Monday, August 10, 2020

Early Distribution Of The Gospels

When issues surrounding the origins of the gospels are discussed, some important sources are often neglected. Some examples are Quadratus and his colleagues, who are mentioned in section 3:37 of Eusebius' Church History. Here's a portion of the passage, as found in Jeremy Schott's recent translation of Eusebius' work:

For indeed, many of the disciples at that time [late first and early second centuries] had their souls struck by the Divine Logos with a deep desire for philosophy, and first fulfilled the salvific command to distribute their property to the needy, and then went out on journeys to perform the work of evangelists, aspiring to proclaim the report of faith to those everywhere who had not heard it and to provide the written text of the Divine Gospels. Once they had established foundations of the faith in foreign places they appointed shepherds and selected others along with them to help in the husbandry of those who had just been herded together. They then went again to other lands and peoples with the grace and cooperation of God, since many miraculous works of the Divine Spirit were still being done through them at that time, and as a result, upon only an initial hearing whole crowds right down to a man eagerly accepted piety toward the demiurge of the universe into their souls. (The History Of The Church: A New Translation [Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2019], 162-63)

This passage brings up a series of important issues related to the origins of the gospels. I want to highlight some of them.

In a recent post, I discussed some contexts in early church history in which two or more gospels needed to be distinguished from one another, which implies that the purported authors of the documents were being named at that time. You can read the post just linked for further details. Two contexts are often discussed in which there was such a need to distinguish among the gospels by naming their authors. We often hear about the use of gospels in church services and their use in libraries. But the passage from Eusebius quoted above illustrates another context in which there would have been such a need to distinguish among the gospels. Evangelists and others distributing copies of two or more of the gospels would need to be able to distinguish among them (to avoid giving people two copies of the same one, to make it easier for the people receiving the gospels to distinguish among them, etc.).

Secondly, notice that Eusebius refers to this as a widespread practice. It wasn't just done by one or two individuals. And it wasn't just done in one or two places or a small geographical region.

Third, note that the gospels were being distributed somewhat rapidly and in contexts like conversion and the planting of churches. The gospels were being distributed by people who were traveling and had strong motivation to keep traveling further. Eusebius puts a lot of emphasis on how motivated they were, how widely they traveled, and how quickly they often were able to accomplish what they had set out to do (conversions "upon only an initial hearing"). They weren't just giving the gospels to people who had been faithful Christians for a long time, people a church hierarchy could in some relevant way control so as to make sure the gospels and information about them were only given to select individuals, etc. Inevitably, the people who received these gospels would have ranged across a spectrum: people who professed to be Christians, but weren't; people who were Christians, but gave the gospels to non-Christians to read; etc. In other words, this was a situation in which the gospels and information on them were being disseminated widely and without much control from a church hierarchy or some equivalent.

Fourth, the widespread agreement among later sources about matters like the dating, authorship, genre, and historicity of the gospels is all the more impressive in accordance with factors like the ones discussed above.

We don't have much reason I'm aware of to doubt the general historicity of what Eusebius is reporting. And we know he had documents from the relevant timeframe that we don't possess today, including an apology he attributes to a man named Quadratus (Church History, 4:3), regardless of whether he was the same Quadratus discussed above. And what Eusebius tells us meets the criterion of coherence. For example, what he reports helps make sense of why Papias was writing on issues surrounding the origins of the gospels around the time of Quadratus and was citing a man he refers to as "the elder", a first-century figure, discussing those subjects even earlier (Church History, 3:39). See my recent post cited above for more examples of early sources whose comments make more sense in light of what Eusebius tells us. See here regarding how widely the gospel of Matthew had already been disseminated during the relevant timeframe. And so on.

Even if we had some reason to doubt a significant portion of what Eusebius reported in the passage in question, the large majority of what I've said here stands. There would have been many evangelists and other relevant figures traveling in the late first and early second centuries who were doing the sort of work I've outlined above, as reflected in the gospels, Acts, Paul's letters, the Didache, etc. We know that some of the purposes for which the gospels were written were evangelism (John 20:31) and the instruction of Christians in the faith (Luke 1:1-4). (Notice the implications of the opening of Luke for other documents, like Mark, which is widely thought to be one of Luke's sources. Luke refers to the existence of "many" attempts at accounts like his, which makes more sense if there was widespread interest in such accounts rather than only a small amount of interest.) And sources other than Eusebius and Quadratus and his colleagues suggest that the gospels were being distributed widely early on. It's good to be able to fill in some blanks with historical names, like Quadratus, and historical reports, like what Eusebius relays. But even without such specifics, it would still be probable that things like what Eusebius reported were happening.

Saturday, August 08, 2020

2020 Strikes Again...

2020 has reached epic meme status in our culture, and it’s affecting not just our secular world but even Christianity itself.  So I guess it shouldn’t surprise me too much that after spending a portion of this evening laying some careful groundwork in evangelizing a friend, that after we were finished with our conversation I would discover that Jerry Falwell, Jr. has taken an indefinite leave of absence from Liberty University. 

That’s not too unusual.  People take leaves of absences all the time and—

Wait, this was actually demanded of him by the board of trustees?  Why would they…. Oh.

Ooooooh.

Falwell posted a picture on his Instagram—a picture that I cannot repost here.  It’s not overly graphic from the world’s standards.  It would barely get a PG rating. But there’s just something distasteful enough about it that I wish I hadn’t seen it.  To provide the bare minimum explanation needed, it involved Falwell with his pants unzipped and open to show his underpants while he is standing next to a woman—who is not his wife—similarly dressed with unzipped pants.

Set aside, for the moment, the strict rules that Liberty University has for their students.  This is something that Falwell decided to publish of his own accord on his own Instagram account, thinking that it would not raise eyebrows that he is taking such a suggestive picture with a woman who, again, is not his wife.  While all of us are sinners and I can easily foresee Christians falling into bad behaviors, I cannot understand how someone of Falwell’s experience with the media could have possibly thought for even a second that this was a good idea.  Someone would almost literally have to be drunk to think tha—

What’s that?  Oh, Falwell called into a radio station and “explained” what the picture was, saying that the woman was pregnant and couldn’t snap her pants, so “in good fun” he decided to join her.  And while providing this explanation, he was slurring his words and speaking with all the mannerisms of someone three sheets to the wind.

So 2020 strikes again.  And this leaves me with the realization that a bunch of the groundwork I just laid in presenting the gospel to a friend may have been obliterated by this news story coming out.  Because one thing I’m sure of is that it will get shared to all the skeptics out there.

Now obviously Christianity is not a religion that is predicated on perfect people never sinning.  I’ve had to go through this in the past with other failures of high profile Christians, and certainly we will all have to do so anew in the future.  For all I know, it might even involve me falling in some future calamity.  There but for the grace of God go I.

But even knowing that intellectually, and knowing that this does provide an opportunity for us to point to Christ as the necessary sinlessly perfect sacrifice, I cannot deny that there is a lot about this that is disheartening.  Not because it involves Liberty University or Jerry Falwell, neither topic of which has much relevance to my own beliefs and, in fact, whom I’ve had many disagreements with before.  But rather it’s the fact of knowing that once again we are going to have to put up with the flaming slings and arrows of people who will be launching this at us again, and a large part of me just wants to throw in the towel and be done with it.  Let the flames cleanse the Earth.

But then I remember my friend.  And the groundwork that has been built.  The hope that Christ will use it to bring another soul to Himself.  And yes, maybe our next conversation is going to be uncomfortable, annoying, aggravating, and completely frustrating because I’m going to have to go through all the reasons why Jerry Falwell isn’t Christianity.  But maybe my friend will be saved because of that conversation.  Only God knows what will happen, and there’s no reason for me to give up when only God knows.

Not even 2020 can disobey the will of God.

Friday, August 07, 2020

Soteriology As Evidence For The Gospels

A neglected line of evidence for the harmony and historicity of the gospels is their agreement on soteriological issues. I'll cite several examples.

They all approach salvation from a first-century Jewish perspective, as a matter of needing to be reconciled to the God of Israel because of our sin. In all four gospels, Jesus doesn't just lead people to God the Father, but also calls them to himself to an extent unprecedented among the prophets, priests, kings, and other earlier leaders and later church leaders: come to him, believe in him, follow him, he forgives sins, etc. Salvation is framed in terms of being Abraham's children in a spiritual rather than physical sense (Matthew 3:9, Luke 19:9, John 8:39). The redeemed are referred to as children in a broader sense as well, without the connection to Abraham, and as young children in particular (Matthew 18:3, Mark 10:14, Luke 11:13, John 13:33). Salvation involves entrance into the kingdom of God (Matthew 5:20, Mark 10:15, Luke 18:24, John 3:5). All of the gospels portray Jesus' crucifixion as salvific, as illustrated by the Last Supper and Jesus' comments in John 6, for example. There's a common theme of Jesus as the shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep (Matthew 26:31, Mark 14:27, Luke 15:4, John 10:11). All of the gospels agree on the freeness of salvation, in the sense that it's received through faith alone, as illustrated in my recent post on justification apart from baptism. All four gospels portray repentance as implied by faith, so that repentance will sometimes be mentioned alongside faith to emphasize it, whereas only one or the other will be mentioned on other occasions. They agree in having faith accompanied by regeneration and sanctification, so that saving faith is evidenced by improved behavior. Matthew 11:28-30 has Jesus offering rest and a yoke simultaneously. John 5:24 lays out justification through faith alone, then follows it with a reference to judgment according to works in 5:29. And the gospels agree about the general parameters of the connection between faith and works. Jesus demands perfection (Matthew 5:48, Mark 12:28-31, Luke 6:36, John 15:12), and there are comments about how "difficult", "impossible", etc. his demands are (Matthew 25:24-26, Mark 10:17-27, Luke 18:18-27, John 6:60), yet those demands are accompanied by his acceptance of individuals who fall well short of what he's demanding. Men like Peter and John are portrayed as redeemed individuals and different than the average person (having faith, associating closely with Jesus, etc.), but they still sin to a significant degree. There's also agreement that individuals like Judas were never saved to begin with. People often associate the thinking behind 1 John 2:19 with the fourth gospel, but some of the same concepts are found in Matthew 7:21-23.

To appreciate the importance of agreements like these, consider how easily the gospels could have disagreed, even disagreed radically, on these matters. Think of the wide variety of views of salvation of one sort or another found in Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity, etc. To cite an example I discussed in another recent post, think about the role of baptism in the gospels. Given the tendency in Christian circles to make baptism more prominent in later centuries, it would have been easy for one or more of the gospels to have given baptism a much more prominent role if the gospels had been written later and were less historical.

Thursday, August 06, 2020

Justification Apart From Baptism: Not Just The Thief On The Cross

I recently had an email exchange with somebody asking me for Biblical examples of justification apart from baptism. He had cited the thief on the cross in a discussion with somebody, and that person responded by dismissing the thief as an exception to the rule. So, he was interested in other Biblical passages to bring up.

Here's my response:

Here are some passages illustrating justification prior to or without baptism, aside from the thief on the cross:

Mark 2:5
Mark 5:34
Mark 10:52
Luke 7:50
Luke 17:19
Luke 18:10-14
Luke 19:9
Acts 10:44-48
Acts 19:2
Galatians 3:2
Ephesians 1:13-14

I can provide an explanation of why I've included each of those passages, if you need me to explain any of them.

Some of them can be shown to be in normative contexts, so they can't be dismissed as exceptions to a rule (e.g., what happened in Acts 10 is referred to as if it's normative in 11:17-18 and 15:7-11). The cumulative effect of the passages also suggests that what they're illustrating is normative. Why would so many people across so many contexts be justified in the same allegedly non-normative way while nobody is portrayed as being justified in the way that supposedly is normative? Nobody is referred to as not being justified until after baptism.

Galatians 3 probably is the best passage you can cite (the whole chapter, though the verse I've highlighted is central). The chapter provides a good combination of didactic material and historical illustrations. The Galatians and Abraham are referred to as being justified in contexts that can't involve baptism (the Galatians while hearing the gospel being proclaimed rather than during a baptismal ceremony; Abraham before baptism existed). And the didactic portions of the chapter exclude all systems of work as a means of justification, not just the Mosaic law or some other aspect of Judaism, as the references to "a law" and "a tutor" in verses 21-25 show. Furthermore, Galatians was written well after the time of Jesus' resurrection, so what the passage says can't be dismissed as only addressing an earlier timeframe before justification through baptism went into effect. People sometimes claim that the requirement for baptism didn't go into effect until after passages like the ones cited above in the gospels, such as after the resurrection. The evidence is against that claim, and it isn't even relevant to a passage like Galatians 3.

The passages discussed above aren't exhaustive. They're just examples. I've written more about passages like these elsewhere, such as here, here, and here. You can search the archives for many other relevant threads. The second and third ones just linked include discussions of an important passage in Josephus. For more about the patristic evidence, see here and here.

Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Growing Stronger With Age

John Chrysostom makes some good points about aging, against the excuses people often make for doing less as they get older:

There is need of running, and of running vehemently. He that runneth [a race] seeth none of those that meet him; whether he be passing through meadows, or through dry places: he that runneth looketh not at the spectators, but at the prize. Whether they be rich or whether they be poor, whether one mock at him, or praise him, whether one insult, or cast stones at him, or plunder his house, whether he see children, or wife, or anything whatever. He is occupied in one thing alone, in running, in gaining the prize. He that runneth, never standeth still, since even if he slacken a little, he has lost the whole. He that runneth, not only slackens nothing before the end, but then even especially straineth his speed.

This have I spoken for those who say; In our younger days we used discipline, in our younger days we fasted, now we are grown old. Now most of all it behooves you to make your carefulness more intense. Do not count up to me the old things especially done well: be now youthful and vigorous. For he that runneth this bodily race, when gray hairs have overtaken him, probably is not able to run as he did before: for the whole contest depends on the body; but thou—wherefore dost thou lessen thy speed? For in this race there is need of a soul, a soul thoroughly awakened: and the soul is rather strengthened in old age; then it is in its full vigor, then is it in its pride.

For as the body, so long as it is oppressed by fevers and by one sickness after another, even if it be strong, is exhausted, but when it is freed from this attack, it recovers its proper force, so also the soul in youth is feverish, and is chiefly possessed by the love of glory, and luxurious living, and sensual lusts, and many other imaginations; but old age, when it comes on, drives away all these passions, some through satiety, some through philosophy. For old age relaxes the powers of the body, and does not permit the soul to make use of them even if it wish, but repressing them as enemies of various kinds, it sets her in a place free from troubles and produces a great calm, and brings in a greater fear.

For if none else does, it is said, yet they who are grown old know, that they are drawing to their end, and that they certainly stand near to death. When therefore the desires of this life are withdrawing, and the expectation of the judgment-seat is coming on, softening the stubbornness of the soul, does it not become more attentive, if one be willing?...

For how can what is done be otherwise than unreasonable, and beyond pardon? An old man sits in taverns. An old man hurries to horse-races—an old man goes up into theaters, running with the crowd like children. Truly it is a shame and a mockery, to be adorned outside with gray hairs, but within to have the mind of a child.

And indeed if a young man insult [him], he immediately puts forward his gray hairs. Reverence them first thyself; if however thou dost not reverence thy own even when old, how canst thou demand of the young to reverence them? Thou dost not reverence the gray hairs, but puttest them to shame. God hath honored thee with whiteness of hairs: He hath given thee high dignity. Why dost thou betray the honor?...

For we honor the gray hair, not because we esteem the white color above the black, but because it is a proof of a virtuous life; and when we see them we conjecture therefrom the inward hoariness. But if men continue to do what is inconsistent with the hoary head, they will on that account become the more ridiculous. Since we also honor the Emperor, and the purple and the diadem, because they are symbols of his office. But if we should see him, with the purple, spitted on, trodden under foot by the guards, seized by the throat, cast into prison, torn to pieces, shall we then reverence the purple or the diadem, and not rather weep over the pomp itself? Claim not then to be honored for thy hoary head, when thou thyself wrongest it. For it ought indeed itself to receive satisfaction from thee, because thou bringest disgrace on a form so noble and so honorable.

We say not these things against all [old persons], nor is our discourse against old age simply (I am not so mad as that), but against a youthful spirit bringing dishonor on old age. Nor is it concerning those who are grown old that we sorrowfully say these things, but concerning those who disgrace the hoary head. (Homilies On Hebrews, 7:7-9)

Saturday, August 01, 2020

A Tribute To Guy Playfair


(I'll be making reference to the Enfield tapes of Maurice Grosse and Guy Playfair. I'll use "MG" to refer to Grosse's tapes and "GP" to refer to Playfair's. So, MG90B is Grosse's tape 90B, GP87A is Playfair's tape 87A, and so on.)

It was a September 11, 1977 program on BBC Radio that convinced Guy Playfair to get involved in the Enfield case. Part of what he heard on the program that convinced him was the exhaustion that was evident in Maurice Grosse's voice. Playfair would later write, "I knew what Grosse could expect at Enfield. Sleepless nights, a great deal of constant confusion, and at the end of it all the same feeling of utter bewilderment. I had helped research several cases in Brazil…'Let me know if you get really stuck,' I said to Grosse as we left the meeting room of Kensington Public Library. I cannot have sounded very sincere…[A few days later] I happened to hear the [BBC Radio] programme while eating my Sunday lunch. It was dramatic stuff, and Grosse, who had not had a proper night's sleep that week, sounded really worn out….I rang Maurice Grosse and asked if he needed some help. He did, he said. And so, on Monday 12 September 1977, I postponed (as I thought) my holiday plans, and went along to the 'house of strange happenings.'" (This House Is Haunted [United States: White Crow Books, 2011], 23, 30) That September 11 radio program is in Playfair's collection of Enfield tapes (GP36B). On the program, Grosse's weariness is obvious, and so is the significance of the case. Grosse later told Playfair, "Well, I mean, if you hadn't have come on the case, it would have been bloody awful for me, to say the least." (MG20Bi, 36:06)

Grosse made that comment in November of 1977, which probably was the most difficult month of the case, largely because of Janet Hodgson's trance states. But even before that, Grosse had been sick for a while, and the poltergeist's embodied voice was to begin the next month, in December, which involved a lot of additional work. So, Playfair's assistance was beneficial on many fronts from the start.

Friday, July 31, 2020

The metaphysics of race

I haven't had the time to read Reformed philosopher Jeremy Pierce's ongoing series on the metaphysics of race (yet). It looks quite interesting. Here's the first post:

"Metaphysics of Race: Introduction"

Helm on Packer

Paul Helm's tribute to J. I. Packer, whom Helm calls "the most talented man that I ever met".

Likewise Helm's older piece on 'Fundamentalism' and the Word of God is worth a read. By the way, 'Fundamentalism' and the Word of God is currently about $3 on Kindle.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Why Gospel Authors Would Have Been Named Early

- Christianity wasn't a philosophical system of ideas that were being promoted independently of authority figures. Rather, it was a system founded on the authority of named individuals, starting with Jesus and going on to the apostles and other individuals who were named (Matthew 10:1-3, Mark 3:13-19, Ephesians 2:20, etc.).

- Luke's gospel opens with a reference to the significance of eyewitnesses (1:2), a concept that requires distinguishing among sources (differentiating between those who were eyewitnesses and those who weren't), which would include distinguishing among the authors of written sources. While authors could be distinguished without naming them, the use of names is more efficient and more common. The burden of proof rests on those who maintain that the gospel authors were distinguished without being named early on.

Monday, July 27, 2020

AD Robles responds to 9Marks's Jonathan Leeman about John MacArthur

While recently I've mentioned how I believe MacArthur's position in March will be used against him now that his position in July is to resist the unconstitutional demands of California, I do want to make clear that MacArthur's current position is the correct one.  For that reason, I want to highlight a response to the rather weak post Jonathan Leeman wrote for 9Marks criticizing MacArthur's latest stand against Californian overreach.  AD Robles does a good job of going over the main issues here:



The only thing I would add that is not in the video is just how flimsy I found Leeman's article to be.  By that, I mean that Leeman seemed to be trying to please every side while simultaneously trying to take a position against MacArthur, so it ends up being a real mash of chaos in the end.  The basic gist of Leeman's point appears to be, "MacArthur shouldn't have done that, but, I mean, I guess it's private judgment if you want to do it--but you shouldn't want to--but if you do it's okay, except that it's not."

Also, while Robles did mention this, I want to echo one of the more problematic arenas of Leeman's post.  Leeman said: "I personally wonder if defying government orders for the sake of a pandemic is the most judicious opportunity to exercise those muscles. The politics of LGBT tells me our churches may have more occasions to defy government requirements in years to come. Do we want to spend down our capital on pandemics?"  Robles spent a good deal of time critiquing the aspect of "capital" that Leeman references, so I won't belabor that point here.  I would merely add: "The politics of evangelical churches tells me that most of our churches won't bother to defy government requirements regarding LGBT issues, should they arise, given how many churches are more than happy to capitulate to them now."

So to conclude, while I did disagree with MacArthur's views in March, his current position should be defended, even against the rather weak and mostly incoherent attack Leeman gave.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Is it too little, too late?

John MacArthur says Grace Community Church will not obey California's ban on indoor worship services.  To that, I say, good job. There is only one problem.

Having taken this long to stand up to the overbearing, unconstitional, and immoral commands of California, it's going to be that much harder to argue in court that now it's an undue burden when four months ago it wasn't.  Having capitulated to the state before, it will be that much more difficult to take back the ground you previously surrendered, and the state most certainly will use your previous capitulation against you now.

It's almost like there's a reason one should always resist tyranny, even over so-called "trivial" issues.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

John Before Papias, Pothinus Before Irenaeus

It's popular among modern critics of Christianity to overestimate the influence of individuals like Papias and Irenaeus. Supposedly, gospel authorship attributions during the patristic era were inordinately derived from Papias, for example. I've responded to that kind of assertion on other occasions, like here. On the alleged lack of traditional gospel authorship attributions prior to Irenaeus, see here.

A point that hasn't been made enough when these issues come up is how much Papias refers to his reliance on other sources. Read the discussion of him in section 3:39 of Eusebius' Church History, for example. Papias was gathering information from sources who were older than him and in other ways more prominent than he was, men like Aristion and the elder John. That's true even if you don't think the John in question was the son of Zebedee. Papias had influence on later generations (though less than is often suggested), but he also was influenced by those who came before him. And one of the subjects those earlier sources influenced him on was the origins of the gospels, including their authorship. Papias tells us that he tried to get information on Jesus and his disciples from anyone who was in a relevant position to inform him on the subject. It would be unreasonable to think that he only got information from the people he names for us in his extant fragments (e.g., Aristion) or their disciples. A church leader like Papias who was so interested in the subject, lived so long, and lived in such a significant part of the world surely would have heard from more sources than the ones whose names happen to appear in the fragments of his writings we have today. Irenaeus is obviously correct when he refers to how there were many people alive at that time "who had received instructions from the apostles" (Against Heresies, 3:3:3). But even if we were to limit the sources who influenced Papias to the people he names in his extant fragments, the fact would remain that he was influenced by multiple individuals who came before him, including on issues pertaining to the origins of the gospels.

Similarly, not much attention is given to Irenaeus' predecessor in the bishopric of Lyons, a man named Pothinus, who died beyond age ninety in the late 170s (Eusebius, Church History, 5:1:29). He was a contemporary of the apostles at a young age and a contemporary of the apostles' disciples as a grown man. When discussing a textual dispute over a passage in Revelation, Irenaeus appeals to copies of the book that were "ancient" in his day (Against Heresies, 5:30:1). He probably also saw old copies of the gospels, with the authors' names attached in one way or another (in a document title, on the spine of a codex, etc.). These are just a couple of examples of sources Irenaeus would have been influenced by (Pothinus, old gospel manuscripts), and more could be cited. Irenaeus names Papias as a source he consulted, but it would be absurd to suggest that he got his information on a subject like gospel authorship only from Papias or that all of his other sources, or even most, were relying only on Papias.

I was recently reminded of a relevant, but seldom discussed, passage in Nicephorus (fragment A7 here). He refers to a man named Pancratius and describes him as a disciple of the apostles who was active around the time when Papias wrote. As far as I know, we don't have much information about Pancratius. Nor do we know much about the individual named Aristion who's referenced by Papias. And there are many individuals referred to in the gospels, Acts, Paul's letters, etc. about whom we have little information. But they were in some ways more known and more prominent in their day than today, and men like Papias thought highly of them and sought information from them and about them. They had already shaped people's views about the origins of the gospels on a large scale before anybody like Papias or Irenaeus had an opportunity to do so.