Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels – Part 2

light glares down between two opposing puzzle pieces

In my last post, I explained what undersigned coincidences are and how they show that when applied can demonstrate eyewitness testimony. What I said in the last post can seem a bit abstract and hard to understand unless more examples are provided. I only gave one example but in this post I like to give a few more examples of undersigned coincidences within the Gospels.

Question 1: Matthew 14:1-2
Why did Herod tell his servants that he thought Jesus was John the Baptist, raised from the dead?
Answer: Luke 8:3
Some of Jesus’ followers were from Herod’s household.

Question 2: Luke 23:1-4
Why didn’t Pilate find a charge against Jesus even though Jesus claimed to be a King?
Answer: John 18:33-38
Jesus told Pilate that his kingdom was not of this world so it’s not a threat to Caesar.

Question 3: Matthew 26:71
Why did the maid notice Peter?
Answer: John 18:16
A disciple spoke with her when he brought Peter inside.

Question 4: Mark 15:43
Why did Mark say Joseph of Arimathea acted “boldly”?
Answer: John 19:38
Joseph was previously a secret disciple who was in fear of the Jews.

Question 5: Matthew 26:67-68
Why would Jesus’ attackers ask him “Who is the one who hit you?”
Answer: Luke 22:63-65
The attackers blind-folded Jesus and then hit him.

Question 6: Matthew 4:18-22
Why would James and John follow Jesus after Jesus approached them out of nowhere and asked them to follow Him?
Answer: Luke 5:1-11
James and John heard Jesus preach and saw the miracle of the abundant catch of fish.

Question 7: Mark 6:30-44
Why was this crowd in the area in the first place?
Answer: John 6:1-13
First, the people searched for Jesus because he had performed miraculous healings. Second, John alone mentions that it was nearly Passover, a holiday that caused thousands of Jews to arrive at Jerusalem.

Question 8: Mark 14:58; 15:29
Why were the Pharisees saying that Jesus would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days?
Answer: John 2: 18-19
It was a distortion of Jesus saying to them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

Question 9: Luke 2:4
Why is Joseph not concerned that his future wife is pregnant and he wasn’t the one responsible for it?
Answer: Matthew 1:18-21
God sent an angel to appear in his dream to not divorce Mary and that the child is conceived by the Holy Spirit.

Question 10: John 18:10, 36
Why does Pilate not say that his servants were fighting for him?
Answer: Luke 22:51
Jesus touched and healed the servant and erased all evidence of fighting.

Question 11: Matthew 13:2
Where did that boat come from?
Answer: Mark 3:9
His disciples prepared a boat so the crowds won’t push Jesus into the water.

Question 12: John 1:32-34
How does John the Baptist know that Jesus is the Son of God?
Answer: Matthew 3:17
John the Baptist witnessed the Father saying that Jesus is His Son.

Question 13: Matthew 11:2-3
How was John able to send a message to Jesus through his disciples while John was in prison?
Answer: Mark 6:20
Herod was afraid of John because of his righteousness and holiness and so that probably allowed a good deal of freedom that includes John sending a message to Jesus via John’s disciples.

Question 14: Luke 9:36
Why did the disciples keep silent over such a wonderful event?
Answer: Mark 9:9
Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone of what they saw.

If you want to find more undersigned coincidences, just pick up your Bible, and read through the four Gospels. Start asking questions that naturally arise when you read a passage and take notice if the question you have in mind is answered by the other Gospels. This is what eyewitness testimony looks like.

For those interested in more information on this fascinating argument, check out these books:

Horae Paulinae (1850) by William Paley
A View of the Christian Evidences (1865) by William Paley
Undesigned Coincidences (1869) by John James Blunt
Evidences of Christianity (1886) by John William McGarvey
The Four Gospels from A Lawyer’s Standpoint (1893) by Edmund Bennett
Cold-Case Christianity (2013) by J. Warner Wallace

Keep in mind the ones written in the 19th century can be found free online. There is a Christian philosopher by the name of Tim McGrew who teaches this on youtube. He explains in much more detail what these undersigned coincidences are and how they show the reliability of the gospels.

The Three Questions

I have been a Christian long enough to know that none of my own ideas are very good. That is to say, if I know something really important, or if I say something that’s deep, I didn’t come up with it. My growth as a follower of Jesus Christ has been dependent on two things: listening very carefully to what the Holy Spirit says in Scripture, and listening very carefully to what he tells me through other people. In short, everything I have, I’ve received (1 Corinthians 4:7).

One thing I thank God for receiving more than most is a particular set of questions. It’s more of an idea, really. And this is the idea: we expose ourselves to a lot more goodness when we read the Bible with other people. Whatever we lack in understanding (and it’s always a lot) can be shored up by the people around us, especially those who, through their faith in Christ, have the Holy Spirit at work in their hearts to help us. Instead of trusting ourselves to know it all, believe it all, and obey it all on our own, why don’t we humble ourselves enough to let other people help us?

If you can admit that much at least is a good idea, you’ll wonder exactly what that looks like. It certainly happens when faithful and wise Christians teach the Bible to us, whether as part of our worship together on Sundays or otherwise. But knowing that the Holy Spirit is present and working in all who know Christ (Ephesians 1:13-14), and knowing that everyone who believes the gospel has knowledge of the truth (1 John 2:20), doesn’t it make sense that you don’t have to be a capital-T Teacher in order to be a good teacher? Don’t you have some insight, some wisdom, some example in your life that could really help me?

But where do you start? Enter: the Three Questions.

Technically, the Three Questions have a collective name: the Swedish Method. If you’d like to read much more about the Three Questions (including how they acquired such a weird name), this article will tell you all you need to know. (I really do recommend reading it—it’s fascinating.) But suffice it to say that, for a number of reasons, I prefer my own (highly boring and non-creative) phrase of “the Three Questions.”

What are the Three Questions? They’re three simple things to ask yourself and others whenever you read the Bible:

  1. What’s interesting about this?
  2. What’s confusing about this?
  3. What should I do with this?

Of course, you can use the Three Questions to guide your personal Bible reading to make sure that you’re doing more than running your eyes over the page. But I get much more mileage out of them when someone else asks me the questions as part of a normal conversation.

There’s no need to come up with anything impressive-sounding as a response to the question. In fact, I actively discourage people from trying to do so! Be honest. Be simple. Just answer the questions!

Here’s one example of how the Three Questions can spur good conversations that go beyond the words on the page. Today I read Ecclesiastes 1-2 with a friend at a coffee shop. In no particular order, here are some of the ways the two of us answered the first question (“What’s interesting about this?”):

  • The book doesn’t have a named author—just someone named “the Teacher.” That strikes me as interesting, even strange.
  • The first chapter has a lot of poetic, philosophical language. That’s different from the stories of Jesus’ life or the teachings of Paul. I bet it would appeal to people who aren’t naturally into those parts of the Bible.
  • In fact, the first couple chapters really seem to directly challenge what the rest of the Old Testament (especially Genesis) teaches. The Preacher really slams some biblical ideas—that life has a purpose, that God is working out a plan in the world, that wisdom has eternal value, etc.
  • In Ecclesiastes 2:8, the Teacher says that he availed himself to “a harem”—and calls the women “the delights of the heart of man”! That’s interesting, to say the least!

As you can see, the interesting things lead to lots of questions. In this passage, some of the more confusing things we saw led to questions like these:

  • How did this book even make it into the Bible?! Can a biblical book also be un-biblical?
  • Is the rest of the book going to answer that question?
  • Who is the Teacher? Is it Solomon? Could someone else fit the self-description in Ecclesiastes 1:1?
  • What does the Teacher mean by “under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:3 and elsewhere)?

Finally, we asked each other the final question: what should we do with these chapters?

  • We definitely need to read the rest of the book to see where the Teacher is going!
  • We need to examine our lives—are they really “meaningless” (Ecclesiastes 1:2)? We need to compare these chapters with the rest of the Bible to figure out what’s going on here.
  • The Teacher writes that chasing after wine, women, and song is a waste of time and totally pointless (Ecclesiastes 2:9-11). Am I chasing after pleasure like he did? Am I setting myself up for the same disappointment?

What answers would you add?

The questions are short and simple—there’s no rocket science that makes them so powerful. But ask yourself: how could you use them?

  1. What if you and your spouse picked a book of the Bible to read through together? You could meet up once a week—even nightly—to share your answers (and spur each other on to even better, more personal answers).
  2. What if you used the Three Questions to discuss a passage of Scripture with your kids or grandkids? That’s what I’ve been doing this year—using the questions to talk through the Gospel of Mark with my six- and five-year-old sons. Their answers are always surprising, frequently hilarious, and sometimes shocking. It is never boring or a waste of time.
  3. What if you used the Three Questions to invite a curious non-Christian to study the life and teachings of Jesus for herself? This is my favorite form of evangelism—instead of memorizing a script, get out of the way and let Jesus speak for himself!

At the end of the day, only the Spirit himself can help us grow and learn and experience more of the grace of Jesus. The Three Questions assume that, in prayer, you’re entrusting him to do the real work. But he uses tools to do that work, most especially the word of God—and other people.

Why not use a simple tool like the Three Questions to see what he would do for (and through) you?

Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels – Part 1

Have you ever read the four gospels straight through? You begin reading and as you’re going through Matthew, you’re like, well that’s interesting, confirms everything I heard in church, but then you get to Mark and it starts to confirm a lot of what you read from Matthew. So then you start cross-referencing and noticing that a lot of what Mark says, so does Matthew and so out of curiosity you start reading Luke and you get more of the same. Then you get to John and then you notice John seems to avoid talking about the same stuff the other gospels talk about but at the same time adds a story here and there that is confirmed in the other Gospels.

Here’s a question to consider: Can we tell by comparing two passages of Scripture with one another, that both are authentic, credible historical records?

Now you might think: sure, we can find passages where two different writers tell the same story, and perhaps with the same words…and that’s true, we can find that. Just to humor me, I want you to let loose your inner skeptic out briefly and ask: Well considering they are so identical in story and words, maybe they copied from each other…or maybe they were copied from some underlying document. I mean you don’t compare two of the same newspapers of the exact same day and conclude you have independent writers reporting the same story. They’re the same, so why suggest they were written by two different writers?

So how can we tell that these are independent eyewitness accounts based on internal evidence and not one writer copying from another writer who was copying from some other source? The answer is undesigned coincidences. How does this work out?

Sometimes we will have two works by different authors interlock in a way that would be very unlikely if one of them were copied from the other or both were copied from a common source.

For example, one book may mention in passing a detail that answers some question raised by the other. The two records fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. If we have that kind of evidence, then it is highly probable that we are not dealing with fictions or forgeries.

Why do I say that? It’s because if you’re fabricating something, you’re just making it up; why would you leave loose ends that raise questions when you could just go ahead and avoid that altogether and tie them off. I mean you’re not constrained in anyway. It’s a work of fiction; fill it out however you want. Moreover, if there are documents written by other people, you can’t control what the other people will write to make it interlock with what you have written.

But we would expect to find such interlocking in authentic, detailed records of the same real events told by different people who knew what they were talking about.

 As an example, let’s look at Matthew 8. Jesus enters Peter’s house, heals his mother-in-law and then that evening a crowd of people come to be healed by Jesus.

 What’s puzzling about that passage? If the people truly believed that Jesus could heal the sick, why did they wait until evening to come to Him? If you look around in Matthew, you will find no answers.

Why would you wait? Matthew doesn’t say but Mark has the answer. Mark tells the same story, but he goes further into the background and fills it out for us so we can see it happening continuously. Mark says almost the same thing but mentions that this was all done on the Sabbath.

Do you see the explanation that comes out? Devout Jews, especially during the 2nd temple period, were fanatical about doing anything that a Pharisee might construe as a breaking of the Sabbath, but the Sabbath ends at sundown. Jesus has gone into Peter’s house, He’s cured Peter’s mother-in-law, word went around, the sun went down, and then he gets mobbed and he heals the sick. Do you see how these interconnect? Is Matthew copying from Mark? Not plausibly so because otherwise he would have included all of the settings that Mark has. Is Mark copying from Matthew? He can’t be, he’s got details that Matthew doesn’t even have, but the two of them interlock, and the bit that Mark provides us with gives us the answer to a natural question about what we read in Matthew.

I think it’s important to note that the strength of this argument comes when you have numerous undersigned coincidences that are crisscrossing the Gospels. In my next post, I’ll give more examples of undersigned coincidences in the gospels.

What’s In a Name?

2 Peter 1:16 – For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty.

Skeptics will often charge that the gospels were not written by people with first-hand knowledge of the life and ministry of Jesus but were myths which were fabricated generations later by people who weren’t familiar with the area or time period they were describing. High-profile textual scholar Bart Ehrman, who has wrote many books trying to disprove the many beliefs in Christianity (see a list on Amazon.com here), believes that the authenticity of the Gospels are seriously in question and should not be trusted because they were written late, away from good sources, and derive mainly from legends that grew out of stories told in corruptible fashion around campfires for decades.

All of the gospel writers described a large number of people and described these individuals by their names. As it turns out, these names provide us with important clues to help us determine if the writers of the Gospels were actually familiar with first century Palestine.

In 2002 an Israeli scholar by the name of Tal Ilan did some seemingly boring work that has yielded important fruit for the authentication of the New Testament. She sorted through documents, engravings, scraps of papyrus, ossuaries and the like from the time period surrounding Jesus and the apostles in order to make a list of over 3,000 personal names It was as if she were compiling a phone book from ancient trash heaps.

Because of her work, it became possible for the first time to find out what personal names were the most popular during the time of Jesus and how those names were used. Why is this important you ask?  Well, if the Gospel writers really had no solid contact with the characters in the stories, if they were writing decades later and had never visited the lands about which they were writing, getting the names right would be unlikely to the point of impossible. It would be as if a person, who had never set foot out of Vermont, were attempting to write a story about people living in Sweden 60 years ago and the writer perfectly captured all the details of the personal names of the day without traveling, without the Internet, without encyclopedias or libraries. Clearly, guesses and intuitions about Swedish names from over a half-century earlier are exceedingly unlikely to match the real history.

But this new research shows that the Gospel writers were “spot on” in regard to the popularity, frequency, proportion and usage of personal names in the text of Scripture, indicating very deep familiarity with life in the exact area and time frame of Jesus and his earliest followers.

Richard Bauckham, in his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, examined all the names discovered by Ilan 1, and he found that the New Testament narratives reflect nearly the same percentages found in all the documents Ilan examined:

Popularity of Names Cited in Palestinian Literature of the Time

15.6% of the men had the name Simon or Joseph

41.5% of the men had one of the nine most popular names

7.9% of the men had a name no one else had

28.6% of the women had the name Mary or Salome

49.7% of the women had one of the nine most popular names

9.6% of the women had a name no one else had

Popularity of Names Cited by the New Testament Authors

18.2% of the men had the name Simon or Joseph

40.3% of the men had one of the nine most popular names

3.9% of the men had a name no one else had

38.9% of the women had the name Mary or Salome

61.1% of the women had one of the nine most popular names

2.5% of the women had a name no one else had

If the gospel writers were simply guessing about the names they were using in their accounts, they happened to guess with remarkable accuracy. Many of the popular Jewish names in Palestine were different from the popular names in Egypt, Syria, or Rome. The use of these names by the gospel writers is consistent with their claim that they’re writing on the basis of true eyewitness testimony.

When names are very common, people find themselves having to make a distinction by adding an extra piece of information. When you see the addition of a descriptor, you can be sure that the name being amended is probably common to the region or time in history. We see this throughout the gospel accounts. The gospel writers introduce us to Simon “Peter,” Simon “the Zealot,” Simon “the Tanner,” Simon “the leper,” and Simon “of Cyrene.” The name Simon was so common to the area of Palestine in the first century that the gospel writers had to add descriptions to differentiate one Simon from another. This is something we would expect to see if the gospel writers were truly present in Palestine in the first century and familiar with the common names of the region (and the need to better describe those who possessed these popular names). The same could be said of Jesus and how others in the Gospel narratives identify him versus how the narrator identifies him.

The approach the gospel writers took when they referred to people (using the names and descriptors we would expect in first-century Palestine) corroborate their testimonies internally. The gospel accounts appear authentic from the “inside out.” The words of the Gospels themselves are consistent with what we could expect from eyewitnesses reporting historical events. 2

  1.  For more information, refer to Tal Ilan, Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity: Palestine 330 BCE-200CE (Philadelphia: Coronet Books, 2002).
  2.  Another popular book that explores using names in the Gospels as eyewitness evidence, take a look at Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels by J. Warner Wallace.

It’s All In the Details

When the gospels and Acts are seen as eyewitness testimony, they gain a lot of credibility in the eyes of nonbelievers which makes it all the more easier for us as followers of Christ to tell them about Jesus and the offer of salvation by placing their trust in him. In my last post, I’ve talked about the principle of embarrassment as evidence of the gospels being reliable eyewitness testimony. There is another way to tell if an historical document is generally reliable and that is when it has numerous, verified details within the text.

Suppose someone wrote a book describing your hometown as it was in 1950. In this book, the author correctly identifies the local industry, the laws and penal codes, the town’s roads and geography, the politicians of that time, local houses of worship, town statues and sculptures, area hotels, the depth of the water in the town harbor and numerous other unique details about your town of that year. Here’s a question to ponder over: If this author claimed he had visited your town that year, or at least said he had gotten information from people who lived in that town, would you think he was telling the truth? Of course, because he provides details only an eyewitness could provide. That’s the type of testimony we have in Acts and John.

Luke, Paul’s physician and companion, wrote the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts. In addition, Luke was an eyewitness of many of the things that happened in Acts. In the second half of that work, Luke displays an incredible array of knowledge of local places, environmental conditions, names, customs, and other circumstances that make sense only if he was an eyewitness or had access to eyewitness testimony. In his work, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History, the classical scholar and historian Colin Hemer combs through the second half of Acts and sorts out incredible historical details that are confirmed by epigraphical, paleographical, archeological, and historical evidence from the first century. Hemer was able to find up to 84 facts in the last 16 chapters of Acts. Let’s look at some of the details Luke drops in Acts that are confirmed by outside testimony:

  1. The correct language spoken in Lystra, which is Lycaonian (Acts 14:11)
  2. The correct order of approach to Derbe and then Lystra from the Cilician Gates (16:1; 15:41)
  3. The presence of a synagogue in Thessalonica (17:1)
  4. An alter to an “unknown god” (17:23)
  5. The proper term for those holding court (19:38)
  6. The common way to obtain Roman citizenship at this time (22:28)
  7. The best shipping lanes at the time (27:5)
  8. The right route to sail, in view of the winds (27:12)
  9. The precise place and name of this island (27:16)
  10. The local people and the superstitions of the day (28:4-6)

Roman historian A.N. Sherwin-White has stated:

“For Acts the confirmation of historicity is overwhelming…Any attempt to reject its basic historicity must now appear absurd. Roman historians have long taken it for granted.” 1

The classical scholar and archaeologist Sir William Ramsey has said:

“Luke’s history is unsurpassed in respect of its trustworthiness…Luke is an historian of the first rank…He should be placed along with the very greatest of historians.” 2

If Luke is this accurate with Acts, could he not also be trusted when it comes to his own gospel that he authored? I don’t see why not. And if Luke can be trusted to give accurate information in his own gospel, then Matthew and Mark can be trusted for accuracy as well because they tell the same basic story.

What about the Gospel of John? Is it reliable? On the face of it, the author has inserted himself into the gospel as “the disciple” or “the beloved disciple” and so in effect the author is claiming to be an eyewitness of the events of Jesus. Could we find the same kind of details in John that we find in Acts? Like the work Colin Hemer did in Acts, the New Testament and Johanine scholar, Craig Blomberg has set out to do just that in his book, The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel where he examines John’s Gospel verse by verse and identifies numerous historical details. In all, he has identified 59 details in the Gospel of John that have been confirmed by literary works and archaeology or are historically probable. The events John describes in his gospel are restricted to Israel so it doesn’t contain quite as many geographical, topographical, and political items as the book of Acts. Despite the limitation, there is a remarkable amount of details that either confirmed by outside sources or are historically probable given that early Christians would most likely not invent them. Here I’ll list a small sample to give you an idea of how reliable John’s gospel is when looked at in depth:

  1. Archaeology confirms the use of stone water jars in New Testament times (John 2:6)
  2. Given the early Christian tendency towards asceticism, the wine miracle is an unlikely invention (2:8)
  3. Josephus (War of the Jews 2.232) confirms there was significant hostility between Jews and Samaritans during Jesus’ time (4:9)
  4. Jesus’ own testimony being invalid without the Father is an unlikely invention (5:31); a later redactor would be eager to highlight Jesus’ divinity and would probably make his witness self-authenticating.
  5. Archeology confirms the existence and location of the Pool of Siloam (9:7)

When we couple John’s knowledge of Jesus’ personal conversations with these nearly sixty historically confirmed/historically probable details, could there be any reasonable doubt that John was an eyewitness or at least had access to eyewitness testimony? 

  1.  A.N. Sherman-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon, 1963), 189.
  2.  Quoted in The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1981), 90-91.

Wow, That’s Really Embarrassing

Imagine working outside trimming the bushes in your front yard on a hot sunny day. After much trimming you enter your house so you can get an ice cold glass of water. You enter the kitchen where you find the cookie jar shattered on the floor with the cookies scattered everywhere. You call your six-year-old son to come into the kitchen.

You ask him: Did you knock over the cookie jar?

Your son looks down and mutters: Yes, I thought I could get a cookie without dropping the cookie jar.

Here’s an interesting question: Why would you believe him? Maybe because he has nothing to gain by telling the truth and everything to gain by telling a lie.

This is one of many ways historians use to verify whether a historical document is speaking truth on a particular subject or is truthful as a whole. Historians refer to this as the principle of embarrassment. This principle assumes that any details embarrassing to the author or embarrassing to their goal in writing a document are probably true. Why is that? It’s because the tendency of most people is to leave out anything that makes them look bad or make their cause look bad. What do the gospels look like in light of this revelation?

The gospel writers include embarrassing details about themselves and the other disciples:

They are dim-witted: Mark 9:32; Luke 18:34; John 12:16

They are uncaring: They fall asleep on Jesus twice when he asks them to pray for him in his time of need (Mark 14:32-41). Moreover, they don’t even have the courage to give their rabbi a proper burial and instead it was a member of the Sanhedrin (Joseph of Arimathea) who is in the very court that sentenced him to death.

They are rebuked: Peter is called Satan by Jesus (Mark 8:33). Can you imagine Mark saying to Peter: Hey Pete! I’m going to have the Lord call you Satan, what do you think about that? Peter would rightly say back, Have him call you Satan, why do I got to be called Satan! This is certainly not something you would make up off the top of your head.

They are cowards: All of the disciples abandoned Jesus (except one) when he was crucified. Peter denies him three times after saying to Jesus’ face he would never disown him (Matthew 26:33-35). While the male disciples were hiding for fear of the Jews, the brave female disciples stood by Jesus at the cross, during his burial, and visited the tomb on Sunday morning.

They are doubters: Despite being taught several times that Jesus would rise from the dead, they still doubted after being told by the women that he resurrected. Thomas doubted until he saw Jesus for himself and some even doubted after he was risen (Matthew 28:17).

The gospel writers included embarrassing details about Jesus:

Jesus:

  • is considered out of his mind by his family (Mark 3)
  • is thought to be a deceiver (John 7:5)
  • is deserted by many of his followers (John 6:66)
  • turns off Jews who had believed in him to the point that they want to stone him (John 8:30-31, 59).
  • is called a drunkard (Matthew 11:19)
  • is called demon-possessed (Mark 3:22; John 7:20; 8:48)
  • is called a madman (John 10:20)
  • has his feet wiped with the hair of a prostitute (an event that had the potential to be perceived as a sexual advance – Luke 7:36-39)
  • is crucified by the Jews and Romans despite the fact that anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse (Deuteronomy 21:23; Galatians 3:13)

The gospel writers include difficult sayings of Jesus:

Jesus:

  • declares “the Father is greater than I” (John 14:28)
  • says no one, including himself, knows the time of his second coming (Matthew 24:36)
  • is seen cursing a fig tree for not having figs even though it was not the season for figs to be on the tree (Matthew 21:18)
  • seems unable to do many miracles in his hometown (Mark 6:5)
  • makes a morbid claim about how eating the Son of Man’s flesh and drinking his blood will give you eternal life (John 6:53)

While there are reasonable explanations for these sayings and others 1, it doesn’t make much sense that the gospel writers would complicate things by leaving these statements (and many others) in there.

The gospel writers left in many demanding sayings of Jesus:

  • Jesus speaks about just having sexual thoughts about someone is equal to committing adultery against your spouse (Matthew 5:28)
  • Jesus talks about not divorcing your spouse unless it’s because of sexual infidelity. (Matthew 5:32)
  • Jesus talks about when someone strikes you on the cheek, turn the other cheek to him. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. (Matthew 5:39-41)
  • I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… (Matthew 5:44-45)

I’ve only highlighted some of the many embarrassing moments in the gospels.2 It would appear that there is a lot of embarrassing material in the gospels and so that should tell us that the gospel writers are habitually truth tellers and that we should give them the benefit of the doubt when talking on subjects we aren’t able to verify. This is one of many reasons why the gospels are considered to be eyewitness testimony.

  1.  When trying to understand alleged contradictions or errors, books like The Big Book of Bible Difficulties: Clear and Concise Answers from Genesis to Revelation (formerly known as When Critics Ask) by Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe and the New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties by Gleason Archer.
  2.  A lot of the content from this post was taken from the book, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be An Atheist by Frank Turek and Norman Geisler (Wheaton: Crossway, 2004).

My Friend Grant

Last week I reacquainted myself with an old friend. We hadn’t seen each other in a few years. But the time we spent together was the most important important time in my life. Without overselling it, this friend did more for me than anyone else I know. And now that we’ve reintroduced ourselves, I can’t wait to dive back in and pick up where we left off.

My friend isn’t an old work buddy or classmate. My friend isn’t even a person. It’s a set of bookmarks.

I call it “Grant.”

Let me back up.

I first heard of Grant in 2010. A blogger I follow recommended it as the best thing ever (that’s how it came across to me, anyway). In the article (you can read it here), he explains how he had come across a Bible reading plan that actually made him want to read the Bible. Every day. And he didn’t want to give up. I had to keep reading.

The beauty of the plan is its insanity. Here’s the gist: the Bible is divided into 10 sections, and you read a chapter from each section every day. Yes—you read 10 chapters of the Bible every day. And, as he explained, you actually like it.

This didn’t make any sense to me. I had become a Christian several years earlier but had never really read the Bible with any regularity outside of church services. I was on the up-and-down see-saw of guilt when it came to reading the Bible and learning more about the gospel. So it seemed insane to think that I would go from a starvation diet to a 7-course meal . . . every day.

The only thing more insane than this plan was how well it worked for me. If I read a chapter that didn’t jump out as particularly relevant or significant to me, no problem—there were plenty more opportunities that day. The time required to read everything meant that I couldn’t slow down and meditate too much on any passage. That turned out to be fine. Since I knew so little of the overall story of the Bible, my meditations often led me to thoughts and conclusions that sounded spiritual but (come to find out) were directly condemned in other parts of the Bible! By seeing the “big picture,” I became better and wiser at seeing how all of Scripture (even the “boring” parts) were essential to God’s plan to make me more like Jesus (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Why the name “Grant”? Because the plan was put together by Professor Grant Horner, an English professor and Christian who started using it in graduate school to keep himself connected to God’s word in all its beauty. (You can read his story as well as his explanation of the system here. There’s even a snazzy set of bookmarks to print out for yourself at the end.)

How does this work itself out in my day? When it’s time to sit down and read my Bible, I open up to the first section: Gospels. I read the chapter at a brisk pace, not pausing for too much reflection. When I finish, I try to summarize the chapter in my head with a sentence or two, aiming to use the passage to answer the questions “Who is God?”, “Who am I?”, and “What does God ask of me?” Then, without further ado, I turn straight to the second section (Pentateuch) with the help of bookmarks. (My wife printed out the ones above and laminated them for me. She’s the best.) And so it continues, until I read all 10 chapters or (as sometimes happens) I run out of time. In those cases, I pick up where I left off later in the day. (Note: I also spend time every day memorizing Scripture, since it’s the best way I know to meditate on truth and work it through my head into my heart. Read widely and deeply!)

Without fail, I read at least one thing every day that thrills me, intrigues me, jumps out to me, or obviously applies to me. It often happens in my favorite part of the Bible, the Old Testament’s wisdom literature (covered in sections 5, 6, and 7). But now that I’ve got more experience with the Bible’s overall story, it also happens when I’m reading Paul’s letters or the Old Testament prophets. I have even been moved to tears by Leviticus (really, no kidding), in part because reading the entire Bible helped me see how each of its parts connects to Jesus and to myself.

Take a peek at my friend Grant for yourself. Get to know it yourself. But more importantly, get to know the God and Savior he showcases.

The Power of the If

Do you find history interesting? If you think history is all about memorizing dates, I doubt it. But, as many people have pointed out, maybe the best reason to study history is that it is so full of good stories. I studied ancient Greek in college, and if there’s one period of history that’s chock full of daring deeds and notable quotes, it’s the five-hundred-or-so years when the Greek city-states were in their prime. In particular, the people of Sparta were famous for the bravery and brutal military discipline that pervaded their entire culture. Yet they were also known for their great (if deeply sarcastic) sense of humor. In fact, the English word “laconic” (which describes an answer that is amusingly clever and brutally blunt at the same time) comes from Laconia, the region where Sparta is found.

Just one example of the Spartans’ clever brevity comes from the late classical period, when Philip II of Macedonia attempted to invade Sparta. Having already conquered many of the Spartans’ neighbors, Philip sent a messenger with terms of peace—and a warning: “If I invade Laconia you will be destroyed, never to rise again.” The Spartans responded with a single word: “If.”1  As a result, neither Philip (nor his famous son, Alexander the Great) ever tried to conquer the Spartans.

In Hebrews 3:1-6, the author wraps up his argument for Jesus Christ’s superiority to Moses by saying that we experience the blessings of belonging to his family (literally “house”) “if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast” (3:6). In the next section of the letter (Hebrews 3:7-4:13), the author uses a great story from the history of God’s people to underline a very important point about faith and obedience.

So, as the Holy Spirit says: “Today, if you hear his voice,  do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the desert, where your fathers tested and tried me and for forty years saw what I did. That is why I was angry with that generation, and I said, ‘Their hearts are always going astray, and they have not known my ways.’ So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.'” See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first. As has just been said: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion.” Who were they who heard and rebelled? Were they not all those Moses led out of Egypt? And with whom was he angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the desert? And to whom did God swear that they would never enter his rest if not to those who disobeyed? So we see that they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief.

Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it. For we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith. Now we who have believed enter that rest, just as God has said, “So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.'” And yet his work has been finished since the creation of the world. For somewhere he has spoken about the seventh day in these words: “And on the seventh day God rested from all his work.” And again in the passage above he says, “They shall never enter my rest.” It still remains that some will enter that rest, and those who formerly had the gospel preached to them did not go in, because of their disobedience. Therefore God again set a certain day, calling it Today, when a long time later he spoke through David, as was said before: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day. There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his.

Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience. For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

In order for this passage to hit you like it should, it’s important to have a basic grasp of Israel’s timeline. In the period following their exodus from Egypt, the nation of Israel (led by Moses) wandered for forty years through the wilderness before ultimately arriving in Palestine. They were led into the Promised Land by Joshua, and after approximately four hundred years of chaos and disorder in the land, Israel began its all too brief golden age under David, who reflected on the wilderness period in Psalm 95 (quoted throughout this passage). After him, it would be another thousand years before Jesus’ earthly ministry. It looks something like this:

Moses —> Joshua —> David —> Jesus Christ [note: not to scale!]

The author poses this question: Who, out of all God’s people in history, have actually followed through with their commitment to follow God and experienced his promised rest? Looking at the wilderness period, the statistics are shocking: of the generation who left Egypt—a generation comprised of perhaps a million people or more—only two were allowed to experience a taste of God’s rest by entering the Promised Land.  And, the author points out, the “rest” experienced by those who continued to inhabit the land was fleeting and incomplete, to put it mildly!

What was the difference between those who rested (even if only superficially) and those who died before achieving it? Throughout this passage, the author divides those who followed God in this way: those who believed, and those who disobeyed. In the words of Martin Luther, the “sin behind the sin” of disobedience was unbelief. People either took God at his word (and acted accordingly) or they didn’t (and acted accordingly). The former group got rest; the latter died in their disobedience, experiencing the various consequences of sin before dying restless.

What’s the lesson for his audience (and for us)? First, be warned that sin is blinding. The people who died in the wilderness considered themselves to be faithful believers—even when their idolatry, blasphemy, and raw disobedience blatantly contradicted their words. Sin blinds us all. The question isn’t “Am I self-deluded?” but “What am I doing about my self-delusion?” Do you really believe that you’re that blind to yourself and your true obedience?

Secondly, the only remedy to the blinding effects of sin is to surround yourself with other believers who can see your heart better than you can.  Someone who claims to follow God but refuses to commit to a local group of believers isn’t just missing out; they’re out to sea without a compass or a sail, completely open to any number of dangers. Do you have a diverse group of Christians—that is, a local church—where you let others see the real you? Is there anyone in your life who knows you and God well enough to encourage (or “exhort,” 3:13) you where you really are?

If not, the threat is real. The full and final rest of God isn’t in a safe suburb in Palestine; it’s in the new heavens and earth, which we still await with patience. Are you going to make it to the finish line of life and experience that rest? You won’t if you don’t take Jesus at his word to save weak and weary sinners like us and live out of that faith. And you won’t if you don’t have a meaningful, practically challenging relationship with a local church.

Your sin may blind you, but it cannot throw off the all-seeing, all-knowing, searching Scriptures of God. Whatever lies we tell and walls we build up, God won’t judge us according to our own consciences but according to what he tells us in his word. Will you endure the hardships of the Christian life and receive the reward of living forever before God and his glory? You will if your faith is such that you take God at his word and repent of your sins. If.

  1.  Plutarch, “De garrulitate, 17.”

The Book of Mormon and the King James Bible

At Red Door Church we’ve been taking a look at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS).  Along the way, we’ve noticed that Joseph Smith quotes directly from the King James Bible (KJV) or paraphrases it in a handful of places in the Book of Mormon (which was allegedly revealed to him by the angel Moroni).

This is a big problem for the Book of Mormon.

The point of this short entry is to cast doubt upon the legitimacy of the BOM (Book of Mormon).  If quotations from a book written some one-thousand years after the BOM’s first edition somehow find their way into the BOM itself, then we have virtually undeniable evidence that the BOM is not in fact the book the LDS church claims it to be.

BOM Plagiarisms From the KJV

On the plagiarisms from the King James Bible, cult expert Walter Martin writes:

“A careful examination of The Book of Mormon reveals that it contains thousands of words from the King James Bible.  In fact, verbatim quotations, some of considerable length [can be found there].  The comparisons of Moroni 10 with 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; Nephi 114 with Isaiah 4; and 2 Nephi 12 with Isaiah 2 reveal that Joseph Smith made free use of his Bible to supplement the alleged revelation of the golden plates.  The book of Mosiah, chapter 14, in The Book of Mormon, is a reproduction of the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah the prophet, and 3 Nephi 13 copies Matthew 6 almost word-for-word.” 1

While to some this may not seem like a big deal, The Book of Mormon (BOM) claims that the golden plates which are the text from which the BOM is translated, were engraved by two prophet-historians, Mormon and his son Moroni, in the year 400.  But the King James Bible didn’t arrive on the scene until 1611.  So if the alleged dates for the BOM are accurate how did the plagiarisms occur? 2

King James Version Errors

What is more, the BOM quotes sections of the KJV which scholars now know to contain errors.  Jeremy Runnells, a formerly committed Mormon and BYU grad, in his now famous “Letter to a CES Director”, asks at the very beginning of his paper:

“What are 1769 King James Version edition errors doing in the Book of Mormon? An ancient text? Errors which are unique to the 1769 edition that Joseph Smith owned?” 3

One of the more famous KJV errors worth mentioning here that makes its way into the BOM is 1 John 5:7-8.  (This error is found in all editions of the KJV, including the first completed in 1611.)  Scholarly consensus is now overwhelming that this passage is a Latin corruption that migrated into the Greek manuscript tradition in later editions.  Bruce Metzger writes about manuscript 61, the first Greek manuscript discovered which contains this passage:

“The manuscript [dating from the late 15th or early 16th century], which is remarkably fresh and clean throughout (except for the two pages containing 1 John 5, which are soiled from repeated examination of this passage), gives every appearance of having been produced expressly for the purpose of confuting Erasmus.” 4

Another Greek expert and conservative bible scholar, Daniel B. Wallace tells the story of how this interpolation happened:

“[T]he Greek text which stands behind the King James Bible is demonstrably inferior in certain places. The man who edited the text was a Roman Catholic priest and humanist named Erasmus. He was under pressure to get it to the press as soon as possible since (a) no edition of the Greek New Testament had yet been published, and (b) he had heard that Cardinal Ximenes and his associates were just about to publish an edition of the Greek New Testament and he was in a race to beat them. Consequently, his edition has been called the most poorly edited volume in all of literature! It is filled with hundreds of typographical errors which even Erasmus would acknowledge. Two places deserve special mention. In the last six verses of Revelation, Erasmus had no Greek manuscript (=MS) (he only used half a dozen, very late MSS for the whole New Testament any way). He was therefore forced to ‘back-translate’ the Latin into Greek and by so doing he created seventeen variants which have never been found in any other Greek MS of Revelation! He merely guessed at what the Greek might have been. Secondly, for 1 John 5:7-8, Erasmus followed the majority of MSS in reading “there are three witnesses in heaven, the Spirit and the water and the blood.” However, there was an uproar in some Roman Catholic circles because his text did not read ‘there are three witnesses in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit.’ Erasmus said that he did not put that in the text because he found no Greek MSS which had that reading. This implicit challenge—viz., that if he found such a reading in any Greek MS, he would put it in his text—did not go unnoticed. In 1520, a scribe at Oxford named Roy made such a Greek MS (codex 61, now in Dublin). Erasmus’ third edition had the second reading because such a Greek MS was ‘made to order’ to fill the challenge! To date, only a handful of Greek MSS have been discovered which have the Trinitarian formula in 1 John 5:7-8, though none of them is demonstrably earlier than the sixteenth century.” 5

The spurious passage from the KJV can be found paraphrased in 3 Nephi 11:27 (BOM):

“And after this manner shall ye baptize in my name; for behold, verily I say unto to you, that the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost are one; and I am in the Father, and the Father in me, and the Father and I are one.”

The bolded phrase above is quoted almost verbatim from 1 John 5:7, a phrase which cannot be found anywhere else in the New Testament.  Coincidence?  It appears that Joseph Smith paraphrased the interpolation from the KJV into the BOM not knowing the difference. 6

Runnells provides various other places where KJV errors make their way into the BOM.  You can download the PDF of “Letter to a CES Director” here and see them for yourself.

What’s the Point?

I have in my lap The Book of Mormon.  In the very front it says this:

“The Book of Mormon: An account written by the hand of Mormon upon plates taken from the plates of Nephi… Translated by Joseph Smith, Jun.”

What we have seen, however, casts serious doubt that the BOM is in fact what it’s opening pages claim.  There seems to be no way around the conclusion that Joseph Smith used the KJV Bible as original source material for parts of the BOM, and not some alleged “golden plates” (or visions) which were revealed to him and later translated.

  1. Walter Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults: The Definitive Work on the Subject (Bethany House Publishers),
  2. The assumption here, of course, is that Joseph Smith simply copied or paraphrased these parts of the BOM directly from the King James Bible and did not in fact translate them from any alleged golden plates.
  3. Jeremy T. Runnells, “Letter to a CES Director.” Accessed on 6/23/15. Please see Creative Commons License.
  4. Bruce M. Metzger, “The Text of the New Testament, ” 3rd Ed.  (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 62.
  5. “Why I Do Not Think the King James Bible is the Best Translation Available Today.” Accessed on 6/23/15.  Can be found at https://bible.org/article/why-i-do-not-think-king-james-bible-best-translation-available-today.
  6. Christians of course would affirm the truthfulness of the statement, that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are one.  But it would be wrong to assume that our affirmation of this truth is dependant upon this single passage.  In the words of James R. White “We are in no way dependant upon the phrase for our knowledge of the Trinity or the unity of the three Persons: Father, Son and Spirit.  The doctrine of the Trinity does not stand or fall upon the inclusion of the Comma.  Beyond this, however, we have a phrase that is simply not a part of the ancient Greek manuscripts of John’s first epistle.”  Quoted from his book “The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust the Modern Translations?” (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 1995), 61.