Bible Translations, Not Inspired (Redux)

Open BibleSome time ago I published a brief reflection titled “Bible Translations, Not Inspired,” in which I argued that we must not assume that our contemporary Bibles—because they are translations—are the same thing as the inspired (inherent) words of God. While I don’t want to disagree with that post, I do want to reflect upon the inspiration of the scriptures, spurned on by Jaroslav Pelikan’s Whose Bible Is It?, which I’ve been reading the past couple of days.

Occasionally I will run into someone who holds an unusually high view of a certain version or translation of the Bible. This is true across denomination lines: Catholics have the Apocrypha and the Vulgate, the Orthodox have the Septuagint, and various Protestants have their Scofield Reference Bibles, the King James Version, or the dearly-beloved ESV. And because we have our version of the best Bible, clearly our theology must be more fully informed (and therefore accurate). Continue reading

Origins of the New Testament

New TestamentThe two most common questions that I am asked are some variation of “Where did we get the New Testament?” or “Why are these specific books included in the New Testament?”1 Obviously complete answers to these questions are long, nuanced, and complex (i.e., scholarly discussions of dissertation length answer). But there are also relatively straight-forward and easy-to-understand answers to these questions. Today, I want to tackle the first of these queries: Where did we get the New Testament? Continue reading

Book Review: The Case for the Real Jesus (Strobel)

The Case for the Real JesusIn some respects, The Case for the Real Jesus: Student Edition stands as but one Christian apologetics book among a market full of many. The back cover isn’t full of important Christian ‘celebrities’ and theologians saying how great this book is. There was no flashy marketing campaign when this book hit the shelves. It’s not a hardback tome proclaiming itself to include the answers to every question which might confront the Christian faith. In some ways, this relatively short book (at just fewer than two hundred pages) is pretty easy to overlook. But to ignore the contents of this book would be a major mistake.

In The Case for the Real Jesus: Student Edition, journalist Lee Strobel and Jane Vogel engage six of the most common challenges to Christian claims about the Historical Jesus and offer serious historical information on these claims for readers to consider. Through interviews with six scholars, Strobel tackles questions about the reliability of the Gospel accounts of Jesus, the reliability of New Testament texts, counters to the resurrection, the influence of pagan religions upon stories about Jesus, Jesus’ fulfillment of Jewish prophecy, and what Christians should believe about the historical Jesus in today’s context. By looking at each of these topics seriously, Strobel provides a valuable tool for those seeking to understand and defend their Christian faith. Continue reading

On Approaching Difficult Bible Passages

Bible DifficultiesNothing can be more frustrating (or worrisome) as reading something in the Bible and a) not understanding what is going on or b) finding some sort of apparent contradiction in the text. Below are some suggestions on how to best to approach and make sense of these difficult passages.

1. Context is key. Before trying to make sense of a passage, it is imperative that you understand its context. This means never reading a single, solitary Bible verse, but always at least a paragraph. Reading in context also means that you should try to understand passages wider literary, theological, and historical contexts as well. Understanding why Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, the everyday situation of Christians living in first century Corinth, and what ancient Corinth looked like can go a long way in making sense of First Corinthians. Continue reading

A Protestant Reformation Without Martin Luther?

 

Martin Luther

Martin Luther

One of the more interesting thought-experiments that Reformation-era scholars embark upon is asking if there could have been a “Protestant Reformation” without Martin Luther. Understanding that we would likely need to reconceive our current notions of “Protestant” and “Reformation,” it seems likely that some form of theological reformation would have occurred in 16th century Europe even without the flamboyant figure of Martin Luther. In historical inquiry it remains a highly abstract (and somewhat fanciful) process to ask “What if…?” questions. However, given the pre-Protestant Reformation circumstances and European theological and socio-political context, it seems appropriate to let our minds wander and ask “What if there had been no Luther?” Certainly Luther powerfully shaped the Protestant Reformation and the subsequent history of Western Civilization. One need only look to Biblical Studies and the justification-centered interpretation of Pauline thought and the book of Romans that only now, nearly five-hundred years later, Protestant (and protestant influenced) scholars are beginning to emerge from in earnest. One need only to drive down the street in any town or city to notice the diversity of Christian Churches in America, each with the conviction that they cannot give into to other forms of theology, lest they betray their conscience. Unquestionably, Luther indelibly colored the fabric of the reformation and its subsequent impact on our world, few would argue otherwise. Continue reading

Where Did We Get the New Testament?

Some of the most common questions that I am asked are some variation of “Where did we get the Bible?” or “Why are these specific books included in the Bible?” Obviously complete answers to these questions are long, complex, and remain the topic of scholarly discussion. For those of you not planning to pursue a PhD in Historical Theology, there are relatively straightforward answers to these questions, answers which I want to briefly explain today and tomorrow.

Where Did We Get the New Testament?

NTSome people seem to assume that the New Testament fell from the sky by the hand of God, an assumption that lacks anything close to historical accuracy or credibility. The first thing we need to understand when thinking about the writings of the New Testament is that they are just that: writings. The letters of Paul are letters. The Catholic epistles (James, the Peters, Jude, Hebrews, Jude, and letters of John) also seem foremost to be letters. It is worth noting that many scholars have argued for the “sermonic” character of many of these writings, meaning that they may have been sermons before they were letters. Each of the four Gospels (or at least portions of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) were also something before they were the canonical gospels that we have today. Exactly what remains a particularly thick area of discussion in modern scholarship, though clearly each of the four Gospel narratives was originally part of some aspect of Christian faith and practice. Each of the writings of the New Testament had to be written and delivered, either to the far off congregation for whom it was written or to the literate members of the community at which it was originally delivered. Continue reading

Five Things Everyone Should Know About the New Testament Canon

Bible Formation WordcloudMost Christians, and I would dare say most Americans, know some basic things about the Christian New Testament. But many people don’t know (or don’t want to know) how the New Testament came into being. Some people seem to think that Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Revelation fell from the sky in a nicely leather bound English translation (whichever your church happens to use, of course). Hopefully, most of you know that wasn’t quite how it happened.

So how did the New Testament canon form?

Before digging into five things that everyone should know about the formation of the New Testament canon, we need to clarify what the New Testament canon is. The word canon itself comes from the Greek kanonikos, the basic meaning of which is “of one rule.” So a canon is something that other things are ruled by, the standard if you will. Within the field of Early Christianity, however, there are two more nuanced meanings behind the term canon, especially as it applies to the New Testament. In the first sense, a canon can mean  a “list of authoritative books.” In this context, the canon of the NT is a list of books that should be considered authoritative for Christians. In the second sense, however, canon refers to an “authoritative list of books.” In this context, a list is authoritative and “closed”– only the books on this list are considered authoritative. Much of the history of scholarship concerning the development of the NT canon has actually revolved around misunderstanding this two definitions of the term canon. For the sake of clarity, I use the term “closed canon” when discussing an “authoritative list of books” (even though in the strictest terms, the NT canon may not even be entirely “closed” for Christians today– but that will have to be a different post).

Now that we’ve covered some important terminology, let’s talk about the five things that everyone should know about the formation of the New Testament canon.

1. New Testament Writings Are the Earliest Specifically Christian Writings

The earliest Christians often had at their disposal the writings of Judaism (now contained in the Christian Old Testament). But the earliest specifically Christian writings (that is, those that were written by followers of Jesus) are the writings now contained in the New Testament. Even though we don’t know the specific dates that these writings were composed, scholars generally agree on a range of possible times that they were written. These dates are based on a number of factors, internal and external to the writings themselves. For example, based on Acts 1.1-2, we know that the Gospel According to Luke was written before the books of Acts. Similarly, some scholars have argued that because there is no mention of Paul’s death in Acts, it was written before the Apostle’s death (I hasten to note that this perspective is not universally held). Thus, we have a range of possible dates for the writing of Acts. We should note that there is a minor caveat to the fact that the New Testament Writings are the earliest specifically Christian writings, insofar as they are the earliest writings that we have access to. There are early Christian writings that we know were written but are lost to us. For example, there is good reason to suspect that the Apostle Paul actually wrote four letters to the Church at Corinth, including I Corinthians and II Corinthians, which was actually likely the third letter. As a final (potential) caveat, it’s worth knowing that some scholars date the writing of certain New Testament books (such as the Apocalypse of John or II Peter) into the second century. By no means do all scholars do this, and there is reasonable evidence that supports the writing of all the books in the New Testament by the end of the first century. Continue reading