Friday, January 17, 2014

Why are we still Christian when...

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Some time ago, someone asked me how can we continue to profess our Christian faith when we know that:
  • Christianity has developed over the centuries.
  • There are many theological disagreement and doctrinal differences, for e.g. the doctrine of Trinity.
  • Christians have persecuted other Christians and those who are considered heretics in the past.
  • Christian leaders have played along with and gave in to oppressive political power.
This made me re-think my own religious identity; why am I still a follower of Jesus Christ given the above facts?

So, here is my two-cents worth of suggestion...

The first thing to consider is not how time has affected Christianity, how intense theological disagreement is, and how past or current church leaders have failed or succeed. Rather, it should be on whether is Jesus real? If he is not, if he didn't die and wasn't resurrected, then there is no need to talk about the Christian faith or how un-Christian people are. If Jesus is not historically real, no matter how good Christianity has become or how well behave Christian leaders are, it doesn't change the fact that the Christian religion is a big fabrication.

So, how can we learn about the historical reliability of Jesus Christ?

There is no easy and instantaneous way to this question. The question itself demand nothing less from us than to go through the literature.

First, before examining the historicity of Jesus, we have to establish the reliability of human memory, particularly the New Testament authors' memory that testifies to the historicity of Jesus. On this matter, we could go through Robert K. McIver's Memory, Jesus, and the Synoptic Gospels (Society of Biblical Literature, 2011). Some scholars doubt the reliability of the gospels by casting high degree of skepticism over human memory's capability. McIver engages them by showing that human memory is not as hopeless as they want it to be.

After having established the reliability of human memory, we have to find out what is the genre of the the New Testament gospels that testify to Jesus. Richard Burridge's What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography (Eerdmans, 2nd edition, 2004) remains a classic text which concludes that the gospels are best understood as ancient biographies when we compare them with other Greco-Roman literature.

Then, we have to ask how reliable are these ancient biographies in accounting for the historicity of Jesus? There are two books which contribute much to this issue:

1) Richard Bauckham's Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Eerdmans, 2006).

2) Craig Bloomberg's The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (IVP Academic, 2nd edition, 2007).

How about the other 'gospel' documents that are not collected in the Bible such as the Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Peter, Gospel of Judas, Gospel of Mary, etc? Why are they excluded, and are they as historically reliable as the four canonical gospels in the New Testament? 

For these questions, we can to turn to the volume edited by Charles Hill and Michael Kruger The Early Text of the New Testament (Oxford University Press, 2012), Michael Kruger's The Question of Canon: Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate (IVP Academic, 2013), and perhaps also Daniel Wallace's Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament: Manuscript, Patristic, and Apocryphal Evidence (Kregel Academic, 2011) for issues such as whether have our present text been corrupted through the centuries-long transmission process.

After we have learned that the canonical gospels are reliable documents that witness to the historicity of Jesus, we have to understand how should we read the narratives in them. In this regard, I find N. T. Wright's works helpful, particularly New Testament and the People of God (Fortress, 1992), 29-144, and Jesus and the Victory of God (Fortress, 1996).

When we have established (1) the reliability of human memory to account for the past, (2) the genre of the New Testament gospels, (3) the historical and canonical reliability of the gospels, and (4) the approach to read and understand the narratives of Jesus found in the New Testament, we then can move on to find out whether did Jesus really rise from the dead. On this, we can engage 3 works:

1) N. T. Wright's Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress, 2003).

2) Michael Licona's The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (IVP Academic, 2010).

3) Christopher Bryan's Resurrection of the Messiah (Oxford University Press, 2011).

If after reading through these and still find that it is difficult to know for sure, then that's fine. Not everyone will be convinced. Nevertheless, these literature show that trusting in the canonical gospels' teaching about Jesus is not unreasonable. Good resources for churches' library; I've purchased some of them for the church that I'm serving in.

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