P3 – Arguing for the Historicity of the Virgin Birth

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Luke 1:30-35 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; 33 and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God.

Arguing for the virgin birth from the standpoint of historical investigation

Whenever we consider the birth narratives of Jesus in Matthew and Luke, what strikes the reader is the overt way they are passed off as genuine history. Skeptics will often attempt to pass-off the virgin-birth narratives of Matthew and Luke as legendary embellishments. Furthermore, critics will often claim that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke cannot be possibly reliable sources of information. Nearly all of these criticisms are based on a view of the world that excludes the possibility of the miraculous.

In the last two posts, we have considered how one may argue for the virgin birth. For the reader’s convenience, the links for the last two parts in this series are found in the following links:

1. https://biblicalexegete.wordpress.com/2016/12/09/p1-a-suggested-method-for-demonstrating-the-validity-of-the-virgin-birth/

2. https://biblicalexegete.wordpress.com/2016/12/14/p2-a-suggested-way-to-argue-for-the-virgin-birth-philosophically-demonstrating-why-the-virgin-birth-and-miracles-are-possible/

Since we have already addressed the biblical importance of the virgin birth and responded to the skeptical attacks on miracles, there only remains the final task of showing how this event is a historical one. By showing the virgin birth to be a historical event, the proponent of Jesus’ virgin birth only needs to show why a supernatural explanation of the events recorded in Matthew 1:1-2:23 and Luke 1:1-3:38 exceeds any rival naturalistic explanations of those events. Such an effort can be done through the standard methods used by historians investigating any event in history.

Philosopher Richard Swinburne has noted three factors necessary in assessing any historical explanation or hypothesis for a given event:

1. Testimony of eye-witnesses about the event and data left behind after the event’s occurrence.

2. General background information that is independent of the first factor (background information would include the behavior of the eyewitnesses, statements made by villains in the sequence of events)

3. The likelihood of the evidence (i.e statements about the virgin birth) being true under certain conditions (the historical setting of the Census of Caesar Augustus, Mary and Joseph’s betrothal, the songs of Elizabeth and Mary).

Whenever anyone investigates historical documents or events like what we find recorded in Matthew and Luke, a set of standard criteria or “tests for corroboration” are used by historians to determine the probability of the occurrence of a given event. New Testament scholar Darrell L. Bock in book: “Who is Jesus” lists the criteria used by historians.(1) A few will be listed below to give the reader a taste of how one would go about historically investigating the virgin birth:

1. Multiple sources or attestation: In standard New Testament studies, whether done by conservative or liberal scholarship, each of the documents of the New Testament are counted as one source. Hence, Matthew and Luke would each be counted as one source. The virgin birth would be considered multiply attested in the sources we have on the life of Jesus.

2. Criteria of embarrassment. In this second test, historians look for embarrassing details. If a given historical event is embellished or invented by the author, the events in question will contain no problems and the characters will possess no “embarrassing” details. One of the marks of true history is the so-called “warts and all”. Certainly Joseph’s contemplation of divorcing Mary (a taboo in 1st century Jewish culture); the inclusion of four women of questionable character in Jesus genealogy (Tamar, Rahab,Ruth, Bathsheba) and the appearance of Gentiles (i.e the Magi) in a positive light all point to the historicity of the events in question.

3.  Multiple attestation of forms. This rule has to do with the various ways and literary methods used by the author to conveying his account. In the birth narratives of Jesus we find Matthew and Luke using genealogies, eyewitness testimony of Jesus’ identity by people like Simeon and Anna; songs or poetry sung by Elizabeth and Mary and historical narratives concerning certain rulers, geographical locations and events. 

Tests like the ones above work together to determine or “corroborate” the event in question. Events like the virgin birth can be tested and shown to not only be proper articles of faith, but also proper subjects of history. 

It is one thing to establish the historicity of the event, but it is quite another to accept the explanation of the event. Throughout the last two centuries, skeptics have offered an array of naturalistic explanations of the birth narratives of Jesus. When weighing various historical explanations, we look for which ones consistently handle the evidence from the standpoint of such factors as: explanatory scope, power, coherence of details and least amount of unwarranted assumptions. Such examples of naturalistic explanations are:

1). Mary and Joseph naturally conceived Jesus out of wedlock

2). The virgin birth is a myth symbolizing certain moral lessons

3). The birth narratives are a mixture of myth and history

4). The birth narratives are based-off of pagan myths (such as the Egyptian myth of Osiris) can still be found among those who oppose the virgin birth.

In assessing all of these naturalistic theories and others like them, early twentieth century scholar J. Gresham Machen rightly notes:(2)

“How did this strange belief  (of the virgin birth) ever arise? This question is of course answered at once if the belief was founded upon fact; if Jesus was really born of a virgin, it is not difficult to understand how the Church came to believe that He was so born. But if this obvious answer be rejected, the question to which it is an attempted answer still remains.” 

Over the course of two-centuries, no naturalistic explanation of the birth narratives of Jesus has succeeded in offering an adequate explanation and handling of all the details recorded in Matthew and Luke. 

Conclusion:

Over the last couple of posts, we have attempted to offer a method for arguing for the virgin birth. We have considered a four-fold method of making the case for the virgin-birth conception of Jesus’ humanity: Biblical theology, Biblical languages, philosophical considerations and historical considerations. In these series of posts, we have worked through each area. It is suggested that if this four-fold method be used, such an approach can present a very powerful cumulative case for the Biblical truth of the virgin birth of Jesus. 

 

Endnotes:

1. Darrell L. Bock. Who is Jesus? Linking the Historical Jesus with the Christ of Faith. Howard Books. 2012

2. J. Gresham Machen. The Virgin Birth of Christ. Page 269. 1930. Reprinted 1965 by Harper and Row Publishers.

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P2 – A Suggested Way To Argue For The Virgin Birth: Philosophically Demonstrating Why The Virgin Birth And Miracles Are Possible.

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Matthew 1:21-23 She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” 22 Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us.”

Introduction:

In our last post we began considering how one may argue for the validity of the virgin birth from the standpoints of Biblical theology and the Biblical languages. Here is the link to the last post for those wanting to review: https://biblicalexegete.wordpress.com/2016/12/09/p1-a-suggested-method-for-demonstrating-the-validity-of-the-virgin-birth/. We concluded that within the Hebrew Old Testament there is a Biblical rationale and background for the virgin birth. Moreover, studies in the original languages confirm the appropriateness of understanding Mary as a virgin at the time of the conception of Jesus’ humanity. Today’s post is going to broaden the focus on this issue by considering standard philosophical objections to the virgin birth raised by skeptics. If miracles are even possible in our world, then miracles such as the virgin birth-conception can be included in what will be the final plank in our overall case for the virgin birth – namely its historicity. Today’s post will deal with the philosophical issues and arguments both against and for the virgin birth. The next post in this series will feature how we can know that the virgin birth is the best explanation of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

Arguing for the virgin birth from the standpoint of philosophical considerations

In this part of arguing for the virgin birth, we consider the issue of miracles and their place in the natural world. As noted already, if it can be shown that miracles are indeed possible in our world, then events like the virgin birth of Jesus of Nazareth are indeed possible and thus must be considered as real features of our world.  Philosophers such as 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza and 18th century skeptic David Hume are responsible for a majority of the arguments leveled against miracles in general. Both men asserted in their own way that a miracle is a violation of nature. Moreover, even if miracles did occur, normal human experience would never be able to identify the occurrence of a miracle. These two contentions, though having been addressed time and time again over the past two centuries, remain on the lips of those who doubt the validity of Christianity and the Biblical text.

When one realizes that the definition of a miracle offered by Hume and Spinoza is rooted in a view of the universe as composed of only physical matter (i.e naturalism), with no possibility of Divine intervention, the debate over miracles is immediately seen as a worldview issue. Dr. William Lane Craig has offered what is perhaps the simplest definition of a miracle that can anywhere be found: “a miracle is a naturally impossible event”. In other words, an event claimed to be a miracle is incapable of being brought about only by natural laws or processes. Other conditions can be added to this basic definition to address the skeptics’ attempts to show the inability to identify a miracle or validate a miracle claim:

a). significant religious, spiritual or historical contexts

b). infrequency of the event

c). the reactions or statements by eyewitnesses of the alleged miracle. 

Whenever we consider the virgin birth in light of the above definition, we find the following:

a). the virgin birth occurred in an era of Israel’s history where the people were spiritually, politically and religiously looking for Messiah

b). this is the only virgin birth recorded in the Biblical record and, despite claims to the contrary, no other pagan or Jewish source in antiquity has its founder experiencing a virgin birth

c). the quotation of Old Testament texts like Isaiah 7:14, the words of Mary and the Gospel records themselves fit the criteria of eyewitness material. Matthew was a direct disciple of Jesus and Luke would had consulted eyewitnesses of Jesus’ nativity.

By taking the simplified definition of a miracle as being “a naturally impossible event”, by definition, would be a miracle! How? No known physical laws (whether Einstein’s general relativity or quantum field theories, the current reigning scientific models for describing our universe) can explain the origin of the universe. The four fundamental forces identified by the physical sciences (strong nuclear force, weak nuclear force, electromagnetic force and gravity) break down and are non-existent within the first few split seconds of the beginning of the universe. Various arguments for God’s existence (i.e theistic arguments), such as the argument from considerations of the cause of the universe, the fine-tuning argument and the best explanation for the universe’s beginning all show that there is a greater probability for there being a supernatural cause to the universe (i.e God) than a natural one. In short, we could offer the following argument for the miraculous in general, and the virgin birth in particular:

1. If God does not possibly exist, then the miraculous (i.e naturally impossible events) are not possible

2. By various theistic arguments, it can be shown that there is not only a possibility, but an overwhelming probability that God does exist

3. The origin of the universe is an example of a naturally impossible event

4. Therefore, miracles are possible in our world

5. Therefore, the virgin birth can be deemed an event that is possible in our world

Closing thoughts for today

Thus far we have shown how one could argue for the virgin birth from considerations in Biblical theology, Biblical languages and philosophical considerations. In the next post we will conclude our series by developing how one can know that the virgin birth occurred as a historical event, as well as final applications. 

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P1 – A Suggested Way To Argue For The Virgin Birth

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Luke 1:32-35 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; 33 and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.”34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God. (NASB)

Why argue for Jesus’ virgin birth?

Today’s post will aim to begin offering a suggested method of arguing for the virgin birth/conception of Jesus. So why is it so important to argue for the virgin birth? The virgin birth stands as a central theological truth to rightly interpreting the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. The early 20th century theologian J. Gresham Machan argues forcefully for the virgin birth’s place with respect to the overall life and mission of Jesus (1): 

“But if the virgin birth represents the beginning of a new era in the course of the universe, a true entrance of the creative power of God, in sharp distinction from the order of nature, then, we think, when it is taken in connection with the entire phenomenon of Jesus’ life and particularly in the connection with the entire phenomenon of Jesus’ life and particularly in connection with the evidence of His resurrection, it is no longer a meaningless freak, but becomes an organic part of a mighty redeeming work of God, the reality of which is supported by a weight of evidence adequate even to overcome the initial presumption against it.”

Machen’s 1930 book is a landmark text that presents a proper defense and explanation of the virgin birth. His point is well taken in situating the priority the virgin birth plays in one’s overall understanding of all Jesus came to achieve in His first coming. With the significance of the virgin birth established, we will now briefly offer a four-fold strategy for arguing for it. Sketching out such an apologetic will intersect with four primary disciplines: biblical theology, Biblical languages, philosophy and history. Today’s post will feature the first two of these disciplines which will provide the first two planks in offering a way to argue for the virgin birth.

Arguing for the virgin birth from the standpoint of Biblical theology

This first plank in the overall strategy for arguing for the virgin birth attempts to communicate the meaning of it in light of major Biblical themes. Biblical theology is that particular area of theology that attempts to understand the overall major themes that unfold throughout the entirety of the Biblical text. So what key Biblical doctrines might be included to understand the significance of the virginal conception of Jesus in His humanity?

To begin, the doctrine of sin presented in the Old and New Testaments indicates that the moral and spiritual curse pronounced upon Adam and Eve is reckoned along the male side of the human bloodline (see Genesis 5 and 1 Peter 1:17-18 for example). As God’s plan of salvation unfolds throughout the Old Testament, the need of a Redeemer who would be both God and man becomes faintly outlined. In brief, the deity of this predicted redeemer would need to be fully Divine, since salvation is of the Lord (see Isaiah 43:10-11; Jonah 2:9).

Old Testament texts such as Genesis 3:15 and Isaiah 7:14 reveal a second important truth: that the humanity of the Redeemer would be a genuine humanity brought about by the “seed of a woman” and by way of “the virgin conceiving a son”. The humanity of the Redeemer needed to be truly human and yet without sin. Only a virgin-born human being could be guaranteed of not having their humanity tainted with sin derived from a paternal human bloodline. Other Old Testament texts such as Micah 5:1-3 dovetail both truths of the predicted Redeemer’s deity and humanity as fitting the profile of the Person needed to accomplish salvation.

Thoughts such as the ones above drive forward the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke. Luke’s genealogy of Jesus’ humanity (Luke 3:23-38) contains 77 names as reckoned per Mary’s side of His humanity. Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus’ humanity (Matthew 1:1-17) portrays how Jesus is legally the son of David per Joseph lineage. Joseph plays no biological role in Jesus’ humanity, which is the point of Luke’s record. Both genealogies together operate along the major Biblical themes mentioned above. Keeping such truths in mind will enable one to keep focused as they argue for the virgin birth from the standpoint of Biblical theology.   

Arguing for the virgin birth from the standpoint of the Biblical languages

When we consider the two key verses that assert Jesus’ virgin-birth: Luke 1:34 and Matthew 1:23, part of making the case for Jesus’ virgin birth involves considering the Greek words behind the English translation “virgin”. Matthew 1:23 states in the NASB: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us.” The word translated “the virgin” is the Greek word ἡ παρθένος (par-then-os). Despite the protests of critics, this Greek word’s meaning of “virgin” is consistently defined as the proper translation of both Matthew 1:23 and its Old Testament quotation of the Greek version (i.e Septuagint) of Isaiah 7:14 in the major scholarly Greek dictionaries (lexicons).(2)

The second major verse that asserts the virgin birth is Mary’s statement in Luke 1:34. Mary’s statement asserts this doctrine by way of her describing what she is not, as rendered by the NKJV: “Then Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?” The NASB renders this same verse by having the grammatically equivalent statement rendered positively as: “Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” Mary’s assertion of “not knowing a man” bears out the lack of her experience of having physical intimacy with any man, which is a very specific way of making explicit her virginity. Both Matthew and Luke’s inclusion of the fact of the virgin birth is soundly supported by studies in the Biblical languages. 

So far we have observed how to argue for the virgin birth from the stand-point of Biblical theology and studies in the Biblical languages. We could say that these first two planks represent the Biblical data itself. The next two areas from whence one can argue for the virgin birth (philosophical considerations and history) deal more with the defensive side of the overall case. In the next post, we will begin considering how to argue for the virgin birth from the standpoint of philosophical considerations with respect to the possibility of miracles. 

More next time….

Endnotes:

1. J. Gresham Machen. The Virgin Birth of Christ. Page 217. 1930. Reprinted 1965 by Harper and Row Publishers)

2. Two Greek dictionaries or lexicons are worth noting in connection with the meaning of “par-then-os” in Matthew 1:23. The first is the lexicon edited by Arndt, William, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. p. 777. This particular lexicon (called by the abbreviated name “BDAG”) is considered the most up-to-date and reliable Greek lexicon covering the Greek and New Testament and other Greek literature. The portion of BDAG pertinent to this post notes:   παρθένος, ου, ἡ (s. prec. entry; Hom.+, gener. of a young woman of marriageable age, w. or without focus on virginity; s. esp. PKöln VI, 245, 12 and ASP 31, ’91 p. 39) and ὁ (s. reff. in b) in our lit. one who has never engaged in sexual intercourse, virgin, chaste person
ⓐ female of marriageable age w. focus on virginity ἡ παρθένος Mt 25:1, 7, 11; 1 Cor 7:25 (FStrobel, NovT 2, ’58, 199–227), 28, 34; Pol 5:3; Hv 4, 2, 1; Hs 9, 1, 2; 9, 2, 3; 5; 9, 3, 2; 4f; 9, 4, 3; 5f; 8 al.; AcPl Ox 6, 16 (cp. Aa I 241, 15); GJs 13:1. After Is 7:14 (הָעַלְמָה הָרָה; on this ASchulz, BZ 23, ’35, 229–41; WBrownlee, The Mng. of Qumran for the Bible, esp. Is, ’64, 274–81) Mt 1:23 (cp. Menand., Sicyonius 372f παρθένος γʼ ἔτι, ἄπειρος ἀνδρός). Of Mary also Lk 1:27ab; GJs 9:1; 10:1; 15:2; 16:1; 19:3; ISm 1:1 and prob. 

A second Greek dictionary of near-equal prominence is the Intermediate Dictionary Greek-English Dictionary by George Liddell. In his entry for par-then-os we read for the primary entry: παρθένιος, α, ον, and ος, ον, (παρθένος) like παρθένειος, of a maiden or virgin, maiden, maidenly, Od., Hes., Aesch., etc.  Whenever we look at any Greek dictionary, we must consider all the entries and then determine which meaning fits the context of the passage. the remaining entries in Liddell’s lexicon reads: 2. παρθένιος, ὁ, the son of an unmarried girl, Il.:—but, π. ἀνήρ the husband of maidenhood, first husband, Plut.
II. metaph. pure, undefiled, h. Hom.; π. μύρτα, of white myrtle-berries, Ar. As we have already explored the Biblical theology of this word, as well as considered what was read in the other Greek Lexicon “BDAG”, the primary entry in Liddell would be the most appropriate rendering for the word we find in Matthew 1:23. 

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No excuses for not following Jesus: A study of Luke 9:59-62 in Greek and English

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Luke 9:59-62 And He said to another, “Follow Me.” But he said, “Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father.” 60 But He said to him, “Allow the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God.” 61 Another also said, “I will follow You, Lord; but first permit me to say good-bye to those at home.” 62 But Jesus said to him, “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Luke 9:59-62 ειπεν δε προς ετερον ακολουθει μοι ο δε ειπεν κυριε επιτρεψον μοι απελθοντι πρωτον θαψαι τον πατερα μου 60 ειπεν δε αυτω ο ιησους αφες τους νεκρους θαψαι τους εαυτων νεκρους συ δε απελθων διαγγελλε την βασιλειαν του θεου 61 ειπεν δε και ετερος ακολουθησω σοι κυριε πρωτον δε επιτρεψον μοι αποταξασθαι τοις εις τον οικον μου 62 ειπεν δε προς αυτον ο ιησους ουδεις επιβαλων την χειρα αυτου επ αροτρον και βλεπων εις τα οπισω ευθετος εστιν εις την βασιλειαν του θεου

Introduction:

Today’s post features a section from Luke’s Gospel that emphasizes the theme of discipleship or following Jesus. Robert L. Thomas on page 56 of his reference work: “Charts of the Gospels and the Life of Christ”, mentions passages that are unique to Luke. Luke 9:59-60 gives us the context for what follows concerning Jesus’ response to excuses given for not following Him. Although there are several sections in Luke’s Gospel that are unique to him, Luke 9:61-19:28 exhibits the largest of these sections, representing an almost unbroken section of Jesus’ teachings and miracles that are not recorded by Matthew, Mark nor John. Whenever one reads Luke’s version of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension; one of the major themes is that of discipleship. Thus, it makes a worthwhile study of this unique section of material in Luke’s Gospel.

How Luke uses the imperative mood to heighten our awareness of what is going on in the text  

The reader probably noted that I highlighted three words in Luke 9:58-62: επιτρεψον (found twice in verses 59 and 61, rendered by the NASB as “permit”); απελθων (found in verse 60 and rendered by the NASB as “go”)  and διαγγελλε (found in verse 60 and rendered in the NASB as “go”). When we refer to the term “mood” in Greek grammar, we are referring to the relationship the verb has to the reality of the situation in the mind of the author. In the Greek verbal system, the various moods express increasing or decreasing levels of direct connection to the reality or involvement of the situation.

The two verbs επιτρεψον = permit me and διαγγελλε = proclaim are what we call “imperative” verbs or “imperative mood” verbs. To speak of an “imperative” verb is described by the reference work: “A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature”, page 195, as: “by no means confined to commands, but also expresses a wish or concession.”

The imperative verb’s mood portrays the user of the verb as expressing a wish to be connected to the object of their request – namely in following Jesus. Therefore, in Luke’s report about Jesus’ teaching on the excuses given by people for not following in discipleship, the persons in question use the imperative επιτρεψον = “permit” to express their wishes to “take care of their business” before following the Lord. The particular parsing or grammatical breaking down of επιτρεψον = “permit” is that of being an aorist active imperative 2nd person singular, meaning that the request is for an immediate, one time allowance or exception. According to Greek professor and New Testament scholar Robert Plummer, the “aorist” in Greek communicates an event. Thus, in using the aorist, the person in Jesus’ teaching is not saying how long they will need to go settle the affairs of their relatives.  

There are no excuses for not following Jesus

In other words, the person is asking Jesus to relax the demand of discipleship this one time. The problem with this request is that it is made prior to the potential disciple making the first step. Jesus’ issue here of course is with how this person is viewing the foundation of their commitment to Him. In case people may think Jesus to be insensitive to this person’s request, certain reputable commentators over the years have suggested that this person was looking to get his cut from the estate of his father prior to his death (much like the prodigal son in Luke 15, for example). In any case, Jesus suspects that the person in question has ulterior motives, motives which have, in-effect, pushed Jesus to the back seat.

If Jesus is already viewed as second or third or whatever in a long list of priorities, then how can the person claim to be a disciple that is putting Jesus as the umbrella priority over everything? The Geneva Study Bible has the following note: “The calling of God ought to be preferred without any question, before all duties that we owe to men.” 

With regards to the second man in Jesus’ teaching, his response to him is for the man to διαγγελλε = “proclaim”. The verb here is a present active imperative 2nd person singular, conveying the idea of “communicating the message abroad.”

Whenever we consider the other verbal before this verb, namely απελθων = go, this verb is a participle in the Greek. Participles in regards to their moods refer to the status of the subject performing the action. As verbal adjectives, participles function to describe what is happening relative to the main verb or event in the sentence.

In Greek, it is common to have a participle following an imperative verb, forming a string of commands or one command made of two elements. In this instance, Jesus is using the aorist active participle singular nominative masculine form in απελθων = go to get this fellow to get up, get started and get going. Combined with the imperative verb already discussed (namely διαγγελλε = “proclaim”), the total idea is this: “get going and keep on proclaiming the kingdom of God.” This is Jesus’ way of urging his listeners to stop making excuses. Discipleship ever involves placing Jesus as the umbrella priority over everything. As the Bible Knowledge Commentary notes on these verses:

“Jesus’ words underscore the fact that His message of the kingdom of God was more important than anything else—even family members. The message and the Messiah cannot wait. Jesus’ message was more important than Elijah’s message and demanded total allegiance. Jesus’ servants should not have divided interests, like a farmer who begins plowing and looks back. Since Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem, the man had to make up his mind right then as to what he was going to do. Interestingly Luke did not record the outcome of any of Jesus’ conversations with the three men.”

Closing thoughts:

So what excuses do you and I give when it comes to following Jesus? Certainly attending to life’s responsibilities must be done. However, for those who claim Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, the call is to place all priorities under The Priority: Jesus Christ. Whenever we have a proper reference point for our actions, thoughts and words, we will be able to do them with intention and effectiveness. Timing is everything. Following Jesus is a constant, demanding but precious calling for the child of God. 

 

 

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An important resource for sharpening one’s skills in the study of God’s Word: the theological journal

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Introduction:

Studying God’s Word is aided in increasing measure as one considers important points as: 

1. Understanding the context

2. Theology of the passage

3. Pertinent questions raised by past interpreters

4. Bridging of any cultural practices or figures of speech

5. Proper ways of applying the text to one’s life.

Bible students have consulted various resources over the years in achieving greater competency in their use and application of the scriptures. Today’s post will briefly consider the main tools used in developing proficiency in one’s interpretation of the Biblical text, with the ultimate goal of encouraging readers to consider adding theological journals to their Bible-study repertoire. 

Drilling deeper into the Biblical text

When it comes to drilling deeper into extracting the meaning of the Biblical text, the Bible student has several options. No matter what level of study one pursues, prayer is the very first practice one ought to undertake. We can think of prayer as “sticking the bit of the drill” into the soil of our hearts as we prepare to explore the scripture.

Following prayer, we are ready to begin journeying into the text of God’s Word. Certainly there are Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias that give the back grounds and summaries of any questions one may have about cultural practices or meanings of terms in the Biblical text.

A second-level (if we may call it that) of study involves consultation of commentaries or what other reputable interpreters of scripture have had to say in recent times or in centuries past.

The bed-rock or deepest level of study into the Biblical text entails exploration of the underlying Hebrew and Greek words, grammar and expressions of the given English translation. Most Christians may not have had the opportunity to learn the original languages of the Old and New Testaments. Thankfully, the next best tools for accessing the mines of the original language texts behind our English translations comes in the form of concordances (like Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance or  The NIV Exhaustive Concordance) and word-study materials (older reference works such as “Vine’s word-studies” or newer works produced  by AMG Publishers). For those who have had opportunity to study the original languages, humility and dependence upon the Spirit of God is especially needed. No matter what level one may be at in their exploration of the scripture, prayer before, during and following one’s study bridges the interpretive process to life-application. 

It’s is after drilling down through these “three-levels” that the Bible student needs to come back up to the surface and to consider all that they have observed. 

The importance of theological journals in sharpening one’s study of the scriptures

In so far as all of the above tools are important to one’s growing competency in the study of the Bible, one set of tools needs to be included: theological journals. A theological journal is like a monthly or quarterly magazine that is pumped-up on steroids. Theological journals give the reader the latest and most-cutting edge discussions on any theological or exegetical subject being considered by scholars and researchers in a given field. Such theological journals as “The Journal of the Evangelical Society” (nicknamed “JETS” and produced by the Evangelical Theological Society) and “Biblica Theca Sacra” (the journal publication of Dallas Theological Seminary) can be subscribed to through the academic groups producing them.

Thankfully, there is another option that enables readers to access past issues of journals like these for as little as $5 / month. If one clicks on the website: http://www.galaxie.com and follows the instructions for subscription, instant access is granted to explore their incredible archives (with the most recent issues being up to November of 2016). For anyone desiring to expand their understanding of God’s Word, getting the opportunity to stretch oneself in reading an article in a reputable theological journal will prove beneficial.  

 

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Conclusion: Why God is still a good God in light of His commands to “wipe-out” the Canaanites in the Book of Joshua

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Note: The reader is invited to view a more concise version of this post by the same title at http://www.growingchristianresources.com

Introduction:

The last few posts have been dedicated to addressing a persistent apologetic issue that deals with skeptical attacks on the character of the God of the Old Testament and the narratives of the book of Joshua. The so-called “New Atheism” is marked as not only saying it to be irrational to believe in God, but that such belief is immoral. New Atheist authors like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins will often cite the narratives in Joshua as “proof” that Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament, was a “moral monster”. It is important at this juncture to remind readers that such apologetic considerations are pertinent to biblical exegesis. How we interpret and apply the difficult sections of Joshua that feature the commands to “wipe-out” the Canaanites is as important for the pulpit on Sunday morning as it is behind a university lectern or debate forum. Today’s post will draw to a conclusion what has turned out to be a four-part treatment on this subject. 

Why the Context of Joshua Must Be Considered to Demonstrate that Yahweh is not a “Moral Monster”

Authors who regularly criticize the Old Testament narratives and call God a blood-thirsty monster never mention the times God spared those who did repent. When one studies the narratives of Joshua and the wider context of the Pentateuch prefacing the conquest of Canaan, it is clear that the Canaanite culture had went beyond the point of no return and a God who had given it centuries of time to repent (compare Deuteronomy 7; 20). Justice was all that was left. However against the backdrop of judgment stood out those multiplied instances where God showed mercy to those who humbled themselves to Him.

The wider context of the Biblical narrative suggests that this practice was commanded by God as a last resort in the most extreme cases.  In many more instances, not all the people were wiped out and quite a few times we do see Canaanites folded into the covenant community (i.e the Gibeonites) in Joshua 9 and the Jebusites in the days of David centuries later.

What recent scholarship has had to say about the “holy-war” narratives in Joshua and surrounding Old Testament literature

In recent years some Bible scholars have attempted to take the wider canonical context surrounding Joshua and the ancient extra-biblical documents of the Ancient Near East (ANE) to show that the “Holy War” narratives of Joshua are written in hyperbolic language.

Matthew Flannegan points to a scholar by the name of Nicholas Wolterstorff who has advanced the thesis that phrases such as “do not leave alive anything that breathes” are hyperbolic statements that are part of the genre of “Holy War” literature.1  Wolterstorff’s efforts attempts to harmonize statements made in Judges that suggest that the cities and areas conquered by Joshua and the Hebrews, even those “wiped out” so-to-speak, had inhabitants and rulers who were still alive. In his way of thinking, if one reads Yahweh’s directives for “harem” (read above) in Numbers and Deuteronomy and the actually warfare carried out in Joshua in light of Judges; and if it is kept in mind that the texts of Joshua were written in hyperbole, then the issue of people being “wiped out” by the Israelites greatly lessens.

This blogger won’t go into the full detail of the argument, being that it appeals to parallel ANE texts to bolster it’s claims. As impressive as Wolterstorff’s proposal is, there are huge trade-offs in accepting his reading of Joshua 1-11. For one thing, if Joshua 1-11 includes “hyperbole” and “symbolic language”, then one must assume that the miraculous signs of the “sun standing still” and the raining down of large hailstones in Joshua 10:1-15 are also “hyperbole” and “symbolic” in nature, which is where Wolserstorff lands.

Admittedly, more research would need to be done in assessing the full scope of this proposal, however it seems that more is given up in trying to harmonize something that may not need to be harmonized. Granted the tensions of the issue of Joshua and the Hebrews wiping out some of the Canaanite cities must not ever be dismissed. However, if the reader keeps in mind all that has been outlined in this post, the texts in question can be dealt with in an honest and straightforward way.

Why The New Atheists’ Attempts to Show Yahweh and the Scriptures as Untrustworthy fail

As was noted at the beginning, Dr. Darrell Bock outlines the typical logical argument made by the New Atheists and Skeptics against the character of God and the Biblical text:

a. Yahweh is portrayed as a Good and Just God

b. Any form of human genocide is evil and unacceptable and morally monstrous

c. The Bible records Yahweh issuing commands to Joshua and the Israelites to destroy the Canaanites in holy war so as to take up residence in the land of Canaan

d. The Bible avows the character of Yahweh and the actions of the Israelites, and therefore the Bible and Yahweh are morally monstrous

In the above considerations and proposed framing of this issue, the third proposition, “point ‘c'” has been shown to be invalid, since Holy War and Genocide are not identical. This blogger has contended that if it can be shown that Yahweh’s command of holy war is different from genocide and if it can be explained why the Bible avows Yahweh’s character and the Israelite’s actions, then the above typical logical argument will be shown to be of no affect. When the wider context surrounding Joshua (not just a few isolated statements as typically proposed by the skeptics) is considered, coupled with the even wider ANE context, the New Atheists criticisms lose traction and the character of Yahweh and His Word remains intact. By diffusing one part of the argument, the whole argument falls to the ground.

Closing thoughts:

We have spent the past few of posts wading through the thorny issue of Yahweh’s commands to destroy the Canaanites. We began by considering seven introductory considerations for approach this issue. The post then proceeded to regard a way of framing a discussion that can aid people in navigating through the Book of Joshua and answering critics who attempt to discount God and His word. What remains is the responsibility to explain the “Holy War” texts of Joshua and to understand their application to today’s 21st century world.

When God’s justice and wrath are no longer believed, the concept of deity no longer resembles the God of the Bible and the deity that is left is a god of popular culture that is not holy, not just and impersonal. The consequences for such a denial lead to either a diminishing of sin or a denial of its reality. This two fold process renders a culture susceptible to decreased vigilance in defending the sanctity of human life and denial of absolute morality/ethics which is essential for a culture to continue enriched in the practice of freedom and equity for its citizenry. History has shown that over time, the slide towards socialism, communism, tyranny and anarchy will ensue. The hope and prayer of this blogger has been that this post can aid towards shedding light on a subject that though difficult, yet is not impossible to understand. Thankfully the Holy Spirit of God ever stands to aid the Christian and the church at large in expounding and defending the scriptures and character of God in this cynical and unbelieving age.

Endnotes:

1. Paul Copan and William Lane Craig., General Editors. Come Let us Reason – New Essays on Christian Apologetics. Article by Matthew Flannegan: Did God Command the Genocide of the Canaanites? Broadman and Holman Publishers. 2012. Pages 226-249

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Part Three: Why God is still a good God in light of His commands to “wipe-out” the Canaanites in the Book of Joshua

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Note: The reader can find a shorter version of this post at the other blogsite – http://www.growingchristianresources.com

Introduction and Review:

The last two posts have aimed to offer a response to those who accuse Yahweh of being a “moral monster” for His command for the Hebrews to defeat and “wipe-out” the Canaanites. Skeptics and more particular, the so-called “New Atheists” have attempted to use these texts and a basis for calling into question the moral integrity of the God of the Bible and the character of scripture itself. In the minds of such skeptics, the Bible endorses immoral practices such as “ethnic-cleansing”. Seven considerations have been offered aid the reader in knowing how to approach this difficult issue. For the reader’s review this author will list in short order those considerations:

Seven Introductory Considerations for Approaching the Destruction of the Canaanites in the Book of Joshua

1. Diffusing the logical arguments that attack the character of the Biblical text and Yahweh.

2. Careful consideration of how to interpret the language that is used to describe the “utter destruction” of the Canaanite nations 

3. The Book of Joshua and the wider Biblical context portrays God’s incredible mercy and longsuffering just as much as His justice and Holiness.

4. The Canaanites were not an innocent people but were a culture that disregarded Yahweh’s repeated warnings to repent.

5. Ancient Near Eastern Literature outside the Bible helps us understand why the Biblical text asserted the moral and spiritual degradation of the Canaanites.

6. Yahweh is depicted in other Biblical texts, including Joshua, of sparing people devoted to judgment who repented.

7. Understanding the difference between Holy War and Genocide avoids misinterpreting the texts of Joshua and application of the text to today’s world.

Such above considerations may serve to show how at least some of the accusations leveled by skeptics are mistaken. The goal of today’s post is to suggest a way of “framing” or navigating this “thorny” issue in light of these considerations. 

Suggesting a way of framing the discussion regarding Yahweh’s commands to destroy the Canaanites in the Book of Joshua

Since the above considerations are all interrelated, much of what will be proposed in this “suggested framing” of the discussion will use combinations of the above considerations #2-#6.  

Extra-biblical resources that corroborate the history detailed by Joshua 

To begin, one critic has tried to allege that when the Bible reports the immoral and spiritual degradation of Canaanite culture, it does so as propaganda and that there is scant to no outside evidence supporting such a notion. Is that true? When we consider the sources outside the Old Testament that refer to the Canaanite culture, it’s practices and the situation of Canaanland during the time of Joshua and the Conquest, we can look at some of the following ancient documents and/or writings:

1. The Tel El-Amarna corresponsdance between the Canaanite peoples and the Egyptians during the 13th century. In these letters (really tablets) we see the appearance of the Hebrews (called in the tablets the Hapiru).1

2. The discoveries at Ugarit in Northern Syria unearthed numerous tablets with a language akin to ancient Hebrew called the Ugaritic. Scholars have deciphered this language and have found it helpful in discerning Hebrew idioms in the Old Testament. It is here we get more information about the Canaanites and their religion, being that the peoples of Ugarit were closely related.

3. According to the Archaeological Study Bible, page 182, other Archaeological discoveries in the Phoenecian city of Carthage, Moab, Ur of the Chaldees and the like reveal a centuries old pattern of child sacrifices in the region of Canaan, confirming both the Biblical record and reasons as to why the Israelites would later practice such abominable activities in the latter parts of the Old Testament. They had picked it up from their Canaanite neighbors.2

4. The Ras-Shamra Tablets contain information relating to Canaanite worship practices and deities. Dr. Gleason Archer lists all of the deities and some of the practices described in these tablets which help reconstruct the picture of Canaanite culture that we see most fully revealed in the Book of Joshua.3

The Mercy and Long-suffering of God is displayed right along with God’s Justice and Holiness

In noting the extra-biblical sources that corroborate the cultural context of the Book of Joshua, we can now consider the character of Yahweh Himself. The Old Testament teaching about God’s holy character, long-suffering mercy and covenant relationship with His people must be considered if correct interpretation of Joshua is to be achieved. Dr. Walt Kaiser make this insightful observation in his work on this very issue:

“Every forecast or prophecy of doom, like any prophetic word about the future except those few promises connected with the Noachic, Abrahamic, Davidic, and new covenants (which were unconditional and dependant soley on God’s work fulfillment), had a suppressed”unless” attached to them. At what moment that nation turns from its evil way repents then at that time the Lord would relent and cease to bring the threatened harm (Jeremiah 18:7-10). The Canannites had, as it were, a final forty-year countdown as they heard of events in Egypt, at the crossing of the Red Sea, and what happened to the kings who opposed Israel along the way.”4

In reading Joshua, there are indications that the Canaanites were aware of Yahweh’s deliverances of Israel from Egypt, as indicated by Rahab’s testimony in the second chapter of Joshua.

The concept of Holy war is different from the historic practice of genocide.

Deuteronomy 20:15-18 depicts the rationale of Yahweh in his instructions to Moses for Joshua and the people. God did not want his people to be influenced by their neighbors.  (Deuteronomy 7:1-5) As a Holy set-apart people, they were to be Holy as He is Holy.

The moral and spiritual conditions in Canaan had deteriorated to such a level as to cross the line where God hands them over to their own base desires and to be set apart for judgment.  Whenever one reads the texts that speaks of God devoting or dedicating something to destruction, Romans 1:18-31 can be used as an interpretive lens for assessing the downward spiral of moral and spiritual degredation. Typically in the Hebrew Old Testament, a specific word “haram” (חרמ) is used to describe the particular judgment God declares on a specific culture that has “crossed the line” so to speak. The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (TWOT) expounds on this particular term:

“Usually haram means a ban for utter destruction, the compulsory dedication of something which impedes or resists God’s work, which is considered accursed to God. The idea first appears in Numbers 21:2-3, where the Israelites vowed that , if God would enable them to defeat a southern Canaanite king, they would ‘utterly destroy’ (i.e consider as devoted and accordingly utterly destroy) his cities. This word is used regarding almost all the cities which Joshua’s troops destroyed (e.g Jericho, Josh 6:21; Ai Josh 8:26; Makkedah, Josh 10:28; Hazor, Josh 11:11), thus indicating the rationale for their destruction.”5

Understanding the Concept of “Holy War” in the Bible and How Yahweh Could Still Show Mercy 

The stark contrast between Holy and Profane is central to the Biblical concept of God’s Holiness. The Wrath of God, which is God’s Holiness in action, describes what God hates and is really His love and goodness expressed in relationship to that which is profane and contrary to His character. To love sin or to embrace injustice would make God not a good God. If God were not Holy and did not express His wrath, then He could not be good and be loving. This idea may seem repugnant to a secularized view of reality that denies the God of the Bible or any worldview that does not view God as Holy. God declared Holy War only on those nations and cities who had crossed the line on two main fronts:

a). They ignored previous warnings that came through a prophet or prior judgments God enacted on nearby cultures and

b). were engaging in practices that polluted the land spiritually and posed significant moral and spiritual contamination of other cultures.

This judgment of Divine Holy War was a judgment of “last resort” that stood at the end of the line in God’s dealings with nations and cultures. Having noted this pattern, the reader must also realize that God was more than willing to reverse such a judgment if the nation in question exhibited repentance. Jeremiah 18:8 states – “if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it.” Two most prominent examples are Rahab in Joshua 2 and the Ninevites in the Book of Jonah.

It must be recognized that when God dealt with a wicked culture, He did what was called “dedicating it to destruction”, meaning that because of its persistent refusal to heed His Revelation and clear directives to repent, judgment was all that would be left (see above discussion on the Hebrew word behind this concept, Haram or חרמ). However it must also be equally recognized that whenever an individual (such as Rahab) or a city (like Ninevah) did repent and respond to God’s revelation, God would relent His anger and based upon His equally balanced characteristics of love and mercy spare that individual or city.

More next time…

Endnotes:

1. Dr. Gleason Archer. A Survey of the Old Testament Introduction. Moody Press. 1985. Pages 271-279

2. The Archaeological Study Bible. Zondervan. 2005. Page 182

3. Dr. Gleason Archer. A Survey of the Old Testament Introduction. Moody Press. 1985. Pages 271-279

4. Walt C. Kaiser Jr. Toward Old Testament Ethics. Zondervan. 1991. Page 268.

5. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., Bruce K. Waltke. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. Moody Publishers. 1980. Page 741.

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