A bit of silence

I’ve been observing silence on this blog for a while. I’ve never had this much time away from it before.

I like silence. Sometimes it’s needed. To step back and contemplate, observe, and listen a bit more. Lately, I would rather take in and learn more than speak out. As the ancient saying goes, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”

How responsible we are for what we say. Especially in cyberspace. Once you say it, it’s out there for any of the billions of internet users to access. Words are powerful. They can save lives or kill them. They aren’t to be used carelessly. I’m seeing too much of that. I don’t want to do that because I write on serious things. Perusal of my prior posts and drafts shows eating disorders, mourning the murder of my friend, the quest of the search for God, definitions of marriage, poverty…

Fools have no business commenting on these things. Funny thing about fools — fools usually don’t think they are fools to begin with.  Worse, some people think they are quite wise but are not. “Do you see a man wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.” (Proverbs 26.12). I don’t know if I’m a fool, but I do know I don’t want to be a self-recognized wise man.

For now, on a day when I turn yet another year older, I listen and learn, observing a beautiful yet terrible world, wishing there was something more I could do to make a difference. God give me wisdom!

Why God should not be left out of the search

I finished reading The Christian Delusion ed. by John Loftus recently. I had a number of disagreements with chapters in this book, but the most prominent one is with how Loftus articulates his “Outsider Test for Faith” (OTF). He frames it in an extremely unreasonable way (strange, since people of Loftus’s rank often make reason the king of everything, nearing the point of worship). Initially, he says that ince there are many cultures and religious viewpoints people are born into, there’s a likelihood yours is wrong, and you need to examine it as though you were an outsider from that religion. Fair.

But he goes on to say, “I’m asking believers to change their assumptions and/or become agnostics. This is what I call the ‘default position.’” (Kindle Locations 1036-1037), And  “The only thing we can and should trust is the sciences. Science alone produces consistently excellent results that cannot be denied, which are continually retested for validity.” (Kindle Locations 1050-1051).

This is bad epistemology. Is agnosticism axiomic? To overcome cultural biases and subjective opinions to find Truth, does one need to leave aside belief in the transcendent totally and be a pure naturalist? Does a Christian have to stop believing in God, the Bible, prayer, and everything else to find if the Christian faith is true? Does a Muslim need to do the same (except stop believing the Quran)? Or a Sikh? Or any other religious person?

While I think the concept of an Outsider Test for Faith is actually a good idea (which, contra Loftus, could pass Christianity) when researching religions, I don’t think you can make blanket eliminations of epistemologies like that. You must avail yourself of whatever epistemology the religion you’re studying holds dear to determine  the truthfulness or falsity of it – if not, your race horse is dead out of the gate. You don’t even give it a fighting chance. By throwing out a religion’s epistemologies to use only your personal, narrow, western, culturally defined epistemology (science), in effect you’ve already decided the religion is not true prior to your journey of study, making your study no longer objective, and therefore subjective and biased. Mr. Loftus is parameterizing the discussion to the philosophical position of Atheism and Naturalism, throwing out entire ways of knowing something as invalid already, a priori. This is anti-intellectualism on level with the worst of religious fundamentalism.

You should use the epistemologies inherent within the Christian faith, and see whether they hold up to their own standards, besides scrutinizing those epistemologies themselves to see if they fit with all the others.

Christianity has something to say about how you find truth, and it would be unfair in any test of the veracity of Christianity to leave these out: prayer, seeking God, the spoken revelation of God (the Bible itself), the work of the God’s Spirit on the human heart,  prior assumption of a revelatory God, and of course the broader epistemologies of reason, experience, etc. that are also found in the Bible.

But this goes for testing any faith. For Islam, you need to avail yourself of Islamic epistemology. Same with Buddhism and the others. Without doing this, it’s like testing to see if Einstein’s E = mc2 is really true but taking out m. Or saying I’m going to test if evolutionary theory is true but you can’t have natural selection, or biology, or genetics considered at all. You never even give the belief system a chance.

Loftus says, “With the OTF I’ll argue that we should adopt a skeptical predisposition as best as possible prior to examining the evidence, if we adopt any predisposition at all” (Kindle Locations 939-940). This reminds me of Philip Johnson’s comment, “One who claims to be a skeptic of one set of beliefs is actually a true believer in another set of beliefs.” This is very true in the typical Atheist’s case. He’s already swallowed the antisupernatural bias of the Academy, believing in naturalistic evolution as the explanation for the universe, existence and everything else. Radical skepticism doesn’t go far. Even skeptics believe in something. Can’t we be both cautious/skeptical and open-minded?

Now, what I’m saying is hotly debated, and it’s no easy thing to develop a model for how to test whether a certain religion is true.  But this is not all. There’s another way Loftus frames OTF that is even more indefensible: He assumes an agnostic position on God’s existence in the OTF.

I’m sorry, but belief in God doesn’t equal religion. Belief or assumption that a god exists is totally independent of a particular faith! A simple theist/deist “outsider” to a faith who desires to search and examine that faith should not leave his belief in a God’s existence at the door. As many philosophers have argued, belief in some Deity can really be a properly basic belief, just as I believe reason exists and that I was not born as a clone in some science experiment. Many people who were not religious believe in some sort of God, at least the God of the philosophers (Aristotle, Spinoza, etc.). As John Dicksonwrites, the arguments and pointers to the existence of a Deity (Deus) are so strong, it’s a “fundamental” belief. He adds, “Where believers of the various faiths part ways is in the particularization of the Deus… Deism is common sense.”  Atheists may not agree, but if we’re developing an Outsider Test for Faith that anyone can use to test a religion, this is significant. If you are a deist or theist searching various religions to discover if God has spoken or not, then prayer to God, seeking his guidance, and contemplation of what he could be like are all vitally important.

I’m going to say something that Atheists and Christians should agree on: The question of God is the most important question anyone can ever think about. Atheists are obligated to agree with this statement. Otherwise, why are atheists spending their lives writing books and debating the issue? Therefore, is it not reasonable, while contemplating whether or not God exists and the nature of this God, to pray? How harmless is it to say “God, if you’re there, help me find you? Where are you?” This requires some faith, at least as much to say that if there is a benevolent God, then he will answer me if I ask him.

I can be an outsider to every religion, every faith, but still believe in a Deity, because no religion has a corner on simple theism or deism. Therefore, if I step back and examine my own religion as an outsider in an attempt to be objective, I need not throw out God. If I’m justified in believing in the existence of a Deus for other philosophical and scientific reasons independent of religious dogma, then I can use prayer to this Being as part of my OTF. The idea of an OTF is a good one. But an OTF model that throws out potentially valid epistemologies is flawed. It will not lead you to Truth. And isn’t Truth the whole point?

Web Musings of Mid-March

I’m on break from school and have done a lot of web-surfing. Good stuff this month so far, and many are worth sharing:

From the BBC -

“A Point of View: Churchill and the birth of the special relationship” on the Churchill’s stance on the relationship between Britain and the US.

Also found a significant article on the Chinese economy and need for reform China is one of the most influential nations in the world right now, so an economic reform there would surely affect the world.

“Encylopedia Brittanica ends its famous print edition.” Thus ends a 244 year era of those precious volumes of knowledge. This made me sad. No more pulling out random volumes and flipping through pages to peruse any article that catches your fancy. They continue their digital version and online prospects… but it’s not the same! :(

LED bulbs: The end of the lightbulb as we know it? LED is being demonstrated as a much better lighting option. It looks like Edison’s 150-year old invention is going the way of the dinosaurs. End of an era! This makes me sad too… Am I too sentimental?

Other News and Views

From The EconomistThe rise of evangelicalism is shaking up the Church of England.  The article implies that this new fervor is influenced by America, which may be true, but it ignores that this is really the fruit of British Evangelical intellectuals like the late John Stott and Lesslie Newbigin.

Nice piece from CNN, Saudi Women: Pampered or oppressed?Do the restrictive laws on women painfully violate their rights or does it pamper them and make “men the slaves of women”? This article challenged my prior opinion a bit, and shows there are varied viewpoints even among women… Oh, and sorry, can’t help but link to singer M.I.A.’s strong opinion on the issue in her song, “Bad Girls.”

“Eyewitness India” from World Magazine. An upstart news agency is giving the people, even some of the rural poor, the power of journalism.

Seth Godwin youtube video, says, “Be curious!”

From the Christian blogosphere:

Tim Nichols at Full Contact Christianity has an excellent series on the necessity of the ordination of women, part 1, part 2, and part 3 Some will say he goes too far; others, not far enough. But it’s exegetical and made me think.

“Some Preach from Envy and Rivalry” by Nick Bogardus.  Very pertinent points in light of the severe problem of sharp polarization in Christianity right now.

Jim McNeely “The Life of Jacob According to Grace” The last few paragraphs really took me. Grace is a powerful thing.

An article on the fact that the atheist gathering, “The Reason Rally”, invited Westboro Baptist Church to their conference (but not legitimate Christian groups). This is yet another example of my long list of disappointments with atheists today.

Parchment and Pen featured Paul Copan on “Longings and Needs as Reasons for Belief in God.” Despite its brevity, I haven’t read anything this good on longing/reason relationship to God’s existence since the hefty bio article on George John Romanes I read last year.

The White Horse Inn posted a thoughtful article by Brooke Mintun in honor of National Women’s Day analyzing Dorothy Sayers on men, women, and humanity. Yes, there is such a thing as National Women’s Day, and must have trended big this year since this is the first I’ve heard of it. Maybe that’s why so many of these links here are women-related.

Clay Jones, Why I Look Forward to Eternity is a fun read to end with.

Mourning the loss of Jeremiah

It’s been exactly one week since the news. Someone I held in high regard died. His name was Jeremiah. Jeremiah Small. He was a dedicated Christian, profoundly humble and deeply caring for other people. He was one of those uncommon types who saw every person as an end in themselves. When we talked together, he talked to me, not at me, and listened in the same manner. He had the qualities of a keen listener. That is probably what made him such a great teacher. He taught at a Christian school in Sulaimaniah, a city in Iraqi Kurdistan. He was on his sixth year, teaching History, English, and the like. Jeremiah was wildly popular with his students. They were crazy about him, because he was crazy about them. This teacher poured himself into his teaching and his students. He didn’t aim to just give facts. He aimed to inspire. And show people the goodness of his God he loved so dearly and the awe of God’s world. I could go on (two further articles from World are here and here). But it ended.

On the morning of March 1st, a Thursday, Jeremiah was opening up his class with a prayer, his pupils in front of him as normal. He thanked God for a beautiful day. Before he could finish, one of them pulled out a pistol and shot him three times. I hear he died with his hands still clasped together. The student then shot himself, and also died shortly thereafter. To this day no one knows why he did it. No note, no clues, nothing.

It is so senseless. It shouldn’t have happened. His existence was important. Men like him are rare. Teachers like him are very rare. Why? It’s as though it left a hole in the world that shouldn’t have been there. The atmosphere itself seemed to disrupt over it. Within 24 hours of his death, a winter storm blew into Sulaimaniah. Frigid wind screamed down from the Kurdish mountains Jeremiah loved so much. Cold snow tumbled down from the frozen sky, thunder and lightening grumbled in displeasure, and grey clouds brooded over Kurdistan with their gloomy presence for several days.A winter storm so late in the year is strange. From ancient times, strange events are reported to accompany the death of great men, from Julius Caesar to Jesus Christ.  Truly, a great man did pass from us.

One thing that made Jeremiah great is his love for forgiveness. He saw himself as a much-forgiven man. I keep hearing how whenever he realized his wrongness on something, he didn’t tarry to apologize. Sometimes he wasn’t even wrong. I found he grew up in a family where apologies and forgiveness were highly prized. His parents and some of his siblings flew out to Kurdistan to bury their son and brother. The memorial service was filled with an unusual quality, for victim of a murder – forgiveness. The teen’s family was invited to the service. Mom, brothers, and his dad all voiced the same anti-bitterness medicine. Dad said this was a momentary act by a confused young man, and repeated his goodwill towards the family. When they left the podium, the teen’s father came to the front and embraced them. I’ve never witnessed anything like this. It redefined love and reconciliation.

But its touching benefit was for the living. That day they buried Jeremiah. I regret I wasn’t able to attend that one, needing to go back to my place of work.

Regrets are haunting. I have many. I wish I had a chance to get to know him more. We were both so busy. I had hoped to see him during the Nawroz holiday now upon us, where all the schools in Kurdistan let out for two weeks. So much for that.  Yet I can hear his deep, kind voice saying those pleasant things if I concentrate.

I don’t know how much of this post is nonsense. This is grieving. I just miss him. I will miss our authentic conversations. The way he was with kids. His smile. His voice. Everything. Times that I’ve seen him run through my mind like a movie. Tragedy like this makes you think. Death means “over” in our experience. The dead are gone. No more of their presence and all that goes along with it.

But two thousand years ago in the mourning of another dead man, Jesus told the mourners he himself was resurrection and life. Those who believe in him will live again (John 11.25). Tall claims. But what hopeful claims, no? These humanist platitudes of “death is a part of life” and “at least he lived (once)” are idiotic to me. How is that hopeful? May as well say nothing. Put a bow-tie on a rotting eel. Hope doesn’t accept death as the victor. Hope means death isn’t the end: Those who die can go right through death and out the other side to a new kind of life, one that is eternal. Jeremiah firmly  believed in that hope. His conviction was that his dead bones will rise yet again. That’s what made him the person he was. He believed he had a heavenly future. So he lived as though he were a heavenly man.

Yet meanwhile, I lament that this heavenly personage has left us. It’s all a fool like me has to do I guess… Except maybe to be inspired by his life.Image

A memorial video made by a student

Eat but don’t eat – a case of a confusing society and a weak us

"Have it your way" doesn't mean "live the life you want to live," but "Buy our burgers (*pst* - lots and lots of them)"

I hate online advertisements. They’re all annoying to me. I hate some more than others though, like dating sites, weight-loss gimmicks, and clothing ads. Something interesting about these types of ads is that the men and women models are always really trim.

There is no doubt popular culture glorifies trimness. This is the ideal, which leads many young women into eating disorders to try to get thin, even if they are thin already or have a perfectly normal, yet non-thin body type. But the irony is, in the USA, a culture where being underweight is glorified more than ever, our members are more overweight than ever. Obesity is on the rise, as is being overweight.  Obesity, mind you, is preventable.*  You have people who want to be the cultural norm of beautiful, but are not for the most part: people’s desire for food outweighs their desire to have a certain weight. Why? I’d guess two main reasons:

1) Yet more contradictory messages from popular culture. Being thin is in. But so is eating McDonalds, drinking beer, and sedentarily watching a glowing box for TV or gaming. One minute, the screen shows us the epitome of the American man or woman – trim, muscular, and good-looking; the next minute, a commercial advertising the newest savory double-super burger with a gazillion calories. It’s easy to be critical and assert people ought to be smart enough to do what’s best for them, not listen to society’s commercials. However, while I agree that ultimately we all have personal responsibility to ignore commercials and do what’s best for us, we’re underestimating  the social creatures we are. Humans have always lived in societies and our default is striving to be a part of the larger culture. It messes with our minds more than we realize when our society sends messages so contradictory. If popular culture is screaming “Eat! Eat! Eat!” then “Be thin! Be thin! Be thin!” is it so surprising that so many media-engrossed teens will eat, eat, eat, then force themselves to vomit to be thin, thin, thin?

2)This is another example of the inner battle we all have — between what is and what we want to be, between the long-term and short-term, the ideal and the real, between self-control and no control. Frankly, eating right is hard. Even harder is eating less, and harder yet is exercising to lose weight. I myself hate being hungry and don’t like huffing and puffing up hills either. But knowing what overeating does to us, and knowing how we want to be thinner or healthier, we still indulge ourselves. It’s idiotic and not who we want to be, but it’s like we can’t help it. We can. We just don’t discipline our desires. Who does? If someone could, they’d just about be perfect people. I definitely haven’t seen any of those lately.

Pop culture is stupid. I wish I could change it, but I can’t. We are stupid. I can’t change that either.

We need a Saviour. How else can we be rescued from our culture and ourselves?

 

 

*There are exceptions going along with certain diseases, but the majority are not in this category.

Rambling personal reflections


I’ve been kind of silent here. I just haven’t had anything to say. Or at least, anything worth saying or ready to say. Or better, I don’t know what’s worth saying and what’s not, which equals the following post. In fact, I might advise you to skip this one, and not waste your time reading this long self-absorbed rambling (and it is a rambling this time). Other posts here are much better than this!

Quiet desperation – reflecting on life since college

“Most men live lives of quiet desperation, and go to the grave with the song still in them” – Henry David Thoreau.

That seems to describe me a lot right now. Quiet desperation. I have wanderlust again. Since my teenage years, I’ve loved to keep moving – packing lite, experiencing new things and places and people, trying to find something true and authentic about this world, about life, about God and God’s world. That’s how I panned out as a teacher overseas. But even here, now, things feel stuck.

Funny, when I graduated college I had this deep-seated, hard-to-explain, gut feeling. A feeling that my fate was locked into a certain, determined destiny. That I would fall into a chain of events by the mighty hand of God, events over which I had no control. But that was okay with me. A few months after that fateful graduation ceremony, it didn’t seem like that happened. Rather than being caught up in a great adventure, I was bogged down in an unfortunate, random waste of time, even until now. A few of my friends are finishing grad school this coming spring, and I’m nowhere close.

But as I contemplate what has happened since college, I’m starting to think this God-directed chain of events did happen; it was valuable. Just unexpected…

After graduating in 2010, I had a thrilling time in Thailand, got a CELTA certification there, then come back to the US trying to figure out a living. I did beekeeping a few days a week initially. Got a part-time office job earning just above minimum wage, then  another part-time job doing homecare a few nights a week for a quadriplegic gentleman. But I was living in quiet desperation. I wanted to be in school full-time, and or find a set mission in life to launch into. Everything was temporary and in a state of flux. I was discontent then, but right now I miss the mobility I had. I lived in three different places in seven months, and spent a few overnights a week somewhere else for homecare. I practically lived out of my leaky car. It did leak! There was always a roll of paper towels in the back to lay out on the seats whenever it rained.

I see the value of that time, and I regret not enjoying it more. I was sort of like a vagabond, hanging out with friends, finding work here and there, fulfilling my bent for poverty (see below), and enrolled part-time in seminary (taking Hebrew from my favorite Greek professor). The FGA alliance I trip I went on by bus gave me a wind of inspiration. Working in homecare was a tremendously humbling and meaningful experience. My office job, as much as I hated data entry, brought many nice conversations and I had a hilarious boss who let me wear flip-flops and flannel shirts to work. Those 11 months of spinning in San Diego taught me a lot.

But then I ended up here in Kurdistan! Out of the twenty places I applied in so many countries, I got a job here, which was perfect for me in numerous ways I won’t enumerate now.  I have a great job, great pay, great coworkers, and the work of teaching is meaningful. I’m living in this spacious apartment for free with utilities paid. I’m getting the money I need for paying my loans and/or going to school again. By the looks of it, life is good. And by how it worked out, more God-ordained than I initially thought. But I feel out of place…

The not-really vow of poverty

I’ve always been tight on money since graduating High School and going into “the real world.” Going through college was tough, as it is on most people. In the summers I worked 60 hour weeks so I could focus on my education during the school year, and filled the semester with plenty of extra-curricular and side-jobs too.

Somewhere along the line, I made a certain commitment, or mindset of some sort. I didn’t think about it much at the time, but it was forged in experience – I didn’t have a lot of money, but as I worked with homeless people every week, I saw people with a lot less than me. Furthermore, in my summer Thailand internship experience, I was shaken by poverty far more severe than the American homeless. In my Church History class at college I was disgusted by the obscene corruption and unholy greed of the Catholic Church yet profoundly impacted by St. Francis of Assisi and other monks who made vows of poverty and devoted their existence to helping others. I watched the movie on St. Francis “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” twice, humming along with that song “For Sister poverty we give thanks / For brother want we give thanks.” By choosing poverty they showed their authenticity. They’re not in it for money, but for weightier things like love and mercy and God’s glory.

I made a commitment, or a bent, very slowly over my college years, which was basically this: I will never be monetarily rich, but live simply. I will use the money I earn to 1)Support my simple existence 2)To help others, and 3)To finance my further education to enable my gifting to help others further.

It’s not really a vow. It’s not really poverty. And I didn’t follow it perfectly. But it did influence  how I lived and thought. I made a rule for myself to not eat out unless I was going with someone else, thus if I’m to spend the extra money on take-out I will use it as an avenue to share life with another person. I didn’t always follow this. I was often a combination of alone, hungry, or lazy, and going to the Taco shop was too easy, assuming I happened to have cash in my wallet. Oftentimes having a lack of money helped me follow my commitment a little better!

Fast-forward to now – I have a professional  white-colored job. I don’t go to work in a frayed work shirt anymore, ready for bees, as I used to in summers; or show up like I did to the quadriplegic’s home in my winter San Diego uniform of cargo pants, flip-flops, beanie, and sweatshirt. Now I show up in dress-shoes, button-up shirt, and slacks, making more money this year than I ever have in so short a time. I don’t know what to do. My lifestyle has burgeoned accordingly in some ways. I’ve been buying more music on itunes now. I’m buying clothes that fit me instead of waiting for random hand-me-downs.  I eat out more. My apartment seems so huge and I have a room to myself… I don’t even pay my own rent! I’m not comfortable with this. I’m changing my modus operandi, not because my bent has changed, but because the opportunity is there due to this new environment. I’m no St. Francis right now. This is something to work out yet…

Dark Nights and Flashlights

As the Rooster sang in Disney’s Robin Hood, “Every town has its ups and downs. Sometimes ups outnumber the downs but not in Nottingham,” or in this case, this particular life recently. I’ve been through some rather low points lately. It reminds me of the idea of a “Dark Night of the Soul” perhaps, to quote the medieval mystic St. John of the Cross (I keep referring to medieval mystics. Billy Graham!  There, I broke the trend). A lot of it is re-opening questions on things, re-examining various beliefs. I’m starting to come out of it… or better, I at least my soul has a flashlight now. I am really seeing a good view of how messed up I am, as if I’m taking advanced level course. In college is it was “How messed up Paul is 101″ but now it’s “How messed up Paul is 307.” I better not find out there’s a 401, or I might cry. Anyway, “dark nights” like this are a valuable experience – I re-thought many things, was further shown my own ignorance and deficiencies, am more careful in coming to conclusions, basing beliefs on better foundations… stuff like that. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” as the old saying goes.

But the really unfortunate thing is I’m lagging in the close communion with God I once had. Sometimes no matter what you do doesn’t work, and you have to wait it out, knowing your perceptions are flawed and God exists outside your mind, walking with you even though you don’t know it. He never left, but I’m trying to figure out how to get to enjoying God’s presence again, which de facto leads to enjoying life again.  God and life are inexorably connected. The less awareness I have of God the less awareness I have of life. I’ve also found that absence from God leads to nihilism pretty quickly. And nihilism has got to be the most un-inspiring philosophy of life ever (Don’t be a nihilist. That’s my advice for the day).

What to do with this blog…

I’m trying to figure out what to do with this thing. I just know I need an avenue for writing. If not, I’ll go crazy… maybe write on walls or something (oh, already did that, but it’s okay, I erased it). I can’t figure out a title I like, so they keep changing. Right now it’s called “Paul’s Blog,” which is very dull and uncool if you ask me. I want to get focus away from me and onto the ideas that are so much bigger than me. But, it’s changed a lot since I started in in December, 2009 (I was still in college then), and I’m unsure of what direction I should take it into. If you have any ideas, I’m all ears. That is, if you’re still reading this boorish monologue!

Thoughts on “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses” by Richard Bauckham

This has been a groundbreaking book since its arrival in 2006. I not only heard about it, but frequently saw it cited in other things I was reading. I finally picked it up and read it!

Bauckham’s thesis: there’s strong evidence the four gospels are “closely based on eyewitness testimony of those who personally knew Jesus.” The whole book forcefully and, let’s say, nonchalantly (can’t think of a better word) lays out a compelling case. I don’t call this a book review, because the author of this book is very much a scholar, and it would take someone else of that scholarly caliber to truly review the book.

But here are a few other things I liked:

~Proper historical argumentation. Bauckham argues purely as a historian, not as a theologian or even a Christian apologist. I wouldn’t be able to tell if he was a Christian on this book alone (as an aside, he is), even though his thesis, arguments, and conclusions are very compatible with it. As a history major myself, he writes exactly in the ideal of how I was taught to write: Masterful use of primary and secondary sources, tight analysis, studious citations, and attention to detail. ( Some folks criticize it as having too much detail, or “weeds” – but this is dead wrong. Don’t we have enough other sloppy pop-history with more holes than swiss-cheese already? I didn’t find unnecessary “weeds” of detail in this book.)

~Oral history. Bauckham brings a good deal of clarity to the oral background of the gospels. Scholars of every stripe agree that the gospel’s content was told orally before it was written down. Bauckham argues that these ancedotes shouldn’t be considered in the genre of “oral tradition,” as many scholars have done, which disengages the stories from the historical events they are meant to tell of. The term “oral tradition” refers to stories that happened in prior generations, perhaps going back centuries.  Since the stories were told and re-told frequently within the same generations as the events, and getting the actual facts about Jesus right was important to early Christians, the stories should be considered as oral history. He gives good evidence and nice surveys of relevant literature on this… as with everything else.

~First century name statistics. He demonstrates that what we now know of 1st century names fits well with the name statistics in the gospels. The proportions of common and rare first century names in Palestine are the same as those in the gospels, in some cases to 1% difference. This suggests that the gospels were first century literary creations concerning real first century people in real first century events.

~Comparisons between the gospels and ancient historiography. The charge against the gospels as being written by people biased toward Jesus with a biased agenda would be very odd by ancient history standards. For ancient historians, hearing from someone who actually lived and experienced the events was what was valuable, not being a dispassionate observer. By these historiographical standards, the gospels have a definite weight to them, though the format of the gospels has some differences from other histories of the time. Bauckham argues the early Christian historian Papias held John’s Gospel as the prime example of a piece of polished history, while other synoptic gospels, particularly Mark, were still in the form of a historians’ rough notes and anecdote-collections rather than polished history. Which leads us to:

~Mark’s Gospel from accounts of Peter. Bauckham argues that Mark’s Gospel is really the collection of stories from Peter, which Mark wrote down.  He reveals that Peter as a character is more heavily involved in Mark than any other gospel, and through Mark’s utilizing of the literary technique of inclusio (Peter is the first disciple to show up in the story and the last one mentioned), he demonstrates Peter to be the source of the material. Bauckham notes that Mark’s unusually frequent plural-to-singular constructions fit perfectly with Mark writing down Peter’s spoken-word stories. For example, Mark 11.12: “On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he [Jesus] was hungry.”  This is exactly how someone would tell the story if they were there with Jesus: “One the following day when we came from Bethany, he was hungry.” Mark would simply have changed the plural from the first person to third person. Bauckham spends some time on Matthew and Luke as well.

~John’s Gospel as Testimony. Bauckham points out that John’s Gospel is very comparable to what ancient historians would shoot for. It is sharply organized, in chronological order, and very smoothed out compared to the somewhat looser collections of anecdotes in the synoptics. He demonstrates that the author of this gospel meant for this to be an eyewitness account to Jesus: for instance, the numerous hints that he is the ideal witness to be telling these things (a witness to the cross itself), and again, the inclusio technique – he is the first and last disciple mentioned in the book.

~Memory. He has a great section on studies old and new on memory – how reliable it is, what people tend to remember, and how this compares with the gospels. He notes that gospels contain stories of things we would expect people to remember vividly – people tend to remember unusual events, events connected with strong emotions, monumentous/life-changing events, etc. His case-study comparisons between holocaust testimonies and gospel testimonies were fascinating.

 

… There’s more, including the unreasonableness of the form criticism method in gospel studies, the importance of testimony in epistemology, etc. but I can’t reproduce the whole book for you. On the other hand, some cons:

~Light on Matthew and Luke. Bauckham doesn’t spend as much time on Matthew and Luke as I expected. He dwells on Mark and John a bit more. Indeed, those are the most important two to focus on, since Matthew and Luke were based off of Mark anyway, and John is its own unique piece. But I would like to have seen more on Luke especially.

~Thin threads of arguments. A lot of Bauckham’s arguments depend on certain interpretations of things that may be easy to break down or dismiss. For example, he does excellent analysis and argumentation from fragments of Papias, but some of it seemed tenuous. That said, a lot of ancient history is well-reasoned guesswork anyway, this book was no exception. I had a difficult time coming up with counterarguments to even his more tenuous threads.

~Which John? He spends two chapters defending John the Elder as the author of the Gospel of John, not John the son of Zebedee.  This isn’t really a con I suppose, I just disagreed in the end. I must say, it is the best case for this view I’ve ever read. He argues that this John was indeed a disciple of Jesus, probably from Jerusalem, who was not one of the Twelve but among those other close disciples of Jesus. Whichever John wrote it, they’re giving eyewitness testimony.

~Slow going. My main problem with the book is this: it is often very difficult to read. Many sentences are long, dense, and awkward. Stringy sentences are a little too common. Nothing grammatically wrong (that I found anyway), just things like prepositional phrases in weird places, etc. I wish the editor would have smoothed it out a bit. I read it best when I had a few focused hours straight to get into the mindset of his writing style.

This book is a worthy read. I recommend it ideally to anyone who is a good reader and has some prior background in some of these things. But these things are important enough for anyone. So, whoever you are, take on a challenge!

Here are some quotes (though the nature of the book doesn’t lend itself to many good short quotes):

“As I shall argue in this book, the period between the ‘historical’ Jesus and the Gospels was actually spanned, not by anonymous community transmission, but by the continuing presence and testimony of the eyewitnesses, who remained the authoritative sources of their traditions until their deaths” (8).

“Only by failing as a disciple could Peter come to understand the necessity for the Messiah to take up the cross.” (179).

“Good historiography has two main characteristics: truth and artistic composition, and Papias claims both of them.” (218)

“We may conclude that the memories of eyewitnesses of the history of Jesus score highly by the criteria for likely reliability that have been established by the psychological study of recollective memory.” (346).

“Participant eyewitness testimony has a special role when it comes to events that transcend the common experience of historians and their readers. The more exceptional the event, the more historical imagination alone is liable to lead us seriously astray. Without the participant witness that confronts us with the sheer otherness of the event, we will reduce it to the measure of our own experience. In such cases, insider testimony may puzzle us or provoke disbelief, but, for the sake of maintaining the quest for the truth of history, we must allow the testimony to resist the limiting power of our own experiences and expectations.” (492).

“Eyewitness testimony offers us insider knowledge from involved participants. It also offers us engaged interpretation, for in testimony fact and meaning coinhere, and witnesses who give testimony do so with the conviction of significance that requires to be told. Witnesses of truly significant events speak out of their own ongoing attempts to understand.” (505).