Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category


Snake-Handling Preacher Dies from Snake Bite

May 31, 2012

A friend brought to my attention a story coming out of West Virginia yesterday. Pastor Randy “Mack” Wolford, a snake-handling Pentecostal preacher, has died from a poisonous timber rattlesnake bite.

You can read the ABC report here.

Wolford was profiled just 6 months ago in an article by the Washington Post. He’d been bitten several times before and survived. As Discovery News explains, it’s impossible to predict whether a snake will deliver “a harmless ‘dry bite,’ or a deadly injection of toxins that can kill a full-grown human within hours.”

No doubt, these past brushes with serpents emboldened Wolford to believe that he owed his survival, not to the lack of venom in those bites, but to the power of God:

“Anybody can do it that believes it,” he says. “Jesus said, ‘These signs shall follow them which believe.’ This is a sign to show people that God has the power.” … “I know it’s real; it is the power of God,” Wolford says. “If I didn’t do it, if I’d never gotten back involved, it’d be the same as denying the power and saying it was not real.”

The sad irony is that, at the age of 15, Wolford watched his father, also a snake-handling preacher, die from a snake bite. In what has to be one of the most mind-boggling rationalizations I’ve ever read, Wolford said of his father’s death, “I hated to see him go, but he died for what he believed in.” Given that what his father “believed in” was that he could be bitten by snakes and not die, it’s hard to understand how death by snakebite amounts to dying “for what you believe in.” Seems more likely dying to disprove what you believe in.

The other sad irony is that Mark 16:17-18, the passage on which Pentecostal snake-handlers stake their lives, is part of the longer ending of Mark that scholars have long recognized as inauthentic. Death from lack of textual criticism. Tragic, really. Perhaps the King James Bible should come with a warning label.


Hellbound? the Documentary

March 21, 2012

Now this looks interesting …

The release date is September 2012. Until then, you can learn more about the movie at

HT: Randal Rauser


Does Matthew Gild the Lily?

March 17, 2012
Zeba A. Crook, Ph.D

Zeba A. Crook, Ph.D

Last week, James McGrath posted a link to a fascinating article by Zeba Crook. Crook, a professor at Carleton University, argues for the need for a secular Bible translation (i.e. a translation that does not concern itself with upholding the theological commitments of a faith community). In the course of doing so, Crook described a translation issue that was new to me – one involving the circumstances of Judas’s death.

Most readers will already be aware of the two quite different versions of the story found in Acts and Matthew. In Acts 1:18-19, Judas takes the money he receives for betraying Jesus (no amount is ever specified; see Luke 22:3-6) and buys some land. While on his newly-acquired property, Judas falls, spills his guts (literally), and folks take to calling the place “Field of Blood” as a result.

Matthew’s Judas, on the other hand, is not in the market for real estate. Rather, in Matthew 27:3-10, Judas is so overcome with remorse that he throws his ill-gotten 30 pieces of silver into the temple, runs off and hangs himself. Matthew doesn’t tell us where. The chief priests collect the coins and decide to use the money to buy “the potter’s field”. In Matthew’s account, the field comes to be known as the Field of Blood, not because it was the location of Judas’s death, but because it was bought with “blood money”.

If you’re familiar with evangelical apologetics, you’ll have heard the creative harmonization in which Judas is said to have first hung himself and then, after a bit of decomposing, had his intestines spill out. Voila! No contradiction! … Except for the two completely different stories about what happened to the money, who actually bought the field, and why it was called the Field of Blood. It’s enough to keep an inerrantist awake at night.

But the Acts/Matthew conflict is a topic for another day. The translation issue described by Crook involves Matthew’s claim that the circumstances of Judas’s death fulfilled prophecy. In verses 9-10, the author of Matthew writes as follows:

Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: “They took the thirty pieces of silver, the price set on him by the people of Israel, and they used them to buy the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.

Matthew’s reference to Jeremiah appears to be a mistake. Most would acknowledge that the author actually has in mind this passage in Zechariah 11:12-13:

I told them, “If you think it best, give me my pay; but if not, keep it.” So they paid me thirty pieces of silver.

And the LORD said to me, “Throw it to the potter”—the handsome price at which they valued me! So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them to the potter at the house of the LORD.

Comparing the two passages, we find these elements in common:

  • Someone being valued at a price of 30 pieces of silver.
  • The throwing of coins in the temple.
  • Something about a potter.

Matthew’s story of Judas’s final hours has all of these elements, allowing him to contend that the event was a fulfillment of Scripture.

But are these details historical? Note that the version of Judas’s death in Luke/Acts has none of these elements. Did Matthew get a little creative with the historical details in order to make the “prophecy” work? To borrow the language of John Dominic Crossan, is this “history remembered” or “prophecy historicized”?

This is where Crook’s article comes in. It turns out that the Hebrew word translated “potter” in Zechariah is more properly translated “treasury”. Zechariah is throwing his money into the temple treasury, not to a potter. If you read Zechariah 11, you’ll see that the reference to a potter comes completely out of the blue. Why exactly is there a potter in the temple? Why is he getting the money? It makes WAY more sense for Zechariah to throw money into the treasury in the temple than to throw money to some random potter in the temple. Crook’s complaint is that translators refuse to correct the errant translation in Zechariah because they don’t want to embarrass Matthew.

The problem for Matthew is magnified by his claim in Matt. 27:6-7:

The chief priests picked up the coins and said, “It is against the law to put this into the treasury, since it is blood money.” So they decided to use the money to buy the potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners.

In Matthew, the temple treasury is the one place the money cannot go!

Was Matthew actually aware of a tradition in which the blood money was used to buy a “potter’s field” or did he misread the reference to the treasury in Zechariah 11 as a reference to a potter and decide to add the potter detail to his Judas story?

If this were an isolated incident, I’d be more inclined to give Matthew the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately, this isn’t the only time Matthew appears to have stumbled in attempting to fit his narrative to an OT passage. All four gospels record the triumphal entry of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. Matthew declares that this act was a fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9, which reads:

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! 
   Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! 
See, your king comes to you, 
   righteous and victorious, 
lowly and riding on a donkey, 
   on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Perhaps this was a fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9 – perhaps even a deliberate fulfillment on Jesus’ part. The problem is that Matthew appears to misread the OT passage. He reads Zechariah as referring to two separate animals – a donkey AND a colt. In reality, the passage in Zechariah is simply employing Hebrew synonymous parallelism, wherein the same object (a donkey) is described twice using different language.

Mark, Luke, and John all describe Jesus riding a single donkey into Jerusalem. Matthew is the only author to add a second animal:

They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. (Matt. 21:7)

The bizzare spectacle of Jesus riding both a donkey and a colt into Jerusalem appears to have its explanation in Matthew’s overzealous attempt to match the details of his Jesus narrative to what he believed to be the OT text under fulfillment.

Here, I think, Matthew is caught red-handed. It would seem that Matthew was willing to change the details of an event to make it line up with an OT passage in which he believed he had identified a messianic prophecy.

I get that ancient authors didn’t feel the need to conform to our modern standards of objective history writing. I get that the gospels contain theological reflection on the meaning of Jesus, not just flat biographical accounts. But it sure makes a mess out of apologetic claims that Jesus fulfilled OT prophecies when, in some instances at least, the NT author is fudging the facts to make the events of Jesus’ life appear to match OT passages.

If Matthew is willing to do this, what then should we make of his account of Joseph & Mary fleeing to Egypt after the birth of Jesus? Is this a bit of creative storytelling in service of Matthew’s aim of portraying Jesus as the new Moses? I’m tempted to think so.

What should we do with Matthew’s claim (in Matt. 1:22-23) that the virgin birth was a fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14? Isaiah 7:14 actually refers only to a “young woman” giving birth, not a “virgin”, as Matthew claims (relying, presumably, on the mistranslation in the Septuagint). In the case of the virgin birth, I wouldn’t be so quick to conclude that Matthew invented this detail, given that Luke provides the same information independently.

Still, it makes you wonder.

I’m certainly not suggesting that there isn’t a historical core underlying Matthew’s narrative in most instances. I don’t suppose, for instance, that the entire Passion narrative is just a pastiche of OT prophecies stitched together into a fictitious whole (à la Crossan). But those instances where Matthew’s misreading of an OT passage allow us to catch him in the act of adding prophetic flourishes to his narrative do make me a little uneasy about accepting his history at face value.

There was a day, not so long ago, when an issue like this would have had my little fundamentalist self all tied up in knots. Today, I’m okay with it. Because I’m learning, as Rachel Held Evans puts it, to love the Bible for what it is, not what I want it to be.


My Sister & the Humanitarian Crisis in Sudan

March 2, 2012

My sister in Yida on Valentines Day

Today, I am pleased to feature a guest post written by my sister, who has a Masters in Public Health from the prestigious London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. This, apparently, qualifies her to live in thatch huts, contract malaria semi-regularly, and kill snakes in her bedroom.

My sister has spent the past two months working in Yida, a refugee camp in South Sudan where tens of thousands of Nuban people have sought refuge from the atrocities being committed by Sudanese government forces. The situation is grim. The Nuban people are the victims of state-sanctioned ethnic cleansing. Close to half a million have been displaced. Many are on the verge of starvation.

My sister’s small team has been working to provide the Yida community with food, healthcare and other essential services, like water and sanitation. [For security reasons, I won’t mention her name or the organization with which she works.] My sister’s focus is on maternal and child health, particularly nutrition.

Also, my sister is my hero. I can think of no truer expression of the Kingdom mission than the work that she is doing. She binds up the broken, feeds the hungry, and (as you’re about to read) is risking her life to rescue the oppressed.

Here is her story:

I live and work in the Yida refugee camp, located a few miles south of the border between Sudan and the world’s newest nation, South Sudan.

I received a phone call from human resources about an hour after accepting the position. “I’m just calling to tell you that I am taking out a war insurance policy in your name,” she said.

“Okay,” I replied.

There was a pause on the other end of the line.

“I just want to make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into,” she said.

“I do,” I reassured her.

But I didn’t.

Yesterday morning I was awakened by the sound of explosions. Another battle had broken out in a town along the border. The shelling and bombing lasted for hours.

This morning we were all at the food distribution site when an Antonov bomber appeared, circling low above the camp. They fly over all the time and no one bats an eyelash, but this time something was different. Everyone started running for cover, sure that the plane was going to bomb us. As a large group of people, we were a clear target. We all hit the dirt until the plane left (my foxhole of choice was a partially-dug latrine), then jumped in our pickup and raced back to the compound.

Then the bombing began. It wasn’t in the camp, but it was close enough to make the ground shake and send everyone rushing for cover. Suddenly the Antonov was back again, right above us. I sat cowering in my foxhole, looking straight up at the belly of an Antonov bomber as it droned slowly over our camp. We sat, deathly quiet, waiting to see if a bomb would fall. I kept saying to myself, “You are going to be bombed. It is going to be okay.” And I prayed a lot, “God, please protect our camp!”

After repeated low altitude passes over the camp, the Antonov disappeared. We weren’t bombed. Two months before my arrival, the camp wasn’t so lucky. A UNHCR report describes that incident:

…[O]n November 10, another Antonov bomber came. The plane made three turns around Yida before it released its payload. People scattered in every direction. Two of the bombs landed on the runway next to the camp’s perimetre. Two others fell further away. But one bomb landed in the middle of a temporary school. The children had been evacuated but Zahara remembers the fear everyone shared. “People ran into the market and into the forest,” she says. “Some of us stayed in the bush for hours.” In fact some 600 pupils and students ran away after the bombing and some are still missing.

I have never experienced war. Conflict has always been an ocean away, not right above me. I didn’t know what I was getting into, because I’ve no experience with the kind of hatred and greed that prompts one group to try to destroy another. But this is what is happening in Sudan.

During the protracted Sudanese civil war, the people of Nuba sided with the south. However, when the nation split in two last summer, the Nuba found themselves part of the north and the target of a relentless military campaign. The government of Sudan claims that they are supressing a rebellion in the states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile, but the indiscriminate arial bombardments and militia style ground attacks have brutalized the civilian population, reducing the people to living in caves in the mountains and forcing hundreds of thousands to flee to safety in refugee camps in South Sudan — camps like Yida.

But these camps are not safe. There are over 28,000 people registered in the camp and many more unregistered. Due in part to our proximity to the border, we have not been classified as a “refugee camp”. Instead, the UN considers this a “transit site”. This means that even though people have been living here for months, they have never been given a full food ration. A family might receive one or two weeks worth of food and nothing more within a calendar month. Malnutrition rates are alarming. Relief agencies are prohibited from doing anything “permanent” like constructing buildings or assisting in organizing schooling for the children. This is incredibly frustrating for the people in the camp. Additionally, the government of Sudan has proved willing to follow the people of Nuba into South Sudan. Our camp was bombed three months ago, and this morning everyone thought we were being attacked again. It was terrifying, and sadly, for the people of Nuba, it is old hat.

If you have followed the situation in Sudan at all over the last few years you will remember the crisis in Darfur. The actions of Omar al-Bashir (the president of Sudan) during this conflict earned him a warrant for his arrest from the International Criminal Court on counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. He has never been prosecuted, of course, and many say that the crisis in Nuba is tragically reminiscent of Darfur. Bashir and his government are doing the same thing all over again, and any and all alarm bells being rung by watchful observers in the international community are being ignored.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Virginia) visits Yida

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Virginia) visits Yida

When US Congressman Frank Wolf visited the camp several weeks ago he was greeted by a crowd of Nubans, some of whom held homemade signs pleading for people like Obama and Ban Ki-moon to pay attention and protect their rights.

This blog post is my handmade sign. Please pay attention to Nuba. Please pay attention to the actions of the government of Khartoum. I’m no military strategist or humanitarian expert, but there are people with the knowledge and power to intervene wisely in this situation. You can let them know that they themselves need to pay attention.

We were so thankful to have Nicholas Kristof (co-author of Half the Sky) and Ann Curry of the Today Show (NBC) with us in Yida. Watch their stories and learn. And then act. All it takes is a letter or a phone call to your MP, congressman or senator. If we can rally the political will, action will come.


A preview of Curry’s piece is here:

For Curry’s full report, follow this link to her February 29th segment on Rock Center with Brian Williams.

Kristof’s excellent piece is here [you’ll have to click through to Youtube]:

You can also follow this link to listen to Halima Kaga, a 32-year old Nuban woman living in the Yida refugee camp, describe her experiences and plead for justice.

It’s easy to feel utterly helpless when watching an international crisis unfold on the opposite side of the globe. I have sat on my hands more times than I care to admit. But my sister is right. We can do something. The story of the Nuba people and this growing humanitarian disaster is largely unknown. Please help get the word out. Reblog it. Tweet it. Learn more about the conflictPhone or write your elected officials [for Canada, click here; for the US, click here]. Urge them to pressure the international community to intervene before the story of the Nuba becomes the unthinkable sequel to Darfur.

And to my sister. Thank you for sharing this. May God indeed protect your camp.

and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry

and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,

then your light will rise in the darkness,

and your night will become like the noonday.

-Isaiah 58:10


The Phat Father on Jesus & Religion

January 21, 2012

At present, the video Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus by Jeff Bethke is closing in on 16 million views on Youtube.

There have been numerous video responses, but this one by Fr. Pontifex is one of the better ones:

HT: Ryan Mahoney

It’s worth noting that, following this critique by Kevin DeYoung, Bethke now seems to agree that some of his “words and delivery were chosen poorly”. In the immortal words of Ali G, “Respect.”


Driscoll & Brierley on Women in Leadership

January 15, 2012

Justin Brierley, the unfailingly polite host of the British radio program, Unbelievable, recently podcast the entirety of his hour-long interview with Mark Driscoll.

Things did not go well.

There are many moments in this interview that could provide fodder for discussion. For example, Christians in the UK may be rather nonplussed by Driscoll impugning their entire country for not having, well, Mark Driscoll:

Driscoll: I go too far sometimes. Almost every other pastor I know doesn’t go far enough and that’s okay ’cause the church tends to be led by people who are timid and fearful of going too far. I mean, let’s just say this. … Right now, name for me the one young good Bible teacher that’s known across Great Britain.

Brierley: Hmm …

Driscoll: You don’t have one. That is a problem. There’s a bunch of cowards who aren’t telling the truth.

Brierley: So you think that the Bible teaches …

Driscoll: You don’t have one. You don’t have one young guy who can preach the Bible that anybody’s listening to on the whole earth.

I’ll leave it to the Brits to decide whether their churches suffer from a glut of cowards and a want of controversial celebrity preachers.

Much of the interview revolved around Driscoll’s views on women and their role in marriage and the church. When Brierley confessed that his own wife is, in fact, the pastor of his church, things got incredibly awkward:

Driscoll: I’m not shocked by the answer, by the questions you ask. I love you, but you’re annoying. ‘Cause you’re picking on all the same issues that those who are classically evangelical, kind of liberal, kind of feminist do.

Brierley: I think it’s because those are the issues here that people are thinking about. … [Brierley says he’s impressed by much of what Mars Hill Church is doing].

Driscoll: Kay, let me ask you a few hard questions.

Brierley: Go ahead, go ahead.

Driscoll: So, in the church that your wife pastors, how many young men have come to Christ in the last year?

[It’s clear from the tone of Driscoll’s question that this is not a bona fide inquiry about the souls in Brierley’s church. It’s a veiled criticism. Driscoll is going to prove that women pastors can’t get the job done (i.e. attracting men to the church) and he’s going to belittle Brierley’s wife & church to do it.]

Brierley: Well we’re not a huge church, unlike yours, but I’d say there’s two or three probably in the last year who certainly, yah, I’d say have come to Christ in a pretty meaningful way.

Driscoll: Okay and in the church, what percentage is young men, single men?

Brierley: It’s difficult to say off the top of my head, but I’ll freely say it’s certainly not a big percentage, no.

Driscoll: Kay, and are you okay with that? Do you think that’s the best way to go?

Brierley: No, but can it be so easily put down to the fact that the church is being run by a woman? I mean, is that …

Driscoll: Yup. Yup. You look at your results, you look at my results, and you look at the variable that’s most obvious.

[Yes, he did just say that. His results are better than hers. And it’s because he’s a man and she’s a woman.]

Brierley: Well, in our case, the …

Driscoll: This is where the excuses come, not the verses. This is where the excuses come, not the verses.

Brierley: … Up to the point my wife took over, it had been run by men. Since she’s come, lots of new families, lots of younger people, both men and women, have come. I wouldn’t say the balance is right perfect yet by any means. But it’s certainly a lot better than it ever was. And so I don’t necessarily see quite the same situation that you paint there in terms of men not relating. I see more men in the church since she’s been there than before she was there, in a way.

Driscoll: What kind of men? Strong men?

[The implication here is obvious. Only weak, limp-wristed mama’s boys would be attracted to a church with a female leader, right? Tough men like Driscoll certainly wouldn’t be. Brierley seems genuinely baffled by such a stupid question.]

Brierley: Well, men. I mean, men come in different shapes and sizes. I mean, yah, both really. Men who are very masculine, men who are, I guess, on a spectrum, more effeminate. But I couldn’t say that there’s been a sort of dearth of men in the church since she’s arrived. I mean, Mark, I don’t want to get into a sort of argument.

Driscoll: No, no, you don’t want to sit in my seat, I understand. So does your wife do counseling with men? Sexual counseling? Does she talk about masturbation, pornography, the stuff that I do?

Brierley: Well no, she doesn’t.

Driscoll: Well, who does talk to the men about those things, especially the young men?

Brierley: Well there are other people that she can pass them on to. We have male elders in our church who, you know, would be able to tackle those kinds of questions. I mean, but would you speak with those kinds of issues to a female in your church?

Driscoll: Uh no. If they’re a married couple we might meet with them as a couple. But if it’s a woman, we would have women leaders meet with them.

Brierley: Sure, well it’s the same scenario in our church really.

Driscoll: Well except for who’s in charge.

[This part is almost comical. Driscoll seems to think he’s got a real zinger. If a woman is pastor, who’s going to do all that important sex counseling that Driscoll seems so obsessed with? Faced with the rather obvious explanation that it’s the same in Brierley’s church as in his own (men counsel men and women counsel women) Driscoll insists that it’s still not as good because the men aren’t “in charge”.]

Brierley: Well what’s wrong with… I mean, I agree, obviously theologically we’re not on the same page here Mark in terms of…

Driscoll: Do you believe in a conscious literal eternal torment of hell?

Brierley: What has that got to do with the issue of women in leadership, if you don’t mind me asking?

Driscoll: It does. It depends on your view of God. Is God like a mom who just embraces everyone? Or is he like a father who also protects, and defends, and disciplines? If you won’t answer the question, I think I know the answer.

Driscoll goes on to grill Brierley about whether he believes in penal substitution. When Brierley replies that it’s a valid way of understanding the meaning of the cross, Driscoll isn’t satisfied, calls him a “coward”, and eventually tells him to stop “drinking decaf” and get “more courage”.

It’s clear that Driscoll’s male supremacy vibe has implications for all of his theology. Eternal conscious torment is a tough, manly doctrine and, therefore, superior to weak womanly ideas that don’t involve a literal fiery hell. Real men, brave men espouse a penal substitution theory of atonement without reservation. Those who prefer a more nuanced understanding are effeminate cowards.

You see, if you have doctrinal differences with Mark Driscoll, you don’t just disagree with him; you are inferior to him. And he’s got the church-growth results to prove it.

There’s so much more that could be said, but I’ll leave that to others. Besides, given that I don’t share Driscoll’s doctrinal stances, I’ve probably got to go paint my nails or tease my hair or something.


[Edit: Based on a few of the comments I’ve received on this post, I want to add some clarification. I would be the first to agree that by no means is Driscoll this abrasive throughout the entire interview. Most of the time, he and Brierley got along fine (although I think the mood soured a bit at around the 17 minute mark when Driscoll called Brierley “immature” for asking what I thought was a perfectly legitimate question).

Some have wondered whether these quotes are taking Driscoll out of context. The first quote about the “cowards” in UK churches (28 minute mark) came in the context of Driscoll being asked if he regretted his Facebook comment that encouraged people to share stories about “effeminate anatomically male worship leaders”. He agreed that he had gone too far but then said what you see transcribed above. Seems beset with regret, doesn’t he?

The transcribed portion of the interview about women takes you from 49:40 through 53:30. Everything is there (except a few lines by Brierley about admiring Mars Hill, which I summarized for brevity). My square bracketed interjections do not represent missing context. What you read above is the entire 4 minute exchange. Yes, there is context before and context after. But I fail to see how that minimizes the legitimate concerns about what he said in the middle. I can understand a one-liner being “taken out of context”. It’s hard to take 4 solid minutes of conversation out of context. You can listen to the full interview here.]


Exegesis: You’re Doing it Wrong

December 31, 2011

When it comes to mishandling Scripture, few people can match the death-defying logical leaps of biblical daredevil Joseph Prince. Pastor of Singapore megachurch New Creation Church, Prince has been invited to speak at various Hillsongs conferences and Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas. His television show, Destined to Reign, reaches millions daily.

What makes a pastor such a coveted international speaker? Sound, grammatical-historical biblical interpretation, you say? No. That would be boring. What people really want is an approach to Scripture that makes the Bible seem like a puzzle book with “Jabez Prayer”-like secrets waiting to be unlocked by the newest hermeneutical Evel Knievel.

Here’s an excerpt from one of this week’s devotional gems at

“And the Child grew and became strong in spirit, filled with wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him.” Luke 2:40

The verse says that the grace of God was upon Jesus. The Bible also says that where sin abounds, grace abounds much more. (Romans 5:20) And when you put the two together, you may find yourself asking, “If the grace of God was upon Jesus, does it mean that He sinned?”

No, Jesus did not sin. (2 Corinthians 5:21) So there must be another explanation as to why God’s grace was upon Jesus. There must be another explanation as to why someone can abound in God’s grace even when he has not sinned.

Let’s look at the word “grace” when it is first mentioned in the Bible. Genesis 6:8 says that “Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord”. Noah’s name means “rest”. So the verse is telling us that rest found grace. In other words, when you rest, you find grace!

So grace was upon Jesus because His life was a life of rest and trust in His Father.

Let’s watch that again in slow motion.

Noah’s name means rest.

Noah found grace.

Therefore, rest found grace.

Therefore, if we rest, we will find grace.

See how easy that was? No need for those expensive Bible commentaries and long hours studying Hebrew. All you need is a Hebrew name book. Let’s try some ourselves.

Esau means hairy.

In Malachi 1, God says, “I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated…”

Therefore, God hates hairy people.

Let’s try a Noah one.

Noah means rest.

After the flood, Noah got drunk and exposed himself.

Therefore, when we rest, we should get drunk and … hmm … perhaps this is one of those “don’t try this at home” interpretive stunts.

Good exegesis is hard. It requires lots of study and knowledge of the original languages, culture and context. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Joseph Prince, the author of Destined to Reign: The Secret to Effortless Success, Wholeness and Victorious Living, prefers an easier hermeneutical approach.

Effortless indeed.

Charisma magazine profiled Prince last year. It would seem that Prince’s interpretive approach lends itself to a word-of-faith type message. The article quotes Prince’s book, Unmerited Favor:

Because of the cross, we can today expect good, we can expect success, we can expect promotion, increase and the abundant life. It is all because of our wonderful Lord Jesus. If we have Him, we have everything and more, and can be a blessing to others.

His message is, predictably, popular in the U.S., where his televised services are broadcast on TBN, ABC Family Channel and several other networks. Charisma quotes one enthused viewer:

Linda Lee Bingham of New Jersey said understanding grace has enabled her to better trust and rest in God. “Good things are popping into my life faster than I can imagine,” she says. “I started a new business project a few months ago and already have 10 employees. The work is finished on the cross, and I’m just enjoying the ride.”

That’s right Linda Lee. Jesus bled on the cross so that you could get your Amway business off the ground. PTL!

To get a real flavor for the interpretive stylings of Joseph Prince, check out the video below. Skip ahead to the 9:00 minute mark to learn:

  • that Luke 21:25-26 contains a prediction of the March 2011 Japanese tsunami and nuclear crisis;
  • that ouranos [misspelled uranos by Prince] is the ancient Greek word for uranium [an element first discovered in 1789 AD]; and
  • that taking communion will neutralize the radiation in your body from the Japanese nuclear leak.

Can’t get enough Prince? In this next video, Prince explains how the book of Deuteronomy and the cartoonish map in the back of his Bible enabled him to predict the discovery of an offshore natural gas deposit near (actually, nowhere near) Haifa.

Kind of makes Harold Camping look like a top-notch biblical scholar, doesn’t he?


Worst Christian Bookstore Name Ever

December 16, 2011

Wandering through a mall in Durban, South Africa, last month, we came upon this unfortunately-named Christian bookstore:

I have yet to figure out what the acronym might stand for. It is an acronym, right?

Here’s their website, where you can order products such as …

Or, just in time for the holidays …

I wonder if they know.


Did Paul Write the Pastoral Epistles? Part IV

December 13, 2011

This will be the final post on the topic of the authorship of the Pastoral epistles. Follow these links for Part I, Part II, and Part III. We’ll wrap up by examining two apparent conflicts between the Pastorals and other NT writings by or about Paul. These conflicts raise further doubt about whether Paul is the author of the putative letters to Timothy and Titus.

Historical Difficulties

The Pastoral epistles describe travels of Paul that bear little resemblance to what we know of his journeys from Acts and other Pauline letters. They have Paul ministering in Crete and leaving Titus to continue the work they had begun. They have Paul wintering in Nicopolis (Western Greece). They have Paul leaving Timothy in Ephesus when he departs for Macedonia (seemingly contrary to Acts 20 which says that Timothy was Paul’s companion on his journey from Ephesus into Macedonia and Greece).

There is no external evidence for any of these trips and no easy way to reconcile them with the chronologies provided by Acts and the undisputed Pauline epistles. Recognizing this, some have suggested that these journeys must have occurred after the time frame covered by Acts. In other words, maybe Paul managed to survive his Roman imprisonment, was released, and returned to the Eastern Mediterranean to complete the journeys mentioned in the Pastorals.

The first problem with this suggestion is that there is simply no evidence of it.

Second, the idea that Paul survived his Roman imprisonment and went on to complete further missionary journeys is at odds with passages in Acts that give the clear implication that Paul would meet his end in Rome.

In Acts 20:25, Paul bids a tearful farewell to the elders at Ephesus:

Now I know that none of you among whom I have gone about preaching the kingdom will ever see me again.

The author of Acts gives us no indication that Paul was mistaken about this. Rather, at verses 36-38 he continues:

When Paul had finished speaking, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him. What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again.

Did Paul surprise everyone (including himself) by surviving his imprisonment in Rome, returning to the Eastern Mediterranean and launching a new work in Crete? I suppose this is possible. But the more likely explanation (particularly in light of all the other evidence pointing away from Pauline authorship) is that the historical details don’t fit because someone is writing these letters in Paul’s name at a later time. The author has sufficient knowledge of Paul’s travels and companions to include personal details that sound plausible, but insufficient knowledge to do so in a way that doesn’t conflict with our more reliable records.

The Role of Women

Scholars have noted that the Pastorals’ teachings on the role of women in church life seems at variance with Paul’s view. Would the Paul who provided instructions on how women should pray and prophecy in I Corinthians (11:4-6) also tell Timothy that women must learn in silence (1 Tim. 2:11-14)? Would the Paul, who frequently commended prominent women in the church (eg. Phoebe, Priscilla, Chloe) and who described Junia (a female name) as “outstanding among the apostles” (Rom. 16:7), now forbid women from teaching or exercising authority over men?

There are several clues throughout the Pastorals that the author is motivated by a desire to reduce tensions with those outside the church, such that Christians might enjoy “peaceful and quiet lives” (1 Tim. 2:1-3). We know from ancient sources that the early church was criticized for the prominent role afforded to women and for teachings that were seen as disruptive to the household.

An extreme example of the sort of teaching that was raising eyebrows is found in the mid-2nd century AD text, The Acts of Paul and Thecla. This early Christian novel portrayed Paul as teaching a strict form of asceticism that forbade marriage and sex. The heroine, Thecla, takes Paul’s message to heart and refuses the marriage arranged for her. She preaches, baptizes herself, narrowly avoids death … it’s all very exciting. But to encourage women to carry on in such a fashion was, to a Roman audience, scandalous.

5-6th century fresco of Paul, Thecla (left) and her mother (right)

The Pastorals may be, in part, an attempt by followers of Paul to counter such interpretations of the Pauline message and alleviate tensions with those outside the church. The message: Paul was no enemy of traditional Greco-Roman family roles. Rather, women should strive for propriety, quiet submission and salvation through childbearing (1 Tim 2:15), i.e. by fulfilling their traditional role in the household. [For more on this point, be sure to listen to Professor Phil Harland’s podcasts 1.11 and 1.12 at Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean.]

In sum, the Pastorals appear to teach a more restrictive role for women than do the undisputed letters of Paul, possibly as a reaction against interpretations of his message that were bringing the church into disrepute.


Taken in isolation, one might be able to mount a cogent rebuttal to each of the arguments canvassed over the last four posts. But the case against Pauline authorship is a cumulative one. Considered together, the various pieces of evidence make it difficult to resist the conclusion that Paul did not author the Pastoral epistles — a view shared by most mainline scholars.

What does this means for 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus? What does it mean for the Bible as a whole? Must we “throw the whole thing away because it’s not trustworthy,” as suggested by Aaron Armstrong? I certainly haven’t cut the Pastorals out of my Bible. Nor should you. They represent an important record of how early followers of Christ interpreted the message of the Apostle Paul as it had been passed down to them.

The presence of pseudonymous writings in the NT does, however, raise some interesting questions about whether the privileged position given to canonical texts is always warranted. For my part, I would tend to give greater weight to something found in the undisputed Pauline corpus than to a teaching unique to the Pastorals. As always, I’m interested in your thoughts.


Did Paul Write the Pastoral Epistles? Part III

December 11, 2011

This post is Part III in a series examining the problems scholars have identified with attributing the Pastoral epistles (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus) to Paul. For Part I click here. For Part II click here.

Lack of Substantive Debate

In Part II, we looked at the emphasis in the Pastorals on keeping “the faith”, which may indicate that the Pastorals were written after apostolic teaching had an opportunity to coalesce into a recognized body of doctrine. A corollary of this point is the manner in which false teachers are opposed in the Pastorals. When it comes to false teachers, the Pastorals are heavy on name-calling, but light on substantive debate.

Paul’s usual approach is to confront his opponents with reasoned debate and an authentic gospel. Consider, for instance, the epistle to the Galatians where Paul spends several chapters developing his argument against the Judaizers (who taught that gentiles must adhere to the external signs of the covenant).

The author of the Pastorals, on the other hand, is content simply to denounce false teachers. There is no apparent need to mount any lengthy argument against the false teaching. It is sufficient to point out that the impugned teaching is at odds with established teaching. The opponents have “departed from the faith” (1 Tim. 6:21) and little more need be said.

We should be familiar with this kind of approach because we hear it all the time. Those who view themselves as faithful and orthodox Christians will condemn a particular viewpoint, not on its merits, but on the ground that it is contrary to the creeds or the “fundamental truths of the faith” or “the historic teaching of the church.” There’s nothing inherently wrong in making an argument like this. But in order to make it, you must be living in a time when such traditions have already been established. Thus, scholars see the frequent appeals to tradition in lieu of substantive debate as a further sign that the Pastorals date to the post-Pauline era.

Presence of Gnostic Thought

Woven throughout the Pastoral letters are attacks on certain heresies. Some have observed that the false teaching the author is combatting appears to have elements of proto-gnosticism. The author’s opponents forbid marriage (1 Tim. 4:3), and get caught up in myths and genealogies (1 Tim. 1:4; Titus 3:9). They maintain that the resurrection has already occurred (2 Tim 2:18). Timothy is warned about “what is falsely called knowledge” (1 Tim. 6:20), gnosis being the Greek word for knowledge. Part of the repudiation of the false teachers is an explicit affirmation (contra gnosticism) of the goodness of the material world, “For everything God created is good” (1 Tim. 4:4).

Charting the origins and emergence of gnostic thought is notoriously difficult, but some scholars have suggested that these elements in the Pastorals suggest a date of composition towards the end of the 1st century or early 2nd century.

Developed Ecclesiology

The Pastorals’ emphasis on the roles of bishops, elders, deacons and widows is typical of the more developed ecclesiology of the late first century rather than Paul’s era. Concern about the roles and qualifications of church office holders is absent from the uncontested works of Paul. In those letters, church leadership has more to do with spiritual gifting/charisma than with a clearly defined system of offices.

James Dunn summarizes the argument from ecclesiology as follows:

The degree of church structure seems more developed than anything in the earlier Paul. A distinctive office of “overseer (bishop)” has emerged (1 Tim 3:1; Titus 1:7), as also that of “deacon (minister)” (1 Tim 3:8). These titles were already in use in Phil 1:1, but the concept of a formal office is more in evidence. Likewise, the office of “elder” appears in the Pauline corpus for the first time (1 Tim 5:17; Titus 1:5). It looks as though on this point the Pastorals share the hindsight perspective evident also in Luke’s account of Paul’s mission (Acts 14:23; 20:17), of which there is no trace in the earlier Pauline letters. It may also be significant, then, that the only use of the term “charism,” so central to Paul’s concept of the body of Christ (Rom 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 12:1), is limited to talk of Timothy’s charism given through the laying on of hands in the past (1 Tim 4:14; 2 Tim 1:6).

Dunn, James D.G., The First and Second Letters to Timothy and the Letter to Titus: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections. 

Dunn goes on to caution, however, that the ecclesiology in the Pastorals is still emerging. It is not yet as developed as in the letters of Ignatius (circa 110 AD), which evidence a monoepiscopacy [try saying that word 5 times fast! – it means having only one bishop per city]. The important point is that the Pastorals reflect a degree of institutionalized church structure unknown in Paul’s day.


In the next and final post in this series, we’ll look at the role of women in the Pastorals as well as some historical difficulties with the letters. On a personal note, I must apologize for the month-long hiatus in the middle of this series. I have just returned from a three week trip to South Africa during which I had rather limited internet access. As a token of my apology, I offer this irresistibly cute photo of a momma marmoset and her baby, taken in Hout Bay, South Africa. Sadly, I was not permitted to bring them home with me.