Tuesday, 30 December 2014

A Reply to Eight Myths

This past September, Richard Hagenston, an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church wrote an article entitled "8 Things Your Pastor Will Never Tell You About the Bible". I've since seen the article cited by critics of the Christianity ranging from atheists to Muslims, so I thought it worth a response. I should add that Rev. Hagenston insists that he is "still a Christian" although I'll leave it to the individual reader to determine how compatible his beliefs are with Christianity.

1) "The Apostles of Jesus Seem to Have Known Nothing About a Virgin Birth."

His main piece of evidence for this claim is that St. Paul's letters make no mention of the virgin birth. While this is certainly true, to conclude from this that St. Paul knew nothing of the virgin birth seems a bit of a stretch. St. Paul never sat down and wrote out his beliefs in a systematic way. His letters are directed to churches or individuals either answering specific questions or dealing with specific problems in those bodies. The fact that no mention of Christ's virgin birth is made seems to me to be adequately explained by the assumption that it wasn't relevant to any of the questions he needed to deal with.

2) "Jesus Said He Wanted to Offer Nothing to Gentiles"

True, up to a point. Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, sent originally to the House of Israel. Therefore, during his earthly mission Jesus  focused his attention on His fellow Jews and only occasionally (and reluctantly cf. Matt 15:21-28) helped gentiles. After His death and resurrection, however, Jesus commands His apostles to go and baptise all nations (Matt 28:16-20).

I imagine Rev. Hagenston would reply that this is something the historical Jesus never said, and we can know this because it contradicts his earlier stance. I see no reason to assume this however. During Jesus' lifetime, the Old Covenant was still in effect and the Jewish priesthood was still God's means for the sanctification of His people. It is entirely consistent that Jesus' earthly mission would be to His own people while, after His death and resurrection, and thus the inauguration of the New Covenant, the command would be given to preach to all nations.

3) "Jesus Tells Everyone Not to Think of Him as God in the First Three Gospels"

This claim is based on Mark 10:18, Matt 19:17 and Luke 18:19. The context is this: a rich young man comes to Jesus, addresses him as 'good teacher' and asks what he must do to be saved. Jesus replies "why do you call me good, only God is good."

Critics of Christianity like to point to this story as Jesus denying His divinity. It seems to me, however, that the story can be equally well read as Jesus attempting to open the young man's eyes to who He really is. The young is coming to Jesus with the mindset that He is a rabbi and nothing more. Jesus attempts to challenge this by asking, in effect, "when you call me good, don't you realise what that implies?"

4) "The Resurrection Appearances in the Gospel Have Irreconcilable Contradictions"

The four resurrection accounts certainly differ. The fact that they different, however, does not mean that they are irreconcilable. Several attempts have been made to harmonise them and some, like this one, seem to me to be at least plausible.

5) "Jesus Was Against Public Prayer"

The justification for this statement is Matt 6:1-5. Read in context, this passage is a condemnation, not of public prayer its self, but of those who publicly pray with the aim of showing off in front of others how pious they are. To read this as per. se. opposing public prayer one would need to assume that, on all the occasions Jesus is depicted as praying in the synagogues or the temple, or in front of a crowd, that He was engaging in some fairly rank hypocrisy.

As a side note, Rev. Hagenston has told us that his article is about things "your pastor won't tell you." Does he really think that pastors the world over are not regularly preaching and teaching the Sermon on the Mount?

6) "Some Books of the Bible are Forgeries"

Rev. Hagenston writes: "My seminary professors mentioned that some books of the Bible, notably some letters attributed to Paul, were probably written by people who lied about who they were to gain Paul’s authority for their own ideas. But they never put it that bluntly."

I don't know where he went to seminary so I don't know his teachers and can't say for sure, but I suspect they never "put it that bluntly" because they don't believe that.

Now, lets be clear, most New Testament scholars don't believe that St. Paul wrote some of the letters attributed to him. For the record, I never found the arguments for the majority view very convincing and am inclined to side with the minority who think St. Paul wrote all thirteen of the letters that bear his name. For the sake of argument, however, let's accept the majority view, St. Paul did not write, for example, the Pastoral Epistles.

It is unwarranted, however, to go from "not written by Paul" to "written by people who lied about who they were." In the ancient world, there was a common custom of writing letters in the name of some revered leader, normally a dead one saying, in effect "this is what the great teacher would have said if he'd been alive." The recipients of such letters would have been well aware that the letter was not actually written by the person writing it. This is the understanding most scholars hold of the Pastoral Epistles.

7) "Parts of the Bible Were Intentionally Written to Contradict Other Parts"

The primary example here is Psalm 51 vv 18 & 19, which, we are told, were written to contradict vv 16 & 17. The earlier verses tell us that God does not need burnt offerings but that the sacrifice but that the sacrifice acceptable to Him is a humble and contrite heart. The later verses call on God to restore Jerusalem so that sacrifice, which God will be pleased with, may be offered in the temple.

Rev. Hagenston sees this as evidence that a later scribe, disagreeing with the theology of the original author, added these verses to contradict him. Why, if this scribe had the power to alter the text, he didn't simply remove the offending lines is not explained. Perhaps because, so far from being written to contradict one another, the verses actually form a whole, making the point that sacrifice is something God commands but is only truly pleasing to God if done in a proper spirit.

8) "Apostles Who Had Been Taught By Jesus Himself Insisted that Paul Was Wrong About the Gospel"

The only piece of evidence provided for this claim is 2 Corinthians 11:5 where St. Paul labels his critics "Super Apostles". Even though, Rev. Hagenston acknowledges that the label is 'sarcastic' he none the less asserts that: "In that time, “super-apostles” could have meant only one thing: the original apostles."

An alternative meaning is suggested by context where Paul, contrasting himself to the "Super Apostles" (which makes me think of the Avengers) says that he may not be as eloquent as them although he does have knowledge. With this in mind "Super Apostles" may well refer to individuals who consider themselves super because of their education and debating skills.



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