“Virgin on the Ridiculous!” Was Jesus really born to a virgin?

First published in the Bridge Magazine, December 2017

“Virgin on the Ridiculous!” Was Jesus really born to a virgin?

The idea that Jesus was born to a virgin mother is found in two of the Bible’s four accounts of Jesus’ life. The gospel of Luke tells the story from the perspective of Mary, a young teenage girl, who is visited by an angel saying,

Don’t be afraid Mary. You have found favour with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.”

Mary replies,

How will this be since I am a virgin?

Matthew’s gospel gives us Joseph’s take on the story: how an angel visits him to talk him out of breaking his engagement to the pregnant Mary because

What is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”

Matthew then links it to a prophecy in the Old Testament book of Isaiah,

The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him ‘Immanuel’ – which means ‘God with us.’”

So why do people object to the idea of the Virgin Birth? Well let’s look at the main objections and try to address each in turn.

 

1)There’s no evidence.

This is the weakest objection to the Virgin Birth. For starters, we have the eye-witness testimony of the mother (recorded in Luke) and her future husband (recorded in Matthew). Luke made a comprehensive study of the early Christians, he met James, one of Mary’s other sons, and Joseph, the half-brother of Jesus, and he spent time in Jerusalem within Mary’s possible lifetime. He tells us many things about her that no other gospel writer does – the sort of things that might have come direct from her. By any historical standard, that’s good evidence.

 

2) Mary lied about it. She was just a young girl who got pregnant and made up the angel story to pacify her angry parents and fiancé.

Except it didn’t pacify them – Joseph wanted to cancel the engagement! If Mary was a liar, she could have invented a far more plausible lie: for example, she could have invented the sort of story that the Greek philosopher and opponent of Christianity Celsus made up 150 years later, telling everyone she’d been raped by a Roman soldier (Celsus gave him the very common Roman soldier name Pantera.)

 

3) Luke and Matthew copied pagan myths of Virgin Births to make Jesus seem impressive.

The problem with this objection is twofold. First, there aren’t any pagan Virgin Birth myths that sound anything like Jesus’ birth. There are stories of women who had sex with gods and produced children, but whilst that’s miraculous, that’s not a Virgin Birth. Historian Thomas Boslopper compared the Virgin Birth to all the Pagan stories and concludes,

The literature of the world is prolific with narratives of unusual births, but it contains no precise analogy to the Virgin Birth in Matthew and Luke. Jesus’ ‘Virgin Birth’ is not ‘pagan’” [i]

The second problem is that Matthew’s gospel was written to convince a Jewish audience that Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of the Jewish religion. So how could dressing Jesus up in a Pagan myth have persuaded them he was a good Jew?

 

4) The apostle Paul doesn’t mention it. Apart from Luke and  Matthew, the rest of the New Testament ignores the Virgin Birth.

This objection is an argument from silence. The rest of the New Testament doesn’t mention the Virgin Birth, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen – it just means they didn’t mention it.

Let’s change tack for our next objection and think of the scientific objection.

 

5) It’s biologically impossible. Science says you need a woman and a man for conception to occur. Therefore, Jesus’ origin must be miraculous, and this is impossible because miracles don’t happen.

The problem with this objection is that it’s conclusion (the virgin birth is miraculous and therefore impossible) is assumed in the initial assumption (that there is no God, or if there is a God but he doesn’t intervene in nature).

But what happens if we change our initial assumption to something a little more open-minded? If we allow the possibility that the all powerful creator God the Bible describes is real and that he intervenes in nature, then of course a Virgin Birth is possible!

 

6) Christians misunderstand what the Bible says.  The word translated “virgin” in the Old Testament prophet Isaiah (which is quoted by Matthew in his account) can also mean “young woman.”

It’s true that the word translated “virgin” can also mean young woman, but it’s also true that it’s never used of a young woman who isn’t a virgin.

However there’s a far bigger clue to the meaning of the word in what Isaiah says: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel”.

Now imagine your God’s PR company and you want to do a publicity stunt (a sign) to publicise the birth of God in human form (that’s what Immanuel means). Which would be the more memorable publicity stunt: a young woman giving birth to a son, or a virgin giving birth? Which would people still be talking about 2000 years later?

I once heard a scientist speaking on the radio critiquing the biology of the Virgin Birth. He said,

If such a thing were to happen it would be an event unique in human history.”

He said that as a way of dismissing it, but actually I think he makes my point rather well. The Virgin Birth is a unique, miraculous moment in history, a sign, pointing us to the significance of the baby born to an unmarried mum in a rundown stable in a backwards hill-country town in the middle of nowhere; God with us. May you enjoy discovering him this Christmas time!

If you’d like to read more about the Virgin Birth, historian and theologian NT Wright has written a good article here:

_______

[i] Boslooper, Thomas (1962), The Virgin Birth, Philadelphia: Westminster Press)., p162

Are Christians inconsistent about laws in the Old Testament?

First published in the Bridge Magazine, November 2017

Are Christians inconsistent about laws in the Old Testament?

Sometimes Christians get accused of picking and choosing which Old Testament laws they want to obey.  For example, the Old Testament outlaws the eating of shellfish, and the wearing of mixed fabrics – yet many Christians today say it’s okay to ignore those laws, whilst at the same time insisting that we obey other parts of the Old Testament law. Surely this is inconsistent?

If you know the US TV series The West Wing you might remember an episode in which the US President challenges an obnoxious Christian radio host about her apparent inconsistency. First he baits her into quoting chapter and verse on some Old Testament laws she upholds. Then he says to her:

I’m interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. She’s a Georgetown sophomore, speaks fluent Italian, always cleared the table when it was her turn. What would a good price for her be?

While thinking about that, can I ask another? My Chief of Staff Leo McGarry insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or is it okay to call the police?

Here’s one that’s really important ’cause we’ve got a lot of sports fans in this town: Touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean. Leviticus 11:7. If they promise to wear gloves, can the Washington Redskins still play football? …”[i]

Now it’s undeniable that Christians ignore some Old Testament laws while obeying others. Whilst some might do this out of ignorance, I want to suggest that actually there’s a really good reason why Christians should be inconsistent in their approach to the Old Testament law, and that reason is Jesus and the bigger story the Bible is telling.

To understand why, let’s think about the purposes of Old Testament laws. Broadly speaking they fall into three categories:

  1. Sacrificial laws which relate to the animal sacrifices offered in the Jewish religious system. The purpose of these sacrifices was to deal with sin.
  2. Ceremonial purity laws which include rules about clean and unclean foods and animals (the President pigskin laws!) Their purpose was to help people be ritually clean, ready to come into God’s presence in the temple, and also to keep Israel distinctive from the other nations.
  3. Moral laws which set out moral rights and wrongs. For example Leviticus 20, which among other things says that practices such as child sacrifice, incest, spiritualism and adultery are wrong.

However the Old Testament isn’t just a law book, it also tells the story of God’s relationship with his people. As we meet characters like Abraham, David, Esther and Ruth, we learn about God’s trustworthiness and his care for his people. We also see how impossible it is to keep God’s law perfectly. That’s why in the Old Testament, the heroes are also always villains!

Taken together these individual stories reveal a bigger story arc: the search for a descendant of Adam and Eve who will put the world to rights. He’s given various names, for example:

  • Serpent Crusher (Genesis 3:15);
  • a Prophet greater than Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15-19);
  • an Everlasting King (2Samuel 7:12-16);
  • and the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53).

But it wasn’t until nearly 500 years after the final words of the Old Testament were written that Jesus declared these prophecies were all about him (John 5:39). You can imagine what a shock it was. Such blasphemy! No wonder they crucified him! And if Jesus had stayed dead his words would have died with him. But he rose from the grave, and that’s why we take what he says about the Old Testament and what we do with its laws so seriously.

So what did Jesus do to the Old Testament Law? For starters, Jesus commits himself to all of it. He says,

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.” (Matthew 5:17)

But what does that word fulfill mean?

  1. The sacrificial laws find their fulfillment in Jesus’ death on the cross, Jesus became the ultimate sacrifice. Christians have no need to sacrifice sheep and goats because Jesus is the final sacrifice (Hebrews 10:10) “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29)
  2. The ritual purity laws also find their fulfillment at the Cross. No amount of eating the correct diet can makes us ritually clean before God, but asking for forgiveness through the cross makes us clean once and for all (1John 1:8-9). Jesus declared all foods clean (Mark 7:19) and the early church rejected ritual practices such as circumcision (1Corinthians 7:18).
  3. But what about the moral laws – the laws governing life and love and all our relationships? Jesus made them even more demanding! He said things like, “You’ve heard that it was said love your neighbour and hate your enemy, but I tell you love you enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” That’s the moral law of love dialled up to 11! No wonder we need the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!

So are Christians inconsistent in their handling of Old Testament laws? Yes – but only if you take the Old Testament law books in isolation and ignore the purpose of the laws they contain. However if you read the Old Testament laws books in the context of the bigger redemption story revealed in the Bible, Christians are right to distinguish between different types of Old Testament law. In fact, to not distinguish would be to deny one of the central themes of Christian faith: that Jesus died as an atoning sacrifice for sin.

 

[i] The West Wing, series 2, episode 3, “The Midterms” quote cited from http://bernidymet.com/president-bartlets-theology-challenge-how-will-you-respond/

Does religion cause war?

First published in the Bridge Magazine, October 2017

Doesn’t religion cause most of the conflict in the world?

The sooner all religions are gone, the sooner the world will be a peaceful place”

was how one angry caller responded to a phone-in on Radio 5 Live last week about the proportion of religious and non-religious people in our country.

We only have to think of ISIS in Syria, or to the sectarian tensions in Northern Ireland, to recognize that religion has some blood on its hands. But is the caller’s idea true more broadly? Eminent atheist Richard Dawkins certainly thinks so:

There’s no doubt that throughout history, religious faith has been a major motivator for war and for destruction.”[1]

Atheist author Sam Harris goes even further by calling religion,

the most prolific source of violence in our history”[2]

Now in their books, Dawkins and Harris are always very keen for us to only believe things for which there is sound evidence, so let’s examine the evidence to see if what Harris says is true: is religion really is the most prolific source of violence in our history?

In 2014 The Institute for Economics and Peace published “Peace and Religion” exploring the causes of the 35 armed conflicts that occurred during 2013. It concluded that

Religion did not stand as a single cause in any conflict”

and that religion played no role at all in 40% of the conflicts. Whilst religion was identified as the main cause of conflict in 14% of cases, something else was far more likely to be the main cause: opposition to a particular government or its economic, ideological, political or social system (65%).

But that was just 2013, surely the picture is different if we take a longer-term study? In 2004 Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod published a book every nerdy schoolboy would want on his shelf: the Encyclopaedia of Wars. It covers every major war, rebellion and revolution from the last 5,500 years.  Of the 1,763 wars analysed, just 7% (123) were categorized as having religion as their main cause. Interestingly more than half of the 7% were related to just one religion: Islam.

You might think therefore that with the rise of Al-Qaeda and Isis since 2004, the proportion of conflicts having religion as their main cause is on the rise. However Gordon Martel’s 2012 The Encyclopaedia of War, which covers similar ground to Phillip and Axelrod but also includes the period up to 2011, identifies religion as the cause in only 6% of wars.[4]

In his book River out of Eden, Richard Dawkins said[5],

Scientific beliefs are supported by evidence, and they get results. Myths and faiths are not and do not.”

And the evidence tells us that the claim religion is “the most prolific source of violence in our history” is a myth!

But if it isn’t religion that causes war, what does? All the evidence suggests that the main cause of conflict is what American political scientist Randolph Rummel called “Death by government” – a phrase he coined  to describe the biggest single cause of death in the 20th century – the 170 million men, women and children “shot, beaten, tortured, knifed, burned, starved, frozen, crushed or worked to death; buried alive, drowned, hung, bombed or killed in any other of a myriad of ways governments have inflicted death on unarmed, helpless citizens and foreigners.”[6]

When you break down Rummel’s numbers it’s easy to see who lies behind most of the deaths in the 20th century, but it’s impossible to tell how much religion (or its absence, in the majority of these cases) contributed to this death toll.

  Religious belief Deaths
Stalin (Russia) Atheist 42,672,000
Lenin (Russia) Atheist 4,017,000
Mao Zedong (China) Atheist 37.828,000
Chian Kai-Shek (China) Confuscianism (mixed with Christianity) 10,214,000
Hideki Tojo (Japan) Emperor Worship 3,990,000
Pol Pot (Cambodia) Atheist (mixed with Buddhism) 2,397,000
Adolf Hitler (Germany) Most likely a pantheist, though his religious statements are so contradictory that it is hard to pin him down. 20,946,000

 

Perhaps we should blame Communism instead? Certainly a lot of the 20th Century’s “Death by Government” can be linked to Communism. But what of the millions who died in the 19th century before Marx and Lenin appeared on the scene? We can’t hang their deaths on Communism.

The fact is, every century, every period of history, has an -ism: Imperialism, Communism, Capitalism, Atheism, Islamism, Christianism – and it isn’t the -ism that causes the conflict in that period. Conflict is caused by giving unchecked access to power to leaders willing to kill to impose their -ism. As Theologian David Bentley Hart puts it,

-isms are variables, but killing is a human constant.”[7]

Which brings us to the heart of the problem – which is the problem of the human heart. If my Radio 5 Live caller really cares about making the world a more peaceful place, it’s not religion that needs eliminating, but the problems of the human heart.  As Jesus said,

it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”” (Mark 7:21-23)

And what offers the best solution to the problem of the human heart? Atheism or Religion? Well my money is on Jesus!

 

 

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qfYrNz3zhno

[2] Harris, Sam, The End of Faith, page 27

[4] https://www.str.org/blog/is-religion-the-cause-of-most-wars#.Wa__cMiGOUk

[5] https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Richard_Dawkins

[6] Rummel, RJ, Death by Government, p9

[7] Bentley Hard, David, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies

 

All Change in the Church Office

We’ve made some changes to our office administration.

Wendy Thompson ceased to be our administrator at the end of August. We’re enormously grateful for the work she’s done, and wish her all the best for the future.

All five of our PCCs have now agreed that we should, subject to funding, seek to employ an administrator for up to 20 hours per week. The role will cover the things that Wendy was doing for us, plus a number of additional items. The role will be located in Upton.

Whether we are able to do all this depends on us finding additional funding, which is what we’re beginning to work towards now.

If you are interested in applying for the post, please keep an eye on the Bridge magazine, as we’ll be advertising there.

In the meantime, we’ve made a couple of decisions about how to handle some of our administrative processes.

  1.  we’ve rearranged our telephone system to make it easier for people ringing the church office to speak to someone. All calls are now being diverted to an answering service, which will give options for wedding, funeral and baptisms, for contacting clergy, for building and financial enquiries, as well as an answerphone option. The new office number is 01684 810018. That number again… 01684 810018.

  2. Carol Hutchings has volunteered to become our first point of contact for weddings, baptisms and funerals, until the new administrator is in post. If you know of anyone wanting a baptism or wedding, please direct them to Carol. For funerals, the undertaker is always the best point of contact. You can contact Carol direct, or on 01684 810018 (option 1).
  3. We’ve revised our weddings and baptism application process, getting rid of the old paper-based system and making it possible to fill in a number of our forms online through the church website. The weddings page has also been significantly redesigned to try to answer many common wedding questions. You can find details at www.hopechurchfamily.org/life-events
  4. Finally, if you want to know about any events going on at our churches, the best place to look is the What’s On page on our website. It lists everything that’s going on. You can find the what’s on page here: www.hopechurchfamily.org/calendar

 

 

Barry Unwin

Is the Bible full of contradictions?

First published in the Bridge Magazine, May 2017

 We all love to catch a politician contradicting themselves – but what about the Bible? Does it contradict itself, as you’ll sometimes hear people say, and if that’s the case, how can we trust anything it says?

Personally when people say “The Bible is full of contradictions” to me, I like to ask them which contradiction they have in mind – because often they don’t actually know of any – they just heard or read it somewhere.

But when they do name a contradiction, that’s when the fun starts, because as someone who is committed to the trustworthiness of the Bible, contradiction is a big issue to me!

Thankfully most of the possible contradictions people identify fall into one of five categories and turn out not to be contradiction at all. Let’s take a look at them. The first is:

1) The Typo.

The Old Testament book 2Chronicles (36:9) says Jehoiachin became king of Judah when he was 8 years old. But the other account we have of his reign, in 2Kings (24:8) says he was 18. Which is true?

This contradiction is likely to be a result of what we call “scribal error.” That is – at some point an error crept into the copying process of either 2Chronicles or 2Kings. We looked at these “errors” in the article about whether the Bible we have today has changed since it was originally written.

Broadly speaking we said: No – the Bible has not changed – certainly not in any of its major details or doctrines. But occasionally it’s hard to deny a discrepancy has crept in, and most good modern translations highlight them.

Another category of contradiction is:

2) Intentional

Proverbs 26.4-5, says,

Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him. Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.

That seems to suggest that wise old King Solomon was so dumb that he put two contradictory proverbs next to each other. But far more likely is that he’s trying to teach us something about how to use his proverbs. You see proverbs never pretend to be one-size fits all solutions. True wisdom is knowing which one works when!

These “intentional contradictions” raise an important issue: that we can’t call something in the Bible a contradiction, until we’ve properly understood the type of literature we’re reading. So for example, we don’t read the erotic love poetry of Song of Solomon in the same way we read the Nativity Story (and we certainly wouldn’t want to get them muddled up in a school assembly!)

 

Here’s another kind of contradiction:

3) Ignoring the bigger story!

In the Old Testament, sin is forgiven by offering animal sacrifice. In the New Testament, sin is forgiven by the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. Which is right?

Answer: Both – but at different times in the bigger story of God’s dealing with his people! Some contradictions only exist because we haven’t thought about how they fit into the bigger story – the unifying plot that runs all through the Bible – from the opening chapters of Genesis to the final chapters of Revelation with the death and resurrection of Jesus as the hinge-point.

 

A related type of contradiction is:

4) Failure to understand the context

This isn’t so much a failure to grasp the bigger story, as a failure to grasp the more immediate story. So for example, Ecclesiastes 7:29 says,

God made man upright

whereas Psalm 51:5 says,

Behold I was brought forth in iniquity.

That looks like a contradiction, until you explore the context of the two verses. In the first the writes is talking about Adam and Eve and God’s original, perfect creation. In the second, the writer is talking about his own sinfulness. And because the two verses are speaking of something utterly different, they are not in contradiction.

 

A final type of contradiction is caused by:

5) Misinterpretation.

For example, when Jesus entered Jerusalem, Matthew 21:7 says he had two donkeys, but Mark 11:7 says he had one. Surely this is a contradiction.

At face value, it does look one – though it could just be a typo. But what’s more likely is that we’re misinterpreting the words to see contradiction where there is none. For example, are these two statements contradictory:

At John’s funeral we sang Abide with Me”,

and,

We sang Abide with me and The Lord’s my Shepherd at John’s funeral”?

No – they just emphasise different things – and most likely that Matthew and Mark are doing something similar.

So, is the Bible full of contradictions? No! Scholars have spent years analysing them, and most of them can be attributed to one of these five broad types.

If you’ve got a contradiction in mind that’s really bugging you, why not email me at barry@hopechurchfamily.org and let’s see if we can’t find a way though it!

To find out more:

 

Is the Bible true?

First published in the Bridge Magazine, April 2017

In the first part of this series, we looked at whether the Bible has changed through the ages, and we saw that through the insights offered by the academic discipline of textual criticism, we can be confident that the Bible books we have today are almost certainly identical to the books the first century church had.

Now we turn to the more fundamental question – is what was originally written true? And that’s quite a tricky question to answer because although the Bible is telling one big story in its 66 books, those books each contain hundreds of statements, written in many different writing styles, and it’s impossible to verify that all are true. Let me give you an example: There’s a romantic poetry book called Song of Songs, in which a girl’s nose is compared to the tower of Lebanon. As we don’t have a photo of the nose and the tower, how can we ever know if that is true (or whether the girl needed counselling to get over it)?

So what I’m going to do is focus in on one part of the Bible – the gospels – and explore whether they are reliable.  So let’s put Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in the dock and cross-examine them.

First we’ll hit them with the “Forrest Gump” gaffe test. Why Forrest Gump? Well in the film the hero receives a letter from the computer manufacturer Apple dated Sept 23 1975. Sadly, Apple wasn’t founded until April 1976.  So are there any major geographical or historical gaffes like that in the gospels? No – or at least none that are overwhelming problems.

From a geographical standpoint, the locations the gospels describe are all real, and the journeys the gospels describe are all possible. The historical figures referenced – people like Caesar Augustus, Pontius Pilate and Herod the Great – were all in power at the right times.  And whilst the events of the gospels were too provincial to merit a mention by the Roman historians, the crucifixion of Jesus is mentioned by the Jewish historian Josephus.

There has however been some debate about the precise date of the census that Luke links with the timing of Jesus’ birth, but that’s most likely a problem with our ignorance of Roman censuses, rather than with Luke’s fact-checking. Archaeologist Sir William Ramsay sums the situation up well when he says,

You may press the words of Luke in a degree beyond any other historian’s and they stand the keenest scrutiny and the hardest treatment.”

So the gospel accounts fit with the history of the period, but that doesn’t mean they are true. In Hollywood language, could they just be myths “based on true events”? The problem with this argument is that the myths and legends of the ancient near east, and indeed the Greek and Roman world, all have a distinctive writing style, which the literature experts know how to spot. The countless minute details recorded in the gospels are a dead giveaway that they aren’t myths, but instead collections of eye-witness accounts. CS Lewis, who as well as writing marvellous children’s stories, was also Professor of English Literature at both Oxford and Cambridge universities, said either the gospels are eye-witness accounts or,

else some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic, narrative.”

Next, let’s consider whether our eye-witnesses might have had a motive to invent a myth. Let’s ask, what did the gospel writers gain by writing, and by continuing to insist it was true? Most people who invent myths do it to gain money, sex or power; but the gospel writers got nothing but persecution, torture and death. It’s hard to imagine why they would go to their deaths insisting something they knew to be false, was true.

So far so good. I’ve argued that the gospels are historically plausible eye-witness accounts and that their writers didn’t have any plausible reason to deceive us. But that still doesn’t prove that the ideas Jesus puts across in the gospels about who he is and why he’s come are true – and if I’m honest, there are no clever words I can write in my final paragraph that will do that.

All I can do is invite you to explore for yourself what Jesus said about himself to see if it makes sense of the world and of your life. Most modern people encounter Jesus not through his own words, but through the filtered environment of the school classroom, or through documentaries and other people’s books. But the way to really encounter him is by reading one (or more) of the gospels in a modern translation. When people do that in a reflective and thoughtful way they often find themselves captivated by the sheer magnificence of Jesus. I know this from my own experience, and from the experience of countless others who have met him through reading the gospels for themselves. And when that happens, the question of whether what Jesus says is true is swiftly transformed into “What am I going to do about what Jesus says?”

If reading a gospel isn’t something you fancy dong on your own, on May 8th, I’m starting another Christianity Explored course, which will introduce Jesus through the gospel of Mark. To book in, visit our website at www.hopechurchfamily.org/courses

To find out more:

Can we trust the Bible? #1

First published March 2017 in the Bridge Magazine.

 

This month, our big question is “Can we trust the Bible?”

And my short answer is “Yes!” I bet you weren’t expecting me to say that!

Normally when someone asks me “Can we trust the Bible?” I like to ask them why they struggle to trust it themselves – and their answers usually fall into one of a few categories:

  1. The Bible can’t be trusted because it has been changed since it was written (people usually blame Chinese Whispers for this, or Emperor Constantine if they read Dan Brown’s book the Da Vinci Code and forgot it’s a work of fiction.
  2. The Bible can’t be trusted because the gospels (or some other part of it) are factually inaccurate (ie the original writers set out to deceive us).
  3. The Bible can’t be trusted because it’s full of contradictions.

Each of those is actually a big question worthy of attention in it’s own right, so I’ll tackle them one at a time over the next few issues, starting today with:

Hasn’t the Bible been changed since it was written?

Let me start by saying why this is a tricky question to answer: we simply don’t have the original manuscripts. Barring an unlikely series of archaeological finds, we will never know with 100% certainty that the Bible we have today is the same as what was originally written.

What we can a lot more confident of is that the Bible’s text hasn’t changed greatly over history. To explain why, let’s think first about how a bible book was written, and we’ll take Luke’s gospel as an example because it’s author (Luke) tells us who he wrote it for (his sponsor, Theophilus) and why he wrote it: Theophilus had sponsored him to go to Israel to investigate all the stories about Jesus. So if you like Luke is the first investigative journalist!

So how did Luke’s work go global? Presumably after his research was complete, he sent his completed gospel manuscript to Theophilus, who found it so helpful, that he arranged for it to be copied and copied and copied so that all the churches in his area had access to it. And many of those copies were copied too…and it’s from all of those copies, spread over the 1900 years (or so) since the New Testament was completed, that the accusation of “Chinese whispers” arises.

So how can we test whether changes have been made? Well the obvious answer is also the right answer here: by comparing today’s Bible with Bibles from ancient history. And thankfully we don’t need a time machine to do that, just a trip to the British Library to see a document called the Codex Sinaiticus. Dated to between 330-360AD, it is the oldest complete manuscript we have of the Bible. And by comparing it with a modern Bible, we can be confident that the Bible hasn’t substantially changed since 350AD. The words written in ancient Greek then are the same (allowing for translation) as the words we have today. So that’s 1650 of the 1900 years of Chinese whispers wiped dealt with.

While you’re in the British Library, you could also go to see the Chester Beatty Papyrus. This is a collection of New Testament books dated to the end of the 2nd century. They also are the same as what we have today. So that’s 1800 of our 1900 years of Chinese whispers taken out of the equation.

A trip to the Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale in Cairo would enable you to see “Papyrus 98”, which is a portion of the book of Revelation – dated to around 150AD (1850/1900!)

And if you flew home via Manchester, and popped into the John Rylands Library, you could see “Papyrus 52”,a small fragment of the gospel of John, dated to 125AD (1875/1920).

And what those manuscripts show us is that we can be certain that chunks of the Bible has been copied pretty accurately for 1875 of the 1900 years (98.5%)  it’s been in existence.

However “pretty accurately” is not totally accurately. One of the features of the Codex Sinaiticus is that there are marks on it that show corrections being made. So how can we be certain that bits haven’t been altered?

Well answering this question involves a whole university discipline called textual criticism. Textual critics compare multiple copies of the same ancient documents in an attempt to work out where Chinese Whispers has gone on. And the more copies of the ancient document they have, the more confidence they have in its accuracy.

So let’s compare the Bible with another ancient book that no one accuses of Chinese whispers – Caesar’s history of The Gallic Wars (written around 50BC). We have ten full copies of it, the earliest of which dates to 900AD (so we know it hasn’t changed for 1150 of the 2170 years since it was written – ie 53%). But those ten copies are enough for the Textual Critics to declare the text reliable.

Let’s compare that with the Bible. We’ve already seen we have manuscripts going back for 98.5% of the Bible’s history. But how many manuscripts do we have? Well to date archaeologists have over 25,000 handwritten New Testament manuscripts (in a number of ancient languages). If 10 is enough for Caesar then surely 25,000 can give us confidence that the Bible we have today has not been subject to Chinese Whispers!

Bible historians are actually so confident about the accuracy of our modern Bibles, that they have no difficulties highlighting the few areas of the Bible where doubts do exist. For example, if you look at the end of Mark’s gospel in a modern bible you will see it begins with this note – “The most reliable early manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20”. Reading an honest note like that isn’t a sign of doubt, but of confidence!

So has the Bible been changed since it was written? Not substantially  – and where historians think it has been – they tell us. But that doesn’t mean what was originally written was accurate – we’ll come back to that next time!

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Who Made God?

This article appeared in the February 2017 issue of the Bridge Magazine and was the first in a new series called Big Questions.

 

Let me say straight-away that this question isn’t so much a critique of Christianity, as a great way for to critique any notion of God.

So who made God? Well one possible answer might be “Super-God” (because surely you’d need something even greater than God to create Him.) But that doesn’t really solve the problem because the next question we’d have to ask is “Who created Super God?” (Super Super God anyone?) And we could carry on that way forever.

So how do we answer the question? Well as with any question we need to define our terms – so when I’m asked this question, I want to know,

What do you mean by “god”?

And the reason I want to know this is because this question cannot be answered without first defining who God is. So let’s play around with some different definitions of the word “god” to show you what I mean.

Suppose by “god” we mean someone like Zeus, the greatest of the gods of Greek mythology. And who made Zeus? Answer: His father, Cronos! Zeus is a god who was created by some other entity. That’s how the gods of the Greek mythology worked. They were created from the Titans, who were created from the Primordial gods. Who emerged from Chaos. (You’ll have to ask a Greek philosopher how that one works…)

Now let’s define “god” differently – and we’ll use the definition that Christians (and Jews and Muslims) have used down through the ages:  that God is “the uncreated creator of all things.” So with this definition, who made God? Answer – “No one!” Because God is the uncreated creator of all things.

By now you’re probably thinking “Hang on a minute Barry, haven’t you just assumed your answer in the question?” Yes I have! But to be fair – everyone who asks this question assumes their answer in the question.

The atheist using the question to critique a Christian, Muslim or Jew asks the question because they assume god is like Zeus – a being created by some other entity. To put it in technical terms, they’re assuming that god is subject to the principle of causality  (that “Everything that has a beginning has a sufficient cause”).

The Christian responding to the question also makes an assumption: that God is the uncreated creator, and therefore not subject to the principle of causality (indeed I’d argue he invented it).

So where does this leave us? Well mainly it shows us that “Who made god?” isn’t a very good question. And hopefully it challenges us all – whatever we believe – to think in greater depth about the assumptions we bring to the big questions we have about life the universe and everything!

If you’d like to explore the question “Who made God?” more than I’d recommend Professor Edgar Andrews book, Who Made God: Searching for a Theory of Everything“, (EP Books, Darlington, 2009) Professor Andrews is Emeritus Professor of Materials at Queen Mary, University of London and writes in a lively and accessible style.

How does God feel about the Grenfell tower disaster?

A few days after 9/11, I heard a Christian preacher describe the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre as a punishment from God.

I heard something similar said of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. One particularly graceless American preacher called it a punishment on Sweden for passing laws promoting same-sex marriage (with 550 deaths, Sweden suffered more than any other Western nation in the disaster, which presumably means the other 230,000+ people killed were just collateral damage).

Humans are inquisitive people. When disaster strikes, we’re hungry to know “Why?” So I won’t be surprised if in the next few weeks I hear someone trying to satisfy that hunger by suggesting the fire was a punishment from God for the sins of “X” (where X is whichever group they hate most). But was it a punishment from God? Are these preachers right? Does God arrange lurid disasters to punish individual sins?

Let me say straight away, God did not destroy the Grenfell Tower to punish the residents. I’m confident of this because of two incidents in the life of Jesus that tell us how God feels about disasters like Grenfell Tower.

The first incident is a conversation Jesus had about two tragedies that had happened in Israel.

  • Some pilgrims from Galilee were offering sacrifice in the Temple and for reasons unknown, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate had them executed in a particularly sacrilegious and offensive way (Luke 13:1).
  • a tower in the Jerusalem suburb of Siloam, collapsed killing 18 people (Luke 13:4).

Jesus is asked the same question about both tragedies: are the victims more wicked than other people, and therefore being punished for their sin? Is this a punishment from God?

And Jesus answers

I tell you No!”

He’s so emphatic about it, because he wants us to understand that people who fall victim to tragedies, whether they’re caused by human evil or a natural disaster, are not victim of some special punishment from God.

So how does God feel about Grenfell? To answer that, let’s look at our second incident from Jesus’ life, which also happened in a Jerusalem suburb, this time Bethany, in the aftermath of the sudden death of one of Jesus’ friends, Lazarus.

John the gospel writer records how as Jesus arrives at the funeral, he sees the tears of Lazarus’ sister Mary and of the other mourners, and:

was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.

‘Where have you laid him?’ he asked.

‘Come and see, Lord,’ they replied. Jesus wept.” (John 11:33-35)

“Jesus wept” is the shortest verse in the Bible, yet I hope you can grasp just how significant those two words are. God wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus.  He understands how precious human life is. He understands how tragic it is when lives are lost. He understands how we feel, and he weeps with us.

That’s how God feels about Grenfell too. He weeps, just as he weeps with those mourning the victims of the Borough Market stabbing and the Manchester Bombing. He weeps over the many Muslims killed in the Quetta bombing in Pakistan. He weeps over the slaughter of Coptic Christian pilgrims in Egypt. God weeps over all human death. One day he’ll weep over my death, and yours.

That’s why in our first incident, Jesus turns the crowd’s attention from the disaster back to their own lives, by saying,

But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

His point is that we’ll all die, and incidents like Grenfell or Siloam are an uncomfortable reminder that death can be so sudden that we’ll have no time to wrestle with life’s big theological questions before it claims us. Better to think about who you are trusting for eternity now! Is your hope for the future in the loving God revealed by Jesus, who will weep over your death? Or is it in something else altogether: perhaps  that vengeful God who doesn’t care about the collateral damage; or even just in blind chance?

However you answer that question, I hope your thoughts and prayers will be with those so affected by the disaster: pray for those who mourn, for those who have lost their homes and possessions, and for those investigating the fire, who in the face of enormous public scrutiny and finger-pointing, will be charged with finding a human answer to the question “Why?”

Financial donations to help the survivors of the Grenfell fire can be sent to:

 

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