Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Knowing that the Bible is the Word of God

“Believing that the Bible is the Word of God isn’t about facts or evidence, but instead groundless faith.”

This represents a gross misrepresentation of what the Bible teaches as “faith.” Belief was always to be based upon concrete reasons-to-believe. This was also true within the Hebrew Scriptures. Israel was required to believe because God had provided incontrovertible reasons-to-believe:

• “You were shown these things so that you might know that the LORD is God; besides him there is no other. From heaven he made you hear his voice to discipline you. On earth he showed you his great fire, and you heard his words from out of the fire.” (Deut. 4:35-36)

Belief was never something that was supposed that rested on feelings and experiences alone. According to Hebrew thought, everything had to be proved by two or three witnesses (Deut. 19:15). This also applied to matters of faith. Israel was provided with strict evidential criteria to determine what and who should be believed (Deut. 13:1-5; 18:19-22).

Jesus continued this very tradition: “Do not believe me unless I do what my Father does” (John 10:37). If He didn’t manifest the miraculous signs of His Father, then it didn’t matter how charismatic He might seem. He was not to be believed (John 5:31-38).

“But even if Jesus did perform miracles, we don’t have that type of evidence today. Therefore there isn’t enough evidence to believe that the Bible is God’s Word!”

This seems to be contradicted by the Bible (Romans 1:18-32; 2:14-15; Acts 14:17). For one thing, I’ve know many non-Christians who have experienced miracles that have substantiated the Bible, but have simply chosen to turn their back on this evidence.

In addition to this, there are many testimonial evidences of Jesus’ miracles. The Apostle John wrote in favor of the weightiness of eyewitness testimonies:

• “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:30-31)

“You’re not expecting us to believe that the Bible is God’s Word based upon 2000 year old biased testimonies!”

If you were an historian who bothered to weight the historical evidences, you might see things differently. In fact, the ancient enemies of the Christian faith never denied that Jesus performed miracles:

• "It is noteworthy that Jesus' enemies are not presented as denying that he did extraordinary deeds; rather they attributed them to evil origins, either to the devil (Mark 3:22-30) or in the 2d-century polemic to magic (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 2.32.3-5)." (Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to New Testament Christology, pp. 62-63)

Even many skeptical historians acknowledge that Jesus must have been a worker of miracles:

1. "Among NT scholars there is almost universal agreement that Jesus performed what he and his contemporaries regarded as miraculous healings and exorcisms. (B.L. Blackburn, Jesus and the Gospels, p. 556),

2. "Any fair reading of the Gospels and other ancient sources (including Josephus) inexorably leads to the conclusion that Jesus was well known in his time as a healer and exorcist. The miracle stories are now treated seriously and are widely accepted by Jesus scholars as deriving from Jesus' ministry. Several specialized studies have appeared in recent years, which conclude that Jesus did things that were viewed as 'miracles'." (B.D. Chilton and C.A. Evans (eds.), Authenticating the Activities of Jesus, pp. 11-12, NTTS, 28.2; Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1998)

3. "The deepest impression Jesus made upon his contemporaries was as an exorcist and a healer. . . . In any case he was not only believed to possess some quite special curative gifts but evidently, in some way or other he actually possessed them." (Michael Grant, An Historian's Review of the Gospels, pp. 31, 35)

4. "Yes, I think that Jesus probably did perform deeds that contemporaries viewed as miracles." (Paula Fredriksen, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, p. 114)

5. "There is no doubt that Jesus worked miracles, healed the sick and cast out demons." (Gerd Theissen, The Miracle Stories of the Early Christian Tradition, p. 277)

6. "In most miracle stories no explanation at all is given; Jesus simply speaks or acts and the miracle is done by his personal power. This trait probably reflects historical fact." (Morton Smith, Jesus the Magician, p. 101)

7. "There is agreement on the basic facts: Jesus performed miracles, drew crowds and promised the kingdom to sinners." (E.P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, p. 157)

8. “Yes, we can be sure that Jesus performed real signs which were interpreted by his contemporaries as experiences of an extraordinary power." (H. Hendrickx, The Miracle Stories and the Synoptic Gospels, p. 22)

9. "[T]he tradition of Jesus' miracles has too many unusual features to be conveniently ascribed to conventional legend-mongering. Moreover, many of them contain details of precise reporting which is quite unlike the usual run of legends and is difficult to explain unless it derives from some historical recollection; and the gospels themselves show a remarkable restraint in their narratives which contrasts strangely with that delight in the miraculous for its own sake which normally characterizes the growth of legend." (A.E. Harvey, Jesus and the Constraints of History, p. 100)

Consequently, the Christian, N.T. Wright concludes that it is “clear that Jesus' contemporaries, both of those who became his followers and those who were determined not to become his followers, certainly regarded him as possessed of remarkable powers." (Jesus and the Victory of God , p. 187)

Perhaps Jesus’ most significant miracle of all was His resurrection. Regarding the overwhelming evidence in favor of this event, two non-believers conclude:

1. “It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ.’” (Atheist historian Gerd Ludemann)

2. “The Disciples’ conviction that they had seen the risen Christ…is historical bedrock, facts known past doubting.” (Paula Fredriksen, both quoted from the Case for the Real Jesus, Lee Strobel)

“Well, even if you are right about these miracles, these don’t prove that Jesus is the Messiah or even that your Bible is the word of God!”

Jesus’ miracles and resurrection are embedded within a rich interpretive framework. The prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures instruct us to interpret them messianically. The promised One would die for our sins and rise again!! However, laying forth the messianic prophecies would require volumes. Instead, I’ll conclude with two quotes from the ancient Rabbinic writings, which provide another interpretive perspective. The Jerusalem Talmud reads:

• "Forty years before [30 AD] the destruction of the Temple [70 AD], the western light went out, the crimson thread remained crimson, and the lot for the Lord always came up in the left hand. They would close the gates of the Temple by night and get up in the morning and find them wide open" (Jacob Neusner, The Yerushalmi, p.156-157).

The Babylonian Talmud likewise reads:

• "Our rabbis taught: During the last forty years before the destruction of the Temple [70 AD] the lot did not come up in the right hand; nor did the crimson-colored strap become white; nor did the western most light shine; and the doors of the Hekel [Temple] would open by themselves" (Soncino version, Yoma 39b).

These accounts look to the year of 30 AD, presumably the year of the Cross. At this time and for the “forty years” until the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, supernatural omen were manifest against the nation of Israel. The Temple light, which was lit every evening, would never stay lit despite the diligent efforts of the priests. The light symbolized the presence of God among the people, who understood that its failure to stay lit represented God’s departure.

“The gates of the Temple” presumably would not stay closed because this symbolized the fact that God was leaving His Temple to destruction as He had prior to the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BC (Ezekiel 10:18-19).

“Nor did the crimson-colored strap become white” referred to the Yom Kippur ritual of sending a scape-goat off into the wilderness bearing the sins of Israel. For years prior to the Cross, it would be miraculously transformed from red, symbolizing sin, to white, symbolizing forgiveness (Isaiah 1:18). However, this miracle promptly ceased at the time of the Cross, as if God was now informing Israel, “Goats will no longer carry away your sins!”

There were other “coincidences” also associated with the Cross. In Why the Jews Rejected Jesus, Orthodox Jewish writer, David Klinghoffer, repeats some of these omens, but adds:

• "The Talmud states that from forty years before the Temple's destruction and onward, there were supernatural omens of the disaster to come--that is, starting from the inception of the Christian religion following the death of Jesus. The eternal fire of the Temple altar would not stay lit. The monumental bronze Temple gates opened by themselves. Josephus confirms the Talmud's account of the inner Sanctuary's east gate and its mysterious openings. He adds other portents from these years: a bright light shinning around the altar and the Sanctuary at three in the morning, a cow brought for sacrifice giving birth to a lamb, apparitions of chariots and armies flying through the sky above the whole land of Israel." (117)

The interpretation seems clear, just as Isaiah had prophesied:

“He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:3-6)

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