Why does God seem so “brutal” in the Old Testament?

In my pastoral role, I am often asked why the God of the Old Testament seems to condone or command some very brutal acts. This question can come from a sincere desire to understand or may come from interaction with the writings of “new atheists,” who highlight this question. As I addressed this question for the hundredth time recently, I was reminded of an article written by Paul Copan titled “Is Yahweh a Moral Monster? The New Atheists and Old Testament Ethics” and the review I wrote several years ago concerning this article. For those interested in this discussion, I highly recommend reading Copan’s article (the link is embedded in the above title). I also include my review below, but if you are pressed for time, read the article over my review!

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How to download a copy of one of my articles

For those who want a full pdf of any of my articles that have appeared in a peer-reviewed journal, you can now download them at Academia’s website: https://tyndale-europe.academia.edu/JosephGreene.  Academia is a searchable website where many scholars make their articles available.

THE HOLY SPIRIT AS INSPIRER OF SCRIPTURE

THE HOLY SPIRIT AS INSPIRER OF SCRIPTURE

 When the New Testament (NT) writers cited the Old Testament (OT), they drew from a core assumption that the Spirit of God inspired the OT scriptures. In this way the NT writers shared the assumptions of the broader world of second temple Judaism. This pneumatological assumption, however, was not merely “past.”  Instead, the NT writers also assumed the “present” working of the Spirit in the preaching of Christ’s gospel and the apostolic teaching. These points will be demonstrated in order.

The Spirit of God inspired the OT scriptures

Throughout the NT canon, the Holy Spirit is consistently associated with the inspiration of OT scripture.  Such inspiration fits within the broader concept of the Spirit moving within the ancient prophets as they spoke on God’s behalf. Second Peter reflects this work of the Spirit in 1:20-21, “But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”[1]  In this passage the author credits the Holy Spirit with moving the prophets (specifically the writing prophets) to speak/write the words of God. Other NT writers also assume this pneumatological tenet as they cite OT scripture. Continue reading

Maundy Thursday and Jesus Washing the Disciples’ feet

Maundy Thursday is observed the Thursday before Easter Sunday and commemorates Jesus washing the Apostles’ feet and establishing the Lord’s Supper. footwashingJohn’s Gospel is the only Gospel that recounts the footwashing. In this post, I make a couple observations on John 13:1-30.

John 13:1-30 introduces a larger unit often called the “Farewell Discourse,” which covers John 13:31-17:26. As Jesus bids “farewell” to his disciples, he cleanses them through the act of footwashing. The Farewell Discourse concludes with Jesus praying for his followers to continue his mission. The discourse itself features Jesus preparing his followers for his departure by teaching them about their relationship to the Father, to Jesus, to the Spirit, to one another, and to the world.

The description of the footwashing is intertwined with Jesus’ predictions about his betrayal, something that the other Gospels recount with the institution of the “Lord’s Supper.” John’s Gospel places the footwashing at a meal, but does not include the explicit establishment of the Lord’s Supper. However, the act of footwashing symbolizes Jesus’ humble self-sacrificial service through his death on the cross – something also symbolized by the bread and cup of the Lord’s Supper.  In his commentary on John, Craig Keener (2003, 902-914) observes that the interspersing of the footwashing and its significance (13:3-10) with the betrayal (13:2, 10-11) point to Jesus’ impending death. The betrayal of a friend or close associate was a terrible act in all first-century cultures and the act was especially heinous because it took place during a meal. Eating together was a symbol of trust and unity. And yet, Jesus did not make a mistake in choosing Judas (6:70) since he was chosen to fulfill the prophesied role of betrayer, as the quotation of Psalm 41:9 in John 13:18 points out.

Jesus tells his disciples beforehand about this betrayal so that they would not doubt Jesus because of this betrayal. Instead, Jesus’ foretelling would cause them to believe “I am he” (13:19). At the most basic level Jesus was showing that he was a legitimate prophet of God despite Judas’ betrayal; Jesus was still aware and in control of the situation. Telling of the events before hand was one way prophets were shown to be from God (Deut 18:22).

Keener (2003, 914) also states this language of Jesus “choosing” the disciples echoes the language of God choosing Israel as he was creating a covenant community. The choosing of Judas and the crucifixion – they were all a part of God’s plan to draw together a new community/family of God. By introducing the idea of voluntary humble service through footwashing, John emphasizes that the betrayal and death were consciously taken up by Jesus in love and service to God’s people. The humiliation of the cross and its cleansing of sinners were foreshadowed in the act of footwashing.

Jesus’ footwashing also serves as an object lesson in humility. Footwashing was the task usually done by the lowest servant. It was certainly not to be done by a renowned teacher or leader. Jesus says in John 13:14-15  If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you.” Jesus clearly states that one purpose for washing their feet is to give them an example they should follow. Only through humble, Christ-like service could the disciples truly continue Jesus’ ministry and mission.

Ending on a note of application, we church leaders must receive Jesus’ cleansing like anyone else. It is through Christ’s sacrificial death (the Lamb of God) that we are cleansed and adopted as children of God (John 1:12; 29). Christian leaders must be converted and cleansed by Christ. Too many have seized the mantle of leadership without having received Christ’s cleansing. We must also pay close attention to Jesus’ example. Jesus calls us to servant-leadership that is ready to humble oneself in service to the other. This includes doing the tasks no one else wants – the task of the lowest servant like washing the feet. Too many have seized the mantle of Christian leadership without taking up the mantle of service like Christ. Christ-like leadership is servant leadership.

Jesus as the Heavenly Temple in the Fourth Gospel.

The most recent edition of Bulletin of Biblical Research (28.3; 2018: pages 425-446) BBRcontains probably my last article that incorporates a large amount of material from my dissertation. Through many revisions, I was able to sharpen one of the main arguments in my thesis into an article length presentation. Below is the abstract/summary of the article. The full article can be read on JSTOR or by those who have a subscription to the Bulletin of Biblical Research. For those who have access to neither, but want the full pdf., leave a comment below and I can email you a copy.

ABSTRACT: The majority of Johannine scholars agree that the Fourth Gospel presents Jesus as fulfilling the temple. This article argues that the Fourth Gospel advances this fulfilment by closely associating Jesus with the heavenly temple more than the earthly. The thesis coheres with many previous studies but furthers the discussion by focusing on how the heavenly temple emphasis interacts with the temple-fulfillment theme. The Johannine Jesus embodied the more transcendent reality of the heavenly temple, and his return to heaven began the eschatological expansion of God’s temple presence through the Spirit. This argument is supported by (1) pointing to the pervasive importance placed on the heavenly temple in the first century, (2) examining specific temple-fulfillment texts and consistent motifs/terminology in the Fourth Gospel, and (3) showing how the correlation of Jesus with the heavenly temple better accounts for the post-resurrection fulfillment assumed in the temple-related texts.

Did God dwell in the second temple?

My latest article, “Did God dwell in the second temple? Clarifying the relationship between theophany and temple dwelling,” appears in this month’s Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. JETS_Logo

Here is the article’s abstract:

Unlike the tabernacle or Solomon’s temple, the Bible does not describe the glory cloud of the Lord filling the second temple. This difference has caused many commentators to ask whether God’s presence “dwelled” in the second temple. An accurate answer requires a clarification of what temple dwelling means during the Second Temple period. A broad analysis of temple theology within the biblical and Second Temple literature reveals that the glory cloud relates to theophany, which is only one part of broader “presence” and “dwelling” concepts. The interplay between these concepts and developments in temple theology shifted the meaning of “dwelling.” This shift provided the avenue by which first century Jews could believe that the glory cloud was never manifested and that God still “dwelled” in the second temple. Understanding these beliefs should give interpreters pause when assigning significance to the lack of a cloud theophany in the second temple. In practice, placing more significance on the glory cloud than historically warranted raises other interpretive issues—especially for evangelical interpreters.

The full issue of JETS can be found at: https://www.etsjets.org/JETS_current_non.

Here is a pdf of the full article: JETS_61.4_767-784_Greene

Book Review of “Christianity at the Crossroads.”

In today’s post, I draw your attention to a new book that examines second century Christianity: Michael Kruger’s Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church. Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2018.Kruger book cover

While Christianity was born in the first century, the second century was a crucial time of transition and development. Unfortunately most Christians are unaware of the second century’s huge influence on the past and present of their faith. Michael Kruger’s latest work, Christianity at the Crossroads, helps rectify the situation by providing an easy-to-read introduction to this time period.

In Christianity at the Crossroads Kruger purposes to “provide an overall introduction to this critical period . . . a general overview of what Christianity was like and what it faced during this century” (vii). Kruger pursues this purpose from a conservative viewpoint while ably referencing primary sources and engaging with broader scholarship. Those looking for such an introduction (college/seminary students, church leaders, and pastors) will enjoy this volume. Those looking for a more exhaustive study may find some guidance in the footnotes and primary source references, but will not find much in-depth or ground breaking material herein. Continue reading

Exegetical Sermon Series on the Book of Acts with a note on “scope”.

A busy summer that included teaching biblical Greek at Tyndale Theological Seminary in the Netherlands meant no time for blog posting. Since some of my most visited posts are sermon outlines, I have posted an outline and audio links of my current sermon series on Acts below (chapters 1-5). In an exegetical sermon series, it is important to determine the proper “scope” of each passage. As described in the “10 Steps to Interpretation,” the interpreter tries to interpret and communicate the text in units that follow the author’s presentation. Using structural and contextual clues, one attempts to divide larger sections into manageable units to preach—but a unit that follows the author’s presentation as closely as possible.

We naturally follow this practice in other disciplines. Teachers usually assign and teach according to the chapters/sections/paragraphs of a textbook’s author. Following the author’s intentioned breaks and transitions makes it easier to teach and understand the content. The biblical writers did not use modern conventions like chapter divisions (the chapter and verse numbering of modern Bibles are a later addition—yet they can help discern sections as long as the interpreter realizes their later origin), but there are clues to where the author intends a shift or new unit. Through a shift in scene, the introduction of a new argument, a change in genre, a keyword, or other technique, the author signals a change. These signals help mark out the smaller units that can be reasonably treated without doing violence to the author’s intention.

*Note – I would normally treat Acts 1:1-11 as a unit, but I wanted to give some background information to Acts and relate it to the Gospel of Luke, while keeping the sermon to 30 minutes. Likewise, Pentecost was meant to be a unified passage, but the theological and literary implications are too great to be covered in one sermon. The exegetical preacher must balance the scope of a passage with laying bare the meaning of the text in a way that the congregation can process (i.e. taking into account cultural attention spans).

Luke 1:1-4; Acts 1:1-3. Main point: The Gospel of Christ is based in history and transforms our history. Audio: Transforming History.
Acts 1:4-11 Main point: Jesus gives his followers a clear mission and the resources to accomplish that mission. Audio: A Clear Mission.
Acts 1:12-26 Main point: Times of transition/waiting are times for prayer in which God can direct us how to take the next step. Audio: Praying Through the Transition Process.
Acts 2:1-21 Main point: As promised, Jesus sends the Spirit to empower his people to do supernatural things. Audio: The Promised Spirit.
Acts 2:22-41 Main point: Jesus fulfills scripture, rose from the dead, and gives the Spirit so repent and be baptized in His name. Audio: Jesus-Lord and Christ.
Acts 2:42-47 Main point: We must devote ourselves to Bible, worship, fellowship, prayer, and evangelism. Audio: 5 Essentials to Building a Healthy Church.
Acts 3 Main point: Give Jesus – exalt Jesus. Audio: What I have I Give to You.
Acts 4:1-31 Main point: Dealing with opposition? You are only responsible for you. Obey God, He will empower you. Audio: Dealing with Opposition and Conflict.
Acts 4:32-5:11 Main point: The presence of the Lord, and internal opposition to His way, should not be taken lightly. Audio: Are You Serious?
Acts 5:12-42 Main point: If we are in God’s will, nothing can stop us. Audio: Stopping a Freight Train.

A table arranging the New Testament books according to the date of composition.

Our modern New Testaments are not arranged chronologically, which sometimes causes misunderstandings. While the Gospels discuss the events of Jesus’ life (the crucifixion took place in 30 or 33 A.D.), the earliest Gospel probably was not written down until the 60s. The Apostle Paul wrote many of his letters before the Gospels. This historical perspective is helpful when assessing arguments over material that some scholars may deem a “later theological development” in the early church. For example the “kenotic hymn” of Philippians 2 exhibits a very high view of Christ, despite Paul most likely writing Philippians before the Gospel writers completed their writings.  Note the exalted status afforded to Christ in Philippians 2:5-8:

Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Phil. 2:5-8 NAU)

Some scholars believe these verse were a pre-existing hymn that Paul incorporated into his letter. If this theory is correct, then the high view of Christ can be traced to an even earlier time. Arguments, therefore, that assume a high view of Christ (i.e. his divinity) always reflects a later church development contain an invalid presupposition.

The table below arranges the NT books by their likely date of composition. Most NT books are difficult to date with precision, which is why discussions about dating can often be lengthy and still not definitive. The dating of the various writings depends on views of authorship, so I have included two columns of dates. The books are listed chronologically, according to their earlier, more conservative dating, but the right hand column provides dates from a more skeptical view. Of course, these dates are further debated within their respective “conservative” and “skeptical” camps, but I have tried to give the most common views from my own subjective survey of the data. For the most part, I have disregarded the “outliers” of either camp. I hope readers find the following table helpful.

Earlier, more conservative dating

 

NT Book

(Listed Chronologically)

Later, more skeptical dating

 

Early 50s 1 Thessalonians Early 50s
Early 50s 2 Thessalonians Early 50s (later if forged)
Early 50s Galatians Mid 50s
55-57 1 Corinthians Mid 50s
55-57 2 Corinthians Mid 50s
Approximately 57 Romans Approximately 57
Approximately 60 James 70s or later
Early 60s Philemon 60s
Early 60s Philippians 60s
Early 60s Colossians Early 60s (70-90 if forged)
Early 60s Ephesians 70-100
Early 60s 1 Timothy 90-110
60s Gospel of Mark Late 60s
Mid 60s Titus 90-110
Mid 60s 2 Timothy 90-110
Mid 60s 1 Peter 80s
Late 60s Hebrews 60-95
Late 60s 2 Peter 80-110
Approximately 70 Gospel of Matthew 80-95
70s-80s Gospel of Luke 85-95
70s-80s Acts 85-95
Approximately 80 Jude Approximately 80?
Approximately 90 Gospel of John Approximately 100
Early 90s 1 John  100-125
Early 90s 2 John 100-125
Early 90s 3 John 100-125
Approximately 95 Revelation 100-125

Destroying the myth that Jesus is a myth.

While some early twentieth century critics suggested that Jesus never existed, virtually no serious scholar holds that view today. The historical evidence is simply too strong. Nevertheless, one still encounters (usually on the internet) the idea that Jesus is a myth and there is no proof for Jesus’ existence outside the New Testament. This post counters that idea by familiarizing readers with the non-Christian sources that testify of Jesus’ existence as well as the faulty assumptions that accompany the “Jesus is a myth” idea. Jos manuscript latin

The clearest non-Christian evidence for Jesus comes from the first century Jewish historian Josephus. In his work, Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus mentions John the Baptist (Antiq. 18.116-9), Jesus (Antiq. 18.63-4), and Jesus’ brother James (Antiq. 20.200). While Josephus clearly refers to Jesus, there is debate about how much of the reference is authentic. Christians who preserved Josephus’ works (no doubt because of its historical value to the biblical time period) most likely added some accolades to the description of Jesus. Below is the quotation from Josephus, with the questionable portions in italics:

 Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works—a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, because the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the sect of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day. (Antiq.18:63-64)

Even without the italicized portions, this passage corroborates many details about Jesus found in the Gospels. An argument also can be made that the “He was the Christ” portion is original, if read with a negative connotation. Josephus could have meant “he was the so-called Christ,” with Josephus expressing what some believed (though Josephus did not believe). This argument is more plausible considering how Josephus refers to Jesus in a later passage about Jesus’ brother James. The relevant section states that, “he assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James” (Antiq. 20.200). If the earlier passage does not originally contain the phrase about Jesus being the Christ or “so-called” Christ, this passage demonstrates Josephus’ (and perhaps his readers’) awareness of the claim. In total, Josephus corroborates that Jesus was considered a wise man and a miracle worker. He was killed under Pontius Pilate in consultation with the Jewish leaders and that Christ-ians bear his name—the Christ.

While Josephus focused on producing a history of the Jewish people for both a Jewish and Roman readership, Roman historians generally focused elsewhere. Judea was one small territory, far removed from Rome, in a vast empire. For this reason, it is not surprising that few references to Jesus exist in the literature of Rome. A religious figure making bold claims but executed after a couple years would not have been noteworthy to those in Rome. Nevertheless, the Roman historian Tacitus explicitly mentions Christ. In his Annals 15.44, Tacitus describes how Nero blamed Christians for the great Roman fire. Like Josephus, Tacitus explains that the name “Christian” comes from “Christ,” a person executed under Pontius Pilate during the time of Tiberius Caesar. While this execution slowed Christianity down, this “superstition” spread in Judea and eventually made its way to Rome. Tacitus’ view of Christianity is obviously not favorable, which makes his testimony about the life and death of Jesus Christ all the more credible.

Several other non-Christian writers refer to Jesus, but the above are the clearest. Some of the others include: The Roman historian Seutonius (Life of Nero 16.2) provides a vague reference to “Chrestus” that many scholars think refers to Jewish and Christian disagreement about the “Christ.” Similarly, the Syrian Stoic philosopher Mara Bar Sarapion mentions a “wise king” that the Jewish people rejected. To these passages one could add Pliny the Younger (Epistles 10.96-7), later passages in the Mishnah that describe Jesus as a miracle worker who led people astray, and a couple other indirect references.

While the above sources include only short remarks about Jesus and his followers, what they do say corroborates the fuller picture given in the New Testament. Those who claim no evidence outside the New Testament exists for Jesus are misinformed.

Being a stubborn sort, some skeptics still argue that if Jesus really existed, then there should be more non-Christian evidence other than the above few sources. However, this argument makes several false assumptions. 1) It fails to consider that any reference to Jesus in Roman sources is significant. As a point of comparison, Pontius Pilate is much more important than a crucified Jewish prophet from a Roman perspective. However, among the Roman historians, Pilate is only mentioned once—in the quote by Tacitus mentioned above (Bock, Studying the Historical Jesus, 46).  2) It is anachronistic to assume that just because Jesus is well-known today, he should have been well-known throughout the Roman empire. As mentioned above, Jesus was from the fringes of society and the empire. This fact makes Jesus’ presence in the above sources remarkable and argues that Jesus not only existed, but he made an unusual impact. 3) This argument totally ignores all the biblical material as if a collection of writings about Jesus from different authors could spontaneously sprout up without any historical anchor. While the New Testament material was written within a few decades of Jesus’ life, the same objection applies to all the other early Christian writings. It is historically implausible that a diverse body of literature connecting Jesus to a certain time and place was based on a complete fabrication.

The argument that Jesus never even existed is based on poor argumentation and an ignorance of the existing sources. Christians can confidently cite these sources and the New Testament as historical evidence that Jesus Christ lived a real life and died a real death.