The Biblical Gospels and Apocryphal Gospels

The Biblical Gospels and Apocryphal Gospels

The message of Christ threatens many people, including some scholars and parts of the general public. To counter this threat, skeptics have written many books trying to deny that Jesus was anything more than a strange aberration of history. Some of these books are written by authors who claim to be experts, and many of the writings have been promoted in the tabloids or on television as revealing some new discovery about Jesus from sources outside of the biblical gospels known as the apocryphal gospels.

We have seen claims that Jesus was a peasant cynic philosopher, a leader of a hallucinogenic cult, or married to Mary Magdalene. The authors base those claims on the so-called apocryphal gospels such as the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Hebrews, The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Judas, and the Gospel of Philip. It is essential to understand that none of these apocryphal gospels have any validity compared to the biblical gospels we have in the New Testament.

The apocryphal gospels appeared in the second half of the second century, influenced by pagan gnostic philosophy competing with the true gospel. By comparison, consider how much has changed in the past 200 years in secular writing about people’s views of race, homosexuality, the rights of women, and beliefs about democracy? Even in the past two decades, there has been a massive change.

In contrast to those late manuscripts, the biblical gospel writers lived during the lifetime of Christ and in the formative years of the Church. Archaeology has verified the characters and many of the events described in the gospels. Things described in the gospels fit the known historical facts that can be verified from various other sources.

Perhaps the clearest demonstration that the biblical gospels are reliable while the apocryphal books are not is the writers’ motives. Modern books are written and marketed in a way that brings financial gain to the authors. Cult writings, books on UFOs like the Roswell incident, claims about Nostradamus, and claims of alien visitation to Earth have all been money-makers for their authors. The biblical gospel writers not only didn’t make money or fame from what they wrote, but they even risked losing their lives.

You can trust the biblical gospels and believe they are accurate and contain the Word of God. Any attempt to discredit them fails in the face of the evidence and the weakness of claimed alternatives to the message they contain.

— John N. Clayton © 2022

Note: We have a video series on this subject called “Beyond Reasonable Doubt” with John Cooper. You can purchase the series on DVDs with a study guide at this LINK or watch them for free on doesgodexist.tv
An excellent reference on this subject is On Guard by William Lane Craig, David C Cook Publisher Chapter eight. ISBN 978-1-4347-6488-1.

Christ’s Resurrection Conquered Sin And Death

Christ’s Resurrection Conquered Sin And Death

Each week as Christians meet, we remember Christ’s resurrection and victory over death. Annually we must not forget that at the time of Passover, Jesus became the sacrificial Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. (John 1:29) But without the resurrection, the sacrifice would be meaningless. As Paul wrote, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless” (1 Corinthians 15:17). Our faith is not worthless because Christ’s resurrection conquered sin and death.

How do we know that is true? Some unbelievers argue that the resurrection is just a myth that arose many years later. The evidence against that idea is numerous and strong. The apostles carried the message of Christ’s resurrection to the ends of the Roman Empire for the rest of their lives. That was even though they had nothing to gain except a life of persecution ending in execution. If they had not seen the resurrected Christ, they would not have spent their lives proclaiming the message that Christ’s resurrection conquered sin and death.

Skeptics have often used the argument that the gospels were written years later to “prove” that the resurrection was a myth that developed during those years. However, before any of the four gospels were written, Paul wrote to the church in Corinth in A.D. 57. In it, he included an oral tradition that gives a summary of the gospel message.

Today we have access to writing materials, books, and computers. We are accustomed to writing things down. In the first century, there were no computers, printed books, or pamphlets. Even simple writing materials were scarce and precious. People memorized important things by summarizing them efficiently and then passing them on as oral traditions. The early Christians used that method. Here is the first part of an oral tradition that Paul wrote down in that first letter to the church in Corinth:

“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to…”

The oral tradition then goes on to list some resurrection appearances of Christ. Then Paul adds himself to the list of those who saw the resurrected Christ. (You can read it for yourself in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8.) Of course, the “Scriptures” that Paul refers to are the Old Testament prophecies of Christ since the New Testament was not yet written.

When did Paul receive this tradition? He probably received it no later than A.D. 36 when he first visited Jerusalem. (See Galatians 1:15-18.) He possibly received it earlier than that in Damascus when, as Saul the persecutor, he encountered Ananias and received his sight. Ananias preached the gospel to him, and “Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus.” Whether in Jerusalem or Damascus, Paul received the oral tradition of Christ’s resurrection no more than five years after the event. That tradition was not a myth that developed years later after the eyewitnesses had died.

Each week, as we celebrate the fact that Christ’s resurrection conquered sin and death, we can trust the story is true. We have that oral tradition written down, but we would do well to memorize it as the early Christians did.

— Roland Earnst © 2021

Symbols for Communication

Symbols for Communication - Ukrainian Pysanky
Ukrainian Pysanky

One thing that distinguishes humans is our extensive use of symbols for communication. The ancient Persians were amazed to see life come from an egg, a seemingly dead object. They presented each other with eggs at the spring equinox, marking the beginning of a new year. In the Western world, eggs became a symbol of spring and the start of a new year on April 1, until 1582, when the Gregorian calendar moved the New Year to January 1. People who refused to accept the new calendar were called “April Fools.”

It was a natural thing for religions to use eggs as symbols. In Judaism, eggs are an essential part of the Passover seder plate. People who celebrated Lent, when they could not eat eggs for 40 days, collected eggs and decorated them with vegetable dye. Crimson eggs honored the blood of Christ. In parts of Eastern Europe, people put intricate designs on eggs with wax resist technique before coloring. Those intricately decorated eggs are called pysanky and are still common in Ukraine today. In Germany, people pierce eggs and hollow them to hang them from trees during Easter week.

The New Testament shows the use of symbols for communication. In Matthew 26:26-30, Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, which Paul refers to as a symbol in 1 Corinthians 11:23-30. Peter tells us that baptism is a “like figure,” or symbol, of the kind of salvation that Noah received (1 Peter 3:20-21). Symbols can change their meaning. In Acts 18:24-19:5, we see baptism changing from a symbol of John’s baptism of repentance to Jesus Christ’s baptism to wash away sins.

Problems come when a symbol used in one culture is misinterpreted in a different culture or time. A classic example of that is in Revelation. Twentieth-century Christians often misinterpret symbols in that book that first-century Christians would have understood. Only by studying the symbols’ meaning when the author wrote the book can we get an accurate picture of what they meant. Using symbols for communication only works when we all understand the meaning.

— John N. Clayton © 2021

Black Lives Matter in the Bible

Black Lives Matter in the Bible

Skeptics seem to use every crisis or injustice to make false claims about the Bible. In several recent references, skeptics have claimed that the Bible does not accept black people as human. That simply isn’t true. Black lives matter in the Bible.

The word “cush” means “black” in Hebrew, and we find it in numerous biblical passages. Most frequently, it refers to a geographical area in Africa. English Bibles often translate references to the land of Cush as Nubia or Ethiopia, and a person from there is called an Ethiopian.

Archeologists have found a wide variety of remains of the Cushite people because they were excellent soldiers and masters of horses and chariots. In 701 B.C., Tirhakah, king of Cush, defended Judah against the Syrian invasion of Sennacherib. His help and God’s hand saved Jerusalem at that time.

The denigration of black people is a modern, western activity. Ancient Greeks, Assyrians, and Egyptians did not show the racism of recent times. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote that Ethiopians were the “most handsome of all men.” In Song of Solomon, there is a love song between Solomon and a Shulammite girl in which she tells Solomon not to love her just because she is black.

The Bible and the history of Israel and Judaism do not show any denigration of those with dark skin. The book of Jeremiah credits Ebed-Melech the Cushite as a hero for saving Jeremiah’s life (Jeremiah 38:7-13).

When we turn to the New Testament, we find more evidence that black lives matter in the Bible. In Acts 8:26-39, we read of the Holy Spirit sending evangelist Philip to an Ethiopian who was in charge of the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. He had come to Jerusalem to worship God and was reading the book of Isaiah as he traveled. Philip explained the gospel and baptized him.

Jesus made a point of dealing with the racial prejudice that existed at that time.
(See John 4.) Galatians 3:26-28 makes it clear that there were no racial, political, or gender boundaries in the early Christian churches–“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Black lives matter in the Bible just as much as every other life because we are all created in God’s image.

— John N. Clayton © 2020

Reference Biblical Archaeology Review, winter 2020.

Medicine in Bible Times and Beyond

Medicine in Bible Times and Beyond

Here are some facts you should know about medicine in Bible times:

*The Old Testament does not contain a single reference to a doctor or medicine used to heal the sick.

*There are references in the Talmud and Mishnah. The Talmud and Mishnah are two sets of writings about Jewish civil and ceremonial law. The Mishnah was oral tradition and makes up the first part of the Talmud. These writings are not part of the Bible, and they were written by Jewish scholars as late as the 5th century AD. The Talmud and Mishnah references are not complementary to doctors calling physicians “the trades of robbers.” This reminds us of Mark 5:25-26, which describes a woman with a blood disorder who had “suffered many things of many physicians, and had spent all she had, and was nothing bettered but grew worse.” Another statement in the Talmud says that physicians are destined for Gehenna, a place of torment, or hell.

*Rabbis counted 248 “limbs” in the human body and 365 “sinews.” This corresponds to the 248 positive commandments in the Old Testament and the 365 negative ones.

*Egypt had an extensive medical system with dentists, doctors of the eyes, doctors of the abdomen, and doctors of the anus. They had no brain doctors and referred to the brain as “stuffing for the head.”

*In the New Testament, Paul refers to Luke as “the beloved physician” in Colossians 4:14. Luke was not Jewish, and he did not use medical vocabulary in his gospel or the book of Acts.

*In New Testament times, people used frankincense and myrrh as medicines.

*Laodicea was famous for eye ointments and prominent eye doctors.
In Revelation 3:18, Jesus counsels the Laodicean church to get “salve to put on your eyes, so you can see” referring to their spiritual blindness.

*Christians became noted for supporting medicine by 200 AD as physicians were listed among the Church’s most famous martyrs. By the late 300s AD, hospitals were being created by Christian leaders.

These facts about medicine in Bible times came from The Dictionary of Daily Life in Biblical and Post-Biblical Antiquity.

— John N. Clayton © 2020

Bart Ehrman’s Bias and the Facts

Bart Ehrman's Bias - Misquoting Truth

Perhaps the theologian most often quoted by atheists today is Bart Ehrman. Ehrman graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary is a “Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies” at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He and has written many books harshly criticizing the Bible. Perhaps his most cited book is Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. Atheists reference Ehrman using his credentials and position to declare his credibility. We suggest that Bart Ehrman’s bias relates to his motivation to sell books, not an open-minded search for truth. Here is one example:

“There are more differences among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament…We have only error-ridden copies, and the vast majority of these are centuries removed from the originals and different from them…in thousands of ways” (pages 10-11).

So what are the facts?
If one manuscript says “Christ Jesus” and another says “Jesus Christ,” is that an error? Of the 400,000 errors that skeptics claim, most are differences in spelling or the order of words. Scholars studying manuscripts report a 99% agreement between all known manuscripts. None of the existing variations change any crucial element of the Christian faith.

Scholars have over 5700 manuscripts and fragments of the New Testament available to them. Those manuscripts are not from one recent time. Some are from very early, and others are 200 or 300 years later. When you compare the earlier manuscripts with the more recent ones, you don’t find significant changes. This is true even though they are not in the same language. There are more than two million pages of text and yet no significant variations.

Bart Ehrman’s bias is explained in a book by Timothy Paul Jones. The book is Misquoting Truth published by Intervarsity Press.

— John N. Clayton © 2020

Reliability of the New Testament

Reliability of the New Testament

Atheists are desperate to attack the reliability of the New Testament. Bart Ehrman wrote that the biblical stories about Jesus “were changed with what would strike us today as reckless abandon. They were modified, amplified, and embellished, And sometimes they were made up” (Bart Ehrman in his book The Followers of Jesus in History and Legend, page 269.)

Atheist scholars like Ehrman assume that the average person is too ignorant to understand why such a statement isn’t true. They assume that most people won’t take the time to find the answer to a challenge like this one. Thankfully some Christian scholars have responded. Dr. Timothy Paul Jones explains why Ehrman’s statement is false.

The accounts of Jesus’ life and teaching emerged among eyewitnesses shortly after the events occurred. Can we trust the New Testament accounts to be true? How about the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7. Paul summarizes the story of Christ’s resurrection with two Greek words – paradidomi and paralambano. When these two words were used together, ancient Greek readers understood that the writer was citing oral history. Paul wrote in Greek, but in that passage, he called the apostle Peter by his Aramaic name “Cephas.” Paul also used a Greek word to describe an Aramaic method for joining clauses. What that means is that the oral history was originally in Aramaic. People in Galilee and Judea spoke Aramaic, and Paul must have received this oral history in Aramaic.

What that tells us is, Paul heard the story of Jesus from eyewitnesses (Galatians 1:18) who conveyed it to him in Aramaic. In 1 Corinthians 15:1, Paul reminds the Corinthians of what he had told them three years earlier. Paul carried this message everywhere he went, meaning that it was unchanged as it spread across the Roman empire. Clearly, the story of Jesus’ resurrection was not made up long after He died. The account was not “changed with reckless abandon”.

We can trust the reliability of the New Testament. The average person may not have the knowledge to see the fallacies in every atheist statement, but there are scholars who can. This information came from Misquoting Truth: A Guide to the Fallacies of Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus by Timothy Paul Jones, published by Intervarsity Press.

— John N. Clayton © 2020

Animal Viruses and Human Illness

Animal Viruses and Human Illness

The COVID-19 virus has been too lethal to ignore. This pandemic makes us realize that there are many viruses out there, and the current one is just the tip of the iceberg of what is possible. As early as AD 165 to 180, pandemics killed massive numbers of people. Smallpox killed 5 million, and bubonic plague killed 25 million on four different occasions starting in 541. Researchers today are attempting to catalog links between animal viruses and human illness. They estimate that there are probably 1.6 million animal viruses yet to be discovered in mammal and bird populations and that 827,000 of them could cause disease in humans.

Viruses are part of the natural world in which we live. They serve useful purposes in aiding animal digestion, reproduction, and elimination of wastes. The problem is that each animal has its own set of viruses suited for that animal’s diet and living conditions. If an animal’s virus jumps into another species with a different diet and living conditions, the results can be destructive. That is the connection between animal viruses and human illness. Most of the viruses we know about came into the human population from rodents, including rats, bats, birds, chimps, and mosquitos. Some have jumped through several animals such as bats giving the virus to cattle and camels, which gave it to humans.

The Old Testament laws had health restrictions, which made virus transmission less of a problem. People were also not in such proximity to one another or to animals that had destructive viruses. Living in very arid conditions reduced disease transmission, and the dietary laws worked against most virus transmission. When you read through Deuteronomy and Leviticus, you see elaborate precautions that we now understand had hygienic benefits to minimize viral transmission.

In the New Testament, many of these rules were continued. There was a prohibition against drinking blood, and the increased use of baking and boiling foods contributed to a low virus transmission rate. Moral rules that reduced the spread of disease included the elimination of polygamy and polyandry and the strong condemnation of prostitution. In time, the keeping of exotic pets and the acceptance of foods previously forbidden to Israel tended to thwart human attempts to fight disease.

God has given us the capacity to understand viruses and the connection between animal viruses and human illness. God has also given us the tools to control these virus issues. He has also given us hope for something better. Will we use the tools and techniques God gave us to stop the pandemics, or will we open our culture to more viral events in the future? Time will tell.

— John N. Clayton © 2020

Data from “The Virus Hunters,” Smithsonian magazine, July/August 2020, and THIS STORY on virus hunters from 2018.

The Concept of Repentance

The Concept of RepentanceOne of the most misunderstood aspects of the Christian faith is the concept of repentance. Many atheists, as well as some Christians, view repentance as a negative, oppressive act in which an individual is forced to verbally deny some pleasure that the religious establishment condemns. The fact is that the biblical concept of repentance is a positive, progressive movement toward the future.

The Old Testament refers to God repenting. Genesis 6:6-7 says, “It repented the Lord that He had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.” Exodus 32:14, Judges 2:18, 1 Samuel 15:11, and many other passages speak of God repenting. There is a Hebrew word “nacham,” which expresses God’s repentance. God is immutable in His being but changes his relationship and attitude.

The concept of repentance in humans uses the Hebrew word “shoob,” describing a positive, progressive change. Second Kings 23:25 says of Josiah that “there was no king before him which repented to the Lord with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might.” Many versions translate this concept to “turn” from destructive behavior to a positive one.

Repentance is a major theme of the New Testament. Examples are Acts 17:30, Mark 1:4 and 6:12, Luke 5:32 and 24:47. The word is also used in reference to congregations, as in Revelation 2:5,16 and 3:3. The Greek word used to describe this process is “metanoia,” with “meta” meaning change and “noia” referring to the mind. Vine’s Dictionary of Bible Words defines repentance as “a radical transformation of thought, attitude, outlook, and direction.”

Biblical examples give us a clearer picture of the concept of repentance. The city of Nineveh in Jonah 3:5-10 changed from a corrupt, immoral, violent, destructive place to one of peace and care. Zacchaeus in Luke 19:8-9 changed from a corrupt tax collector to an honest and generous supporter of the poor. The Prodigal Son in Luke 15:19-21 changed from a drunken customer of the pleasure industry to a responsible citizen, and the Jews in Acts 2:38-41 changed from hypocritical, selfish legalists to benevolent Christians.

Repentance is not religious enslavement of humans, but a positive change. Jesus said in Matthew 3:8, “Bring forth fruits which prove your repentance.” Ephesians 4:22-24 speaks of “being mentally and spiritually remade … with a new nature made by God’s design.” Colossians 3:9-11 speaks of “putting off the old man with his deeds and putting on the new man which is being remolded in knowledge.” Repentance is not a one-time thing. It is a positive change that we all need to make. Who would not like to see repentance in the politicians and rulers of the world, especially if that change involved the love and peace of Matthew 5 – 7?
— John N. Clayton © 2019

Hidden Messages in the Bible

Hidden Messages in the Bible - The NapkinWe have all seen dubious claims about hidden messages in the Bible. They include everything from numerology to codes with special meanings. The only place where hidden messages do unquestionably occur in the New Testament is in the book of Revelation. That book uses symbols that the Christian readers would understand, and the Romans would not. However, there are a few cases that we might call hidden messages in the Bible that Christian or Jewish readers might understand and which other readers would miss.

One such example is the description of the burial tomb of Jesus in John 20:1-9. “Then Simon Peter … went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen … as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen.”

Jewish protocol was that when the master of the house was finished eating, he would wipe his mouth and face and toss the napkin aside. That action indicated that the contamination was removed from him, and the event was ended. If he folded the towel and set it in order, that was a sign that he was not finished and would return to finish the meal or whatever he had been working on.

The folded napkin and the missing body sent a strong message to Peter and the women who visited the tomb. Jesus was indicating that He would return. It was a hidden message to the followers of Jesus that the Romans would not have understood. While it was not obvious or miraculous, it could be an important hidden message to those who were about to become the apostles of Jesus Christ.
— John N. Clayton © 2019