New Testament

That strong New York Times #ChurchToo horror story -- with clues pointing to big SBC issues

That strong New York Times #ChurchToo horror story -- with clues pointing to big SBC issues

Throughout the 16-plus years that GetReligion has been around, I have received emails asking why the mainstream press has focused on clergy sexual abuse cases in the Church of Rome, but not abuse cases in liberal and conservative Protestant flocks.

That’s an important question and one that looms over the intense media coverage we are currently seeing — with good cause — at the Southern Baptist Convention meetings in Birmingham (click here for Bobby Ross Jr. round-up on preliminary coverage).

That is also the subject at the heart of a gripping #ChurchToo feature at The New York Times — “Her Evangelical Megachurch Was Her World. Then Her Daughter Said She Was Molested by a Minister” — linked to SBC debates about sexual abuse. It’s a solid, deep story about one controversy in a powerful congregation and it contains clues pointing toward larger issues that will, eventually, have to be covered in the national press.

You see, there are reasons that SBC leaders — the ones who truly want to act — have struggled to come up with a one-plan-fits-all proposal to crack down on the monsters in their midst. To understand why, I want to flash back to an important Joshua Pease essay that ran a year ago at The Washington Post. Here’s my commentary about that: “ 'The Sin of Silence' in The Washington Post: It's easy to hide sin in an independent-church maze.”

The following chunk of the Pease essay is long, but essential for those who want to understand the larger issues that lurk in the painful new piece at the Times.

Without a centralized theological body, evangelical policies and cultures vary radically, and while some church leaders have worked to prevent abuse and harassment, many have not. The causes are manifold: authoritarian leadership, twisted theology, institutional protection, obliviousness about the problem and, perhaps most shocking, a diminishment of the trauma sexual abuse creates – especially surprising in a church culture that believes strongly in the sanctity of sex. ...

The problem in collecting data stems, in part, from the loose or nonexistent hierarchy in evangelicalism. Catholic Church abusers benefited from an institutional cover-up, but that same bureaucracy enabled reporters to document a systemic scandal. In contrast, most evangelical groups prize the autonomy of local congregations, with major institutions like the Southern Baptist Convention having no authority to enforce a standard operating procedure among member churches.

Journalists: Please read that passage two or three times. The Southern Baptists have a real problem, here, and it’s not going to go away. It’s a theological problem, as well as a legal one.

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Was the New Testament's Simon Magus a true believer or a fraud?

Was the New Testament's Simon Magus a true believer or a fraud?

NICHOLAS ASKS:

In the New Testament, Acts chapter 8 says that Simon Magus “believed” and then was baptized. But he was not saved. Does this teach us there’s a gap between mental assent and change of heart? Or what?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

The intriguing figure known in Acts 8 as just Simon was later designated “Simon Magus,” which helped distinguish him from the Bible’s other Simons. His name led to the sin called “simony,” the corrupt buying or selling of spiritual powers, benefits, or services.

In its earliest phase, the Christian movement was centered in Jerusalem and entirely Jewish in membership. Acts 8 depicts the new faith’s very first missionary venture, Philip’s visit to neighboring Samaria. The Samaritans were despised by Jews due to historical enmity and their quasi-Jewish religion. For instance, the Samaritans regarded only the first five books of the Bible (the Pentateuch or Torah) as divine Scripture, and did not believe in the future coming of the Messiah.

Philip’s preaching was accompanied by miraculous healings, which won the attention of Simon, who had “amazed the nation” with his magic performances. We’re told that Simon described himself as “somebody great” (thus that “Magus” moniker) and that people thought “the power of God” was at work through his magic.

As Samaritans began accepting Philip’s message to follow Jesus Christ, “Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip.” That must have caused quite a stir. But – believed what, exactly?

The apostles in Jerusalem then dispatched Peter and John to Samaria, where they laid hands on the new converts who “received the Holy Spirit.” This passage underlies the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Anglican belief that ministers must be formally set apart by the laying on of hands, in a line of “apostolic succession” that traces back to Jesus’ original founding apostles.

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How and why will your New Testaments be changing in the computer era?

How and why will your New Testaments be changing in the computer era?

THE QUESTION:

How and why will a new technique for computer analysis of ancient texts affect the New Testaments you’ll be reading?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

A revolution now under way will gradually change every future English translation of the New Testament you’ll be reading.

Translations are based upon some 5,800 hand-written manuscripts of the New Testament in Greek that survived from ancient times, whether fragments or complete books. Scholars analyze their numerous variations to get as close as possible to the original 1st Century wordings, a specialty known as “textual criticism.”

Books by Bart Ehrman at the University of North Carolina tell how such differences turned him from conservative to skeptic regarding Christians’ scriptural tradition. Yet other experts see the opposite, that this unusually large textual trove enhances the New Testament’s credibility and authority, though perplexities persist.

Two years ago, a good friend with a science Ph.D. who closely follows biblical scholarship alerted The Religion Guy to the significance of the “Coherence-Based Genealogical Method” (CBGM). What a mouthful. The Guy managed only a shaky grasp of CBGM and hesitated to write a Memo explaining it.

But he now takes up the topic, prodded by an overview talk by Peter Gurry, a young Cambridge University Ph.D. who teaches at Phoenix Seminary, video posted here (start at 33 minutes). The Guy won’t attempt a full description, but you can learn details in Gurry’s article for the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (.pdf here), or his co-authored 2017 book “A New Approach to Textual Criticism.” (Gurry’s doctoral dissertation on CBGM is available in book form but pricey and prolix.)

If it’s any encouragement, Gurry confesses he himself needed a year to comprehend CBGM, which he says “is not widely known or understood, even among New Testament scholars.”

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How do conservatives respond to archaeologists’ skepticism about Bible history?

How do conservatives respond to archaeologists’ skepticism about Bible history?

THE QUESTION:

Many archaeologists have raised skeptical questions about the Bible’s historical accounts, especially in the Old Testament. How do conservatives respond?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

A September headline in London’s tabloid Daily Express proclaimed a “Bible Bombshell,” with “stunning new evidence that could prove” Joshua’s invasion of the Holy Land following the Exodus from Egypt. However, in the article the archaeologists involved, David Ben-Shlomo of Israel’s Ariel University and Ralph Hawkins of Averett University in Virginia, gave only carefully framed suggestions.

Their site has a stone enclosure for herded animals, and pottery indicating people lived outside the stone compound, presumably nomads living in long-vanished tents. The settlement dates from the early Iron Age, but testing of electrons in soil samples is needed to pinpoint whether it fits the Exodus chronology. And that wouldn’t prove these nomads were Israelites. (See below on Jericho.)

People thrill when a discovery is proclaimed as proof of the Bible, but it takes years if not decades to establish such claims. There can also be sensationalism when skeptics known as “minimalists,” Israelis among them, announce findings said to undermine the Bible. As a journalist, The Guy recommends caution toward assertions from all sides.

The pertinent archaeological maxim is “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” That is, a biblical event is not contradicted if archaeologists have not (or not yet) found corroboration from physical remains, non-biblical manuscripts, or inscriptions. There’s vast unexplored terrain in Israel, where only 50 of an estimated 6,000 sites have undergone thorough examination, with limited work at another 300. Surviving evidence from ancient times is necessarily spotty and interpretations can be subjective. Scholars usually end up with circumstantial plausibility, not absolute proof or disproof.

Conservatives energetically answer the minimalists. Their magnum opus is “On the Reliability of the Old Testament” (Eerdmans) by Egyptologist K.A. Kitchen of the University of Liverpool. William Hallo of Yale University said that “after decades of ‘minimalism,’ it is refreshing to have this first systematic refutation” from “a leading authority” on the relevant history.

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A really old debate is back: Does the Old Testament belong in Christian Bibles?

A really old debate is back: Does the Old Testament belong in Christian Bibles?

NORMAN’S QUESTION:

Do the Old and New Testaments belong together?

(Commenting from a stance critical toward Christians, Norman adds that ignorance of history underlies their “comfortable view that the Bible is one and that there is no problem between the Old and New Testaments.”)

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

This classic and complex theme is erupting anew thanks to a U.S. Protestant megachurch pastor cited below. Also, churches have long faced strife over the authority and interpretation of the Old Testament due to the now-disputed teaching (that was carried over into the New Testament) against homosexual relations.

In this “Religion Q & A” item (your new postings via the Website always welcome!!), Norman accurately calls attention to some history. The status of the Old Testament became a pressing issue the church needed to decide in the 2nd Century A.D. Marcion of Pontus, among others, drew a radical distinction between what he saw as the problematic Yahweh of the Old Testament versus the loving God and Father of Jesus Christ in writings that were to form the New Testament.

The church declared Marcion a heretic and consolidated for all time that the Old Testament is part of its Bible alongside the New Testament books, authoritative Scripture for Christians as well as Jews.

Norman further observes that influential 20th Century liberal Protestant thinkers in Germany such as Adolf von Harnack and Rudolf Bultmann echoed Marcion by downplaying the spiritual worth of the Old Testament. He says they “unknowingly contributed to the rise” of the so-called German Christians with their “non- and anti-Jewish” version of the faith. This movement pretty much gained control over Protestantism and accommodated the blatantly anti-Semitic Nazi rulers. Theologians like “neo-orthodox” titan Karl Barth courageously defied this unbiblical heresy in the great Theological Declaration of Barmen (1934).

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Why does it matter when the Bible's Book of Acts was written?

Why does it matter when the Bible's Book of Acts was written?

THE QUESTION:

When was the New Testament’s Book of Acts written and why does it matter?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

This topic cropped up recently when The Guy visited the adult Bible class at a prominent Presbyterian Church (USA) congregation. Participants are taught that the Book of Acts, which depicts the three decades directly following Jesus Christ’s earthly life, was written between 110 and 120 A.D., a generation later than scholars’ consensus.

Does that seem a trivial technicality?

“A good deal rides on decisions about the date of Acts,” says Joseph Tyson of Southern Methodist University.

Christian tradition holds that Acts reliably records what Jesus’ original followers believed and how the earliest churches spread that message. But if it was written long after the events, that opens up radical theories. Bible experts left and right agree that Acts and the Gospel of Luke are in fact two volumes of a unified work by the same writer, although separated by John’s Gospel in Bibles. (Both books are anonymous but Paul’s colleague Luke is identified as the author in 2nd Century texts so The Guy follows that custom.)

Luke’s Gospel begins: “Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us,  just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word,  I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first,  to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus,  so that you may know the truth. ...(New Revised Standard Version)

Acts then begins with a specific link back to Luke: “In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning. ...”  Because of those opening words, the credibility of the New Testament as history is at stake here.  (If interested in who that Theophilus was, see “Religion Q & A” for December 22, 2015, in the archive.)

The Acts discussion is a very revealing example of how various types of Bible scholarship go about their business.

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Religion-news story of the year? Caution is wise with alleged biblical bombshells

Religion-news story of the year? Caution is wise with alleged biblical bombshells

The mass media often turn to scriptural stuff as the world’s Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus (on April 1 this year, or one week later for the Orthodox).

This Eastertide a long-brewing story, largely ignored by the media, could be the biggest biblical bombshell since a lad accidentally stumbled upon the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947.

Or not.

Scholars are supposedly prepared to announce an astonishing discovery, a Greek manuscript of the New Testament’s Gospel of Mark written down in the 1st Century A.D. That would mean  Mark -- and implicitly other Gospels –- were compiled when numerous eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life would have been alive, thus buttressing authenticity.   

The Guy recommends caution, since sensational historical claims in recent times have flopped, or were misconstrued, and embarrassed proponents on both the religious right and left. With careful contexting, reporters should attempt to break this news  (see tips below) or at least be prepared to pounce when someone else does.  

The oldest Mark manuscript we currently know came some 150 years later than this. To date, the earliest surviving New Testament text is the celebrated Rylands Papyrus 52 (“P52”), at England’s University of Manchester, found in Egypt in 1920 and identified in 1934. Experts date P52 in the mid-2nd Century and perhaps as early as A.D. 125. This fragment of John 18:31-33, 37-38 confirmed scholars’ prior consensus that John’s Gospel originated in the late 1st Century.

Internet chatter about the Mark text comes mostly from biblical conservatives, who are understandably enthused. The first hint The Religion Guy unearthed was this opaque 2011 tweet from Scott Carroll, a professor at an online Christian school: “For over 100 years the earliest known text of the New Testament has been the so-called John Rylands Papyrus. Not any more. Stay tuned.”  Years later, Carroll said he had seen this actual Mark text two times.

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What language did Jesus speak? Was he illiterate?

What language did Jesus speak? Was he illiterate?

THE TWO QUESTIONS above have been raised online in (1) a 2018 article for a Catholic website and (2) several Web posts in the past year or so.

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

That first one is easy: Aramaic.

As writer Philip Koslowski stated January 21 on the international Catholic aleteia.org, it was the common language spoken by Jews in the 1st Century Holy Land. There’s virtually no doubt Jesus would have taught in that tongue.

For one thing, the original Greek New Testament carried over numerous Aramaic words, especially in Mark and Matthew. Our Gospels in English are translations from Greek that report sayings Jesus would have uttered in Aramaic -- something the experts continually ponder.

Question #2 is more complex. On literacy, there’s no way to know for sure whether Jesus could read or write Aramaic.

Scholars like England’s Chris Keith and America’s Bart Ehrman think it’s most probable he could not read and write. On the popular level, Reza Aslan asserted this in his heterodox Jesus biography “Zealot,” which was so lauded by the “mainstream” media. (Yes, he’s the Muslim-turned-Christian-turned-Muslim-again that CNN then hired to host a religion series but sacked over his profane tweet assailing President Donald Trump.)

As an aside, note that Random House promoted Aslan’s book as “balancing the Jesus of the Gospels against the historical sources” instead of “other historical sources.” Such sleight of hand excludes the Gospels -- our earliest and most extensive material -- from the historical materials regarding Jesus.

Whatever Jesus’ skill with written Aramaic, one Bible passage indicates he had some working knowledge of Hebrew, the language of the Jewish Scriptures and used by the religious elite.

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More Bible battles: The 'old, old story' is ever new and, thus, ever in the news

More Bible battles: The 'old, old story' is ever new and, thus, ever in the news

Pondering Washington’s new Museum of the Bible for the quasi-Jewish Commentary magazine, Williams College art historian Michael Lewis finds it ideologically inoffensive and is therefore perplexed at how fiercely some despise the place.

How come? He says the very claim “that the Bible is a foundational document of our civilization is, to many, an unwelcome one. And as biblical ignorance grows, the claim grows progressively more unwelcome. The Bible seems to be one of those books that the less people know about it, the less they like it.”

Journalists: The professor is onto something that might merit a think piece.

But in this Memo, The Religion Guy instead insists that the Book of the “old, old story” (per that Gospel hymn) is perpetually new, and therefore news. Book-buyers, Internet blabbers and media consumers (also church and synagogue attendees) can’t get enough of it. So here’s the latest twist on the Bible beat.

Religion writers should check the next issue of Christianity Today as it  surveys “lesser-known translations” of scripture, provoking this theme: In the Bible sweepstakes, why pick this one and not that one? Plus there’s a story peg in a current biblical battle between two titans who translated their own one-man New Testaments from the original Greek into English, as opposed to the usual committee editions. The competitors:  

(1) David Bentley Hart, outspoken Eastern Orthodox thinker currently at Notre Dame’s Institute for Advanced Study, with his sharply provocative “The New Testament: A Translation” (Yale).

(2) Bishop N.T. Wright of Scotland’s University of St. Andrews, favorite New Testament scholar for legions of U.S. Protestants and his fellow Anglicans worldwide. Wright's “The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation” (HarperOne, 2011) caused England’s Church Times to proclaim him “the J.K. Rowling of Christian Publishing.”

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