[New lecture--May 2011.  Pages 1-25 of the Dulles book cover this material.]

Gospel Truth
Biblical Apologetics 

Moses and the prophetic voice

For some people, what the Utilitarians talk about as the desire to maximize pleasure and to minimize pain and what I have called the “will to comfort” does seem to be the primary motivating force in life.  For many people the “will to truth” is even more important.  And in some individuals, the will to truth is so strong, they will put up with any amount of discomfort in its pursuit—being willing, even, to sit through a two-and-a-half hour class just to gain that little bit of extra understanding of the real nature of the world and our place in it.

The “will to truth” was especially strong in a man we talked briefly about last time, Moses.  For Moses, the pursuit of truth (and justice) meant a major challenge to the “religio” he had grown up with.  Although born to privilege and power, Moses ended up challenging the system that provided him with about as comfortable a life as anyone of that era might have had. 

Ultimately, Moses helped put together a new religio, a new way of life—a great alternative to the polytheistic political, religious, and social systems that dominated the ancient world.  Mosaic law stresses the benefits of the new religio:  “Oh that there were are heart in them to follow these commandments that it may be well with them and they may prosper.”  But there was a constant temptation for Israel to go back to the old polytheist religio, and, for centuries, there was a back-and-forth: backsliding into polytheism, called back to Mosaic Law by the prophetic voice.

[In class we will discuss why this was, noting especially the reasons the wealthy and powerful had a tendency to subvert Mosaic religio and why the prophetic voice creates problems for authority figures.]

Those ns authority don’t like the prophetic voice much and—fortunately for them—around 400 BC, the prophetic voice simply stopped. But the words of Moses and the prophets remained, and Mosaic religio survived, at least as an idea.  And then a new set of conflicts. 

Jews, Greeks, and Romans

Around 330 BC, Alexander the Great added Judea to his dominions, and for 170 years, the Jews were under the rule of his successors. They had 100 years of independence under the Maccabees, but then fell under the domination of Rome.

Now both the Hellenistic rulers and the Roman rulers found dealing with the Jews uncomfortable.  Mosaic religion didn’t mix well with the religio of the Hellenistic god-kings, and, when the Romans too went in the God-emperor direction, dealing with the Jews was going to be more difficult than ever.

And if the Greeks and Romans had difficulty with the Jews, the Jews likewise were uncomfortable with their overlords. Could one figure out a way to preserve Mosaic “religion” in a society dominated by a non-Mosaic “religio”? 

Some said no.  Jewish zealots favored armed insurrection: drive the Romans out and re-establish a truly Jewish state.  The Essenes favored isolation: move to the desert areas and avoid contact both with the Romans and with corrupted Jews.

The Pharisees favored a different kind of separation: rigid adherence to an extended set of commandments that would allow them to remain “separate” even while living within a cosmopolitan environment.  The Pharisees real students of the Bible, passionate in their study. They dominate the synagogues: most rabbis of the time were Pharisees.

And then there were the Sadducees, a kind of aristocracy among the Jews.  The name seems to be related to the Hebrew word Zadik: righteous.  What made them righteous?  Getting the ceremonies right.  Most of the priests, and apparently all of the high priests, were Sadducees.  The Sadducees protected their own power by working in cooperation with the secular rulers.

This paid off in spades with Herod, the Edomite ruler to whom the Romans had handed over Judea. Herod financed the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple, and it ended up one of the most magnificent places of worship in the world. 

Roman: the Best of societies, the worst of societies

Now you might think that this was exactly the right strategy.  After all, the Romans had put together the most successful society the world had ever seen.  The Roman army was the most disciplined and most technologically advanced in all of history.  This army had enabled the Romans to put together an empire that stretched from Britain to Spain to North Africa to the Middle East.  And the Romans weren’t just conquerors.  The Romans were superb administrators—so much so that conquered peoples often preferred rule by Romans to rule by native dynasties, and, usually they were better off.  Roman rule generally meant unprecedented prosperity and peace: at least, relative peace.

Further, Roman “religio,” the Roman system was remarkably tolerant, able to incorporate the best ideas of other cultures, building especially successfully on Greek cultural contributions.

Peace, prosperity, comfort, strength, order, community and, to a large degree, an ever-expanding knowledge of truth—at least, of certain kinds of truth.  So why not follow the Sadducees and just assimilate?

Because it was clear that the Roman system, despite all its outward appearance of success, was coming apart at the seams.

The political system was falling apart, with rulers like Caligula and Nero not exactly the rule, but not exactly the rare exception either.

The economic system was functioning very badly.  While society as a whole was rich, Roman wealth was concentrated in the hands of a relative handful of people who had accumulated their wealth in unsavory ways: most often, by exploiting thousands of cruelly treated slaves. 

Religion was falling apart as well.  There was a growing skepticism about religious matters inherited from the Greeks, and a growing feeling that the gods were distant and uncaring. 

Morality was falling apart.  The Romans had once been among the most moral people ever to walk the face of the earth, preferring death to dishonor.  By the time of Christ, though, Roman morality was gone.  Divorce, once rare, had become the rule.  Sexual immorality abounded. Cities were filled with male and female prostitutes who catered to every perversion imaginable.

And, as always when sex gets perverted in such ways, children began to be viewed as a nuisance that gets in the way of pleasure rather than the greatest treasure men or women could produce. Infanticide, once rare, became routine.  Babies, particularly girl babies, were simply abandoned to die of exposure or to be eaten by a wild animal. If they were lucky.

Some babies were not so lucky.  Pimps “rescued” the little boys and girls, raising them until they were old enough to be turned out as prostitutes.  And, since one wants a quick return on investment, the pimps would sometimes start selling the services of these kids at five or six years old.

Something had clearly gone wrong with Roman religio, with the Roman way of life.  And those with a strong enough will to truth were going to start seeking something different, something better. But was there something better?   

The gospel

Well, what about this religion of the Jews?  For those with a Jewish background and for a handful of gentile “god-fearers,” what was going on in the synagogues did seem a viable option.  But, seemingly out of nowhere, came a different offshoot of Judaism, an alternative to existing religio so attractive that its followers called it “euangellion,” the Good News: the Gospel.

Now good news is something people are eager to share.  Phidippides ran more than 20 miles from Marathon to Athens to bring the good news of the victory over the Persians.  And the Christians thought they had news even better.

Originally, “gospel” referred to a spoken message, the message of Jesus himself preached during his three years or so of ministry (roughly 27-30 AD).  The gospel remained at least partly a spoken message through the time of the apostles, perhaps up through 90 AD.  But the during this period the gospel was shared more and more through the written word, and today we have four written gospels from the time of the apostles.

Now the gospels and the Book of Acts (the companion volume to Luke’s Gospel) are the earliest Christian apologetic works and by far the most important.  Notice that, while they tell the same basic story, each gospel is at least slightly different in emphasis an approach.

Matthew’s apologetic

In part, the Gospel of Matthew defends Christianity as a return to a correct understanding of Moses and the prophets, insisting, especially, that the exclusiveness of groups like the Pharisees is wrong.  The promise to Abraham was that in his seed *all* nations of the earth would be blessed.  Likewise, the prophetic message again and again focuses on inclusion of the gentiles in God’s kingdom.

Especially important to Matthew’s apologetic: his use of Old Testament scripture.  This is a theme we will see often in apologetic writing, but Matthew’s use of scripture is not quite that of later writers. Superficially, he seems to be taking the Old Testament scriptures out of context.  What’s actually happening, though, is that Matthew is deliberately raising the context issue to challenge the way groups like the Pharisees elaborated on scripture.  What’s interesting is that, when one looks at Matthew’s “out of context” quotes, one almost always finds that the passage he is selecting his verse from is key to his overall meaning. 

In Matthew 4:13-16, for instance, Matthew ties Jesus’ residence in Galilee to a prophecy in Isaiah 9, quoting only a part of the passage, “The Land of Zabulon, and the Land of Nephtalim, by way of the sea, beyond Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles; The people which sat in darkness saw great light; and to them which sat in the region and shadow of death light is sprung up.” 

Now that’s not a very persuasive example of prophecy and fulfillment as it stands.  But what Matthew is really doing is calling attention to the whole of Isaiah 9 including, especially, vs. 6-7: Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.  Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even forever.”

Another important part of Matthew’s apologetic: the presentation of Jesus as a great teacher, a teacher with a radical challenge to established “religio.” These ideas are especially clear in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).

Some of the surprises/challenges in the Sermon on the Mount:

1.  The beatitudes (blessings) at the beginning.  Let’s start at the very beginning, a very strange place to start in this case--because the Sermon on the Mount starts with the ending!  Blessings are almost always at the end of a message, at the end of a sermon.  “The Lord bless you and keep you.  The Lord make his fact to shine upon you…”  Jesus puts his blessing first!!!   Why?  Well, the message of the Sermon on the Mount is that certain things are going to be turned around.  Blessed are the poor, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the meek….

2.    God’s standards are higher than legalistic teaching of 613 commandments.  And Jesus builds his own fence around the law…but a very different kind of fence than that constructed by the Pharisees. Don’t murder?  Don’t be angry.  Limits on divorce?  No divorce.  Keep sacred oaths?  Always tell the truth.  Limit your vengeance?  Repay wrongdoing with kindness.  Love your neighbor?  Love even your enemy.  It’s the heart, not externals that count. 

3.    Chapter 6 continues the challenge to established religio.  Don’t pray, fast, or give alms in public.  And then there is Jesus sample prayer: the Lord’s Prayer—a vastly different kind of prayer than would have been typical either among Jews or gentiles.

4.    Matthew 7 in some ways gets to the heart of the matter.  And the heart of the matter is: the heart.  Matthew 7:18 says a good tree brings forth good fruit.  Matthew 12:34-37 reinforces the idea:  a good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth that which is good...

Key also to Matthew’s apologetic technique, the inclusion of many parables—stories with images that, as Jesus himself says, are particularly appropriate for those who haven’t already accepted the truths that he has to teach.  Matthew’s narrative style, too, adds to the effectiveness of his message. 

In the last chapters especially, Matthew builds to effective climax and an extraordinarily effective challenge to the religious status quo.  The religious are anything but heroes:

•    The scribes, elders, Pharisees, and Sadducees conspire with one another on how to stop Jesus
•    Jesus’ trusted friend betrays him
•    Jesus’ most zealous follower denies him
•    Pilate wants to let Jesus go, but the crowd asks instead for Barabas.  And as for Jesus? Crucify him!  God’s chosen people cry out, “His blood be on us and on our children!”

And on top of all that, when Jesus rises from the dead, when the Jewish leaders have full evidence Jesus was exactly who he said he was, what do they do?  They bribe the guards to say Jesus stole the body!!

Ah, religion.  What a wonderful thing! We are so religious, that, if God were one of us, we’d kill him. Certainly Matthew’s Gospel is an extraordinarily effective challenge to those who are confident that they are already on the right track as far as religion is concerned.

Luke’s apologetic

While Luke tells them same story as Matthew and overlaps with Matthew in all sorts of areas, his apologetic approach is different. For one thing, he adopts a narrative technique particularly appropriate to gentile expectations of the biography of great man. These included the following:

1.  Early hints of a man's future greatness.  Gentile biographers looked for omens and signs of future greatness, particularly signs connected with birth, e.g., an unusually hard or easy labor.

2.  Also important: any examples of precocious behavior and the comments of those who first recognized their subjects potential for greatness. Julius Caesar's ability to give a eulogy at a very young age and Sulla's comment that there were "many Mariuses" in the young Caesar were noted by Caesar's biographers. 

2.  Genealogical information.  Gentile audiences wanted to know a person’s ancestry--and illustrious deeds done by those ancestors.

Luke's emphasis on the virgin birth and on John the Baptist leaping in Elizabeth's womb is the kind of thing gentile would find intriguing.  The prophecies of Simeon and Anna--and the appearance of the angels--likewise were the kind of thing gentiles would have wanted included in the biography of a great man.  Jesus teaching n the temple at twelve?  Again, important to a gentile audience.   And ancestors?  You want illustrious ancestors?  Here goes, says Luke--as he traces Jesus lineage back to God--a typically gentile thing to do, by the way.

Like Matthew, Luke emphasizes Jesus’ stories, but he often chooses stories of redemption, e.g., the Prodigal Son who, much to his surprise, finds his father waiting with open arms.  No need to sleep with the pigs!  The fatted calf awaits!  Christianity here becomes the religion of the 2nd chance, the “mulligan” religion, the “do-over” religion: a theme that will come back in many, many later apologists.

John’s apologetic

And then there is the Gospel of John.  John’s Gospel is in part a long meditation on belief and unbelief.  Why do some accept the gospel?  Why do others reject it?

John’s narrative follows Jesus on a series of trips to Jerusalem.  Jesus does progressively greater miracles, and the result is not what one would expect.  With each new miracle, resistance to Jesus and his massage grows.  Why?

Partly, John sees the question as a moral one.  “Men loved darkness because their deeds were evil.”  To escape from the darkness, one has to first obey God’s commands.  Knowledge of the truth follows obedience.  “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.” “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed, and ye shall know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 

John also sees social pressure as a problem.  The healed blind man’s parents are afraid to say anything because they are afraid they’ll be put out of the synagogue.  “How can ye believe which receive honor one of another.” They loved the praises of men more than the praises of God.”

But John notes that some quit following Jesus just because his teachings are hard to understand—beyond unaided human comprehension.  To get to the truth, we have to listen and follow “My sheep here my voice.”  Ultimately, though, there is supernatural help: the “paraclete” who will lead into all truth. Throughout, John ties head problems heart problems together: insisting that the cure of one must be accompanied by a cure of the other.

This idea is even more clear in I John.  “Beloved, let us love one another for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God.  He that loveth not knoweth not god: for God is love.” 

The Acts of the Apostles: the first courtroom apologies

The companion volume to the Gospel of Luke, The Book of Acts, contains the earliest “pure” apologies, legal defenses made by Stephen, Peter, and Paul before both Jewish and gentile authorities.    

[In class, we will discuss Paul’s defense before Agrippa and Festus.  Pages 11-15 of the Dulles book talk about apologetic in Acts, but I’ll bet you can pick out the apologetic themes every bit as well on your own. ]