Tag Archives: history

The Uncertain Gospel

The editing done to purge the crimes of the Romans and to delete references to Jesus’ rebellion against them was an intricate and difficult job. Part of it was left incomplete. Remember, thousands of manuscripts were circulating around. Not all could be completely purged. Flashes of accuracy remain. “We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be the Messiah, a king.” (Luke 23:2 NIV) This statement in Luke indicates that corrupt priests delivered Jesus to his oppressors, the Roman administration, because he was a rebel against Roman rule pure and simple. Because it is so different from other statements throughout the rest of the Gospels, which take great pains to make Jesus non-political, it is an obvious piece of real history that slipped through, contrary to the intent of editors publishing Paul’s concept of a strictly spiritual Jesus.

-Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
“Chapter 8: Jesus Never Claimed to Be Divine” pg 51
Kosher Jesus

This is bound to be a part of Rabbi Boteach’s book that will be a major problem with most Christians. Boteach insists that the Gospels were heavily edited to remove any (or most) traces of not only the “Jewishness” of Jesus, but the “fact” that he was executed by the Romans for being a rebel and attempting to lead the Jewish people in a revolt against their Roman occupiers. The portions of the Gospel that seem to support Boteach’s position, he declares as “real history,” while anything that denies his perspective is considered to have been significantly changed by later editors to make the New Testament more palatable to Rome.

You might easily conclude, as a Christian, that Boteach is writing to support a strictly Orthodox Jewish viewpoint of Jesus and “to heck” with the inerrancy of the Gospels. However, he’s not the only one to suggest that the Bible we have today is not completely consistent with the actual, original texts. Amazing? Unheard of? Consider this:

It was dated by one of the world’s leading paleographers. He said he was ‘certain’ that it was from the first century. If this is true, it would be the oldest fragment of the New Testament known to exist. Up until now, no one has discovered any first-century manuscripts of the New Testament. The oldest manuscript of the New Testament has been P52, a small fragment from John’s Gospel, dated to the first half of the second century. It was discovered in 1934.

How do these manuscripts change what we believe the original New Testament to say? We will have to wait until they are published next year, but for now we can most likely say this: As with all the previously published New Testament papyri (127 of them, published in the last 116 years), not a single new reading has commended itself as authentic. Instead, the papyri function to confirm what New Testament scholars have already thought was the original wording or, in some cases, to confirm an alternate reading—but one that is already found in the manuscripts. As an illustration: Suppose a papyrus had the word “the Lord” in one verse while all other manuscripts had the word “Jesus.” New Testament scholars would not adopt, and have not adopted, such a reading as authentic, precisely because we have such abundant evidence for the original wording in other manuscripts. But if an early papyrus had in another place “Simon” instead of “Peter,” and “Simon” was also found in other early and reliable manuscripts, it might persuade scholars that “Simon” is the authentic reading. In other words, the papyri have confirmed various readings as authentic in the past 116 years, but have not introduced new authentic readings. The original New Testament text is found somewhere in the manuscripts that have been known for quite some time.

Daniel B. Wallace
“Dr. Wallace: Earliest Manuscript of the New Testament Discovered?”
February 9, 2012

Many Christians don’t realize that there is an ongoing debate over just how accurate our Gospels really happen to be. Do the Gospels you read in your Bible every day tell you the true story of Jesus of Nazareth? Do they accurately capture his teachings to the Apostles and to us? If we could find and read an actual first century manuscript of the Gospel of Mark, for example, would we be shocked and dismayed at how different (assuming we could translate it from the ancient Greek) the Jesus chronicled on the recently discovered 2,000 year old papyri, is from the person we’ve come to know in our 21st century Bibles?

Dr. Wallace seems confident that not only are these papyri valid documents, but that they will confirm to a high degree of fidelity, that the Gospels of today are the Gospels of yesteryear. However, Jeffrey García in his blog post More the First Century Gospel of Mark isn’t so sure.

In a previous post I mentioned that Dr. Daniel Wallace referred to a hitherto unknown first century manuscript (now fragment) of Mark in a debate with Dr. Bart Ehrman. As I noted before, the blogosphere sparked with suspicions regarding the Wallace’s claim. We are currently lacking any announcement as to its discovery, the so-called world renown paleographer who has dated the fragment remains anonymous, and the Brill publication is still, according to Wallace, about a year away. Unfortunately, Wallace’s new post on this has not alleviated any of these concerns. Texts that remain “hidden” texts are regarded with a significant degree of hesitation, especially when the information is disseminated through one person (a bit gnostic if you ask me). If the long history of the Dead Sea Scroll publications is any indication, when texts remain privately held and controlled for so long, some crazy things begin to leak out or are simply invented. Hopefully, the identification of this text is not based on the conjugation “kai” a la initial claims of the some scholars who thought gospel manuscripts were found in the caves. In any event, see the post quoted below (again, hopefully this text will be released shortly for other scholars to chime in)”

García is primarily dubious regarding the validity of this find, rather than whether or not it will substantiate our current understanding of the Gospel of Mark, but New Testament scholars such as Bart D. Ehrman aren’t convinced that our Gospels tell us an accurate story about Jesus. In his book Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and many other of his works), he contends that there are numerous internal inconsistencies contained within the New Testament and that it is no where near a seamless, flawless record of the life of Jesus and the origins of the first century church.

One of the criticisms against Ehrman is that he was a Christian who lost his faith, not based on his studies of the New Testament, but over his inability to understand why there is such terrible suffering in the world created by a loving God. I’ve written several blog posts including Faith and the Book of Bart as a response to Jesus, Interrupted, and find Ehrman to be a gifted scholar and (like the rest of us) a flawed human being. That the Bible or life doesn’t line up with our preconceived expectations or our personal desires, doesn’t mean that Jesus isn’t the Messiah and that God is a fantasy. It more likely means that we suffer from our own human misconceptions and probably are victims of centuries old teachings and interpretations that are at best mistaken, and at worse, deliberately falsified to satisfy an agenda.

This is something I’ve just recently discussed and perhaps may even be part of God’s intricate plan for how history is supposed to unfold between the first and second appearance of the Messiah. I know, it seems cruel. How can God make us struggle, not only in our day-to-day lives, but in our attempts to understand a Bible that is not guaranteed to be completely, totally, and supernaturally accurate?

I’m no Bible scholar, so I can’t comment with any sort of authority on this matter, but I do find it fascinating that within the realm of Christian scholarship, there are questions being investigated that the majority of the people in our churches never, ever hear about. Matters of scholastic contention and mystery are presented as absolute fact from the pulpit, which I suppose is the way most people like it, since dancing on the head of uncertainty is no way to become comfortable with your faith. When I first encountered these sorts of questions, I wondered how my faith could possibly endure, and yet God made it possible. The Bible doesn’t have to be perfect to be inspired. The Bible translations I read from don’t have to represent an absolute fidelity to the original texts in order to mean that the Messiah exists and that faith in God is not in vain.

If I admit to a certain “fallibility” in our current Bible translations, am I then living a fantasy and pretending the object of my faith is real? Not at all, although I can certainly see how an atheist or a person weak in the faith might perceive it that way. God works with human beings using supernatural methods, but it doesn’t mean that the Bible you can purchase in any book store in this country is supernaturally accurate and describes, word for word, every single detail of the life of Jesus with no errors or mistakes whatsoever.

Like so many of my other “meditations,” I’m not writing this to give you answers but to make you ask questions. If faith cannot tolerate a few really hard questions, then its foundation must be sand and not rock (Matthew 7:24-27). No, I’m not being critical of anyone, because when I first met this challenge, I was thrown for a loop, too (which is an understatement). But if we don’t ask these questions, how will we ever know if we can endure the answers, if they exist, or the uncertainty if they don’t? How will we ever know if we really have faith?

Their Father’s Magic Carpet

The City of New OrleansAnd the sons of pullman porters
And the sons of engineers
Ride their father’s magic carpets
made of steel.
Mothers with their babes asleep,
Are rockin’ to the gentle beat
And the rhythm of the rails is all they feel.

-from The City of New Orleans
by Steve Goodman and Michael McCurdy

If you’ve spent much time driving on the freeway, traveling for business or vacation, sooner or later, in those expanses between city and town, you’ve seen a train or two traveling along the tracks parallel to the road. This past weekend, my niece was married at Cannon Beach, Oregon, so to attend, I left Boise on Friday morning to join my family for the event.

I was driving alone (my wife and daughter went ahead a few days before), so I had a lot of time while driving to listen to music and to think. I have a vague memory of loving trains as a boy but I’m too far away from my childhood to clearly recall any event associated with that feeling. I do remember once, many years ago, when my sons were quite young, traveling across the midwest with the family during the summer. We had stopped at a campground somewhere in Nebraska for the evening. A railroad track ran near the campground and there was a railroad museum nearby. I remember standing by the track with my boys as a train very slowly, very stately, moved down the line. We waved at the engineer and I could see a sense of wonder in the eyes of my sons as they watched something so amazingly large travel past them. From the eyes of two four-year olds, the engineer must have seemed almost like God; controlling such vast power from so lofty a height.

Then it was gone.

Once, the railroad system was the backbone of American transportation and, since the days of the Old West, it was the artery that transferred life blood from one end of our nation to another. Then, in pursuit of faster ways to travel, faster connections, faster lifestyles, and faster Internet speeds, we pulled away from the past and have hardly looked back at what we left behind. I know the refrain of “the good ol’ days” also hides some of the uglier times in our country’s history, but with the bad, and with our need to become more “progressive”, we’ve also abandoned those things that were good.

Not too long ago, I wrote a blog article about how what we know about the Bible is advancing with new literary studies and archeological finds, adding to and correcting our understanding and our database about the Word of God and what it means in our lives. While all that is certainly valid, the past and the knowledge it holds, once we leave it, doesn’t have to fade away, nor should it. If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know I quote frequently from the ancient Jewish sages and I find their wisdom as alive and fresh today as it was when their thoughts and insights were first recorded and preserved.

Steve Goodman’s lyrics (sung famously by Arlo Guthrie, son of the renowned folk singer, Woody Guthrie) relate a tale of the fading glory of the railroad, like a species from another era, once mighty, once dominating, now slowly going extinct and being replaced by something much less grand. When the “sons of pullman porters and the sons of engineers ride their father’s magic carpets made of steel”, they begin to realize that the time of the railroad is coming to an end. They will never experience what their fathers’ did; a sense of the endlessness of an epoch of romance, adventure, and tradition that seemed to stretch into infinity, as if looking at the tracks extending ahead to the edge of the horizon and beyond.

Too much of our lives get left behind for the sake of expediency and to make room for other priorities. Our faith, our religion, how and when (or if) we approach the Bible, all suffer in the same way. When we first “discover God” we are filled with a child-like wonder at the thrill of seeing the “engineer” in the cab of this massive, diesel machine, slowly crossing in front of us, allowing us just a taste of the power and rumbling majesty He controls.

Then we get older, more experienced, more used to seeing trains, more used to ignoring them, until we hardly notice when they start to fade away, maybe not as an overall presence, but in their sense of importance. Once the shine and luster begins to fade, it takes a lot of effort to get it back. Sometimes it never returns and all we have are half-memories that are more like vague feelings than the recall of what we actually said or did.

Who is God to us then?

I know. Odd thoughts for a person just having returned home from a wedding and three days of celebrating with family. But after visiting family in Portland and Cannon Beach and visiting relatives at their home outside of Washougal, Washington, I find myself thinking more of what has been lost than anything that’s been gained. I don’t know why I started hearing Arlo Guthrie singing “The City of New Orleans” in my head. He just started as I was driving home this morning, while I was leaving the Columbia Gorge behind, and I started writing this blog in my imagination as I listened to the lyrics.

And all the towns and people seem
To fade into a bad dream
And the steel rails still ain’t heard the news.
The conductor sings his song again,
The passengers will please refrain
This train’s got the disappearing railroad blues.

Good night, America, how are you?
Don’t you know me I’m your native son,
I’m the train they call The City of New Orleans,
I’ll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done.