Note: This is the second installment of a new blog series announced here.
In the prior post, we discussed the first basic fact about the New Testament canon, namely that the New Testament writings are the earliest Christian texts we possess. We were careful to make clear that the early date of these books does not make them canonical, but the early date does show that these books were written during a time period when eyewitnesses of Jesus were still alive.
In this current post, we address the issue of “apocryphal” New Testament writings. These are writings that were not included in the New Testament, but have a similar genre (gospels, acts, letters, apocalypses, etc.). And these writings are often attributed to famous individuals, e.g., the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Thomas, the Acts of John.
While we cannot go into extensive detail about these various apocryphal writings, we can at least note one basic fact that is often overlooked: all of these apocryphal writings are dated to the second century or later. Thus, this post is the corollary of the prior one. Not only are all New Testament writings from the first century, but all apocryphal writings (at least the ones that are extant) are from the second century or later. And many are from the third or fourth century.
What is particularly noteworthy about this fact is that even critical scholars agree. While there is dispute over the dating of some New Testament books (e.g., 2 Peter, the Pastoral Epistles), there is virtual unanimity over the late date of apocryphal books. There are, of course, fringe attempts to place some apocryphal writings into the first century—e.g., Crossan argues that a “cross gospel” embedded in the Gospel of Peter is from the first century—but these suggestions have not been widely received.
The observation of this simple fact quickly calls into question sensationalistic claims about how these “lost” books contain the “real” version of Christianity.
Of course, one might argue that later texts can still preserve authentic first-century Christian tradition. After all, a text doesn’t have to be written in the first century to contain material from the first century. True. But we would still need to have a compelling reason to accept these later texts over our earlier ones. And when it comes to these apocryphal writings, compelling reasons are in short supply.
For one, we know that many of these apocryphal writings are outright forgeries, pretending to be written by someone who was clearly not the author. That fact alone raises serious questions about the reliability of their content. Second, many of these apocryphal writings contain obvious embellishments and legendary additions. For example, in the Gospel of Peter, Jesus emerges from the tomb as a giant whose head reaches the clouds, and he is followed by the cross itself which then speaks (!). And third, many of these apocryphal writings contain a Gnostic-style theology that did not even emerge until the second century, and therefore could not represent authentic first-century Christianity (e.g., Gospel of Philip).
To be clear, this does not suggest that it is impossible, in principle, for an apocryphal writing to be first century (it’s just that we have not found one yet). Nor does this suggest that apocryphal writings could not (or did not) ever contain reliable Jesus tradition. We know that early Christians sometimes appealed to apocryphal gospels as containing some true material (more on this in a later post). But, and this is the key point, the scraps of apocryphal literature that may be reliable do not present a version of Christianity that is out of sync with what we find in the New Testament books, and are certainly not in a position to supersede what we find in the New Testament books.
In the end, apocryphal writings constitute an interesting and fascinating source for the study of early Christianity. But, largely due to their late date, they do not offer a more compelling version of Christianity than the New Testament writings themselves.
For more, visit Dr. Kruger's website: Canon Fodder.
In the midst of the high-octane cultural wars of the last five years—particularly the debate over homosexual marriage—evangelical Christians have been slapped with all sorts of pejorative labels. Words such as “bigoted,” “arrogant,” “exclusive,” “dogmatic,” and “homophobic” are just a few.
But there are probably two labels that stand out the most. First, Christians are regularly regarded as intolerant. Christians are not only regarded as intolerant religiously—because they affirm the words of Jesus that “no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)—but they are regarded as intolerant ethically because they refuse to approve any and all behaviors as morally good.
Second, Christians are regularly (and ironically) regarded as haters. Apparently, our modern world regards the act of telling someone they’re wrong as a form of hatred—it is a slight against mankind (of course, it is never explained how the charge does not apply equally in the other direction, since those who make this charge are telling Christians they are wrong; but we shall leave that issue unaddressed for the time being).
Needless to say, such a situation can be very discouraging to Christians in the modern day. We might be tempted to despair and think that the church is entering into dark days. But a little historical perspective might be useful here. Truth be told, this is not the first time Christians have received such labels. Indeed, they were given to Christians from the very beginning.
Pliny the Younger: Christians are Intolerant
It is well known that in the Greco-Roman world there was a pantheon of gods. Every group had their own deities, and they were easily and naturally placed alongside other deities. For the most part, no one objected to the existence of other gods. It was a polytheistic world.
Of course, the earliest Christians were as monotheistic as their Jewish predecessors and quite unwilling to play along with the standard religious practices of Greco-Roman culture. For Roman rulers trying to keep the peace, the Christian intolerance of other gods was a perennial frustration.
Pliny the Younger, Roman governor of Bythinia (writing c. 111–113), expressed his own frustration over the fact that Christians would not “invoke the gods.” In a letter to emperor Trajan, he lamented their “stubborness and unyielding obstinancy.” In other words, he was angry over their intolerance.
Why was Pliny so bothered by this? Because the influence of the Christians had caused the pagan temples to be “deserted,” and, thus, “very few purchasers could be found” for the sacrificial animals.
In other words, they were losing money.
To fix the problem, Pliny decided to force Christians to worship the pagan gods and curse Christ, and if they refused they were put to death. He says, “As I am informed that people who are really Christians cannot possibly be made to do any of those things.”
It is interesting to note that Pliny, while torturing these Christians, acknowledges their high moral standards: “[Christians] bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so.”
Apparently, intolerance of the Roman gods is a enough of a reason to kill Christians, despite their holy lives.
Nero: Christians are Haters
In the late first-century, the Roman emperor Nero made himself famous for his persecution of Christians. The Roman historian Tacitus tells us that under Nero,
Mockery of every sort was added to their [Christians'] death. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, as exhibiting a show in the circus.
So, what awful crimes did Christians commit to warrant such unthinkable torture? Tacitus acknowledges that Christians weren’t really guilty of the trumped up charges of setting fire to the city. Instead, he admits they were killed for “hatred against mankind.”
What had Christians done to warrant the charge of “haters”? Again, they refused to condone the pantheon of gods and religious practices that went along with them.
In sum, the stories of Pliny and Nero are both encouraging and frightening at the same time. They are frightening because they sound eerily similar to the kind of language and accusations being used today against Christians. But instead of Christians being asked to pay homage to the Roman gods to prove their acceptability, they are now being asked to pay homage to the gods of tolerance or homosexual marriage or what have you.
At the same time, these stories are encouraging. They remind us that this sort of persecution isn’t new. Indeed, this persecution was not the end of Christianity, but was the beginning. In the midst of it, the church grew, and thrived, and expanded.
As Christ said, “I will build my church. And the gates of hell shall not stand against it” (Matt 16:18).
For more, visit Dr. Kruger's website: Canon Fodder.
Recently I have been doing some work on the Gospel of John and first-century Jewish monotheism. Anyone who explores the high Christology in John is forced to ask how it would have (or could have) emerged within a monotheistic context. How could early Jews have believed in the one true God of Israel, and also have believed that Jesus was divine?
There are many scholarly works that prove helpful in this discussion, but one of the best is the collection of essays by my doktorvater, Larry Hurtado, in his wonderful book, How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? (Eerdmans, 2005).
For the past twenty-five years Larry has been at the forefront of historical investigations into the origins of Jesus devotion within early Christianity. With his groundbreaking work One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism (Fortress Press, 1988; reprint T&T Clark, 2003), Hurtado laid forth the argument that worship of Jesus amongst early Christians was much earlier than previously thought—a monumental fact given that such devotion arose within circles of Second-Temple devout Jews. In 2003, he published Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity, which in many ways is a capstone work that continues his fundamental investigation into early Jesus devotion and draws together much of his research over the past two decades.
How On Earth Did Jesus Become a God? is a more compact presentation of Hurtado’s prior research and pulls together a number of previous publications on the subject (mainly journal articles) as well as material from the Deichmann Annual Lecture Series at Ben-Gurion University in Israel.
All the chapters in the volume are helpful, but the first two are the most foundational. In chapter one, Hurtado gives us the lay of the land by surveying the variety of other approaches to Jesus devotion within early Christianity, offering a brief critical review of each of them, so that his own approach can be seen in contrast to its scholarly competitors. In particular, he sets his sites on the “evolutionary” approach most aptly represented by William Bousset’s Kyrios Christos (1913), which argued that worship of Jesus arose with Gentile Christian circles heavily influenced by the pagan Greco-Roman cult.
It is here that the key historical issue at hand is crystallized. The challenge, argues Hurtado, is not simply explaining how Jesus was seen as divine by early Christians, but rather the challenge is explaining the manner in which he was seen as divine. Early Christians drew a sharp line between their worship of Jesus and all the other pagan gods of the Greco-Roman world. Jesus was not simply a new addition to a pantheon of gods they already believed in, but was considered to be the only God rightly deserving of worship.
The exclusive nature of such worship is monotheistic at the core and suggests a Jewish origin, not a pagan-Gentile one. It is such remarkable devotion to Jesus, within a monotheistic context, that demands some sort of serious historical explanation. Hurtado declares, “But it was a major and unprecedented move for people influenced by the exclusive monotheistic stance of Second-Temple Judaism to include another figure singularly alongside God as the recipient of cultic devotion in their worship gatherings” (25).
In chapter two, Hurtado continues his response to the evolutionary model by developing a larger argument for why devotion to Jesus originated from within a monotheistic Jewish context. Hurtado bases his argument on two primary pillars: (a) He argues that such devotion to Jesus can be traced so far back into the first century (even to the 40s) that an evolutionary model simply does not have time to work; and (b) the demographic origin of such devotion in the earliest followers of Jesus is decidedly Jewish (particularly in the crucial first few decades). Even though diaspora communities were influenced broadly by pagan culture, there are no reasons to think that such influence would have caused Jewish believers to question the uniqueness of the one true God of Israel; indeed, the opposite seems to be the case.
Hurtado concludes, therefore, that the earliest devotion to Jesus was in some sense “binitarian.” Christians worshiped Jesus not a second god, but worshiped him alongside the one true God of the Jews. Such a radical and astounding “mutation” within early monotheistic Judaism cannot be accounted for, argues Hurtado, by the evolutionary model (or, for that matter, most other current models).
Overall, this volume by Hurtado continues to expand his already compelling argument that worship of Jesus was a remarkably early innovation that demands rigorous historical investigation. Perhaps more than any other scholar in recent years, Hurtado has doggedly pursued this one issue and has thankfully caused the scholarly community to engage in deeper and more thorough historical reflections on the subject.
Thus, he has succeeded in shifting the terms of the debate over the origins of Christianity and the nature of the historical Jesus. Instead of getting drawn into endless discussions about historical sources, redaction criticism, and the like, Hurtado has refreshingly streamlined the discussion by asking simple questions about the origins of the beliefs and practices of early Christians. Such beliefs and practices cannot simply be observed by the modern scholar, but they demand historical explanations for their existence. It is at this point that the biblical explanation (early Christians experienced the resurrection of Jesus) shows itself to be the most compelling.
Note: Much of this review of Hurtado’s book was originally published in the Westminster Theological Journal 68 (2006): 369-372.
For more, visit Dr. Kruger's website: Canon Fodder.
Over the last few years, at least in my denomination (PCA), there has been a lot of talk regarding the importance of making sure that our ministries are “Christ-centered” or “Gospel-centered” in their main thrust. After all, we don’t want ministries that are just about moralism or doing good works; we want ministries that are about grace and the cross.
This “Christ-centered” focus is particularly evident when it comes to how we preach. We don’t want our preaching to turn into just the standard “do” sermons that invite a moralism that undermines the truths of the gospel. The center of our preaching must always be the redemptive work of Christ.
But here is where a key question arises. If our ministries are to have a Christ-centered focus, then have we applied this focus equally to all our ministries?
This seems like a particular good question to ask when we consider mercy ministry. During the last generation, there has been an ever-increasing focus on helping those in need—assisting the poor, feeding the hungry, etc. These good works, we are told, are critical if we are to show the world that our faith is real.
But if there is any ministry that we want to make sure is really-Christ centered, then surely it is this one. Why? Because the ministry itself is about doing good works, and thus is particularly vulnerable to morphing into a moralistic crusade void of the gospel.
In a recent article, Peter Jones gives a poignant example of how easily this can happen, even to mercy ministries that start out as evangelical:
In January 2013 World Vision (WV) sent an Easter funding appeal to those sponsoring needy children. WV began as an evangelistic ministry of Bob Pierce, a powerful preacher whom I heard preach when I was just a lad in my hometown in Liverpool in an evangelistic crusade. Since then, I have noticed many changes. The cross featured on all WV literature morphed into a twinkling star. I began to wonder. At the WV booth at a recent pastors’ conference, we were asked to fill packages with good things to be sent abroad. When I asked why there were no Bibles in the packages, I was told that they couldn’t know which language to include! My concern increased.
This Easter appeal included a card to be sent to deprived children in faraway places, with the WV tagline “Building a better world for children.” There was no good news of resurrection, rather pictures of animals teaching moralistic lessons to “bless children.” Children, like sheep, should “stay close to the family and friends you know…” but no mention of staying close to Jesus the Good shepherd. Children are like deer: “The deer is sure-footed… be confident in your abilities, like the deer.” No mention of the soul, like a thirsty deer, panting after God. The card only lacked the Easter Bunny! This is not an absence of Gospel. This is an anti-gospel-learning morality from nature and being successful from within ourselves, without depending on the Creator and Redeemer of nature.
In light of the rapidly increasing focus on mercy-ministries in the modern evangelical church, we need to be willing to ask the tough questions: How Christ-centered (really) is our mercy ministry? Are we any different than the United Way?
If we are going to maintain Christ-centered mercy ministries that do not morph into social-gospel ministries, then two things will need to be in place.
First, we need a Christ-centered motivation. When we call people to do mercy ministry, we must call them to do it for biblical reasons, and not for worldly ones. Certainly, Christians should not do mercy ministry to earn favor with God; our favor with God is secured by the finished work of Christ. We should not do mercy ministry just because it’s hip or trendy, or because it gives us “street cred” in the eyes of the world. We should do it for the glory of Christ and out of keen sense of the mercy that has so lavishly been poured onto us.
So, to those who are champions of mercy ministry, I ask this question. Are you busy reminding those in your ministries of solid, biblical, Christ-centered motivations for their actions?
Second, we need a Christ-centered message. The Christian does (or ought to do) mercy ministry with a very different mindset than the world. We do mercy ministry with the knowledge that food and clothing are not the primary needs of those we serve. This does not mean that material needs are irrelevant—we should care about temporal suffering. But the ultimate need of those we serve is Christ. What they ultimately need is a repaired relationship with their Creator.
So, to those who are champions of mercy ministry, I ask this question. Are you seeking to bring Christ to those you are helping? Are you bringing the gospel to those you are serving?
This does not mean, of course, that every single act of mercy must be accompanied by a sermon or gospel tract, lest it be invalidated. No, it’s not that simplistic. What it does mean, however, is that the central thrust of our good works is always that the gospel message might go forth.
Put simply, mercy ministry should be driven by the gospel message, and should drive people to the gospel message.
Either way, the gospel message is primary. That is the only way our mercy ministry, or any ministry, can be a Christian one.
For more, visit Dr. Kruger's website: Canon Fodder.
Dr. Michael J. Kruger is President and Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, NC. In addition, he is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and serve as an Associate Pastor (part-time, of course) at my home church, Uptown PCA.