IF the discovery of an ancient scroll were to reveal certain facts about Jesus never before adequately confronted, how would we react?
Would we be forced to rethink what he really means?
This will probably be a page for some of the weightier discussions to take place here.
You may prefer to read my novel FIRST, before reading any of these discussions.
Scroll down for the newly added
DIALOGUE WITH A CONSERVATIVE PASTOR.
EVEN NEWER!!! His latest response.
WARNING! this entire dialogue starts getting long and tedious, but see my last response to his last entry.
ALL are welcome to contribute here -- Christians, atheists, scholars, non-scholars, believers, skeptics, scientists, people of the other world religions or of none.
All are welcome here. ANYONE of good will.
Go to the HOME page and scroll down to email questions, comments, disagreements, etc.
AND for "enough of the best, most erudite historical Jesus information to keep you busy a lifetime," go to the INFO page.
CRITICISM: IT SEEMS to me that in your novel you display an "in your face" mentality, as if you want to confront Christian believers with realities about Jesus which they do not want to see, realities they will have a hard time dealing with, realities they will find upsetting about Jesus' humanness, his limitations, his erroneous unfulfilled expectations. Does this not indicate a desire on your part to be contentious, perhaps even derogatory and obnoxious?
RESPONSE: OH I sincerely hope not. Truth is truth, and I think we should all strive for it, even when it causes us some difficulties and discomfort. And yet it has been my experience that for every discouraging historical Jesus reality I have had to face up to, something else emerges, something beautiful and inspiring, even when it is not absolutist. And I hope that readers of my novel may experience something like that.
BUT THAT CRITICISM GOT ME THINKING, AND NOW I WOULD LIKE TO SAY--
MANY YEARS ago I felt compelled to admit that the historical study of Jesus, if honestly pursued, leads to conclusions about him which, although they are disturbing, cannot be denied: Jesus was expecting certain events to happen in his own time that simply did not take place, including the full arrival of the Kingdom of God in all its power throughout the earth. This would happen, Jesus said, in his own generation, within the lifetime of some of his apostles (Mark 1:15; 9:1; 13:30) and opponents (14:62).
All the early Christians, including Paul, were expecting this to happen soon. It did not, and that raises questions about the inerrancy of the scriptures, and even of Jesus.
In nearly six decades of preaching, I have struggled with trying to be honest about this historical reality while being true to the good news of Jesus. That is not an easy task, and I have often failed.
Thirteen years ago, I began writing The Dead Sea Gospel, a novel in which I attempt to accomplish in fiction what is so difficult to accomplish in preaching.
Historical realities about Jesus are not easy to face, for they raise questions about him which challenge and disturb both conservatives and liberals. Yet truth is truth, and honesty may bring its own rewards. For all that we lose by facing the historical realities concerning Jesus, we also stand to gain, even spiritually. And this, I hope, is made clear in my novel which is based on some of the very best historical Jesus research now available. *
Dare we look at Jesus honestly? That is the question I would raise with everyone, and I invite all to join in the discussions [here] on my website.
* see the next section
[NOTE: The above article appeared in an Oct. 12, 2018 "From The Pulpit" column of our local newspaper, The Pantagraph. To see how a local pastor responded to it, scroll down to the DIALOGUE section below.]
CRITICISM: YOU CLAIM to have based your novel on "some of the very best Jesus research available." Isn't that an exceedingly arrogant claim?
RESPONSE; Honestly, I don't think so, and I will tell you why ---
Go to the INFO page for my most recent answer to this question.
A conservative pastor responded to my newspaper article (above) as follows:
I read your article in the Pantagraph last week with some interest and wanted to briefly write to you. I'm also a local pastor [at PLACE]...
I know that you would probably rather have a conversation after I would read your book, but I'm not going to be able to do that. I have too many other books I'm working on. However, I am somewhat familiar with the arguments of historical critics including Bart Ehrman.
Right up front I'll tell you that I don't accept any of the claims of historical criticism. I'm certainly not as versed in the realm as you are but I don't think the science behind their work is valid or trustworthy. But what I really can never understand is why an historical critic such as yourself doesn't feel compelled to leave the Church, become an atheist, etc. If Jesus isn't really the Son of God, then why believe in Him at all or believe in the Bible at all?
I hope you don't read my tone wrong. I'm trying to ask you in all seriousness. It breaks my heart to see a pastor such as yourself who says you have struggled for much of your ministry with how to proceed. From my angle, that's because once you don't believe Jesus to be who He says He is then there's really no point to any of it at all. Why continue to be a pastor? Furthermore, what would be the reason to write an article for a local column that is supposed to be "from the pulpit", in other words, proclaiming Jesus, when the article that you write specifically denies Jesus?
Again I'll plead with you to not hear my tone wrong. I'm not trying to be rude or dismissive. But I am puzzled and a little frustrated too. Some of my members read that column and it's dangerous to their faith to hear a Christian pastor write that he doesn't think Jesus or the Scriptures are trustworthy.
With enough flashy arguments and big names and books and studies, I think you make a person doubt pretty much anything. Even that we really exist at all. That's the way I often feel about historical criticism. To me it would be a miracle if the world ever could produce a book as historically reliable as the Holy Scriptures.
Thank you for your kindly if firmly expressed letter. I will try to reply with the same kindness and firmness. Expect a letter from me in the next day or two.
That sounds good. I'll look for your reply.
The next day I wrote the following but accidentally emailed it before it was finished---
NAME, I looked you up and was not surprised to see the denomination to which you belong, noted for its conservatism. I also saw that you are a fine looking young man with an absolutely beautiful family.
Since you were upfront with me, let me be upfront with you. First, if you and I are really going to engage with one another, I'm afraid I would have to insist that you read my book. There are just too many big things to discuss that I have dealt with there better than I can here.
Second, when you say that with regard to "the claims of historical criticism" you "don't think the science behind their work is valid or trustworthy," you may be interested to know that I would say the same of many claims of the scholars of the Jesus Seminar. I am
critical of them in my novel under the designation "the Jesus Forum." I suppose you saw my entry above [it is now on the INFO page] where I list the five or six historical Jesus scholars I most highly value, all of whom disagree with the Seminar on important points.
Third, let me answer your second paragraph by saying this. When I was a young teenager in North Carolina, two Easter films I saw on TV got me interested in going to church and studying the gospels. I read them with intense excitement, convinced that what I was reading was what happened. Even when I noticed small discrepancies between Matthew, Mark, and Luke, they did not seem important, and mentors in the church encouraged me to use good scholarship in answering any questions that arose in my mind. In doing that, I learned that Mark was probably the earliest gospel to have been written, so I paid particular attention to that gospel. I also learned that the Matthew-Luke parallel passages (now labeled Q by scholars) were also early, possibly even earlier than Mark.
It was when I got to the Gospel of John that I first experienced some real difficulties, as follows:
In Mark, the disciples of Jesus do not finally figure out that he is the Messiah until late in his ministry, in the eighth chapter,
but in John, they are calling him the Messiah almost from the first moment they meet him in chapter one.
In that same first chapter, the Baptizer testifies that a divine voice has spoken to him directly from heaven telling him exactly who and what Jesus is,
but in an early Q passage, the Baptizer later sends messengers from prison to ask Jesus whether he is or is not "the one who is to come" (i.e., the expected Messiah, the "mighty one" the Baptizer had announced)
-- and this uncertainty is expressed by one whom Jesus in that same passage calls "a prophet and more than a prophet" who is as great as anyone who has ever lived.
I also noticed that in Matthew and Luke the parents of Jesus are told by angels exactly who and what he is,
and yet in Mark, when Jesus begins his ministry, his own family think he has lost his mind and set out to try to seize him and bring him home (which he refuses, suggesting that his family now consists only of those who do God's will -- which in this context seems to mean, accept him and his message),
and when in Mark Jesus does come to Nazareth to teach and heal, he is met with almost total rejection and receives, he says, no "honor" in his own town, among his own people, and in his own home.
[Note: Even the late Gospel of John at one point starkly states that Jesus' brothers "did not believe in him.")
Now, it seems to me that the portions I have boldfaced above come from some of our earliest sources, Q and Mark (and in one case, the Gospel of John)...
------LETTER BREAKS OFF HERE
RESPONSE FROM NAME
I think maybe your email may not have all gotten to me. Or maybe it did. I'm not sure. The last paragraph that I got was this one: "Now, it seems to me that the portions I have boldfaced above come from some of our earliest sources, Q and Mark and in one case, the Gospel of John."
Maybe I'm wrong but it seemed like you were in the middle of a point there and it got cut off...
At any rate, thanks for your kind comment about my family. The Lord has blessed us greatly... And yes, I'm a pastor in a conservative denomination because I am a conservative Christian. I wasn't trying to hide it. But I know that our two denominations are both Christian and both concerned about the Holy Scriptures.
In regard to your analysis of the four Gospels and John in particular, I can certainly see your points. But I also don't think they prove anything in particular. The apostles and John the Baptist were all sinful men like us. If you ask me on one day a question of faith, I may sound like Peter on the day of Pentecost--a bold believer. Yet another day and I may sound like Peter on the day he almost drowned walking on the water. In fact, it seems to me that you yourself are very much like John the Baptist. You also have questions for Jesus much like John's, "Are you really the Christ?" John the Baptist was a great prophet indeed. But all the prophets were sinful humans as well. They struggled with doubt. There are many good explanations for why John sent those questions from prison. The point would be Jesus' answer. He confesses to be the Christ straight from Isaiah. Jesus raises the dead, gives sight to the blind, etc.
By the way, just a word of clarification. I don't have any reason to believe in a Q document. Nor do I have any reason to believe that Mark had to be the first Gospel. In other words, I just wanted you to know that those are assumptions I don't agree with. There is no direct evidence for either of those being true. I know you don't agree with me on that but I just wanted to be clear about my perspective.
Thanks for the discussion. I appreciate your time. Finally, I know you'd like me to read your book. I will put it on my list and see if I can get to it. I'm sure you can sympathize with me about "too many good books and so little time." But I really am very curious to know your perspective--what do you believe about Jesus? Do you believe He is the Son of God and your Savior from sin and death? Or is He something different in your case?
This is embarrassing. I did not mean to send you the last letter and do not know how it got sent. I was going to think about it some more and perhaps take an entirely different tack. So you were right to assume that my argument got cut off prematurely. It was sent by accident.
After I received your response, I went to the library yesterday (because I'm having computer problems at home) and spent a good hour and a half replying -- only somehow to erase it all by mistake.
Maybe that is just as well, because the response I am about to give you is a good bit firmer than what I wrote yesterday.
Let me frankly state that if you consider that there is no proof that Mark was probably written first, I hardly see how we can communicate. I believe that even the great evangelical scholar I. H. Marshall was convinced that Markan priority is a firm probability.
As for "proof," even as a young teenager I could see that if you compare Mark's version of Jesus' rejection at Nazareth with Matthew's version of the same, it's obvious that the author (or final redactor) of Matthew has changed Mark's wording to make Jesus seem less surprised and more in control of the situation. Unfortunately, in doing that, Matthew's version makes Jesus seem less compassionate: Whereas Mark's Jesus continues to try to help the people of Nazareth despite their lack of faith, Matthew's version makes it seem as if Jesus is refusing to do mighty works there because of their lack of faith, as if to punish them.
I prefer Mark's more compassionate Jesus.
Something similar can be said of the opening lines of the wealthy young man story. The author/redactor of Matthew didn't like Mark's wording ("No one is good but God alone") and so he changed it, along with the question the young man asked.
That is true also of the wording of Mark's walking on water incident where Matthew changes the utter confusion and "hardened hearts" of Mark's disciples into a glowing affirmation of faith -- and adds Peter's water-walk which neither Mark nor John have. (Luke omits the story entirely.)
And when it comes to the scene at the Easter tomb, Matthew's version pulls out all the stops and turns what in the other gospels is a quiet morning with the tomb's stone already rolled back when the woman or women arrive, into something far more dramatic.
(Only Matthew has an earthquake, guards at the tomb, a frightening angel rolling back the stone -- and only Matthew says the tomb belonged to Joseph of Arimathea.)*
Personally, I think in this case the Gospel of John surprisingly gives us the version closest to what really happened there that morning -- and also the reason for why the tomb was chosen. (No wonder Mary Magdalene thought the body had been removed!) I think that later the other women became involved, and their different experiences may explain differences in the narrative -- one angels, two angels, etc.
*I don't see how anyone can consider all these examples and others without concluding that Mark predated Matthew.
As for Q, it exists, not as a hypothetical Greek document (which it probably was), but as actual material -- the parallel Greek passages in Matthew and in Luke that are probably older than Mark and may have been translated from an Aramaic original. (Note how the Matthew-Luke parallels both emphasize the apocalyptic nature of the Baptizer's message with the words "wrath" and "fire" while Mark has none of that. Note too that the parallel passages state "he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire," yet Mark omits "and with fire" -- perhaps because in the intervening years the church had experienced Jesus' pouring out of the Holy Spirit but not of any wrathful fire.)
----As a young teenager, I found all this exciting, for it offers evidence that we are dealing with real historical events and not just legends and myths.
Now, let me get even a little tougher. You say it "breaks your heart" that a pastor would do this kind of thinking. Let me give you two examples of my own heart being somewhat broken by a different kind of thinking -- and both of these are in my novel:
When I was a student in undergraduate school we were once discussing in class the seventh chapter of 1 Corinthians wherein Paul advocated avoiding not only divorce, but remarrying and even marrying(!) because, he thought, the coming of Jesus was imminent and this age was passing away. We concluded that Paul would not have said these things if he had known that the return of Jesus was not about to occur. At that point, an elderly woman in the class spoke up and said this made her very sad and even angry because years earlier when her husband had died, she had wanted to remarry, but had not done so because of the words of Paul. She was upset (heart broken) because no one had explained to her the real context out of which Paul was writing -- neither her pastor, nor the friends who advised her not to remarry, nor her conservative Bible commentary.
I felt she had a valid point and resolved never to be unclear about that chapter.
Another example: It is heart breaking how many conservatives have interpreted Romans 9-11 to mean that the conversion of all Israel will take place soon, in our days. But what Paul says there is that it will take place "now" (11:31) -- that is, in his own time along with the return of Jesus. That did not happen, but some conservatives read this passage in such a way as to excuse anything Israel does against the Palestinians -- some even hoping for and advocating that a major war will break out in the Middle East because that will hasten the mass conversion of Israel and the return of Jesus. Horrendous!
I am convinced that Paul was expecting the end of all earthly religions in his own generation, to be superseded by the Kingdom of God throughout the earth. That did not happen. Although the religions of the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians did eventually die away, Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, etc. still exist, while Islam and Ba'hai later emerged.
If Paul were here among us today, I think he would advise us to try to come up with some sort of theological or other reasons as to why those other religions were not brought to an end by God.
You said that my article "specifically denies" Jesus. I said that "in nearly six decades of preaching I have struggled with trying to be honest"about historical realities [such as these] "while being true to the good news of Jesus."
Grace and peace,
Thanks for the reply. Sorry for your computer and email frustrations. I would love to further discuss with you but you'll have to be patient with me. [I have several commitments coming up and so it] might be the middle of next week [before I get back to you.] That will give me some time to consider your points anyway. Thanks again.
I WROTE BACK,
No problem, NAME. Reply only when you have time, energy, and the desire.
HE WROTE BACK
Hope you are well. I've had a little time to consider your points and I'd like to reply to a few of them and ask a couple more questions.
1 Corinthians 7: Neither I nor my church body interpret that to mean that a divorced woman may never remarry. Since that part doesn't really apply to me then, I'm going to just put that one aside. I hope that's alright.
Israel: We also don't teach anything about the future conversion of Israel. We don't interpret any of those passages that way. Since that applies to other Christians or denominations, I'm not going to deal with that one either. I agree with your conclusions on both of those points even if we don't get there by way of the same interpretation.
Markan Priority: I appreciate all your points. It's not that I think Mark wasn't written first, but I don't think it must be that way. For instance, I see no problem if one believed Matthew was written first. Unless I'm not understanding your points or if I just don't get it, I don't see how any of your points are "proof" that Mark had to be written first. They are possible explanations of the differences in the Synoptics. In the rejection at Nazareth, you say it's obvious that the author or redactor of Matthew changed Mark's wording. But I don't understand why that's obvious. Why couldn't Mark have changed Matthew's account to make his own emphasis--as you say, to make Jesus appear more compassionate?
You may be able to show me I'm wrong on that. I'm not sure. But to me all the examples of proof that you give don't appear to be proof at all. Just theories or possibilities. If I were to say that Matthew was written first, I don't see how you would give definitive proof that I'm wrong. I think an underlying difference between you and me might possibly be our general approach to the Scriptures. While I certainly appreciate the contributions of the individual men and their own experiences (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), I also believe that the Holy Spirit inspired them to write. Therefore, I would probably emphasize the overall Gospel account of all four more than the individual accounts.
Jesus and the Good News: Perhaps I spoke too strongly when I said your article denied Jesus. Please forgive me. Yet it still seems to me that you're not answering my question. What do you believe specifically about Jesus? Is He the Son of God? And is He our Savior from sin and death?
Or simply another way to ask you the same thing--what is the "good news of Jesus" that you have preached? I may have misinterpreted your original article but it seemed to me that you were saying that Jesus wasn't inerrant. Then He must not be the Son of God. Also you said that historical realities raise questions about Jesus hard for us to face. What are those?
Those are some thoughts for more discussion.
Blessings in Christ,
I WROTE BACK
NAME, thank you for your reply.
I must say that it seems to me that whenever you have two or more gospel stories of the same event, using similar words, those that glorify Jesus more must surely have been written later, and not the other way around. That seems simply logical and obvious to me. But I will begin by trying to answer one of your most important questions, which I have boldfaced below: .
You said, "What is the 'good news of Jesus' that you have preached? I may have misinterpreted your original article but it seemed to me that you were saying that Jesus wasn't inerrant. Then He must not be the Son of God. Also you said that historical realities raise questions about Jesus hard for us to face. What are those?"
Well, you need only to take a look at the Markan scriptures that I referenced at the beginning of my article. They are boldfaced below:
At the beginning of the gospel of Mark, the first thing Jesus says is, "The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is near! Repent, and believe this good news" (1:15).
Later he tells his twelve special disciples, "Amen, I say to you, there are some [of you] standing here who will not taste [experience] death until they see that the Kingdom of God has come with power" (9:1) (Matthew's version of this reads "...will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom" (Matthew 16:28; note Mathew 25:31).
Much later Jesus, sitting on the Mount of Olives, talks about the great suffering that will soon come to the earth, followed by the darkening of the sun, the stars falling from heaven, and the Son of Man coming with clouds. He then adds, "Amen, I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place" (13:30).
A short while later, standing before the Jerusalem council, Jesus tells them, "...you (plural) will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming with the clouds of heaven" (14:62), indicating that he believed that they, or at least some of them, would be alive to see this happen.)
Do you take those sayings literally? I do. I am convinced that Jesus actually spoke words like these and similar words that are found in the other gospels. Moreover, I'm convinced that Jesus said what he meant and meant what he said -- and that would mean that he was expecting all this to happen in his own generation -- and it did not. And that I find disturbing, because although I can take (or understand) his words literally, I cannot believe them literally. I simply cannot believe that the Kingdom of God came in power and the stars fell from heaven and the Son of Man returned in clouds of heaven before that generation had passed away.
Now, I am well aware that there are conservative scholars who have made attempts to explain away all this by saying that when Jesus and the others said these things they meant something else. I find that unconvincing, and in my novel I try to say why.
I am also aware that there are liberal scholars who say that Jesus never said words like those, but that those words were added by later believers who were themselves expecting an imminent ending of the world and Jesus' early return. I find that unconvincing too, and in my novel I try to say why.
Indeed, I find it impossible to see how anyone can honestly study all the early gospel and epistle writings and not come to the conclusion, disturbing though it may be, that John the Baptizer, Jesus, and Paul were all expecting an apocalyptic ending of the world to take place in their own time and generation.
Now, in view of all this, it would seem that "historical realities" based on Jesus' own teachings do indeed "raise questions about Jesus" that are "difficult for us to face" -- especially if we are determined to insist that Jesus was "inerrant" in the sense that he was never mistaken about anything and never said that something would happen in his own generation that did not happen.
The church has long insisted that Jesus was fully human, and sure enough, the Jesus of Mark admits limitations to his knowledge (Mark 5:30-32; 6:6; 13:32), to his authority or power (Mark 6:5-6; 10:40), and subordinates himself to the Father (10:18; 14:36).
One more point:
The quest for the historical Jesus is not based on faith, but only on what can be established utilizing the usually accepted historical methods of examination. The excellent historical Jesus scholar John P. Meier has tried to illustrate that by saying that if you were to take a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew, an agnostic, and a Muslim -- all of whom are scholars familiar with the accepted methods for doing historical research -- and put them in the basement of Harvard library with the instruction that they are not to emerge before they have hammered out a view of Jesus which they can all pretty much agree stands up to historical scrutiny, the result of that effort would be a long research paper presenting what they are convinced we may know about Jesus based solely on such research -- in other words, based not on faith, but on their attempted use of objective historical research only.
Such a research paper would not replace Christian faith, although it might very well undergird some aspects of Christian faith by showing it to be based on claims that can reasonably be made convincing to everyone, even agnostics, atheists, or people of other world religions. On the other hand, the results of that project might call into question some aspects of Christian faith that cannot stand up to such examination -- and one example of that, it seems to me, is the claim of inerrancy, if that claim is interpreted to mean that the Baptizer, Jesus, and Paul could NOT have held and taught expectations that went unfulfilled.
Now, I am well aware that I have not yet answered your faith questions. That is because, like my novel's protagonist Brad Chase, I try to go as far as I can on the basis of historical research only. I try to say things that anyone should be able to agree with -- believers, unbelievers, agnostics, atheists, people of other world religions, etc., as long as they are willing to use the accepted methods of historical inquiry.
As for what my faith position is, you might want to search for that in my novel.
Let me just add that my novel is not intended to be negative, but positive, as positive as we can be. The Hebrew prophets and Jesus dreamed beautiful dreams of a world of goodness and perfection, and we may still seek to dream those dreams and live accordingly.
Just to be clear, I added that last statement after I sent my answer to NAME, but before I saw his response. It was not part of my original communication to him.
I have been sharing this discussion with some colleagues, two groups of retired pastors and professors I meet with, several of whom have expressed considerable interest in this dialogue and commended me for being willing to engage in it. Indeed, just before I saw NAME'S next response, I received the following:
Hi! I doubt you remember me. I am retired ... but I’m still pastoring... I’ve been to the collective gathering ... only once...
Anyhow, I’m on the email list and I enjoy the writings.
And I particularly like this dialogue.
Your patience. O my goodness, your patience!
I must confess - these days I smile politely to those who try to argue with me and say something like, “I’m happy for your certainty, but now I must go clean my room.”
So, thanks for your efforts and your writing and your patience.
[And then he told me who he is.]
NAME'S RESPONSE TO MY LAST COMMUNICATION:
About the Good News: When you set to answer my question about the good news you went to the discussion about Jesus and the apostles believing this world would end within a generation. Are you then saying that is the good news? That Jesus' good news was the apocalypse? Then apparently the good news hasn't come and the kingdom hasn't been "fulfilled". No good news? I'm confused by your answer.
Historical Jesus and Faith: If it was as simple as locking up some various folks in a Harvard library then how come no one has done it? Because it's a fairy tale. That's not the real world we live in. Otherwise it would be done already and we wouldn't be having this discussion. It assumes there's some magical evidence out there that is yet to be discovered in a library somewhere. We have the evidence. This is where faith then comes in. What do you believe based on the evidence? To be completely honest, I can't understand why you wouldn't just be honest about what you believe based on the evidence we have of Jesus. You are asking me to go on a hunt in your book for what you believe. What kind of honesty is that when you call for honest study in your article?
Jesus' Inerrancy: To say that Jesus was limited in His human nature is an entirely different matter than saying He was wrong. Those two can't be equated as you do. You find it impossible that anyone can read the Gospels and Epistles and not come to the conclusion that they all thought the apocalypse was coming in their generation. That's pretty bold considering the Church has had no problem with that impossibility for going on 2,000 years. I would go into what Jesus' words really mean but you've already told me that you don't buy my "conservative" interpretations.
NAME, thank you for your response.
Calling upon all my "patience" and good will, I will not go off and clean my room (though it needs it!), but will seek to answer you with fairness and honesty, as follows...
First, I do not like the adversarial tone this discussion is beginning to take, so now I want to make some statements with sincerity, firmness -- and most important with humility. But first, let me get a few things out of the way, and here I must speak firmly.
Re: Historical Jesus and Faith: I must say that you misunderstood the point of the Harvard library "experiment." Meier was in no way saying that this should be done; he was only stating that what he himself attempts to do can best be illustrated by that example. That is to say, genuine historical objectivity can be attained even when the practitioners of it may be exceedingly diverse, as long as they are committed to research that seeks to be as objective as possible. (Although Meier is a Catholic, he feels that as a scholar he can achieve real historical objectivity, -- and by the way, the skeptical Jewish literary critic Harold Bloom agrees that he does, and remarkably so.)
As a matter of fact, something like the Harvard library experiment HAS taken place. Recall the six excellent historical Jesus scholars listed far above -- one an atheist, one an agnostic, one a Jew, one a Muslim, and two professing Christians, Catholic and Protestant. --No, they have not been locked away in the basement of the Harvard library, but they have each produced significant works on the historical Jesus, and to a surprising degree they DO agree: All of them are convinced that Jesus believed himself to be the Messiah who with his followers soon would rule the world, and that in his preaching to the poor, his healing, and especially his exorcisms, Jesus saw evidence that the Kingdom of God was already beginning to be present, drawing near (see his Q saying, Luke 11:20=).
Re: About the Good News: I think my answer to you was very clear. You asked me what my problem was in trying to be true both to the good news of Jesus and to what I take to be convincing historical realities, and I replied that there is overwhelming scriptural evidence -- some of which I presented from Mark -- that Jesus, like John the Baptizer who came before him, and like Paul who came after him, was expecting the Kingdom of God to come in all its fullness during the lifetime of their generation, and that has been problematic not only for me but for numerous scholars who have been forced to admit and deal with it, as follows--
Re: Jesus' Inerrancy: Now for the humility part--- As said, Jesus' apocalyptic expectations are not easy to deal with. I myself long struggled with that, as have others, ever since Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer drew attention to the problem at the end of the 19th century:
The deeply devout conservative Lutheran New Testament scholar Joachim Jeremias (1900-1979), after having examined all the gospel evidence over a lifetime, said in 1971 that the evidence "raises an extremely serious question. Must we not concede that Jesus' expectation of an imminent end was one that went unfulfilled? Honesty and the demand for truthfulness compel us to answer 'Yes.' Jesus expected the end to come soon."
Jeremias then went on to give reasons as to why in his opinion this should not overly upset us (NT Theology Vol. 1, The Proclamation of Jesus, pp. 139-140). I try to do that in my novel too.
Even the devout evangelical scholar I. Howard Marshall felt compelled to admit that "it is hard to avoid the impression that Jesus spoke as if the end might come within the lifetime of his hearers. Warnings to them to be ready lest the Son of man comes and finds people unready for his coming are pointless if there is not a real possibility of his coming within their lifetime." (I Believe in the Historical Jesus, 1977, p. 227.) [--Personally, I would prefer the word "would" to Marshall's "might." ]
Also, today's excellent 21st century Christian scholars John P. Meier and Dale C. Allison feel compelled by the evidence to hold similar views -- not because they want to, but because they find overwhelming scriptural evidence that they must.
In addition to the extensive early Markan evidence already provided, there is more even earlier evidence from Q. Here are two examples:
First, in the Matthew=Luke parallels (Q), there is a saying of Jesus stating that the punishment for all the sins committed against the prophets down through the ages is about to fall on "this generation" which, he said, "will be charged with all the blood of the prophets shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah... Yes, I tell you, it will be charged against this generation." (Luke 11:50-51=Matthew 23:34-35). ----Why would Jesus have said that unless he believed that his generation would be the last generation?.
Second, Jesus also indicated in another Q saying that people in the time of Noah should not have continued "eating and drinking, marrying and being given in marriage" right up until the time "the flood came and destroyed all of them" (Lk.17:27=Mt. 24:38) -- a saying that may have influenced Paul to tell the people of Corinth that they should not go on marrying because, Paul wrote, "The time is short" and "the present form of this world is passing away": 1 Corinthians 7:8,29-31.
Moreover, several other sections of Paul's letters plainly indicate that he was expecting Jesus' return to take place before all of the people to whom he was writing had died: He assured the church in Thessalonica that "we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord" would not experience his return before, but along with, those members of the church who had recently died (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). He also told the believers in Corinth that "we shall not all die, but we shall all be changed" when the last trumpet sounds (1 Corinthians 15:51-52). Then too he told the church in Rome that "salvation is nearer to us now than when we first became believers" and that "the God of peace will soon crush Satan beneath your feet" (Romans 10:11b;16:20). "The Lord is near" he told the Philippians (Philippians 4:5b) and "Our Lord, come!" he cried out to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 16:22b).
Additionally, all the other authors of the New Testament were expecting the return of Jesus to take place very soon (with the exception of the 2nd century pseudonymous author of 2 Peter and the final redactor of John 21:20-23).
Now, does the conviction of numerous excellent scholars that Jesus had imminent end-of-the-world expectations cause problems for the idea of absolute scriptural inerrancy? Of course it does, as surely as did Galileo's conviction, based on verifiable evidence, that the earth is in motion around the sun -- evidence which the church authorities of his day found so contradictory to the ancient Hebrew scriptural concept of a stationary earth that they were prepared to strangle him and burn his body at the stake if he continued insisting on it. But Galileo was right, and those authorities and the Hebrew concept were mistaken.
In like manner, I think it is a grave mistake today to refuse to acknowledge what is so clear about Jesus' apocalyptic expectations. As the Jewish scholar Paula Fredriksen has said, "What you see is what you get."
Problematic as that is, I think we must learn to live with it, and in my novel I try to suggest that Jesus would want us to do just that, and also would want us to draw some positive conclusions concerning it.
Finally, one thing more. You suggested I was not being honest because I did not directly answer your question about Jesus' divinity. Let me remind you of how you first raised that question:
"Thanks for the discussion. I appreciate your time. Finally, I know you'd like me to read your book. I will put it on my list and see if I can get to it. I'm sure you can sympathize with me about 'too many good books and so little time.' But I really am very curious to know your perspective--what do you believe about Jesus? Do you believe He is the Son of God and your Savior from sin and death? Or is He something different in your case?"
That sounded to me as if you were considering doing what I all along have suggested it would be best for you to do: Read my book in order to get a better understanding of my positions.
I too thank you for the discussion.
Grace and peace,
I want here to add that I cannot believe that the physical man Jesus, were he among us today and aware of all that we now know, would want us to say that such devout Christian scholars as those mentioned above (Jeremias, Marshall, Allison, and Meier) can have no meaningful relationship to him if they remain convinced that he, the Baptizer, and Paul all had unfulfilled apocalyptic expectations. Rather, I think he would freely admit that he and they did have such expectations, and suggest that we take that into consideration, drawing whatever conclusions are necessary. (Allison. interestingly, has said that Jesus "was mistaken, but not wrong." The Apocalyptic Jesus: A Debate, p. 105.)
Nor, I think, would Jesus' realization of his own mistaken expectations cause him to totally renounce and turn his back on the profound experience he had at his baptism, or the many experiences that followed.
At this point I think I will resolve from now on to deal only with questions and comments based on what I say in my book.
NOTE: Some time after that, NAME communicated with me, indicating that he was ready to read my book, so I sent him free of charge a pdf of the novel's text, requesting that he not share it with others. He read it rather quickly and responded as follows:
Re: pdf of THE DEAD SEA GOSPEL
Happy new year. Hope you're doing well.
I should've written sooner when your book was fresher in my mind. But I'm just now getting to it.
First, I wanted to say that I was impressed with your writing style and you kept my suspense and interest throughout the book. It wasn't a book I had to plug through but it was a quick and easy read. So kudos on your writing. I don't think I could ever weave a tale as well as you did. Well done.
As to the content, though, I'm not as impressed, of course. But you know that already. You have many characters in your book that are well developed, but I can't find myself in any single one of them. You would obviously identify with Bradley Chase, the hero of the story. And then there's the Jesus Seminar folks in Schoenberg. And the Evangelical crowd is found in Ray Hardin who wants to change things to fit more modern claims.
And then there's Billy Bartlett. With the possible exception of Reginald Rover, Bartlett's your only character that's left to cover all Christians that believe in the inerrancy and reliability of the Scriptures. So is that what all of us are like? Is that the way you see all Christians who believe the Bible to be inerrant? I am one, and I know many others, and none of us are the least bit like Billy Bartlett. When I read your accounts of Bartlett, he seems like a TV preacher that all of us laugh at because he's so ridiculous. Hardly anyone takes folks like him serious at all. You may not see this as a problem in the book, but in our exchanges I have wondered if there's a place in your mind for a reasonable and caring Christian who believes the Bible is reliable.
I have come out of your book the same way I've come out of some of your emails--wondering if you think of me as a complete buffoon because I believe the Scriptures to be true as they're written. We're not buffoons. We don't read the evidence the way you are reading it. I don't read the four Gospels and come out thinking there must be a Q and that Mark must have been written first. I don't come out thinking that Jesus must have thought the world was going to end in the lifetime of the apostles. Nor am I ignoring any evidence to do so. I am taking all the evidence that I have from Holy Scriptures and making the best interpretations available.
I have been trying to view our discussions from your angle. You call for more honesty in our study of Jesus. You want us to be honest with some of His sayings and Paul's sayings regarding the Last Day. However, that assumes someone is being dishonest. Who is being dishonest? For years and years Christians have honestly interpreted Jesus' sayings and haven't concluded that He thought the world would end within a lifetime. For years and years Christians have honestly interpreted the Gospels and concluded that Jesus is true God and true man at the same time. That He knows all things and yet refrains from using His full divine omniscience at certain times during His life on earth. For years and years Christians have honestly interpreted Jesus' words and the rest of Holy Scripture to mean that Jesus gives His life as an atonement for the sin of the whole world.
From my angle, the dishonesty lies on your end. You would pick and choose which verses you will accept from the Holy Scriptures and which ones you will not. It is dishonest with the Word of God to say that Jesus isn't the Son of God, isn't true God, isn't an atonement for our sins, and didn't rise bodily from the dead. The Scriptures are abundantly clear on all those points. Bradley Chase isn't a hero. He dishonestly wants to borrow some things from the Scriptures that he personally likes and discard the rest. He has lost any concern for what God Himself truly says and would rather find an imaginary document that says Jesus is exactly what he would like Him to be.
Thanks for sending your book. I won't share it with anyone as you requested.
Thank you, NAME for your frank appraisal. I also wish you a happy and healthy new year, and I'll be replying at some length over the next several days. Peace.
I hope you realize, NAME, that when I asked you not to share the pdf, I only meant that there should be no violation of copyright -- which I am sure you would never do anyway. But if you ever do purchase a copy of the book, feel free to share it with anyone, anywhere, anytime, as you see fit.
Now, although the Billy Bartlett character does indeed represent something of an extreme, Ray Hardin and Stewart Sadler represent thoughtful evangelical leaders who regard the scriptures as reliable without necessarily holding them to be in all respects inerrant, simply because of the limited understandings of the times in which they were written.
But let me insist that I (like Brad Chase) do strive for honesty, as I am sure you do, and as I am also sure the preterists do. For that reason, I object to your charge that I merely "pick and choose" from among the scriptures only those that say what I want them to say or would "like" for them to say. That overlooks the difficult path that I as a young teen and early college student had to traverse as I tried to come to terms with scriptural texts after scriptural texts which overwhelmingly indicate that John the Baptizer, Jesus, and the Apostle Paul were all expecting an imminent day of wrath to be followed by the arrival of God's Kingdom on all the earth. This is especially made clear in passages found in Paul's letters -- for example, in 1 Thess, 4:13-18 and 1 Cor. 7:1-31; 15:51-52, and I have difficulty understanding how anyone can read them without clearly seeing that to be true. It is also made clear in the Baptizer's teachings, as revealed in the parallel passages found in Matthew 3 and Luke 3 where John's warnings to avoid the coming fiery wrath were delivered to his generation.
As for Jesus' own teachings, let me remind you that the preterists are just as committed to biblical inerrancy as you are, yet they find strong evidence that Jesus himself expected the Kingdom of God to arrive with power and the Son of Man to come with clouds of heaven within the lifetime of his contemporaries. Now, surely you would not accuse the preterists of "picking and choosing" what they want to find. Rather, they are simply trying to be true to what the texts actually say, honest about what Jesus said was going to happen soon (Mark 1:15; 9:1; 13:26-27; 14:61-62). And they remain true to their conviction even when it means they must insist that these things already took place in the first century, around 70 CE(!).
I cannot agree with them on that last, but I do not for that reason regard them as being dishonest. They are just holding to the plain sense of what Jesus says in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
You also take the scriptures literally, and without accusing you of dishonesty, I find it puzzling that you fail to see what seems to me to be so abundantly clear. And that, I think, is not "picking and choosing," but simply admitting the plain sense of the texts.
NOW let me respond to the following statement which you addressed to me:
"You call for more honesty in our study of Jesus. You want us to be honest with some of His sayings and Paul's sayings regarding the Last Day. However, that assumes someone is being dishonest. Who is being dishonest? For years and years Christians have honestly interpreted Jesus' sayings and haven't concluded that He thought the world would end within a lifetime."
NAME, are you not being much too rosy in that assessment? There have been numerous times down through Christian history when scriptural literalists have authoritatively announced that the end was at hand. One fairly recent example:
When the Persian Gulf war was shaping up (proclaimed by Saddam Hussein to be "The Mother of All Battles") I remember hearing fundamentalist and evangelical radio preachers confidently announcing that the end was near: "We now know that Jesus will return in our lifetime!" I heard one young radio preacher cry out exuberantly, and I myself personally knew a young Marine recruit who, when ordered to report for basic training, was advised by his Kentucky grandmother not to go because, she told him, "You don't have to: Jesus is about to come!" (Fortunately for him, he did not take her advice.) I also met a middle aged man who talked to me with pain in his eyes about a church he had attended where "they told us things that just weren't true."
It seems to me that the preterists of today are trying to avoid that kind of mistake, and for that reason they argue that everything, or nearly everything, Jesus says in Mark chapter 13 already came to pass before his generation had passed away (13:30). [Even Luther was of the opinion that the author of Mark must have gotten some of the events listed there out of order!]
But you and I could go on like this forever, with no resolution. So let me simply state that, compared to the scholars I have listed at the top of the INFO page, I am a rank amateur, and I would invite you or anyone who disagrees with me to examine their compelling reasons for holding that Jesus had imminent apocalyptic expectations. And I would especially recommend to you the two of them who profess to be Christians, John P. Meier and Dale C. Allison, about whom I will have more to say on the INFO page.
One thing more: Although it is true that in many respects Brad Chase is my alter ego, he does not represent the fullness of my theological position regarding Jesus. But I will say that I, like him, delight in the fact that there are people who, regardless of their own positions, find beauty, inspiration, and even comfort in the dreams dreamed by Jesus and the prophets, even though those dreams did not come to fulfillment in the way they were expecting.
ADDENDUM, March 20, 2019
I was recently delighted to receive the following from an Episcopalian who read my novel in late February:
"I want to mention that your work, The Dead Sea Gospel, genuinely impacted my life with its theologies and perspectives on the historical Jesus. In fact I can’t stop thinking about it, and thoughts of it influence and abide in my Lenten reflections. In sum, I find it liberating -- in no way damaging my faith, but rather enhancing it. Thank you! Your book is a gift. I feel indebted to you. Thanks so very much. Linda Thomas"
I was made even happier when that same person later sent in a review to Amazon in which she said,
I wrote this novel hoping that it might prove helpful even to people outside the Christian faith, but I especially rejoice when a person within the faith finds it helpful.