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Archaeology and the New Testament

Peter S. Williams, author of A Sceptic’s Guide to Atheism: God is Not Dead (Paternoster, 2009), has written a helpful introductory article at BeThinking.org on the discoveries in archaeology and the historical reliability of the New Testament.

He also lists several online articles and essays that serve as a good springboard into the topic:

Clyde E. Billington, ‘The Nazareth Inscription’ www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2009/07/22/The-Nazareth-Inscription-Proof-of-the-Resurrection-of-Christ.aspx

Kyle Butt, ‘Archaeology and the New Testament’, www.apologeticspress.org/articles/2591

John L. Brown, ‘Microscopial Investigation of Selected Raes Threads from the Shroud of Turin’, www.shroud.com/pdfs/brown1.pdf

Craig A. Evans, ‘Archaeology and the Historical Jesus: Recent Developments’, http://216.12.134.73/publications/article.aspx?articleId=335

Gary R. Habermas, ‘The Lost Tomb of Jesus: A Response’, http://garyhabermas.com/articles/The_Lost_Tomb_of_Jesus/losttombofjesus_response.htm

Gary R. Habermas, ‘Historical Epistemology, Jesus’ Resurrection, and the Shroud of Turin’, Proceedings of the 1999 Shroud of Turin International Conference (1999), http://works.bepress.com/gary_habermas/40

Gary R. Habermas, ‘The Shroud of Turin and its Significance for Biblical Studies’, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 24:1 (1981), www.garyhabermas.com/articles/J_Evangelical_Theological_Soc/habermas_shroud_turin_significance_1981.htm

Gary R. Habermas, ‘The Shroud of Turin: A Rejoinder to Basinger and Basinger’ Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 25:2 (1982), www.garyhabermas.com/articles/J_Evangelical_Theological_Soc/habermas_JETS_Shroud_Rejoinder_Basinger.htm

Paul L. Maier, ‘The James Ossuary’, www.mtio.com/articles/bissar95.htm

John McRay, ‘Archaeology and the Bible’, www.4truth.net/site/c.hiKXLbPNLrF/b.2903877/k.7280/Archaeology_and_the_Bible.htm

John McRay, ‘Archaeology and the Book of Acts’, http://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/Ted_Hildebrandt/NTeSources/NTArticles/CTR-NT/McRay-ArchaeologyActs-CTR.pdf

Hershel Shanks, ‘Supporters of James Ossuary Inscription’s Authenticity Vindicated’, www.bib-arch.org/news/forgery-trial-news.asp

Ben Witherington III, ‘Top Ten New Testament Archaeological Finds of the Past 150 Years’, www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2003/septemberweb-only/9-22-21.0.html

Simon Gathercole on the Gospel of Judas and the Gospel of Thomas

At Between Two Worlds, Andy Naselli interviews Simon Gathercole on the Gospel of Judas and the Gospel of Thomas. Gathercole is a New Testament lecturer at the University of Cambridge and is currently writing a commentary on the Gospel of Thomas:

1. What exactly are the Gospel of Judas and the Gospel of Thomas? How do they compare to the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John?

To start with, the Gospels of Judas and Thomas are quite different from each other. One is a hard-line Gnostic Gospel: the Gospel of Judas has the standard characteristics which people in antiquity associated with the Gnostics—a view of the creator and his creation as both evil (and both a long way further down in the cosmic hierarchy from the Great Divine Spirit). Thomas is more of an ascetical work, though it also has some pretty unorthodox elements such as finding salvation through self-knowledge in conjunction with Jesus.

On a historical level, too, Thomas and Judas show that they’re a long way removed from the both the culture and theology of Jesus’ real setting: they both reflect a heavily gentile context, in which, for example, the OT is not considered authoritative. In this respect they’re a long way apart from the four canonical Gospels. Most importantly, the central factor in the NT Gospels, the cross and resurrection of Jesus as the saving act of God, is also missing from Thomas and Judas: in these apocryphal texts, “knowledge” is the way to salvation.

2. When were the Gospel of Judas and Gospel of Thomas each discovered? When were they written? And why are they an issue in our popular culture?

They were discovered at different times and are parts of different collections. The Gospel of Thomas was found first, in the codices (bound papyrus books) found near Nag Hammadi in 1945–46: this is a big collection of Gnostic and other literature. The Gospel of Judas was discovered much more recently—probably in the 1970s—but it wasn’t actually published until 2006.

They were probably originally composed at roughly the same time. We can be pretty sure that the Gospel of Judas was written around AD 150 because Irenaeus (writing about AD 180) refers to a Gospel of Judas in his Against the Heresies. Again, we can be fairly certain that the Gospel of Thomas was written in the second century. There are three Greek papyrus fragments of it (only small bits—the whole text survives only in Coptic) from around AD 200–300, and the church Father Hippolytus refers to it around AD 225. But we can also see quite clearly that they don’t pre-date the canonical Gospels: Thomas is influenced in a number of places by Luke’s Gospel and refers to the disciple Matthew (probably a reference to the Gospel of Matthew), and Judas is influenced in a number of places by Matthew’s Gospel.

I think they are an issue in our world because there is a certain fascination with conspiracy-theories generally, whether it’s to do with the assassination of JFK or (especially) when it has to do with church cover-ups. People are all too willing to believe that the church has concealed the truth. It’s partly a cultural thing and partly is fed by the fact that the church sometimes does cover things up, but it’s also a result of sin: people don’t want to believe the truth and so cast around for other explanations instead.

Read the whole interview to learn about Gathercole’s previous books and his current writing project.

Genesis, Myth and History

Wright makes some good points here. The Genesis 1-3 debate is stalked by generalizations and false antitheses. There is always a real danger in distorting and domesticating the Bible via the preoccupations of our own modern situation. As much as possible, we should start with Scripture and the priorities and structures within the text itself, instead of those of our own context. We should always seek to faithfully and accurately embed the text in its own literary, historical, and canonical context.

Understanding the genre is crucial. Just as, today, different literary genres have different means of making rhetorical effects and of taking about reality, so do the varied Biblical genres. And this diversity of literary forms means we must sensitive to the fact that the Bible contains more (though not less) than propositional truth. This isn’t to say that all literary genres convey truth plus something else but that some genres shape their purposes and priorities differently. Wright is correct to point out that if we reduce a passage (say, a narrative passage) to a number of propositions or single notes we miss the way the (narrative) genre can speak through themes, character development, plot, etc.

Furthermore, the ancient literary categories do not neatly overlap with ours and that is why we must be careful when we talk about biblical genres (I think this cuts against the the current definition of “myth” invented by modern anthropologists as much as it does against a scientific reading). Whatever category we do use for the opening chapters, a fair amount of nuance is necessary.

Even if we do understand the purpose of Genesis 1-3 as primarily theological/mythical, we haven’t escaped the question of whether it belongs to a matrix of thought that implies or is undergirded by historical events and characters (the “primal pair” that Wright affirms). Just because the message is theological, this does not mean that it is not also historical (or that it can be disentangled from the historical). Take some examples in the New Testament (some borrowed from D. A. Carson), where, although the writer is making a theological point, in each case the argument is grounded in and inseparable from a historical claim:

– In Galatians 3, Paul’s theological argument is made via appeal to the order of events in redemptive history. He argues that the law is relativised by the fact that both the giving of the promises to Abraham and his justification by faith preceded the giving of the law.

– In Romans 4, Paul makes an argument about the relation between faith and circumcision that again depends on the historical sequence of which came first.

– In Hebrews 3:7-4:13, the author argues that entering God’s rest must mean something more than merely entering the Promised Land because of the fact that Psalm 95 (which is still calling for God’s people to enter into God’s rest) is written after they were already in the land.

– Again in Hebrews, the theological point of chapter 7 is that because Psalm 110 promises a further priesthood and is written after the establishment of the Levitical priesthood, the Levitical priesthood is therefore obsolete.

-Paul’s argument about the reality of the resurrection in 1 Cor 15:12-19.

Wright is correct to say that we must read Genesis for all its worth. And to do this, sooner or later we are going to need to ask what the ancient readers (and other Biblical writers) themselves thought about the correspondence between the Biblical account of creation and what actually happened. It won’t fly to say that the ancient Biblical writers weren’t concerned with history or couldn’t distinguish between fable and reality (observe how much Judges 9 stands out from the rest of that passage). The early chapters of Genesis are certainly not a scientific treatise, but even if we understand that the point of these chapters is explain that all of creation is God’s tabernacle and that creation itself is finite and not divine, are we completely off the hook? We need to ask if the writer is telling us true things about God, and about real people and events that took place in history.

Conflict for the Conflict Thesis

When you think of the relationship of faith and science, what images come to mind? Images of bloody battles, war and violence are conjured by the press and the sensationalism of the media. Many view faith and science as strident adversaries. Science and Christian belief are incompatible, so it is thought, and neither can live while the other survives. But is this an accurate way to view that relationship?

I want to examine an event that lies at the origin of this understanding and briefly consider how this image of conflict has developed in the history of faith and science.

The event at the heart of this understanding is the Oxford Union debate in 1860 between Samuel Wilberforce, the Lord Bishop of Oxford, and the botanist T. H. Huxley (also known as “Darwin’s Bulldog”). This debate took place one year after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859. It was an exchange between congenial opponents, with polite society in attendance. Michael Ruse comments, ‘Reports from the time suggest that everybody enjoyed himself immensely, and all went cheerfully off to dinner together afterwards.’ There are mixed views on who was the winner on the day, but most seem to favor Huxley.

The event, which should have passed into obscurity, gained notoriety years later when legendary accounts were circulated. The classical example was published in 1898 (nearly thirty years later) in the form of an autobiograpghical memory from Mrs Isabella Sidgewick, published in Macmillian’s magazine;

“I was happy to pre present on the memorable occasion at Oxford when Mr Huxley bearded Bishop Wilberforece . . . The Bishop rose, and in a light scoffing tone, florid and fluent, he assured us that there was nothing in the idea of evolution; rock pigeons were what rock pigeons had always been. Then, turning to his antagonist with a smiling insolence, he begged to know, was it through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed decent from a monkey?”

So the image of the event that arose later is of a magnanimous Huxley condescending to Wilberforce who was shown to be an ignorant, simple, and somewhat arrogant cleric. But this is at odds with the facts. The Sidgewick statement contradicts accounts published closer to the meeting. Wilberforce’s criticisms of evolutionary theory were extensive and chiefly scientific in nature, partly developed from the criticisms of Alfred Russell Wallace (1823–1913), who was the co-discoverer of evolution through natural selection. Wilberforce was no simpleton, being a fellow of the Royal Society. Darwin, who did not attend due to illness, valued his critique and responded seriously to it.[1] Wilberforce thought he had done well in the debate, though his slur on Huxley, it must be admitted was ill considered and Huxley took the advantage that was handed to him.

What was it then that precipitated such legendary accounts thirty years later? It is important to consider a few factors offered by the sociological perspective. In nineteenth century England, the relationship between science and religion represented the struggle of two opposing classes: the church parsonage with its traditional religious conservativism and the bourgeoning parsonage of the scientists struggling for acceptance and their own place in society.[2] For centuries, clergy had been some of the most intelligent people there were. Because higher education was a requirement for most denominations, it was the clergy and ministers who were the intelligentia in all manner of fields – including the sciences. But the span of hundred years saw a complete about-face in the public perception of the clergy. By the end of the ninetieth century, with the rise of modernism and occurence of the industrial revolution, it was now the scientists who were considered the wisest.

However, it was the publication of two books that introduced the perception of conflict into public consciousness; the first by John William Draper called History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874) and Andrew Dickson White’s book History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). These books were the birth of the Draper/White thesis, better known as the Conflict Thesis. Lindberg and Numbers note;

“White’s Warfare apparently did not sell as briskly as Draper’s Conflict, but in the end it proved more influential, partly, it seems, because Draper’s strident anti-Catholicism soon dated his work and because White’s impressive documentation gave the appearance of sound scholarship.” [3]

The influence of the conflict thesis that these books championed was profound. However, the scholarship of these books was soon to come under heavy criticism. In 1908 Walsh wrote a damning appraisal that stops just short of calling Draper and White outright liars. He writes;

“…the story of the supposed opposition of the Church and the Popes and the ecclesiastical authorities to science in any of its branches, is founded entirely on mistaken notions. Most of it is quite imaginary. Much of it is due to the exaggeration of the significance of the Galileo incident. Only those who know nothing about the history of medicine and of science continue to harbor it. That Dr. White’s book, contradicted as it is so directly by all serious histories of medicine and of science, should have been read by so many thousands in this country, and should have been taken seriously by educated men, physicians, teachers, and even professors of science who want to know the history of their own sciences, only shows how easily even supposedly educated men may be led to follow their prejudices rather than their mental faculties…”[4]

The conflict thesis in the earlier half of the twentieth century remained popular though not undisputed. When scientific historiography matured in the 50’s[5] new scholarship produced a barrage of research on the topic. White and Draper were utterly refuted and the conflict thesis was dead in academia by the 70’s. Its final downfall is attributed to Frank Turner’s book Between Science and Religion (1974) and James Moore’s penetrating essay “Historians and Historiography” in the book Post-Darwinian Controversies (1979).

Colin Russel notes;

“Draper takes such liberty with history, perpetuating legends as fact that he is rightly avoided today in serious historical study. The same is nearly as true of White, though his prominent apparatus of prolific footnotes may create a misleading impression of meticulous scholarship”[6]

Though images of warfare still linger – at least at the popular (non-academic) level, many people recognize today that the history of Christianity and science reveals a rich and complex interaction that has been more beneficial than detrimental.

There is, for instance, no doubt that modern science was born in a Christian milieu. Christianity furnished thinkers of the Renaissance with a worldview that permitted them to believe the universe could be understood. A rational God had created a rational universe, and given men rational minds to comprehend it. There were other factors that contributed to the birth of the scientific revolution,[7] but Christianity was a very important one.[8]


[1] There was not a polarization of “science” and “religion” as the idea of opposed armies implies but a large number of leaned men, some scientists, some theologians, some indistinguishable, and almost all of them very religious, who experienced various differences among themselves. There was not organization apparent on either “side” as the idea of rank and command implies but deep divisions among men of science, the majority of whom were at first hostile to Darwin’s theory, and a corresponding and derivative division among Christians who were scientifically untrained, with a large proportion of leading theologians quite prepared to come to terms peacefully with Darwin. Nor, finally, was there the kind of antagonism pictured in the discharge of weaponry but rather a much more subdued overall reaction to the Origin of Species than is generally supposed and a genuine amiability in the relations of those who are customarily believed to have been at battle.

God and Nature: p7-8, quote from Moore, Post-Darwinian Controversies

[2] Alister E. McGrath. The Foundations of Dialogue in Science and Religion (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 1998) p. 21-2.

[3] David C. Lindberg, Ronald L. Numbers, God & Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter Between Christianity and Science, University of California Press (April 29, 1986) p. 3.

[4] James Joseph Walsh, The Popes and Science; the History of the Papal Relations to Science During the Middle Ages and Down to Our Own Time, Fordam University Press, New York 1908, p.19

[5] David C. Lindberg, Ronald L. Numbers, God & Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter Between Christianity and Science, University of California Press (April 29, 1986) p. 6.

[6] Colin A. Russell: The Conflict of Science and Religion in Encyclopedia of the History of Science and Religion, New York 2000, p. 15

[7] Such as the influence of Neo-Platonism, and a climate of skepticism created in part by the Protestant reformation and the erosion of political authorities.

[8] “The full historical picture is complex: science, philosophy, and theology are inextricably intertwined. To single out one factor as the sole cause is to misrepresent the actual situation. Voluntarist theology neither “caused” modern science nor acted as the simple cause of a particular kind of science. It was a rather one factor, albeit a very important one, in giving modern science its strong empirical bent.”

Mark A. Noll. Evangelicals and Science in Historical Perspective (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) p. 89

Augustine of Hippo, 354 – 430

Today was Friday the 13th. While the paraskevidekatriaphobic among us may shiver at the date, the rest of us can rejoice that, 1655 years ago, Augustine was born. The Bishop of Hippo was one of the greatest church fathers and theologians in the early history of Christianity. Daniel D. Williams has said that if Alfred North Whitehead is right – that Western philosophy has been a series of footnotes to Plato – then Western theology can be said to be a series of footnotes to Augustine. But the African bishop’s brilliance was not just in theology; his writings (the most significant of which are Confessions and City of God) also exhibited enormous philosophical reach. In comparing Confessions with Plato’s Republic or Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, it is difficult not to be struck by the differences. Augustine does not offer us any less of a comprehensive philosophical vision than those works, but while Plato’s Republic is written as a dialogue and Kant’s Critique is written as a treatise, the Confessions is written stunningly as a prayer.

And it is Augustine’s legacy of piety and theological acuity that has strongly influenced the church. It is difficult to find a highpoint that has been unaffected by him. In the medieval period, Anselm and Thomas Aquinas depended upon him, while in the sixteenth century Luther and Calvin’s reaffirmation of  the importance of God’s grace in salvation was rooted in Augustinian thought.  In fact, B. B. Warfield once confidently claimed: “It is Augustine who gave us the Reformation.” It is difficult to overstate his importance and for anyone who wishes to grapple with the foundational ideas of the Christian tradition and Western philosophy, even after sixteen centuries, Augustine remains one of the most penetrating and significant guides.augustine

What art Thou then, my God?

Most highest, most good,
most potent, most omnipotent;
most merciful and most just;
most hidden and most present;
most beautiful and most strong,
standing firm and elusive,
unchangeable and all-changing;
never new, never old;

ever working, ever at rest;
gathering in and [yet] lacking nothing;
supporting, filling, and sheltering;
creating, nourishing, and maturing;
seeking and [yet] having all things.

And what have I now said, my God, my life, my holy joy?
or what says any man when he speaks of Thee?
And woe to him who keeps silent about Thou,
since many babble on and say nothing.
Augustine, Confessions 1.4.4

More than a fideist: Remembering Soren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855)

Today in New Zealand, we remember the end of the first World War and commemorate the sacrifices of members of the armed forces in that period of awful history. Today, however, is also the day that in 1855, Soren Kierkegaard, one of the most influential thinkers of the nineteenth century, died. This overlap is ironic, for it was only after the first World War ended that Kierkegaard’s influence began to play such a formative and decisive role in the emergence of existentialist philosophy. His impact, however, is not limited to the thought of writers such as Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus. Even now, in the twenty-first century, the Danish author continues to stimulate writers from fields as diverse as literary criticism and psychology.

Kierkegaard

He may often be more known to some Christians as the poster boy of fideism and subjectivism, but it is all too easy to miss the context in which he wrote and the adversaries he set his sights upon. Confronting a sterile Hegelian rationalism that had dissolved the importance of individual existence and advocated what Kierkegaard saw as pure ‘thought without a thinker’, the Danish philosopher sought to destroy the notion of impersonal, morally neutral knowledge. Against a Denmark church that had fallen asleep to the radical demands of Christ, Kierkegaard attempted to emphasize the idea that in judging a person’s life, what counted was not the objective truth of the person’s beliefs but the way those beliefs have taken hold and transformed the knower (“When all are Christians, Christianity eo ipso [by that very fact] does not exist,” he once wrote).

The shortcomings of Kierkegaard’s philosophy are not hard to find. And debate will no doubt continue about the exact nature of his thoughts, given the vast library of his work and the fact that many of his books were written under a variety of pseudonyms, but Kierkegaard still has important things to say about faith, the despair of the aesthetic life, epistemic risk, and the nature of love.