Archive for the ‘Bible’ Category

full_davidgoliath

Most of us know the story.  Even if you didn’t grow up in a church or around Christians, chances are you’ve heard of David and Goliath.  It’s a perennial favorite; the story of a little guy overcoming a humongous obstacle.  We use it in business to encourage small start-ups, telling them they can compete against the established giants in their field.  We use it in relationships, encouraging people struggling with seemingly insurmountable adversity.  We use it in church, admonishing people to simply have faith because with enough faith even the biggest giants will come crashing down at our feet.

Unfortunately, the ways we use the story of David and Goliath are largely wrong…and the real reason that God recorded this story for us in the Bible is a powerful lesson for Thanksgiving.

You see, the story of David and Goliath isn’t really the story of David and Goliath at all.  It’s actually the story of David and Saul; specifically, it’s the explanation of why God replaced Saul with David as king of Israel.

Saul was the first Israelite king.  Interestingly, the Israelites already had a ruler:  God.  But the Israelites wanted to be like the rest of the kids on the block and they insisted on having a king so that they could be “like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Samuel 8:20).  So Saul was selected as king.  His qualifications?  He was “a handsome young man without equal among the Israelites– a head taller than any of the others” (1 Samuel 9:2).

It’s interesting that Saul was selected as king in order to lead the Israelites in battle and because he was taller than all the other Israelites.  Given this, when we read that the Israelites went to battle against the Philistines who sent out a champion named Goliath, a well…a very tall warrior, we fully expect Saul to be the one to stand up to him.  After all, that’s the precise reason he was made king in the first place!  Besides that, the fact that he was considerably taller than all the other Israelites makes him the only fit opponent for Goliath.  And yet, when Goliath’s challenge was issued, “Saul and all the Israelites were dismayed and terrified” (1 Samuel 17:11).  Note that the author of Samuel specifically highlights that not only were the Israelites as a whole terrified but that this emotion was shared by their king as well.

See, Goliath was like a vice:  he squeezed down hard on his opponents, allowing us to see what came out under pressure.  For Saul, what came out was fear.  But of course, when David showed up and Goliath put the squeeze on him, what came out was faith.  When confronted by Goliath, David’s response was “Let me at him! God will deliver him into my hands!”  Saul ran from the battle but David ran towards it, not because he was confident in his own strength but because he was secure in God’s.

You see, in the end, Saul was a man of fear and David was a man of faith.  Goliath was simply the foil that allows us to see what kind of men they were.  That’s why I say that what we often call the story of David and Goliath is really the story of David and Saul.  It’s a comparison between these two men and their character.

But why were they so different?  Was it simply the way they were brought up?  Were they just hardwired differently?  What made Saul a man of fear and David a man of faith?  Is there anything in this story that tells us how to be more like David and less like Saul?  There is.

One of the most important parts of the story of David and Saul (or David and Goliath if you simply can’t re-orient your thinking) occurs at the very end of the narration of the famous battle.  David has defeated Goliath.  The battle is over, victory won.  But right after recounting David’s victory, the book of Samuel suddenly backtracks in time and says this:

55 As Saul watched David going out to meet the Philistine, he said to Abner, commander of the army, “Abner, whose son is that young man?” Abner replied, “As surely as you live, O king, I don’t know.”  56 The king said, “Find out whose son this young man is.”  57 As soon as David returned from killing the Philistine, Abner took him and brought him before Saul, with David still holding the Philistine’s head.  58 “Whose son are you, young man?” Saul asked him. David said, “I am the son of your servant Jesse of Bethlehem.”

(1 Samuel 17:55-58)   

That is the conclusion to the story of David/Saul/Goliath.  Why?  What’s the point of returning to something Saul asked before David went out against Goliath?  Why mention that he asked this at all…and then jump back ahead to the “present” part of the narrative to say that after David won, Saul directly asked him whose son he was? (This question, by the way, is essentially the same as asking “who are you?”) Why is this even here in the text?

Stranger still is the fact that Saul’s question itself makes no sense if you’ve been reading along in the book of Samuel up to this point.  Why?  Because Saul already knew who David was.  David had already been serving as a court musician and armor-bearer for Saul, comforting Saul in times of great distress.  David had already been, for quite some time, God’s provision to Saul.  The author of the book of Samuel has made that very clear.  In fact, Samuel has made this point just before telling us the story of David/Saul/Goliath.  Here’s the bit that immediately precedes the story we all think we know so well:

Then Saul sent messengers to Jesse and said, “Send me your son David, who is with the sheep.”  20 So Jesse took a donkey loaded with bread, a skin of wine and a young goat and sent them with his son David to Saul.  21 David came to Saul and entered his service. Saul liked him very much, and David became one of his armor-bearers.  22 Then Saul sent word to Jesse, saying, “Allow David to remain in my service, for I am pleased with him.”  23 Whenever the spirit from God came upon Saul, David would take his harp and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him.

(1 Samuel 16:19 – 17:1)

So given all this, why in the world would Saul have had to ask Abner whose son David was?  And why would the author put it in the narrative at all?

Because…in this question we see exactly why Saul was a man fear:  because he wasn’t a man who remembered.  Specifically, he was a man who tended to lose sight of how God had provided for him.  Saul had experienced God’s blessings; he had experienced God’s provision.  But…he regularly forgot what God had done for him.  What the author of Samuel is doing here is illustrating this tendency of Saul’s, by making note of it both before and after the story of the battle with Goliath.  There is no reason for Saul not to have known precisely who David was, yet Samuel went out of his way to highlight Saul’s lack of remembrance.

And by the way, I strongly suspect Abner’s own ignorance was fake.  He knew who David was.  In other words, I think Abner lied about not knowing who David was.  As Saul’s commanding officer, the idea that Abner wouldn’t have known Saul’s armor-bearer is absurd.  Abner almost certainly knew who David was, but he was afraid of calling attention to Saul’s own forgetfulness.  And this, in turn, suggests that Saul’s forgetfulness was a touchy subject.

Let’s be clear:  I’m not saying that Saul’s major problem was that he forgot details.  I’m saying that the author of the book of Samuel is highlighting a spiritual failing in Saul:  Saul apparently regularly forgot how God had provided for him.

And do you know what happens when we don’t remember God’s faithfulness?  We become people of fear, never confident that God can be trusted in our next time of trial.

David, on the other hand, was a man of faith.  Why?  I’m sure there are several reasons, but the one Samuel is highlighting here is that David made a practice of remembrance.  Samuel highlights this fact about David when he records this quotation from David:

But David said to Saul, “Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock,  35 I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it.  36 Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God.  37 The LORD who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.”   

(1 Samuel 17:34-37)

See?  David remembered.  He remembered God’s faithfulness.  He remembered how God had provided, and secure in the remembrance of God’s trustworthiness, he approached the future – and whatever giants it happened to contain – with unshakable faith.

Saul was a man of fear because he forgot what God had done for him.  David was a man of faith because he remembered.  He kept it before him and lived in light of it.  He might have gone out against Goliath without chain-mail and sword, but he was well-armored with a faith that was grounded in the knowledge of God’s trustworthiness.

So how about you?  Do you remember God’s faithfulness in the past and does this give you strength for the future?  Or do you regularly forget what God has done so that every new struggle fills your heart with fear?  I’m not asking if you have a good memory or a bad one.  I’m not asking if little details slip your mind.  I’m asking if you make it a habit of reminding yourself of what God has done in your life.  If not, Thanksgiving is a really good time to start a new spiritual discipline:  the discipline of remembrance…and of giving thanks for all those evidences of God’s faithfulness in your life.

Advertisements

cain

Here’s a question I get asked pretty frequently:

Hi Craig,

I hope you are doing well!  I was reading Genesis tonight and got confused so I thought I would ask you about it. In chapter 4 we read about Cain and Abel and Cain’s punishment. He goes to live in the land of Nod and marries. Then at the end of the chapter it says Eve gives birth to another son, Seth, and says that God has replaced the dead son Abel.   Next, chapter 5 verse 3 says that after Adam was 130 years old he had Seth.   Then it goes on to say that he had many other sons and daughters. So my question is where did Cain’s wife and the people of Nod come from?  It reads as if Cain and Abel were the only two until Seth came to replace the second. I know the commentaries say that Adam and Eve had many other sons and daughters and that is where the people From Nod came from, but the text seems to read in such as way as leading you to believe that the pain of losing Abel was replaced by Seth and if there were lots of other sons then I want to ask why was Seth the one to ease that pain and not the countless others. The timeline also seems strange because you have these two brothers born from Adam and Eve and all of a sudden one leaves to another land where other people are.  Any insights?

Thanks,

Josh

Yes, that’s weird, isn’t it?  On the one hand, the New Testament makes it clear that all human beings are descended from Adam (1Co 15:22 is meaningless otherwise), so it’s obvious that the people of Nod had to have been descended from Adam.  On the other hand…well, there’s all the stuff you raise in your question.  In short, there are two options:  first, there is no particularly good reason to think that Cain and Abel were the only children in existence at the point that the murder occurred.  Second, even though it was logically possible for Nod to have been populated by descendants of Adam when Cain was exiled, it is more likely that Cain’s fear was of wild animals rather than other humans.  There are several things to be said of both options:

Adam & Eve almost certainly had other children between the birth of Cain and the murder of Abel.

When Cain killed Able, did that make him an only child? Probably not.  It might seem like this is the case, but the only argument that can be made for that is really an argument from silence; that is, the only reason we think there were no other children is because no other children are named or directly mentioned.

But consider this:  Gen 5:1 says that Adam was 130 years old when he had Seth.  Since Gen 4:25 which says that Seth was conceived after Cain killed Abel and was exiled, the implication is that the murder happened roughly 130 years after Adam and Eve’s creation.  It seems unlikely that they waited several decades after Abel’s murder before having another child…and how would they have prevented this, anyway?  Sexual abstinence, which would have likely constituted disobedience of God’s command to be fruitful and multiply (Gen 1:28)?  Birth control?   Moreover, Gen 5:4 says that Adam had “other sons and daughters” during the additional 800 years he lived after Seth was born. This suggests that having children was an ongoing thing for Adam and Eve after Seth was born, so isn’t it natural to think that they were doing the same before Seth was born as well?  In other words, there were probably a lot of sons and daughters born between Cain and Seth.  Abel was one of them, but he was almost certainly not the only one.

So why are only Cain, Abel and Seth named?  Several answers to this question are possible:  first, Cain and Abel are mentioned because they were the first and second-born and had this rather serious conflict.  This is a theme that recurs regularly throughout the O.T., most notably in the stories of Esau and Jacob (but also Ishmael and Isaac, et.al.), so from a literary perspective this first-born/second-born conflict sets the stage for later material in Genesis.  Second, they are mentioned because this was, apparently, the first murder, so it is natural to mention them directly.   Third, Seth is named because he was the “replacement” for Abel, which, incidentally, strongly suggests that Eve had not previously lost any of her children.  Since this was the first time that a child had been lost, this was the first time that a child was filling an empty slot in her heart and Seth was named because of this special significance.

While it seems likely no other children had been lost during this 130-year period (or at least not to murder), it is likely that there were many other sons and daughters born between Cain and Seth’s births.  If Eve had a child ever two years, we’re probably talking 65 kids during the 130 years between Cain’s birth and Abel’s murder.  If 50% of those children were female, there would have been 32 girls (we’ll round down) born directly from Eve.  If we assume the average age for child-bearing for those girls was 14 (rabbi’s in the first century set 12 as the minimum age for marriage so this is actually quite conservative an estimate), and those 32 girls also had children at a rate of one every 2 year, then Adam and Eve would have had 936 children and grandchildren  by the time that Cain murdered Abel.  And that’s just 2nd and 3rd generation descendants…we’re not even talking about great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren, of which there would have been hundreds and hundreds more by this time.

So, if Adam and Eve almost had lots of other children between Cain and Seth, which seems likely both physiologically (there wasn’t any birth control was there?) and textually (other than the fact that Seth is the only other one named – because he of his status as a “replacement” for Able – there is nothing in the text that really suggests Seth was the third child) then there could have been plenty of people to inhabit Nod by the time Cain was exiled.

However, while this makes the population of Nod possible, I still think it very unlikely that this is actually what Genesis is saying.  It seems far more likely that:

Cain was most likely concerned about being killed by wild animals, rather than other humans.

1.  “Whoever finds me” does not necessarily imply that Cain was worried about other humans.

In Gen 4:14, Cain says:  “Behold, You have driven me this day from the face of the ground; and from Your face I will be hidden, and I will be a vagrant and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.”  The “whoever” there is a big part of our struggle with this text because it implies that there were already folks living outside of Adam and Eve’s community.  As we saw above, that was logically possible, but there may be another, better solution to this issue.  The word “whoever” in 4:14 is a little misleading.  This English word tends to imply human subjects rather than animals because we don’t typically use “who” pronouns in reference to animals.  However, the Hebrew word (kōl) is far more generic and does not necessarily that imply a human subject be in view.  It’s a very common noun which just means “all” or “every” and while it was used for human beings as in Gen 4:21 (…all those who play the lyre…) it was also used of animals and plants and any other non-human thing.  Kōl has been used of animals or other non-human things 22 times in Genesis before this particular text.  Actually, before Gen 4:14, there are no instances of kōl being used to indicate human beings. So far, it has only been used of animals or other non-human things (e.g. 1:21 – every living creature/every winged bird; 1:25 – everything that creeps; 2:6 – the whole surface of the earth, et.al).  So the question becomes, does Gen 4:14 indicate Cain’s fear that other humans would kill him or his fear that he would be killed by wild beasts as he wandered the earth away from the protection of his family?  The language allows for either option. In my opinion, other considerations make the latter option the more likely:

 2. “Vengeance will be taken on him” is a proper, though perhaps misleading translation.

While the Lord’s declaration in 4:15 (LORD said to him, “Therefore whoever kills Cain, vengeance will be taken on him sevenfold”) sounds like it is intended as a warning for human beings, this is again more a matter of the connotation of the English than the original Hebrew.  Literally it says “any that kill Cain will sevenfold [experience vengeance]”.  Most English translations include a masculine word here, as in “vengeance will be taken on him sevenfold,” which is perfectly fine since the Hebrew here is masculine.  The use of the masculine form of nāqam (avenge) may seem to suggest a human subject but this is not required because Hebrew does not have a neuter gender; in other words, this word would have to be masculine even if animals were in view.   There is no reason at all to think that the masculine ending means that humans rather than animals are Cain’s concern.  So all 4:15 says is that anything that kills Cain will experience vengeance.  The sevenfold bit is likely intended to convey the certainty of this divine promise.  Interestingly, Gen 9:5 specifically says that God will exact vengeance on “any beast” (kōl chayyah) which takes the lifeblood of a human being because “…in the image of God He made man” (9:6).  This is quite similar to the prohibition against killing Cain here in 4:15.  In sum, 4:15 does not necessarily say anything about what would happen if another human were to kill Cain.  It may simply be God’s statement of protection on Cain who is afraid that wild animals will kill him once he leaves the protection of the settlement where his parents, siblings, nieces, nephews, etc. lived.

3. The “mark” of Cain need not be restricted to something humans would respond to.

There has been a great deal of ultimately useless speculation about the “mark” or “sign” that God put upon Cain, but one thing that has tended to be overlooked is the use of this same Hebrew term (ōth) in Gen 9.   We tend to assume that the “mark” was a warning to humans, but in Gen 9, this same term is used of a “sign” (in this case a rainbow) given to signify a covenant between God, man and “every living creature” (9:12).   In other words, there is a context within Genesis for this term being used as a sign to animals.  My point is simply that the “mark” on Cain could have been something that would warn animals off, though we still have no idea what precisely this might have been.

4.  Cain probably took his wife with him rather than finding her in Nod.

What about Cain’s wife?  Where did she come from?  Well, she probably came from the community Cain was exiled from.   When we assume (probably mistakenly) that Cain was worried about other humans killing him after he left the protection of the settlement where his parents, siblings, nieces, nephews, etc. lived, we read the following verse in light of this assumption.  So, when we read in v. 17 that Cain “had relations with his wife” we assume that he must have found this wife somewhere in the land of Nod.  But why?  The text doesn’t say that he found her there.  The text only says that they had children while they were living there.  There are two possibilities:  1) he might have found his wife there or 2) she might have traveled there with him after he was excommunicated.  In most respects, #2 is the more likely option since there is absolutely nothing in the text itself to suggest that he found her in Nod.  So why do we assume he found her in Nod?  Simply because we have misread 4:14 as implying that other humans were “out there” and then reinforced that misinterpretation by misinterpreting a subsequent text:  “Cain was worried about other people killing him so they must have been out there and, look, he found someone else ought there and married her, so there must have been other people ought there to be worried about!”  That’s actually a pretty tangled interpretive web, but the alternative is much more plausible:  Cain was worried about being killed by wild animals when he left the protection of the settlement he (and all humans so far!) had been living in, but when he left, he took his wife (and probably some kids and grand-kids) with him and they started a new settlement in Nod. Had Cain really waited 130 years to take a wife?  Probably not and in the Ancient Near East, if the patriarch of a family moved, so did the rest of the clan.

5. The name “Nod” was familiar to Moses’ audience and doesn’t imply that people were already living there before Cain arrive.

But doesn’t the fact that Nod was already named mean that there were people already living there?  Not necessarily.  The fact that the area is identified by name doesn’t require that there were already people living there who had named it.  Remember, Genesis was being written quite some time later to the Israelites after their exodus from Egypt.  So, Moses identified places by names that his audience was familiar with.  In effect, he said “Then Cain went out from the presence of the Lord and settled in the land [which we know as] Nod, east of Eden” (4:16).  We find this sort of practice throughout Genesis (cf.  2:14).

6.  Cain and his family were likely the first humans to leave the original community.

If we think about it for a moment, it’s a little strange to think that there had already been people who had left the settlement established after Adam and Eve were excluded from Eden.  The point of this whole narrative seems to be that Cain’s punishment was exclusion from the community, and it seems that he was so upset by this punishment precisely because he couldn’t imagine any human being surviving outside that community. Once we set aside what is likely a false perception of his fear being about other humans, this is the most natural reading of his statement in 4:14:  “I will be a vagrant and a wanderer.”  Both terms imply a man without a community.  But if there were other communities out there, then two questions would have to be answered.

First, we would have to answer the question of why those descendants of Adam would have already left the community.  It wasn’t like the modern world where people leave their hometown all the time for better opportunities elsewhere.  In the ancient world, people only left their community because they had to.  In other words, something big would have had to have happened to force them out…something like what happened with Cain.  But if something else like this had already forced some people out of the community, then why  wouldn’t it have been mentioned in Genesis?  The flow of the text strongly implies that Cain is the first person being forced to leave the community.  The idea that people had already voluntarily left the community to start new ones  simply doesn’t make a lot of sense.

The second question we would have to answer is this:  even if there were other humans who had voluntarily left the original community to start new ones, why would Cain have been worried that they would kill him?  This would imply either some kind of serious conflict between the exiles and the remaining inhabitants of the original community or the idea that murder was relatively common among human beings at this point.  But if there had been such a serious conflict that the exiles who had been forced out were just waiting to exact their revenge on the remaining inhabitants, then wouldn’t that have been mentioned in Genesis?  And if murder was common enough among humans at this point for Cain to be worried about it, they why is Cain’s murder given such prominence in the text?  It might be the case that Cain’s murder was worse than any other because it involved the direct descendants of Adam, but it seems far more likely that Cain’s murder was a big deal because it was the first murder ever.

7.  Enoch was probably not Cain’s first child.

Gen 4:17 says that after arriving in Nod, Cain and his wife had a child and built a city, naming the city after the child, Enoch.  On the surface this might suggest that this was their first child, but this is actually unlikely.  If this is all happening some 130 years after Adam’s creation, then that would make Cain 128 or so, assuming Adam and Eve started having kids right away.  Even if he had to wait a while for other humans to come of age before marrying (and let’s just not think about that too, too much, ok? icky)  is it likely that Cain waited a century or more to take a wife?  Chances are, Enoch their first child.  Far more likely is the idea that the child is specifically named not because he’s their firstborn but because he was the first child born outside of the community Cain had just been excommunicated from.  It is also likely that Cain’s family (wife plus previously born children and maybe even grand-children) together built the city named after the first child born in that land.  After all, building a city is a lot of work for one man!  And on a related note:  if there were already inhabitants in Nod, then why was Cain building what appears to be the first city there?

All together, it seems likely that Cain wasn’t worried about meeting other descendants of Adam who would kill him.  He was worried about what would happen to him after he and his family left the protection of the only human community in existence at the time.  Rather than finding people in Nod, he brought the people with him, just like Abraham would later do, though for far more pleasant reasons!

skeptical-e1363609749949

Dillon:  We don’t really know much of anything about Jesus.   Everything Christians think they know comes from propaganda accounts written centuries later.  Actually, I don’t think there’s even any way to know if Jesus was a real, historical person.

Sarah:  The idea that Jesus might have been a myth has been pretty well discredited.  That was a common hypothesis back in the 18th and 19th centuries, but that was only because people didn’t have easy access to all the historical evidence that proves Jesus was a real person.

Dillon:  So you think you can prove Jesus was real?

Sarah:  Well, I don’t know if “prove” is exactly the right word.  It depends on how strict you’re going to be.  I mean, if you want to get really technical, I can’t “prove” to you that I exist.  Anything I say or do to you could be brushed aside as part of a dream or a hallucination.

Dillon:  I’m not going to be that difficult!

Sarah:  Ok, good!  So then, we can use the word “prove” in the normal, everyday sense?

Dillon:  I don’t know…maybe.  What do you mean?

Sarah:  I just mean that we normally use the word “prove” when enough admissible evidence has been presented to convince reasonably unbiased reviewers that the assertion in question is most probably accurate.

Dillon:  Um…you sound like a lawyer.

Sarah:  Sorry…I’m a pre-law student.  Kinda comes with the territory.  But it’s still a pretty good definition, isn’t it?  That’s how we use it in the courts.  To “prove” something is to convince an unbiased jury that a lawyer’s assertion is correct.  So if a lawyer says a guy did X, then we consider his case “proven” when the unbiased jury sees enough evidence to convince them that guy actually did X.

Dillon:  But the jury could be wrong.  Maybe there’s some other piece of evidence they aren’t considering that would change their minds.  Like maybe the guy was actually in the hospital in a coma when the crime was committed.

Sarah:  Sure, that’s why we say nothing can ever be absolutely, 100% proven.  There’s always the possibility that there’s some unknown piece of evidence that would change our view of the facts.  But, the more evidence we have and the more it supports our conclusion, the less likely it becomes that there is some unknown piece of evidence out there that would completely change things.  For instance, if we have video footage of the guy at the crime scene and his fingerprints on a meter receipt dated just minutes after the crime, it’s pretty unlikely that we’re going to find evidence that he was actually in a coma at the time.

Dillon:  Ok, fair enough.  So can you prove that Jesus was real using that definition of “prove”?

Sarah:  Yeah, I think so.  First, we have Jewish records that talk about him.  A Jewish historian named Josephus, writing at the end of the first century A.D., mentions him by name and even talks about events in his life and names family members.[1]  Several Jewish rabbis from the 2nd and 3rd centuries also talk about Jesus.  They’re pretty good evidence because they’re what we might call “hostile witnesses”.  They clearly don’t like Jesus or his followers, but they acknowledge his existence.  We also have Roman witnesses like the historian Tacitus who write at the end of the 1st century or beginning of the 2ndHe not only mentions Jesus but also says that he was executed by the governor Pilate.[2]  At least three other Roman writers mention Jesus as well.[3]

Dillon: Huh.  I didn’t know any of that.  Ok…that seems like pretty good evidence that Jesus existed.  Do those guys tell us anything about what Jesus was actually like, though?

Sarah:  Not really.  I mean, some of the Jewish sources mention a few details about his teaching, but not much.

Dillon:  Ok, so there’s enough evidence to say that Jesus was a real person, but Christians don’t just say that he existed.  They also say that he did a bunch of crazy stuff and act like they know all about him.  But they don’t, really.  They’re just guessing.

Sarah:  I don’t think that’s true.  First, a surprising amount of what Christians say about Jesus is at least corroborated by the Jewish and Roman sources.  Those sources confirm the time period when Jesus lived, the names of several of his followers and family, key elements of his teaching…they even confirm that he did miracles!

Dillon:  Sorry, but I have a pretty hard time believing that.

Sarah:  Ok, I might have gotten a little carried away there, but Josephus called him a “wise man who performed surprising works.”[4]    

Dillon:  That’s not necessarily a miracle.

Sarah:  No, but it seems like a pretty likely reference to miracles, doesn’t it?  Besides, the Jewish Mishna accused him of practicing magic and sorcery.  The Mishna even claims that’s why he was executed…for practicing magic.[5]

Dillon:  Is magic the same thing as miracles? 

Sarah:  No, from a Jewish perspective, magic was from the devil.  But remember:  hostile witnesses.  They wanted to discredit Jesus and his followers, so they attributed his miracles to evil forces.  But what’s interesting is that they didn’t call him a fraud.  They admitted that he did supernatural works…they just claimed his power was from the dark side.

Dillon:  Ok, that’s interesting.  But it’s still just some really big-picture stuff.  Is there really any way to know what Jesus was like or even exactly what he taught?  I still think the Christian belief about Jesus is wishful thinking.  It’s not like we have detailed accounts of his teaching from his contemporaries.  All the detailed “accounts” came long after the fact.

Sarah:  But we do have detailed accounts from his contemporaries.  There’s one account from a Jewish tax collector, one from a medical doctor who interviewed eyewitnesses and two from his closest friends.

Dillon:  Now wait a minute.  You’re talking about the Gospels, aren’t you?

Sarah:  Sure.  Matthew was written by a Jewish tax collector, Luke by a medical doctor who conducted interviews, Mark wrote down Peter’s recollections of Jesus and John wrote from his own experience.

Dillon:  But those books were written long after the fact!

Sarah:  That’s simply not true.  I mean, sure, there are some people who argue that the Gospels were written hundreds of years later, but the evidence says otherwise.  All the Gospels are mentioned by name and quoted by various writers by the end of the 1st century or the beginning of the 2nd century, so the Gospels had to have been written earlier.  Most scholars, even very critical ones, agree that they were written between the 60’s and the 80’s…early 90’s at the latest and that’s only for John.

Dillon:  But didn’t Jesus die in like the 30’s?

Sarah:  Yes, but there were still eyewitnesses alive in the period scholars agree the Gospels were written, so the writers still had access to the first-hand accounts.  Besides, in an oral culture, keeping a story accurate over a couple of decades was no big deal.  So there’s no reason to think that a 30 year gap between the events and the recording of them would be a problem.

Dillon:  Ok, but that’s not the big problem.  The big problem is that the Gospels were all written by Jesus’ followers!

Sarah:  Yeah, so?

Dillon:  It means they’re biased!

Sarah:  Ok, let’s just say for the sake of the argument that they are biased.  What does that mean?

Dillon:  It means that we can’t trust what they say about Jesus!

Sarah:  That’s not fair at all.  If a reporter who supports the president quotes him, does that mean that we can’t trust the reporter’s quote?

Dillon:  No, but he might be tempted to edit it a little.

Sarah:  Why?

Dillon:  To make the president sound better!

Sarah:  So…our hypothetical supporter feels free to “improve” the president’s actually statements?  But if he doesn’t like what the president says and feels like he has to alter it before the public sees it, then why would he support the guy in the first place? 

Dillon:  Hm.  So are you saying that being a supporter means he’s actually more likely to report the president…or Jesus…accurately?

Sarah:   I’m just saying it’s possible.  A true loyalist is likely to revere what his hero says and be careful to faithfully report it.  If he doesn’t think what the guy says and does is worth reporting then he isn’t really a supporter…and the bias you’re so worried about goes away. Just because someone’s a supporter doesn’t necessarily mean that their accounts can’t be trusted.  Isn’t it more likely that someone’s enemies are likely to distort what they actually said and did?

 Dillon:  Well…yeah, of course. 

Sarah:  So just because the Gospels were written by supporters of Jesus doesn’t necessarily mean that their accounts can’t be trusted.  It’s ok to have a healthy skepticism when investigating things, but you can’t start with an unjustified assumption of inaccuracy. 

Dillon:  Ok, I see your point.  It’s probably not fair to assume that Gospels are all false.  And your point about someone’s enemies being more likely to distort things is interesting.  So are the statements in the …what did you call it, the Mishna?…about Jesus being a sorcerer distortions?

Sarah:  Well, I’m not sure if they’re distortions but they’re certainly a different perspective!  But isn’t it interesting that both the Gospels and the hostile Jewish writings agree that Jesus did things that could only be explained by him having supernatural power?  They call it different things – maybe that’s where bias comes in – but they agree that those kinds of things happened.

Dillon:  But don’t all the details of Jesus’ life and teaching come from the Gospels?

Sarah:  Sure, but who else would report all the details?  Jesus’ enemies weren’t going to take the time to write detailed accounts of someone they wanted to make go away.

Dillon:  What do you mean? 

Sarah:  I just mean that Jesus and his followers were a thorn in the side of the Jewish leadership of the 1st and 2nd centuries.  They caused a significant split within Judaism.  Huge numbers of faithful Jews accepted Jesus as the Jewish Messiah while others didn’t, so there was a lot of religious tension going on.  For the Jewish leaders, the best thing to do would be to not stir the pot and let things settle down in the hopes that everyone would just forget about this Jesus guy.  In fact, the book of Acts reports that they adopted exactly that strategy.[6]

Dillon:  Didn’t really work out for them, though, did it?

Sarah:  Nope.  Jesus and his followers didn’t go away.  In fact, this whole thing we call Christianity just got bigger and bigger.  But that’s not really my point…

Dillon:  I think I see what you’re saying.  People with a vested interest in getting Jesus to disappear from the limelight wouldn’t have written detailed accounts about him.

Sarah:  And would you trust them if they did?

Dillon:  No, probably not.  I mean, it doesn’t make any sense to trust what a man’s enemies say about him over what those who love him say.  There’s probably going to be some bias on both sides, but his enemies would be somewhat more likely to twist things or make stuff up.

Sarah:  Yeah, there probably is going to be some bias.  But bias doesn’t necessarily mean inaccuracy, at least in the case of supporters.  And when claims about things like basic teachings and miracles are confirmed by other sources – even hostile ones – isn’t that pretty good evidence that those things actually happened?

Dillon:  I’ll have to think about it.  I see what you’re saying.  Maybe the Gospels can tell us a lot about what Jesus was actually like.

Sarah:  That sounds pretty good.  I mean, I think everything the Gospels say about Jesus can be trusted, but “a lot” is way better than “nothing”!  Why don’t you read one of the Gospels from this new, slightly less skeptical, perspective and we can talk about it later.  Would you be open to that?

Dillon:  Sure.  That might be fun.  Which one should I read?

Sarah:  Well, a lot of people recommend John as the first Gospel to read, but given what we’ve been talking about, I think I might recommend Luke.  He’s kind of a “give me the facts” guy and I think you’ll appreciate his approach.

Dillon:  Ok, Luke it is.


[1] Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 18 3:3; 20 9:1.

[2] Tacitus, Annals, book XV

[3] Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars (cf. Claudius, sec. 25 and Nero, sec. 16); Julius Africanus, Chronography, XVIII, Pliny the Younger, Letters, 10:96-97.

[4] Antiquities, 18 3:3

[5] Sanhedrin, 43a

[6] Acts 5