Sticking up for Pilate, and Battling the Trolls

I always felt a little bad for Pilate. He tried to free Jesus. He really did—the four Gospel accounts make that very clear—declining only to fall on his own sword for him. For a military leader that’s not bad. It is not promising that when he says (and displays) that he is washing his hands of the blood of Jesus, the enemies of the Lord shout: “Let his blood come upon us and upon our children.” (Matthew 27:25)

Partly to divert attention from the actions of those religious leaders, who after all, have descendants, history has cranked up the volume on Pilate’s (who does not) vileness. In time, it became almost politically incorrect to connect Jesus’ death with those leaders. However, when Mel Gibson, director of the gory film The Passion—which I have never seen, though it was almost required viewing for evangelicals, I am told (I can take the Gospel’s word for it that it was gory) was asked whether it was the Jews (not really them, but their leaders at the time) who killed Jesus, he replied: “Well, it wasn’t the Scandinavians.”

There was a book long ago recommended to me by an older sister in the congregation—a historical novel titled simply ‘Pontus Pilate.’ It followed Pilate’s exploits through life. It presented everything from his point of view. It made him not unlikable at all, and its portrayal of Jesus was completely believable, though when it later moved on to consider reports of Paul, it presented him as a loony fanatic that many would not be able to stand for too long—it wasn’t as I picture him at all. Now I spot a review of that book here:

Anyway, along comes someone on Twitter named Lee to challenge me over Pilate’s actions per the Bible accounts Naw, Pilate wouldn’t have done that, he says, because he was rotten as can be without a shred of decency—a tyrant who ruled with an iron fist. Besides, the Gospel accounts are hooey, and the Watchtower scholarship is nil—full of insults this fellow is. Presently, he reveals that his source is Bart Ehrman.

Now, Bart exists for the purpose of destroying people’s faith—or at best, transferring it from faith in God to faith in man. That’s not in his job description, of course, but it is the effect of him doing his job. He sits at some university chairing the Religious Studies department, and students sign up for his courses thinking they will increase their knowledge of the Bible—how can that be a bad thing? He teaches them that it is—that is, if they regard the book a source of faith. If they just regard it critically, that is fine with him, but if they think they can extract faith from it, he works to disabuse them of that notion.

Rather than the common sense view that the four gospels are written by four credible sources covering the same events more or less like four newspapers might cover the same events, each supplying details that the others leave out, he presents them as warring factions each trying to repackage Jesus after their own image. I remember decades ago giving the public talk ‘The Harmony of the Gospels’ and remarking how well it is that Matthew supplements Mark, because otherwise you might think that the first time Peter and John ever laid eyes on Jesus, they dropped everything to follow him after just a single sentence, which makes no sense at all. Matthew’s account makes clear they already knew each other well, and so Jesus’ saying “Come be my follower,” is just an invitation into a more intensive ministry.

Bart presents Mark’s version as though they really do abandon everything first time they see him!—how can anyone be so stupid? I’ll know I’ve arrived as a minister when I can invite people to study the Bible as Witnesses do, and they say as though in a trance “Must...follow...Tom” as they leave home and hearth, with their lawn mower still running! Bart thinks that according to Mark it actually happened that way!—since he thinks Mark’s purpose is to present Jesus as the mesmerizing miracle worker. You know, it would help if he hadn’t had come from an evangelical background where they believe all sorts of things that make little sense, so if he pats himself on the back at breaking free from that—well, who can blame him? If only his Bible knowledge had been well grounded in the first place.

So Lee has read Bart, and he thinks he thereby knows more than anyone else. He says: “As far as I know there are no non-Biblical accounts of this practice (freeing a prisoner, such as Pilate offered with Barabbas) and the Romans tended not to free insurrectionists to go round causing trouble all over again. I find it interesting that Barabbas means "son of the father" which is a good description of Jesus. A natural conclusion to draw is that this is a literary device and not reporting of real events.

I replied: “It is also a good description of anyone. Who can say? The account is specific enough and (atypically) in all four gospels. I see no need to blow it off as an invention. Maybe it was one of those deals that politicians are wont to pull every four years—releasing a few prisoners sometimes because they deserve it and/or sometimes because it makes them look good.”

He tipped his hand more, and this time revealed that his source was Bart—linking to a post Bart had written on the topic, along with his own: “Why look for chinks of light to defend a sectarian interpretation rather than look to the most reasonable explanation of available evidence?

It’s time to reveal to this character that I, too, know of the great, educated, and all-knowing Bart. I replied:

“Bart says that our sources for Pilate are almost nil, yet it is still enough for him to know Pilate through and through!? I think my take is more reasonable. Leaders throw out a bone or two today. Why not then? Maybe Barabbas was old and toothless by then, all the fight out of him. As to Bart’s recent book, Heaven and Hell, I have written that any JW could have written the bulk of it.

He responded in a flurry of tweets. When that happens, and if you want to continue, don’t respond to each one. Just because he thinks in a muddle, it does not mean you have to. Pick just one. He bombarded me with (I’ll number them—they all came at once:

1. Given that little time was spent prior to execution, if the Barabbas character was old and wrinkly that doesn't seem to have stopped his sedition and would not prevent his execution.

2. Yes, from what I've heard of Bart discussing it, I also noted how similar to JW's a lot of his position is. It seemed odd when he was attacked without being named in the March 2020 JW broadcast. [not that I noticed, but then if he was not named, who can say?]

3. I'm not sure where you get the idea he's been cribbing JW teachings. An annihilationist hell has been a feature of some Christian denominations for hundreds of years. Martin Luther and Tyndale for example. It is also common among Millerite offshoots including the JW's.

4. "the scholarship of the Watchtower must be elevated . . .  their critics generally assume that they have none." No, just largely only carried out at Bethel whilst the rank and file are asked not to dig too deeply into the secular scholarship the writing department accesses.

5. JW writing department treatment of scholarship is more to give a partial presentation to fit pre-conceived theology, not to ignore scholarship altogether.

6. JW writing department treatment of scholarship is more to give a partial presentation to fit pre-conceived theology, not to ignore scholarship altogether.

I was tempted to respond to #3. What is anannihilationist hell” other than no hell at all?—which is what Jehovah’s Witnesses teach, and almost nobody else! People just make up terms they hope you don’t know to make themselves look smart.

Instead, I decided to ignore this point, along with his other insults, and stay on topic—his appeal to Bart for authority: I replied: “Bart has only two sources regarding Pilate [Philo and Josephus], both Jewish upper class intellectuals, both with every reason to deeply resent occupying Rome. Why does it not occur to you or Bart that they just might not be unbiased sources? The Gospel account is probably more unbiased and true.

He shifted into high gear spinning theological terms: “Did you adopt this view of Johanine neutrality and historicity after a careful meta-analysis of scholarly work or after adopting a position of Biblical infallibility without such a scholarly exercise?”

“Come, come,” said I. “Your argument is weak. Don’t just keep flailing away nor “pull rank” with PhDs as though only they can think. Lots of Trump people are smart, too. Will you trust two of them to give an honest appraisel of Biden? Or vice versa? The gospel writers are more reliable, and infinitely more detailed. Brilliant and learned as your two sources may be, they wrote exceedingly little, not just on Pilate, but on the entire Christian movement.”

He next revealed that he had no idea what he was talking about, and didn’t really care. He just thought he could score a few points:

He: “I've no idea what Philo said about the Christian movement and doubt Josephus wrote what is attributed to him. How do you judge the reliability of NT writers accounts of miracles?”

See how he sweeps aside the fact that he doesn’t really know anything, and presses on with the fight anyway. It’s not happening on my watch. He already knows how I feel about the reliability of NT writers because he knows I am one of Jehovah’s Witnesses—he just wants to start a fight after awing me with credentials he does not have. There are only four brief “real time” mentions of first-century Christianity apart from the Bible itself. He had mentioned two—Josephus and Philo. I asked him if he knew the other, too. [They are Tacitus and Pliny the Younger] Of course, he did not—or at any rate I never heard from him again.

I thus never got the opportunity to point out that the reason there are only four extremely brief contemporary mentions of first-century Christianity outside of the New Testament itself is that the movement was (and is) one of the common people—who are ever beneath the notice of the “educated” class.

 

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What if Atheists Had Learned Accurate Bible Teachings First? Would They Still Have Gone Atheist?

Q: In Bart Ehrman new book, it seems he ...wants to find a way to believe in the afterlife...most of his writings deal with the exploits of noncanon material or the early church fathers understanding of Hades, Sheol.

Bart comes from an evangelical background. In his blog, he speaks poignantly of the tragedy of losing his faith, something that happened once he began to examine the Bible through “critical thinking.” 

He never had a firm foundation to stand on. I would lose my faith, too, if I had to uphold all the nonsense that is part and parcel of church teaching. One can almost feel sorry for him—but one does not, because he does not feel sorry for himself. He has a good gig going—top selling author, nifty website with a paywall that donates to charity, a reputation that prompts the Great Courses Lecture series to engage him as a professor, chair of a university religion department, where he destroys the faith of his students—but since it was founded mostly on the doctrines of churches, it was barely defensible in the first place. No, he has a good gig. Nobody has asked me to chair a Great Courses series.

If not atheist, he certainly is hard-agnostic, unless he has had a recent change of heart. I often wonder what would have happened if those now atheist had been presented accurate Christian teachings first—would they have gone atheist in that case? A naive me once assumed that the answer would be no. 

Sometimes it has worked that way, but these are crazy times, and if you keep up with atheist writings, you find that they are likely to detest JWs most of all! It does not help that JWs have “accurate” Bible teachings. The allure of breaking free from any “control” is just too enticing to be countered by a fresh look at Bible teachings. There is no way that those on the “cramped and narrow road” are not going to be derided as “cult” members by those on the broad and spacious one. This is so predictable that I kick myself for not having predicted it long before—it is so obvious. 

To break free of “control” holds irresistible appeal today, and the atheists add to the list of who does it (and even put foremost) those who would claim to represent God, as our brothers do, and they lambasted them for “controlling”  people by that means. You might think they would look upon Witnesses with admiration for such things as eliminating racism among their midst, or not engaging in physical violence on any account—least of all that of the government trying to sign them up for the latest war.

Alas, to them, JWs are the worst of the lot, because most churches have watered down “speaking in God’s name” to “God works in mysterious ways,” and have pretty much learned to roll with whatever happens, being content to add a smiley “God” emoji to events. Most have made their peace with the world—they seek to hopefully modify it for the better. Atheists are vested in the world even more so, and think the view of JWs far too extreme—even “murderous”—that God means to replace it. 

From the ranks of atheists come those most likely to present the picture that obedience “to men” is essential if you are a JW, how they are under enormous pressure always from top leaders, and how they terrify children with expectations of Armaggedon. (How about when Newsweek surveys the world scene, and presents the magazine cover “What the *@#! Is Next?” I countered to one of them.)

The “obedience” that JWs are expected to render is no more than following directions of the teacher, the coach, the mentor, the employer, the counselor, the traffic cop—something that was once the most unremarkable thing in the world, but is now presented as selling out one’s soul. JWs have not changed—the world has. One may look no farther than it’s collective response to Covid 19 to see what chaos follows. Mark Benioff, the Salesforce founder, the fellow who purchased Time Magazine, has stated that if everyone had masked up for just three weeks, the virus would have been defeated. Of course, this is what JWs have done, because being obedient to authority is not an issue for them, but the illness is out of control today because the world ridicules obedience and challenges the authority of any who would advance it. The very first sign that this would escalate to disaster occurred very early on—when toilet paper sold out, despite knowledge that the virus doesn’t hit people that way. I told Hassan, the CultExpert, he of the“FreedomofMind” hashtag, that my people have behaved far more responsibly than his—you don’t think some will use their “freedom of mind” to tell the government where they can go with their “rules?”

It doesn’t matter if the world’s obsession with “independence” ends in disaster—as it surely will—as it is with Covid 19. As one tweet puts it: “Folks want to believe this pandemic is nearing an end because they’re tired of living in a broken world. But I fear we are just at the beginning, and that we’ve squandered the first six months with our bickering.” You know they will squander the next six months, too—you just know it. That is the way the world works.

To be free of “control” is just too strong a pull for anything to be otherwise. Those on the broad and spacious road—that’s what makes it broad and spacious, ones on it listen to no one but themselves—will invariably present those on the cramped and narrow road as manipulated by a cult. That should have occurred to me long ago.

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Bart Erhman’s Heaven and Hell—Any JW Could Have Written This!

Okay, start by walking it back. They couldn’t. Not all of it. But the gist of it they could, and that is a claim that few others can make.

When I read Bart’s contribution to Time Magazine, it was as though I was reading the Watchtower! The occasion is the release of his latest book Heaven and Hell, (he has over 30!) in which he speaks in absolute agreement about topics that Jehovah’s Witnesses know well—and have known well for over 100 years—topics such as soul, psyche, Sheol, Gehenna, notions of heaven, and notions of hell. 

A very few of his paragraphs wouldn’t fit—mostly the ones that are muddled. But for the most part, the content of his book is very very familiar. It is so familiar that I even begin to float the notion that he keeps up with Watchtower publications—the writers there are far and away the most vocal proponents of the ideas he has picked up on—some might say the only proponents.

Not that he would accept the Watchtower as a source in itself, I don’t think. But what I can easily picture is him keeping abreast of their writing and the explanations that only they have, then tracing it back to original sources, whereupon he verifies it all and presents it as though his own research—which it would be, minus the credit for who put him on the right track in the first place. 

Okay, okay—maybe he’s not ripping off their work. Probably he is not. He is a respected scholar, after all. But in that case, the scholarship of the Watchtower must be elevated, for it is the same—and their critics generally assume that they have none.

Take a few excerpts of Erhman’s article:

Neither Jesus, nor the Hebrew Bible he interpreted, endorsed the view that departed souls go to paradise or everlasting pain.

Unlike most Greeks, ancient Jews traditionally did not believe the soul could exist at all apart from the body. On the contrary, for them, the soul was more like the “breath.” The first human God created, Adam, began as a lump of clay; then God “breathed” life into him (Genesis 2: 7). Adam remained alive until he stopped breathing. Then it was dust to dust, ashes to ashes... When we stop breathing, our breath doesn’t go anywhere. It just stops. So too the “soul” doesn’t continue on outside the body, subject to postmortem pleasure or pain. It doesn’t exist any longer.

The Hebrew Bible itself assumes that the dead are simply dead—that their body lies in the grave, and there is no consciousness, ever again. It is true that some poetic authors, for example in the Psalms, use the mysterious term “Sheol” to describe a person’s new location. But in most instances Sheol is simply a synonym for “tomb” or “grave.” It’s not a place where someone actually goes.

and later: 

Most people today would be surprised to learn that Jesus believed in a bodily eternal life here on earth, instead of eternal bliss for souls, but even more that he did not believe in hell as a place of eternal torment.

In traditional English versions, he does occasionally seem to speak of “Hell” – for example, in his warnings in the Sermon on the Mount: anyone who calls another a fool, or who allows their right eye or hand to sin, will be cast into “hell” (Matthew 5:22, 29-30). But these passages are not actually referring to “hell.” The word Jesus uses is “Gehenna.” The term does not refer to a place of eternal torment but to a notorious valley just outside the walls of Jerusalem, believed by many Jews at the time to be the most unholy, god-forsaken place on earth. It was where, according to the Old Testament, ancient Israelites practiced child sacrifice to foreign gods. The God of Israel had condemned and forsaken the place.

In the ancient world (whether Greek, Roman, or Jewish), the worst punishment a person could experience after death was to be denied a decent burial. Jesus developed this view into a repugnant scenario: corpses of those excluded from the kingdom would be unceremoniously tossed into the most desecrated dumping ground on the planet. Jesus did not say souls would be tortured there. They simply would no longer exist.”

Anyone who knows anything about Jehovah’s Witnesses knows that these are exactly their views. Is Bart just taking our stuff? No—it can’t be—I wouldn’t make the charge. But I can be forgiven the suspicion. Do a search on any of these terms at JW.org and you will find what he now says. Maybe it is simply basic research that any decent scholar could uncover, as Bart has, but in that case it is all the more damning for the world of churches. Not only do they make no mention of these things, but they consider most of them heresies.

Witnesses were there before he was born. He can’t not know it. When I search his own blog (which I am jealous of—he has a good gig going, and I like the platform), virtually nothing about Jehovah’s Witnesses comes up, apart from a post about the name Jehovah itself, in which he misses entirely the import of God having a name rather than a title, to focus on its Latin letters, and thus declaring it false. I found nothing else beyond a few brief, usually derogatory comments from contributors, to which he typically would answer that he is not very familiar with it.

Nobody espouses on these ‘afterlife’ views of his like Jehovah’s Witnesses, and apart from them almost nobody else does—and yet he never mentions Witnesses. This seems parallel to when Ronald Sider suggests four reforms that he thinks would solve the problems of the evangelical church (that they don’t practice what they preach), stating that nobody implements these reforms, and ignoring completely that Jehovah’s Witnesses do, and that yes, they do go a long way in solving the problem he has identified. 

“Most people today would be surprised to learn that Jesus believed in a bodily eternal life here on earth, instead of eternal bliss for souls, but even more that he did not believe in hell as a place of eternal torment.” says Bart.

We’ve taught this for 100 years and, yes, they are surprised. Why? Because such things were never taught at church. Instead, the near-universal teaching of church Christianity is that when you die, you go to heaven if you were good, and hell if you were bad. That is what just about everyone of church background thought before becoming a Witness. I have said before that, given the universality of the heaven/hell teaching, you would almost expect it to be on every other page of the Bible. Instead, apart from a handful of verses that can be tortured for that meaning, it is never encountered. It is among the reasons that, on becoming Witnesses, people are wont to say that they have “come into the truth.” The explanations are so simple. The Bible comes together and makes sense. After all, if God wanted persons in heaven, why didn’t he put them there in the first place?

There are over two billion Christians in the world, the vast majority of whom believe in heaven and hell. You die and your soul goes either to everlasting bliss or torment (or purgatory en route). ...The vast majority of these people naturally assume this is what Jesus himself taught.” states Bart.

Yes, of course they would assume it. Most church teachings—people simply assume that they are to be found in the Bible—why would the church teach something Jesus did not? For many, the you-know-what hits the fan when they discover that such is in fact the case. From this arises the saying among Witnesses, not heard so often as it once was, that new ones ought to be locked up for six months until their zeal is tempered with common sense.

There was a pesty fellow who used to challenge me a lot on trinity and other church teachings. One day he sent me a video of “4 famous church leaders” hubbubing in conference, in which he said they acknowledged that everlasting life on earth was the actual Bible hope—it wasn’t just JWs who taught it. I couldn’t get far into it—it was just too smarmy. I told him I’d take his word for it. Though these leaders knew and discussed the actual role of the earth as our permanent home, the problem was “Bible illiteracy” among the masses, he said. 

If the problem is Bible literacy among the masses, I replied, why don’t they fix it? Isn’t that their job as leaders? Ones taking the lead in our faith manage to keep people on the same page.

So what to do with Bart? Is he taking our stuff? Nah—I guess not. If the four famous church leaders knew things that they hadn’t bothered to tell the masses, maybe it is out there for Bart to find as well. I have not been especially kind to him in previous posts, and maybe I should walk some of it back. He presents as though an agnostic/atheist in his Great Courses lecture series and annoys me on that account. I’ve written about ten posts, none of them kind, with several more in the hopper that I may or may not ever get to, and I may have to rethink some of them. Fortunately, I have already made it clear that nothing is personal—it is ideas that you squabble with, not the persons who hold them, for they are more-or-less interchangeable placeholders.

But he had better be careful. He joins the ranks of people like Bruce Speiss, Jason Beduhn, Joel Engardio, and Gunnar Samuelson, who write something that squares with JW beliefs, and spend the rest of their days on earth denying that they are one of them. Occasionally, they must even issue statements to the effect of  “Look, I'm not one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. I don’t agree with Jehovah’s Witnesses. I don’t even like Jehovah’s Witnesses.” But it’s too late! The damage has been done! Sigh....what's a scholar to do? Agreeing with Jehovah’s Witnesses is detrimental to one’s career, and yet Jehovah’s Witnesses are right on so many things. And the things they're right about, they have been saying for a long time, so it’s embarrassing for cutting edge scholars to endorse what the JWs, for the most part unscholarly and ordinary folk, have long maintained.

Fortunately (or unfortunately) he veers aside frequently enough so people may not make the mistake. Such as:

“Some thinkers came up with a solution [shortly before Christ] that explained how God would bring about justice... This new idea maintained that there are evil forces in the world aligned against God and determined to afflict his people. Even though God is the ultimate ruler over all, he has temporarily relinquished control of this world for some mysterious reason. But the forces of evil have little time left. God is soon to intervene in earthly affairs to destroy everything and everyone that opposes him and to bring in a new realm for his true followers, a Kingdom of God, a paradise on earth. Most important, this new earthly kingdom will come not only to those alive at the time, but also to those who have died. Indeed, God will breathe life back into the dead, restoring them to an earthly existence.” (italics and bolded text mine. “Some mysterious reason”—he doesn’t know that?! after nailing it on so many other points!)

Not to mention his muddled:

“And God will bring all the dead back to life, not just the righteous. The multitude who had been opposed to God will also be raised, but for a different reason: to see the errors of their ways and be judged. Once they are shocked and filled with regret – but too late — they will permanently be wiped out of existence.” Sigh...it is as Anthony Morris said: “Just stick with publications of the slave, and you will be alright.” The moment he goes “off-script” he comes up with some half-baked “nah nah—told ya so!” diatribe from his born-again days that he grew out of (and they do not look upon him kindly for that reason).

One of my own chums pulled me back from the edge, just as I was about to go apoplectic and accuse Bart of plagiarizing us: “I don't think all of this is that new to Bart Ehrman. I caught some of this on his site. But I had never noticed before, that he now sees Jesus' actual words in pretty much the same sense that JWs believe,” he said. He had spent the few dollars to subscribe to the Bart site for a month, so as to ask a question or two. I read some of the Bart site, and he makes a better impression on me there than he does as Great Courses lecturer.

My chum said of our own work and of Bart’s: “I think that the Watchtower (Bible Students and JWs) have done an enormous service to the religious world by "putting out the fires of hell." It has taken the last 100 years, but I believe that there are a lot of churches where the Watchtower has provided a strong influence so that those churches and their teachers are not so likely to emphasize the teachings that make God seem like a monster. For good or bad Ehrman does have influence, especially on new students, and this last book might even help a bit in opening up some opportunities for our own work.”

Odd “allies” we may yet become.

...

It may be that one should take a new look at Time Magazine, as well. I subscribed to Time a little over two years ago, enticed by an absurdly low rate, with the thought I would cancel when the auto-renewal hit. When it hit, I did cancel, because the magazine—once a powerhouse, but now upstaged amidst the digital revolution, seemed no more than “same-old same-old” to me. Nothing wrong with it, but neither was it unique. My curiosity had been peaked by the low subscription rate. 

I now think super low rate was because a sale was pending, and they wanted to enhance whatever subscriber base they still had to pretty it up for purchase. Mark Benoif has bought it, he who is the Salesforce company founder—a guy worth 6 billion, I am told. He joins Jeff Bezos who bought the Washington Post, and Lourene Jobs (widow of Steve) who bought a majority stake in Atlantic.

Not sure how the new owners will change the brands they bought, however I can’t picture this Ehrman piece in the old Time (or in fact, anywhere). This might be evidence that it is o longer same-old same old.” In an effort to compete, these outlets may be going places that they have never gone before.

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110 Homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses Raided in a Single Day - Russia

When the song “Give us Courage” was released at the 2018 Be Courageous Regional Conventions, an accompanying video depicted soldiers in full military gear closing in on entirely ordinary and manifestly harmless Jehovah’s Witnesses, who were doing no more than minding their own business. “How cult-like!” said the ridiculers. “What is it with these people and their “persecution complex?”

In fact, the video prefigures events that have come to pass, as absurdly unlikely as they might seem. After all, arresting entirely harmless people is crazy in itself. But what multiplies the craziness 100-fold is to arrest them in full military gear including assault rifles. Yet this is exactly what was done in the Voronezh Region of Russia on July 13, 2020as 110 homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses were raided—a new record. Congregation members were forced to the ground with their faces pressed into the floor. At least two were beaten.

Many of these persons are elderly. They include women and children. There is no possibility of them offering resistance and everybody knows it. They are almost the only group whose entire history demonstrates that under no circumstances will they resort to violence. Yet they are arrested as you would terrorists.

Assuming that arrests are called for (a ridiculous assumption that we will let pass so as to pursue a greater point), why would arrests be made in such a brutal manner? Two reasons present themselves,

1) Outright hate.

2) Saving face.

If you declare people “extremists” and then arrest them as you would a jaywalker, you are only making yourself look a liar. You are only proving that they are not extremists at all, and that you well know it. Better to arrest them in military style. You may look unhinged in that event, but at least you appear to be acting in accord with your convictions, plus you are creating maximum terror against gentle people. It’s a little like beating up on girls—in a rapidly escalating game of hardball.

This calls to mind how Abraham Lincoln would say that he was not smart enough to lie—for if he did, he knew he would have to adjust every subsequent statement and action to accord with that first lie if he was to retain an ounce of credibility. Having swallowed the lie that Witnesses are extremists, Russian police forces now have to act as though they are.

The Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses foresaw this. It is the most unlikely scenario in the world, and yet they foresaw it. Does this “prove” that Jehovah is with the Witness Governing Body—to transfer Brother Glock’s remarks to more readily adaptable content? Sometimes all you need do with a statement like that from Glock is to show a little flexibility. Like the boy that was spanked by his Dad and protested that he hadn’t committed the offense for which he was being punished. “Well—in that case, it’s for something that you did do for which you should have been punished but weren’t,” dear old dad said.

The world of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia is turned upside down. Even raids that do not result in their arrest result in the confiscation of belongings—typically including tablets and phones. Still, they take some satisfaction in knowing that their staying faithful under trial calls worldwide attention to the Christian course they pursue. Theirs is somewhat the response of Christians in the first century, who upon being released from punishment, “rejoiced that they had been counted worthy to be dishonored for the sake of his name.” (Acts 5:41) It is not the type of witness that most would choose, but it is a witness; it does bring to life how “you will be hated by all the nations on account of my name.” (Matthew 24:9)

I do not look forward to the experience, and living in the West as I do, it may not come. Human rights people carry much more popular sway in the West than they do in Russia, where the very concept is suspiciously regarded as a Western intrusion—so says Chivchalov. Even in Russia—“Look, the Devil will throw some of you into prison,” the apostle John warns—not all of you. Even Bart Ehrman apparently speaks for the academic community when he states that Christian martyrs of the first century probably numbered in the hundreds—they did not include everyone.

But so often in life we cannot choose our “assignment.” The trick is to be like Paul, who knew how to live regardless of his circumstances. (Phil 4:12) All reports are that the Russian brothers are facing their persecutors with enormous resolve, courage, and integrity. I pray that should it ever become my turn, I will just as readily follow their example.

 

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If You Suspect That You Are Anointed, You’re Not - and Who Were the Gnostics?

At the meeting yesterday I commented that, with a certain history of anxiety issues in the control tower, if I were to start partaking of the emblems, I would expect people to say, ‘Well, he is a little that way.’ I mean, I wouldn’t expect people to just lap it up. Fortunately, there is no way on God’s green earth that I am ever going to be one of the anointed because it is on God’s green earth that I savor living forever and can’t begin to imagine whatever I would do in the heavenly realm.

Another remark was given of someone from his Bethel days, awoken by a roommate who said he thought he might be anointed. ‘If you only think it, you’re not. Go back to sleep’ was the reply.

I also said that, as a practical matter, I never ever bring the subject of anointed up in the ministry, since it involves so very few people. To do so seems like being one of those policy wonks eternally obsessed over what is going on in Washington, something that they at best have 1/200,000,000 input. Why go there?

Also, though 90% of Bart Ehrman’s remarks are infuriating, because while displaying impressive command of background facts, certain basic concepts seem completely foreign to him (such as ‘worshipping God’)—still, here and there one can spot an insight. One of them was his definition of Gnostics. Now, I had heard of the term, and I knew it had to do with ‘knowledge’ but I didn’t know what sort of knowledge and I had made up for that lack by assuming wrong, thinking of what we today call knowledge—you know, the stuff you acquire in school. Instead, the ‘knowledge’ that Gnostics had was that they didn’t belong in this world—it just didn’t feel right to them—they belonged somewhere else, and if you shared this similar ‘knowledge,’ you were one of them. Tell me if this doesn’t describe almost exactly ones who claim, rightly or wrongly, that they are anointed today.

Too, Bart points out that the Gnostics were not a separate Christian community but they were interspersed in existing congregations, again like anointed today. Of course, this does a little bit fly in the face of the current WT view that all Christians back then were anointed. But it has already been pointed out that the early Christian community very soon exceeded 144K, so that view is not exactly airtight. One easy way to resolve matters is to hold that the heavenly calling was indeed the priority back then, just after the Christ instituted the congregation, but the message still attracted people who sensed that it was the latest worship development from God, that this is where they belonged, and that they would therefore benefit even if every single little thing didn’t dovetail.

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Abraham Enacts the Drama of the Ages, and Bart Messes it all Up

That God should ask Abraham to sacrifice his own son makes no sense at all and is even offensive—even barbaric. ‪It only makes sense when seen as forerunner for God sacrificing his own son in order to redeem others. It is all the more pointed when Abraham offers up the supplied ram In place of his son, calling to mind how God offers up a son in place of another.

Now after this the true God put Abraham to the test, and he said to him: “Abraham!” to which he replied: “Here I am!” Then he said: “Take, please, your son, your only son whom you so love, Isaac, and travel to the land of Moriah and offer him up there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I will designate to you.”....  (Genesis 22:1-2)

Then Isaac said to his father Abraham: “My father!” He replied: “Yes, my son!” So he continued: “Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” To this Abraham said: “God himself will provide the sheep for the burnt offering, my son.” (vs 7-8)

But Jehovah’s angel called to him from the heavens and said: “Abraham, Abraham!” to which he answered: “Here I am!” Then he said: “Do not harm the boy, and do not do anything at all to him, for now I do know that you are God-fearing because you have not withheld your son, your only one, from me.” At that Abraham looked up, and there just beyond him was a ram caught by its horns in a thicket. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son.  (vs 11-13)

Bart Ehrman (my new villain) is doing his best to aggravate me, with some success. He says that after Jesus’ death, his disciples (and the more learned others, as though the original were dummies—“peasants” he calls them, with the implicit understanding that peasants are too stupid to derive “theology”) who had not a clue that Jesus would be put to death, tried to afterward rework it into a “victory” by “reinterpreting” passages of Hebrew scripture written for who knows what reason and applying them to Jesus. Doubtless, this passage is an example of that.

In fact, that is pretty much what happened. Bart gets this part right, but it is the air he emits of them pulling the scam of the ages that rankles. It is the air of examining intently all the pieces but never thinking to put them together, and being thoroughly obtuse when someone else does—of being unimpressed, possibly because of not wanting them to come together that way—and so it all goes over his head as he obsesses with the individual pieces. 

Going through this fellow’s Great Courses lectures, the feeling grows on me that, having ascended to the ranks of “scholar” himself, he is kind to scholars everywhere—both now and of those in early Christian times. When he gushes on about how some scholars think this, but other scholars think that, I am reminded exactly of why the lowly people were astounded at Jesus means of teaching—he didn’t teach as the scribes, constantly quoting each other, but taught as though one with authority. 

When Jesus finished these sayings, the effect was that the crowds were astounded at his way of teaching, for he was teaching them as a person having authority, and not as their scribes. (Matthew 7:28-29)

He oohs and ahhh over “scholars” of the first century, too, and the feeling grows with me that it accounts for his treating Pharisees and Saducees with such respect. He doesn’t at all share Jesus’ ‘narrowmindedness’ in being so hard on them. Saducess are ‘the ruling class,’ so you know that is going to impress Bart, who now “rules” himself at the university, being deferred to. And the Pharisees? Just a religiously devout group of Jews who were serious about keeping the Law—what in the world is wrong with that? Why criticize people for their “theology?” he appears to believe.

Did the Jewish leaders scheme for Jesus’ execution? Well—yes, he concedes, but he passes it off as though it is just a few bad apples in an otherwise sincere bunch, much like a renegade politician storming as though a bull in a china shop. Maybe not even that. Jesus antagonized them, after all, by leaving the hills of Galilee, where his carrying on could be ignored, and coming right into Jerusalem, right into the temple and disrupting the established respectable religion, as though Bart would maintain he had no right to do this—he should have recognized their turf and conducted himself with proper decorum.

Besides, those Jewish leaders didn’t kill Jesus—Pilate did, and since Pilate comes from an authoritarian faction that no longer exists and can thus be disrespected without offending anyone important, Bart does just that. Pilate had no concern whatsoever for justice, Bart maintains. His job was to get rid of rabble-rousers, like Jesus, before they disturbed the peace and upset the status quo. He did it all the time and had no qualms about killing people. Life and death was in his hand—he was a tyrant who afforded Jesus a “trial” that lasted maybe two minutes before ridding himself and the empire of him.

In fact, one who reads the accounts of Jesus trial can’t help but be struck with how hard Pilate works to release Jesus. He knows that the preacher popular with the crowds is being framed. He also knows that the framers are trying to bully he himself, and he resents it. He only yields to those Jewish religious thugs when they force him to choose between Jesus and himself. “For this reason Pilate kept trying to find a way to release him, but the Jews shouted: “If you release this man, you are not a friend of Caesar. Everyone who makes himself a king speaks against Caesar,” they point out darkly at John 19:12. That took the wind out of him. He doesn’t need those community leaders reporting him as a traitor to Caesar. He doesn’t need to be painted as though a party to insurrection. Better to grant the scoundrels what they want. So he does—but he is furious about it. He posts a sign above the stake that Jesus is impaled upon: “The king of the Jews.”

However, the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate: “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but that he said, ‘I am King of the Jews.’” Pilate answered: “What I have written, I have written.” (vs 21-22) He was so fed up with them. Granted, he didn’t exactly trade away everything he had like the merchant finding the fine pearl, did he? But neither is he portrayed as callously indifferent to the sufferings of an innocent man or an eager participant of injustice.

Possibly Bart offloads all the blame on Pilate because he, as a leader of society, feels an obligation to facilitate other leaders getting along. He downplays the Jewish connection maybe because that might feed into current anti-semitism (not an invalid concern). Revise history if need be to pin in all on the evil Romans, who are all dead and gone. I’m not blind to the concern, but when Mel Gibson, director of ‘The Passion,’ was asked directly whether Jesus had been killed by the Jews, he replied: “Well, it wasn’t the Scandinavians.”

Probably—I do not know this for sure—but probably Bart will sweep all these ‘softening’ factors with regard to Pilate aside. I am on to his tricks, as he employs ‘critical analysis’ to define history the humanistic way that he wants it defined. He will, if I am correct, dismiss all these humanizing touches of Pilate for having failed the “criterion of contextual credibility.” Yes, the gospel accounts may say what they do about Pilate, ‘but it is not credible because we have determined—my fellow scholars and I—that the Romans were nothing but brutes. Some early Christian writer just made that up’—if there is one thing that defines Bart’s perception, it is that everyone spun the story of Jesus their own way for their own personal advantage to validate whatever they had settled upon doing.

Everything goes over Bart’s head! He is so exasperating! Everything is a power play with this guy—a struggle for dominance by the ones who have reached the top of their game—just as he has himself as a professor with dozens of books authored and GreatCourses itself bestowing greatness upon him, immortalizing him as the great instuctor in all matters of Judeo-Christian religion. He treats the ascension of Christianity to worldwide prominence as though a team reaching the Super Bowl, celebrating the victory of being best in the world, oblivious to trade-offs of players along the way. It’s okay for football teams to do this, but in the case of a faith it amounts to selling its soul. He doesn’t even notice it though, and if you point it out to him he will not think it particularly important. The point is that they reached the Super Bowl; with the acceptance of Constantine, Christianity became the most important religion in the whole wide world! Score!!!!

Now, I readily concede that this is a subjective piece—my take on Bart. But there is barely anything anywhere that is not. Everyone looks at things though their own subjective lens. It is completely a myth that we are primarily rational beings. It is enough to say that we are capable of reason, but to say that it dominates is just too much. We are creatures of emotion, and that emotion is molded by our experience and background. One is quickly struck by how often Bart maintains that “we can assume” this or “we can assume” that. In fact, we cannot assume any of it just because he does. He raises possibilities, but no more, and upon consideration of the big picture, not very likely possibilities. A person with different experience or different motivation will, if we are going to “assume” things, assume entirely different things. The ones most blind are often the ones who revel in their ‘critical thinking’ because they are ever apt to “assume” that they have a lock on the stuff. The heart reaches for what it wants and then charges the head with devising a convincing rationale for it. This lends the impression that the head is calling the shots, but it is the heart all along.

I focus on Bart so as to put a human face on things. I shouldn’t, and in other posts about Bart, I don’t. It is not Bart himself, but what he represents. It took me the longest time to recognize why the Watchtower seldom names villains. It is the play we are watching, not the actors in the play. You don’t have to know the names of the actors to follow the play—it can even be a distraction if you do. Besides, name a villain and you automatically create the impression that removing that villain will improve things. Instead, another actor instantly steps into the role—he has the part memorized—and the play continues with barely a hiccup.

“Yeah, well Tom, you’re just grousing because Bart sells tons more books than you, and he sells it with a machinery that you cannot match. He has editors and professional enablers and you can’t even manage to get all your typos out of all your scribblings! He gets a perch at the university and you have to fight off even many of your own people who think that whatever you are trying to do you are doing it wrong and should stop.”

Okay, okay, so there is something to that. It is the oldest story in the world. There is stuff that is readily lapped up because it aligns itself with mainstream goals and urges, and there is stuff that doesn’t. It was even true following that great trial in Jerusalem. Both Pilate and the Jewish religious leaders resumed their dignified strutting, their privileged walk only briefly jostled—and not very seriously. The lowly ones who put their trust in Jesus scratch their heads and wonder what just it was that happened. Only later do they think to revisit that drama of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son.

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Was Jesus an ‘Apocalyticist?’ — Is a Cop a ‘Malfeasance Disruptor?’

The professor is up to his old tricks again and he calls to mind “that blaggart who uses the science of speech more to blackmail and swindle than teach”—teaching Christianity up there at the university. It is okay if you take it for what it is—a humanist approach to teaching Bible verse. But I can’t help but think that at least some of his students sign up imagining they will acquire what builds their relationship with God.

I think this because I took such courses myself back in my college days, as electives, with just that thought—that I would learn what would help me better know God. The courses were taught by a retired Southern Baptist clergyman of some stature. He joked at how, back in his seminary days, John was known as “the apostle to the idiots” for the simple language that characterize the writings attributed to him. I distinctly remember that when I later came in touch with Jehovah’s Witnesses, I very casually dropped the fact that there were four gospels—that way they would know that they weren’t just talking to any dunce but to someone who knew a thing or two about the Scriptures. In certain circles, you can know almost nothing yet walk around thinking yourself well informed.

Maddeningly, Professor Ehrman explains at considerable length how Jesus was an “apocalypticist” and how that identification must be understood to make any sense out of his life. There is nothing wrong with explaining that Jesus was an apocalypticist, but it is a little like explaining that a cop is a “malfeasance disruptor” and that the tenets of malfeasance disruption must be understood in other to grasp what might possibly motivate the cop to do what he does. As with all his lectures on biblical scripture, the professor sets aside the meat to chew on the rind and presumably gets his students to think that the rind is the meat.

 

I was assigned a student talk of dramatizing how one make a return visit using 2 Timothy 3:1-5, apocalyptic writings through and through, from the apostle Paul—though, if I recall correctly, not all “scholars” think that it was Paul who wrote the letter, maybe because  they don’t see him being too apocalyptic in other letters. I wasn’t crazy about the assignment. 2 Timothy 3:1-5 is a little tricky to use. It is such a long list of negative traits that you begin you feel you’re pummeling the householder going through them all.

I have developed my own way, which was not the one suggested on the program. Maybe it would be like the time when the school conductor said, “Actually, you didn’t really address the theme,” and I had replied, “Oh—I changed that,” which made him laugh uproariously because he had never heard of such a thing. Fortunately, in this case, the demands of the talk were not high and I fixed what I had on the fly to make it dovetail with the adjacent talks—three of them are supposed to go together as a progressive unit.

But know this, that in the last days critical times hard to deal with will be here.  For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, haughty, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, disloyal, having no natural affection, not open to any agreement, slanderers, without self-control, fierce, without love of goodness, betrayers, headstrong, puffed up with pride, lovers of pleasures rather than lovers of God, having an appearance of godliness but proving false to its power; and from these turn away.”

I count 19 adjectives. That’s a lot. Sometimes I skip around to highlight just 3 or 4. Sometimes I point out that, since the verses have always been there and Jehovah’s Witnesses have been coming around for a long time, it used to be that if you read the passage and your household didn’t agree that they were true today more than in times past, there wasn’t much you could do about it—plainly, the verses are subjective. But each passing day, especially thanks to politics, makes it harder and harder to dismiss such verses as irrelevant. You can still do it, of course, but your nose sort of grows like Pinocchio.

“Why is it that you always have to think that things are getting worse?” one skeptic asked me, adding “what does that view do for you?” I replied that it helps me to explain why the Doomsday Clock was set at a few moments prior to midnight and not 10:30 AM. But I could have just said: “Because I am an apocalypticist.” That would have made the professor happy—for picking up on his lingo.

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Beware the ‘Criteria of Dissimilarity’

Jesus was a carpenter. So says the New Testament. The professor concurs that he probably was. He does not concur because the Bible writer says it was so. He mistrusts the writers to convey historical truth accurately—they are too busy changing the story to fit their own “theologies,” he maintains. Everything they say is suspect and must be verified by critical analysis.

As it turns out, Jesus being a carpenter passes the “criteria of dissimilarity” and for that reason the professor accepts it as probably valid. Nobody is going to lie about Jesus being a carpenter because that does not paint him in a flattering light. A liar would have made Jesus a lawyer, a noble, an esteemed teacher such as the professor himself—something more respectable. But he identifies Jesus as a carpenter and thus fesses up to something “dissimilar” to his own interests of making Jesus look good. It is a fine example of passing the “criteria of dissimilarity.”

I’m not sure how much of this wisdom I can stand. Professor Ehrman here reveals why he will misconstrue most everything of importance about Jesus. So much higher criticism reflects classism—one class looking down on the other. ‘Jesus followers would never own up to his being a carpenter unless he really was one because it is an embarrassment to be a carpenter’ is the operating assumption. Well, maybe it isn’t. Maybe the pecking order of society that the professor has internalized is not the grand ranking scheme of the cosmos. Maybe God thinks a carpenter is not such a loser for failure to climb to loftier heights in life. Maybe it is those lofty heights themselves that he disdains.

It is a little like when Mike Bloomberg says: "I could teach anybody—even people in this room so no offense intended—to be a farmer. It's a process. You dig a hole, you put a seed in, you put dirt on top, add water, up comes the corn.” Does he really seek to mitigate the “offense” he might cause by suggesting farming to his educated audience? Does the remark reveal something about farmers, or does it reveal something about Bloomberg? The little people were not happy to hear that the former mayor could teach any orangutan their job. It’s a four-year-old quote and arguably taken out of context—or does the actual insult extent to lathe operators, and indeed all who work with their hands?

I’ll bet also that Jesus being born in a stable would knock the “criteria of dissimilarity” ball right out of the park—you just know it would. It is so humiliating, supposes the higher critic—plainly any Bible writer worth his salt would love to say Jesus was born in the Jerusalem Hyatt—in the Presidential suite!—so if he embarrassingly lets slip that the stable was the place of birth, it is undoubtedly so.

In fact, if there is one guiding star of the Bible writers, it is that the pretentions of humans do not cut much ice with God. He shoves away the finest things of humankind just to show what he thinks of them. The stable is a fine place for the Savior to be born, for in the stable will be more of the people he favors: “Though Jehovah is high, he takes note of the humble, But the haughty he knows only from a distance,” says Psalm 138:6. That being the case, it is well to hang out where the humble are in preference to where haughty are, because the quality rubs off. The stable will do just fine.

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Ehrman on Matthew—and How I Was Always the Cleaner

During Mike’s fanatical and zealous ministry days, he worked part-time in a parking lot. During my steady-as-she-goes balanced days, I worked as a cleaner. Sometimes in the ministry I would accompany him. When householders would slam the door in his face I would say to myself, “Well, they really had no choice.” (not to worrry—he’s been gone for a long time now)

Mike had worked hard to land his Public Parking job. The owner told him day after day that he had no openings. Moreover, he kept pointing out that Mike was overqualified—probably he would last one or two boring days and quit. However, Mike’s favorite scripture was the one about the widow who nagged the unrighteous judge to get what she wanted.

Any counselor on job-seeking will tell you that you do not go day after day to badger the would-be employer after he has turned you down. Mike swore by the system and used it repeatedly. Eventually that employer would throw all his notions of what is proper out the window and hire you just to get you out of his hair, after which you work to prove that he made a good decision. Of course, you have to have incredibly thick skin to pursue this strategy. Mike had that.

Every day he showed up bright and early to wheedle the parking lot owner, Every day he was turned away. One day the fellow said, “I don’t know why you want this job so much, but as it turns out, one of the guys didn’t show this morning. If you want to take his place, I’ll hire you.” Thus began several years for Mike in the parking lot shack, where he could study to his heart’s content all day long and if thieves had towed away every car in the lot, he would not have noticed.

In time, he also picked up a distributorship for a line of cheap jewelry. Anyone who knew jewelry stayed far away from the stuff, but many didn’t know it any better than he—if it shined, it sold.

Mike was very taken at the time with his role of teaching the Bible for free. He loved Jesus words, “You received free—give free. No making a buck off teaching the Word of God for him! Pretty much everything was a scam in his eyes—he had been raised in a company of carnival performers—and there was no scam he considered more pernicious than religion.

“I don’t make any money doing this,” he would tell the householder, with earnestness so thick you could cut it with a knife. “I work in a parking lot. Tom works, too, as a janitor.” However, if he was working in affluent areas, he would say “I don’t make any money doing this. I sell jewelry. Tom works, too, as a janitor.” I might as well have held up a mop at that point to confirm his words. His work description changed—mine didn’t!

 

I don’t know why the Great Courses professor can’t get his head around this. When you are addressing an audience, you select arrows from your quiver most likely to help you make your case. Just because you leave the ‘parking lot’ arrow in your quiver to launch the ‘jewelry’ one instead does not mean that it does not exist.

You think you can get this through Professor Ehrman’s head? He leaves Mark to consider Matthew and he develops the theme of how Matthew presents Jesus as “the Jewish messiah.” This is not particularly controversial. Every JW knows it. Well—they may not know it, many of them, because it is an incidental topic, not the centerpiece the Professor makes it of his lecture, but if they hit their own books they will find that it is so. Jerome and Origen even say that the Gospel, alone of all New Testament books, was first written in Hebrew. This second lecture from the Professor annoys less than the first because so much of it purports to prove this point that Witnesses already know.

Alas, he presently veers off into explaining “redaction criticism.” See, the writer of Matthew probably had a copy of Mark, “scholars agree,” so if Mark contains something that Matthew does not it is because the latter “redacted” that something—he took it out because it didn’t suit his purpose. Well, in fact that’s what Mike did in the affluent areas—redacting the parking lot for the jewelry salesman (though I was always a cleaner). Other than annoying me, there is nothing wrong with this—in fact, it is just using common sense to reach your audience. “To the Jews I became as a Jew in order to gain Jews...to those without law I became as without law...to the weak I became weak, in order to gain the weak,” the apostle would write later. You do what you must to reach your audience.

But the professor looks for signs of division. He doesn’t look for signs of agreement. To him the early Bible writers are competing with one another. They are “changing the narrative” so as to promote their own “theologies.” They are all like traveling snake oil salesmen, each hawking his own product, each hoping to run the other off the road. Oh—and with the added nettlement that, since Jesus’ 12 disciples were “peasants” obviously incapable of writing narratives—even given all the time in China—“educated” persons must have written those books and identified themselves as Mark, Matthew, and John, to lend their own view more authority. He all but says it of Jesus’ twelve: “Stupid is as stupid does.”

Then the professor comes to the Pharisees. His lecture is not just about what Matthew “redacted” because he didn’t like it—it is also about what he appends because he does like it and wants to change the story. To be the “Jewish messiah” you must pick a fight with those who think you are not, so Jesus does so with the Pharisees.

The professor has already, in a prior lecture, shown himself bewildered that the Pharisees should be known as hypocrites. ‘How can that be?’ he considers, as he presents them as though just nice guys trying to do their best—as any of us would. It is Jesus who calls them hypocrites, not he—they who just have a different “interpretation”—can that possibly justify ad hominem attacks? It is a humanist point of view that the professor exudes. It only needs someone to think it for a viewpoint to be valid. One way to gut scripture is to interpret away whatever you don’t like.

The professor would be a nightmare in the congregation—it’s well that he is not there. The Pharisees were not “professional hypocrites”—he makes a little joke of how he tells his students they didn’t have to take the “hypocritic oath”—they were just a highly committed group of Jews determined to follow the Law as completely as possible. However, the problem with Law was that it was not “explicit” in how it ought to be followed—it was downright “ambiguous” in many areas. You couldn’t work on the Sabbath, for example. That means no harvesting. But what, the professor asks, if you just want something to eat on the Sabbath and pick just enough grain for that purpose? Was that harvesting or not? Well, “a decision has to be made,” he says. What if you walk through the field and accidentally knock some grain off the stalks? Is that harvesting? Once again, “a decision has to be made,” and Pharisees were the ones to make such decisions—decisions on scenarios as picayune as possible—and impose them on others.

What is this with “a decision has to be made?” Nobody has to make such a decision—or rather, they do, but it can be the person deciding for himself. Few human urges are greater than the one to meddle in someone else’s business. “Make it your aim...to mind your own business,” Paul would write later. The Law wasn’t explicit? It was as explicit as it needed to be and was written that way on purpose.

Jesus has it in for the Pharisees in the Book of Matthew, points out the professor, because the purpose of the gospel is to paint him as the “Jewish messiah”—as though proving his credentials by picking fights with those running the show. Probably the most nasty portrayal of the Pharisees is not in Matthew at all, but in John (following the resurrection of Lazarus), but this does not conform to the professors thesis, so he leaves it unmentioned. And Mark, far from exonerating Pharisees, translates certain Hebrew words like ‘corban‘ so that their want of heart can be seen the more clearly. Still, Matthew has a collection of zingers. From the 23rd chapter of the book:

Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the seat of Moses. Therefore, all the things they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds, for they say but they do not practice what they say. They bind up heavy loads and put them on the shoulders of men, but they themselves are not willing to budge them with their finger.

All the works they do, they do to be seen by men, for they broaden the scripture-containing cases that they wear as safeguards and lengthen the fringes of their garments.

They like the most prominent place at evening meals and the front seats in the synagogues  and the greetings in the marketplaces and to be called Rabbi by men.

But you, do not you be called Rabbi, for one is your Teacher, and all of you are brothers. Moreover, do not call anyone your father on earth, for one is your Father, the heavenly One. Neither be called leaders, for your Leader is one, the Christ. But the greatest one among you must be your minister. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.“

...“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you give the tenth of the mint and the dill and the cumin, but you have disregarded the weightier matters of the Law, namely, justice and mercy and faithfulness. These things it was necessary to do, yet not to disregard the other things. Blind guides, who strain out the gnat but gulp down the camel!

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of greediness and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee, cleanse first the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may also become clean.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you resemble whitewashed graves, which outwardly indeed appear beautiful but inside are full of dead men’s bones and of every sort of uncleanness. In the same way, on the outside you appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you build the graves of the prophets and decorate the tombs of the righteous ones, and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have shared with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Therefore, you are testifying against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets.  Well, then, fill up the measure of your forefathers.”

 

The professor doesn’t take sides. He remains above the fray of “interpretations.” He is a “critical thinker.” Jay wasn’t. When I studied with Jay, if the answer to a question was “the scribes and Pharisees” he would NOT simply give the answer and move on, as I so often wished he would. He would spring up from his chair, strut around his apartment, nose in the air, pompous as could be, and act out the role! He knew hypocrites. He knew ones who loved lording it over others. This stuff goes right to the heart—it either instantly lodges there or it doesn’t. it is silly to try to pretend it is a matter of the head. The heart chooses what it wants—and then charges the head with deriving a convincing rationale for it.

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The Gospel of Ehrman According to Mark

The Professor lectures about the Gospel of Mark and he does so by ignoring Matthew, Luke, and John. He lectures as though those other books did not exist. It is perfectly harebrained to do it this way, but that is how he does it. He is a critical thinker and must not allow cross-contamination.

He notes that Mark stresses Jesus’ authority. He notes of chapter 1 and verse 16: “While walking alongside the Sea of Galillee, he saw Simon and Simon’s brother Andrew casting their nets into the sea, for they were fishermen. So Jesus said to them: “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” And at once they abandoned their nets and followed him.” Jesus has authority, he says. “They’ve never laid eyes on him before.” He calls, and they drop everything to follow him.

Well, if you didn’t hamstring yourself with your scholarship, Mr. Professor, you wouldn’t come to such a ridiculous conclusion. I’ll know I’ve arrived as a Witness when I command the householder, “Come!” and he without question follows me to the Kingdom Hall, not even pausing to shut off the lawn mower. “Must...follow....Tom,” he will say as he stumbles by his bewildered wife and abandoned kids. Of course they’ve seen him before—he’s now giving them opportunity to join him in an intensive ministry. If you would read the other Gospels that somehow you think contaminate your research you would know that.

Jesus enters the synagogue to teach. This is only verse 21 of the first chapter, so indeed Mark does start off with a bang. He blows them away in the synagogue—they are “astounded at his way of teaching, for he was teaching them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” He casts out demons, heals plenty of the sick, including even Simon’s mother-in-law, yet he tells those demons—his disciples, too—to keep quiet about his identity—‘Zip it,’ he says. ‘Keep quiet that he is the Christ? Why would he want them to do that?’ interjects the Professor, as though uncovering proof that Jesus is crazy. Well, it may be for the same reason that Bob Dylan checks into the hotel under an assumed name—so he can stay unmolested until he performs in concert before thousands.

The ploy doesn’t do Jesus any good, though. The Professor doesn’t mention it, but one healed leper pays no attention to his orders and blabs everywhere that he’s been healed—it creates such a sensation that “Jesus was no longer able to enter openly into a city, but he stayed outside in isolated places.” He messed up the Lord! They keep coming to him from all sides, we read. Jesus later did try to rest up, but it was in vain, for Simon “hunted him down”—“all are looking for you,” he says. You think it’s easy being the Christ? It’s not! All this in the first chapter.

Does the Professor remark on something that more appreciative persons never fail to note?—that when the leper observes, “Lord, if you just want to, you can make me clean” Jesus says, “I want to? Does he reflect upon that? Nope. He critically looks at the fabric of the garment, the stitching of the garment, even the lint of the garment, and never seems to realize that you can wear the garment to stay warm.

As though the people of chapter 1 do not exist, the Professor goes on to consider other people—people who give Jesus a hard time. His family thinks he’s gone out of his mind. (3:21) Mark, the Professor points out, does not contain the virgin birth accounts of Matthew and Luke, so he assumes that this gospel writer knows nothing about it. Well, how do you know that he was born at all, if you’re going to be so insistent that the story must all be in one place!? Does this inane kind of scholarship hold for any other historical figure—Alexander the Great, for instance, or Cleopatra?

Jesus teaches in his home town, says the Professor, and his neighbors who watched him grow up can’t get their heads around just who he thinks he is. The lecturer can’t get over this, but in fact it is a classic quirk of how anybody gets more respect from people who do not remember what a cute little baby he used to be—and when the jokester Ernie moved to another congregation, we sent him off at his going-away party with a cake to that effect—“A prophet is not without honor except in his home territory,” said the frosting. I mean, we sure found him to be a trip; maybe they could put up with him.

The leaders of his own people, the Jews, charge that he “expels demons by means of the ruler of the demons,” so they, along with his family and his neighbors, don’t know Jesus’ true identity, either. The Professor misses entirely the baseness of men when their position is threatened—these leaders are just well-meaning sincere guys to him who really are trying to understand just what is going on. And you know that something is happening but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Scribe?

On and on the Professor goes, examining the minutia of the automobile and never realizing that you can climb in it and drive to to Boise, Idaho—I mention Boise, not for any reason unto itself but because for a time I played with the idea of a character named Ida Ho, who either cleaned up her act to become a Witness, or fell from grace away from it,  but I finally rejected the idea as too risqué for my people—it doesn’t take much to be too risqué for them—they take to heart the counsel to “let sexual immorality and every sort of uncleanness or greediness not even be mentioned among you, just as is proper for holy people; neither shameful conduct nor foolish talking nor obscene jesting.” Doesn’t bother the Professor, though—he mentions how he tells his undergrad students that Mark is called the Passion Gospel and by that he does not mean the kind of passion that goes on in the dorms on Friday night! Yes, yes, I get it—yuk yuk—but you almost wonder which passion he considers the most important as he strips away all that is meaningful about the Gospel for students who have paid good money for their college education, likely imagining that they will pick up something here that will help them in their quest for spirituality!

Oh, come on! Tom—you’re just jealous that he is a professor and you’re not.’ Well—maybe there is a little something to that—college professorship is one of the last occupations that the bean-counters have not yet ruined—but it doesn’t help to learn that Bart Ehrman the Professor, the Great Courses lecturer, was once a evangelical Christian who went apostate in their eyes and is now cashing in by putting a skeptical spin on what he once practiced because that is what the university crowd eats up. This—even given in my eyes—that the evangelicals naturally give birth to this kind of thing because most church teachings are not found in the Bible—it is the attempt to read them in that causes people to throw up their hands in despair of ever understanding the book—or do what the Professor does—milk it for incidentals to present at the university while he ignores the meaning.

He makes a few other quips, trying to make me mad. Explaining how messiah and christ mean the same thing and how they are titles and not surnames, he tells how he must teach his students that Jesus Christ is not the son of Joseph Christ and Mary Christ because they think that he is. He might as well let the impression stand, for he teaches them nothing more useful for building faith, which is the entire purpose of the Gospel. He marvels at that purpose, as though it is a waste of Mark’s talents—“the writer doesn’t claim to be writing an historically accurate biography in the modern sense, but an account of Jesus that reveals how his life and death brings ‘good news‘ to those willing to receive it.” If only Mark had landed a gig at the university so he could focus on stuff that didn’t matter!

Nobody knows who Jesus is, expounds the Professor—not his family, not his neighbors, not the religious leaders, not even his disciples, (6:51-52, 8:21) despite their instantly dropping everything to follow him they have no idea who he is. Even Jesus doesn’t seem to know who he is at the end, says the Professor, for he cries “My God, my God—why have you forsaken me?” Only half-way through the Book of Mark do some begin to get a clue as to his identity, starting with Peter (“You are the Christ”) but even then they are dense as all get-out.

“At almost the midway point of the Gospel comes the most interesting [to him] miracle in the entire narrative; an account of a man who is blind and who gradually regains his sight [8:22-26]. “[He] take[s] this as a symbolic expression of what will happen to the disciples, who gradually come to see who Jesus really is.” The Professor builds his theory off the fact that this is the only recorded miracle that is not instantaneous—it happens in stages. Now, this idea is not stupid—I kind of like it—but it is just an interpretation. This is why these doctor-of-divinity types are so annoying, trashing matters of real substance to spin their own speculative notions as though fact! It reminds me of the college course I took once because you had to have a certain number of electives; it, too, was a course on the Gospels, taught by a retired Baptist minister who commented on how back in his seminary days everyone called John the Apostle to the Idiots for the simple grammar he employed! The reason that the crowds were “astounded” with Jesus’ teachings is that he did NOT spin his own air-headed pontifications—he did NOT do what they were so used to.

If you write a report on William the Conquerer, do you take one source and one source only? If it is not in source A but it is in source B, do you assume that A and B would fight over it? What about this line from John 21:25: “There are also, in fact, many other things that Jesus did, which if ever they were written in full detail, I suppose the world itself could not contain the scrolls written.” You could write four Gospels never touching on the same fact, and this yo-yo would think it is four different people!

The Professor does give a reason for his critical approach of taking each gospel independent of the others. It is not crazy, however it does involve multiple assumptions, each one of which he treats as fact. ‘We can assume this, we can assume that’—he says of foundational points in a prior lecture. Essentially, (he doesn’t say it in these words) it is that early Christians were working-class, and you know how stupid they are—they don’t write books and teach in the university like he does. He even refers to the children’s game of whispering a story successively in each other’s ear to see how it changes over time, and when they did it to me in seventh grade, the story had even been purposefully changed before it reached my ears—I knew that because it consisted of mocking the teacher who started the ball rolling—and I would have felt silly passing that along so I changed it again! Besides, Mark was written decades after the events covered and it would be (at the time of lecture) ‘like recalling the details of the Johnson Presidential campaign,’ as though accompanying Christ would be of no more lasting significance to his disciples than working to elect a president!

I’m being excessively hard on this fellow and I am almost ashamed of myself. He is doing no more than what he said he would do—lecturing without regard to faith but only with regard to critical thinking. If he was doing it with any other author from Homer to Hawthorne, I would commend him. It is just that he is choosing to treat diamonds as salt that gets under my skin. It is far worse than when the Church of Christ fellow invited me into his home and I could see in a second that he truly was a student of the Bible—an instantly likable man of good humor, hospitality, no pretentiousness whatsoever—a man with multiple translations, and as we zeroed in on passage in Corinthians and he saw that I meant to read it aloud, he said in a minor panic: “No, no, let me read it—you’ll mess it up!” a retort that made both of us chuckle. Still, he was extracting reasons for faith out of the book, even if I did think he had some things backwards—he wasn’t stripping it of faith to extract the extraneous that he knew the university crowd would eat up.

Here is the Professor’s quip when speaking of Pax Romana: “I always tell my students that if there is a perfectly good English term for a concept, you are better off using the Latin term so everyone will know you’ve been to university.” It is just a quip but in that quip lies all the pretensions of our ridiculous times. “How can you believe, when you are accepting glory from one another and you are not seeking the glory that is from the only God?” says Jesus. (John 5:44)

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