Mother God & the World Mission Society Church of God – Is There Evidence of “God the Mother” in the Bible?

“The World Mission Society Church of God believes in God the Mother,” their website proudly proclaims.

Before I knew anything about the World Mission Society Church of God, including the true name of their church, I heard from a few friends about being approached by a “cult” talking about “Mother God,” thus the group became know as the “Mother God Cult.”

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(For the record, it’s not my intent here to accuse the World Mission Society Church of God of being a “cult” or to debate whether it is a cult or not.  I prefer my readers to decide.  Please feel free to comment, discuss, & debate below.  Earlier articles I wrote may be helpful.  See below.)

This article continues my analysis of the beliefs of the World Mission Society Church of God (also known simply as the Church of God).  In the first article, I gave an overview of their beliefs and analyzed their teachings that their founder, Ahnsahnghong, was the Second Coming of Jesus Christ (Read the article here).  In my second article, I analyzed their teachings about Ahnsahnghong being God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit (Read the article here).

Now, this article will analyze what the Church of God (COG) is most notorious for: their belief in God the Mother (who currently lives in the flesh in South Korea).

As I did in my first two articles, I’ve purposely avoided exposing myself to any negative websites or information about the COG and have based my analysis strictly on their explanation of their own beliefs a stated on their official website.  Since they use the Bible to explain and defend their views (and they appear to believe the Bible is the Word of God), I have used the Bible to analyze, refute, and argue against their beliefs as unbiblical and as a corruption of the true Gospel of Jesus Christ.

(God From the Machine has published a book titled Searching the Bible for Mother God: Examining the Teachings of the World Mission Society Church of God, available in paperback and Kindle on Amazon.  Click here to learn more.)

God the Mother – Who is She?

I recommend reading my first article on the COG for more insight, but I’ll reprint here what I wrote specifically about God the Mother.  (If you’re familiar with it, jump down to “The ‘Evidence.”)

“The COG also believes in Mother God, also called Jerusalem Mother. She is “the Second Coming Jesus’ [Ahnsahnghong’s] wife.” Jesus didn’t give his people eternal life 2,000 years ago because he was waiting for the appearance of his wife, through whom eternal life will come. God the Mother is currently living in South Korea.

“In a video on their website, Mother God is shown at the New Jerusalem Temple in South Korea, surrounded by many happy, well-dressed admirers. The video shows her holding their hands, walking with them, and hugging them. In a testimony, Nathan from Memphis, USA, says, ‘This is the place where our heavenly mother dwells, the land of prophecy, so I came here to receive the water of life that you can only receive here in Korea from God the Mother.’ A female Korean teen states, ‘If God the Mother does not exist, there would be no happiness in the world.’

“The COG website clearly teaches that eternal life can only come through Mother God.”

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The “Evidence”

So, where does the COG get this idea that “Mother God” exists?  Most people who know anything about the Bible would be astonished (to say the least) to learn that the Bible, according to the COG, actually teaches about Mother God.

As you will see, if these verses are the best evidence the COG has for a biblical teaching of Mother God, their faith is based on a brittle foundation.  The first verse, Genesis 1:26-27, is perhaps the most quoted and the most troublesome, so we’ll start there:

The “Mother God” Interpretation

Genesis 1:26-27:

 Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”   God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.

In Genesis 1:26-27, God creates man and woman in his image.  The COG focuses on the plural language God uses to refer to himself: “us” and “our.”  Furthermore, they are correct in that in this passage the word “Elohim,” which is translated from the original Hebrew into English as “God,” is also in the plural form.

According to the teachings of the COG, since “the principle of nature” is that both male and female are needed to create life, and since God made both man and woman in his image, there must be both a male (Father) and female (Mother) God.  The site claims “us” and “our” is often interpreted as referring to the Trinity (God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit), but this is incorrect; it can’t be the Trinity, says the COG, because then three types of people would exist in the world today, not two: male and female.

Thus, in the creation story at the beginning of the Bible, we have evidence of Mother God.

The COG also cites Isaiah 6:8 to show the plurality of God:

Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?” Then I [Isaiah] said, “Here am I.  Send me!”

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God or Gods?

As I said above, this is the most troublesome passage used by the COG, but I only say that because it’s a difficult passage for anyone studying the Bible because it does contain some grammatically unusual features and needs more explanation than the other passages they use.  Churches with unusual, unorthodox beliefs often snatch challenging passages to justify their more peculiar beliefs.

Interestingly, the first time I came across anyone who pointed out the use of plural words (Elohim, us, our) in Genesis 1:26-27 was when I was in my early twenties in an Introduction to the Bible class in college.  The professor was either a former pastor or priest (I can’t remember which) who had evidently lost his faith.  Even though I was atheistic/agnostic at the time and I was loving and eating up much of what he was teaching, even then he came across to me as quite hostile towards the Bible and anyone who had a more traditional view of it.

Liberal and skeptical biblical scholars who don’t believe the first five books of the Bible were written by Moses but instead were a Frankenstein-like combination of various writings from the ancient world, grab on to Genesis 1:26-27 to support their views.  These liberal scholars seize on the plural words as evidence the Jewish religion – an ardent monotheistic religion – actually originated from polytheistic religions.  The most prominent theory from these liberal Bible scholars says that four earlier, different sources contributed to the formation of Genesis as we know it today.

We won’t go into it here, but conservative biblical scholars have thoroughly contested these claims.  The biggest stumbling block for the liberal scholars’ views is that there is no hard evidence, such as manuscript proof, to support their theory.  Further, I think a simple question pokes rather large holes in their theory: If Genesis is a mixing of religious texts from polytheistic cultures and the early Jews edited them into the first five books of the Bible to create a vehemently monotheistic religion, why and how did they overlook the very obvious polytheistic plural words?  Why didn’t they just change them?

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5 (Much More Likely) Alternatives to the Mother God Interpretation

Now, moving on from liberal biblical scholarship to the claims of the COG concerning Genesis 1:26-27 and Mother God: What is the deal with the plural language?  Jewish, Christian, and secular scholars have offered several explanations:

(1) God is addressing his “heavenly court,” the angels. 

Many Jewish commentators, some dating back to ancient times like Philo of Alexandria, uphold this view.  See the following passages as biblical evidence of the heavenly court: Job 1; Psalm 89:6-8; 1 Kings 22:19-22; Daniel 7:9-13; Luke 2:9-14; and Revelation 4-5.  In Isaiah 6:8 (“who will go for Us?”) God speaking to a heavenly court appears to be the clear case when the verse is read in context with the rest of Isaiah 6.

(2) God is addressing the Trinity.

Though from a Christian perspective there is a possibility that the Holy Spirit moved Moses to include this reference to the Trinity in the first book of the Bible, even conservative Christian scholars agree that this interpretation is unlikely.  Though possible, the idea is wholly speculative, and it’s highly unlikely the original author, Moses, consciously made reference to the Trinity.

 (3) God is addressing other gods.

Is the plural language evidence that Judaism grew out of a polytheistic culture?  I addressed some of the issues with this theory above.  Commentators point out that the radically monotheistic Jews would’ve never included such polytheistic language.

(4) God is using the “plural of majesty.

Like how English royalty will say “we” when speaking since royalty speaks for the whole kingdom, God as creator of all things is using plural pronouns (us, our) in relation to his supremely eminent position.  Though we see one example of this in the Bible in Ezra 4:18, this view is widely rejected because we simply do not see plural pronouns used in Hebrew this way anywhere else, whether inside or outside the Bible.  (But we’ll return to this idea later when speaking about the plural “Elohim.”)

(5) God is self-deliberating and/or self-addressing.

Basically, God is talking to himself – as if thinking aloud.  This simple explanation is the most widely accepted, and as one commentator writes, the idea is “an attested and sufficient explanation,” as it is well supported by other examples in the Hebrew language where the language shifts between plural and singular.

An example of a human doing this is in 2 Samuel 24:14:

Then David said to Gad, “I am in great distress.  Let us fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into the hand of man.”

Another example where God does this is in Genesis 11:6-8 during the Tower of Babel episode:

And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do.  And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.  Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.”  So the LORD dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.

Notice “the LORD” says, “let us go down,” but then we’re immediately told “the LORD dispersed them.”  Here, in the original Hebrew, “the LORD” is not the plural Elohim (a general title for God) but “Yahwah,” God’s name as given to Moses.  (More about this below.)  Yahwah, being God’s unique name, can only be taken as referring to a singular being, yet we also see the plural pronoun “us” used.  Clearly, there are not two or more gods involved here, but only the one true God, Yahweh.

So, to say here we see a plurality of gods because of the use of “us” is nonsensical; we have to understand “us” as a language device of the ancient Hebrews.  To say otherwise would be the equivalent of saying the following statement means that Frank is more than one person: “’Let us eat some dinner,’ said Frank.  So, Frank ate some dinner.”

Likewise, though the “us” in Isaiah 6:8 may be addressing the heavenly court, it may be another example of God’s self-deliberation as in Genesis 11:6-8.  Notice how the language shifts between singular and plural in Isaiah 6:8:

Then I heard the voice of the Lord [singular], saying, “Whom shall I [singular] send, and who will go for us [plural]?”

If we don’t want to accept either explanation that God is self-deliberating or speaking to the angels, then we have to conclude God or the writers of the Old Testament were really bad at Hebrew grammar, not knowing the difference between singular and plural pronouns!  But the one thing that certainly can’t be logically concluded by this is that God is speaking to another god, let alone God the Mother.

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In Hebrew, Even Verbs Are Plural

To hammer home this point even more, the original Hebrew of Genesis 1:26-27 uses singular forms of verbs in these passages even though plural pronouns are used.  Obviously, this doesn’t translate into English since English doesn’t have singular and plural forms of verbs.  If Genesis 1:26-27 shows Father God and Mother God speaking, why would the verbs be singular?

Thus, the explanation of God’s self-deliberation is the most likely explanation for Genesis 1:26-27 because had God been speaking to others in these plural instances – such as to a heavenly court or another deity like Mother God – the verbs surrounding the statements would be plural.

The “Names” of God

For clarity’s sake (and simply because this is good to know), there are three words in the Bible regularly used to refer to God:

Hebrew translated to English

     Elohim      =    God (title)

    Yahweh    =    the LORD (God’s name)

    Adonai      =    the Lord (title)

  • Yahweh – When you see the “LORD” in all caps in your English-language Bible, the original Hebrew reads “Yahweh,” the name of the one true God as given to Moses in Exodus 3:14 (“Yahweh” = “I AM”).
  • ElohimElohim (or El, Elah, or Elo’ah – These are the singular forms) is a general title translated “God” when referring to the one true God, Yahweh, but it can refer to false gods and other powerful beings (such as angels) or even powerful people.  (For example, see Psalm 82:1-6 and Jesus’ reference to it in John 10:34–36).  Though this word doesn’t exclusively mean the one true God, it is obvious by the context when it is referring to Yahweh.
  • Adonai – Similarly, adonai is a general title and can refer to a human master or lord.  Again, we must look at the context the word is used in to know it is referring to God.  (Also, keep in mind, there is no capitalization in Hebrew.)
  • “Lord GOD” – Sometimes we see adonai and Yahweh together, so it’s translated “Lord GOD.”  (Note the use of caps in the English translation.)

Elohim = God’s “Otherness”

So, we explained the plural pronouns, but what’s the deal with “Elohim” – the actual word translated “God” – being plural?

The use of the plural Elohim in Hebrew suggests God’s unique nature as the one and only immaterial, timeless, self-sufficiently existent and powerful creator of all things.  This can be best understood in human terms as the “plurality of royalty,” such as the Queen of England would use, we discussed above.

God’s “otherness” – meaning his uniqueness in absolute supremacy, majesty, and holiness – from all other things is a regular theme in the Bible, as the Jews understood God was wholly “other.”  Thus, the plural Elohim illustrates this.

The Baker Encyclopedia explains Elohim “is plural in form, but when applied to the true God it is used in a singular sense… The most common explanation for the plural form of Elohim as applied to God is that it is ‘plural of majesty,’ that is, all the majesty of deity is encompassed by him.”

Likewise, God’s self-proclaimed name as given to Moses in Exodus 3:13-14 is all about his exclusive, one-of-a-kind nature:

Then Moses said to God, “Behold, I am going to the sons of Israel, and I will say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you.’ Now they may say to me, ‘What is His name?’ What shall I say to them?”  God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM”; and He said, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”

What an awesome statement by God!  Basically, God isn’t giving a name but an explanation of his being.  Since there’s no worldly thing to compare himself to – and he is so beyond any comparison – God simply states, “I AM WHO I AM.”  In other words, I am self-existent and self-sufficient; I am the Uncaused First Cause; I am the only Necessary Being; and there is nothing else like me.  In Hebrew, “I AM” is “Yahweh.”  (Hebrew doesn’t have vowels, so it’s literally “YHWH.”)  Both “I AM” and “Elohim” emphasize what the Jews knew very well: God was utterly “other.”

The New American Commentary speaks of the use of Elohim instead of Yahweh in the creation story:

“The general name Elohim is appropriate for the creation account’s universal framework and in effect repudiates the cosmogonies of the pagan world, where the origins and biography of their ‘gods’ are paramount.  From the inception of [the first 5 books of the Bible] polytheism and idolatry have no ideological or practical place among Israel.”  (See Exodus 20:1-6; Deut. 4:12-24.)

One blogger explains it particularly well:

“When used of the true God, ‘Elohim’ denotes what is called by linguists a plural of majesty, honor, or fullness.  That is, he is GOD in the fullest sense of the word.  He is ‘GOD of gods’ or literally, ‘ELOHIM of elohim.’” (See Deut. 10:17; Psalm 136:2.)

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Not Convinced?  How About Masculine, Singular Pronouns?

Even if you don’t find the explanations I’ve offered here plausible, and even if you reject all of the interpretations listed above, all of the above is still much more plausible and logical than the conclusions of the COG.  Yes, Genesis 1:26-27 uses the plural form Elohim; yes, God sometimes uses plural personal pronouns; yes, God made man and woman in his image.  But it’s a huge jump in logic to say these verses serve as evidence of Mother God.  Clearly, this conclusion can only be reached if presupposed ideas are read into the verses, not by letting the Bible speak for itself.

Let’s also note that Genesis 1:27 plainly states:

God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.

Yes, in the original Hebrew those are masculine, singular pronouns.  It does not say:

God created man in Their own image, in the image of God They created him; male and female They created them. 

And though we all know the immaterial God is not male in a physical sense, the masculine pronoun is clearly used.  If the COG’s theory is correct that since there are two types of people, male and female, there must be male and female Gods, then Genesis 1:27 would read something like this:

God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male He created him.  And God created woman in Her own image, in the image of God She created her; female she created her.

In fact, if we’re going to go in this direction, why doesn’t Genesis 1 just plainly state that Father God and Mother God created humankind together?  Clearly, Genesis doesn’t say this because I AM doesn’t need a female partner to create.  Yes, God created the world so that much of his physical creation does need both male and female to procreate, but the self-existent, all-powerful I AM is not a physical being.  He made humankind (and everything) from nothing.  The great I AM is not restricted by the physical world; he created the physical world.  He is wholly “other.”

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And so…

One has to question why literally thousands of years of Jewish, Christian, and (much of it hostile) secular tradition and scholarship has never discovered Mother God in the Bible before.

But let’s keep an open mind: Yes, I believe this article refutes the most widely quoted passage by the COG to justify their belief in Mother God, and as I said above, it is probably the most difficult to explain due to the perceived oddity of the grammar since none of us are ancient Hebrews.  But still I’ll keep an open mind and do what I always do when someone offers an interpretation of the Bible that doesn’t seem quite right to me:

I ask for more evidence.

Certainly, there has to be more evidence of Mother God in God’s Word than one (easily refuted) passage at the very beginning of the Bible, right?

In the next article, we’ll look at the other verses the COG claims speak about Mother God.

**God From the Machine has published a book for evangelizing, educating, and refuting the World Mission Society Church of God titled Searching the Bible for Mother God: Examining the Teachings of the World Mission Society Church of God, available in paperback and Kindle on Amazon.  Click here to learn more.

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My two earlier articles about the COG:

“World Mission Society Church of God, Mother God & Christ Ahnsahnghong – The One True Church or Cult?”

The Trinity Mashup & the Schizophrenic God! “Mother God,” “Christ” Ahnsahnghong, & World Mission Society Church of God – The One True Church or Cult?

Also, I do not intend to debate here if the World Mission Society Church of God is a “cult” or not, and I prefer my readers to decide.  (Please feel free to comment, discuss, & debate below!)  Earlier articles I wrote will hopefully be helpful:

How Do We Identify “Christian” Cults? What’s the Difference Between a Cult & a Denomination?

Interacting with “Christian” Cult Members: Tips & Strategies

About (Poor) Biblical Interpretation: Responding to “Christian” Cults… or Anyone Who Misuses Scripture.

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Bible Secrets Re-revealed! Has the Bible Been Lost in the Translation? How Do We Know the Words in Our Bibles Today are the Original Words?

**Has the Bible been translated & re-translated so many times that we have no idea what the originals said?  How can we know what the original manuscripts said?**

 

SERIES INTRO: Have the right narrator and ominous music and anything can sound scandalous.  Recently, I watched several episodes of the History Channel’s Bible Secrets Revealed TV show.  It was amusing but troubling at the same time since these sort of sensationalist shows aren’t about history or education, but preying on people’s lack of knowledge.  The sort of one-sided, half-information thrown around on these TV shows is sure to resurface.  So, here are some quick responses to some questions that might arise from such quality TV programing.

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Has the Bible been “translated and retranslated” so many times that the meanings of the original texts are “muddled” and lost?  Is the Bible corrupted and altered beyond ever knowing what it truly said?

First, do you know anyone who is bilingual?  Are you bilingual?  Trilingual?  Have you ever heard someone translate anything into another language, like, say, something in English to their non-English-speaking parents?  Did the parents understand?  Of course they did!  Though a 100% literal word-for-word translation from one language to another is sometimes difficult, that does not mean words, sentences, and whole books cannot be accurately translated.  Accurate translation is an everyday occurrence.

Our modern English translations of the Bible are translated directly from the original languages the books of the Bible were written in – ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek – and we have more ancient manuscripts of the books of the Bible today than ever before in modern times.

It’s true that sometimes translators have to use some personal interpretation to choose the right words if there are no exact parallel words, but this doesn’t mean we can’t have accurate translations.  For example, Greek has several words for love, but English has only one.  The Greek word eros is the type of love that has to do with sexual passion.  So, a translator translating a Greek-language sentence into English may translate a sentence using eros…

The adulterous man loves the woman.

But it probably could be better translated:

The adulterous man has passionate love for the woman

or The adulterous man has lust for the woman

or The adulterous man has an irrational passion for the woman.

Each translation is correct, and the main idea of the sentence is preserved, but picking the right words or phrases makes it more precise and clear.

This is an advantage of having so many English translations today available for people who cannot read the Bible in the original ancient Greek or Hebrew; they can compare translations to gain a better understanding of the nuances of some of the words and phrases.

Some translations are more “literal” and try to translate word-for-word.  These translations – like the NASB – may read a little awkwardly at times, but they’re useful if you don’t speak the original ancient languages of the Bible and you want to closely examine a section of text.  Other translations have more interpretation and translate the passages idea-by-idea.  These translations – like the NLT – are smoother to read, especially if you’re reading a whole book or through the whole Bible.  The NIV translation falls in the middle of the two types, which is why it’s one of the most popular translations today.

I prefer the ESV, which is a word-by-word translation, but it’s much more readable than the NASB.  Again, comparing translations helps with understanding perplexing passages, leading to more clarity.

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TEXTUAL CRITICISM

We can trust the modern translations of the Bible are accurate to the original manuscripts because of what is called textual criticism.  Textual criticism is the discipline of comparing all of the available ancient manuscripts we have today to make sure we have the most accurate version of the Bible possible.

Today, we’re in a better position than ever before in modern times to accurately reconstruct the wording of the original manuscripts of the Bible because of the sheer number of manuscripts that have been discovered.

Because people are imperfect, there are mistakes and variations in the manuscripts made by the scribes who copied them by hand, but because we have such a large number of quality ancient manuscripts, it’s easy to compare them and identify the errors.

The New Testament is easily the written work with the best evidence to support it from the ancient world.  We have about 5,500 ancient manuscripts.  The only ancient work to come anywhere close to this is Homer’s Iliad, which only has about 700 ancient copies.  But even this high number of manuscripts is rare.  In fact, we’re lucky if any ancient manuscripts that have survived until today are numbered even in the double-digits.

DATING THE MANUSCRIPTS

The dating of the New Testament manuscripts we have are extremely close to the dates the originals were written.  The earliest piece of a manuscript we have is a fragment from the Gospel of John, dated to about 125 AD.  Most scholars date John’s Gospel as being written in 95 AD.

Over eighty New Testament manuscripts are dated to the third and fourth centuries, and five mostly complete texts of the New Testament date from the fourth and fifth centuries.  Since all of the New Testament was written by the end of the first century, this may still sound like a long time, but compared to other ancient writings, this is extremely close.

It’s important to understand that the ancient New Testament manuscripts we have are from all over the ancient world as Christianity spread.  Had there been radical differences in the supposed “earliest versions” of the New Testament, it’s doubtful the network that spread and formed new churches in new areas (think of it like a tree growing with new branches) would all have the same New Testament texts.  At least one of those branches, isolated from the others, would’ve passed on and preserved the “older version.”  So, say, for instance, churches in Spain or Asian Minor would’ve had a much different version of the Gospel of John than we have today.  But this is not the case.

Because we have such a wealth of New Testament manuscripts – 5,500 (and this only includes the Greek texts and isn’t counting the thousands of ancient manuscripts in different languages) – which come from all over the ancient world, we can be secure that we have the original readings in our hands.

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Earliest fragment of the New Testament. From John’s Gospel. Dated about 125 AD.

BART EHRMAN’S SKEPTICISM

Agnostic New Testament scholar and author Bart Ehrman speaks a lot about how we can never find the “original text” and how he believes the New Testament books have been radically changed over time.  For example, he mentions 2 Corinthians may have been anywhere from two to four letters originally.  Can we find the “original text”?

Much of Ehrman’s protests about finding the original texts seem to come down to how a person prefers to define “original text” and his assumption that all of the written works of the Bible have been in a constant state of constant change.  Though there are variations found in the vast amount of ancient manuscripts we have, much of Ehrman’s assumptions that the books of the New Testament, like 2 Corinthians and the Gospel of John, are hopelessly corrupt are just that: assumptions.  Where is the evidence for these massive changes?  Where are the manuscripts that show the works in their earlier forms?

Ehrman may respond that those manuscripts are so old they probably no longer exist, but that doesn’t solve his problem, because he has just admitted there’s no evidence for his assumptions.  Almost all of the theories of composition Ehrman sites, “however probable, remain entirely speculative in the sense that no manuscripts have ever been found of the supposed sources that a biblical writer used,” including, for example, a version of the Gospel of John without the prologue and epilogue, 2 Corinthians split into two or more individual letters, or even the widely accepted theoretical Q document.

Due to the over 5,500 ancient manuscripts we have of the New Testament, variations are easy to identify and correct.  Further, even with over 5,500 manuscripts, none of those manuscripts show any of the massive editing or changes Ehrman imagines.

Further, even if they did exist, what would it matter?  This would only mean they may have served as a source for the future, completed work as we now know it.  Even conservative evangelical New Testament scholars agree that some of the Gospel writers most likely referred to earlier written texts for some of their information.  In fact, there’s even evidence from the early church fathers that there may have been a Hebrew or Aramaic version of the Gospel of Matthew before the Greek version we know today.  Just because some of the material or even a majority of the material appeared in an earlier form, it doesn’t mean it’s a corruption of the text.  What matters is whether the information is accurate or not.

FOR HOW LONG WOULD A MANUSCRIPT SURVIVE?

The material used to make ancient manuscripts was fragile and perishable (which is one of the reasons ancient manuscripts are hard to come by today), but some manuscripts may have lasted much longer than originally believed.  In a study of late antiquity libraries, collections, and archives by George W. Houston, published by Oxford University Press in the book Ancient Literacies: The Culture of Reading in Greece and Rome, he proposes that manuscripts could be used from 150 to 500 years!  For example, the fourth-century Codex Vaticanus (B) was re-inked in the tenth century, which proves a manuscript can last and be used for at least 600 years!  This fact seriously improves the plausibility that the original texts existed to be copied for much longer than previously suspected.

 

Other articles in this series: Did Constantine compose the New Testament? & Did God have a wife? & Could Jesus & the Disciples Read & write? & Was the Oral History Before the Gospels Were Written Reliable?

SOURCES & RECOMMENDED:

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Bible Secrets Re-revealed! Is Oral History Reliable? How Long After Jesus Was He Written About?

***How do we know the stories about Jesus that were passed on orally before the New Testament was written were not changed?**

SERIES INTRO: Have the right narrator and ominous music and anything can sound scandalous.  Recently, I watched several episodes of the History Channel’s Bible Secrets Revealed TV show.  It was amusing but troubling at the same time since these sort of sensationalist shows aren’t about history or education, but preying on people’s lack of knowledge.  The sort of one-sided, half-information thrown around on these TV shows is sure to resurface.  So, here are some quick responses to some questions that might arise from such quality TV programing.

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HOW LONG AFTER?

Concerning the Gospels, how long after the events took place were they written down?  Weren’t they written too long after the fact to be trusted?

The earliest known manuscript fragment from the New Testament is from one of the Gospels, the Gospel of John.  It is nicknamed the John Rylands papyrus fragment, and it is dated to the first half of the second century – about 125 AD.  So, based solely on this fragment, this would put the time span between when the events of Jesus’ ministry and crucifixion happened and when they were recorded at at least 95 years.  Based on internal evidence and other factors, the majority of scholars believe John was actually written earlier, at about 95 AD, which would put it within 60 years after Jesus’ crucifixion.

John’s Gospel was written last of the Gospels, so the other three Gospels were written earlier.  The majority of scholars agree that Mark was the first Gospel written, in about 70 AD.  This would put it within 40 years of the events recorded about in the Gospels.  The vast majority of New Testament scholars, even skeptical ones like Bart Ehrman, have all four Gospels written by about 95 AD.  (Most scholars also agree all of the other books of the New Testament were written by that time too.  Paul’s letters, the earliest written works in the New Testament, were written in the  late 40’s, the 50’s, and early 60’s.)  Thus, the four Gospels were all written between 70 and 95 AD — 40 to 60 years after Jesus was crucified.

The important thing to note here is all books of the New Testament were written in the lifetime of the eyewitnesses.  It appears it was when the original apostles started dying off — primarily through martyrdom — that the first Christians decided to create some written accounts.

Papias, a second-century bishop in Asia Minor, is quoted in a church history written in the fourth-century by Eusebius that the Apostle John conveyed to him that Mark wrote the Gospel of Mark based on information gained from the Apostle Peter.  Papias said Mark was “Peter’s interpreter and wrote accurately all that he remembered, not, indeed, in order, of the things said or done by the Lord.”  Mark recorded “the Lord’s oracles” and was careful “to leave out nothing” and “make no false statements.”  So, the Apostle John passed on to Papias that Mark wrote his Gospel based on the Apostle Peter’s testimony, and Eusebius recorded all of this in his history.

WHO WROTE THE GOSPELS?

It’s very unlikely that the church would make up Mark as an author because he was not a prominent person in the early church, and, in fact, there is information about him in the New Testament that does not portray him in a good light, because he abandoned one of Paul’s missions.  In fact, later, Paul and Barnabas actually have a serious dispute about whether Mark should be taken on another missionary journey, and Paul refuses to take him (Acts 13:13; 15:36-39).  If the church founders were going to invent an author for the first Gospel to be written, why would they choose Mark unless it were true?  Why not attribute it to someone notable like Peter or Paul?  In fact, why did they not just attribute writings in the New Testament to Jesus himself?  Likewise, Luke was not an original apostle, but a companion of Paul.

Jesus’ actual disciples John and Matthew wrote the Gospels of John and Matthew.  Again, this means that the Gospels were written within the lifetime of those who were eyewitnesses to Jesus’ ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection.  Some skeptical scholars would say there is no way for us to know for certain who wrote the Gospels, but any and all evidence we have points towards the four authors the church has always attributed their writing to.  In order to dispute this, there must be evidence, not just speculation, but there is no other evidence implying other authors.  The four Gospels have always been attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

As mentioned above, Mark’s Gospel was written first, around 70 AD, which puts its writing within 40 years of Jesus’ crucifixion, but some scholars believe all of the Gospels were written earlier, before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.  Regardless, a “broad range of studies” has confirmed that both oral and written historical traditions within “roughly 80 to 150 years of the event recorded” are commonly found to be reliable.

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ORAL HISTORY

How do we know the information about Jesus was not corrupted before the Gospels were written?  Weren’t they first just oral traditions, and can’t oral traditions be easily corrupted?

When modern, literate people think of oral histories and traditions being passed along, they often think of it like that game “Telephone” we played as kids, where one kid would whisper something into someone’s ear, and then the kid who received it would pass it down the line; then, once the last kid gets the message, it has been totally corrupted.  Truth is, “Telephone” is nothing like how oral histories and traditions are passed on in oral cultures.

The traditional teachings of Jesus Christ and the Apostles was first passed on orally and perhaps in written form for a few decades before they were written out as the four Gospels in the New Testament as we know them.  The four Gospels show similarities with each other, suggesting that the writers sometimes used the same sources.  For example, many scholars believe in the existence of a pre-Gospel written work called “Q,” which may have recorded the sayings of Jesus.  It’s a commonly held theory that Matthew and Luke both used Q as a source because of similarities, but not Mark.

There is also evidence of a possible earlier version of Matthew in Hebrew/Aramaic before the Greek version that we know today.  With this, each Gospel also includes unique material none of the other three Gospels have, showing that the writers all gathered information independently as well.

Modern studies of oral cultures have revealed the community would have been collectively involved in preserving the stories and teachings of Jesus.  Empirical evidence has shown that living oral traditions in Central Asia, India, Africa, and Oceania have very long oral epics and narratives that are able to be repeated accurately — some lasting up to twenty-five hours carried out over several days!

One of my professors, Dr. Timothy Paul Jones, researched customs among the Lakota people of North and South Dakota.  Their story of the White Buffalo Calf Woman, who brought the first ceremonial pipe to the Native Americans, is more than a century old, and none of the multiple story-tellers ever knew the story in written form; yet they all told the story in “remarkably similar” ways, varying only in “inconsequential details.”

Furthermore, since the community also knows the histories, they hold the speaker accountable for telling the information accurately.  All of these cultures clearly separate oral material into two categories: historical (which was not allowed to be changed by the teller) and fictional storytelling (which could be altered according to the speaker’s will).

Thus, oral communities have “checks and balances that ensure that the substance of historically oriented oral tradition is not distorted or lost.”  In fact, some believe the oral histories of such cultures are more reliable than written histories because of these community checks and balances.

In Jesus’ culture, a culture much more oral than ours today (since it was long before the printing press and the internet), written records were often secondary to spoken narratives.  People were much more likely to memorize things than write them down.  Oral history was much more likely to be trusted because a person was connected to it, and other people could be traced back from it.  Written records, on the other hand, sometimes could not.

In fact, written records probably were shared along with an oral history to go with it.  This mindset can be seen in the New Testament as the writers are often pointing the readers to eyewitnesses that can confirm what they have written.

For example, see 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, which is the earliest oral tradition recorded in the New Testament:

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received:

that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 

and that He was buried,

and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,

and that He appeared to Cephas,

then to the twelve.

After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep;

then He appeared to James,

then to all the apostles.”

Other articles in this series: Did Constantine compose the New Testament? & Did God have a wife? & Could Jesus & the Disciples Read?

SOURCES & RECOMMENDED:

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Bible Secrets Re-revealed! Could Jesus and His Disciples Even Read & Write?

**How did Jesus’ disciples write the New Testament if they were illiterate fishermen?  How could a poor carpenter be as knowledgeable about Scripture as Jesus? **

SERIES INTRO: Have the right narrator and ominous music and anything can sound scandalous.  Recently, I watched several episodes of the History Channel’s Bible Secrets Revealed TV show.  It was amusing but troubling at the same time since these sort of sensationalist shows aren’t about history or education, but preying on people’s lack of knowledge.  The sort of one-sided, half-information thrown around on these TV shows is sure to resurface.  So, here are some quick responses to some questions that might arise from such quality TV programing.

Other articles in this series: Did Constantine compose the New Testament? & Did God have a wife?

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Could Jesus & his Disciples Read & Write?

So, the idea goes, Jesus’ disciples were a bunch of uneducated, working-class dudes, so there’s no way they could’ve written the New Testament.  In fact, Jesus was just a poor carpenter, so he probably couldn’t read or write either.  This isn’t much of an argument against the validity of the New Testament, but — if nothing else — it’s an interesting thing to consider: Is it possible that Jesus and his disciples knew how to read and write?

The style and skill level of the original ancient Greek of the different books of the New Testament show us that, though as Christians we believe the Scriptures are divinely inspired, God didn’t dictate word-for-word to the writers.  Likewise, the New Testament writers didn’t go into some sort of trance where God moved their hands as they wrote.  The unique writing styles of the New Testament books and letters show us that the writers’ own style and education level influenced the writing as the Holy Spirit guided them.

WERE ONLY THE RICH EDUCATED?

Often people today assume only the rich in ancient times could afford the privilege of education, so only the rich (and often urban) population had the privilege of learning to read and write.  Yet, in fact, evidence points in the opposite direction.  For example, a second-century clay tablet was discovered with a memo written on it in Latin by an assistant of a bricklayer.  This shows that even poor, working class people could read and write.  We also know that public notices were posted in rural villages throughout the Roman Empire, and a “vast amount of personal letters, legal deeds, divorce certificates, writings on coins, and ossuary inscriptions” show that writing was not just reserved for the elite few, but the common people. Like today, there were varying degrees of literacy in the ancient world.

LEVELS OF LITERACY

Today, there are more than just two opposite extremes of literacy.  Between literate (able to read and write) and illiterate (unable to read and write), there is a wide range of literary levels.  Today, those who graduate college are considered highly literate, but this is a small percentage of the world.  Many of the literate world wouldn’t be labeled “highly literate,” though they’re far from illiterate.  Many people can read and write basic sentences, but wouldn’t be able to read and summarize a college-level article.  Likewise, in the ancient world, many people were “semiliterate.”

WHAT DOES HISTORY (OUTSIDE THE BIBLE) TELL US?

Furthermore, it’s very likely that the Jews were much more literate than the Romans since the Jewish faith is centered around a collection of writings: what Christians call the Old Testament.  To be able to read and explain the Jewish Scriptures was a “revered goal” to Jews.  Thus, the importance of reading in the Jewish world was “unparalleled” in the Roman and pagan world.  Evidence shows that synagogues often functioned as schools for Jewish boys, and it’s not unreasonable to believe that Nazareth had a synagogue where the young Jesus could learn to read and write.

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WHAT DOES THE BIBLE TELL US?

Throughout the Gospels, we see Jesus is literate.  Jesus illustrates that he has closely studied the Jewish Scripture in his many debates with the scribes and Pharisees.  For instance, in Matthew 22:32, Jesus refers to Exodus 3:6 to argue for the future resurrection of the dead, and his argument is based on a very close reading of Scripture.  Jesus quotes God in Exodus 3:6 as saying, “‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’”  Jesus then says God is “not the God of the dead but of the living.”  Jesus’ whole argument here is based on the use of one word: “am.”  Since God said “I am,” not “I was,” (present tense vs. past tense), Jesus concludes God is still the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, though they’re long dead.

Further, Jesus was also viewed as a teacher, which would imply literacy in his culture; he amazed crowds with his “learning,” the Greek word used in the original texts usually included reading skills (John 7:15); and we clearly see Jesus reading from the Book of Isaiah (Luke 4:16-30).

Skeptics may say these details were simply invented by the Gospel writers, but if so, this only further proves that the idea of a literate Jew from a working class family from a small, backwater town of Judea could be literate.  If this idea had been absurd to the Jews of Jesus’ day, why would the Gospel writers make up such a thing that others would find utterly implausible?

AND SO…

If we can safely conclude that it’s certainly plausible that Jesus – the son of a carpenter, and a carpenter himself before his ministry – was literate, then it’s not a stretch to believe his disciples were literate too.  Even if we doubt the high literacy of Peter and John, both fishermen before following Jesus and described as “uneducated and ordinary” (Acts 4:13), Matthew was a tax collector, Paul was a Pharisee, and Luke (not one of Jesus’ original twelve disciples, but a Gospel writer) was an ancient physician — all positions which would require a certain level of education.

Also, who is to say Peter and John didn’t sharpen their literary skills after deciding to follow Jesus?  After all, John didn’t write his Gospel and letters until about 40 years after Jesus’ crucifixion.  That’s a good amount of time!  Interestingly, one of my professors, Dr. Timothy Paul Jones, in his book Misquoting Truth writes, “…the simplest Greek in the New Testament is found in the Gospel According to John and the Gospel According to Mark, the two Gospels whose traditional authors might have been less than literate.  In fact — even after translating hundreds of Greek epigraphs, papyri and writings from prominent second- and third-century Christians — I still haven’t found a document written as simply as the Gospel According to John.”

Finally, we also know from historical records that it was common in the ancient world for people to dictate their thoughts to a professional scribe or secretary who would do the writing for them.  The evidence even shows that the scribes or secretaries would often record the speakers’ thoughts in their own style, even using their own words to rephrase ideas, and the speaker would then approve the writing and sign off on it.  There is even evidence that the Apostle Paul used a secretary in this way when writing some of his letters (that are now in the New Testament; See Romans 16:22), even though Paul, being a Pharisee, would’ve been highly educated and literate and he was able to write Greek (Gal. 6:11; Phil. 1:19-21).  There is also evidence that Peter used a profession scribe or secretary in 1 Peter 5:12, which reads, “Through Silvanus, our faithful brother (for so I regard him), I have written to you briefly, exhorting and testifying that this is the true grace of God. Stand firm in it!”

Sources:

Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory A. Boyd. The Jesus Legend. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007.

Timothy Paul Jones.  Misquoting Truth.  Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007.

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