God Questions - a dialogue

In this chapter Peter and Carl explore some important questions relating to Jesus. Some highly significant questions are passed over: Does the New Testament as a whole give an historically accurate record of Jesus? Did Jesus claim to be divine? Was Jesus physically resurrected? The majority of New Testament scholars either answer no to these questions, or feel that the evidence is insufficient to support any firm conclusions. However, a significant minority of scholars answer all three questions in the affirmative.

The evidence for these conflicting conclusions crosses many disciplines – history, archaeology, theology, philology, philosophy – and is found in thousands of scholarly studies. These debates are often technical, and are too voluminous for the scope of this dialogue. Furthermore, the problem is compounded by the difficulty of establishing how the presentation of evidence is colored by bias, either for a theistic or a non-theistic worldview.

To avoid this quagmire, Peter and Carl have agreed to take the New Testament texts at face value. The discussion begins with a dialogue about the problem of objectivity in the studies of Jesus; although Peter and Carl have very different perspectives, for once their conclusions are generally in accord. Peter next explains what Jesus means to him. Carl initiates a discussion of the following questions: Was Jesus a false prophet? Was Jesus, as Christians believe, infinitely wise and morally perfect both in his teachings and in his example?

[Carl Stecher] How many of the scholars you rely upon, Peter, were conservative Christians before they began their studies? I would speculate that such would be the case for many scholars in this field and that, for them, Biblical scholarship was an alternative or perhaps an adjunct to a vocation in the priesthood. Can a scholar who is a committed believer be expected to be an objective evaluator of the historical evidence in the Bible if such objectivity might work against the scholar’s personal faith? And many Christian scholars, especially those in Roman Catholic and conservative Christian institutions, must conform to the teachings of their church or endanger their careers. For example, all faculty – not just theology faculty – at Wheaton College in Illinois must sign a statement supporting a literal interpretation of the Bible – Creation within the last 10,000 years, Adam and Eve, etc. – as a condition of employment. This is not to attack the honesty or motives of any scholar. In fact, the overriding motive of Christian scholars might well be that of evangelism, which is to say, bringing others to belief: “But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.” (John 20:31) Such a motive is altogether worthy, but very difficult to reconcile with the historian’s objective search for truth.

In our correspondence, many of the works you cite to bolster the claims of conservative Christians seem to be apologetics, rather than dispassionate historical studies. Some of them are even labeled as such. Norman L. Geisler’s Christian Apologetics, for example. According to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, ‘apologetics’ is “The branch of theology that is concerned with defending or proving the truth of Christian doctrines.” While apologetics may use historical research for its own purposes, the nature and the purpose of the two disciplines should not be confused.

[Peter S. Williams] Your point seems to be that since Geisler’s purpose is to defend or prove the truth of Christian doctrine, therefore we ought to dismiss his contentions and arguments. This is a straightforward (and fallacious) ad hominem argument: “It is one thing to recognize bias and aim off for it: it is quite another to suppose that because men passionately believe something to be true it must therefore be false.”[1] As Paul Copan argues: “If writing with a goal – whether it be evangelistic, apologetic, or didactic – implies propaganda, then all recorded history is propaganda. . . a work shouldn’t be dismissed simply because of the strong convictions of the writer. Should we discount the facticity or reliability of the accounts of Nazi concentration camp survivors simply because they passionately recount their story?”[2]

How many of the sources you quote were non-Christians or ‘liberals’ before they began their studies? Many scholars find themselves under peer-pressure to espouse a secular worldview in their work, and find their careers hampered by the assumption that theism has no legitimate place at the academic table. I remember how hard it was for me, as the philosophy department’s lone Christian, to write my M.Phil thesis on an objective account of ‘Truth, Goodness, Beauty and the Nature of God’ under the joint tutelage of an agnostic and a non-realist!

You say that you are not attacking the honesty or motives of ‘conservative’ scholars, but while you attribute their motivation to (misguided) philanthropy, you do impugn their intellectual honesty: “Christian scholars ... must conform to the teachings of their church or endanger their careers”. The implication appears to be that Christian scholars join Christian institutions and then suppress awkward truths to save their careers. Professor Craig L. Blomberg responds to your criticism in his recent book, The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel, (Apollos, 2001), arguing that: “it is simply false to say that less conservative authors than me have any inherent advantage in approximating objectivity!”[3] In a footnote he adds:

“Reviewers of my work have sometimes written it off or believed that my conclusions were determined from the outset because I teach in a confessional context and affirm certain theological tenets about the nature of Scripture in order to do so. In reply, I must stress that (1) I came to the historical convictions that I hold prior to teaching in my current position, in a far more pluralistic environment without such confessional restraints; and (2) I would hope that I would have enough integrity to resign my position if ever my historical work led me to affirm positions incompatible with my institution’s confession.”[4]

Many Scholars who have investigated the historical Jesus have done so to confirm their already deep-seated skepticism. As Ross Clifford writes: “In many cases they have negated the supernatural in history, so miracles, prophecy and the like have to be explained away. These critics have a bias against special revelation and a reliable Bible preserved by the providence of God, and they expect to find problems in the Gospels. . . their own presuppositions are primary.”[5] Michael Green notes that:

“One of the unfortunate facts in contemporary Gospel criticism is that not many of those engaged in it have been thoroughly grounded in the discipline of historical study... Scepticism about the historical Jesus should come, one might suppose, from the ancient historians. But nothing could be further from the truth. It is the theologians who are willing to dispense with historicity, and it is the historians who are trying to restrain them! Distinguished ancient historians like Ramsey, Rostovtzeff, B.W.Henderson, Sherwin-White are men who ascribe a very high reliability to the New Testament narratives. The same is true of New Testament scholars like Reicke, Stauffer, Dodd, Moule and Bruce who have come to the New Testament via classical studies... historical scepticism is not induced by the material but by the presuppositions of sceptical theologians.”[6]

For example, Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong affirms a non-theistic worldview: “An intervening, personalistic deity who affects the life of this world by an intervention of any sort is a concept I find difficult to understand.”[7] Oxford theologian Alister McGrath says that Spong’s writing: “is as aggressive in its [naturalism] as it is selective and superficial in its argumentation... Spong chooses to present himself as the moral spearhead of modern scholarship, confronting the church with certain unpalatable yet assured facts which demand that it undergo a radical reorientation. Yet the whole exercise rests upon the flimsiest of foundations... Spong recognizes that his views are unpopular, and believes that this is because they are thoroughly up to date and intellectually respectable. Sadly, they are just unpopular. They are out of touch with scholarship...”[8]

There must surely be a temptation, however unconscious, for Christian scholars to overstate their case. On the other hand, there must surely be a temptation, however unconscious, for the non-Christian to undervalue that case and to overstate their own! As Gregory Boyd surmises, liberal scholars are “at least as biased as evangelicals... they rule out the possibility of the supernatural from the beginning, and then they say, ‘Now bring on the evidence about Jesus.’ No wonder they get the results they do!”[9]

[CS] Peter contends that when I cited the definition of apologetic, as in Geisler’s book, Christian Apologetics, I was making an ad hominem attack upon the authors of such books. I was not. An apologetic, by definition, is not and does not pretend to be an objective presentation of all the relevant information. Rather, its purpose is to defend or prove the truth of Christian doctrines. If, in a court of law, I identified a lawyer as an attorney for the defendant, I would not be making an ad hominem argument, impugning his character, or suggesting that we should "dismiss his contentions and arguments." And it is a simple truth that “many Christian scholars… must conform to the teaching of their church or endanger their careers.” I applaud Craig Blomberg when he states “I would hope that I would have enough integrity to resign my position if ever my historical work led me to affirm positions incompatible with my institution’s confession.” But notice that this confirms my point: Blomberg feels that his conclusions must be in conformity with his institution’s theology.

An apologetic is essentially deductive in approach: it begins with the essential doctrines of the faith and then searches for the best evidence to support these doctrines. By contrast, historical studies, at least in the ideal, work inductively, starting with specific evidence and moving from these to conclusions. True, as Peter, points out, absolute objectivity is impossible. Many scholars search first for natural explanations of the established facts; some believe there are always natural explanations. By contrast, conservative, evangelical scholars have supernatural explanations – in fact, the dogmas that they defend insist upon supernatural explanations. If a conservative Christian apologist accepts a natural explanation for an alleged miracle (the resurrection experiences, for example) he is acknowledging failure. For many apologists, this would also mean abandoning or radically altering a life-long faith.

I think, however, that Peter and I are in close agreement on this question, however different our perspectives are. It may well be as difficult for a non-theist to see and interpret the evidence with complete objectivity as it is for a conservative Christian theist: for both there are likely to be both personal and career considerations encouraging them to reach conclusions true to their preconceptions.

[PW] The purpose of apologetics may be to defend or prove the truth of Christian doctrines, but the apologist intends to be at least as objective in doing so as any scholar making a case for the conclusion they themselves believe in any other academic field, be it historical, philosophical, scientific, or whatever.

Unlike some miracles (where the miracle is in the timing of an event rather than in its inherent nature) if the resurrection happened [10] then it is an event beyond naturalistic explanation, and any naturalist who admits that the event happened would thereby be acknowledging the failure of naturalism. Such an admission would have far reaching personal and social consequences. I agree with Carl that it is as difficult for the theist and non-theist alike to ignore personal and career considerations encouraging them to reach conclusions true to their preconceptions; but while human beings are not wholly rational, we are rational, and can transcend the confines of peer pressure and self-interest for the sake of truth. This is a goal upon which both theists and atheists can agree, and in which they can encourage each other.

What Jesus Christ Means to Christians

[PW] Jesus Christ is both a figure of history and of present day religious experience who offers us peace with God and life to the full through a personal relationship with God. With J.P.Moreland: “I repeatedly return to the conviction that Jesus of Nazareth is simply peerless... The power of his ideas, the quality of his character, the beauty of his personality, the uniqueness of his life, miracles, crucifixion, and resurrection are so far removed from any other person or ideology that, in my view, it is the greatest honor ever bestowed on me to be counted among his followers... no one else comes close to offering what he does to those who submit to him.”[11] Through the person of Jesus Christ I have found a source of forgiveness and personal empowerment that I believe to be both objectively real and unique. Through the historical person of Jesus I come to understand and experience that God loves me despite myself and that He desires to be my spiritual Father.

Christians, as the name suggests, follow Jesus Christ. We also believe that we are led by Him: “Christ longs to nourish our minds with his truth; to raise our imaginations to new heights through his beauty; to open our hearts to his love; to surrender our wills to his purpose; and to allow his holiness to challenge the way we behave. In every way, Christ lays the most fundamental challenge to the root of our lives; in all things, he asks us to submit our entire being to his wise and loving rule. To know Christ is to begin this process of change and renewal.”[12] It is precisely this challenge of knowing Christ that many shy away from because they fail to truly appreciate either their need or His love; but as a disciple of Christ my goal is to become more like Jesus – which is to be like God, because Jesus was and is fully divine as well as fully human (having two natures, one made in the “image” of the other, joined in one person[13]).

On the basis of Jesus’ authority I believe the things he taught (through words and deed and through his very character) about God, humanity, the meaning and purpose of life, etc. Jesus offers us the clearest access into the meaning and purpose of life: to love God and to love one another forever.

[CS] Peter, we have agreed to put aside the historical authenticity of the New Testament record of Jesus and focus on the text itself, as almost all Christians did for thousands of years and as many Christians still do. I find much to admire in Jesus as he is portrayed in the Gospels. In particular, I think his teachings about forgiveness rather than retribution and about the relative unimportance of material goods are invaluable. If even just Christians, as a group, lived according to these teachings the world would be a better place.

I am troubled, however, by many passages in the Gospels. You write: “On the basis of Jesus’ authority I believe the things he taught…” It would be hard to be a Christian and reject this statement. But is it even possible, accepting the Biblical account of his words, to believe everything Jesus taught? According to Matthew, his disciples asked him “tell us, when shall these things be? And what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?(Matthew 24:3) Jesus answers them at length, cataloguing the events that will happen – famines and wars, false prophets, the Son of man “coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory…and [the angels] shall gather together his elect from the four winds. And then Jesus promises 'Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled'.” (Matthew 24:34) The same prophesy with the same explicit timetable is also found in Mark and Luke. The other New Testament documents make it clear that the first generation of Christians lived in the expectation that this prophecy would be fulfilled in their lifetime. “Jesus saw the Kingdom of God lurking just round the corner, and showing itself from time to time. Similarly, Paul and his Thessalonian and Corinthian Christians were fired by the sure faith that the return of the Lord would occur at any moment, and certainly during their lifetime.” (Geza Vermes, The Changing Faces of Jesus, Penguin Books, 2000, p.69) Paul’s teachings of Jesus’ imminent return are frequent and unmistakable: “The appointed time has grown very short…the form of this world is passing away” (1Corinthians 7:29, 31); “the end of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:11). Assuming, as you and most all conservative Christians do, that the gospels give authentic accounts of Jesus’ words, isn’t there a problem in explaining how this teaching of Jesus should be accepted, since his prophecy obviously has proven untrue?

[PW] You make much of Jesus’ prophecies concerning the destruction of the temple (a prophecy that was fulfilled in AD 70), of the coming of his kingdom and of his second coming. F.F.Bruce explains:

Jesus ... foretells how not one stone of the temple will be left standing on another, and the disciples say "Tell us, (a) when will these things be, and (b) what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?" (Matthew 24:3). Then, at the close of the following discourse, Jesus answers their twofold question by saying that (a) "this generation will not pass away till all these things take place" (Matthew 24:34) while, (b) with regard to his coming and ‘the close of the age’, he tells them that "of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the father only" (Matthew 24:36). The distinction between the two predications is clear in Matthew [and] it was already implicit, though not so clear, in Mark.”[14]

David Winter comments: “here is no blueprint or timetable of future events, such as some have professed to discover. Jesus was not offering any such scheme or schedule, but a set of visionary pictures of the near and more distant future, to which he attached warnings about the dangers of resisting or rejecting God’s will for his people.”[15] And while some of the early Christian churches (e.g. the Thessalonian church) seem to have been too naïve about these prophecies, “Paul was at pains to warn them against any obsession with dates and timings. . . History has proved that they and others were wrong to expect an imminent fulfillment of the second prophecy, but in the nature of things ‘history’ cannot prove that it will not one day be fulfilled.”[16] Paul’s language of “the end of the ages” (1 Corinthians 10:11) does not imply an imminent end to history. N.T.Wright explains:

“The significance of Jesus’ resurrection, for Saul of Tarsus [Paul] as he lay blinded and perhaps bruised on the road to Damascus, was this. The one true God had done for Jesus of Nazareth, in the middle of time, what Saul had thought he was going to do for Israel at the end of time... Saul had imagined that the great reversal, the great apocalyptic event, would take place all at once, inaugurating the kingdom of God ... setting all wrongs to right, defeating evil once and for all, and ushering in the age to come. Instead, the great reversal, the great resurrection had happened to one man, all by himself... The death and resurrection of Jesus were themselves the great eschatological event, revealing God’s covenant faithfulness, his way of putting the world to rights... Saul was already living in the time of the end, even though the previous dimension of time was still carrying on around him. The Present Age and the Age to Come overlapped, and he was ... liberated in the middle... If the Age to Come had arrived, if the resurrection had already begun to take place, then this was the time when the Gentiles were to come in.”[17]

Hence for Paul: “The appointed time has grown very short... the form of this world is passing away” (1Corinthians 7:29, 31). Jesus clearly taught that the timing of the end was an unknown to all but God the Father: “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come... No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father...” (Matthew 24:6 & 36.) The verse often translated “this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened” (Matthew 24:34) is also ambiguous. The word translated as ‘generation’ could also be translated as ‘race’, as the New International Version of the Bible points out in a footnote.

Matthew 16:28 (derived from Mark 9:1), which has Jesus saying “There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom” does not necessarily refer to Jesus’ second coming. When we read Matthew 16:28 in context (taking into account the teaching of Jesus and Paul on avoiding speculation about the timing of the end, as well as its Marcan original and Luke’s redaction thereof) it seems to me that Matthew 16:28 reflects Paul’s understanding of the immanence of the 'Age to Come' in the present age, an understanding that we can trace back to Jesus’ proclamation that “the kingdom of God is near.” (Mark 1:15) Most of the disciples did live to see “the great eschatological event” of the resurrection ushering in the end for the old order of things and the beginning of the new order of Jesus’ kingdom rule through the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 2).

Matthew 16:28 might reflect a misunderstanding that was corrected by the later gospel of John: “the rumor spread among the brothers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, ‘If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?’ ” (John 21:23.) I certainly think that Jesus did not intend his affirmation that “some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power (Mark 9:1) to refer to his second coming – which he explicitly taught was a mystery as far as timing went. I think it refers to the immanent eschatological events of his resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in accordance with the prophecy of Joel 2:28-21. As Jesus told his disciples: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you...” (Acts 1:8) I suggest that we should allow this context, reflected in the Marcan original, to determine our reading of Matthew’s redaction.[18]

[CS] Peter, I see your paragraphs above as a perfect illustration of Christian apologetics. When a Biblical passage is an embarrassment to the faith, however clear the text, Christians must "interpret it correctly". Matthew 24 does not need any interpretation. Jesus makes no distinction between the destruction of the temple and his second coming (in fact, in his long answer Jesus does not clearly refer to the destruction of the temple at all). The last part of his prophesy is that of the Son of man will be “coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory … and [the angels] shall gather together his elect from the four winds.” Jesus concludes “Verily I say unto you, this generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.” In the next verse he does say that the exact day and hour of these events is known only by God, but this is clearly only a qualification of the “this generation shall not pass” statement, not a separate answer to a separate question. Anyone who reads the passage with even a modicum of objectivity will see this.

As to Jesus’ statement in Matthew 16:28, that “There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom”, again you take a perfectly clear passage and ‘interpret’ it to protect Jesus’ prescience. Quoting your words: “When we read Matthew 16:28 in context (taking into account the teaching of Jesus and Paul on avoiding speculation about the timing of the end, as well as its Marcan original and Luke’s redaction thereof) it seems to me that Matthew 16:28 reflects Paul’s understanding of the immanence of the 'Age to Come' in the present age, an understanding that we can trace back to Jesus’ proclamation that 'The kingdom of God is near.'” (Mark 1:15) I would need a roadmap to find my way through this sentence, but I guess your point is that Matthew 16:28 doesn’t say what it says. But Matthew is perfectly explicit: Jesus was speaking of his second coming: “For the Son of Man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works. Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, til they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.” (Matthew 16:27-8)

I am also troubled by his teachings described in Matthew 6:31-34. True, these are an extension of Jesus anti-materialistic teachings, but a good idea taken too far can be folly: “Therefore take no thought, saying, what shall we eat? Or, What shall we drink? Or, wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow; for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.” This advice makes minimal sense if there are to be very few tomorrows, and is easier to follow if one has abandoned one’s family (see below), but I am nevertheless going to keep paying my health and life insurance premiums and making payments into my pension program; I advise Christians to do the same.

The Gospels, when taken as a historically authentic records of Jesus’ words and deeds, not only reveal him to be a mistaken prophet, and a poor financial advisor, they also reveal a Jesus who falls short, in word and deed, of the cynosure of moral perfection that Christians traditionally claim him to be. As a good Jew, he taught obedience to the 10 Commandments. The fifth Commandment (using the Protestant enumeration) is “Honor thy father and mother.” But Mark records the following incident:

He entered a house, and once more such a crowd collected round them that they had no chance even to eat. When his family heard about it they set out to take charge of him. 'he is out of his mind', they said… Then his mother and his brothers arrived; they stayed outside and sent in a message asking him to come out to them. A crowd was sitting round him when word was brought that his mother and brothers were outside asking for him. "Who are my mother and my brothers?" he replied. And looking round at those who were sitting in the circle about him he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:20-21, 31-35)

There is no hint in the text that Jesus had any other response to his mother’s request to see him. One can only imagine her feelings at this very cruel and public humiliation.

[PW] Jesus was honoring his Father (God) at a time when his mother and brothers were not, in that they accused Jesus of being “out of his mind” and wanted to call a halt to his ministry. The greater obligation always outweighs the lesser, and Jesus used his rejection by his biological family to teach the greater importance of our being members of his spiritual family.

[CS] Christian churches have for centuries been strong advocates of family life, family values, and for this they are to be commended. But the same cannot be said for the Jesus Christians hold up as a model of perfection. In fact, anti-family statements abound in the teachings of Jesus, and Christians will be hard pressed to find anything in the Gospels that promotes family life. Consider Matthew 8:18-22: “And a certain scribe came, and said unto him, Master, I will follow thee withersoever thou goest… And another of his disciples said unto him, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. But Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead.” This seems not only an offence against the 5th commandment, but against a sacred obligation felt in most ancient societies that a dead relative must have the proper burial rites. Antigone, the title character in Sophocle’s play, sacrifices her own life to give her brother an honorable burial. Witness also the burial rites described In Luke, Jesus says “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters… he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:25-6.) In Matthew, Jesus announces “I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.” (Luke 10:35-6) Jesus does not even say that this will be the unfortunate consequence of his preaching; he identifies this as his purpose. Jesus also encouraged his disciples to abandon their families in the search for their own salvation: “And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life.” (Matthew 19:29)

[PW] We know that “in biblical idiom to ‘hate’ can mean to love less [cf. Deuteronomy 21:15]. That hating in this saying of Jesus means loving less is shown by the parallel saying in Matthew 10:37: ‘He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.’”[19] Nevertheless, Jesus’ words are indeed a scandal (even though exaggeration was a typical Jewish rhetorical device) unless he is divine. Paul writes that: “If any one does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his own family, he has disowned the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” (1 Timothy 5:8) As F.F.Bruce writes, “There is no evidence in the Gospels that this conflicts with the teaching of Jesus.”[20]

[CS] Bruce’s contention is clearly contradicted by Matthew 19:29, quoted just above. It’s not at all clear that Deuteronomy 21:15 means anything other than what it says: “If a man have two wives, one beloved, and another hated, and they have borne him children, both the beloved and the hated…” There is no reason to think ‘hate’ means ‘loved less’ in this passage. It probably means what it says.

Jesus’ actions also seem in conflict with his words in several ways. In the Sermon on the Mount he says: “Blessed are the peacemakers; for they shall be called the children of God.” (Matthew 5:9) But just before the passage in which he says he will bring conflict between family members, he warns: “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34) Again in the Sermon on the Mount he preaches that whoever calls his brother “'good for nothing' deserves the sentence of the court; whoever calls him 'fool' deserves hell-fire.” (Matthew 5:22 – Revised English Bible) Clearly, his disciples are warned against verbally abusing others. But he has no such compunction himself when he insults the scribes and Pharisees: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye are like unto whited sepulchers, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness… Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?’’ (Matthew 23:27, 33)

[PW] It is indeed blessed to be a peacemaker, and Jesus was a consumate peacemaker. He made peace between all sections of a divided society. His followers included men and women, old and young, a turn-coat tax collector and a zealot freedom fighter, rulers and ruled, ritually ‘pure’ and ‘impure’, rich and poor. Most fundamentally, Jesus offered people peace with God. Jesus said: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you.” (John 14:27) However, such peacemaking inevitably brought division, between those who would accept the peace he offered and those who would reject it. Bringing such division is Jesus' purpose only in as much as it is the unfortunate byproduct of his mission to gather people into the coming kingdom of God: “when Jesus said that he had come to bring ‘not peace but a sword’, he meant that this would be the effect of his coming, not that it was the purpose of his coming... Jesus was warning his followers that their allegiance to him might cause conflict at home, and even expulsion from the family circle. It was well that they should be forewarned, for then they could not say, ‘We never expected that we should have to pay this price for following him!'”[21] The amazing thing is that Jesus was thereby claiming that to pay this price was, if it became necessary, nothing but our duty and his due. This amounted to claiming the status of God.

Jesus’ sermon on the mount didn’t outlaw the condemnation of hypocrisy (if there was one man who could point to the speck in his brother’s eye without having to worry about the log in his own it was Jesus. His chastisement was never hypocritical, unlike that of the Pharisees). The word translated here as ‘fool’, raca, is a non-Greek word which to Jewish ears probably meant ‘rebel against God’ or ‘apostate’: “he certainly had in mind the kind of language that is bound to produce a murderous quarrel; chief responsibility for the ensuing bloodshed, he insisted, lies with the person who spoke the offending word.”[22] Since Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees neither employed the term Jesus speaks about in his sermon, nor precipitated a murderous quarrel, we can take it that these incidents do not contradict each other.

[CS] The translation ‘fool’ is found in both the King James Bible and the modern scholarly New English Bible. Again, you are claiming that the words don’t mean what they mean. Given the Jewish attitude toward the impurity of corpses, characterizing the Pharisees to be like corpses is a much more serious insult. Numbers 19:14-21 suggest the Jewish abhorrence of corpses: “This is the law, when a man dies in a tent; all that come into the tent, and all that is in the tent, shall be unclean seven days… But the man that shall be unclean, and shall not purify himself, that soul shall be cut off from among the congregation, because he has defiled the sanctuary of the Lord.” That Jesus words did not "precipitate a murderous quarrel" says much more about the forbearance of the Pharisees than about the abusive language Jesus uses. Jesus uses similarly abusive language in Matthew 15:26, when a Canaanite woman begs a favor from him and he responds “It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it to dogs.” (Upon further appeal he does relent and grants her the favor.)

I am also troubled by a passage in Matthew in which seems to contradict what he says elsewhere: that his message is for all people. When questioned by his disciples why he teaches in parables, one would expect him to reply that he does this to be better understood. But his answer is exactly the opposite: “He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given… Therefore speak I to them in parable: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.” Thus, Jesus explains, the prophesy of Esaias is fulfilled: he speaks in parables “Lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and Hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them.” (Matthew 13:11-15) If Jesus is speaking for God, this sounds uncomfortably like the tribal God of the Old Testament, the God of the Hebrews but most certainly not of the Egyptians, Canaanites, Hittites, Jebusites, etc.

[PW] In Matthew 13 a large crowd of people gather around Jesus to hear him teach. Jesus tells the disciples that he teaches in parables, imploring the crowd “He who has ears, let him hear” (Matthew 13:9), because “this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes” (Matthew 13:15). In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah 6:9-10. God warns the prophet Isaiah that the people’s reaction to his preaching will be a persistent refusal to pay attention. The impression that this is God’s intention “is simply due to the Hebrew tendency to express a consequence as though it were a purpose.”[23] As C.F.D. Moule says: “As in its original setting in the Book of Isaiah, so here, it is most naturally taken as an arresting, hyperbolical, oriental way of saying, ‘Alas! Many will be obdurate.”[24] Like Isaiah, Jesus is spending a lot of time and ingenuity trying to get the crowd to understand God’s message. Although the people “hardly hear”, they can and do hear; and Matthew says Jesus “told them many things” (Matthew 13:3), not that Jesus expended all that effort in not telling them anything! The very parable Jesus tells here makes this very point, that the reception of the gospel good news varies depending upon the nature of its audience. The farmer intends to harvest a good crop and labors to that end, but he has to work with different types of soil.

Carl, you repeatedly interpret Jesus’ words out of literary and cultural context. When I point this out I am dismissed with the observation that I am making out that the text doesn’t say what it obviously says. However, again and again, the very words you quote in order to condemn Jesus force us to face up to the fact that such words could only issue from a liar, a madman, or God incarnate. For example, you quote Matthew 24, where Jesus prophesies that the Son of Man will be seen: “... coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory … and [the angels] shall gather together his elect from the four winds...” My bible reads: “And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds...” (Matthew 24:31, my emphasis) Talking about himself as ‘the Son of Man’, and laying claim to the glory of God, Jesus says that the angels are “his angels” – a claim no sane mortal could seriously make, unless he were also divine. Again, following Jesus is either more important than obligations to family, or not. Assuming from the outset that it is not, begs the question. Whether or not Jesus was immoral to encourage people to seek everlasting life in his name, even at the expense of family ties if necessary, really depends upon whether or not Jesus is right to claim that peace with God is found through his name.

Jesus repeatedly claimed the prerogatives and titles of divinity (and backed his claim up by rising from the dead), and this is a far more important part of the gospel’s story than the passages upon which you pounce with critical glee. Your objection to Jesus on the basis of his words thus contains the root of its own rebuttal, because you must also grant (even if only ‘for the sake of argument’) the reliability of passages besides those ‘problem passages’ upon which you seek to monopolize. You can’t argue against Jesus on the basis of his words in one passage while ignoring his words elsewhere in the same source! We have agreed not to debate the historical reliability of the New Testament, but it is legitimate for me to point out that if the New Testament is not historically reliable, then you can’t use it as a source of data leading to the conclusion that Jesus made false prophecies or said other ‘difficult’ things. On the other hand, if the New Testament is reliable[25], if it includes Jesus’ claims to divinity no less than the prophecies you highlight (sometimes these are the very same passages) [26], and if Jesus was neither a liar nor a madman, then his claim to divinity was correct.[27] Alternative interpretations of your ‘problem’ passages thereby gain considerable justification. Each of these ‘if’s’ is open to question, but a positive response to them undermines the objections we are discussing. Once again, the conclusions we come to about Jesus are largely determined by the assumptions we bring to our investigation.

Go to 5.  The Arguments from Desire & Religious Experience


[1] Michael Green, ‘Jesus and Historical Scepticism’ in The Truth of God Incarnate, (Hodder & Stoughton, 1977), p.120.
[2] Paul Copan, “True For You, But Not For Me” – Defeating the Slogans that leave Christians Speechless, (Bethany House, 1998), p.101.
[3] Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel, (Apollos, 2001), p.67.
[4] Ibid.  I think it is unfortunate that Christian academic institutions ask their faculty to sign up to anything beyond the traditional creeds of the church that delimit ‘mere Christianity’; but a Christian college surely has as much right to expect its staff to be Christians as the democratic party has a right to expect its members to be democrats, however many in-house debates there may be.
[5] Ross Clifford, The Case for the Empty Tomb: Leading Lawyers Look at the Resurrection, (Albertros, 1993), p.66.
[6] Michael Green, ‘Jesus and Historical Scepticism’ in The Truth of God Incarnate, (Hodder & Stoughton, 1977), p.122.
[7] John Shelby Spong, Daily Telegraph, 25th November 1997.
[8] Alister McGrath, The Renewal of Anglicanism, (SPCK). Cf. Peter C. Moore, Can A Bishop Be Wrong? Ten Scholars Challenge John Shelby Spong, (SPCK, 1998).
[9] Gregory Boyd, in Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ, (Harper Collins, 1998), pp.115-116.
[10] Cf. Links to resources on the resurrection @ http://members.tripod.com/~vantillian/resurrection.html [link no longer valid October 2010]; William Lane Craig vs Brian Edwards, ‘Did the Resurrection Really Happen?’ @ http://www.gospelcom.net/rzim/radio/easter.shtml (mp3 File) [link no longer valid October 2010]; William Lane Craig, The Son Rises: The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus (Chicago, Illinois: Moody Press, 1981); Stephen T. Davis, Risen Indeed: Making Sense of the Resurrection (London: SPCK, 1993). [For additional bethinking resources on the resurrection, see bethinking.org/resurrection-miracles/.
[11] J.P. Moreland, Why I Am A Christian, (Baker), pp.264-266.
[12] Alister McGrath, Knowing Christ, (Hodder & Stoughton, 2001), p.15.
[13] Cf. Thomas V. Morris, Our Idea of God – An Introduction to Philosophical Theology, (Notre Dame, 1991).
[14] F.F. Bruce, The Hard Sayings of Jesus, (Hodder & Stoughton, 1998), pp.229-230.
[15] David Winter, The Search for the Real Jesus, (Hodder & Stoughton, 1982), p.102.
[16] Ibid.
[17] N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, pp.36-37.
[18] Cf. ‘Was Jesus Mistaken About His Second Coming?’ @ http://www.christian-thinktank.com/qaim.html.
[19] F.F. Bruce, The Hard Sayings of Jesus, p.120.
[20] Ibid, p.121.
[21] Ibid, p.131.
[22] Ibid, p.51.
[23] Ibid, p.100.
[24] C.F.D. Moule, The Birth of the New Testament, 3rd edition, (London, 1981), p.117.
[25] Cf. R.T. France, ‘The Gospels As Historical Sources for Jesus, the Founder of Christianity’ @ http://www.leaderu.com/truth/1truth21.html; Paul Barnet, Is The New Testament Reliable? A Look at the Historical Evidence, (Downers Grove, IVP, 1986); Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP, 1987); R.T. France, The Evidence for Jesus (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1986); J.P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 1987).
[26] Cf. Norman L. Geisler, Christian Apologetics, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 1976); Terry L. Miethe and Gary R. Habermas, Why Believe? God Exists! (Joplin, Missouri: College Press, 1998); Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1998); Michael J. Wilkins, and J.P. Moreland (eds), Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus, (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1996).
[27] Peter Kreeft, ‘The Divinity of Christ’ @ http://catholiceducation.org/articles/religion/re0020.html; Peter Kreeft, Between Heaven & Hell: A Dialog Somewhere Beyond Death with John F. Kennedy, C.S. Lewis & Aldous Huxley (Leicester: IVP, 1982).

Go to 5.  The Arguments from Desire & Religious Experience

© 2010 Carl Stecher & Peter S. Williams.
This dialogue, edited by the authors in 2002, is now being published for the first time on bethinking.org, by the kind permission of both authors.