviews, all of them 5-star reviews. Also, in January alone the Kindle edition sold 632 copies, including 22 in the United Kingdom and 1 in Germany. In addition, through Amazon Prime 51 copies were borrowed. Since the book was introduced on October 9, a total of 958 have been sold and 53 borrowed, making the total over 1,000 copies. This does not include the paperback which was just made available last Friday.

We have all heard the advice to use our retirement as the opportunity to do what we always wanted to do. I have decided to do that. So far, I have been thrilled at the response.

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