Jesus or Santa: Who gives the Better Christmas Story?

Christmas has traditionally been about celebrating the birth of Jesus. The Gospel accounts of a virgin birth, angels appearing to shepherds, and wise men traveling from afar to see the baby Jesus in a manger provided a story that was convincing for our great-grandparents. That generation added symbols such as manger scenes, Christmas trees, lights, music and drama (ex. Dickens’ Christmas Carol) to give Christmas the festive foundation so it would become the juggernaut of celebrations that it is today.

But since then, perhaps because of our increasing secularization and modern doubt over the Christmas story (C’mon – a virgin birth – Really?!), we have culturally swapped that story for Santa and his mission to give gifts to boys and girls who have managed to stay off the naughty list. It is a great story for kids, and it can safely be discarded when we get older since it never claims to be true – just safely fun. It seems a better story in our modern world when we can take a needed break from the harsh realities of real life and experience, with our kids, a fun story. So Santa dominates our radio and television and ‘Happy Holidays’ is becoming the Christmas greeting of choice. It is safer for a modern world steeped in doubt, anxious to avoid offending, and happy to have a season to pretend.

I have always loved good stories. Whether mythical (like The Lord of the Rings), sci-fi (like Star Wars), or historical (like Braveheart), a story with an insurmountable challenge or threat, an authentic hero, and a plot that sees the hero vanquish the villain, but in an astonishing way.  Through a drama with a large scope, good stories have always absorbed my attention.

It was when I looked again at the Biblical Christmas story, to before the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth that I started to see that it also was a great story, with a plot and a depth that rival all classics. Even taken purely as story, the Biblical Christmas story beats the Santa replacement story just about any way you look at it. But to see this, you need to grasp the Biblical Christmas story as it was meant to be understood – as one chapter in a long epic, spanning the entire universe and enveloping the entire human race.

The Bible Christmas Story from its Beginning

This Christmas story really begins with a Creator. He makes everything that exists, including a Being of immense power, intelligence and beauty whom the Creator refers to as Day Star or Lucifer. Lucifer sets himself up as the Adversary of the Creator – and a universal showdown is on the table. The Creator has also made mankind in His Image so that they are emotional, intellectual and have the power to make choice. The Adversary scores first in their head-to-head by setting in motion a chain of events that results in the corruption of humans, so that they no longer function emotionally, mentally and volitionally as they did originally. Like a computer virus wreaking havoc in your computer, there is now a virus loose in mankind which causes sin – a missing of the target – creating the havoc we see in the world today.

So what would the Creator do? Use his infinite power to annihilate humans, or to imprison the Adversary? Here the plot takes an astonishing twist. Instead of responding with force and power like some cosmic Superman, the Creator makes a promise that He sets out in the form of a Riddle. The Creator’s riddle speaks mysteriously of ‘the woman’ and ‘an offspring’ which is described as a ‘he’. This ‘he’ would crush the ‘head’ of the Adversary. And that was it!  Who the ‘he’ was, or the ‘woman’, exactly how this would unfold – and when – was not clearly stated. The Adversary was now left pondering his next move and the first humans wondering how, and if, this Riddle would develop.

The unfolding Story – through a man and a nation

The drama continues when centuries later another riddle is given, this time to a traveler. This riddle was unique in that it promised a blessing to ‘all nations’.  Like Santa on Christmas Eve this promise was to travel to all the nations of the world – of which you and I are a part. Then, departing from the verbal format, a bizarre drama was acted out on a remote mountain top. Like a play, this drama looked forward to something that ‘will’ happen on the then remote mountain. But the what, when, how and with whom, was not directly stated. Those details remained a mystery. About 500 years later an equally bizarre drama with this same man’s descendants, now in another country, inaugurated a calendar that is still in effect today which contained pregnant markers in its yearly cycle.

Royalty enters the Story

After a further 500 years another chapter in this epic opens up. A certain title – from which we derive the world Christmas today – was inaugurated to a Royal Dynasty. Though spanning generations like today’s British monarchy, the title in this dynasty pointed to a coming specific person who would have worldwide significance.

Unfortunately, this Royal Dynasty, though it began with such promise, was destroyed. Like a tree that is severed from its root, this dynasty was smashed so that only a dead stump remained. Well, the stump was only mostly dead. In fact, through another riddle, it was promised that a Branch would one day shoot up from this seemingly dead stump.

Signs of the Unique Christmas Person

With that severing of the dynasty, the flow of promises, each equally mysterious, began to flow more rapidly through a group of diverse men living in different social strata, countries and cultures. The timing of the budding of the Branch was given, even a name was announced, though somewhat shrouded in imagery. What was not mysterious however was the peculiar ‘sign’ which would accompany it. The crystal clear sign was:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14 ca. 750 B.C.)

Though that promise seemed understandable (and seemingly impossible), what was not immediately clear was why such a sign was needed. Why was it necessary to circumvent a human father? Was the Creator against sex? In explaining the effect of this birth the riddle pointed back to the virus of sin running amok in our human race. A re-boot of the human species was going to be attempted to stamp out the virus.

But this only deepened the mystery because right after the Virgin birth announcement, the same seer continued with further bizarre predictions by stating that the arrival of this son would:

…In the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan—

The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light …
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9: 1-2, 6)

How could it be that this ‘son’ would be called and identified with the Creator, the One who was utterly remote from mankind? Would God really become one of us? Before that perplexing question could even be entertained a gruesome ending to this whole saga was given in a funeral song. Or was it an ending?

The drama, riddles and puzzles were all inked and set down thousands of years ago. If you can read Hebrew you can read them all in the most ancient preserved writings of the ancient world – the Dead Sea Scrolls – only unearthed from their storage from deep antiquity a few decades ago. With the last message written there was then a long and expectant wait. Would the drama unfold as it had been written? In fact, was it even possible that all these strands of riddles could ever be simultaneously fulfilled?  Both the learned and unlearned pondered over these riddles as the centuries moved on.

If you skip all this and only start the Biblical Christmas story with Jesus, shepherds and wise men, then you miss the drama, the suspense and development of plot. You do not see the cosmic story. You probably will only see it as an antiquated tradition of your great-grandmother.  But really, the birth of Jesus was the start of a fulfillment of riddles that had spanned centuries.  The riddles kept the Adversary guessing and people living in hopeful expectation.

A Free & Verified Christmas Gift

But if you understand everything from the beginning you get a great story. Better yet, you and I get the opportunity to become characters written into this unfolding and continuing story. As Christmas is just as much about receiving gifts from loved ones as giving them, this story culminates in the offer of a gift to you and me. Receiving this gift does require trust in the Giver, the same kind of trust that Abraham had when he was offered a gift.

Better still, there is plenty of evidence that this is a facts-on-the-ground true story. Unlike Santa Claus, for whom we do not even try to seek verification in the North Pole, or on his sleigh in the sky, or find witnesses who have seen him stuck in a chimney, there is historical corroboration for Jesus – even the virgin birth part of the story. Roman and Jewish historians outside of the Bible refer to him. The places where all the riddles were spelled out and where Jesus walked are terra firma real. There is a Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Mount Moriah. Since we have the story written out for us before it happened we have evidence that there is one Author in this story. The fact that Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Daniel and the others could specify hundreds of years beforehand the events of Jesus’ birth, life and death is evidence that the Creator – who alone knows the future – has authored this Story, as an invitation for you and me to join Him in it.

If you make no effort you will probably only see and hear variant Santa stories this Christmas.  But, even for just the sake of a good story, I recommend the Biblical Christmas story.  It is much better.  Here is the story from the gospels of Matthew and Luke arranged chronologically.  It is less than 1300 words and will take 5 minutes to read.  You can follow the links therein to see how the account is built upon a deeper drama.  It is worth knowing better.

May it give you a Merry Christmas.

Did Moses write the Torah?

Two events happened this month that show the depth and breadth of a question that has been burning for over one hundred years: Did Moses really write the Torah?

What is the Torah? Who wrote it?

The first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) are collectively referred to as the Torah (by Jews), the Pentateuch (by Christians/Westerners) and the Taurat (by Muslims). The fact that all three monotheistic faiths acknowledge these writings show their cultural, historical and religious significance. Countless Jewish, Christian and Islamic scholars have referenced these writings down to our day. Jesus quoted liberally from the Torah throughout the gospels.  Even as different scholars from various sects battled each other over interpretation, they had all agreed on one thing – that Moses had indeed written the Torah approximately 1500-1400 BC.

Moses and the Documentary Hypothesis

But that changed in the late 19th century when western scholars advanced a bold new idea: Moses did not write the Pentateuch, instead it developed at a much later time from pre-existing writings that were edited together by unknown editors.  Known as the Documentary Hypothesis, it proposed that material from at least 4 authors, termed J (for Jehovah), E (for Elohim), D (for Deuteronomic) and P (for Priestly) had started being compiled during the Davidic monarchy (9th Century BC) and after centuries was finalized upon the Jewish return from exile sometime in the 5th century BC. In this view the Torah was solely a human product from unknown sources, put together by further unknown compilers.

The Documentary Hypothesis was advanced by Wellhausen (1844-1918) using two main arguments. First, he alleged that writing did not exist way back in 1500 BC, mankind was too primitive then and therefore the Torah could not have been written at such an early date. (Writing going back much further than 1500 BC has been discovered since, e.g. the Ebla tablets dating past 2000 BC. So this first argument is clearly not valid anymore)  He also brought to attention the fact that there were two names for God in the Torah. The first, Elohim, is often translated in English Bibles today as ‘God’, and the other – Yahweh – is often translated as ‘LORD God’. You can see that ‘God’ (Elohim) is used in Genesis 1 but at Genesis 2:4 it switches to ‘LORD God’ (Yahweh). As you read through the Torah it switches back and forth. Wellhausen argued that this was internal evidence of two different sources from two different authors (designated J and E) which were later collated into one document. The theory soon demanded more authors and so D and P were added (and in variant theories many more as well).

Modern scholarship and Moses

While the specifics of the documentary hypothesis have been critiqued by those advocating new theories, what is now almost universally agreed is that the Torah is the work of many people, and its development spanned centuries, only reaching the form that it is in today somewhere around 500 BC. “Certainly Moses in the middle of the 2nd millennium BC had nothing to do with it”, say modern scholarship.

William Dever & the Pentateuch

Consider the following quotes from William Dever, a well-known Biblical archaeologist:

“It is universally agreed that the book of Deuteronomy is a later addition to the Pentateuch (probably it was inserted not earlier than the late 7th century B.C.).”  Dever 2003 Who were the Early Israelites and where did they come from? p. 37

Of course, if the first books of the Bible were written much later then this means that all subsequent ones come later as well. In fact the whole timeline of the Old Testament is affected. Consider how Dever evaluates the book of Joshua, the account of Moses’ immediate successor.

We have already discussed the general character of the “Deuteronomic history” (that is , Deuteronomy through II Kings) of which Joshua is a critical component. We noted that mainstream scholars date the composition and first editing of this great national epic toward the end of the Israelite Monarchy, probably during the reign of Josiah (640 – 609 BC). But the compilers must have had many separate ‘sources’ so we need to look now more closely at the special character of the sources that went into the making of the book of Joshua (Obviously Joshua himself did not write it!)  p.38

The tone and the assertion are identical to what I learned when I took a university course on the Bible. All scholars ‘know’ that the traditional author could not have written the book. It ‘obviously’ was written hundreds of years later during the time of the Davidic dynasty. But how do they ‘know’ this?

The Torah, Dead Sea Scrolls, & Top Events in Human History

This brings us to the two events this month which bear on our question. A few weeks ago the Israeli Antiquities Authority put on public display, for the first time ever, the world’s oldest existing copy of the Ten Commandments – arguably the cornerstone of the Torah – as one of a 14-part exhibit “tracing history’s most pivotal moments”. In other words, the museum people concluded that the issuing of the Ten Commandments was in the Top 14 of humanity’s most important events. That’s pretty big.

ten-commandments-indead-sea-scrolls-atisraeli-antiquities

The Ten Commandments in the Dead Sea Scrolls – part of the Torah

As part of the Dead Sea Scrolls collection, the oldest copy of the Ten Commandments is about 2000 years old and so brittle with age that it can only be on display for a few weeks. It is old, but at 2000 years of age it is so young compared to dates of 1500 BC (traditional date of the Torah) and 500 BC (modern scholarship date) that it is not helpful in answering the question of who wrote the Torah. The time horizon is too deep for even the oldest copy to help answer the question of who wrote those Commands that are in the ‘Top 14’.

The Pentateuch in Palmyra

Deuteronomy inscription in Palmyra

Deuteronomy inscription in Palmyra

Also this month, the Islamic State capture of Palmyra in the bloody war in Syria has made headlines around the world. When the Islamic State captures a city there is always concern for atrocities, but Palmyra has an added worry in that it is a UNESCO World Heritage Centre due to its preserved ruins of bygone civilizations.  Included amongst the Persian, Greek and Roman artefacts, carved on one of the ancient doorways is preserved the opening verses of the Jewish Shema prayer from Deuteronomy 6:4-9. This shows the widespread influence of the Pentateuch, and its great antiquity.  However, these ancient carvings are still not old enough to shed any light on the origins of the Pentateuch.

‘Jerusalem’, ‘Zion’, the Jews & the Torah: Only Moses could pass over that

You might think that with the relevant textual and archaeological data too recent to be of use, and with modern scholars engrossed in competing theories which are united only in their assertions against Moses, that the question is hopeless to answer.  The religious (Jew, Christian or Muslim) can only answer ‘Moses’ on pious grounds, while the secular, looking for a non-religious reasons for the development of the Pentateuch, must fall back on complex speculations.

But actually, there is a very simple and straightforward way to gain some clarity.  And with internet search capabilities you can do it. Do a search through the Torah and see if you can find the word ‘Jerusalem’. This will do it for you. As you can see, the word ‘Jerusalem’ only appears first in Joshua.  Thus, through the whole Pentateuch, from Genesis to Deuteronomy the word ‘Jerusalem’ is never used. Jerusalem is today, and has been for millennia, the center of the Jewish world.  Its significance to the Jewish people is like that of Mecca for Muslims, or like Rome for Catholics. This is why the word ‘Jerusalem’ appears a full 655 times through the Old Testament and 146 times in the New Testament. It appears 229 times in Kings-Chronicles – but never in the Torah.  Its synonym ‘Zion’ also does not appear even once in the Torah, making its first appearance only in 2 Samuel.  Yet by the end of the Old Testament ‘Zion’ is used 161 times. Consider an excerpt from one of the Psalms from the period of the exile (6th century BC) and get a feel for how important Jerusalem/Zion was to the Jewish people then.

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
3 for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4 How can we sing the songs of the LORD
while in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill.
6 May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
my highest joy. (Psalm 137: 1-6)

Jerusalem, founded by the Davidic dynasty, quickly became the sacred heartland for the Jews after the first Temple was built (ca 960 BC). It still is today. Yet modern scholars, no matter which Documentary version they push for, would have us believe that editor ‘Priests’ consciously edited, collated and massaged the entire Torah, over the centuries when their attachment to Jerusalem was at its height – and they produced the entire 80000 word Torah without ever using the words ‘Jerusalem’ or ‘Zion’ even once! These ‘editors’ were living in Jerusalem while this editing was going on.  And this while they were concurrently compiling the other books (Kings, Chronicles, Samuel etc) that use ‘Jerusalem’ over 600 times and ‘Zion’ over 100 times!

I find my faith to be way too small and way too weak to believe such an utterly fantastic idea.  Revionist scholars, for whatever reason, fail to note these obvious yet simple facts standing right before their eyes. They claim to be able to observe and interpret facts as minute as fernseeds, yet they cannot see the elephant in the room.  The Pentateuch, with its absolute silence on both ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘Zion’ must have been finalized before the rise of the monarchy in 1000 BC. A pseudo-Moses editorial team would not have passed over the opportunity to use ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘Zion’ in compiling their Torah while Jerusalem was their keystone.

Though the absolute absence of ‘Jerusalem’ or ‘Zion’ from the Torah does not prove that Moses wrote the Torah per se, it proves that its composition comes before the Jewish establishment of Jerusalem and thus it dismantles, in one stroke, all the modern theories which place its composition in the 5th century BC. The only one left standing when the dust settles from the collision of clever theories with one good fact is Moses.

Has the text of the Bible been changed?

An Introduction to Textual Criticism and the Bible

“Why should I even consider the Bible? It was written so long ago, has had so many translations and revisions done to it – it is most likely that its original message has been altered and misunderstood over the course of time.” The young man who asked me this question was intent, wondering if there was any reasonable answer to his skeptical outlook about the Bible.

The question my inquirer was asking is fairly straightforward – many of us ask it, and rightly so! It stems from what we know about the Bible. After all, it was written two thousand plus years ago. For most of these millennia there has been no printing press, photocopy machines or publishing companies. So the original manuscripts were copied by hand, generation after generation, as languages died out and new ones arose, as empires crumbled and new powers ascended. Since the original manuscripts have long been lost, how do we know that what we read today in the Bible is what the original authors actually wrote long ago? As my resolute friend pointed out to me, many young kids often play a game called telephone, wherein a message is whispered into someone’s ear, and (s)he in turn whispers this message into the next person’s ear until the message has traversed all participants in the game. Then the last person says the message out loud and all participants note how it has changed so much from its start at the beginning of the human chain. Can this game be comparable to the passing of the Bible through time, so that what we read today may be substantially different from the original writings?

Principles of Textual Criticism

Naturally this question is true of any ancient writing. This figure illustrates the process by which any such writing has been preserved over time.

Example of Stages in life of a hypothetical ancient document

Example of Stages in life of a hypothetical ancient document

This simplified diagram shows an example of an ancient document written at 500 BC. This original however does not last indefinitely, so before it decays, is lost, or destroyed, a manuscript (MSS) copy of it is made (1st copy). A professional class of people called scribes did the copying work. As the years advance, copies are made of the copy (2nd copy & 3rd copy). At some point a copy is preserved so that it is in existence (extant) today (3rd copy). In our example diagram this extant copy was made in 500 AD. This means that the earliest that we can know of the state of the document is only from 500 AD onwards. Consequently the period from 500 BC to 500 AD (labeled x in the diagram) is the period where we cannot make any copy verifications since all manuscripts from this period have disappeared. For example, if copying errors (intentional or otherwise) were made when the 2nd copy was made from the 1st copy, we would not be able to detect them as neither of these documents are available to compare against each other. This time period predating the origin of currently existing copies (the period x) is thus the interval of textual uncertainty.  Consequently, a principle used help answer questions about textual reliability is to look at the length of this time span. The shorter this interval (labelled ‘x’ in the diagram) the more confidence we can place in the accurate preservation of the document to our modern day, since the period of uncertainty is reduced.

Of course, usually more that one manuscript copy of a document is in existence today. Suppose we have two such manuscript copies and in the same section of each of them we find the following translated phrase:

With few manuscipts (MSS) the textual base is small

With few manuscipts (MSS) the textual base is small

The original author had either been writing about Joan OR about John, and the other of these manuscripts contains a copy error. The question is -Which one has the error? From the available evidence it is very difficult to determine.

Now suppose we found two more manuscript copies of the same work, as shown below:

The more manuscripts the greater the textual base

The more manuscripts the greater the textual base

Now it is easier to deduce which manuscript probably has the error. It is more likely that the error is made once, rather than the same error repeated three times, so it is likely that MSS #2 has the copy error, and the author was writing about Joan, not John.

This simple example illustrates a second principle we can use to verify manuscript integrity – The more existing manuscripts that are available, the easier it is to detect & correct errors and to ascertain the content of the original.

So now we know two indicators used to determine the textual reliability of ancient documents: 1) measuring the time between original composition and earliest existing manuscript copies, and 2) counting the number of existing manuscript copies. Since these indicators pertain to any ancient writing we can proceed to apply them to both the Bible as well as other works of antiquity, as done in the tables below (1).

Textual Criticism of accepted ancient documents

Author When Written Earliest Copy Time Span #
Caesar 50 BC 900 AD 950 10
Plato 350 BC 900 AD 1250 7
Aristotle* 300 BC 1100 AD 1400 5
Thucydides 400 BC 900 AD 1300 8
Herodotus 400 BC 900 AD 1300 8
Sophocles 400 BC 1000 AD 1400 100
Tacitus 100 AD 1100 AD 1000 20
Pliny 100 AD 850 AD 750 7

* from any one work

These writers represent the major classical writers of antiquity – the writings that have shaped the development of Western civilization. On average, they have been passed down to us by 10-100 manuscripts that are preserved starting only about 1000 years after the original was written.  From a scientific point-of-view this data can be considered our control experiment since it comprises data (classical writers) that are accepted and used by academics and universities world-wide.

Textual Criticism of the New Testament

The following table compares the Biblical (New Testament in particular) writings along these same points of interest (1).  This can be considered our experimental data which will be compared to our control data, just like in any scientific investigation.

MSS When Written Date of MSS Time Span
John Rylan 90 AD 130 AD 40 yrs
Bodmer Papyrus 90 AD 150-200 AD 110 yrs
Chester * Beatty 60 AD 200 AD 20 yrs
Codex Vaticanus 60-90 AD 325 AD 265 yrs
Codex Sinaiticus 60-90 AD 350 AD 290 yrs

The number of New Testament manuscripts is so vast that it would be impossible to list them all in a table. As one scholar (3) who spent years studying this issue states:

“We have more than 24000 MSS copies of portions of the New Testament in existence today… No other document of antiquity even begins to approach such numbers and attestation. In comparison, the ILIAD by Homer is second with 643 MSS that still survive”

A leading scholar at the British Museum (4) corroborates this:

“Scholars are satisfied that they possess substantially the true text of the principal Greek and Roman writers … yet our knowledge of their writings depends on a mere handful of MSS whereas the MSS of the N.T. are counted by … thousands”

A significant number of these manuscripts are extremely ancient. I own a book about the earliest New Testament documents. The Introduction starts with:

“This book provides transcriptions of 69 of the earliest New Testament manuscripts…dated from early 2nd century to beginning of the 4th (100-300AD) … containing about 2/3 of the new Testament text” (5)

This is significant since these manuscripts come before Roman Emperor Constantine (ca 325 AD) and the rise to power of the Catholic Church both of which are often accused of altering the biblical text. We can actually test this claim by comparing the alterations of the texts from before Constantine (since we have them) with those coming later. But when we do we find that they are the same. The message of the texts from 200 AD is the same as those from 1200 AD. Neither the Catholic Church, nor Constantine changed the Bible. That is not a religious statement, it is one based solely on scientific data.

Video of university presentation on reliability of the New Testament text

Video presentation on reliability of Old Testament Text

But what about the Old Testament?  The manuscipt basis for the Old Testament is different enough that it warrants its own discussion which is highlighted in the 7 minute video here.

Implications of Textual Criticism re. the Bible

So what can we conclude from this? Certainly at least in what we can objectively measure (number of extant MSSs and time spans between original and earliest extant MSS) the New Testament is substantiated to a much higher degree than any other classical work of antiquity. The verdict to which the evidence pushes us is best summed up by the following quote (5):

“To be skeptical of the resultant text of the N.T. is to allow all of classical antiquity to slip into obscurity, for no other documents of the ancient period are as well attested bibliographically as the New Testament”

What he is saying is that to be consistent, if we decide to doubt the reliability of the preservation of the Bible we may as well discard all that we know about classical history in general – and this no informed historian has ever done. We know that the Biblical texts have not been altered as eras, languages and empires have come and gone since the earliest extant MSSs pre-date these events. For example, we know that no overly zealous medieval monk added in the miracles of Jesus to the Biblical account, since we have manuscripts that pre-date the medieval monks and all these pre-dated manuscripts also contain the miraculous accounts of Jesus.

What about translation of the Bible?

But what about the errors involved in translation, and the fact that there are so many different versions of the Bible today? Does this not show that it is impossible to accurately determine what the original authors actually wrote? Due to the vast classical literature that was written in Greek (original language of the New Testament), it has become possible to precisely translate the original thoughts and words of the original authors. In fact the different modern versions attest to this. For example, read the well-known verse John 3:16 in the three most common versions, and note the slight variance in wording, but consistency in idea and meaning:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” New International Version

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” King James Version

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life” New American Standard Version

You can see that there is no disagreement between the translations – they say exactly the same thing with only slightly different word usage.

To summarize, neither time nor translation has kept the original ideas and thoughts as expressed in the original Biblical manuscripts hidden from us. We can know that the Bible today accurately reads what the authors actually wrote.

It is important to realize what this little study does and does not show. It does not prove that the Bible is necessarily the Word of God, nor that it is even true. It can be argued (at least from the evidence presented just here) that though the original ideas of the Biblical authors have been accurately conveyed to us today that does not prove or indicate that these original ideas are correct (or even that they are from God). True enough. But understanding the textual reliability of the Bible provides a start-point from which one can start seriously investigating the Bible to see if some of these other questions can also be answered, and to see what the theme of the Bible is. I hope that this introductory article may encourage you to take a good look at the ‘Book’.  You may have questions about Constantine and the role he played in how the Bible has come to us – take a look at this here.

Remember the saying – Don’t judge a book by its cover. You need to read it.  Good places to start in this website are the accounts of Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac as well as the Passover account.  Both of these will introduce you to the theme of the Bible and will get you started to consider whether this message may really be from God or not.

The Ebola Example: Could a loving God really send people to Hell?

One of the questions I had when considering the gospel had to do with hell. Probably like you I had heard preachers talk about it as if it was quite real – admittedly a rather frightening prospect. But then I also heard that God was ‘loving’ and that ‘God is love’. Taken together these principles were a paradox for me: How could a loving God send people to Hell?  At first glance it seemed that these two doctrines were at odds with each other. After all, if God ‘loved me’, surely he would not send me to Hell. Or, if God did send me to Hell then He certainly could not be loving, or at least not love me. One or the other may hold but the two together seemed contradictory. And then, since I usually heard about hell through some animated preacher, it made me wonder if they were just using fear tactics to exert control over me.

Ehrman and Hell

I am not alone. In fact, gospel arch-critic and renowned New Testament professor Bart Ehrman had this to say in one of his widely read books:

“… There is not literally a place of eternal torment where God, or the demons doing his will, will torture poor souls for 30 trillion years (as just the beginning) for sins they committed for thirty years. What kind of never-dying eternal divine Nazi would a God like that be? … We therefore have nothing to fear in death.”

Bart Ehrman. 2010. Jesus Interrupted: revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and why we don’t know about them). p. 276

Many of us may identify with Ehrman. And given that hell is such an ominous subject it is easy to dismiss it from serious thinking – in fact we explicitly avoid thinking about it – reasoning somewhat as Ehrman does, and feeling rather safe in the belief that the majority of modern and progressive people think similarly. We avoid thinking further about it and hope it will therefore go away.

What spurred me to think this through was to recognize that it is the truth or falseness of a belief that should be considered, not whether it is ominous or not, nor whether it is doubted by most. After all, before Copernicus, most people thought that the sun revolved around the earth – the majority were wrong. Furthermore, coming to grips with unpleasant outcomes are required for safe & healthy living. Campaigns about AIDS, drunk driving, and smoking are effective precisely because they force us to think about nasty consequences. We do not consider these campaigns manipulative or scare tactics. In fact, we are thankful that they raised an issue we perhaps did not want to think about, and in so doing, increased our safety and well-being.

Jesus and Hell

So, though the question of hell may not be in vogue, it is worth considering. For starters, it may be surprising to learn that it is Jesus Christ himself – the person who stands out in history as the teacher par excellence on topics such as mercy, forgiveness and the love of God (In fact the reason we associate love with God is largely through the influence of this man.) who also taught about hell. Notwithstanding his emphasis on the love of God, he also taught more about hell than all the other Biblical teachers combined. Consider the following quotes from Jesus:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven… Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers”   Matthew 7: 21-23

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited … but they refused to come. Then he sent more servants and … invited [them] … But they paid no attention and went off – one to his field, another to his business… Then the King said to his servants, ‘Go to the street corners and invite any you find’ … Then the king told the attendants ‘Tie him hand and foot and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’” Matthew 22: 1- 13

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, … he will sit on the throne in heavenly glory .. He will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats … Then the King will say to those on his right [the sheep], ‘Come, … take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world …. Then he will say to those on his left [the goats], ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil …” Matthew 25:31-41

“It is better for you to enter the Kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell” Mark 9:47

“Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell” Luke 12:5

“Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside … But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you came from. Away from me all you evildoers” Luke 13:25-27

So warnings about the reality of hell, do not begin with obscure Biblical passages or wild-eyed preachers – they are centered in the teachings of Jesus himself.

Ebola and Hell

Ebola Quarantine Sign

Ebola Quarantine Sign

Enforcing Ebola Quarantine

Enforcing Ebola Quarantine

Suited up for Ebola

Suited up for Ebola

Suiting up for Ebola

Suiting up for Ebola

But then how do we reconcile these two seemingly opposing teachings? If ‘God is love’, how can hell be in the picture too? Perhaps the world-wide panic over the Ebola outbreak can serve as a vivid example of one portrait that Jesus used when he taught about Hell.

We see in the news how Ebola has spread through West Africa and has raised concerns around the world with the recent spread of infections to other regions. We have all seen the images of completely suited, masked and gloved nurses and doctors caring for those infected with Ebola and for those handling the bodies of the Ebola dead. The World Health Organization, infectious disease experts, and medical professionals are telling us that success or failure containing Ebola hangs on one overarching strategy – quarantine.   Ebola spreads by person- to-person fluid contact so the only way to control it is to quarantine and completely seal off those infected.   Even small tears in the protective suits and minor lapses in isolation protocol cannot be tolerated.

These thorough and sometimes frantic procedures to isolate and quarantine the Ebola virus are examples of a similarly systematic procedure to isolate a spiritual virus – and that quarantine is called Hell.

How is this so?

Ebola quarantine measures

Ebola quarantine measures

Heaven and Hell

Jesus centered his teaching on the coming of the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’. When we think of ‘heaven’ we often think in terms of its situation or milieu – the ‘streets of gold’ as it were. But the greater hope of the Kingdom that Jesus anticipated is a society that will be comprised of citizens of exclusively honest and selfless character who therefore won’t pilfer the said gold off those streets. Continue down this line of thought and reflect on how much we build into the ‘kingdoms’ here on earth to protect ourselves from each other. We all have locks on our homes, advanced security systems even; we always leave our cars locked; we tell our kids not to speak to strangers. Can you even imagine a city without some ‘law enforcement’ in place? Why do we password protect all our personal electronic data? When you stop and think of all the systems, practices and procedures that we have put in place in our ‘kingdoms’ and realize that they are there simply to protect ourselves from each other then you may get a glimmer of a looming problem. It is like there is something awry with us.  If God were to setup a kingdom in the paradise of ‘heaven’ and then invite all of us to become citizens of it, we would quickly turn it into the hell we have turned this world into. The gold on the streets and the pearls on the gates would vanish in no time.

It would be even worse if there were only a narrow few who would not follow such a standard. Imagine a society where all the citizens were perfectly honest – no lies and no theft. In that society there would be no locks, no need of written contracts (because one’s word would be good enough), no security cameras, no computer passwords – because there would be no need of them in such a society. But if you then introduce just one citizen who is a liar and a thief he would disrupt that society far more than liars and thieves do here. Since there are no built-in precautions this one thief and liar can go about his activities with impunity – causing havoc among the citizens of the kingdom of heaven. The only way to keep this from happening is to make sure that not even one such person enters this kingdom – because then it would be ruined.

But what then for those who are denied entry? In this world, if you are denied entry to a country you cannot also expect to participate in its resources and benefits. For example, Canadian citizens can benefit from programs of its government. But someone who is denied access to Canada cannot expect to somehow receive its welfare, medical treatment etc. – this is arranged for its citizens.  But all in all, people around the world, even terrorists on the run from all countries, enjoy the same basic amenities of nature, such as breathing the same air, seeing the same light as everyone else.

But who made light? The Bible claims that ‘God said, “Let there be light” and there was light’. If that is true then all light is His – and it turns out that we are just borrowing it now. But with the final establishment of the Kingdom of God, His light will be in His Kingdom. So ‘outside’ will be ‘darkness’ – just as Jesus described Hell in one of the passages above.

If it is true that God is the Creator, then most of what we take for granted and assume is ‘ours’ is really His. Starting with such a basic entity as ‘light’ and then considering the world and going on to our natural abilities such as thought and speech – we really did nothing to create these abilities – we simply find ourselves using and borrowing them.   When the Kingdom is finalized the Owner will reclaim them.

When we look at barriers, past and present, erected to keep ‘barbarians’ out of civilization, from the Great Wall of China down to the present-day the fence proposed on the US-Mexcio border to keep illegal immigrants out, you can see that it is natural to erect barriers when a Kingdom must keep certain people out for the very sake of that kingdom. When Ebola breaks out and threatens death and havoc among us all we hear no argument when experts insist on quarantine. So it is no surprise to hear Jesus teach in his parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus that

And besides all this, between us (in Kingdom of God) and you (in Hell) a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us. Luke 16:26

The Love of God and Hell

So where does the ‘love of God’ fit in all this? When an epidemic rages, along with quarantine, there is a search for vaccines that can neutralize the deadly virus. Jesus’ death and resurrection is the corresponding inoculation. In trusting him we, in a sense, are injected with a spiritual vaccine that begins to disinfect us, slowly making us fit and able to enter into this Kingdom when it is fully established.

For Ebola victims what is most difficult to accept may not be the necessary quarantine, but rather it is that one has the disease to begin with.  Similarly, more difficult to accept than the reality of hell itself is that you and I are stricken with a deadly spiritual virus.  We fight that diagnosis, which leads many to ignore the cure.

Though it may be presumptuous to question a learned professor like Ehrman, and though my line of thinking cuts against the current of western culture today, Hell is quite consistent with the notion of a loving God – who created and owns all and is setting up a Kingdom where righteousness is the norm – not the exception – and therefore requiring restricted access. At the very least, since it is such a serious subject, and because God’s Love has moved him to make a ‘vaccine’ freely available, it warrants reflection on our personal spiritual diagnosis. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, developed by him to help us more clearly diagnose our fitness for the Kingdom of Heaven, may be a good place to start.

Palm Sunday: Passover Plot or Providence Program?

Jesus arriving on a donkey - Palm Sunday

Jesus entering on a donkey – Palm Sunday

People around the globe today are commemorating Palm Sunday – the Sunday before Jesus was crucified when he rode into Jerusalem on the foal of a donkey as the long promised Coming King.  It is recorded in all of the Gospels as a watershed event which set in motion the crisis of that Passover Week.

I believe the Gospel for several reasons, but very high up on the list are the widespread, diverse and testable prophecies that, in spite of the vanishingly impossible odds, are fulfilled sometimes hundreds of years after the prophecies were first written down.  I had shown how Daniel (ca 550 BC) had predicted the interval of time to the coming of this awaited King.  This was fulfilled precisely on that Palm Sunday when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey.  Because of the long time span involved – over 500 years – this meant that the chance that his birth would even just fall in the proper time frame for there to be a chance that he could be around to ride into Jerusalem would itself be startlingly improbable.   Jesus could not have humanly engineered the timing of such a scope.

But the gospel writers do not focus on this timing when they record the events of that Sunday.  Instead they direct our attention to the book of Zechariah (ca 520 BC) and explicitly tell us that when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey he was fulfilling the prophecy given in Zechariah that:

Look, your king is coming to you.
He is righteous and victorious,
yet he is humble, riding on a donkey—
riding on a donkey’s colt.  (Zechariah 9:9)

Now this fulfillment that the Gospel writers trumpet had never really impressed me for the simple reason that it seemed too easy to plot a ‘fulfillment’.  All that Jesus needed to do was to read Zechariah and recognize that to get a ‘fulfillment’ he would need to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey.  The timing of his entrance aside (which I think is impossible to explain naturally), it would be a simple matter for Jesus to plot his entrance into Jerusalem for the Passover festival and make sure he came in on the donkey as per Zechariah’s script.  And being a lowly peasant it would be easier for Jesus to hatch such a plot than for him to procure a war horse – the steed of choice when kings make their entrances.  So could that entry simply be explained as the plotting of a man using an ancient script to ride a Passover exuberance?

Zechariah’s Prophecy in context

So let’s take the trouble to read the original Zechariah prophecy in its full context and consider such a ‘Passover Plot’ conspiracy.  Here it is:

9 Rejoice, O people of Zion!
Shout in triumph, O people of Jerusalem!
Look, your king is coming to you.
He is righteous and victorious,
yet he is humble, riding on a donkey—
riding on a donkey’s colt.

10 I will remove the battle chariots from Israel
and the warhorses from Jerusalem.
I will destroy all the weapons used in battle,
and your king will bring peace to the nations.
His realm will stretch from sea to sea
and from the Euphrates River to the ends of the earth.
11 Because of the covenant I made with you,
sealed with blood,
I will free your prisoners
from death in a waterless dungeon.
12 Come back to the place of safety,
all you prisoners who still have hope!
I promise this very day
that I will repay two blessings for each of your troubles. (Zechariah 9:9-12)

What jumps out is the bizarre change of scope that spans these few sentences.  The king enters Jerusalem on a donkey (v9) and then his rule will extend to ‘the ends of the earth’ (v10).  And God will seal a covenant ‘with blood’ such that prisoners of death will be freed (v11).  Zechariah saw and predicted something of far greater scope than just an entry to a city on a donkey.  According to Zechariah, tied with this entry would be a new worldwide program as well as a new destiny for ‘prisoners of death’.

And who might that be?

Today, the news outlets across Canada are reporting on the sudden and unexpected death of the recent Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.  He was considered one of the most successful and influential finance ministers in Canadian history.  He retired three weeks ago in the media spotlight to transition his career.  Today he is dead and his sudden and abrupt death has shocked and saddened everyone.  I submit that he is a ‘prisoner of death’.  Though he had been chief of the finance department, his success and prominence there gave him no advantage in this department of death.   And we too are all following along right behind him – not knowing when or how we will die.  We all are ‘prisoners of death’!  Zechariah was writing this 2500 years ago for you and me.  He was telling us that someone was going to come who would free us from this prison.  But how?  Zechariah explained long before Jesus rode the donkey into Jerusalem that it would be done by God making a covenant ‘sealed with blood’ (v11) – echoing the sign of the Passover Blood and the release from death that Isaac experienced in Abraham’s sacrifice.  A few short days after Jesus rode into Jerusalem atop his donkey on Palm Sunday he did indeed inaugurate a new covenant and then literally sealed it with his blood.  And three days after that he rose from the dead.  The doors of that prison which holds us all busted open.  The fact that Zechariah could see it so long before it happened indicates that the entry of Jesus on the donkey was not the desperate plot of a pitiful man, but rather it was a key sign marking a Providential Program for the largest jailbreak imaginable – to spring all of humanity from the prison of death.  The entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on a donkey was prominent for the gospel writers precisely because they saw it as a key sign marking that larger Providential Program that Zechariah had sketched out 500 years earlier.

But what about this rule that Zechariah wrote would go to the ‘ends of the earth’?  Jesus never ruled – the prophecy is in error, critics will charge.  But to think of ‘ruling’ solely in political or military terms is to miss the most powerful rule of all – the personal allegiance of a one’s heart freely given in worship.  Though Jim Flaherty was a senior member of the party that ‘rules’ in Canada, he never had that kind of rule over one single person in the entire country.  But Jesus at his trial calmly claimed that he would one day get this rule – worship – from people around the world.  Here we are two thousand years later with Palm Sunday inaugurating Passion Week which will be celebrated in worship by people around the world, in all nations, in a multitude of languages.  From that point of view Zechariah’s prediction of a rule ‘to the ends of the earth’ was indeed fulfilled by that peasant carpenter who rode into Jerusalem on a lowly donkey so many Sundays ago.

But what about the removal of all weapons of war from Israel (v10)?  That certainly has not happened. In fact today Israel is one of the most weaponized countries in the world!  True enough.  But that prediction is anticipating the conclusion in this Providential Program.  We are not there yet.  We are now at the stage exemplified in v12 where the plea and offer is going out to all us prisoners of death to come to his place of safety.  The news and offer of the ‘jailbreak’ is going around the world and many are choosing to take it.

In the context of this larger Program, Zechariah predicted that this King would make another entrance.  He wrote

“Then I will pour out a spirit of grace and prayer on the family of David and on the people of Jerusalem. They will look on me whom they have pierced and mourn for him as for an only son. They will grieve bitterly for him as for a firstborn son who has died.  (Zechariah 13:10)

The one that had been pierced and had died, and in so doing had sealed that covenant with his blood, will come back!  It is a hope I have, and some may charge me with naïvity for keeping it.  But given that Zechariah was bang on with both the details and the outworkings of that entrance on a donkey, it is simply a reasoned leap to trust that this Second Entrance in this greater Program of Providence will also one day come about.  And when it does, I want to be part of the jailbreak.