Observations on life; particularly spiritual

Posts tagged “bible

Gender and marriage

Gender & marriage 4 400pxSame-sex marriage has been legalized in about 23 countries including: The Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Canada, South Africa, Norway, Sweden, Portugal, Iceland, Argentina, Denmark, France, Brazil, Uruguay, New Zealand, United Kingdom (excluding Northern Ireland), Ireland, Luxemburg, United States, Colombia, Greenland, Finland, and Slovenia.

This month Australia faces a postal survey on marriage law. The survey form asks the question: “Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?” In this context, a recent article in the local media claims that it’s wrong to claim that marriage is “a union between a man and a woman as stated in the Bible” and it’s wrong to claim that “a biblical view of marriage is between one man and one woman”. So what does the Bible say about gender and marriage? We will look at the portion of the New Testament written to the church (Acts to Revelation) in the first century AD because the principles given in this part of the Bible are directly relevant to us today.

Sexual orientation

According to the Oxford dictionary, sexual orientation is “A person’s sexual identity in relation to the gender to which they are attracted; the fact of being heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual”. The media article also says that “There is nothing like the contemporary concept of sexual orientation in the biblical text”, with the implication that this is a modern idea to which the Bible is irrelevant.

But same-gender attraction isn’t new. It (and homosexuality) was prevalent in the Roman Empire. And homosexual sexual activity is mentioned specifically in three passages of the Bible between Acts and Revelation (Romans. 1:18-32; 1 Cor. 6:8-10; 1 Tim. 1:8-11). These weren’t isolated incidences of homosexual practices, but were characteristic patterns of behavior by a sector of people in society at that time. So, the Bible certainly addresses homosexuality. And if sexual orientation includes homosexual sexual activities, then what the Bible says is relevant to “the contemporary concept of sexual orientation”. So the article’s claim about sexual orientation and the Bible is false.

Husband and wife

The Greek noun translated “man” (aner Strongs #435) means a male human being or a husband or a group of people, with the preference being indicated by the context. According to the ESV, it is translated “husband” or “husbands” in 36 verses in Acts to Revelation.

The Greek noun translated woman (gune #1135) means a female human being or a wife, with the preference being indicated by the context. According to the ESV, it is translated “wife” or “wife’s” in 32 verses and “wives” in 11 verses in Acts to Revelation.

What was the pattern of these marriages in the early church? The early Christians followed the teachings of the apostles who had been trained by Jesus. And the apostles followed the teachings of Jesus who said, “at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Mk. 10:6-9NIV). This was repeated by Paul, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh” (Eph. 5:31). Clearly, these marriages involved the union of one man and one woman. It involved both genders (heterosexual marriage), and not only a single gender (homosexual marriage).

Is heterosexual marriage a command, a model or a report?

The contents of the Bible can be divided into commands, models to follow and reports of events. A command is mandatory (not optional) and prescriptive (not descriptive). A model to follow is a practice that is described that is worth following today. Whereas, a report is a description of events (like in the news media) that is not necessarily worth following today. For this post, all the verses in the ESV that included any of the words, “husband”, “wife”, or “marriage” were examined.

Heterosexual marriage commanded

Paul mentioned husbands and wives when he wrote, “Now for the matters you wrote about: ‘It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.’ But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband” (1 Cor. 7:1-2). Here Paul is correcting two false teachings, that the married should abstain from sexual relations and an acceptance of sexual relations outside marriage (adultery or homosexuality). His command restricts sexual relations to marriage. And the marriage is where “each man” has “his own wife” and “each woman” has “her own husband”. So sexual relations should be restricted to heterosexual marriage. “Husband” is mentioned in six more verses in this chapter with the same meaning. “Wife” is mentioned in ten more verses in this chapter with the same meaning. And “wives” is mentioned in one more verse in this chapter. So, in this passage, marriage is a union between a man and a woman.

Paul’s main instructions for marriage are given in Ephesians 5:22-33. And a short summary of these is given in Colossians 3:19-19, Titus 2:4-5 and 1 Peter 3:1-7. He commands husbands to lead and love their wives, and wives to respect and submit to their husbands. These are commands for heterosexual marriage between a man and a woman. Elsewhere, he condemns homosexual sexual activity (Romans. 1:18-32; 1 Cor. 6:8-10; 1 Tim. 1:8-11).

The Bible says that a church leader (one of the elders) must be “faithful to his wife” (1 Tim. 3:2, 12; Tit. 1:6). So, if they were married, it was to be to a woman (wife). Likewise, a widow that was supported by the church must have been “faithful to her husband” (1 Tim. 5:9). In these passages, marriage is a union between a man and a woman.

One of the purposes of heterosexual marriage was to have children (1 Tim. 5:14). In this verse, marriage is a union between a man and a woman. In those days, homosexuals could only have children by adoption.

Another purpose of heterosexual marriage was to prevent sexual immorality (1 Cor. 7:2, 8-9). In this passage, marriage is a union between a man and a woman. On the other hand, same-sex marriage promotes sexual immorality in the form of homosexual sexual activity.

According to the Bible, another characteristic of heterosexual marriage is that it is intended to be a lifelong relationship (Rom. 7:2-3). And divorce was meant to be rare. Unfortunately, this is not the case today where divorce and serial marriage is common.

We see that in all these instances when the Bible issues commands to people that are married, the marriage is a union between a man and a woman.

But what about models of marriage in this portion of the Bible that aren’t commands?

Gender & marriage 2 400pxHeterosexual marriage modelled

There are other verses that indicate that the pattern of marriage in the early church was monogamous and heterosexual. Paul wrote, “I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God” (1 Cor. 11:3). When describing the relationship between husbands and wives, Paul implies that each wife had a single husband. Similarly, if wives had any questions at church, they were to “ask their own husbands” as the head of the household (1 Cor. 14:35). In these passages, marriage is a union between a man and a woman.

Paul stayed in Corinth with Aquila and his wife Priscilla (Acts 18:1-3). And the apostles and their wives were entitled to be supported by the churches (1 Cor. 9:5). In these passages, marriage is a union between a man and a woman.

But what about when marriage is reported in this portion of the Bible and it isn’t necessarily an example to follow?

Heterosexual marriage reported

There are other verses that indicate that the pattern of marriage in the early church was monogamous and that the most common pattern of marriage in the first century was heterosexual. Ananias and Sapphira were a husband and wife who set a bad example (Acts. 5:1-10). And the governor of Judea, Antonius Felix had a wife called Drusilla (Acts 24:24). Apparently he married three queens in quick succession. In these cases, marriage is a union between a man and a woman. This makes sense because the continuation of the human race depended on the birth of children, which required a husband and a wife.

In an illustration, Paul said that adultery was wrong (being different to the pattern endorsed by Jesus), but a woman could marry another man if her first husband dies (Rom. 7:2-3). This marriage involved one man and one woman. Like adultery, homosexual marriage is also wrong (being different to the pattern endorsed by Jesus).

Besides these references to marriage between a man and a woman, marriage is also used as a metaphor in the Bible.

Marriage as a metaphor

In the New Testament, Jesus Christ is said to be like a bridegroom (or husband) and the church is said to be like His bride (or wife). Paul said, “I promised you to one husband, to Christ” (2 Cor. 11:2). After mentioning marriage, Paul says “This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:32). So the union of a man and a woman in marriage is an illustration of the union between Jesus and the people of God (the church). The metaphorical union culminates in the wedding of the Lamb (Rev. 19:7-9). So heaven begins with a wedding! It’s a wedding where two different types of people are united (Jesus and the church). In the Bible they are likened to husband and wife, man and woman; and not man and man or woman and woman. The metaphor only works for heterosexual marriage, and not for homosexual marriage (as there is no “husband” or “wife”, just “partners”).

Other types of marriage?

I am not aware of any other verses between Acts and Revelation in the Bible that are related to marriage. So the Bible doesn’t teach any other pattern for marriage besides a man and a woman. This means that homosexual marriage is a human invention, whereas heterosexual marriage is God-ordained.

Other media claims

We will now look at four additional claims in the media article. First, “There is nothing inherently Christian about the so-called traditional arrangement of the nuclear family”. This is deceptive. The topic is “same-sex marriage”, not “the nuclear family”. I have shown that the Bible teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman. As one of the purposes of marriage is to raise children, then a normal family includes: a husband, a wife, and their children (a nuclear family). But it isn’t restricted to only a nuclear family! Of course a household may also include other generations and/or relatives.

Second, “You can find that model (heterosexual marriage) in the Bible if you look for it, but it is not the dominant view. Nor does the Bible condemn what we understand to be loving, mutual LGBTQI relationships today”. This statement is based on the Old Testament, which was written under the Old Covenant of Moses. As the Bible is a progressive revelation of the will of God, we should give more weight to the portion written to the church (Acts to Revelation). When we do this it is evident that heterosexual marriage is the dominant view. So the article is wrong. The Bible condemns homosexual sexual activity. If “loving, mutual LGBTQI relationships today” include homosexual sexual activity, then the Bible condemns them as sinful.

Third, “Paul, thinks celibacy is preferable (above marriage) for a Christian”. But this isn’t representative of Paul’s view on marriage. It’s cherry-picking. The passage being referred to addresses those who were unmarried (1 Cor. 7:7-9). Paul was unmarried when he wrote it. But we don’t know whether he had always been a bachelor or whether he was a widower at the time. Paul expands on this passage in verses 25-38. His principle was if you are married, don’t get divorced, and if you are unmarried stay that way if you can because you will have more time to serve the Lord and marriage brings extra troubles. “But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry”. Furthermore, about ten years later Paul condemned those who “forbid people to marry” (1 Tim. 4:3). So, Paul’s view wasn’t as simple as that proposed in the media article.

And finally, it also claims Paul’s statement that “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you (Christians) are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28), “profoundly disrupts patriarchal family structures, gender roles and hierarchy”. This verse states that the unity between Christians transcends their racial, social and gender differences. They are equally accepted by God. The differences between them are demolished with regard to our salvation, our position (status) before God and our inheritance. But the distinctions still existed in everyday life. So the statement has no impact on “family structures, gender roles and hierarchy”, apart from Christians recognizing that no category has more acceptance with God than another. See my post on the common misuse of this verse.

Conclusion

We have seen that the biblical view of marriage in the first century AD was between one man and one woman. As we are still under the new covenant today, the biblical view of marriage for us in the 21st century AD is also between one man and one woman. So the media article is wrong.

Written, September 2017

Also see: Jesus and marriage
Same-sex marriage
Marriage equality

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Same-sex marriage

same-sex marriage 3 400pxThis month Australia faces a postal survey on marriage law. The survey form asks the question: “Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?” If the law was changed in this way, it would change the current meaning of the word “marriage”. In this context, a recent article in the local media claims that the Bible “never condemns same-sex marriage, partly because it simply does not address the issue directly”. So what does the Bible say about same-sex marriage?

The term “same-sex marriage” or “marriage equality” is a modern term for “homosexual marriage” (a long-term homosexual relationship). What does the Bible say about homosexual relationships? We will look at the portion of the New Testament written to the church (Acts to Revelation) in the first century AD because the principles given in this part of the Bible are directly relevant to today. Homosexuality is mentioned specifically in three such passages and we will now look these in turn.

Romans 1

The book of Romans was written by Paul to the church in Rome, the capital of the Roman Empire (v,7). After the introduction (v.1-15), the theme is given as God’s plan of salvation for humanity (v.16-17). This is the gospel (good news) about Jesus Christ and His resurrection “that brings salvation to everyone who believes”. Then Paul shows that everyone is a sinner in need of this salvation. He considers Gentiles who haven’t heard the gospel (1:18-32), self-righteous moralists (2:1-16), Jews (2:17 – 3:8) and then all humanity (3:9-20). He then shows how this salvation must be received by faith in what Christ has done (3:21 – 5:21).

The passage we are looking at describes Gentiles who reject God’s revelation:

18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—His eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified Him as God nor gave thanks to Him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.

24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.

28 Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. 32 Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
(Romans 1:18-32NIV)

The steps involved in understanding a passage in the Bible begin with finding the original meaning and then considering what has changed since that time before applying it to our situation today.

What did it mean in the 1st century AD?

Those who reject God’s revelation (which is available to everyone), are said to be ungodly and wicked, and they “suppress the truth” (v.18). As God reveals Himself in His creation these “people are without excuse” (v.20). The consequences of their choice to reject God’s revelation in creation are that they foolishly worship idols (instead of God) and behave wickedly (Rom. 1:18-23). Then Paul describes some of this behavior, “Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another (sexual immorality) … Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations (heterosexual marriage) for unnatural ones (homosexual sexual activity). In the same way, the men also abandoned natural relations with women (heterosexual marriage) and were inflamed with lust for one another (homosexual sexual activity). Men committed shameful acts with other men (homosexual sexual activity), and received in themselves the due penalty for their error…. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.” (Rom. 1:24-27, 32).

Losing a proper view of God (v. 23) leads to sexual immorality (v.24), including homosexuality (v.26-27). In particular, homosexual sexual activity is described as “shameful lusts”, “unnatural” and “shameful acts”. It’s an unnatural sexual activity because it’s an abnormal sexual activity. Natural (normal) sexual activity is in heterosexual marriage, which is fruitful (can produce new life). This was God’s order in creation (Adam and Eve were the first husband and wife). If Adam was homosexual, there would be no humanity!

This passage says that homosexual sexual activity (which was prevalent in the Roman Empire) was one of the characteristics of an ungodly lifestyle. The other characteristics of an ungodly lifestyle were idol worship (v.23, 25), other sexual immorality (v.24) and “every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy” (v. 29-31). This list of sins identifies those who were not Christians.

God’s judgement for these people who reject His revelation is given in v.32 as eternal separation from God (spiritual “death”). What a sad outcome of going one’s own way. So rejecting God’s truth has eternal consequences. The only way for such people to avoid God’s judgment is to repent (stop this behavior) and turn to God.

So what did this passage mean in the 1st century AD? The characteristics of ungodly behavior are given and idolatry and homosexual sexual activity are condemned in particular. It meant that anyone who practiced idolatry was under God’s judgment. And anyone who practiced homosexual sexual activity was under God’s judgment. And the same applied to the behaviors listed in v.29-31. Everyone was condemned! All were sinners who deserved eternal punishment in hell. The only way to avoid this punishment was to accept the good news about Jesus.

So homosexual sexual activity was one of the characteristics of the flesh (sinful nature; Gal. 5:19-21). This means that the Bible condemned homosexual sexual activity in the 1st century AD. As there are no qualifications given, any and all homosexual sexual activity was condemned. They were all sinful.

How does it apply in the 21st century AD?

What has changed since the 1st century AD? The biblical principles for the church to follow (including those in Romans) haven’t changed. And people still reject God’s revelation in creation. So human rebellion against God hasn’t changed. And idolatry, sexual immorality, homosexual sexual activity, wickedness, greed, envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice and gossip, slander still occur. And people are still God-haters, insolent, arrogant, boastful, contrivers of all sorts of evil, disobedient to parents, senseless, promise-breakers, cruel, and ruthless. So human nature hasn’t changed. But history, society and technology have changed. Given these similarities, the application of this passage is like what it was in the first century. Any and all homosexual sexual activity is unnatural and against God’s order of creation.

What about same-sex attraction? This passage is addressing homosexual sexual behavior and not just homosexual attraction. There is a difference between being a practicing homosexual and having a homosexual tendency. It is the sexual practice that the Bible condemns, not the orientation. There are many who have an attraction to their own gender but refuse to give in to it. By the power of the Spirit, they have disciplined themselves to resist the temptation and to live in purity.

What about loving homosexual relationships? These are what’s being addressed in the marriage survey. If they include homosexual sexual activity (such as same-sex marriage), then they come under God’s condemnation.

Isn’t it outdated to say that gays are “shameful”? In some societies homosexuality is promoted as an “alternative lifestyle” that should be accepted in a spirit of tolerance. And there is “gay pride” and rainbow festivals celebrating cultural diversity. This is not in God’s order of things but is an indication of humanity’s rebellion against God and against His order in creation. In God’s sight such behavior is shameful, and not something to be proud of. The difference is that the Bible presents God’s viewpoint and the alternative views are those of sinful humanity. On the other hand, the Bible says that heterosexual marriage is honorable (Heb. 13:4).

What did the media article claim about this passage?

In Romans 1:26-27, Paul condemns people swapping out their usual partner for one of the same gender. He claims this is a result of idolatry and uses it as part of his argument for why one should only follow (his) God.
This is a wrong assumption and an attempt to narrow the application of this passage. The passage was written to all at the church at Rome and not just to those who were married heterosexually. It isn’t restricted to any one part of society and not another. Instead, according to this passage any and all homosexual sexual activity was unnatural and against God’s order of creation. This includes so called “same-sex marriage” and “marriage equality” if it includes homosexual sexual activity.
Where is the evidence that the passage is about “swapping out their usual partner for one of the same gender”? There is none! This is pure speculation. It comes from the writer’s alleged context of “Even if married (to a woman) and often prior to marriage, a wealthy man might have a young male lover or male partner”.

It is typical of the strong “them and us” rhetoric of the ancient world, serving a larger argument and is not a statement on sexuality per se.
Who are the “them and us”? The passage isn’t comparing Gentiles against Jews or Christians, because this section of Romans is showing that all are sinners. It’s showing similarities, not differences. The larger argument is that all the Gentiles were sinners. This means that all the items listed (including homosexual sexual activity) were sinful.

If it’s not a statement on sexuality, and homosexual sexual activity (in a loving relationship) is deemed to be acceptable to God, then can aspects of the other items listed (such as: idolatry, sexual immorality, wickedness, greed, envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice) be acceptable lifestyles in God’s eyes as well? According to this line of argument, murder is acceptable sometimes!

As New Testament scholar Sean Winter summarizes: “Paul shares a stereotypical Jewish distrust of Graeco-Roman same sex activity, but is simply not talking about loving partnerships between people with same sex orientation.”

If “loving partnerships between people with same sex orientation” include homosexual sexual activity, then they are included in the scope of this passage because that is the topic being addressed. According to this passage any and all homosexual sexual activity is unnatural and against God’s order of creation.

The statement that “Paul shares a stereotypical Jewish distrust of Graeco-Roman same sex activity” is a very low view of scripture. This is God’s view, not just Paul’s! It’s not just his cultural bias.

It is unlikely Paul had any concept of sexual orientation and he was certainly not describing a committed adult relationship.
As shown above, Paul was addressing homosexual sexual activity. If “sexual orientation” implies homosexual sexual activity, then what Paul says applies to such sexual orientation. And if “a committed adult relationship” implies homosexual sexual activity, then what Paul says applies to such relationships.

same-sex marriage 4 376 px1 Corinthians 6

This letter was written by Paul to the church at Corinth. It deals with problems in the church about Christian conduct. One of the problems was that they were cheating and wronging other Christians when they were trying to resolve disputes in court. Paul says that they were behaving like unbelievers and he lists some other behaviors that are under God’s judgment. The only way for such people to avoid God’s judgment is to repent (stop this behavior) and turn to God (v.11).

“Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers and sisters. Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:8-10).

What did it mean in the 1st century AD?

This list of sins identifies those who were not Christians. People who practice any of these (and similar) sins are not true Christians. Paul says, “do not be deceived” because the sexually immoral love to deceive others about their sexual immorality, idolaters about their idolatry, adulterers about their adultery, homosexuals about their homosexuality, thieves about their theft, the greedy about their greed, drunkards about their drunkenness, slanderers about their slander, and swindlers about their swindling.

In this passage, “men who have sex with men” is a translation of two Greek words “malkos” (Strongs #3120) and “arsenokoites” (Strongs #733). The NET translation notes for these words are given in the Appendix.

The Greek word “malkos” (Strongs #3120) means “soft or effeminate” (Strongs concordance). According to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon it means “soft, soft to touch or metaphorically, and in a bad sense: effeminate, of a catamite (a boy kept for homosexual practices) or a male who submits his body to unnatural lewdness”. This word occurs four times in the New Testament (Mt. 11:8 (twice); Lk. 7:25; 1 Cor. 6:9).

The Greek word “arsenokoites” (Strongs #733) means “a male engaging in same-gender sexual activity” (Strongs concordance). According to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon it means “a male who lies with a male as with a female, a sodomite”. This word occurs twice in the New Testament (1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Tim. 1:10).

These words are translated in 1 Cor. 6:9 as follows:
NIV: “men who have sex with men” (Comment: the translation of two Greek words that refer to the passive and active participants in homosexual acts).
ESV: “men who practice homosexuality” (Comment: The two Greek terms translated by this phrase refer to the passive and active partners in consensual homosexual acts).
HCSB: “anyone practicing homosexuality” (Comment: literally “passive homosexual partners, active homosexual partners”).
NET: “passive homosexual partners, practicing homosexuals” (Comment: see translation notes in the Appendix).

This means any and all male homosexual sexual activity is sinful and bars one from the kingdom of God. There are no qualifications.

How does it apply in the 21st century AD?

The other behaviors listed in this passage can still occur today; wrongdoing, sexual immorality, idolatry, adultery, theft, greed, drunkenness, slander, and swindling. So human nature hasn’t changed. But history, society and technology have changed. Given these similarities, the application of this passage is like what it was in the first century. Any and all male homosexual sexual activity is sinful and its practice bars one from the kingdom of God. Ongoing male homosexual sexual activity is one of the characteristics of unbelievers.

What did the media article claim about this passage?

Paul is using a standard list of vices here to make a wider rhetorical point.

The main point of this passage is that the Corinthians should stop behaving like unbelievers. This list of sins (wrongdoing, sexually immorality, idolatry, adultery, theft, greed, drunkenness, slander, and swindling) identifies those who were not Christians. As each of these is a sin in God’s eyes, then homosexual sexual activity is also a sin in God’s eyes.

Where some English translations might include “homosexuality” on this list, the translation is not that simple, which is why various English words are used (adulterer, immoral persons, prostitutes).

The ESV, HCSB and NET translations use the words “homosexuality” and “homosexual” and the NIV says “men who have sex with men”, which is equivalent. See the Appendix for detailed translation notes. In this context, the two Greek word seem to mean “the passive and active partners in consensual homosexual acts”.

The Greek word malakoi in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 means “soft” or “effeminate” and captures the Graeco-Roman distaste at a man taking a “female” role. In the Bible it is commonly used to describe fancy clothing, and outside the Bible was a term for cult prostitutes.

See the Appendix for detailed translation notes. In this context, the Greek word seems to mean “the passive partner in consensual homosexual acts”.

The word arsenokoites is rarer. Scholars have debated whether it refers to male prostitution or pederasty or something else. To translate it as “homosexual” is problematic for two reasons: it is unlikely Paul had any concept of sexual orientation and he was certainly not describing a committed adult relationship.

See the Appendix for detailed translation notes. In this context, the Greek word seems to mean “the active partner in consensual homosexual acts”. Paul’s treatment is so general that it includes “sexual orientation” and “a committed adult relationship”.

1 Timothy 1

This letter was written by Paul to Timothy to instruct him about the care of the church at Ephesus, including to oppose false teachers of legalism and Gnosticism. Some of the false teachers were teaching about the law, but they didn’t know what they were talking about (v.7). Paul then explains that the purpose of the law is to reveal people’s sin and to produce conviction of sin. The passage we are looking at has a list of sins that keep people from God.

“We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God, which He entrusted to me” (1 Tim. 1:8-11).

What did it mean in the 1st century AD?

This list of sins identifies ungodly behavior. It includes: those who kill their fathers or mothers, murderers, the sexually immoral, those practicing homosexuality, slave traders, liars, and perjurers (lying under oath).

The Greek word translated “those practicing homosexuality” is “arsenokoites” (Strongs #733), which means “a male engaging in same-gender sexual activity” (Strongs concordance). According to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon it means “a male who lies with a male as with a female, a sodomite”. So it means homosexual sexual activity. This word occurs twice in the New Testament (1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Tim. 1:10).

The fact that “arsenokoites” is included in the same list as murder means that in God’s sight homosexual sexual activity is a serious sin. This was how it was to be viewed by the early church.

How does it apply in the 21st century AD?

The other behaviors listed in this passage can still occur today; murderer, sexual immorality, slave trading, and lying. So human nature hasn’t changed. But history, society and technology have changed.

Given these similarities, the application of this passage is like what it was in the first century. Any and all male homosexual sexual activity is sinful.

same-sex marriage 5 400pxDiscussion

We may think that we are going well because we aren’t involved in homosexual sexual activity. And we may condemn the sinful behavior of others. But often we can’t see our own sin. We neglect what is sinful in our lives. Paul told the self-righteous, “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same (kind of) things” (Rom. 2:1). It’s easy to be a hypocrite.

Paul also challenged the Jews about hypocrisy, “you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law (Rom. 2:21-23)?

Likewise, do we lapse into idolatry (anything that replaces God), greed, deceit, gossiping, and lying? These are all listed alongside homosexuality in the passages we have looked at (Rom. 1:22-31; 1 Cor. 6:9-10; 1 Tim. 1:9-10). The Bible says that people who practice any of these (and similar) sins are not true Christians. The solution is to confess our failures and repent (change behavior) and turn to follow God once again (1 Jn. 1:9). So let’s always try to honor God and follow His will, be content and generous, and be honest,

How should we deal with instances of homosexual sexual activity? We can look at how Jesus responded to adultery and how Paul responded to incest (Jn. 8:1-11; 1 Cor. 5:1-13). Jesus didn’t condemn or pardon the adulteress, but He told her to “leave your life of sin” (Jn.8:11). And Paul said that ongoing sexual immorality amongst church members, including homosexual sexual activity, is to be judged by excommunication (1 Cor. 5:9-11). If the offender is sorry and repentant of such a serious sin, they should be lovingly restored to church fellowship (2 Cor. 2:5-11). This means that Christians should not tolerate homosexual sexual activity or same-sex marriage amongst church members.

Also, Paul says that Christians are not to judge the sins of unbelievers because God will judge them at the great white throne (1 Cor. 5:12-13; Rev. 21:11-15). This means that Christians should tolerate homosexual sexual activity and same-sex marriage (if it is legalized) amongst people who aren’t church members.

Note that although textural scholars believe that John 8:1-11 wasn’t included in the original biblical text (autograph), it’s probably an accurate saying of Jesus Christ.

Conclusion

We have seen that the statement that the Bible “never condemns same-sex marriage, partly because it simply does not address the issue directly” is untrue and deceptive. It is true that the Bible doesn’t specifically address “same-sex marriage”. But it does condemn homosexual sexual activity, which is a broader subject than same-sex marriage.  Therefore, by simple logic, same-sex marriage is condemned as a lifestyle for the New Testament church. Likewise, same-sex marriage is condemned as a lifestyle for the church today.

Appendix: Translation notes, NET Bible

  1. “malkos” (Strongs #3120)

This term is sometimes rendered “effeminate,” although in contemporary English usage such a translation could be taken to refer to demeanor rather than behavior. BDAG 613 s.v. μαλακός 2 has “pert. to being passive in a same-sex relationship, effeminate esp. of catamites, of men and boys who are sodomized by other males in such a relationship.” L&N 88.281 states, “the passive male partner in homosexual intercourse – ‘homosexual.’ …As in Greek, a number of other languages also have entirely distinct terms for the active and passive roles in homosexual intercourse.” See also the discussion in G. D. Fee, First Corinthians (NICNT), 243-44. Many modern translations have adopted the phrase “male prostitutes” for μαλακοί in 1 Cor. 6:9 (NRSV, NLT) but this could be misunderstood by the modern reader to mean “males who sell their services to women,” while the term in question appears, at least in context, to relate to homosexual activity between males. Furthermore, it is far from certain that prostitution as commonly understood (the selling of sexual favors) is specified here, as opposed to a consensual relationship. Thus the translation “passive homosexual partners” has been used here.

  1. “arsenokoites” (Strongs #733)

On this term BDAG 135 s.v. ἀρσενοκοίτης states, “a male who engages in sexual activity w. a pers. of his own sex, pederast 1 Cor. 6:9…of one who assumes the dominant role in same-sex activity, opp. μαλακός…1 Tim, 1:10; Pol 5:3. Cp. Rom. 1:27.” L&N 88.280 states, “a male partner in homosexual intercourse – ‘homosexual.’…It is possible that ἀρσενοκοίτης in certain contexts refers to the active male partner in homosexual intercourse in contrast with μαλακός, the passive male partner.” Since there is a distinction in contemporary usage between sexual orientation and actual behavior, the qualification “practicing” was supplied in the translation, following the emphasis in BDAG.

Written, September 2017

Also see: Jesus and marriage
Gender and marriage
Marriage equality


Testing Buddhism

It’s the best way to: transform yourself; find lasting happiness; clear your mind; find inner peace and relaxation; reduce stress and normalize blood pressure; develop awareness, ethics, mindfulness, insight and wisdom; find meaning to what would otherwise be a senseless life; understand the true nature of reality; be more understanding of others; improve relationships; be calmer when strong emotions arise; be kinder to ourselves and others; be more caring, and skillful; be freed from difficulties and problems; attain a state of purity and perfection; end one’s suffering; and gain insight into the true nature of life. These benefits have been attributed to Buddhist practices such as meditation.

It’s estimated that about 10% of the world’s population is Buddhist. This increases to at least 50% in Mongolia and Laos, at least 70% in Sri Lanka and Bhutan, at least 80% in Myanmar, and at least 90% in Thailand and Cambodia. However, the Buddhist population of China has been estimated at 20-80%, which is a huge uncertainty. The Buddhist faith is atheistic, although polytheism is also evident in many countries. In this way Buddhism is different to Christianity. But is Buddhism consistent with the message of the Bible? Is it one of the ways to salvation and spiritual liberation?

True or false?

The Bible contains three clear tests for determining whether a belief, teaching or philosophy is true or false. To be true it must pass each of the three tests.

The Jesus test

This test states that, “Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist … This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood” (1 Jn. 4:2-3, 6 NIV). The question to be answered in this test is: What does it say about Jesus Christ? Is it consistent with Christ’s unique birth, divine and human nature, sinless life, sacrificial death, resurrection, and second coming (1 Jn. 4:1-3)?

The gospel test

The Bible warns about those promoting a different gospel, “If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!” (Gal.1:9). The question to be answered in this test is: What is its gospel? In other words: what is the core belief or hope? The Bible says that the root cause of all our problems is that everyone has sinned and fallen short of God’s requirements—resulting in death. The only means of rescue is salvation by repentance of sin and faith in the work of Christ. ‘Different gospels’ are those that differ from this. They either add to it or take away from it. There is a warning against adding to or taking away from the words of the Bible (Rev. 22:18-19).

The fruit test

Jesus Christ warned, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them” (Mt. 7:15-20). The question to be answered in this test is: What kind of fruit is evident? In other words, what type of attitudes and behavior does it encourage? Is the divine nature or the sinful nature most evident (Gal. 5:19-23)?

I have previously summarized Buddhism. These tests will now be used to assess the Buddhist faith.

buddhism 8 400pxTesting the Buddhist faith

The Jesus test

Buddhism is a religion of the mind, which advocates present moment awareness, inner purity, ethical conduct, freedom from the problem of change, impermanence and suffering, and reliance upon one’s own experience and discernment on the Eightfold path as the teacher and guide, rather than an external authority (such as God) other than the dharma (teachings of Buddha).

Buddha found enlightenment in mediation. This is achieved by human effort, not through belief in any god. Buddha didn’t claim deity and didn’t attribute his teachings to any deity. So his teachings are not theistic. Instead they are a human system of self-discipline. Buddhism does not involve the worship of gods nor require a belief in gods. Buddha believed that if the world was created by a God, there would be no suffering. One doctrine agreed upon by all branches of modern Buddhism is that “this world is not created and ruled by a god”. In this sense, Buddhism is atheistic.

Buddhism applies the law of cause and effect to people’s lives (karma). But the Bible says, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies (heavens) proclaim the work of His (God’s) hands” (Ps. 19:1). The heavens that David saw were the sun, moon and stars. He realized that they were made (created) by God. So the Bible applies the law of cause and effect to all creation, not just to people’s lives. According to the law of cause and effect, creation (including the sun, moon and stars) demands a creator and the design (of the universe) demands a designer. By looking at our universe, anyone can know that there is a Creator God. Creation shows that God is intelligent and powerful. The Bible’s message to those who reject this knowledge is: “They know the truth about God because He has made it obvious to them. For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky (including the sun, moon and stars). Through everything God made, they can clearly see His invisible qualities—His eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God” (Rom. 1:19-20 NLT).

More evidence of the Creator God is the fact that each person has a knowledge of right and wrong through their conscience. For those who are ignorant of God’s moral laws the Bible says: “They demonstrate that God’s law is written in their hearts, for their own conscience and thoughts either accuse them or tell them they are doing right” (Rom. 2:15NLT).

The Bible also says, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good” (Ps. 14:1NIV; 53:1). Also, “In his pride the wicked man does not seek Him (God); in all his thoughts there is no room for God” (Ps. 10:4). And “fools mock You (God) all day long” (Ps. 74:22). So it’s foolish to deny the existence of God. And it’s foolish to feel no need for God and live as if He never existed. This means that the Buddhist belief that the world is not created and ruled by a god is foolish!

Jesus isn’t mentioned in any of the numerous Buddhist scriptures and none of their gods is like Jesus. So, the Buddhism says nothing directly about Jesus Christ. But Buddhists may think that Jesus was a holy man, or a guru (teacher). However, they wouldn’t see Jesus as the only way to God. At best, He would be one guru amongst the many gurus that they follow.

Except in matters of ethics and moral conduct, there is very little in common between the teachings of Jesus and the main teachings of Buddhism. So, Buddhism clearly fails the Jesus test. Buddhists don’t believe that Jesus is the unique Son of God whose sacrificial death (crucifixion) and resurrection solved the problem of humanity’s sinfulness. They don’t believe that Jesus came to the earth as a substitute to take the punishment that we all deserve.

But what about the supernatural beings believed by Buddha and in Mahayana Buddhism? These are gods with a small “g”. Although they are like superhumans their power is limited. They are not all powerful. Although Buddha was a polytheist, he focused on suffering rather than on a god. See the Appendix for the what the Bible says about polytheism. As these gods aren’t relevant to Buddhist practice, they are generally discarded by Buddhists in western countries. Some Buddhists also believe in a non-personal god who is evident in acts of love, compassion, and kindness.

The gospel test

The ultimate goal of Buddhist religious life is liberation from the cycle of birth and death (endless rebirth) and to escape from suffering. We will look at each of these in turn. One goal is liberation from suffering, fear and danger. The means of achieving this is to exert great effort to follow Buddhist teachings. If our sufferings are like a disease, then the teachings are like medicine, Buddha is like a doctor and Buddhist monks and nuns are like nurses. For example, Buddha taught that delight is the root of suffering and ignorance is the root of all evil. So he taught his followers to be detached and not delight in anything.

The Bible describes where the world came from, what has gone wrong in it, and what God is doing to set it right. It has four parts: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration. Suffering begins with the entrance of evil in part two and ends in part four. So suffering is not a permanent. The Bible says that sin (rebellion against God) is the source of our suffering and pain (Gen. 3:16-19; Rom. 6:23). This is the opposite of Buddhism which says that both we and our world are basically good.

Our body responds with pain when it is subject to injury or illness. This is a normal reaction. It’s an indicator that lets us know something is wrong. Painlessness is the root cause of the damage leprosy (Hansen’s disease) patients incur. Although pain is something that none of us want; none of us can live a normal life without it.

From the beginning of time God has warned humanity about the relationship between sin (disobeying God’s will / word / laws) and the pain and death that are a result of it. Whether innocent or guilty, the reason for pain and death is sin. Sometimes it is the direct result of our own sin; sometimes it’s the indirect result of the cumulative sinfulness of the world. So Buddha made a poor diagnosis; He tried to fix a symptom (suffering) while he was ignorant of the root cause (sin)!

When God called Moses, He said: “I have seen the misery of my people in Egypt … I have heard them crying out … and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them … So now go. I am sending you … I will be with you” (Ex. 3:7-12). After this, Moses rescued the Israelites from their suffering in Egypt. Likewise, God has seen humanity’s suffering and sent Jesus Christ to rescue us from our sin and suffering. The Bible says “Surely He (Jesus) took up our pain and bore our suffering … He was crushed for our iniquities (sins) (Isa. 53:4-5; Mt. 8:17). And God also sees our suffering today and is concerned for us!

The Christian gospel may be summarized as: “Because of His infinite mercy, God sent His Son (Jesus) to earth to save people so they could live right. He was the sacrifice which would permit God to blot out all our sins, and enable us to be clean so that we could dwell eternally with our holy God. Jesus died for the sins of humanity”. But Buddhism is based on salvation by works.

The other Buddhist goal is liberation from the seemingly endless cycle of birth and death (rebirth). There are two problems with this goal: the problem being addressed and the solution that is offered.

The Bible shows that humanity is the special creation of God, created in God’s image with both a material body and an immaterial soul and spirit. People are distinct and unique from all other creatures—angels and the animal kingdom. The Bible teaches that at death, while a person’s body is mortal (it decays and returns to dust) their soul and spirit continue to either a place of torment for those who reject Christ or paradise (heaven) in God’s presence for those who have trusted in the Savior. Both categories of people will be resurrected, one to eternal judgment and the other to eternal life with a glorified body (Jn. 5:25-29). The Bible says, “people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Heb. 9:27). This makes it clear that humanity only dies once and is then judged on the life they have lived. One is not born again in an endless cycle of death and rebirth, and its opportunities to improve one’s karma. The Bible never mentions people having a second chance at life or coming back as different people or animals. As Larry Norman sang, “you live once and you die once, with no re-incarnate (rebirth) episodes”.

We have seen that the idea of rebirth is a false teaching. On the other hand, the Christian faith addresses the problem of sin (rejection of God’s revelation in creation and in Jesus Christ) and its consequences. We will now look at the solution being offered.

Because a Buddhist’s place of birth and their status in the next life is believed to be based on rebirth and karma, good works and striving to keep the rules of Buddhism play an important role in a Buddhist’s way of life. A Buddhist tries to follow many rules to live a moral life. Yes, good works do please God, but only the good works and the good and sinless life of Jesus. The Bible says that it was Jesus’ good work (sacrifice) on the cross that will get us salvation and liberation!

Our good works are not good enough. Larry Norman also sang, “you can’t hitchhike to heaven or get there by just being good”. The Bible says that most of the work of salvation is done by God and not by us, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast (Eph. 2:8-9).

Paul told Christians, “why do you keep on following the rules of the world, such as, “Don’t handle! Don’t taste! Don’t touch!”? Such rules are mere human teachings about things that deteriorate as we use them. These rules may seem wise because they require strong devotion, pious self-denial, and severe bodily discipline. But they provide no help in conquering a person’s evil desires” (Col. 1:20-23NLT). Paul is saying that Christianity is not a religion of rules. Taboos fail in their purpose. They are futile. They do not restrain evil. God wants us to avoid such human religious systems. We cannot control the sinful nature by rules. Following strict rules, like in Buddhism, is worthless because it fails to control sinful desires.

A Buddhist’s salvation is never guaranteed; they don’t know how much meditation they need to do or how many lives they will live before reaching nirvana (Buddhist heaven). By contrast, the Christian’s salvation is sure and confident. God’s promises are never broken, and we can rely on scripture when it declares that faith in Jesus saves (Acts 16:31) and we can rest confidently in this assurance (1 Jn. 5:13). Our forgiveness and salvation are completely based on the work of Christ on the cross (1 Pet. 2:24) and not on any of our deeds because we have a sinful nature (Rom. 7:18).

Some Buddhists are zealous and devout, but salvation is dependent on the object of one’s zeal and devotion and not on the zeal itself. Their focus/object is Buddhist teachings, which we have shown to be false. Like Judah in Jeremiah’s time, Buddhists are “trusting in deceptive words that are worthless” (Jer. 7:8). In Judah’s case, the deceptive words spoken by the false prophets were that God wouldn’t destroy Jerusalem because He wouldn’t allow the Jewish temple to be destroyed. This superstitious belief was stated repetitively, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord” (Jer. 7:4), which reminds me of the repetitive nature of Buddhist mantras. But repetition doesn’t increase the truthfulness of a statement! In Buddhism’s case, the deceptive words come from Buddhist teachings which are false. Because of false prophets, Judah followed “other gods” (Jer. 7:9) apart from the real God, while because of Buddhist teachings, Buddhists follow many “other gods”.

So, Buddhism fails the gospel test.

shrine 2 400pxThe fruit test

Buddhism is often said to be a tolerant religion. But Laos is included in the Open Doors 2017 World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to live as a Christian. It was ranked 24, between Palestinian Territories and Brunei. Christians make up about 2% of the population in Laos. There is some freedom for Christians to meet in more developed areas, but in the rural regions many find themselves harassed, isolated and even imprisoned. Buddhism plays a big part in society and is central to Lao culture. Christianity is seen as something foreign and a threat to their way of life. Believers must be very careful when living out their faith. Building new churches is almost impossible as you need government approval and extensive amounts of paperwork must be submitted. Worshipping or reading the Bible in illegal places can result in jail time, fines or violent punishment. Since their homes are so small, trying to worship in secret is impossible. If someone converts to Christianity their spouse can threaten divorce, and their families can cut them off from their inheritance. Because of the negative views of Christianity, believers are often limited when accessing resources. They can be denied employment and acceptance into schools.

Myanmar was ranked 28 in the World Watch List, between Jordan and Tunisia. Christians and other minorities have been under attack from government forces for many years. Pressure comes from both radical Buddhist groups and the government. Buddhism is the majority religion, and could be used to instigate nationalism and further marginalize every other religion. The Buddhist majority have put in place attempts to try and curb the spread of Islam. Christians are also viewed with suspicion. The government promotes Buddhism over Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. Minority populations that adhere to these and other faiths are denied building permits, banned from proselytizing and pressured to convert to the majority faith. Religious groups must register with the government, and Myanmar’s citizens must list their faith on official documents. Myanmar’s constitution provides for limited religious freedom, but individual laws and government officials actively restrict it. Also, in 2014 the U.S. State Department named Myanmar amongst eight “Countries of Particular Concern” that severely violate religious freedom rights within their borders.

Bhutan was ranked 30 in the World Watch List, between Tunisia and Malaysia. Christianity is seen as a foreign and dangerous religion. No congregation has ever been allowed to build a church. All Christian fellowship remains underground. Christians are monitored and their meetings can be threatened and closed. Many Christians have not been issued with an electronic identity card. They therefore cannot access government services like healthcare. They cannot travel, enrol at a school or apply for jobs. This puts immense pressure on the struggling underground church.

Sri Lanka was ranked 45 in the World Watch List, between United Arab Emirates and Indonesia. In Sri Lanka the idea of Buddhist supremacy is on the rise. Dangerous attitudes continue to grow, especially in rural areas. Buddhist monks regularly attack believers. Pastors feel unequipped to face persecution and are left traumatized and unsure. Christians are exposed to acts of extreme violence and discrimination. If believers want to worship, they can only do so in registered houses. They are regularly visited by angry mobs and Buddhist monks. There was even discussion of a new law to make converting people illegal. School is difficult for Christian children. Religious education is compulsory, but due to the lack of Christian teachers, most kids are left attending Buddhist classes. If they do not want to, they are punished and even fined. They are subject to harassment, bullying and bad grades. Some children are even denied entry to a school because of their faith. Christians are often prevented from accessing wells or electricity. They’re treated like second class citizens. The pressure to deny Jesus is relentless. Christian businesses are often boycotted and families’ livelihoods suffer.

Although it’s difficult to assess attitudes and behavior objectively, these reports mention persecution of religious minorities and a lack of religious freedom in some Buddhist countries.

Buddha taught that there would be no social classes (like castes) in the Buddhist monastic order. They would be like a humanistic society. However, when Buddha created the monastic order he divided society into two social classes, a practice that Buddhism intended to do away with!

What type of attitudes and behavior do you think Buddhism encourages?

Summary

We have tested Buddhism against three tests from the Bible. It clearly failed two tests (about Jesus and the gospel) and the results of the third test are debatable. This means it’s a false teaching, which is the product of human imagination, and which isn’t consistent with the message of the Bible. So, Buddhists don’t worship the same God as Christians.

Appendix: What the Bible says about polytheism

Buddhism arose in northeastern India in about the 5th century BC when their religion was polytheistic. During this period, the deities of Babylon, and Greece were also polytheistic. In fact, this was probably a characteristic of all the Gentile nations at that time. It was also characteristic of previous nations (such as Egypt and Phoenicia) and following nations (such as the Roman Empire).

What does the Bible say about such polytheistic religions?
– About 2000BC Abraham left the polytheistic religion in Ur of the Chaldeans (in Mesopotamia) to live in the land of Canaan and to follow the monotheistic God who created the universe.
– About 1750BC when Jacob left Paddan Aram (in upper Mesopotamia), his wife Rachael stole her father’s polytheistic household gods (Gen. 31:19, 30, 32, 35). When he arrived back in Canaan, Jacob buried all their foreign polytheistic gods (Gen. 35:2-4).
– About 1450BC when the Israelites left Egypt in the exodus, God told them to stop practicing the polytheistic religion of the Egyptians and gave them commands on how to follow the true monotheistic God.
– About 1500BC when the Israelites conquered and settled in Canaan, God warned them not to follow the polytheistic religion of the Canaanites and the surrounding nations.
– Between 1380BC and 1050BC the Israelites forsook the God that brought them out of Egypt and followed the polytheistic religion of the peoples around them (Jud. 2:10-13). They intermarried with these peoples and served their polytheistic gods (Jud. 3:5-6). Consequently, the Israelites were punished by God and brought back to serving the true monotheistic God by a series of judges.
– Between 930BC and 722BC Israel was divided into two kingdoms and the northern kingdom followed the polytheistic religion of the peoples around them. Prophets such as Elijah and Elisha warned them of the consequences of following these false religions. They were punished by God when they were conquered by the Assyrian Empire.
– Between 700BC and 586BC, the southern kingdom of Israel (Judah) often followed the polytheistic religion of the peoples around them. Prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah warned them of the consequences of following these false religions. They were punished by God when they were conquered by the Babylonian Empire.
– the 70-year exile in Babylon decimated the nation of Israel and seemed to cure those who returned to Judah from following polytheistic religions. But it took over 900 years for them to learn this lesson!
– In the 1st century AD, the New Testament apostles, such as Peter and Paul, preached against the polytheistic religion of the Roman Empire.

Since 2000BC God has distinguished Himself from polytheistic religions. By reading the Bible we can see repeated warnings against polytheistic religions. These warnings were given over a period of more than 1,500 years. Why not check this for yourself by reading the Bible?

Paul said that polytheistic gods are not real gods (Acts 19:26). He knew that they “cannot see or hear or eat or smell” (Dt. 4:28; Dan. 5:23; Rev. 9:20). And that they are the work of Satan and his demons (2 Cor. 6:15-16; Rev. 9:20).

The clearest biblical arguments against polytheism are the numerous commands against idolatry. When the Thessalonians became followers of Christ, they “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us (believers) from the coming wrath” (1 Th. 1:9-10). The God who was living and true is contrasted against idols that were dead and false gods. They had learnt that God “doesn’t live in man-made temples, and human hands can’t serve His needs—for He has no needs” (Acts 17:24-25NLT). The Corinthians were told to separate from idol worship (2 Cor. 6:16-17). John repeats this message that Christians should “keep yourselves from idols” (1 Jn. 5:21). The true God is said to be God the Father or God the Son (Jesus), while idols are false gods.

Paul described the state of the Corinthians before they became Christians as “you were led astray and swept along in worshiping speechless idols” (1 Cor. 12:2NLT). Their idols were lifeless! But how were they being “led astray and swept along”? The Bible says that idolatry is associated with demon worship (Rev. 9:20). And it’s the work of Satan (2 Cor. 6:15-16). So they were being led astray and swept along by Satan and his demons! That’s why Paul was “was greatly distressed to see that the city (of Athens) was full of idols” (Acts 17:16).

So, the Bible forbids the worship of idols, angels, celestial objects, and items in nature. The Bible’s clear and consistent denunciation of idolatry is a conclusive argument against polytheism.

Written, August 2017

Also see: Basic Buddhism
Testing Hinduism
Testing Islam
Recognizing false teachers


Does God have a sense of humor?

According to the Macquarie dictionary a sense of humor is appreciating what’s amusing, funny or comical. A joke is an amusing or ridiculous circumstance. Laughter is usually normal and healthy, but there are times when it is not. For example, it can mask and trivialize sin (Jas. 4:9).

Of all God’s creatures, human beings alone possess a sense of humor. As they are also made in the image and likeness of God, I suggest that God is capable of humor as well (Gen. 1:26). But of course God doesn’t share all our attributes (such as sinfulness).

Solomon said that there is “a time to weep and a time to laugh” (Eccl. 3:4NIV). For example, we laugh at the things that children do. I wonder whether God (as our Father) laughs at some of the things that we do?

Creation

laughing_kookaburra 1 400pxGod created some funny creatures. For example, the distinctive call of the laughing kookaburra. And it looks like God was having fun when he designed the Australian platypus and bilby. The first English scientists to see a specimen of a duck-billed platypus thought it was a hoax because it had a bill and webbed feet like a duck, which is a bird. They thought the bill of a duck had been attached to the body of an otter, beaver or mole! The bilby is called a “rabbit-eared bandicoot” because it has ears like a rabbit. And its back legs look like those of a kangaroo, but it gallops like a horse!

Recently I went to the zoo with a grandson. We saw lots of God’s creatures. I’m sure God had fun designing all the animals in the web of life. From bacteria to whales. Will they walk, fly or swim? Adding a long neck or stripes. Which would be companions, predators and prey? They are so diverse, but integrated.

Funny incidents in the Bible

platypus 1 400pxThere are some funny incidents in the Bible. As “all-Scripture is God-breathed”, it means that God has caused these to be recorded (2 Tim. 3:16). At Babel the builders constructed a tower “that reaches to the heavens”. Ironically God had to “come down” to see the tower they were building (Gen. 11:4-5)! So it wasn’t very high according to God! Such delusions of grandeur would have made God laugh.

Laban tricked Jacob into marrying Leah instead of Rachael. She was veiled during the wedding and unrecognized in the darkness of the wedding night and the Bible says, “When morning came, there was Leah!” (Gen. 29:25). What a surprise! Did Jacob drink too much wine at the wedding?

God used a talking donkey to warn and rebuke Balaam for planning to curse Israel (Num. 22:21-35)! And he used a fish to get Jonah to Nineveh!

When the Philistines captured the Ark of the Covenant they added it to their gods by placing it in the temple beside the god Dagon. But next day Dagon was flat on the ground before the ark. So they put Dagon upright once again. But the following day the idol was flat on the ground once again with his head and hands broken off (1 Sam. 5:1-5)! It was obvious who was the stronger God.

When Saul was pursuing David, he went into a cave to relieve himself. It happened that David and his followers were also in the cave and David crept up and cut off a corner of Saul’s robe (1 Sam. 24:1-4). Saul looked ridiculously vulnerable!

After being told that Jesus was from Nazareth, Nathaniel says “Can anything good come from there?”. Then Jesus says that Nathaniel was without deceit! And accepts him as a disciple!

The disciples took a metaphor literally. When Jesus said to them, “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees”, they said, “It is because we didn’t bring any bread” (Mt. 16:5-12)! They were dumb!

Funny sayings in the Old Testament

Bilby 1 400pxWhen describing a stork, the book of Job says “God did not endow her with wisdom or give her a share of good sense” (Job 39:17). That’s not very flattering!

God used irony and sarcasm when He answered Job. Where were you when I created the earth? Surely you’re old enough to answer my questions about the creation (Job 38:4, 21)? Of course the answer is no! Job wasn’t there in the beginning, but God was.

Jehoram, was an evil king of Judah who lead the nation into idolatry. The Bible says that “He passed away, to no one’s regret”, didn’t have a funeral fire and wasn’t buried in the tombs of the kings (1 Chr. 21:19-20). That’s a colorful way of saying what people thought about Jehoram.

Some of Solomon’s proverbs are funny:
– “Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman who shows no discretion” (11:22)
– “Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife” (21:9). And “A quarrelsome wife is like the dripping of a leaky roof in a rainstorm” (27:15).
– “The sluggard says, “There’s a lion outside!”” (22:13). That sounds like a good excuse to stay home!

God mocks idols. They had mouths, but can’t speak. Eyes, but can’t see. Ears but can’t hear. And mouths, but can’t breathe. They seem to be useless and dead! And then He adds the punch line: “Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them” (Ps. 135:15-18)! Idols are a fraud and worthless (Jer. 10:14-15). They were just a dead stone or block of wood (Isa. 44:9-20; Hab. 2:18-10).

God can use wordplay in serious situations. For example, the Lord showed Jeremiah the branch of an almond tree and said “I am watching” (Jer. 1:11). The Hebrew word for almond (saqed) sounds like the word for watching (soqed).

Funny sayings in the New Testament

Jesus used some funny illustrations:
– He said to the hypocrites, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Mt. 7:3). This hyperbole is hilarious!
– After He spoke with a rich man, Jesus said, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Mt. 19:24). This is another exaggeration.
– He said the hypocritical Jewish religious leaders were “like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean” (Mt.23:27).
– He said to the hypocritical Jewish religious leaders, “You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Mt. 23:24). They were leading people into danger like blind guides (Lk. 6:39). And by concentrating on minor matters (like gnats), they missed dealing with major matters (like camels). Jesus also used a pun here as the Aramaic word for gnat is galma and for camel is gamla.
– He also mentions lighting a lamp and putting it under a basket, building a house on sand, and a father giving their child stones instead of bread. All of which are ridiculous.
– And He makes a Samaritan behave better than a priest and Levite (Lk. 10:30-35).
The common people would have laughed at these comical images.

Jesus also used puns like saying “on this rock I will build my church” when he was speaking to Peter (whose Greek name meant detached stone) (Mt. 16:18).

When describing Abraham, the writer of Hebrews says, “from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky” (Heb. 11:12). That’s a colourful way of saying that he was very old when Isaac was conceived.

There are probably lots of other incidents and sayings in the Bible that would have been shocking or amusing in the culture of the time, but are lost on us today. For example, there is wordplay in the names of people and places in the Old Testament.

God laughs

The Bible says that God laughs when nations rebel against Him (Ps. 2:4; 59:8). He scoffs at them. God also laughs when the wicked plot against the righteous (Ps. 37:12-13). They don’t realize it’s impossible to defeat the omnipotent God. It’s ludicrous because of the great difference in power.

We may say that God has the last laugh. It may be delayed; and evil may appear to have prevailed. But in the end, God will be victorious.

God is happy and joyful

When the Jews are delivered from their enemies in the future, the Bible says that God “will take great delight in you … will rejoice over you with singing” (Zeph. 3:17). This is similar to Paul saying that God is happy (“makariou” is translated as “blessed”) (1 Tim. 1:11; 6:15). This is lasting joy and not just a transient emotion.

Jesus used wordplay

Large crowds of people followed Jesus to hear Him speak and see Him do miracles. Obviously He was a skilled orator. And He would have seen the humor in life – that which is ludicrous or incongruous. He used exaggeration, irony, sarcasm, and satire to help communicate His message. It may have been like street theater with subtle wit and wordplay, but with a serious message.

Jesus also welcomed children and children usually see the funny side of life (Mt. 19:13-14; Mk. 10:13-16; Lk. 18:15-17).

Lessons for us

Humor is cultural and situational and doesn’t always translate into other languages. For this reason, much of the humor in the Bible is probably lost to us today. But we have seen that there is evidence that God has a sense of humor. This is consistent with a God who is personal and who sustains the world.

Coarse jokes are ungodly (Eph. 5:4). And some comedy relates to sinful behavior. This is not part of God’s character. It has been said that:

God is serious because sin is serious. God finds nothing funny about the state of the world. How could a God so holy and righteous be funny in a world where sin is still present? Jesus was a serious person because He was on a serious mission. Our eternal life was a serious issue to Him. Leaving His glory in heaven to come into the world was no fun. The death on the cross was no fun at all. He didn’t come to put people down, but to lift them up.

This is true, but it is clear that God is joyful and Jesus used wordplay. God is serious and He has a sense of humor. He has both attributes, not just one or the other. So, let’s have a balanced view of God.

The joy of the Christian life can be expressed in humor. While worldly humor glorifies sin, puts down others, ridicules righteousness, and hurts the soul – Godly humor encourages others, honors the Lord, and restores the soul. And humor helps us get through life by providing relief from the seriousness of life. So, let’s balance the seriousness and humor of life. And, like Jesus, let’s use appropriate humor to promote our communication with other people.

Summary

Although we are usually unaware of it, God is capable of good humor and there is evidence of this in the Bible and in creation. And the carrying out His plan of salvation and His coming exaltation bring Him much joy. Do we share in this joy?

Written, June 2017


God is good

God-is-good 1 400pxIn a world of evil, pain and suffering, some question whether God is good. Instead they claim that the God described in the Bible is cruel and definitely not good. But how do we define “good”? Is it what makes me happy? Is it what only happens in the short-term? It is being nice and politically correct? Or is it different to these?

What does the Bible reveal about God’s attributes, characteristics, nature or qualities? In this case we are looking at who God is, not what He does. Erickson (2013) divides these attributes into two categories: God’s greatness, and God’s goodness. My previous blogpost summarized aspects of God’s greatness.

This blogpost summarizes eight aspects of God’s goodness. They may be grouped into purity (holy, righteousness, and just), integrity (genuineness, honesty and faithfulness), and love (benevolent, gracious, merciful, and persistent).

God is Holy

The Bible says that God is holy (Ex. 15:11; 1 Sam. 2;2; Ps. 99:3). He is “high and exalted” (Is. 6:1; 57:15). In this context, the Hebrew word qadosh (Strongs #6918) means that God is separate from all of creation. The proper reaction to God’s holiness is awe and reverence (Ps. 99:3). Also, God is not wicked or evil. He “cannot be tempted by evil” (Jas. 1:13NIV). This means that God is absolutely pure and He is untouched by the evil in the world. So God is holy.

God is Righteous

David says, “The Lord is righteousness in all His ways” (Ps. 145:17). He always does what is right. Nothing He does is wrong. There is no sin or wickedness in Him (Ps. 92:15). In fact, He defines what’s right and what’s wrong. He’s the source of morality. God sets the standard of righteousness. And He commands only what is right (Ps. 19:7-9). So God is righteous.

God is Just

Isaiah says, “the Lord is a God of justice” (Isa. 30:18). Justice is when God requires others to follow His moral laws. The Bible says that sin has consequences and that God will punish sin. For example, although the wicked may prosper (Ps. 73:3-12), they will be ultimately destroyed (Ps: 73:17-20, 27). Although this justice may not be evident in the short-term, it is certain in the long-term. So God is just.

God has Integrity

Integrity includes genuineness (being true), honesty (telling the truth), and faithfulness (proving true). Jeremiah says “But the Lord is the true God; He is the living God, the eternal King” (Jer. 10:10). God is real, unlike many other gods. And His attributes are true. So God is genuine.

What God says is accurate. God cannot lie (Tit. 1:2; Heb. 6:18). God “does not lie or change His mind; for He is not a human being, that He should change His mind” (1 Sam. 15:29). Because of this and His omniscience, He can always be trusted. So God is honest.

God keeps all His promises; “God is not human, that He should lie, not a human being, that He should change His mind. Does He speak and then not act? Does He promise and not fulfil?” (Num. 23:19). So God is faithful.

God is Benevolent

God is loving and caring. Jesus said, “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” (Jn. 3:16). This is a sacrificial, unselfish love, that seeks the good of others and which is called agape in Greek (Strongs #25). He died for His enemies, “God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us … while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to Him through the death of His Son” (Rom. 5:8-10). God’s benevolence extents to all humanity and to animals (Mt. 5:45; 6:26, 30; 10:29). So God is benevolent.

God is Gracious

God deals with us according to our need; not according to our merit, worthiness or what we deserve as sinners. He supplies underserved and unmerited favors. God told the Israelites, “The Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin” (Ex. 34:6-7). And Paul said, “In Him (Jesus) we have redemption through His blood (death), the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that He lavished on us” (Eph. 1:7-8). Our salvation comes through God’s grace: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). This is God’s response to the fact that we have rebelled against Him and so deserve to be banished from His presence forever. So God is gracious.

God is Merciful

God is also compassionate; “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him (His faithful followers)” (Ps. 103:13). For example, when God rescued the Israelites from Egypt He said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering” (Ex. 3:7). Jesus also felt compassion for the physical and spiritual condition of the people He met; “When He saw the crowds, He had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Mt. 9:36). In response He “went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness” (Mt. 9:35). So God is merciful.

God is Persistent

Another aspect of God’s love is persistence. He withholds judgment and offers salvation and grace over long periods of time. David said, “But you, Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Ps. 86:15). God often delays judgment so that people will repent and turn to Him (Rom. 2:4; 2 Pt. 3:15). It seems that God warned Noah’s generation for 120 years about the coming flood (Gen. 6:3; 1 Pt. 3:20). Also, He was patient with Israel even though they repeatedly rebelled against Him. And Christ’s second coming is delayed because God doesn’t want “anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pt. 3:9). So God is persistent in His love.

God’s goodness in Scripture

The Bible refers repeatedly to God’s goodness. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are each said to be good (Neh. 9:20; Mt. 7:11; Jn. 10:11). God is inherently good and His actions are good – “You are good and what you do is good” (Ps. 119:68). The Hebrew word towb (Strongs #2896) means good and kind (Brown-Driver-Briggs).

The Israelites praised God with thanksgiving saying “He is good” because His love to them endures forever. (1 Chron. 16:34; Ps. 136:1, Jer. 33:11; Ezra 3:11). Reasons to praise God include being good, loving, and faithful – “the Lord is good and His love endures forever; His faithfulness continues through all generations” (Ps. 100:5; 135:3). David gives reasons to praise God – “They celebrate your abundant goodness and joyfully sing of your righteousness” (Ps. 145:7). According to the parallelism of Hebrew poetry, His righteousness is said to be equivalent to His abundant goodness.

David appeals to God’s goodness when he prays for forgiveness – “you, Lord, are good” (Ps. 25:7). He mentions God’s goodness in association with His guidance of those who fear Him – “Good and upright is the Lord” (Ps. 25:8). David is confident that God will answer his prayer for deliverance from his enemies – “the goodness of the Lord” (Ps. 27:13). When he was being pursued by his enemies, David used a figure of speech urging people to trust and experience God – “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8; 1 Pt. 2:3). The context is the Lord delivering the righteous in their sufferings. And when David prayed for deliverance from enemies, he praised God for being forgiving and good – “You, Lord, are forgiving and good” (Ps. 86:5).

Moses saw that God’s goodness included His mercy, forbearance, love, faithfulness, forgiveness, and judgment (Ex. 33:19; 34:6-7). And Hezekiah appealed to God’s goodness when he prayed for forgiveness of those who ate the Passover without purifying themselves – “the Lord, who is good” (2 Chron. 30:18).

Jesus reminded the rich ruler that only God is intrinsically good – “No one is good—except God alone” (Mt. 19:17; Mk. 10:18; Lk. 18:19). The Greek word agathos (Strongs #18) means inherently good (Thayer’s Greek Lexion). It describes what originates from God.

Peter alludes to Psalm 34:8 – “now that you have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Pt. 2:3). Since they have personally experienced God’s goodness, they should lay aside the sins mentioned in verse 1. This shows that we must personally experience God to know His goodness.

The kindness (goodness), love and grace of God is why He acted to save fallen humanity (Tit. 2:11; 3:4). The Greek word chrestotes (Strongs #5544) is translated goodness, or kindness (Thayer’s Greek Lexion).

God and humanity

These are all positive moral attributes because God has no negative moral attributes (sin). And God exercises these attributes all the time, they are part of His character. Because God is good, everything He does is good. For example, “in all things God works for the good of those who love Him” (Rom. 8:28).

The attributes listed above can also be found in humanity, but not on a continuous basis. They are part of humanity being created in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:27). People can be holy, righteous and just, but not when they are sinful. People can be genuine, honest and faithful, but not when they are sinful. People can be benevolent, gracious, merciful and persistent in love, but not when they are sinful. This means that people don’t exercise these attributes all the time like God does.

The fact that we can share these attributes with God would help Christians to represent Him on earth. Through them we can “participate in the divine nature” (2 Pt. 1:4). For example, our new self is righteous and holy (Heb. 12:10; Eph. 4:24). And Christians and churches are urged to be holy (2 Cor. 7:1; Eph. 5:25-27). Although they are already positionally holy through Christ, they are to become holy in practice.

Lessons for us

Our God is good because He is pure, trustworthy and loving. His purity is evident as holiness, righteousness and justice. His trustworthiness is evident as genuineness, honesty and faithfulness. And His love is evident as benevolence, grace, mercy and persistence. In this respect God is unique, being far above humanity and any other deity. He’s greater than all other gods. So He deserves our praise and thanks!

That’s how the Bible defines what is “good”. Because God is pure, He deserves our respect. Because God is trustworthy, let’s trust His message in the Bible. Because God is loving, let’s accept His love shown in Christ’s sacrifice. And because God is good, let’s follow and serve Him.

References
Millard J. Erickson (2013) “Christian theology”. Third edition. Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI, USA.

Written, April 2017

Also see: Good is great
What God does


Mind the gap

gap-4-cropped-400px“Mind the gap” is a warning phrase to take caution while crossing the spacial gap between a train doorway and the station platform. It’s used by many train and rapid transport systems. This gap is wider at stations with curved platforms, which increases the likelihood of passengers or luggage falling into the gap between the train and the platform.

In this blogpost we look at the temporal gaps between the events described in the New Testament and their communication to us today. We will see that as the memory gap (from an event to the original written account) is less than one generation and the copy gap (from the original written account to the oldest manuscript available today) is significantly less than for other ancient documents, we can trust the historical accuracy of the New Testament.

According to scholars, the New Testament was written between AD 50 and AD 95. And most of the events described in the New Testament occurred between 5 BC and AD 65. But why was the New Testament written so long after the events it describes (up to about 65 years)?

Oral communication

The major way in which events and ideas were communicated in the ancient world was through the spoken word. It was an oral society. Many people were illiterate and writing materials were scarce. There were few books (scrolls) and they were very expensive to produce. So information was passed on by word of mouth and oral accounts were valued above written accounts.

In oral communication, the accuracy of a message received by a listener depends on the reliability of the speaker (sender) and the reliability of the information that the speaker wants to communicate. A reliable speaker tells the truth (instead of lying) and the information they communicate is more reliable if the speaker has access to the original source of the information, such as eyewitnesses.

A message can become unreliable if it passes through many intermediate speakers between the original speaker and the final listener. This is demonstrated in the telephone (Chinese whispers) game in which one person whispers a message to the ear of the next person through a line of people until the last player announces the message to the entire group. What usually happens is that the statement announced by the last player differs significantly from that of the first player. Obviously, if a message (or story) has been retold by many people, some of it can change if people forget parts of what they are told.

But the telephone (Chinese whispers) game doesn’t apply to the New Testament, because the time period when it was communicated orally was less than 65 years, which is one lifetime, and not many lifetimes. I call the gap to the first written account of the New Testament “the memory gap”, because in this case the accuracy of the message is dependent on the accuracy of the messenger’s memory.

The memory gap

The New Testament was written by the apostles and their associates who were eyewitnesses to the events they described.  An apostle had accompanied Jesus Christ during His 3-year ministry (from His baptism to His ascension) and had been with the other apostles when Christ was resurrected (Acts 1:21-22). So they knew Jesus very well. This means they had accurate source of the information.

The memory gap for the gospels is 30-55 years. Mark, Matthew and Luke were probably written in the AD 60s, and John about AD 85. Some skeptics claim that, even with eyewitnesses, memory isn’t trustworthy over that period of time and that all kinds of things can contaminate the message. But the accuracy of the New testament message is enhanced by the fact that:
– there were multiple witnesses. According to the Old Testament, there must be at least two witnesses to establish the truth in a court case (Dt. 17:6; 19:15). For example, the accounts of four separate witnesses are given in the gospels (Matthew, Mark. Luke and John).
– there were 12 apostles who could oversee (control) the accuracy of the message. In this was there was corporate control of the message.
– When it’s all you’ve got, memory works well. For example, children have good memories for stories and the words and tunes of songs.
– Memory works well if you have a stake in what took place. The apostles had a stake in the gospel message because they had given up everything else to follow Jesus and most of them were martyred for their Christian faith.
– Corporate repetition is important for retaining stories and memories. The Christian message was repeated at weekly church gatherings.

It seems as though the message in the gospels was put in writing when the eyewitnesses were near the end of their lives. This enabled an accurate record to be passed on to subsequent generations. In a eulogy children recollect events that occurred in their family up to 50 years earlier. When they do this, the gist of their accounts will be the same, although they will recollect different details. Likewise, the gospels have the same core message, but each writer records different details. Most alleged contradictions in the gospels are just minor variations in the account. One eyewitness will include a piece of information, while another one will leave it out. If the accounts were identical, then there could have been collusion or plagiarism.

As Paul was in Jerusalem at the time of the crucifixion, he knew what had happened. So when he was writing letters between 50 and 66 AD (20 to 26 years later), he knew what he was writing about. Paul was probably converted a few years after the resurrection. He summarized the gospel as “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance; Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4NIV). He received this message orally from other apostles (Gal. 1:18-19) and passed it on to others. That’s an example of oral communication.

Oral transmission was done very carefully in ancient times. For example, Paul commended the Corinthians “for following the teachings I passed on to you” (1 Cor. 11:2NLT). These teachings were prescribed standards for Christian living.

The copy gap

The Bible is like a library (or anthology) – it’s a collection of books written by different authors. The text of each book was originally written on a manuscript (written be hand) called an “autograph”, which in the case of the Bible would have been a scroll. The memory gap is the period of time between the writing of the autograph and the events described in the autograph.

We don’t have the autograph (original manuscript) of most ancient documents. Instead we have copies that were made at a later time. Textural critics use the available copies to reconstruct the original autograph. I will refer to the time gap between a copy and the autograph, as the “copy gap”. Obviously, other things being equal, a longer copy gap provides more opportunity for copy errors to accumulate in the manuscript.

Ancient texts were written on papyrus scrolls which may have had a useful life of about 100 years (and up to 500 years in dry climates). However, some papyrus codices (books) from the third century AD survive today (such as the Chester Beatty Papyri written about AD 200). Between the late 3rd century and the 5th century AD, papyrus scrolls and codices were replaced by parchment pages in a codex (book). Parchment (or vellum; made from animal skins) was more durable and could have a lifetime of about 1,000 years. For example, marginal notes in the Codex Sinaiticus indicate that it was still being used by scholars about 300 years after it was written.

codex-vaticanus-2-400pxAccording to classical scholars, the oldest surviving complete copies of single New Testament books were written around AD 200, and the oldest surviving (nearly) complete copy of the New Testament, was written about AD 350 (see below). And the oldest surviving fragments of manuscripts of the New Testament were written in the second century AD (such as the John Rylands Papyrus written about AD 125). The fragments and books could be 1st and 2nd generation copies of the autograph, while the whole New Testament (copied in the mid 4th century AD) could be a 2nd or 3rd generation copy of the autographs. It should be understood that “complete manuscript” when used by a textual critic does not necessarily mean 100% of it has survived. “Complete” is a technical term meaning that the manuscript has the beginning and end of the book in question. For example, a “complete copy of John” would be required to have John 1:1 and John 21:25 and substantial portions of those verses between.

It’s instructive to look at the “copy gap” (between the original autograph and the oldest complete manuscript) for other historical documents. The copy gap is about:
– 1,400 years for the Histories of Herodotus (written in the 5th century BC),
– 800 years for the works of Josephus in their original language of Greek (written about AD 90),
– 1,000 years for the Annals of Tacitus (written about AD 115),
– 750 years for the letters of Pliny the Younger (written AD 112),
– 700 years for the “The Twelve Caesars” by Suetonius (written AD 120).
It has been stated that the copy gap (for the oldest complete manuscript) for most non-biblical classical sources is about 700-1400 years.

On the other hand, for the New Testament, the copy gap is about 300 years – Codex Vaticanus was written in about 325-350 AD and Codex Sinaiticus in about 330-360 AD. So the gap is significantly shorter for the New Testament. A longer gap means more copies of copies, which means more potential for copy errors to appear in the text. So the version of the New Testament we have today should be a more accurate copy of the original than is the case for most other ancient historical documents.

The scholar Sir Frederic Kenyon concluded, “The interval then between the data of original composition and the earliest extant (complete) evidence becomes so small to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scripture have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.”

Conclusion

An investigation of the gaps between the events described in the New Testament and their communication to us today shows that as the memory gap (from an event to the original written account) is less than one generation and the copy gap (from the original written account to the oldest complete manuscript available today) is significantly less than for other ancient documents, we can trust the historical accuracy of the New Testament.

Appendix: Dating the New Testament

We can infer that most of the NT was written before AD 70, because there is no mention of the invasion of Jerusalem by the Romans and the destruction of the Jewish temple. This event was prophesied in Matthew, Mark and Luke. So these gospels were written before AD 70.

Also, the martyrdoms of James in 62 AD, Paul in 64 AD, and Peter in 65 AD, which would have had a significant impact on the Christian community aren’t mentioned in the New Testament. So Acts was written before 64 AD, and Luke was written before Acts (Acts 1:1-2). This is consistent with Paul quoting from Luke in 1 Timothy (Lk. 10:7; 1 Tim. 5:18).

Most scholars agree that John was written after Matthew, Mark and Luke because it seems to build on and supplement these. The fact that the destruction of Jerusalem is not mentioned in John may be because the book was written 15-20 years later, when the shock had worn off. Also, church fathers thought that John wrote Revelation in about AD 95 (during Domitian’s reign over the Roman Empire).

Written, January 2017

Also see: Is the New Testament reliable?
Can we trust our Bibles? How the Bible came to us.


Is the New Testament reliable?

website-evaluation-2-400pxA US assistant professor of communication and media has compiled a list of about 134 unreliable news sites. The list has four categories of truthfulness. Category one includes fake, false or regularly misleading websites, which use distorted headlines or dubious information. Category two covers websites that may circulate misleading and/or potentially unreliable information. Category three is used for websites that employ clickbait-headlines, while category four covers sites that are purposefully fake with the intent of satire/comedy, but have the potential to be shared as actual/literal news. The best thing to do to combat unreliable and untrustworthy web sites is to read/watch/listen widely and often, and to be critical of the sources we share and engage with on social media.

I have received the following comment.
“Explain 1 john 5:7-8 and why roman church admittedly added this idolatry to the koine Greek original scriptures? Why was Mark 16:9-20 and hundreds of other passages added into the bible by roman church fathers? Maybe James was belittled since he said to maintain all the laws as did Jesus.
Jesus says in Mathew 15:24 and 10:5-6 his movement was for Jews only…not for gentiles or Samaritans …Paul comes along and re invents the entire movement into “Paulianity” calling all laws of God a curse …Many people are now asking these questions.”

The commentator seems to be saying that the New Testament isn’t reliable. This post addresses the topics raised by the commentator and concludes that the New Testament is a reliable document.

Explanation of 1 John 5:7-8

6This is the one who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ. He did not come by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. 7For there are three that testify: 8the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement” (1 Jn. 5:6-8NIV).

The author, the apostle John wrote this letter in about 90 AD to combat Gnostic heresy whose central teaching was that the spirit is good and matter is evil. Gnostics believed that the human body (being matter) is evil and God (being spirit) is good. Salvation is the escape from the body, which is achieved not by faith in Christ but by special knowledge (gnosis is the Greek word for knowledge). They denied Christ’s humanity. Some believed that the divine Christ joined the man Jesus at baptism and left Him in the Garden of Gethsemane before He died. This means that it was only the man Jesus who died.

John opposed this heresy by stressing that Jesus was truly divine and truly human (1 Jn. 1:1; 2:22; 4:2-3; 5:1; 5:5). Then he says that Jesus “came by water and blood” (5:6). Water probably symbolizes Christ’s baptism and blood symbolizes His death. Jesus was just as much Christ when He died as when He was baptized.

In verses 7-8 John mentions three sources of testimony for believing the divinity of Christ. These are the Holy Spirit, Christ’s baptism and Christ’s death. The witness of the Holy Spirit is the message of the apostles recorded in the New Testament. The witness at His baptism was when God the Father said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased” (Mt. 3:17). The witness of Christ’s substitutionary death is that it fully paid the penalty for our sins. No one took His life from Him; He gave it up by Himself. If He was only a man, He couldn’t have done this. All of these witnesses are united in their testimony of the divinity and work of Christ.

Addition to 1 John 5:7

A few very late manuscripts of the (Vulgate) Bible add to the end of v.7 “in heaven—the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one. And there are three that testify on earth”. Erasmus added these words about the trinity to later editions of his Greek New Testament under pressure from the Pope (they occur in the official Roman Catholic Latin Bible, the Vulgate). These words are included in the Textus Receptus Greek text (e.g. NKJV), but not in the Critical (e.g. most modern translations) or Majority Greek Texts. But this passage isn’t found in any Greek manuscript before the fourteenth century AD (see Appendix A). Please note that the doctrine of the trinity does not rest upon this single passage because, as shown below, it is mentioned in many other Scriptures.

The commentator calls the late addition of the trinity to 1 John 5:7, “idolatry”. So is belief in the trinity of God the Father, God the Son (Jesus Christ) and the God Holy Spirit, Scripturally correct or heresy? Here’s what God says (2 Tim. 3:16) about this topic:
“As soon as Jesus was baptized, He went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he (John) saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on Him. And a voice (of God the Father) from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased” (Mt. 3:16-17).
“Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Mt. 28:18-20).
“God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, He has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear” (Acts 2:32-33).
“May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God (the Father), and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Cor. 13:14).
“I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know Him better” (Eph. 1:17).
“How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal (Holy) Spirit offered Himself unblemished to God (the Father), cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!” (Heb. 9:14).
“who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to be obedient to Jesus Christ” (1 Pt. 1:2).

As each of these seven Bible passages refer to the members of the trinity as being part of the triune God, the trinity is a fundamental belief of the Christian faith. So, it’s not idolatry to believe in the trinity. Instead, it’s heresy to claim to be a Christian and not believe in the trinity.

Other additions to the Bible

The commentator askes, “Why was Mark 16:9-20 and hundreds of other passages added into the bible by roman church fathers?” The original manuscripts of the Bible are no longer in existence. What we do have is tens of thousands of copies of the original New Testament manuscripts dating from the 1st to the 15th centuries A.D. There are many more manuscripts than for any other ancient document and the oldest manuscripts are closer in time to the original than for all other documents. This means that the Bible is the most accurate document we have from antiquity. Yet historians believe the account of other ancient documents, which are not as reliable as the New Testament.

In these manuscripts, there are many minor differences. Textual criticism is the linguistic study of these manuscripts in an attempt to determine what the original reading actually was. For example, see a discussion of Mark 16:9-20 in Appendix B. This is the only addition to the New testament that involves several verses. All the others only involve one or a few words. Consequently, the New Testament available to us today is a reliable reconstruction of the original manuscripts.

It is important to keep in mind that even though there are textual variations in the Bible manuscripts, they are all of minor significance. None of the discrepancies affect the Bible’s crucial teachings. No significant Christian doctrine is affected by any textual variants. Even if all the “additional” verses were completely removed, the Bible’s message would not be altered.

The King James Bible was translated over 400 years ago and many Biblical manuscripts have been discovered since then. Many of the more recent discoveries are older than anything the KJV translators had access to and are considered more accurate. So, today’s Bible translators have the benefit of greater knowledge and better manuscripts than the translators of the KJV had in the early 1600s.

Contradictory or consistent?

The commentator also says, “Maybe James was belittled since he said to maintain all the laws as did Jesus. Jesus says in Mathew 15:24 and 10:5-6 his movement was for Jews only…not for gentiles or Samaritans …Paul comes along and re invents the entire movement into “Paulianity” calling all laws of God a curse …” These comments relate to the Jews, the Jewish laws, and alleges contradictions between different characters and authors of the New Testament. The answer depends on an understanding of the old Jewish covenant and the new Christian one. The Old Mosaic covenant applied until the day of Pentecost, 50 days after Christ’s death. Jesus lived under this covenant and His ministry was to Jews, and not to Gentiles. So Jesus kept the old Mosaic covenant.

But the letter of James was written under the new covenant. James was a leader in the early church in Jerusalem. James mentions some of the ten commandments (Jas. 2:8-13). But Christians are not under the law of Moses. Believers are delivered from the law and its penalty through Christ’s death. However, 9 of the 10 commandments are repeated in letters written to the church. They are not given as laws but as instructions in right living. And they affect one’s reward, but not one’s salvation. So it’s wrong to claim that James urges Christians to follow the laws of Moses. There is no record of him doing this. This means that he wasn’t belittled by Judaizers.

Like James, Paul’s letters were also written under the new covenant. That’s why he condemned those who were trying to live under the old covenant.

The main differences between James and Paul relate to the place and time of their ministry. James ministered in Jerusalem where there were more Jews than Gentiles and Paul ministered in countries around the Mediterranean Sea where there were more Gentiles than Jews. And James wrote in about 50 AD, whereas Paul wrote in about 50-68 AD.

Conclusion

If “many people are now asking these questions”, then they need to read these answers. Because of linguistic studies of the numerous ancient New Testament manuscripts, the New Testament available to us today is a reliable reconstruction of the original manuscripts. This means that it’s reliable and can be trusted.

When reading the New Testament it’s important to realize that the Christian church commenced after Christ’s death. So the books of Acts to Revelation cover Christianity, whereas the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) describe a period when the Jews were the people of God. So, the gospels record events under the old covenant and the change of covenant needs to be taken into account before we can apply their principles to the church today. When this is taken into account, and there is competent exegesis (interpretation), the messages brought by different characters and authors of the New testament are consistent and not contradictory.

Appendix A: NET Translation notes on the late addition to 1 John 5:7-8

This passage is found only in nine late manuscripts (mss), four of which have the words in a marginal note. Most of these mss (221 2318 [18th century] {2473 [dated 1634]} and [with minor variations] 61 88 429 629 636 918) originate from the 16th century; the earliest ms, codex 221 (10th century) includes the reading in a marginal note, added sometime after the original composition. The oldest ms with the passage in its text is from the 14th century (629), but the wording here departs from all the other mss in several places. The next oldest mss, 88 (12th century) 429 (14th) 636 (15th), also have the reading only as a marginal note. The remaining mss are from the 16th to 18th centuries. Thus, there is no sure evidence of this reading in any Greek ms until the 14th century (629), and that ms deviates from all others in its wording; the wording that matches what is found in the Textus Receptus (TR) was apparently composed after Erasmus’ Greek NT was published in 1516. Indeed, the passage appears in no Greek witness of any kind (either ms, patristic, or Greek translation of some other version) until a.d. 1215 (in a Greek translation of the Acts of the Lateran Council, a work originally written in Latin). This is all the more significant since many a Greek Father would have loved such a reading, for it so succinctly affirms the doctrine of the Trinity. The reading seems to have arisen in a 4th century Latin sermon in which the text was allegorized to refer to members of the Trinity. From there, it made its way into copies of the Latin Vulgate, the text used by the Roman Catholic Church. The Trinitarian formula made its way into the third edition of Erasmus’ Greek NT (1522) because of pressure from the Catholic Church. After his first edition appeared, there arose such a furor over the absence of the passage that Erasmus needed to defend himself. He argued that he did not put in the passage because he found no Greek mss that included it. Once one was produced (codex 61, written in ca. 1520), Erasmus apparently felt obliged to include the reading. He became aware of this ms sometime between May of 1520 and September of 1521. In his annotations to his third edition he does not protest the rendering now in his text, as though it were made to order; but he does defend himself from the charge of indolence, noting that he had taken care to find whatever mss he could for the production of his text. In the final analysis, Erasmus probably altered the text because of politico-theologico-economic concerns: He did not want his reputation ruined, nor his Novum Instrumentum to go unsold. Modern advocates of the TR and KJV generally argue for the inclusion of the passage on the basis of heretical motivation by scribes who did not include it. But these same scribes elsewhere include thoroughly orthodox readings – even in places where the TR/Byzantine mss lack them. Further, these advocates argue theologically from the position of divine preservation: Since this verse is in the TR, it must be original. (Of course, this approach is circular, presupposing as it does that the TR = the original text.) In reality, the issue is history, not heresy: How can one argue that the passage goes back to the original text yet does not appear until the 14th century in any Greek mss (and that form is significantly different from what is printed in the TR; the wording of the TR is not found in any Greek mss until the 16th century)? Such a stance does not do justice to the gospel: Faith must be rooted in history. Significantly, the German translation of Luther was based on Erasmus’ second edition (1519) and lacked the passage. But the KJV translators, basing their work principally on Theodore Beza’s 10th edition of the Greek NT (1598), a work which itself was fundamentally based on Erasmus’ third and later editions (and Stephanus’ editions), popularized the passage for the English-speaking world.

Appendix B: NET Translation notes on the ending of the gospel of Mark

The Gospel of Mark ends at Mark 16:8 in some witnesses (א B 304 sys sams armmss Eus Eusmss Hiermss), including two of the most respected mss (א B). The following shorter ending is found in some manuscripts (mss): “They reported briefly to those around Peter all that they had been commanded. After these things Jesus himself sent out through them, from the east to the west, the holy and imperishable preaching of eternal salvation. Amen.” This shorter ending is usually included with the longer ending (L Ψ 083 099 0112 579 al); k, however, ends at this point. Most mss include the longer ending (vv. 9-20) immediately after v. 8 (A C D W [which has a different shorter ending between vv. 14 and 15] Θ Ë13 33 2427 Ï lat syc,p,h bo); however, Jerome and Eusebius knew of almost no Greek mss that had this ending. Several mss have marginal comments noting that earlier Greek mss lacked the verses, while others mark the text with asterisks or obeli (symbols that scribes used to indicate that the portion of text being copied was spurious). Internal evidence strongly suggests the secondary nature of both the short and the long endings. Their vocabulary and style are decidedly non-Markan (for further details, see TCGNT 102-6). All of this evidence strongly suggests that as time went on scribes added the longer ending, either for the richness of its material or because of the abruptness of the ending at v. 8. (Indeed, the strange variety of dissimilar endings attests to the probability that early copyists had a copy of Mark that ended at v. 8, and they filled out the text with what seemed to be an appropriate conclusion. All of the witnesses for alternative endings to vv. 9-20 thus indirectly confirm the Gospel as ending at v. 8.) Because of such problems regarding the authenticity of these alternative endings, 16:8 is usually regarded as the last verse of the Gospel of Mark. There are three possible explanations for Mark ending at 16:8: (1) The author intentionally ended the Gospel here in an open-ended fashion; (2) the Gospel was never finished; or (3) the last leaf of the ms was lost prior to copying. This first explanation is the most likely due to several factors, including (a) the probability that the Gospel was originally written on a scroll rather than a codex (only on a codex would the last leaf get lost prior to copying); (b) the unlikelihood of the ms not being completed; and (c) the literary power of ending the Gospel so abruptly that the readers are now drawn into the story itself. E. Best aptly states, “It is in keeping with other parts of his Gospel that Mark should not give an explicit account of a conclusion where this is already well known to his readers” (Mark, 73; note also his discussion of the ending of this Gospel on 132 and elsewhere). The readers must now ask themselves, “What will I do with Jesus? If I do not accept him in his suffering, I will not see him in his glory.”

Written, December 2016

Also see: Can we trust our Bibles? How the Bible came to us
Mind the gap