Contemporary Challenges to Jesus (2 of 3)
Dr. Mark Bailey: Welcome to DTS Dialogue: Issues of God in Culture. I am your host, Dr. Mark Bailey, and I have the privilege of serving as president of Dallas Theological Seminary. Today we have the opportunity to discuss contemporary challenges to the biblical accounts of Jesus.
Now a question. Darrell, you have used extra-biblical materials to argue for Jewish belief in a physical resurrection. For those of us who are biblical Christians, for us the Bible is enough. At the same time, there is a whole realm of study beyond the Scriptures that are important for background to the Scriptures. Tell us some of that argumentation and that historical work that you have been working on.
Dr. Darrell Bock: Well, the key here is to appreciate two things. One is that not everyone shares the high regard of the Bible that we Christians have. And there really are two ways to deal with this.
One is to absolutely insist on the position that the Bible is the Word of God and you got to come to grips with it, because it's true. And that's the way we normally do our kind of apologetics work is what we call it.
But then the second way to do it is to engage in what I would consider to be kind of a genuine dialogue with someone, in which you say, "All right, I'm even going to think about your own presuppositions and try and make the case without insisting that you agree with where I'm coming from in the Bible. And I still think I can do that."
And so the beauty of this Jewish background is it shows that there is a belief in physical resurrection in Judaism. Now in fact, in the two centuries before the time of Christ there was a little bit of discussion among certain Jewish groups about what they thought about the afterlife. The Sadducees are known for not believing in a resurrection.
There are some texts in Jubilees that suggest that they had a Greek view of some aspects of resurrection: the idea that your soul goes up to heaven, but there isn't a physical dimension to it. But then there are texts like Second and Fourth Maccabees in which a physical part of the resurrection is very much a part of the story.
There is a very poignant story in Second Maccabees seven where seven sons are being executed one at a time in front of their mother for keeping the law, for refusing to violate the law and refusing to eat pigs. And as they go in turn, one at a time, when they come to brother number three in the list, he sticks out his tongue and he sticks out his hands and he basically says, "You can take these, because one day God will give them back to me."
Now that's a pretty clear picture of a physical resurrection and his willingness to face death because he believes in a physical resurrection for himself.
Well this is the view that fed into Pharisaism, which fed into Paul's view of resurrection, so that when he sees a resurrected Jesus, he gets a confirmation that this physical aspect of resurrection is what's going on. And he goes out and teaches and preaches it. And so this linkage between Christian faith and its roots in Judaism is often very, very helpful in thinking through some of the things that we see in the Bible -- and also in some cases refuting the idea that a concept, which can be conceived of in a variety of ways, can take on a different form than in some cases what the church has taught.
And when you appeal to this literature, you know, you don't have to go through the fights of, "Well, the reason you are citing that text is because you believe it is the Word of God and I don't believe that so I don't have to accept that testimony."
No, it's a straightforward historical argument that anyone working with historical texts about what people in the period believed would have to come to grips with.
Mark: Maccabees, Jubilees -- that comes out of what body of literature?
Darrell: That comes out of what's called the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, which is a collection of Jewish writings that never obtained any thought of being Old Testament Scripture but were still respected theological writings of their time.
Often when I teach this stuff in class -- and I'm talking about the Old Testament Apocrypha, the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha -- I say, "Now, how many of you -- and don't get sensitive here -- but how many of you if we were to take the writings of Dr. Walvoord or Dr. Chafer or Dr. Pentecost would say that you are reading Scripture?"
No hands go up. And I tell them if someone's hand goes up, I have someone else they can see. And I say, "Yet you read this material because you recognize that it has something to contribute to your theological understanding, and it's good theological reflection."
And I said, "That's how this ancient material worked. It isn't necessarily 100% true all the time, but it does give you very much an indication about what people were thinking at the time." It would be a little bit like trying to study any doctrine here on our campus and not read some of the faculty who were authors on those topics. The more exposure you had to them, the more you would understand what's going on here. And it's the same kind of thing in the first century with these writings.
Mark: Great. I just didn't want our listeners to go to the local bookstore, look on the best-seller list and say, "I can't find Jubilees!" [laughter] "I can't find Maccabees!" I just wanted to make sure they knew where those sources were.
Darrell: Well, you know the Maccabean works are in the Old Testament Apocrypha. Actually, I tell my students that some of this is worth reading, because some of what we know about the period feeding into the New Testament... most of what we know about it, we know about it through this kind of material.
For example, the Maccabean books are about the Maccabean war fought in 167 and 164 B.C. And we would not have Judaism -- and we would not have Judaism in part in the form in which we have it -- if it had not been for the success of that war.
Mark: And our interpretation of the New Testament is helped by an understanding of that history because the Feast of Dedication -- that's mentioned, you know, in the Gospel of John -- is rooted to that very war.
Darrell: Exactly right.
Mark: The deliverance that they felt, that came -- and hence the feast of Hanukkah in modern Jewish practice.
Mark: So that historical aspect is there.
Darrell: Not to mention the whole relationship between Jews and Gentiles and why that's such a sensitive issue in the first century. If you understand that what Gentiles meant to many Jews in the centuries leading up to the time of Christ was an attempt to really eat away and deny everything that it was to be Jewish, you know including the desecration of the temple, the denial of the Sabbath, the challenge to be circumcised, you know, not caring about what food is eaten, that kind of thing.
All the compromise of what it meant to be Jewish. You would understand why people are nervous about a community in which Jews and Gentiles are brought together. And you would also understand how revolutionary the reconciliation is that Jesus brings between these ethnic groups.
You know I found myself when I was young reading the New Testament, saying, "Why is there all this stuff about Jews and Gentiles? That doesn't seem very relevant." Well, it was extremely relevant in the first century.
Mark: Go ahead Stephen.
Dr. Stephen Bramer: Just before you leave, your material from Jubilees and everything...
Stephen: I think the point we want to make is that in the Old Testament there is resurrection, but the type of resurrection, whether it is a bodily resurrection, is not as clear.
Darrell: Exactly right.
Stephen: Certainly it is in the New Testament.
Darrell: Exactly right.
Stephen: And you're suggesting that this concept has been developing, so when we come to the New Testament, bodily resurrection is something that people can appreciate.
Stephen: And expect.
Darrell: And in fact what I'm saying is -- very well said -- because again, in class what I often do is I will have people go to Daniel 12:1-2 and I'll say, "Read this. Now tell me what this tells you about resurrection."
And the bright students in the class go, "Well it tells you that there is a resurrection." And then our next question is, "Well, what else does it tell you about resurrection?" And the class goes silent because it doesn't tell you anything else about resurrection.
So then I say, "So how do we know that we are dealing with a bodily resurrection?" Well they'll come to the New Testament and they will look at the appearances and these kinds of clues. Yes. Now how do we get from A to B? OK.
And what you do is when you see in this intertestamental period these thoughts ,you understand that one of the things Jesus was commended for by the Pharisees in the New Testament was his defense of resurrection. All of a sudden you realize there is a point of contact there, and you can see it in this intervening material. So it's a bridge in some cases, conceptually.
Mark: Stephen, let me turn to you. You mentioned it earlier in our conversation, but another challenge in Christianity comes from the so-called Gnostic Gospels. As you understand these writings that came two, three, four centuries after the time of Christ, why are they called Gnostic and what have these contributed to modern-day discussions?
Stephen: You know, I think most of these documents have been discovered in Egypt. There are a couple of dozen, actually, of the Gnostic Gospels.
You know Gnosticism comes from the belief that there is a knowledge that a person needs to have in order to obtain salvation. There is some sort of secret knowledge. Gnosticism involved a dualism between the spirit and the body; that which was physical was evil. Yet you could obtain salvation by this secret knowledge.
And I think we see in the New Testament, especially in some of John's writings, a reaction to at least a proto-Gnosticism. It hasn't been fully developed yet, but he's already beginning to react that the physical body is not evil, and Christ was resurrected bodily, and that to know the Lord Jesus Christ is where our salvation is.
Sometimes this is called, I think, even Gnostic Christianity. It certainly is a breakaway from Christianity. There are a lot of things that are similar about Christianity, but they actually deny a number of the basic fundamentals, I believe, of Christianity as is developed even in the Old Testament: the creation of the world by God himself, the fact that God created man as a physical being that will be a complete redemption in the future.
And yet there seems to be the view that this Gnosticism was perhaps the correct Christianity, and they just lost out because they didn't win the war, or they didn't get there politically. But I think we need to take a look at this, and take a look at the material that is presented, and realize that it is not in keeping with the Old Testament.
It's not in keeping with some of the essential statements of the New Testament that seem to be foundational, ancient sayings. Philippians 2: this is an early Christian hymn and they conflict with that. So it's not that the Gnostics lost out because they didn't win the battle. They lost out, I believe, because they were a heretical sect. And yet, it's being emphasized these days that they give a great deal of background to the New Testament.
Mark: Darell, anything you want to add to that?
Darrell: Yeah, I think that Steve's done a great job of summarizing this that Gnosticism is about mystery. It's about the idea that God wasn't the creator but that there were underling gods who did the creation, at that creation was flawed. It was so flawed that it was irredeemable and therefore there wouldn't be a physical dimension to resurrection.
So all these elements contribute in. And then what we see, and this is interesting too because I think even with this area there is a way of arguing without insisting that person adopt our presuppositions.
And it is what Steve also was alluding to. That is that if you look at the doctrinal summaries that are encased within our New Testament -- or our hymns that are encased within our New Testament, or the rites and liturgy that is associated with the Lord's Supper and Baptism, these three key areas that would involve teaching, that involve singing, that involve the liturgy of what some people would call the sacraments...
Anyway, the point is that you put those three things together, all a part of the basic worship of the church, you can see this core theology that is being passed on. Because we are in a period in which the New Testament as an organized body of material can't be appealed to because it hasn't been written yet. So how do you pass on your theology before there is a New Testament?
You know the Bible church, the Bible church, the Bible of the Bible churches of the first century was the Old Testament. So how did you pass on the theology? Well you did it through these summaries. You did it through singing these hymns that had this content. You did it through what you said at the baptism and at the Lord's Supper. And that made key and clear what the core of the faith was.
And then you look at the Gnostic teaching and you put up against that and you see those things don't match up at all. In fact, this stuff, this Gnostic Christianity would never come out of the Judaism that fed into Christianity and explains what Christianity's background is.
Mark: And I think that historical thread is critical. Because alongside all of all of this attack, suspicion, question about historic Christianity and especially from the period of the Gnostic Gospels, paralleling this are some who believe that the deity of Jesus Christ was not established until after the time of Constantine and the Council of Nicea in the fourth century.
But as you mentioned Darell, as you go back to those statements, you can work your way back and then back forward all the way back to New Testament times. I mean how many years apart from Jesus do we have these early sayings? And it's not time enough for legend to develop.
Darrell: Mmm hmm.
Mark: And so there is historical verification and really without argument for the most part, even in the early literature that they were wrong in those statements.
Darrell: Yes, there are two issues here. The first is that if you look at the actual materials that we have, our earliest writings where we have the statements come from about the 50s. OK? That's within 20 years of the death of Christ, two decades. People are still alive who experienced this.
But that isn't all. If you look at these doctrinal summaries which allude to resurrection, what you've got to remember is that when Paul issues this statement, he says, "You know, I pass on what I also received." He's taking you back to the time of his own conversion. And the time of his own conversion was in the 30s, probably within a couple of years of Jesus' death.
What's interesting about that is that when Jesus appears to him and he says -- and Paul asks the question, you know, "Who are you?" -- and he informs him that he is the Lord. Paul has got to have enough theology in place for what he has heard to be able to process that experience. And that processing of that experience is matching the theology that he then went out to preach.
Well, that is pulling you all the way back to the 30s, all the way back to within a couple of years of the time of Jesus. And there is no time for legend to develop in that period, unless you're going to argue that the legend just kind of was an example of what we might call spontaneous combustion. So that takes you very far back. So that's one element of the equation that you're dealing with here.
The second part that is interesting is that when you start to line up this core that we are talking about, it doesn't have all the detail that Nicea does -- because Nicea is asking philosophical questions about that doctrine that were raised afterwards in some cases and then wording doctrine accordingly in the context Nicea emerged in. But you do see in place all the elements that exist that take you to Nicea. And that's really the point.
You know, the people on the other side are claiming "well really what we had was a variety of Christianities. Everybody was claiming a connection to Jesus and you had this form over here and then you had this other form. And no one has an inherent claim to be closer to Jesus and what he really taught."
Well, in fact we are saying that the traditional string that you can trace that feeds into what is called orthodoxy today goes right out of the very same decade of these events -- in contrast to what you can show for this alternate strand that doesn't start showing up for real until the second century.
Mark: And one of the ironies of this is -- well, to me -- is that Gnosticism wants to deny the humanity of Jesus.
Mark: You know, the humanity of the Christ. And it's almost like you can't have this both ways. You know, if they are trying to deny the humanity of Christ, then there must have been the argument for the deity of Christ to which they are reacting, you know long before Nicea.
And so the question wasn't could he be divine, their question was could he be human. And Stephen, you mentioned that the whole philosophy of Gnosticism is that you can't intermix, you can't unite the physical with the spiritual, the physical being viewed as evil, the spiritual being viewed as good. But as early as the New Testament writings of Paul, that the fullness of God dwelt in Christ in bodily form.
Mark: And in Colossians, you've got a great argumentation that refutes the bifurcation of the humanity in the deity of Christ. It argues not only for his fullness, not only that he in essence is God dwelling in human flesh, but he had a real death. He shed real blood, and then followed that by resurrection, without which we obviously wouldn't have Christianity as we have it.
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