Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Death of Judas: Contradiction; Forced Harmonization?

And he threw the pieces of silver into the temple sanctuary
and departed; and he went away and hanged himself.
Matthew 27.5

Now this man acquired a field with the price of his wickedness,
and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle 
and all his intestines gushed out.
Acts 1.18

These are two separate statements about the death of Judas Iscariot.  Many have alleged a direct contradiction between these two texts.  "Which is it--hanging or bursting open?" critics will ask.  The traditional answer has been to seek some sort of harmonization between these two narratives.  Is there any way for both narrations to be true?  Must they be seen as contradictory?  

Gleason Archer in his Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1982), p. 344 argues that Judas hanged himself and then he fell and his body burst open.  Here is how Archer describes the potential scenario:
Acts 1:18 goes on to state: 'And he, falling headlong, burst asunder, and all of his inwards gushed out.'  This indicates that the tree from which Judas suspended himself overhung a precipice.  If the branch from which he had hung himself was dead and dry--and there are many trees that match this description even to this day on the brink of the canyon that tradition identifies as the place where Judas died--it would take only one strong gust of wind to yank the heavy corpse and split the branch to which it was attached and plunge both with great force into the bottom of the chasm below.
This is fairly typical of the approach that would seek to find some sort of harmonization between the two texts.  Critics, however, might not be inclined to grant such a harmonization.  They might argue that such historical harmonizations are "forced."  Recently Steve Hays posted a short piece entitled How Did Judas Die? in which he looks at another historical event which has multiple, seeming conflicting narratives and shows how archeological evidence points to a harmonization.  Here are Hays' comments:
The death of Judas is a familiar crux. We have two accounts in Matthew and Acts. At least superficially, these seem to describes two different ways of dying. 

How these are two be harmonized is anyone's guess. My own theory is that Judas hanged himself, then animal scavengers yanked his body down (e.g. dogs, jackals, a bear, a lion). 

This is easy to visualize for anyone who's seen nature shows in which wildlife photographers string meat from a tree, then photograph predators attempting to pull it down. So I think that's an economical explanation.

However, an unbeliever will object that I'm guilty of special pleading. If it was anything other than the Bible, I'd just admit we have discrepant accounts. 

So let's take a comparison. Mattathias Antigonus was the last Hasmonean king. He was predecessor to Herod the Great. Depending on how you count them, we have three or four different accounts of his demise:

These people Antony entrusted to a certain Herod to govern; but Antigonus he bound to a cross and flogged, — a punishment no other king had suffered at the hands of the Romans, — and afterwards slew him. Dio Cassius, Roman History, 22:6. 
Now when Antony had received Antigonus as his captive, he determined to keep him against his triumph; but when he heard that the nation grew seditious, and that, out of their hatred to Herod, they continued to bear good-will to Antigonus, he resolved to behead him at Antioch, for otherwise the Jews could no way be brought to be quiet. And Strabo of Cappadocia attests to what I have said, when he thus speaks: "Antony ordered Antigonus the Jew to be brought to Antioch, and there to be beheaded. And this Antony seems to me to have been the very first man who beheaded a king... Josephus, Antiquities ,15.1.2 (8-9). 
and he deprived many monarchs of their kingdoms, as, for instance, Antigonus the Jew, whom he brought forth and beheaded, though no other king before him had been so punished. Plutarch, Life of Antony, 36.11.

As you can see, Plutarch, Josephus, and Strabo (according to Josephus) all say that Marc Antony had Mattathias Antigonus beheaded. By contrast, Dio Cassius says Marc Antony had him crucified. 

Now, these aren't strictly contradictory. Dio Cassius doesn't exactly say Mattathias Antigonus died by crucifixion. It indicates that he was slain after he was crucified–which is rather vague. 

If, however, we approach these accounts with the same skepticism that unbelievers apply to Scripture, we wouldn't try to harmonize them. For one thing, isn't crucifixion and decapitation overkill? Moreover, why dispatch him before he dies from crucifixion? The whole point of scourging and crucifixion is to make your enemy die a slow, excruciating. To behead him before he succumbs would be counterproductive. Finally, his death by decapitation is multiply-attested, whereas Dio Cassius is the only source who says he was crucified. What are the odds that a man would both be crucified and beheaded? 

Ah, but here's where the story gets even more interesting. We aren't confined to literary notices. There's archeological evidence that, as a matter of fact, Mattathias Antigonus did undergo both crucifixion and decapitation. In 1970, an ossuary was discovered in the Abba cave. The remains were identified as belonging to none other than Mattathias Antigonus.

On the one hand, the cut jaw and severed second vertebra indicate decapitation. On the other hand, the ossuary contains three hooked nails (used in crucifixion) with traces of human calcium. 

Recently, that's has been confirmed by Yoel Elitzur and Israel Hershkovitz. As one scholar (Greg Doudna) summarizes the evidence:

There are the very clear and specific indications that this individual was both beheaded and nailed through the hands at the time of death. As I understand it, very few nails have been found inside any ossuaries (with the bones) in any case, and in no other case have nails been found attached to hand bones in an ossuary. And this particular individual was also fairly clearly beheaded (possibly with the executioner whacking twice to complete the job, per P. Smith’s analysis). The extremely unusual combination, with no other known parallel, of nails attached to hand bones and beheading corresponds specifically and exclusively to dual traditions of Antigonus Mattathias being hung up on a cross and flogged (Dio Cassius), and beheaded (Strabo). While that particular combination may have been done by Romans in cases not known to history, Antigonus Mattathias is the only case in which these dual traditions of these two particular kinds of death are recounted for the same person—the exact combination that turns up on a set of bones in an ossuary of a tomb with an Inscription referring to bones of one MTTY, of the approximate time as Antigonus Mattathias as independently established on dating grounds. 
http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/2014/04/zia388008.shtml

Now, the death of Antigonus Mattathias is at least as convoluted and antecedently unlikely as harmonizing the death of Judas in Matthew and Acts. Yet there's both documentary and paleoforensic evidence that that's what happened. 

Incidentally, the reason Antigonus Mattathias might have been beheaded after he was crucified was to expedite his death. Unless a corpse was buried before sunset, it defiled the land (Deut 21:22-23).  Marc Antony may have been forced to accede to Jewish sensibilities in that respect. 

Monday, September 12, 2016

What Is an "Evangelical?"

* Written for a segment called the "Pastor's Pen" for our weekly church bulletin.


Last week someone in the congregation asked me a great question that I thought would be good to answer in this week’s Pastor’s Pen.  You will notice that each week we pray for a nation of the world.  This week we are praying for Nigeria.  Added in the information given are the population numbers for “Christians” and “evangelicals.”  The question I received had to do with the definition of “evangelical”—“What is the definition of an evangelical in distinction from Christian?” 

The word “evangelical” is derivative from the word “evangel” (from the Greek word euangellion) which is the gospel.  British theologian Alister McGrath helpfully notes:

Evangelical is thus the term chosen by evangelicals to refer to themselves, as representing most adequately the central concern of the movement for the safeguarding and articulation of the evangel—the good news of God which has been made known and made possible in Jesus Christ.

The book Operation World and its smaller, abridged version Pray for the World are resources used to reference the population numbers in our “Pray for the World” section in our bulletin.  There is also an online listing of the nations to pray for everyday at http://www.operationworld.org/.  The Operation World website has the following definitions which are used to inform their work:

            Christian
Anyone who professes to be Christian. The term embraces all traditions and confessions of Christianity. It is no indicator of the degree of commitment or theological orthodoxy. The primary emphasis utilized is that of recognizing self-identification as well as accepting the Scriptural principles illustrated in Matt 10:32 and Romans 10:9.

Evangelicals
All who emphasize and adhere to all four of the following:

                The Lord Jesus Christ as the sole source of salvation through faith in Him, as validated by His crucifixion and resurrection. 
                Personal faith and conversion with regeneration by the Holy Spirit. 
                Recognition of the inspired Word of God as the ultimate basis and authority for faith and Christian living. 
                Commitment to biblical witness, evangelism and mission that brings others to faith in Christ. 
                 
Evangelicals are largely Protestant, Independent or Anglican, but some are Catholic or Orthodox. It is one of the TransBloc movements in this book. 

This definition is very close but not identical to the definition introduced in David Bebbington’s Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s as the Bebbington Quadrilateral, which offered crucicentrism, conversionism, biblicism and activism as the four qualities of evangelicalism. 

Evangelicals are enumerated in Operation World as: 

                All affiliated Christians (church members, their children, other participants of the faith community) of denominations that are definitively evangelical in theology as explained above. 
                The proportion of the affiliated Christians in other denominations (that are not wholly evangelical in theology) who would hold evangelical views, whether Western in origin or otherwise.

This is a theological and not an experiential definition. It does not mean that all evangelicals as defined above are actually born-again. In many nations, only 10-40% of evangelicals so defined may have had a valid conversion and regularly attend church services. However, it does show how many people align themselves with churches where the gospel is being proclaimed as such. 

In the above mention was made of the “Bebbington Quadrilateral.”  In that a number of researchers use this definition it is important to know its content.  Here are the four points with some brief definitions. 

1.     Biblicism: a particular regard for the Bible (e.g., all spiritual truth is to be found in its pages.
2.     Crucicentrism [cross-centered]: a focus on the atoning work of Christ on the cross.
3.     Conversionism: the belief that human beings need to be converted.
4.     Activism: the belief that the gospel needs to be expressed in effort.

There are, of course, others definitions of “evangelical.”  For example, Francis Schaeffer wrote that to be evangelical was to be:

Bible-believing without shutting one’s self off from the full spectrum of life, and in trying to bring Christianity into effective contact with the current needs of society, government and culture.  It had a connotation of leading people to Christ as Savior, but then trying to be salt and light in the culture.

John Dickerson, in his book The Great Evangelical Recession, comments on Schaeffer’s description (which is primarily given for American evangelicals):

Schaeffer emphasizes the “full-spectrum” of living in the culture.  Here, Schaeffer points out the practical distinctive of American evangelicals.  We have a heritage of intentionally interacting with the culture in a positive way, rather than isolating and reacting or submitting and capitulating to it.  This “engaged orthodoxy” stands noticeably apart from the spiritual bunker mentality that defined American fundamentalism.  It also stands apart from the spongy plurality that defines theologically liberal Protestants.

Defining and describing “evangelical” can be difficult but hopefully the above helps us better understand some of the defining characteristics of what it is to be “evangelical.”  Ultimately, at the theological level, evangelicals are concerned about the gospel—the good news—of Jesus Christ!

* Quotations from Dickerson, McGrath, and Schaeffer all come from John S. Dickerson The Great Evangelical Recession (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2013)--Appendix C "Defining 'Evangelical'" pages 229-232.

**Also of interest may be J. P. Moreland's brief essay Defining "Evangelical" in Public Discourse.

Are Mormons Christian? A Letter to Fellow Evangelical Elders

* I recently was in a conversation with some elders of another church.  The topic of Mormonism came up and someone asked me why I would engage in evangelism toward Mormons since they "are Christians."  I gave my answer in that context and then followed-up with a letter.  The majority of that letter is reproduced below with the appropriate deletions to cover the identity of the church.  I post this here for its scriptural reasoning and its quotations from Joseph Smith.
____________________________________


... Usually among such evangelicals there is a common theological core which it is recognized the LDS church does not embrace.  You will recall that I briefly mentioned that the LDS teaching regarding God denies monotheism in favor of tri-theism, that LDS teaching denies salvation by grace through faith, and that the LDS church believes in a different Jesus.  These are not minor or secondary issues on which Christians of good will and orthodox belief can and do differ—such as eschatological systems or even the proper recipients of baptism.  Rather, these issues are centrally located in the Christian theological system and cannot be modified in the ways that the LDS church does without ceasing to be Christian.

Why is this important?  The Scriptures give us the requirements for an elder.  One of those requirements is that elders in Christ’s church be those who are “holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.  Titus 1.9  Not only must we as elders hold to the truth personally but we must be able to teach the truth and to refute those who teach against the truth.  Failure to upheld these duties brings pain to the church as false teachers are then able to upset whole families (Titus 1.11).  The apostle Paul provides us an example of his fighting for the truth of the gospel in the book of Galatians.  He begins this epistle with forceful words because the truth of the gospel is at stake.

6I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; 7which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.  8But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed!  9As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!  --Galatians 1.6-9

The apostle Paul can also challenge the Corinthian church because they are allowing the preaching of “another Jesus.”

For if one comes and preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted, you bear this beautifully.  –2 Corinthians 11.4

And who is doing this preaching of “another Jesus” and a “different gospel”—“false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ” (2 Corinthians 11.13).

Just because a group says they are “Christian” or has the word “Christ” in their name (e.g., “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints”) does not make them Christian in reality.  We need to examine the teaching of these groups to discern whether they are teaching a false view of God, Christ, or salvation.  When the Mormon religion is examined in this regard it fails to meet the most basic requirements of Christian theism.

Consider the central biblical and creedal teaching regarding monotheism—the belief in one God.  Orthodox Christianity has always affirmed monotheism even as it has confessed the doctrine of the Trinity.  The founding prophet of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, unequivocally denies the doctrine of the Trinity and the monotheism which is crucial to this doctrine.  Consider the following words from Joseph Smith from what is known as the “King Follett Discourse.”

I will preach on the plurality of Gods.  I have selected this text for that express purpose.  I wish to declare I have always and in all congregations when I have preached on the subject of the Deity, it has been the plurality of Gods.  It has been preached by the Elders for fifteen years.

I have always declared God to be a distinct personage.  Jesus Christ a separate and distinct personage from God the Father, and that the Holy Ghost was a distinct personage and a Spirit: and these three constitute three distinct personages and three Gods.  If this is in accordance with the New Testament, lo and behold! we have three Gods anyhow, and they are plural; and who can contradict it?  Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith compiled by Joseph Fielding Smith (Deseret, 1976), 370.

Many men say there is one God; the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost are only one God.  I say that is a strange God anyhow—three in one and one in three! … All are to be crammed into one God, according to sectarianism.  Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith compiled by Joseph Fielding Smith (Deseret, 1976), 372.

Not only did Joseph Smith affirm polytheism and deny the Trinity, he also spoke of how God himself was not always God but was a man like us but attained to Godhood.

God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens!  That is the great secret.  If the veil were rent today, and the great God who holds this world in its orbit, and who upholds all worlds and all things by his power, was to make himself visible,—I say, if you were to see him today, you would see him like a man in form—like yourselves in all the person, image, and very form as a man; for Adam was created in the very fashion, image and likeness of God, and received instruction from, and walked, talked and conversed with him, as one man talks and communes with another.  Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith compiled by Joseph Fielding Smith (Deseret, 1976), 345.

…it is necessary we should understand the character and being of God and how he came to be so; for I am going to tell you how God came to be God.  We have imagined and supposed that God was God from all eternity.  I will refute that idea, and take away the veil, so that you may see.

These are incomprehensible ideas to some, but they are simple.  It is the first principle of the Gospel to know for a certainty the Character of God, and to know that we may converse with him as one man converses with another, and that he was once a man like us; yea, that God himself, the Father of us all, dwelt on an earth, the same as Jesus Christ himself did; and I will show it from the Bible.  Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith compiled by Joseph Fielding Smith (Deseret, 1976), 345-346.

Joseph Smith argues that God the Father himself had a Father!

If Abraham reasoned thus—If Jesus Christ was the Son of God, and John discovered that God the Father of Jesus Christ had a Father, you may suppose that He had a Father also.  Where was there ever a son without a father?  And where was there ever a father without first being a son? … Hence if Jesus had a Father, can we not believe that He had a Father also?  I despise the idea of being scared to death at such a doctrine, for the Bible is full of it.  Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith compiled by Joseph Fielding Smith (Deseret, 1976), 373.

These teachings by Joseph Smith are still affirmed today in the official teaching of the LDS church.[1]  These teachings are at radical variance from the Bible’s teaching regarding God.  ...

These are no small matters.  I have only looked at the issue of monotheism and the Trinity but the same massive departure from central truth also is found in the LDS doctrines of Christ and salvation.[2]

I would urge you as elders in the church of God to faithfully hold to the essentials of the faith.  If you as elders and leaders in the church will not affirm and defend the truth then those under your charge will not be properly fed and led.  If you don’t believe that Mormons are in need of the true gospel then your people will erroneously believe the same.  They will not seek to share the real Jesus of the Bible with their Mormon neighbors nor will they pray for the conversion of those caught in the deceptions of LDS teaching.

I know that I have spoken directly and my desire is not to cause offense.  Ultimately the gospel message and the authority of the Word of God are at stake.  If you are willing perhaps we can continue to discuss these matters for our edification and the strengthening of Christ’s church.

For the Gospel,

Richard J. Klaus



     [1] For demonstration of this fact see the recent article by Robert Bowman “Are Mormons Approaching Orthodoxy? A Response to Richard Mouw.”  Online: http://mit.irr.org/are-mormons-approaching-orthodoxy-response-richard-mouw.
     [2] For a short but helpful introduction to these matters please see the article “Is Mormonism Christian?”  Online: http://mit.irr.org/mormonism-christian.  

Relativism and Imposing One's Values

Philosopher Bill Vallicella has a brief but brilliant post on relativism.  The title of the post declares the main point--A Relativist Cannot Rationally Object to the Imposition of One's Values on Others.  Here are the opening lines:
The following argument is sometimes heard. "Because values are relative, it is wrong to impose one's values on others."
But if values are relative, and among my values is the value of instructing others in the right way to live, then surely I am justified in imposing my values on others. What better justification could I have? If values are relative, then there is simply no objective basis for a critique or rejection of the values I happen to hold.  For it to be wrong for me to impose my values, value-imposition would have to be a nonrelative disvalue. But this is precisely what is ruled out by the premise 'values are relative.'
Either values are relative or they are not.  If they are relative then no one can be faulted for living in accordance with his values even if among his values is the value of  imposing one's values on others.  If, on the other hand, values are not relative, then one will be in a position to condemn some forms of value-imposition.  The second alternative, however, is not available to one who affirms the relativity of all values.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Beware of Separating Jesus from the Old Testament

* A devotional for our church bulletin.


Last week we looked at the very first words of 1 Peter 1.1: “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ…”  We saw how this speaks to the fact that Peter’s words are not merely one more religious opinion in the church.  Rather, Peter is an authoritative spokesman for Christ Jesus.  This challenges those who wish to posit some sort of division between Christ and his apostles. 

Our passage today (1 Peter 1.10-12) challenges another false notion—the alleged separation between Jesus and the Old Testament.  There are some who make a sharp division between the teaching of Jesus and the perceived “harshness” of the Old Testament.  Peter speaks of how the same Spirit of Christ was operative in the Old Testament prophets and in the apostolic preachers.  The words of Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan from their book Did God Really Command Genocide? Coming to Terms with the Justice of God are also helpful in answering the charge of radical dichotomy between Jesus and the Old Testament:

We must be careful not to appeal to Jesus’s authority selectively.  In Old Testament prophetic fashion, Jesus regularly engages in denouncements and threats of judgments—both temporal and final.  He routinely pronounces temporal judgment on Jerusalem; this judgment would come by Rome in AD 70.  He also assumes Sodom, Tyre, and Sidon had been divinely and violently judged, which serves as a springboard for condemning his unbelieving contemporaries in Bethsaida, Chorazin, and Capernaum (Matt. 11:21-24; cf. 10:15).  Notice these warnings of judgment immediately precede Jesus’s own self-description as gentle and humble in heart (11:28-30)!  Jesus likewise takes for granted divine and violent judgment in Noah’s day (Matt. 24:37-39).  And in a symbolic act, an enraged Jesus makes a whip to drive out moneychangers from the temple and prevents people from even entering the temple (John 2:15; cf. Mark 11:15-17).  Does this not have a touch of the kind of “violence” Seibert and Enns would consider un-Christlike?  What of Jesus’s indictment of stumbling blocks who should have a millstone tied around their neck to be drowned (Matt. 18:6)?  He threatens the “wretched” vine-growers (Israel’s leaders) with temporal judgment (Matt. 21:41; Mark 12:9).  Jesus likewise declares he will “make war” on the Nicolaitans “with the sword of My mouth,” and he will throw the false prophetess “Jezebel” onto a “bed of sickness” and bring “pestilence” upon her followers (Rev. 2:16, 20-23 NASB).  Jesus clearly believes in the appropriateness of temporal divine punishment and the Mosaic death penalty (Matt. 15:4).  (p. 42)

Jesus affirmed the Old Testament Scriptures (Matthew 5.17) and acted in accordance with the character of his heavenly Father revealed in those Scriptures.  Beware of those who would create an imaginary division between the Old Testament and the teaching of Christ.

* Also see the Question and Answer from William Craig Jesus and the God of the Old Testament.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Michael Bird on Evangelism


Christians and Muslims: Worshipping the Same God?

Philosopher Bill Vallicella has an interesting post on the question of whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God.  His post is entitled The Debate That Won't Go Away: Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?  He summarizes in this way:
Most of the writing on this topic is exasperatingly superficial and uninformed, even that by theologians.  Fr. O'Brien is a case in point.  He thinks the question easily resolved: you simply note the radical difference in the Christian and Muslim God-conceptions and your work is done.  Others make the opposite mistake.  They think that, of course, Christians and Muslims worship the same God either by making Tuggy's mistake above or by thinking that the considerable overlap in the two conceptions settles the issue.
My thesis is not that the one side is right or that the other side is right.  My thesis is that the question is a very difficult one that entangles us in controversial inquiries in the philosophies or mind and language.  
You might say it doesn't matter.  If Christians and Muslims worship the same God, then Muslims are heretics: they have false beliefs about the true God.  If Christians and Muslims worship different Gods, then the Muslims are idolaters: they worship a nonexistent god.  Not good either way.  This won't be acceptable to Muslims, of course, but why shouldn't a Christian say this and leave it at that?