Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Bart Ehrman's Jesus before the Gospels (Part 5)

Ehrman begins chapter three of his book, Jesus before the Gospels, referring to a staged event that occurred in 1902. In this event, “a well-known criminologist named von Liszt was delivering a lecture when an argument broke out. One student stood up and shouted that he wanted to show how the topic was related to Christian ethics” (Ehrman 87). A fight ensured, a gun was drawn, and while Professor von Liszt tried to intervene, the gun when off (Ehrman 87). The professor then called the class to order assuring them that the whole scene had been staged as a test of observation and memory. Some students were then asked to write immediately about the event. Others wrote the next day or a week later. Still others were deposed under cross examination. Ehrman then reports that “The most accurate accounts were in error in 26 percent of the details reported. Others were in error as many as 80 percent” (Ehrman, 88). Ehrman concludes that “eyewitnesses are notoriously inaccurate” (Ehrman 88).

Ehrman got this story from a book by Elizabeth Loftus (Eyewitness Testimony, 2nd ed. Cambridge, MA : Harvard Univ. p 20-21). Loftus was quoting from someone named Hugo Munsterberg (On the Witness Stand. New York : Doubleday, 1908; 49-51), and Munsterberg was recalling the event which had been staged by professor von Liszt six years earlier. Unfortunately, Munsterberg gave no further detail on this study so it is difficult to know what to make of the statistics cited. For example, Ehrman didn’t happen to mention that in this study, any “Omissions… wrong additions and alterations” were counted as mistakes (Loftus 20-21). But in recounting any event, different parts of the event may stand out to, and be emphasized by, different people. The fact that two or more people should omit parts of the whole may be due to factors other than memory. Without knowing more about what was omitted or added, or the nature of the alterations, the statistics are not much good.

It would have also been helpful to know what percent of the gist of the story students got accurate.  Students undoubtedly got details wrong, but did any students remember the event entirely differently? Did anyone think the professor shot the student? Did anyone think both students were shot? Did anyone say there was no gunshot at all? My guess is that the gist of the event could have been reconstructed quite well from the eyewitness accounts even though minor details would vary from student to student. Nevertheless, Ehrman uses the story to make the point that “eyewitnesses are notoriously inaccurate” (Ehrman 88).

As an aside, it may also be worth noting that Ehrman is trusting Loftus’ summary of Munsterberg’s memory of von Liszt’s eyewitness account in an effort to show that memory can’t be trusted!

Another study cited by Ehrman related to the crash of an El-Al Boing 707 (Ehrman 89-91). Ehrman cites a study by psychologists Hans Crombag, Willem Wagenaar and Peter Van Koppen regarding a Boeing 707 that crashed into an apartment near Amsterdam in October of 1992 (Hans. F.M. Crombag, Willem A. Wagenaar, and Peter J. Van Koppen, “Crashing Memories and the Problem of ‘Source Monitoring,” Applied Cognitive Psychology, 10, 1996: 95-104).

Ten months after the crash, Crombag and his colleagues surveyed 193 university faculty, staff and students about the accident. Specifically, participants in the survey filled out a questionnaire which asked, “Did you see the television film of the moment the plane hit the apartment building?” (Ehrman 90; Crombag 99). Of the 107 who responded, 55% said yes. Later another questionnaire was given to 93 law students. Ehrman relates that “In this instance 62 (66 percent) of the respondents indicated that they had seen the film. There was just one problem. There was no film” (Ehrman 90). Ehrman concludes that “they were imagining it, based on logical inferences…” (Ehrman 91).

What Ehrman doesn’t mention—and what is only relegated to a footnote in Crombag’s article— is the fact that “some networks showed a schematic computer animation of the movements of the plane between take-off and the moment of impact” (Crombag 95 n.1). A television computer animation could legitimately be considered “a television film.” So those who said they saw the television film were not necessarily mis-remembering a non-existent film. They may have thought the questionnaire was referring to the television computer animation film which did, in fact, exist and was shown on TV. Even though this film “did not show how the plane crashed” it did show “the movements of the plane between take-off and the moment of impact (Crombag, 95 n.1). The existence and airing of the computer animation on TV calls this entire study into question.

The possibility that those taking the questionnaire thought they were being asked about the computer animation is supported by the fact that the researchers were actually puzzled by the fact that it would be very improbable that a video would exist of the actual impact (the study was obviously before 911). They wrote, “only very little critical sense would have made our subjects realize that the implanted information could not possibly be true. We are still at a loss as to why so few of them realized this” (Crombag 103). It is actually quite easy to explain. Those taking the questionnaire thought they were being asked about the television animation film they had seen.

A follow-up study regarding the crash asked more specific questions, for example whether the plane was burning when it crashed, or whether it came in nose up, nose down or vertically, etc. (Crombag 100). Some who answered the questions admitted they had not seen the TV film of the crash. The researchers concluded that “The fact that in Study 2 many of the respondents answered the ‘memory’ questions’ after having admitted that they had not seen the (nonexisting) TV film indicates that they thought that all that mattered was getting it right” (103).
The researchers fail to realize, however, that this also undermines their study. The respondents simply misunderstood what they were being asked. They apparently thought this was a survey about what happened—and they pieced together what happened from memory of the extensive TV coverage of the aftermath of the crash. They were really being asked about what they personally remembered seeing on a television film. 
One of the points made in this article was that “Witnesses in legal trials must therefore be explicitly reminded that they can only testify as to what they know first-hand” (Crombag 103). Those who did the study should have followed their own advice. Were the respondents in Crombag’s study “explicitly reminded” that they were only to answer very specifically regarding what they had actually seen on a TV video (not an animation) of the actual crash—not what they inferred to have happened from videos of the aftermath? There is no way of knowing, therefore, whether these questionnaires were measuring memory or interpretation.

This study was a good reminder for those conducting court trials but has little relevance to historical studies. No one doubts that eyewitnesses get details wrong. What matters is the big picture or “gist” of the story. While the details in Crombag’s study varied, no one to our knowledge questioned the big picture, i.e. that a large plane (not a train or truck) did hit a building (not a soccer stadium) near Amsterdam (not Paris or London) and the result was chaos and disaster!

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Bart Ehrman's Jesus before the Gospels (Part 4)

After attacking the work of Birger Gerhardsson in chapter two of Jesus before the Gospels, Bart Ehrman then focuses on the work of Kenneth Bailey. From decades of work in the Middle East as a missionary, Bailey observed that small villages would tell and re-tell the stories of their community’s history. Only the most knowledgeable and senior members of the community were allowed to tell the stories. They had some degree of freedom to tell the stories in their own words, but the core of the stories had to be accurate or it was considered shameful, and the community would correct them in no uncertain terms. Bailey argued that this model would explain what we see in the Synoptic Gospels in which the core of the stories are the same, but minor details vary from Gospel to Gospel.

Ehrman argued that there was no evidence to show that early Christian communities functioned that way (72-73). Ehrman is right that there is no direct evidence for Bailey’s theory from Jesus’ time, but the value of any hypothesis is its explanatory power—and Bailey’s hypothesis has a lot of explanatory power. Some scholars would argue that Bailey’s theory (especially as refined and elaborated by James Dunn in Jesus Remembered) makes sense of what we see in the Synoptic Gospels better than any other theory ever proposed. At least Bailey’s sources come from Middle Eastern culture and relate to the transmission of history, unlike the Form Criticism model, on which Ehrman seems to rely, which was developed from relatively modern studies on how German folklore was transmitted!

Ehrman asks, “Are we to imagine that eyewitnesses fanned out and rooted themselves in every village of Palestine where someone told stories of Jesus?” (73). Ehrman adds, “according to the New Testament book of Acts, the disciples of Jesus stayed for the most part in Jerusalem once the church had begun after Jesus’ death” (73). Ehrman’s argument is apparently based on Acts 8:1 which says, “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.” Notice that although the apostles remained headquartered, so to speak, in Jerusalem, believers were “scattered throughout Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1). So it is entirely possible—even likely—that those who were “scattered throughout Judea and Samaria” included eyewitnesses who “fanned out and rooted themselves in every village….”

And although the apostles remained headquartered in Jerusalem, that doesn’t mean they never left. Church leaders like Peter, John and Philip traveled throughout the region as well, ministering to churches as they went (Acts 8:25-26; 9:32-38; 10:24). When the church in Antioch got large enough, the apostles sent a representative (Barnabas) to oversee the church (11:22) and when a dispute broke out, representatives from Antioch went up to Jerusalem to discuss the issue with the apostles (Acts 15:1-4). In fact, after his second missionary journey, even Paul may have given account of his ministry to the apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 18:22). In other words, unlike some ancient version of the telephone game, the earliest church had apostles, teachers and other eyewitness who were able to keep the stories of Jesus from wildly spinning out of control. If someone was preaching things about Jesus that wasn’t accurate, there were apostles and eyewitnesses who would certainly correct the story.

Curiously, after seemingly mocking the idea of eyewitnesses in Judean, Samarian and Galilean villages, Ehrman then concedes that false stories would have been corrected. But he finds fault with that too:

Possibly when someone tells a story, someone else corrects him. In fact, that seems more than likely: it almost always happens when one person tells a story that someone else knows. Does this group context for telling the stories ensure that they are accurate? Actually, modern psychological studies suggests that just the opposite is normally the case” (Ehrman 75).

Ehrman says that cognitive psychologists have discovered that “when a group ‘collectively remembers’ something they have all heard or experienced, the ‘whole’ is less than the sum of the ‘parts” (75). In other words, if you interview ten people separately, you will get more information than if you interview them as a group. As proof, Ehrman cites “Collaborative and Social Remembering” by Rebecca Thompson (chapter 9 in Memory in the Real World by Gillian Cohen and Martin Conway, 3rd ed. New York : Psychology Press, 2008).

Citing other research, Thompson stated that nominal groups (groups in name only, in which responses from individuals are added together) did better than collaborative groups (those that actually worked together as a group). Both groups did better than individuals. But Bailey is not talking about eyewitnesses collaboratively working together to remember something. Bailey is taking about someone retelling a story of a community’s history to a group that already knows the story well and is in a position to correct the story if the storyteller makes a mistake. Ehrman seems to be comparing apples to oranges.

Significantly, Ehrman leaves out a couple of other important aspects of Thompson’s article. First, one of the studies cited by Thompson found that when “when collaborating, individuals encoded to-be-remembered items together (in an episodic task) and they actually outperformed the nominal groups” (Thompson, Memory in the Real world, 260). Episodic memory is “recalling things that happened to you personally” as opposed to semantic memory which “involves factual information about the world, quite apart from whether you have personally experienced it” (Ehrman 18). In the case of Bailey’s theory, we are talking about episodic memory, i.e. personal memories of Jesus by the apostles or other eyewitnesses. So by way of application, if the apostles jointly remembered the words and deeds of Jesus during the 40 days they were together before Pentecost, that would increase their memory even above that of a nominal group.

Second, Thompson says “The accuracy of collaborative output has been detrimentally affected in certain situations and improved in others. Using a simulation of a police interrogation, Stephenson et al. (1986) reported an overall higher accuracy of the collaborating groups’ performance compared to individual performance” (Thompson, Memory, 253). The “higher accuracy of the collaborating groups’ performance” seems to contradict the Ehrman’s negative assessment of Bailey.
But all of this is actually a moot point. Ehrman began by asking, “Does this group context for telling the stories ensure that they are accurate? Actually, modern psychological studies suggests that just the opposite is normally the case” (Ehrman 75). As proof, Ehrman cites a quote from Thompson’s article that pertains to the amount of information groups or individuals remember but says nothing about the accuracy of what they remember.

For some reason, Ehrman didn’t quote from the part of Thompson’s article that addresses accuracy. For example, in one of the memory tests that showed lower accuracy, groups of people were shown a picture of “a common household scene, containing a variety of common objects.” They were only allowed to look at the picture for 15 or 60 seconds. When the groups collaborated together to recall what they saw, one member of the group deliberately “recalled” objects that were not there. This negatively affected the accuracy of the group’s memory as some of the other adopted that false memory (Thompson, Memory, 254).

One really has to wonder, however, whether 15 and 60 second showings of a picture in an artificial experiment for which nothing is at stake and in which false information is deliberately inserted, is analogous to memories of the life and teachings of Jesus by disciples whose lives were on the line. After all, Jesus had just been executed—his disciples had every reason to be concerned they could be next! Not only that, but an experiment in which people are asked to recall details of pictures of common items they had seen for less than 60 seconds, is certainly not comparable to the rememberances of Jesus’ apostles, or other eyewitnesses of Jesus (like some of the women) who traveled with him for up to three years and heard him preach, teach and explain the same or similar things over and over and over again! Besides, Thompson’s article presented no indication that the overall memories of the pictures were inaccurate, only that a few details had be deliberately inserted. 

Although Ehrman didn’t cite this part of Thompson’s article, it is important to keep this study in mind when you read of psychological studies that supposedly demonstrate the unreliability of memory.
Ehrman continues,

“But there are bigger problems with group memories. They are often more frail and faulty than individual memories—just the opposite of what you might expect. For one thing, if one person—say, a dominant personality—injects into the conversation an incorrect recollection or ‘distorted memory’ that others in the group do not remember, they tend to take the other person’s word for it. As one recent study has shown, ‘The misinformation implanted by one person comes to be shared by the group as a whole. In other words, a collective memory could become formed around misinformation. Misinformation shared by one person may be adopted by the rest’ (Ehrman, 75-76).

As an example, Ehrman cited a study that “found that 65 percent of the participants actually changed their views because of social pressure exerted on them (not necessarily consciously) by the group as a whole. About 40 percent of these errors were ‘persistent,’ that is, they became ‘permanent’ memories of those who actually did not at first have them” (Ehrman 76, citing Micah Edelson, Tali Sharot, Raymond Dolan, and yadin Dudai, “Following the Crowd: Brain Substrates of Long-Term Memory Conformity,” Science 333 (2011: 108-111)).

In this test, 30 participants were shown “an eyewitness-style documentary on a large screen in groups of five.” Three days later they took a memory test. Four days after that, they were given the same memory test, but this time they were deliberately misled, being told that four others in the group gave a different answer than they had. One week later they were given the same memory test again, but first they were accurately informed that they had been misled about the group’s answers.

The result was that the “participants conformed to the majority opinion in 68.3 +_ 2.9% of the manipulation trials, giving a false answer to questions they had previously answered correctly…When the social influence was removed (test 3), participants reverted to their original correct answer in 59.2 +_2.3% of the previously conformed trials (transient errors) but maintained erroneous answers in 40.8% (persistent errors). (Edelson et al., 108). The experiment demonstrated that social pressure can lead people to conform to the group. In the case of this experiment, the social pressure came when some test subjects were deliberately misled about answers from others in the group.

No one argues, however, that intruders had infiltrated the group of apostles and deliberately inserted false memories of Jesus, so this experiment has little if any relevance to Bailey’s theory. On the other hand, the social pressure discovered in this experiment is a double-edged sword that could cut both ways. In the experiment false information was deliberately communicated to the participant. Apart from an artificially concocted experiment, a more likely scenario would be that someone in a group mis-remembered something she saw and the group corrected her. The social pressure from the group may actually cause her to conform to the group’s accurate remembrance. This seems much more analogous to the scenarios proposed by Bailey in which everyone in the group knows the story so if the one telling the story changes the story significantly, the group will correct him.

In real life scenarios in which people are motivated to get the story right (these early Christians were, after all, basing their lives on accurate rememberances of the ministry and teachings of Jesus), it would seem that the social pressure may have actually served to preserve the accuracy of the stories of Jesus. Ehrman’s conclusion that, “It seems that the idea of a group ensuring the accuracy of traditions is not psychologically defensible” (76), is simply not warranted by the psychological evidence he cites in Edelson’s article.


These, of course, are not the only studies of eyewitness memories cited by Ehrman. I’ll discuss more of them in the next post.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Bart Ehrman's Jesus before the Gospels (part 3)

In Jesus before the Gospels, Bart Ehrman asks the question, “wouldn’t Jesus’ followers have memorized his teachings and made sure that the stories about his life were not altered as they were told and retold” (66)? In a nutshell, his answer is no. Ehrman critiques of the work of Birger Gerhardsson who argued that Jesus’ followers would have memorized Jesus’ teachings just like the students of other Jewish rabbis (66). Ehrman discusses what he thinks are several problems with Gerhardsson’s views.

First, Ehrman points out that Gerhardsson gets his information about rabbinic teaching methods from about 200 years after the time of Jesus. Ehrman says Gerhardsson is “reading back into an earlier period information that we have for only a much later time” (68). That is true, since we don’t have much information about Jewish teaching methods during Jesus’ time. But on the other hand, it could be argued that Ehrman is thinking like a 21st century American, not like an ancient Middle Eastern Jew. Things change rapidly in 21st century America. Some things have been invented and have become obsolete just during the course of my own lifetime. Eight track tapes, for example, were invented, became obsolete, and were replaced by cassette tapes which have also become obsolete!

By contrast, things changed very slowly in the ancient world in which someone might live their entire life without any new inventions affecting their life in any way. So it is very probable that the use of memory by Rabbis’ disciples 200 years after Jesus’ time had not changed at all. How else would they learn other than memory? Books were very expensive in the ancient world so people often learned by memory. In fact, when the Pilgrims came to America in the early 1600’s, memory was still a big part of education. Two hundred years later in the early 1800’s, memory continued to be a big part of education. Why would we think it would be different from Jesus’ time to 200 years after Jesus’ time?

Ehrman also says that “there is nothing in the tradition to suggest that Jesus was a Rabbi in the later technical sense—or that anyone at all was in his day” (68). Before I went to Russia I was told that only Russian Orthodox clergy were allowed to be called Professors of religion. I taught a Christology class to seminary students. The fact that I couldn’t technically be called a “Professor” in the accepted Russian sense, did not make me any less of a professor in reality. Similarly, regardless of whether Jesus was a Rabbi in any later technical sense of the word, he was certainly a teacher and there is no reason to think that some of his students couldn’t or wouldn’t have memorized his teachings!

Finally, Gerhardsson responded to critics saying:

Many critics, however, believed and said that I simply tried to read back into the period before 70 the developed rabbinic techniques of about A.D. 200, and that I imposed the academic methods of the rabbis on the popular preachers of early Christianity; they rejected my whole argument, without further discussion, as anachronistic and inadequate. This is not a correct account of my standpoint or method; nor is it a fruitful way of discussing a complex problem (Birger Gerhardsson. Memory & Manuscript…with Tradition & Transmission in Early Christianity. Grand Rapids : Eerdmans, 1998, xiii).

The same criticism would apply to Ehrman. In fact, one of Gerhardsson’s critics, Jacob Neusner, a world-renowned expert in ancient Judaism, later took back his criticism. He even wrote the forward to a later edition of Gerhardsson’s Memory & Manuscript endorsing the book and explaining that he had previously not read it carefully enough (Gerhardsson, Memory, xxvii-xxix). Perhaps Ehrman would benefit by reading Gerhardsson more carefully.

Second, Ehrman points out that “the striking differences in the words and deeds of Jesus as reported in the Gospels is compelling evidence precisely that they were not memorized and passed along without significant change” (69). But just because I may memorize something does not mean that I just parrot what I memorized in my teaching and writing. I may summarize and synthesize what I had memorized and teach the essence of what I had memorized in my own words. In his massive book, Jesus Remembered, James Dunn argues persuasively that the earliest followers of Jesus re-told the core of stories about Jesus accurately and reliably, but in their own words. Dunn’s theory, which he defends admirably, has a lot of explanatory power when it comes to what we actually see in the Gospels. It can explain why the stories in the Synoptic Gospels are sometimes word-for-word identical as well as why they often have minor differences. It does not exclude the possibility of memorization.

Third, Ehrman says that Gerhardsson’s view “does not take seriously the realities of how traditions of Jesus were being circulated in the early church” (70). Ehrman says the stories about Jesus “had been in circulation for decades, not simply among disciples who allegedly memorized Jesus’ words and deeds, but also among all sorts of people, most of whom had never laid eyes on an eyewitness or even on anyone else who had” (70). 

Ehrman, of course, would explain away the facts that Luke claims to have been in touch with eyewitnesses (Luke 1:1-3), the Gospel of John claims to have been written by an eyewitness (John 21), and several early church leaders say that Mark got his information from Peter. But aside from that, Ehrman is simply parroting the old, discredited Form critical theory that the Gospel writers really knew nothing at all about Jesus and were simply collecting folk traditions about Jesus from all kinds of sources—regardless of whether those sources were reliable or not, or whether they actually knew anything about Jesus or not. This makes me think of some modern TV reporter with a microphone asking random people, “Who do you think Jesus was?”

As I mentioned in my first post (and I cited a few sources as examples), this Form criticism theory has been thoroughly refuted! Someone once commented that if Form Criticism was correct, the early disciples of Jesus must have all been raptured right after his resurrection since they apparently had no influence whatsoever on how Jesus words and works were remembered, taught and transmitted.

My intent is not to endorse everything Gerhardsson wrote. I tend to think the model proposed by Baily and Dunn are closer to the truth. But regardless of whether Jesus’ disciples actually memorized his teachings or not, we need to remember that Jesus’ disciples were not like modern college students who may take a class from a professor one hour a day three times a week. Jesus’s disciples traveled with him, lived with him, and heard him preach and teach the same or similar things over and over and over again in villages throughout Galilee and elsewhere. Then, as they spent hours and hours walking along the roads or resting in the evenings, they had plenty of time to discuss these things since they did not have TV, radio, video games or even books to eat up their time. After two or three years of this, something was bound to sink in even if not by formal memory!

After the disciples were convinced that Jesus had actually risen from the dead, they began preaching and teaching about Jesus throughout the villages of Judea, Samaria and Galilee. Judging from what we can gather from Acts and some of Paul’s letters, they continued this leadership role for decades! The essence of what they taught was eventually written down in our Gospels which are the earliest extant records of the words and works of Jesus.

No one, of course, thinks Mark and Luke were written by eyewitnesses and whether Matthew and John were written by eyewitnesses is disputed. But contrary to Ehrman, there is no good reason to doubt, and very good reasons to believe, that the Gospels contain reliable—even eyewitness—records of the ministry and teaching of Jesus.

But are eyewitness memories reliable? I haven’t forgotten about the psychological studies on memory cited by Ehrman. We’ll get to them.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Bart Ehrman's Jesus before the Gospels (part 2)

In Jesus before the Gospels, Bart Ehrman cites numerous psychological studies demonstrating the unreliability of memory. As I read many of the research articles he cited, it occurred to me that the degree of reliability (or unreliability) in such memory studies is directly related to the specificity of the questions asked. The more eyewitness studies deal with minutia, the more unreliable memory will be seen to be.

For example, consider the case of the Jamar Clark shooting in Minnesota. Eyewitnesses differed on whether Clark was handcuffed in front, in back, on one hand or whether he was handcuffed at all. But none of the eyewitnesses (to my knowledge) disputed the central story: Clark beat up his girlfriend who called 911. She was treated in an ambulance while he was outside yelling. The police came and a struggle ensued resulting in Clark being shot and killed by one of the officers. Eyewitnesses differ on the details but agreed on the gist of the story.

Similarly, although scholars often delight in pointing out minor discrepancies in the stories regarding Jesus’ crucifixion, virtually all Jesus scholars (even the most critical) would acknowledge as historical fact that Jesus was tried by Jewish authorities and handed over to Pontius Pilate who had Jesus beaten and crucified. Most, I think, would even affirm that Jesus’ tomb was later found empty by some women and that early Christians came to believe that he had risen from the dead!

In the numerous research articles I read on memory, virtually all of the researchers seemed interested in demonstrating how terribly unreliable memory is. And yet each of the researchers cited by Ehrman presumably remembered where and how to eat breakfast, where and how to get to work, who their coworkers and colleagues were, how to communicate with them, how to operate their computers and word processing programs, where and when to eat lunch, how to get home, and the many, many minor cultural conventions necessary to understand daily interactions and to avoid offending others.

There are thousands and thousands of things we remember accurately every day, including things from our past. When we start failing to remember these things we get tested for various forms of dementia! But in spite of the fact that Ehrman gives two or three statements affirming the reliability of “gist memory,” the bulk of his book—and the research he cites—focuses on the times when memory fails leading to the impression that the Gospels are terribly unreliable (I’ll leave it to those who know him personally to conclude whether this impression was intentional or not). 

Many recent studies on the historical Jesus have shown that we actually can know quite a bit about Jesus as a person of history and that we have good reason to believe that the Gospels are quite reliable.

In future posts I will get down into the weeds of some of the memory studies Ehrman cites in his book.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Bart Ehrman's "Jesus before the Gospels"

The subtitle of Bart Ehrman’s new book, Jesus before the Gospels, summarizes the content in a nutshell: “How the earliest Christians remembered, changed, and invented their stories of the savior.” I plan to eventually write an article responding to Ehrman’s book but in the meantime I thought I’d just post some random observations. Here is the first.

It is important to note that conservative, Evangelical Bible scholars do not generally believe that the Gospels contain anything like word-for-word transcripts of Jesus’ teachings. With regard to Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels, scholars distinguish between ippsima verba (exact words) and ippsima vox (exact voice). Conservative scholars generally deny the first but hold to the second. Ippsima vox is the idea that what we have in the Gospels is the accurate sense or “gist” of what Jesus taught.

Ehrman’s view of how Jesus’ teachings were transmitted is that the Gospels contain “memories of later authors who had heard about Jesus from others, who were telling what they had heard about Jesus from others, who were telling what they heard from yet others. They are memories of memories of memories” (3). Ehrman is relying on an outdated model called “Form Criticism” which has been convincingly discredited (See for example, Paul Eddy and Gregory Boyd, The Jesus Legend. Grand Rapids : Baker, 237-268. See also Dale Allison, Constructing Jesus. Grand Rapids : Baker, 2010, 1-30.  N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God. Minneapolis : Fortress Press, 1992, 418-435. James Dunn, Jesus Remembered, 125-133).

The fact is that Ehrman is actually just stating opinion (which I would argue is based on an outdated theory!). He simply does not know that that the Gospel writers “were telling what they had heard about Jesus from others, who were telling what they heard from yet others…” (3). Contrary to Ehrman and the critics, the writer of the Gospel of Luke claims to have heard from eyewitnesses (Luke 1:1-3) and the Gospel of John claims to have been written by an eyewitness. The second century Christian writer Papias confirms this. James Dunn (Jesus Remembered) and Richard Bauckham (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses) have argued persuasively that although the Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses, they are the product of eyewitness remembrances. Of course Ehrman tries to discredit these writers but I think he does so unfairly and superficially.

Jesus’ teachings were remembered by disciples who lived and traveled with Jesus, probably for up to three years, hearing him preach and teach the same messages over and over and over again as they went from village to village—explaining those messages in more detail when they were alone (remember, unlike modern college students, they didn’t have TV, radio, or video games to eat up their time--and books were too expensive)!

Did the disciples remember the exact words (ippsima verba) of Jesus? Not necessarily, though in some cases they may have (There is evidence from after the time of Jesus that some Rabbi’s had students who would use a form of shorthand to record their teacher’s instruction, and then commit that teaching to memory). Did Jesus’ disciples remember the essence or gist (ippsima vox) of what Jesus taught? Even Bart Ehrman concedes that “gist memory” can be accurate. He writes, “Our own memories are, on the whole, reasonably good. If they weren’t, we would not be able to function, or even survive, as human beings in a very complex world” (3). “Let me stress again: most of the time our memories are pretty good. Otherwise we couldn’t function as individuals or society” (20-21).

So I guess the bottom line is that in the process of writing a 326 page book leaving the impression that eyewitness memory in general and the Gospels in particular, are thoroughly unreliable, Ehrman throws in two or three statements here and there emphasizing that “gist memory” is actually “pretty good.” Evangelicals agree.

But what about Inerrancy, an idea Ehrman doesn’t address but would undoubtedly mock? How can the Gospels be without error if most of what they contain is just “gist memory”?  The answer is that something does not have be recited word-for-word to be accurate and without error. Summaries can accurate and without error too. Of course we can’t prove the Gospels are without error—Many Evangelicals take that on faith based on what Jesus teaches about Scripture and what Scripture teaches about itself—but there is no good reason to doubt—and very good reasons to believe—that the Gospels contain reliable memories of the words and works of Jesus, Bart Ehrman notwithstanding. More on this later.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

How dare you question someone else's faith!

Both Barack Obama and Donald Trump consider themselves to be Christians. Those who have had the audacity to call their claims into question have often stirred a firestorm of criticism. Faith is often seen as a very private thing which no one has the right to challenge or question. I would suggest that the difference of opinion stems in part from two different ways of understanding faith and Christianity. For lack of better terms, I will call these two viewpoints “Traditional Christianity” and “Progressive Christianity.”

Traditional Christianity

Traditional Christianity crosses denominational boundaries and has always taught that all human beings have sinned against God. Our sinfulness manifests itself in specific attitudes, thoughts and actions, but is more deeply rooted in ultimate allegiances to power, glory, honor, wealth, religion, family, self, entertainment—anything but absolute allegiance to the God of the Bible! This sinfulness has separated us from a holy God and results in his wrath against us. No amount of good works on our part can make up for our rebellion. By ourselves, our situation would be hopeless.

The solution, however, was provided by God Himself who became human in the person of Jesus Christ, lived among us as a perfect example, and died a torturous death as an atoning sacrifice in our place. God applies the benefit of this sacrifice—a right standing before Him—to all who repent of their sin and turn in faith to Jesus as their lord and king.

Repentance is often misunderstood. To repent is not just being sorry we’ve sinned. To repent means to have a change of mind or a change of heart. A repentant heart is one that no longer looks at sin as merely a mistake. It no longer relativizes sin as if the fact that I’m not as bad as others somehow excuses me. It no longer excuses sin as the fault of my environment, or circumstances or genetics, or parents. Repentance emotionally and intellectually comes to grips with the fact that I have rebelled against a holy God and am without excuse. This heart attitude, coupled with a sincere desire to change, is repentance.

Faith is also widely misunderstood. Biblical saving faith is not just believing certain facts about Jesus, like his deity or resurrection—as important as those facts are. Even demons have that kind of “faith”! Saving faith is not just trusting that God is going to take you to heaven. Jesus said that many on judgment day will say to him, “Lord, Lord…”, but he will say to them, “Depart, you workers of iniquity.” Biblical saving faith is a heart attitude of loving devotion/ commitment/ dedication/ allegiance, to Jesus Christ as Savior, Lord and King; trusting him alone to make us right with God. This kind of repentance/faith cannot help but result in a change that produces increasing obedience to Jesus, our King, resulting in love, kindness and compassion (theologians call this “sanctification”). Biblically speaking, repentance and faith are like two sides of the same coin. Repentance turns from sin. Faith turns toward Jesus.

Although some traditionalists will quibble with my wording, I would argue that this gospel has basically been the core teaching of Christianity for 2,000 years, precisely because it is so thoroughly and solidly rooted in the New Testament. Admittedly, this teaching has been widely distorted at times by both Catholics and Protestants. For example, many in the Roman Catholic Church have, throughout history, seemingly substituted good works, or adherence to rituals, or commitment to “the Church” for genuine devotion to Christ. Among Protestants, John Calvin, once denounced those who have no devotion toward God and yet falsely think they are saved just because they intellectually believe certain doctrines. The view Calvin denounced is still wide-spread in contemporary Christianity. But these are distortions of Traditional (biblical) Christianity.

Progressive Christianity

A second kind of “Christianity” is what I will call, “Progressive Christianity.” This also crosses denominational boundaries but tends to be found more in old, mainline denominations. In his book, The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg calls this the “emerging paradigm.” This is misleading, however, since Borg’s “emerging paradigm” is pretty much the same as “liberal” or “modernist” Christianity and has been around for over two hundred years. Progressive Christianity tends to deny what Traditionalists have—for almost two thousand years—seen to be core doctrines of the Christian faith—e.g. the inspiration of Scripture, the deity of Christ, the atoning sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, and the bodily resurrection, etc. In Progressive Christianity, the core ideas of sin, repentance and final judgment tend to be ignored, downplayed, denied or even denounced. Progressive Christianity is primarily, if not exclusively, concerned with being kind, compassionate, loving, tolerant and non-judgmental towards everyone (the book by Marcus Borg cited above gives a detailed explanation and defense of this view). In this view, faith is not so much loving devotion to a person but a feeling or preference for a particular religious worldview. How dare anyone call in to question your personal preference!

Evangelicalism once stood firmly in the line of Traditional Christianity, though in recent times, many evangelicals seem more like practicing progressives. What I mean is that while these progressive evangelicals technically still hold to core tenets of the faith, they tend to shy away from teaching doctrine, and they ignore or downplay ideas like sin, repentance and final judgment. Preaching on sin and repentance may seem too judgmental, intolerant and politically incorrect to Progressive congregations. Like the liberal version of Progressive Christianity, the evangelical version seems to focus largely on tolerance, love, and compassion.

Evaluation

Of course, love and compassion are essential features of any version of Christianity, but the Progressive version is problematic. First, traditional Christianity places a great deal of emphasis on biblical standards of honesty, ethics, biblical morality etc. In the book cited above, Marcus Borg characterizes this as an emphasis on purity rather than on compassion. The problem is that when compassion and tolerance are separated from biblical standards or “purity,” they quickly descend into inconsistent and sometimes even hypocritical relativism.

Secular progressives, for example, loudly preach tolerance, and yet they are often among the most intolerant people on the planet—showing tolerance only toward the views they support! Being compassionate toward someone (e.g., a rapist) may unintentionally involve being uncompassionate toward someone else (e.g. his victim). Non-discrimination toward one group may necessarily involve discrimination toward another. Love, compassion and tolerance must be rooted in absolutes—what Borg decries as “purity” standards, which Traditionalists find in the Bible—or else the result is often inconsistent relativism.

Second, unless love and compassion flow out of a heart of repentance and loving devotion (faith) toward Jesus Christ, our acts of love and compassion are really nothing more than the kind of works-righteousness or works-salvation denounced so strongly by the Apostle Paul. Paul strongly and repeatedly insisted that no one is saved by the good works they do, but only by God’s grace through faith in Christ. Besides, if our ultimate allegiance (faith) is not to Jesus as King, then any good works we do are but “filthy rags” to God since they would be coming from a heart which is ultimately in rebellion against God.

Finally, the idea of faith as a feeling or personal preference is a modern viewpoint congenial to modern pluralist sensibilities in which would be loath to place any one “faith” or religion over another (except by way of personal preference). It is certainly not, however, the viewpoint which, according to the New Testament, was taught by Jesus and apostles. According to the Gospel of John, Jesus taught, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” 


It is hard for me to avoid the conclusion, therefore, that the apostles and very earliest followers of Jesus would have considered many modern “Progressive Christians”—whether of the liberal version or the “evangelical” version—to be Christians in name only. And when I look at the "fruit" of the words and deeds of Barack Obama and Donald Trump, I find it hard to believe that the apostles would have considered either of them to be Christian.

Monday, May 02, 2016

Trusting God with tomorrow

I was listening to someone on the radio this morning telling listeners to trust God more with the events in their lives. The message seemed to be that if we just trust God enough he will make everything turn out OK for us. I’ve heard this message numerous times from well-meaning Christians.

My question is: So how did that work out for Jesus? Didn’t he trust the Father enough? Is that why he was mocked, beaten, and tortured to death?  What about Paul? He was flogged, stoned, shipwrecked, beaten with rods, threatened with death and often went without adequate water, food, shelter and clothing. Wasn’t he trusting God enough?  What about the Christians who were imprisoned, starved, tortured and eventually killed in Nazi prison camps? Didn’t any of them trust God enough?

So what happened? Did God fail them?

Not at all! I just think many American Christians have an unbiblical, Pollyanna, view of trusting God with the future. Trusting God with our future is not about trusting hard enough that God will make our life turn out better from our perspective. God never promised that this life would be easy. In fact, tomorrow may turn out terribly from our perspective (First Peter 1:6; 4:12)!

But—and this is where trust comes in—we should pray earnestly and trust God to strengthen and empower us to get through whatever tomorrow may bring—good or bad, wonderful or terrible! We must also trust that, regardless of appearances, we serve an all loving, all powerful God who will make all things ultimately (if not in this life, then in the next) work out for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28).

In the meantime, Jesus taught that we should concern ourselves first and foremost with the Kingdom of God and not to worry about tomorrow—“each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 7:25-34). This doesn’t mean that we should stop planning for tomorrow or that we shouldn’t take necessary precautions (see, for example, Proverbs). But when it comes to worry, we should take one day at a time.

In a recent reality-based movie starring Tom Hanks, a spy had been captured and was facing possible death. Tom Hanks’ character asked the spy—three separate times throughout the movie, as I recall—if he was worried. The matter-of-fact response each time was, “would it help?” 

Of course not! We can plan or take precautions for the possibilities of tomorrow—we can even try to influence how tomorrow may turn out—but it just will not help in any way to worry about tomorrow (so easy to write, so hard to do—I’m still working on it).

But don’t trust God to make this life easier. He never promised he would, in fact, quite the contrary (e.g. 2 Timothy 3:12).




Monday, April 11, 2016

Gay marriage vs Christian bakers and florists

Regarding the Christian baker/florist vs. gay marriage debate, I would suggest that there are actually at least two separate issues that need to be clearly distinguished.
First is the question of whether we want a government that can force people to support causes with which they disagree (violation of free speech); or can force people to violate sincerely held religious convictions (violation of freedom of religion). Granted, our government already does that to some limited extent--for example, parents who disagree with blood transfusions on religious grounds but whose children are forced to have blood transfusions--but under the Obama administration the interference has become much more intrusive. There must come a point at which such interference becomes clearly unconstitutional.
Second is the question of whether it is actually wrong or sinful for a Christian baker (or florist, etc.) to sell products that will be used in a gay wedding. Christians who say “yes” it is wrong, should ask themselves whether they would sell a wedding cake (or flowers) to someone who divorced his spouse in order to marry someone else—something Jesus clearly calls “adultery.” I’ve never heard of a Christian baker or florist denying services to those in second or third marriages.
Christians should also ask themselves whether they would have the same crisis of conscience if they were the owner of a fast food place and were asked to sell a couple of their special half-pound bacon cheeseburgers to a morbidly obese person, thereby facilitating gluttony—one of the so-called “seven deadly sins.”
The analogy is not exact, but in both cases the owners would be selling a legitimate product (wedding cake, cheeseburgers) which would be used for sinful purposes. I’ve never heard of a Christian who would have a crisis of conscience selling the cheeseburgers to anyone. However one answers these questions, it is important to strive toward being consistent.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

A replacement for Justice Scalia

With the death of Justice Scalia Democrats are already coming out of the woodwork demanding that the Senate fulfill its constitutional duty and approve an Obama appointee to the Supreme Court.
It this wasn't so serious it would be laughable. Hypocritical Democrats who have ignored or trampled the Constitution for the last seven years suddenly show interest in the Constitution when it suits them!
Actually, I'm sure Republicans in the Senate would be happy to confirm an Obama appointee who believes in interpreting the Constitution in light of the framer's original intentions, rather than someone who believes in "finding" new rights, or interpreting the Constitution in light of foreign expectations, or contemporary ever-changing, politically correct social customs.
The problem is that Obama is annoyed that the Constitution has hindered his efforts to fundamentally change America into something the founding fathers never intended. His solution is to appoint justices who do not feel constrained by what the Constitution actually says.
If the Senate lets him get away with it the already shaky balance of the court will change, you can kiss whatever is left of your freedom goodbye, and attacks on Christians (like Baronelle Stutzman, et al) that began during the Obama administration will snowball!

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Why a Christian can view Muhammad as a prophet?

In an article published last week in the Huffington Post entitled, "Why a Christian can view Muhammad as a Prophet" the author demonstrated a phenomenal lack of knowledge regarding Muhammad (http://goo.gl/gGbUeh). That doesn’t surprise me but I thought I would respond because I suspect that the author’s views reflect what many Americans think about Muhammad.
The author writes, “Prophet Muhammad brought love, peace, and much more to a part of the world that had little of these things.”
Perhaps this writer has never read the earliest biography of Muhammad, or perhaps he is a closet Muslim practicing Taqiya (deliberate deception to promote Islam). Whatever the case, the idea that Muhammad brought love and peace is laughable! I don’t know of any knowledgeable person (Muslim or not) who would dispute the fact that Muhammad was a warrior. Muhammad added to his wealth (inherited from his first wife) by robbing other people’s caravans (I doubt the caravan owners were feeling the love)! After becoming rich and powerful, Muhammad and his armies traveled around Arabia slaughtering those who refused to convert or submit to the terms of his religion. He even ordered the execution of converts who changed their minds and turned away from his religion.
The author writes, “One of the most overlooked aspects of Muhammad's character is his fierce anti-racist stance. He made the unprecedented move of considering both white people and black people as equals in the eyes of God.”
There is some truth in this. Muhammad and his followers owned and sold black slaves not because they were black but because they refused to accept his religion.
The author writes, “While some Muslims cite John (14:16-17) as proof that Jesus predicted the coming of Muhammad, many Christians find it difficult to interpret this verse as the ‘truth.’ Perhaps they're in denial….”
John 14:16-17 says, “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever—the Spirit of Truth.” First, elsewhere in the article the author says Jesus was only human and made mistakes, so it is remarkable that the author thinks Jesus had enough insight to foresee Muhammad 600 years ahead of time! Second, the Muslim identification of John 14:16-17 is entirely arbitrary. Any self-proclaimed prophet could say John 14:16-17 was referring to him (or her). Third, there is absolutely nothing in the context that would point to Muhammad. In fact, Muhammad once told some followers it was acceptable to lie to carry out murder. He is hardly a “Spirit of Truth.” Virtually all biblical scholars agree that John 14:16-17 is referring to the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
However, I do agree that Jesus foretold the coming of people like Muhammad. In Matthew 7:15-16 Jesus said, “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”
The author writes, “However, I see nothing "anti-Christian" in recognizing Muhammad as a prophet.”
Really? Christians in all branches (Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant) have affirmed the deity of Jesus for 2,000 years, but Muhammad specifically denies the deity of Jesus, even insisting that those who believe in the Trinity are going to hell! Christians who refused to convert to Islam or submit to second class “dhimmi” status (including paying the Jizya tax) would be slaughtered! If that’s not anti-Christian I’m not sure what is.
The author writes, “To me, a prophet is someone who has valuable insight and intuition, who is sensitive about the well-being of others regardless of their ethnic or religious backgrounds.” 
“Sensitive about the well-being of others?” In one village, Muhammad had 600 Jewish men beheaded and their families sold into slavery because they wouldn’t accept his religion! People of other religions who refused to accept Islam were often slaughtered or enslaved. Doesn’t sound too sensitive to me.
The author writes, “Let me wrap this up by returning to the question: Is Prophet Muhammad worthy of admiration among Christians? I believe he is.”
Why? What makes Muhammad worthy of admiration? His robbery of caravans? His sexual intercourse with a nine year old wife when he was in his 50’s? His ownership and selling of slaves? His imperialism? His slaughter of anyone who rejected or refused to submit to the terms of his religion? What exactly was worthy of admiration?
Please don’t take my word for all this. Purchase and read the earliest biography of Muhammad written by a devout Muslim (http://goo.gl/NHW1Tn ). The book is highly respected by Muslims around the world. Or you can check out my blog which briefly summarizes this book and provides page numbers for every detail. http://muhammadbiography.blogspot.com/

Modern western secularists have a very unhistorical and romanticized view of Muhammad. They seem to imagine him as someone like Jesus, so when they hear of the atrocities carried out by ISIS, al Qaeda, Boko Haram, al Shabaab or others, they are shocked saying these groups are not truly Muslim. It is certainly true that not all Muslims support ISIS (thankfully!), but to say these groups are not really Muslim is ignorance. These groups are just following the lifestyle and teaching of Muhammad. The real danger, however, is that so many Europeans and Americans seem to believe that the thousands of Muslim immigrants we are letting into the country have a view of Muhammad similar to those of the author of that Huffington Post article. And that is truly dangerous.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Following Jesus

Introduction

In his “Great Commission,” Jesus taught, “go and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Mt 28.19-20). I was taught in a Christian tradition known as Dispensationalism. My dispensational pastors and professors tended to focus on Paul and paid very little attention to the ethical teachings of Jesus. They focused on the grace of God in salvation to such an extent that any emphasis on the commands of Jesus would almost certainly have been viewed as “legalism.”

My pastors and teachers were very zealous about Jesus’ “Great Commission” to go into all the world and make disciples (and rightly so). But they seemed to ignore or downplay the rest of the Great Commission which says “teaching them to obey all that I [Jesus] have commanded you.” I was taught that Matthew, Mark and Luke really belonged to the Old Testament which applied to Israel, not to the church. One of my dispensational pastors even told me that “there is very little gospel in the Gospels.”

I was not persuaded. First, it didn’t seem very consistent to emphasize the part of the Great Commission about making disciples, but to ignore the part about teaching disciples to obey Jesus.

Second, it didn’t seem very consistent to insist that the Gospel of Matthew was written to Israel and not to the church—and yet at the same time to insist that Matthew 28:19-20 was the top priority for the church.

Third, even my dispensational pastors and professors recognized that the Gospel of John was written for the church and yet the Gospel of John emphasizes the importance of obeying Jesus!

Fortunately, Dispensationalism has evolved since those days. It would almost seem silly today to have to insist that obeying Jesus should be a major goal of everyone who calls themselves Christian. In fact, I would suggest that it is an oxymoron to call someone “Christian” who really does not want to obey Jesus.
But exactly what does obeying Jesus entail? When Jesus taught that we are to make disciples, teaching them to obey all things he commanded, exactly what was it we were to obey?

To answer that question I copied and pasted the Gospels to a Word document. Next, I deleted everything that was not related to the ethical or moral teachings of Jesus. I then organized these teachings and wrote them up in narrative form, citing chapter and verse at every point. The result is contained in the essay below. It is not exhaustive but I think it is a good 30,000 foot overview of what Jesus’ expected of his followers.

Sin and repentance

Jesus was all about love and compassion, but it may come as a surprise to some that he also had a lot to say about sin. Jesus taught that sin does not consist of outward actions alone, but begins in the heart. He said that out of the heart comes “evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance, folly, and false testimony (Mk 7.20-23; cf. Mt 15.10-20).

Similarly, in Jesus’ famous “Sermon on the Mount” it was not just those who murdered who were guilty—Murder began with hatred in the heart. It was not just those who committed adultery who were guilty—Adultery began with lust in the heart (Mt 5.21-30). Jesus taught that since the mouth speaks what is in the heart, people one day would give account of every idle word they have spoken, (Mt 12.33-37).

For Jesus, sin did not just exist in the hearts of those who were greedy, envious, hateful or immoral, etc. Sin also existed in the hearts of religious leaders who loved to draw attention to themselves in order to make themselves look good, but didn’t practice what they preached. Among other things, Jesus called them hypocrites, blind guides, vipers, and even sons of hell (Mt 23.36; Lk 11.43-44)!
While Jesus insisted that we should let our “light shine before men, that they may see [our] good deeds and praise [our] Father in heaven” (Mt 5.16), he also taught that we should be careful never to do these good deeds for the purpose of self-glorification. For example, when (not if) we give to the poor we should never do so for the purpose of drawing attention to ourselves (Mt 6.4). Jesus warned of severe punishment, for example, to those who loved to flaunt their religious status but oppressed widows (Lk 20.45-47).

Jesus pointed out that, generally speaking, it was the religious leaders, not tax collectors and sinners, who refused to repent at the teaching of John (Mt 21.32).The religious leaders, however, were not the only ones Jesus condemned. He characterized his entire generation as wicked, adulterous, and sinful (Mk 8.38; Mt 12.39; 16.4; Lk 11.29). If he thought of his relatively moral first century Jewish culture as wicked, we can only imagine what he would say about modern western culture!

Jesus warned that sin was a serious issue that should not to be taken lightly. He used the hyperbole of cutting off hands and feet, or plucking out eyes to make the point that people should take drastic action to avoid sin (Mt 5.27-30; 18.8-9). He warned that those he called “evil-doers” and “wicked”—presumably those whose lifestyles are characterized by unrepentant delight in sinfulness—would be cast out of his presence and consigned to a place where there would be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt 7.21-23; Lk 13.24-30, 47-50).

It should not be surprising, therefore, to learn that the very first words Matthew and Mark record of Jesus’ public ministry are a call to repentance (Mt 4.17; Mk 1.15)! Jesus taught that unless we repent we will perish (Lk 13.1-6) but he said that there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine who need no repentance (Lk 15.3-31). Obeying Jesus, therefore, must begin with repentance.

Love the Lord your God

Jesus taught that the first and greatest commandment was to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind (Mt. 22.35-40; Lk 10.27-28). As such this command should be considered the foundation of Jesus’ ethical teaching. But in Jesus’ teaching there was a bit of a twist. Jesus made claims for himself that could only be true of God and insisted that people should value him, Jesus, above all else. For example, according to the Gospels, Jesus claimed to be able to forgive sin and said he was lord over the Sabbath—characteristics only true of God. According to the Gospel of John, Jesus taught that “I and my Father are one.” Jesus’ enemies understood precisely what he meant because they tried to stone him saying, “you a mere man, claim to be God” (John 10:33). In the Ten Commandments God taught, “You shall have no other gods before me,” so Jesus, viewing himself as “One with the Father,” commanded that people value him (Jesus) above everything else.

For example, devotion to Jesus was to outweigh our love of money. Jesus taught that ultimately, people cannot serve both God and money (Lk 16.13). And as much as Jesus cared for the poor—and demanded that we do so also—Jesus insisted that devotion to him should even outweigh our commitment to help the poor (John 12.4-8).

Even more than that, however, Jesus taught that anyone who loved their family—father, mother, sister, brother, wife, husband, children—more than they loved him, was not worthy of him. Anyone who would not take up their cross for him—a metaphor for being willing to die—was not worthy of him (Mk, 8.34-37; Mt 10.27-39; 16.24-27; Lk 9.23-25; 12.48; 14.25-27).

In Matthew 8.22 someone said he wanted to follow Jesus but that he had to bury his father first. Jesus told him to “let the dead bury their own dead,” apparently meaning that allegiance to Jesus even trumped important and necessary family obligations. Jesus warned that such allegiance to him would bring division in families (Lk 12.51-53), and that some would even be betrayed to death by family members (Mt 10.16-23). That being the case, he warned people to count the cost before following him (Lk 14.28-30). Following him could be deadly. On the other hand, he said that people should not be afraid of those who can kill the body but rather to fear the One who has authority to throw them into hell (Lk 12.4-5).

This ultimate allegiance to Jesus, however, didn’t mean that people should neglect family members. Jesus taught that people should honor their parents (Mk 7.10; 10:18-20; Lk 18.20) as commanded by the Law of Moses, and as Jesus himself did (Jn 19.26-27). He condemned those who contrived to deprive their parents of financial help (Mk 7.9-13; Mt 15.3-9). He taught that we should be faithful in marriage (Mt 5.31-32, 19.4-6; 19.8-9; Lk 16.18) and he warned of dire consequences for those who caused children to stumble (Mt. 18.6; Mk 9.42; Lk 17.2). Indeed, loving the Lord even above family often gives a depth and permanence to familial love that doesn’t exist in many relationships.

An important expression of love for the Lord is worship. Jesus taught to worship God and “serve him only” (Mt 4.10; Lk 4.8), which must be interpreted in light of Jesus’ claim to deity. Jesus said this worship was to be “in spirit and in truth” apparently meaning that worship should not just be by empty rituals or rote but should be sincere, from the heart and according to biblical truth.

Another expression of love for the Lord is prayer. Jesus both taught (Mt 6.6-10; Mt 14.23; Mk 11.25) and exemplified prayer in his life (Mk 14.32-39; Lk 5.16; Jn 17)—sometimes rising early in the morning or praying all night (Mk 1.35; Luke 6.12). Jesus taught that God, like a loving father, wants to answer prayer (Lk 11.5-26; Mt 7.7-11) so people should pray persistently (Mt 11.5-26), in faith with an attitude of expectancy (Mt 21.22). Jesus was clear, however, that public prayer should never be for show or for the purpose of bringing honor to oneself (Mt 6.5-8).

It is important to emphasize that loving Jesus is more than just warm fuzzy feelings. Loving Jesus involves a heart attitude that encompasses such words as devotion, dedication, commitment, and allegiance (Paul would call this attitude “faith”). Such an attitude cannot help but produce a change in one’s life. In fact, a life that produced fruit was one of the characteristics of a genuine love for and allegiance to Jesus. Jesus said, “If you love me, keep [or you will keep] my commandments” (Jn 14.15) and “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me” (Jn 14.21) and “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching” (14.23). In Jesus’ parable of the sower, those who heard the word of God and fell away, or got choked out buy the cares of this world, were not true followers of Jesus. The true followers of Jesus were those who remained in Jesus and produced fruit (Mt 13.1-9; 18-23).

Bearing fruit involves, among other things, being good “stewards” or managers of the abilities, talents, opportunities and resources entrusted to us by God. The Lord expects us to use these wisely. Failure to do so would result in being thrown into a place of darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Mt 25.14-30; cf. Luke 18:11-27).

Bearing fruit was to be so characteristic of Jesus’ followers (Lk 8.4-15, 21) that Jesus said those who did not bear fruit would be cut down like a fig tree (Lk 13.6-9) and “thrown into the fire” (Mt 7.15-20; John 15.1-17). If someone deeply loves and is genuinely committed to Jesus, this cannot help but produce a change in our life that increasingly bears the fruit of obedience to Jesus.
Jesus’ followers were to be characterized by having a hunger and thirst for righteousness, by being merciful or compassionate, being pure in heart, meek, and making peace (Mt 5.3-11). No one is perfect, of course, but sincere love for and genuine commitment to Jesus cannot help but to produce fruit. That fruit may include numerous aspects of loving our neighbors, as explained below.

Love your neighbor as yourself

Jesus said the second most important command was to love our neighbor as we love ourselves (Mt 22.35-40; Lk 10.27-28). But who is our neighbor? Certainly our neighbor would include fellow Christians. Jesus taught that we should love fellow believers as he has loved us. In fact, Jesus said this love for fellow believers would be how people would know we are his disciples (John 12.34). Just as Jesus laid down his life for us, so we should be prepared to lay down our lives for others (John 15.12, 17).

But loving neighbors involves more than just loving fellow believers. In Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus seemed to imply that our neighbor was the person we happened to come upon who was in need and whom we were in a position to help. But even more than that, Jesus’ command to love others was to include love even for our enemies.

This love, whether for believers, neighbors or enemies, was not just affection or warm feelings, it involved looking out for the well-being of others. In Luke 6, Jesus explains this love in terms of concrete actions—“do good to those who hate you, bless (speak well) of those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you,” “turn the other check” to insults, give to those in need, lend without expecting re-payment (Lk 6.27-36, Mt 5.38-43).

Loving others meant doing “to others as you would have them do to you” (Lk 6.31). It meant showing compassion to people. Jesus taught to “Be merciful (or compassionate) just as your Father is merciful” (Lk 6.36 cf. Mt 5.7). In fact, Jesus’ ministry embodied compassion (e.g. Mk 8.1-13; Mt 15.32-38; 11.4-5). His teaching, feeding, healings and exorcisms were, among other things, expressions of compassion (Mt 9.36, 14.14; 15.32; 20.34; Mk 6.34; 8.2).
Loving others also involved forgiving those who have sinned against us. Jesus commanded that if our brothers or sisters repent we must forgive them repeatedly (Lk 17.3) and that our refusal to forgive would result not only in God’s refusal to forgive us (Mt 6.14), but in eternal judgment as well (Mt 18.21-35).

On the other hand, Jesus was clear that if the offender was a believer, we should confront them personally. If the offender doesn’t listen, we should bring one or two others to help resolve the dispute and if that didn’t work, we could take it before the church (Mt 18.18). Jesus warned, however, that before we judge someone else for their sins we should be sure we are not guilty of the same sins—remove the plank from our own eye first. Jesus warned that the same standard we use in judging others will be used against us (Mt 7.1-5; Lk 6.27; 41-42).

Central to loving our neighbor was caring for the poor. Jesus taught that people should even sell their possessions and give to the poor, thus building up treasure in heaven (Lk 12.32-34). It seems probable that Jesus was using hyperbole here since he did not seem to require everyone to sell everything they had (e.g. Mk 2.11; Mk 5.19; Mk 8.25-26; Luke 8.38-39; Lk 10.38; 19:1-10; Jn 19.27; cf. Acts 2.46; 18.26; 21.16). Jesus’ point was that helping the poor should be very high on the priority list of those who claim to follow him.
In fact, Jesus taught that people who did not care for those who were sick, hungry, thirsty, in prison or poorly clothed were really not his disciples at all and would be sent into eternal fire (Mt 25.31-46). Jesus taught, however, that with God it was not the size of the gift that counted, but the size of the sacrifice (Lk 21.3) and Jesus’ followers should be known for their generosity (Mt 5.42; Lk 6.38).

Jesus warned, therefore, to “Be on guard against all kinds of greed” (Lk 12.14) and not to “store up treasures on earth” because a person’s heart would be where their treasure was (Mt 6.19-24). He strongly condemned self-indulgence (Mt 23.25) and said people should stop worrying so much about the future or cares of this life but to focus first on the kingdom of God (Lk 12.22-31; Mt 6.25-34).

Jesus was clear that his followers were not to be overbearing tyrants who “lord it over others,” rather we are to serve (Lk 22.24-27). In fact, Jesus said that whoever wanted to be great among you must be serve others (Mt 20.26-27; 23.8-11; cf Mt 18.2-6). Jesus actually got down on his knees and washed his disciples’ feet, saying he was setting an example that they should go likewise and serve others (Jn 12.12-17, cf. Luke 22.26). Servanthood necessarily involves meekness (the opposite of being an overbearing loud-mouth), and humility (Lk 14.7-11; Mt 18.4; 23.12) which certainly characterized Jesus’ life and which he expected from his followers.

On the other hand, while Jesus’ followers must generally be characterized by humility and meekness, loving others does not necessarily preclude the occasional possibility of direct confrontation or even harshness. After all, the same Jesus who taught and embodied love, also called self-righteous religious leaders hypocrites, blind guides, fools, white-washed tombs, snakes, vipers, and sons of hell! He compared his whole generation unfavorably to Sodom and Gomorrah and called them to repent (Mt 12.39-42; cf. Mt 17.17). Loving others does not rule out righteous anger against sin.

Finally, loving others involves leading them to repentance and drawing them to Jesus. Jesus’ called his followers to be fishers of men, to let their light shine by their good works (Mt 5.16) and to make disciples (Mk 1.17; Mt 4.19; Lk 5.10). He urged his followers to pray that God would send more workers out into the harvest (Mt 9.37; Lk 10.2).

What are these laborers to do? In his “Great Commission” Jesus says we are to make disciples, baptizing them (as the initial expression of faith) and teaching them to obey everything he commanded (Mt 28.18-20). Making disciples is not just about teaching the doctrines of the Christian faith—as important as that is. Making disciples is about teaching people to “obey everything” Jesus commanded. We are not really making disciples unless we are teaching people to obey Jesus.

Obedience and grace

This discussion on obeying Jesus must be placed in the context of what Jesus taught about grace. For example, in Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, the Pharisee prayed, “God thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” The tax collector, on the other hand did not appeal to any good works but threw himself on God’s grace, beating his chest and pleading, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.” Jesus said it was the tax collector who was “justified” not the Pharisee. In other words, the man who humbly threw himself on God’s mercy and grace was declared to be right with God, not the man who self-righteously thought he was good enough to earn God’s favor.

Another example of grace is found in Luke 7.36-50 which tells the story of a women who came to a dinner attended by Jesus and a group of religious leaders. The woman was crying, apparently over her sin since this little story describes her as a sinner four times! She ignored the religious leaders and went right to Jesus, kneeling down as she kissed Jesus’ feed, anointed them with ointment and wiped them with her hair. Jesus said to the Pharisee who hosted the event that this woman’s “sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much.” He then turned to the woman and said that her faith had saved her.
The story leads readers to understand that this woman’s sorrowful repentance over her sin, coupled with her loving devotion to Jesus, is the very definition of the kind of faith necessary to enter the kingdom about which Jesus had so often preached. The woman was not saved because she was such a good person or because she had done some wonderful good works. She was saved by grace through her repentance and faith or loving devotion to Jesus.

The stories of the prodigal son (Lk 15:11-32) and the landowner who hired people in the marketplace (Mt 21.1-16) are also stories of God’s grace. The point is that obedience to Jesus is never to be understood as something we do to earn God’s favor or salvation. Obedience should never be thought of as the means of gaining a right status with God. It is out of a heart of faith, i.e. loving devotion/commitment/dedication/allegiance to Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit that our obedience flows.

I am convinced that Jesus would agree completely with what Paul wrote in Ephesians 2.8-10: “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. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

Jesus and politics

Some Christian traditions have interpreted Jesus' commands to love and to turn the other cheek, etc., as if he were condemning all violence and war. One author went so far as to suggest that Jesus would even prohibit police officers from using violence in the course of carrying out their lawful duties.

It is important, therefore, to note that Jesus was addressing how his followers should personally love those with whom they come in contact. He was not directly addressing government policy. Judea had been ruled by kings and tyrants for a thousand years before Jesus’ time so the idea that Jesus’ servant-followers would vote in elections or “serve” as senators, governors or presidents was not even a remote hypothetical possibility when Jesus was teaching.

We cannot interpret Jesus apart from his Jewish context and his own affirmation of Jewish scriptures (e.g. Matthew 5:17-18) and we must be careful about trying to apply all of Jesus' teachings directly to government policies. I see no reason to believe, for example, that Jesus would have disagreed with Hebrews 11:32-34 which applauds godly Jewish leaders of faith, not for turning the other cheek but for administering justice, routing foreign armies and conquering kingdoms! Jesus cites both Moses and David approvingly with no hint of disapproval for being men of war. In addition, according to John 10.22, Jesus was in the Jerusalem Temple for the Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah) which celebrates the violent re-taking of the Temple from a Syrian ruler who had desecrated it and had committed atrocities against the Jews. If Jesus was in the Temple protesting the fact that these rebels had not "turned the other cheek" it seems odd that the Gospel of John gives no indication whatsoever of Jesus' disapproval. 

Similarly, Jesus' teachings on helping the poor cannot simply be applied directly to support government economic policies of socialism, communism or capitalism. Jesus was addressing personal behavior and was not directly addressing government policies. In other words, by way of application, Jesus was not addressing government re-distribution of wealth. He was not teaching that Christian police officers should literally turn the other cheek when they are assaulted while lawfully administering justice. Jesus was not saying that the President of the United States should have metaphorically turned the other check by offering the Empire State Building after the Twin Towers were destroyed. He never taught that governments should disband their armies and leave themselves defenseless (note that John the Baptist did not even require Roman soldiers to leave the military: Luke 3:14).

On the other hand, exactly how government officials who are Christians should apply Jesus’ teachings on personal behavior to government policies (e.g. on war, poverty, immigration or other economic and social issues) is a matter of endless debate among Christian voters.

Summary

Jesus condemned the sin of his generation and called people to repentance. Among other things, he preached against sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance, folly, false testimony, evil thoughts, lust, hatred, self-righteousness, self-indulgence, and hypocrisy. For Jesus, sin did not consist merely in outward actions but began in the heart.

Jesus taught that the greatest commandment was to love God above all else—and he claimed to be one with the Father. That being the case, he taught that people should be more devoted to him than they are to their own families or even their own life. Such devotion involves worship, prayer and obedience or bearing fruit.

Jesus taught that the second greatest commandment was to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. This involves looking out for the well-being of others and treating others as we would want to be treated. It involves serving others, being generous, compassionate and forgiving. Jesus even commands loving our enemies—doing good to them, praying for them and refusing to retaliate against their insults.

Jesus taught that we were to be fishers of men—making disciples which involves teaching them to obey Jesus. Jesus taught that we are not justified before God by our good works, but by God’s grace.


Finally, Jesus’ teachings were primarily addressing how his followers should personally love those with whom they come in contact. How those teachings should be applied to government policies is a matter of debate among Christians—but that debate should never keep us from loving God more than we love life, relying on his grace, and from loving neighbors and even enemies as we love ourselves.