Questions from the Audience
QUESTIONER: My question is to both of you. And it’s two parts. Number one, if this is fiction, [on] what do you base the morals for life? And number two, what is the hope after death? I’m asking both of you.
BOB: Well, it seems to me that all meaning is by definition fiction. It goes beyond matter, just beyond brute stuff. And we create meaning. And it seems to me that Locke and the others talk about a social contract.
QUESTIONER: When I’m talking about meaning, is ethical meaning? In other words, why be good?
BOB: Well, because that is the way to maximize a helpful life in which we can all coexist the best and thrive. That even Thomas Aquinas said for instance, God doesn’t just arbitrarily decide thou shalt do this and not do that. It comes from the way the world and society works. Stealing is wrong because look at the results. Murder is wrong. We just can’t have that and have a society.
QUESTIONER: But if this is all fiction, what makes it wrong?
BOB: You mean, what makes murder wrong? We decide we cannot put up with it. It’s off limits. It has results we all reject. That’s wrong enough. I don’t know that there needs to be some kind of platonic rightness and wrongness to it. I don’t think there is. And with life after death, I think there probably is none. This life is very precious and that’s fine with me.
JOHN: I would say at that point, obviously you know where I come from as a Christian. The moral nature is in Scripture and there is life after death. And life after death is the continuity of the choices we make now. But I think, Bob, when you say that all meaning is fiction, and we create meaning, I have to ask myself, then everything is open for individual interpretation. What it means is we have no ability to establish a moral consensus of good law in our midst. Because everyone is their own god, small “g”, unsupernatural for your well being. We are all our own final arbiters of authority in what is good and evil. And if that’s the case, isn’t that the prescription for anarchy?
BOB: I don’t think there’s any problem with us gaining the knowledge of good and evil. We must be the ones to decide. That’s the whole idea of a democracy. We don’t assume we have a true ideology. It’s the majority rule with protection of the minority.
JOHN: Well, except that a democratic process is rooted in biblical ethics. And it’s rooted in religious liberty. It has no other source except for a biblical worldview.
BOB: Is that where Socrates and Pericles got it?
JOHN: Socrates and Pericles. Do you want the democracy which was really nothing more than an oligarchy of a few privileged landowners, men?
BOB: Like Exxon and so forth? Same thing today, it’s a limited…
JOHN: Well, I’ll tell you there’s a lot of people — they called themselves Democrats, Republicans, otherwise — who are trying to make it into that. But theoretically the access for all people to vote is very different. And it was moving toward a biblical understanding of the enfranchisement of all people.
BOB: In the Bible?
QUESTIONER: I feel comfortable with the idea that there’s some power greater than me. There’s something around, I don’t know what it is, but I can’t comprehend the universe. Big bang, I can’t comprehend it. I can’t comprehend before it or after it. I can guess. I can read. I can see what other people guess. Would you say that God as you see him is all powerful?
QUESTIONER: OK. Now, when Christ came back, it would seem to me, that if God wanted to make an issue, he would have walked into the Sanhedrin and he would have said, listen, try again fellas ‘cuz you screwed it up the first time. Didn’t do that. They met a fellow on the road somewhere and after awhile they said, hey, you know, that might have been Jesus. I mean it’s so vague. And if God wants to make an issue, you don’t make an issue and be vague about it. I mean, you come in and you clobber them over the head and you say, now try again. And if they can’t do it the second time, you know, they may understand it the third time.
JOHN: This is a very delightfully posed question. Because what you’re doing, Sir, is you’re making an assumption that if we don’t do it God’s way he’s going to clobber us over the head.
QUESTIONER: What’s that?
JOHN: You’re making an assumption that if we don’t do it God’s way and get it right, he will come and clobber us over the head. Now what is so powerful about the nature of God’s power, you asked me if he is all powerful, yes. If you look at the entire definition of God’s power in Genesis, it’s the power to give, to bless, and to benefit you and me as his image bearers. Accordingly, his power is good and does not force itself upon us. And if we want to choose what is wrong and reap the consequences, he loves us enough to let us say no. So what’s interesting is many fundamentalists are accused of trying to shove religion down the throats of the others. And maybe some of them try to do it. But, if we ask God to come in and clobber us to make things right, we’re asking him to shove religion down our throat. What I see as the exquisite nature of God’s power is, he speaks the universe into being. And his power gives us moral freedom. If we choose what is good we receive it. If we choose what is evil, he will let us choose what is evil. And therefore the whole redemptive thrust of Scripture is God persuading us. And when Christ dies, he dies to pay the penalty of our folly to help us choose what is good. And Bob, if you want to respond to what I say.
BOB: I gather perhaps the question was how can God hold us responsible for believing that which remains an ambiguous, open question. Shouldn’t he have made it more definite and clear that he exists, etc., if we are held responsible for believing it? Is that what you were getting at? That’s just what I took from it.
JOHN: I think he was getting at that. And Simon and Garfunkel, my favorite cultural prophets: a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest. In other words, if you look at the history of the Exodus, and you come to the point of Joshua’s final sermon, and he says choose this day. If it seems more reasonable to choose the other gods, go for it. As for me and my household, we will serve Yahweh. And they said, we know that God is good. He acted in history. He gave us water from the rock, manna from the heaven, and he provided for us through the wilderness. And so what happens at the end of Moses’s life and Joshua’s life, is God’s demonstrating to them, according to the biblical self-understanding, he has revealed himself and demonstrated himself, so people can know to choose between good and evil. So I think the Bible on its own terms is exceedingly unambiguous at that point. The question is whether or not we believe the Bible.
QUESTIONER: This question is posed for both speakers. Just your opinion, gentlemen. This is a two-fold question. Firstly, if you study self-proclaimed prophets in the past, maybe Mohammed, Joseph Smith, or even the neo-prophets, per se, David Koresh, Jim Jones, even to a certain extent, Menachim Schneerson. Where do you see their ministries as opposed to the ministry of Jesus Christ? And the second part of that question, why after 2000 years is Jesus Christ’s Gospel still preached around the world?
BOB: Well, I think people like Smith and the prophet Mohammed have been greatly maligned, though I don’t happen to accept doctrines they taught. But I don’t see them as bad influences, necessarily. Mohammed gave rise to an alien cultural tradition to me, that I would not prefer to live in. But he seems to me to be a force for good. Joseph Smith does as well. Of course, with Koresh and Jones you’re dealing with lunatics and fiends. If there’s a false prophet there’s a couple of good candidates. But with Jesus and why he is still as important worldwide, it’s very dangerous to take the longevity or the currency of an opinion as evidence for its truth. I mean, suppose you ask the same question when Christianity was thirty years old. The Isis cult or the Mithris religion would have to count as true. The Mithris religion still exists here and there. That’s much, much older than Christianity. Islam is neck-and-neck in numbers with Christianity, but you can’t take a nose count to determine the truth. I think Christianity, Buddhism and all the major religions have gained a great foothold and continued partly because they had state support at a crucial juncture in their history. If they’d had nothing to say, that wouldn’t have helped. They all do have great things to say. And Christianity certainly has many wonderful things to say. But you can’t really isolate it. The same question would come up with several of the others. If you want to say, like, survival of the truest, you’d have Taoism, Buddhism and various others that are equally true, older and still around and doing well.
JOHN: I would say very briefly that Mohammed was vulgarized by a tri-theism he ran into for some heretics picked out of southern Turkey: god the father, god the mother, and god the son. And he had what I would describe as an occultic experience in a cave where Allah revealed himself, quote unquote. There’s only one God Allah and his prophet Mohammed. And in the Koran, which purports to be a further revelation of Scripture, it contradicts Scripture powerfully. And the most powerful place it contradicts it, is it gives the basis for forcing religion by the sword upon others. Which is the strength of Christianity in that for the first three hundred plus years they did not. They suffered, they were killed, they were martyred, they died. And the perversion of Christianity was in 390 A.D. with Theodocious when he force baptized the pagans to bring them into the church. And that’s when Christianity in my estimation lost its power and became state supported. But what’s incredible is they thrived best when they were not state supported. And Mohammedism thrived only by being state supported by the sword and conquering Christendom of the time. Joseph Smith on the other hand is a very dishonest man. He was a 19-year old man, I believe that was his age, has an occultic experience with seeing-stones in a cave in Palmyra, New York, not far from where my wife was born and raised. And I’ve been past there. And if you look at some of his definitions of prophecies, he was inconsistent with Scripture at so many points. And he makes himself into being almost greater than Jesus. And it’s interesting, well I won’t get into Mormonism at that point. But I say that the biblical view of falsehood is if you’re wrong once out of a thousand times, you’re false. It’s like a mathematical and-statement. Every element must be true. And so I believe that those are the criteria by which the Old Testament prophets and Jesus holds himself accountable. And I think the reason that Jesus is the hinge point of history, is because he is the hinge point of history.
QUESTIONER: Dr. Rankin, how did God reveal himself to you?
JOHN: When I was 14 years old I went off to a prep school in western Connecticut that had the Episcopal liturgy. I assure you, for a Unitarian, the Episcopal liturgy was a strange bird. All the genuflections and the incense on Communion Sunday and whatnot. And when I went into chapel, I made up my mind I didn’t believe this stuff. I wouldn’t participate in this stuff. And so I didn’t. So while other people were genuflecting and praying and taking communion, I was reading the words they were singing and reading the words being recited. In the process, it reflected upon something I used to think about as an 8- or 9-year old. And I remember around that age, I used to think of the awesome expanse of the universe and I just was blown away by it. And I was just thinking, what is the source of the universe? And so intellectually I had that passion as well as relationally. And so, I remember stepping outside of chapel early one evening in the fall of 1967 just after Halloween. And it was a wonderfully cold night. And if you know anything about prep school students, if you want to be macho, you don’t dare put an overcoat on until it’s at least 15 degrees or colder. Plus the fact they’re a bother. But anyhow, I remember what a cold, piercing, beautiful night it was. And the milky way was painted like a paint brush across the heavens that night, the air was so clear. And I stood there and I said to myself, you know, if there’s a God, then he must have made all this for a purpose. That purpose must include my existence and the very reason I’m asking this question. If there’s a God I need to get plugged into him. So I was motivated intellectually and by awe and wonder at the beauty of the universe. And then also, cause and effect. If God made me, that must be important for the wellbeing of my life. And so that could be called a prayer, but I didn’t know to whom I was praying. It was rather a resolution in the sight of a beautiful universe. And so I made a point in my mind that I was going to check this out with no agenda for time table. I came into chapel early one evening several nights later. And I remember those days in the fall of 1967. Out of 152 boys at a boy’s school, I was number 151 in sheer mass. Not only that, I had a reputation for a big mouth. So sociologically, being on the third string of the fourth football team, maybe I needed the solace of coming into chapel early. But I came in early that night. I was the only one there. I sat down in the balcony and I said, good evening God. Under my breath I said, wait a minute John, how can you say good evening God if you don’t know he exists. And I immediately became aware he existed at a level deeper than my intellect and prior to it, without me knowing why. Then simultaneously I became aware of that whole balcony being filled with an extraordinary presence, long before I read about the Shekinah glory of the Old Testament. And the presence was warm, powerful, and inviting. And it was God saying come to me. His presence was overwhelming. It wasn’t just psychological. It was physical. It involved my whole heart, soul, mind, and strength. And so as I said, wait a minute, I don’t believe, and then I felt God’s presence, I said, yes I do, and that presence descended upon me and filled me top to bottom. One person one time said that qualifies you as a mystic. Well, I don’t know about that. But I will say, an intellectual question of an awesome and beautiful universe brought me a divine experience. And then as I read the liturgy and read the Gospels, I confirmed everything from that point on forward, with a love of hard questions being insatiable at the same time.
QUESTIONER: A comment first about C.S. Lewis. Lewis doesn’t like leave it just hanging, like, Jesus, wow, he’s like the one real corn king that happened to exist, but that he appears in a culture where corn kings are totally alien.
BOB: He’s wrong. He should read the Bible. Ezekiel already knows of such things.
QUESTIONER: Let me finish my point. And that Jesus unlike Adonis or Osiris is born in a roughly estimatable year under a certain governor of Judea. And no one knows where Adonis was born or when Osiris was born. My other question is that a lot of good has come from Christianity and the other religions. But why should we have any respect for Jesus at all when his claims were megalomania to the umpteenth degree, saying things like the whole world is screwed up, and unless I die and am raised from the dead, then the world is doomed. Just why would we respect somebody, that’s like David Koresh type stuff. The things that Jesus said, and dozens and dozens of them walking around as if he had moral perfection, forgiving people’s sins. Why do we respect him 2000 years later? We should just write him off as a nut case or a deceiver, rather than trying to be intellectually respectable, like make Jesus, yes, he’s the founder of a world religion and we respect him, rather than just be honest and say the guy was crazy or he is an evil deceiver and doesn’t deserve any respect at all? You could both respond to that.
BOB: It seems to me that Lewis is wrong on all points there. Even the trilemma argument you mentioned is an argument of Lewis. You cannot just assume that Jesus said everything. You might be able to demonstrate that he said everything in the Gospel of John, though I would be very surprised if you could. But you can’t just assume biblical innerrancy and then ask in light of that, why don’t you believe the claims of Christ? It’s just as debatable as whether Jesus said what I take to be transparent statements of Christian theology anachronistic for Jesus. The thing with the no datable business, the idea that we know when Jesus lived is a function of the historicizing of Jesus. And I’ve mentioned already that there are different guesses in ancient Christian and Jewish documents as to when he did live. Plus Plutarch and others debate when Hercules lived. They thought he was a historical figure. And there were different guesses but they didn’t think these guys had never lived. Lewis and others make the mistake of thinking the corn kings, so called, were mythical figures in the sense no one ever thought they had lived. That’s not so. It was very much like the Gospels, less detailed, but they thought these guys had all lived in historical times. They could show you the tomb of Adonis, and so on, on Crete. I mean it’s very parallel. Lewis just, I’m afraid, did not do his homework on some of these things. He pontificated on them.
QUESTIONER: …pretty close to the time about Jesus at least being born in Palestine in pretty recently to when he was writing.
BOB: He mentions that he wrote around I think 125 to 150. Tacitus knows what… [end of tape 1 side 2] …filling in the reader on what these Christians say in case they don’t know who it is. He says it’s been railroaded by Nero. We know early Christians at some point thought that but that isn’t really the issue.
JOHN: Before I briefly give my two cents worth, I just want to respond, Bob, to something you said. A phrase about assuming biblical inerrancy. I never assume biblical inerrancy of anyone who listens to me. What my major conviction is is to understand Scripture on its own terms. And this brings us into the whole historical element. So when this gentleman is bringing up the element about Jesus’s self-view, he is assuming the historical trustworthiness, and obviously you’re not. So I’m content to make the discussion on what the Scripture views Jesus as. And what he is saying at this point in that context, if the writers of the Gospel had Jesus saying these fantastic things that really could be written off as a nutcake, what kind of self-esteem did they have in this person unless this person was true? That he was going to come again, he was going to judge. And so, that’s an observation on Jesus. In terms of Osiris, say for example the Iliad and the Odyssey, which I’ve begun to re-read. Or something I’ve read more recently, the Mayan Popolvoo, what is very interesting about these texts is they have very clear mythologies. Then they move into quasi-historical, and then historical figures. And they can never really distinguish between the two in the process. And so what my understanding is, is that they are concerned, as all human beings are, for tracing genealogies and having an historical identity for community that exists, whether it’s in Central American or whether it’s in the ancient Near East. But when it goes back to the origins they have no clear sense of revelation and historical origin and historical parents. The Bible, in contrast, has that assumption all the way through, regardless of what people think of the Bible. That is the Bible’s self-view.
QUESTIONER: I’m a man from the third world. I didn’t know English until, I started to learn English when I was 40 years old. And I really enjoy your lecture. Assuming that you have convinced me, I have a question for you and then another question for you. I come from a culture that is very oriented to animism. And I regret to have taught about Jesus as the Lord of Lords and King of Kings. And I like to ask you if you would join me tonight maybe with fifty or hundred people this audience maybe we can ask a ten dollar check for a crusade to bring all your good words. And tell people that Jesus Christ is a fiction figure, is a myth, is a untruthful man. Yes, that my question. I started my question. And I like you to ask, and I will follow you with all my energy. And I can translate it into all Latin America with this good news that you are bringing here. Would you join to me?
BOB: I have no agenda to change people’s mind. I don’t think they’ll necessarily be better off agreeing with me. I’m just explaining why I think it’s a viable theory that Jesus may not have been an historical figure. I don’t regard it as a kind of religious dogma in reverse, that I want to convert everybody to. It’s just here’s something I happen to think. And here’s some of the reasons. It’s a view that is not often discussed. And I think it’s interesting to air it.
QUESTIONER: But I see a contradiction between what you have said and what you have done. Because you are trying to convince us. You have a message. You have an agenda.
BOB: Well, I’m trying to show its a reasonable view.
QUESTIONER: Let’s do it worldwide. It’s a good reason. Because that Jesus is a liar.
BOB: I don’t think that. I’m not saying that.
JOHN: Well, you said the God of Genesis is a liar.
BOB: Oh, yeah. He’s depicted that way. That’s so.
JOHN: Whom Jesus depends on.
QUESTIONER: I have a question for you.
QUESTIONER: Would you be ready tonight to negate the Lord Jesus Christ as the Lord of Lords and as God himself. If I bring a K-15 and I say I’m going to kill you if you don’t deny, if you affirming what you believe.
JOHN: No. I’ll die. The bottom line reality is that, Bob, you and I do have agendas.
QUESTIONER: Yes. JOHN: And I think it’s honest to place our agendas on the table. The truth is, there is much in the Elmer Gantry side, fiction or fact, among certain evangelists where they have used unconscionable coercive ethics to make people believe. And they’re denying the very Gospel they say they believe in if they do so. I believe the Gospel is so good and excellent, beautiful on its own terms, I lay it out. And I labor for people to have informed choice. But I would not blink an eyelash in the face of a gun or anyone else who would try to make me change because I believe.
QUESTIONER: Because as a man from the third world, is a real sad part of the history that we are writing here. Because it’s a historical day. That God-man, that stepped his feet on the dusty roads of Palestine, and who died for us, is being now painted as an unspeakable man.
BOB: You don’t understand my position. I’m not saying that.
QUESTIONER: OK, tell us then the whole story.
BOB: I’ve simply said that the story of Jesus may well be a fiction and a myth. It would be a myth that depicts many good things.
QUESTIONER: So you are not sure of that?
BOB: Oh, I’ve said certainly not provable.
JOHN: At the beginning you said it was not provable.
BOB: I’m not trying, I don’t hold this as a dogma.
QUESTIONER: Why don’t you go out and make more research about it and come to us who believe in Jesus Christ?
BOB: Well, historians weigh theories. We don’t promote dogmas.
QUESTIONER: On the historical point, I’d like to ask both of you. I’ve heard it raised that the miraculous stuff about Jesus wasn’t spoken of, wasn’t written of ’till 30, 40, 50 years after he supposedly lived. From your point of view, I’d like to know why you think that is? How come there is no contemporaneous reports by historians at the time? And from your point of view, is that true? That there is no documented history. I mean, anybody can say anything. I could make the claim that when I was 20 years old I ran a mile, the three-minute mile. And that would be pretty miraculous.
QUESTIONER: But I don’t think anybody would believe it. The stuff that’s been said here is far more miraculous, and yet people believe it. So what’s it based on? Is there contemporaneous accounts of it? And if there is not, why not? And what’s the history that we’re talking about? What’s the documentation? That’s what I’d like to know.
JOHN: What’s very interesting about the Gospels is you’ve got four eyewitnesses from four perspectives with four different purposes for writing the Gospels for different audiences and different points they wanted to highlight. And three of them are disciples of Jesus who are eyewitnesses. Luke, the fourth, is not. Luke says he undertook a very rigorous historical study to interview I believe it was hundreds, if I remember correctly, of eyewitnesses in order to compose a historical document. Luke was a Greek, coming into belief, and he was also a historian and also a physician. And so what you have is you have the immediate contemporaneous eyewitness of that. Now, within skeptical intellectual contexts, going back to the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis of the Old Testament, they tried to make the dating of the text sometimes up to a thousand years later than what the texts say of themselves. And the same is true with New Testament redacting criticism. They’re trying to say that it was written much later than it really was. And so that’s an honest point of debate.
QUESTIONER: What’s your evidence that it was written contemporaneously?
JOHN: Well, you know, I would say you go into the text and you look at the reality. You know what to me the biggest evidence is? Is the utter reality of the human stories and the utter attention to detail. And the fact that there are many things that people think are inconsistent, and yet later when they learn more of the context, they learn the different angles. They’re not inconsistent. In other words, what you have in the biblical self-view is utter candor. It doesn’t make its saints plastic. It gives the facts for what they are. At the intellectual basis all the way through it’s consistent with that. And the other observation, which is a major point tonight, is that only a biblical worldview, back to the assumptions in Genesis, has a concern for verifiable history. And those assumptions are all the way through, every warp and woof of the New Testament documents. And I really think that it is skepticism coming posto facto that’s trying to make them less contemporaneous. And one final observation. There is very scant reference to Jesus, if much at all — I guess that’s saying the same thing — very scant reference in the non-biblical sources. But there’s no reference to the existence of Socrates, other than we have for the testimony of Plato. And what’s so very interesting is, the way Jesus is portrayed by the Gospels themselves, demanded attention and response. And if you responded to him honestly, you would repent and believe, which the Pharisees didn’t. And according to the Gospels’ testimony they tried to stamp out the knowledge of the resurrection and so forth. So my observation is the secular source is the last thing they wanted people to know about was Jesus. And if they historically were honest, they would have ended up believing in Jesus and joined Luke’s research project.
QUESTIONER: Let me follow up from the other side. How do you respond to that? Were these guys, Matthew, Mark, were these guys contemporaneous? Were they actual people? Can you go into that a little bit?
BOB: I seem to be reading a different Bible. The four Gospels are anonymous. We have names attached to them at all only by Ireneous in about 170 A.D. Pabius writing a bit earlier than that is sometimes supposed to have talked about Mark and Matthew. But I’m not convinced he’s even talking about the same documents. But these are writers that also purvey ideas such as that Judas Iscariot, after he betrayed Jesus, swelled up to the point that he could not pass through a street ‘cuz his head was bigger than a truck. We get the evidence about the authorship of the Gospels from guys that purvey cartoons as history. There is no evidence that they were eyewitnesses, nor do their works read that way. It just seems to me, to be blunt, that you’re reading of the Gospels is completely deductive based on dogmas about inspiration that are not even suggested in the Bible. The idea that Luke was an eyewitness when he says, well you said Luke was not. Nobody even thinks Mark was a disciple. He’s not in any of the lists.
JOHN: See, once again it comes to your presuppositions about how you approach this. I would be glad to look at whatever material you want to, to go back to trace the sources and the nature of the eyewitness account, Ireneous, the whole nine yards. But also, at a deeper level, I really disagree with your view of the Scripture on its own terms. On its own terms these Gospels are very Jewish, the assumption of history, the assumption of eyewitnesses, and the community that received them assumed them to be on those terms.
BOB: We don’t know that.
QUESTIONER: I would really like for the three of us to get together and pursue tracing what he just said. Whenever you want to do that, I would love for the three of us to sit down and do it.
JOHN: It would be delightful.
QUESTIONER: When shall we do it?
JOHN: Well let’s talk afterward.
QUESTIONER: OK, good.
QUESTIONER: Yes Dr. Rankin, I have a question for you. As a confirmed agnostic I have a problem with your view of history.
JOHN: They confirm these days? [laughter]
QUESTIONER: Yeah, I’m confirmed. My friend think’s I’m crazy, but that’s OK. Your view of history, the Old Testament saying that it’s fact. For example, the Jewish Exodus from Egypt. There is no empirical evidence gathered by archeology, by anthropologists, scientists, LANDSAT satellites, when archaeologists use satellites now, etc. There’s no proof of the Exodus, this Jewish people being slaves to the Pharaoh, building the pyramids. There’s no evidence of that. In recent evidence of the last five years…
JOHN: You’re saying from your perspective: no extra- biblical evidence.
QUESTIONER: There is no empirical evidence to back up the Bible. If people did leave Egypt, millions of people, or even a hundred thousand people, there would be empirical evidence in the Sinai. They can find Roman army sites, campfires where Bedouins had a village or a site a thousand years ago. They can’t find anything to prove that all these people passed through the Sinai. Yes, so how do you?
JOHN: I would give a very simple two-fold answer. Number one, the first thing is Scripture on its own terms submits itself to eyewitness all the way through. So we have to deal with the fact they viewed themselves on those terms as being historical. And no other religious origin texts do. Secondly, you’re moving outside my expertise in terms of having facts and dates on hand. But I have access to it. I’m glad to get your card or give you my card afterward. And I’m glad to go and get the resources for you.
QUESTIONER: One other quick question. I won’t try to be long winded. How does language, translating one language into another, affect interpretation? Example, the virgin birth. There is debate on what the term virgin birth means. From both of you.
JOHN: It can affect it tremendously because all language is a creature of culture. Unless you know the norms of the culture and its assumptions, and its types of humor and its puns and whatnot, you’re not going to translate accurately. The word translated in the Greek for virgin, from the Hebrew word, means young woman.
JOHN: And the word young woman in the Hebrew context meant a virgin, because a young woman meant someone who was not yet married in Hebrew culture, only non-married.
QUESTIONER: I didn’t know that.
JOHN: So you can violate with bad translation. But I think honest translation shows the assumption was a virgin.
QUESTIONER: But how do you know that when the language is transferred from the Hebrew into the Greek, then to the Latin, how do you know…
JOHN: Well the Latin had nothing to do with it there.
QUESTIONER: …how do you know that it’s a correct interpretation?
JOHN: You know, once again it’s a question of how do we know any language is honestly transmitted. And all I can say is the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures are the most examined texts on the face of the planet, by a ratio of probably billions to one when you really come right down to it. And it continues to stand on its integrity despite a lot of very good questions, or maybe not so well motivated questions. And I would say that if you get into the study of linguistics, which to me is utterly fascinating, and you translate back and understand cultures, and the more I understand linguistics, and the more I understand Hebrew as a language, its distinction from Greek, its holistic, ethical, earth-bound, relational qualities, the more I’m impressed that we have an accurate translation.
BOB: There is some reason to think that virgin birth could have meant that she was just precociously married and pregnant. Gazer Vermesh discusses this in his book, “Jesus the Jew.” He’s an expert on Aramaic. I know no Aramaic, so this is certainly second hand. But that has been suggested that it was a common term meaning that someone, even in the United States, when my mother was a kid, she remembers women getting married at twelve years old. And that sort of thing happened there. And if a child bride was pregnant more quickly than usual, Vermesh says it was sometimes called a virgin birth. But there’s no way to know. It’s just a possibility.
QUESTIONER: All right. One other quick question.
JOHN: Let me respond to something there. And I’m responding to you as well. These are delightful questions. And what the questions require is the text and the evidence in front of you in mutual community. I would be delighted to come back down here for a forum where we choose one or two very well specified questions that we do the preparation research ahead of time. And sit down around the table and look at the evidence. I think that’d be good stuff.
QUESTIONER: There’s one other question which would be interesting for another of your forums. There’s a lot of evidence coming out now, particularly from scholars in the Holy Land, about the form Christianity has taken today and Judaism has taken today. One view, it was a radical form, they were rebels fighting an occupation. And these Jewish and Christian leaders at the time of the Roman occupation said, well, if our butts are going to survive, we’re have to do this, if our movements are going to survive. Do you think that is, how can I say, how much truth there is to that?
JOHN: Well you know, that’s new information to me. I haven’t heard that argument. What I do know that is somewhat related but very impressive, is that until the fourth century, the churches and the synagogues in the towns throughout the ancient Near East were always built next to each other. And the interface between Jews and Christians was fantastic until Theodocious in 391 forced baptized non-believers. And so, the Christians were viewed very friendly terms as a sect of Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah, until post-Theodocian times.
QUESTIONER: There are Roman army camps where they have Jewish temples, Christian temples, mixed with pagan temples.
JOHN: Yeah. And so whether or not there’s any idea of a conspiracy to all run off to Masada together, or to Qumran, or something like that or some other postulate, I have no idea.
QUESTIONER: I’ll talk to you later on. The archeological side of it is a lot of gray areas where the evidence doesn’t coincide.
JOHN: Yeah. Once again it’s the whole issue of open- mindedness. Let’s go for it.
QUESTIONER: Well thank you. You’re a very good speaker. Both of you. Thank you.
QUESTIONER: Hi. This is a question for Bob. Earlier, I think it was actually in the answer to the first question, you mentioned something that each one of us were the people who determined what is right or wrong. That truth is something that is democratically elected. I guess my question is, is if we decide as countries, as nations, and history shows all kinds of nations rising against other nations because they disagree. But if we decide what is truth, what is right, what is wrong, why are we so incapable of keeping it?
BOB: Well those are two different issues. For instance, you could raise the same question of if the Bible or the Koran or the Divine Principle, take your choice, is the divine word of God, and objectively true, whatever that would mean, why do we have such trouble living up to that? I mean, there’s like Romans 7, to know what is right and to do it are two different things. As a dieter I know that real well. And so I think that’s two different questions. But what would be the alternative for people deciding for themselves what is right and wrong?
QUESTIONER: Well, isn’t there the sense in which there is a being called God who determines what is right and wrong?
BOB: Actually, even if that is so, it seems to me in practice it doesn’t make any difference because look at the debates over positions one ought to take as a matter of biblical ethics. It’s not clear on several issues. And then there are other issues that do not arise in the Bible. So at least on a lot of issues, like abortion for instance, I happen to think abortion is murder, at least second degree murder. I am not pro-abortion. Yet I have to admit the issue simply does not come up in the Bible. So when people say the Bible’s against abortion, what they really ought to say is they infer from issues the Bible does address that this probably would not go over big with the biblical writers. But that’s an inference. So that’s a huge issue and we just can’t quote the Bible one way or the other on it. So you’re still in the same boat really, even if the Bible is the inspired word of God.
QUESTIONER: But we can’t say there is no absolute truth without stating an absolute truth. So my question then, and both of you are welcome to answer this, I’m really asking you, Bob, can we know absolute truth?
BOB: I’d say we can not. I would never say that we can know that there is no absolute truth. That would itself be an absolutistic claim. I’m just saying that it does not appear that there is any way to know this. And I also wonder if the notion is coherent. Just the way people will try to embarrass theologians and say, can God make a rock heavier than he can pick up? It’s not a good question. It’s based on an incoherent assumption. Can God draw a square circle. It’s gibberish. Well, the idea of absolute truth, meaning that it’s not something that’s meant to someone. I have a hunch you’re dealing with a similar incoherence. I think it’s a problem with the notion of absolute truth. But there is perhaps such a thing. I do not yet see how one could know it. If it’s revealed, how do you know it’s revealed? You can take a leap of faith, but you might end up in the arms of Jim Jones as easily as Jesus.
JOHN: Except there’s a distinction in the ethics between the two.
BOB: You only know that once you’ve jumped. It’s going to look right to you.
JOHN: No. No. You can know that ahead of time I’m convinced. What’s interesting is the word absolute, I don’t know its etymology off hand, but there’s a sense in which absolute can be used in a Greek sense that is almost unmarred by human relationships. It can almost become an unhuman term. Is there absolute truth in the Hebrew sense of the word? I would say absolutely. If you look at Einstein’s theory of relativity, I was remarking this morning at a seminar I was teaching, that when I read the theory of relativity, I realized I was reading it at about one tenth the rate I read theology, because of my background and discipline. But as I was reading the theory of relativity, unless there are absolute equations in which to base math and physics and science, nothing holds together. You can’t have anything relative unless it relates to something. It relates to something that is fixed, something that’s trustworthy, and something that’s true. And to me what we have in terms of the order of the universe right now, in terms of the way in which the ecosphere works and the planet goes around the sun and so forth, these are all things that are relatively absolute at the minimum level. They hold in place so we can relate, so that we can do various things. The deeper question I think you’re asking is the moral question, namely, if we have no revealed sense of what is right and wrong, then everyone basically is ultimately there own arbiter. And we have a prescription for chaos at that point. I think you have no other alternative. Real quickly, Bob, I can’t wait for you to respond to my book, “First the Gospel, Then Politics,” on how I treat abortion. You’re going to see an angle you haven’t seen. And I think you’re going to come to a conclusion that because of the way in which unborn human life is viewed, as given by God, that the Bible is completely in favor of all that supports life from conception on forward and completely un-in-favor of anything that would destroy it. And yes, there is a certain inference, but the inference is powerful.
QUESTIONER: Good evening. My question is directed basically toward John. I am speaking as a believer. My background is Jewish and I became a believer twenty-five years ago. The continuity of Jewish Scripture into Christian Scripture is one of the strong reasons of my faith. In the nature of having nonetheless opened my mind to be challenged in the faith, as you referred to earlier, my question is this. The Scripture seems to offer, if you put it this way, a window on the human experience. You’ve put Adam and Eve quite literally. Other believing Christians look at it maybe metaphorically or symbolically. But nonetheless the Scripture provides a window on the human experience from Adam and Eve and on. Within that window you have people who can communicate to each other a certain semblance of society, community and so on, certain civilization where they can plant and raise animals for food and development and growth of that community. And the lineages all exist. We are now in a modern world in which we have science which provides another window on the human experience. And they have people who presumably do not live before Adam and Eve, but they are like Homo Sapiens, Neanderthal man and so on. This is a window that describes a human story which people can not talk, had limited ability to communicate. Too long? I’m sorry. And I’m trying to reconcile that science story of humanity in which there really was not a human being existing on the level of civilization that even Adam and Eve had. That scientific story with the biblical Scripture.
JOHN: Very simply, and I was teaching on this this morning, I believe biblically according to the framework theory in the understanding of the days of creation, which is a literary device in Genesis 1 and 2: an ancient universe, an old planet, a recent humanity, and we are all descendants of Adam and Eve. Those who believe in these primitive tribes, I believe the evidence shows that they are people who migrated away from Mesopotamia and lost histories of culture and descended into a primitive level. And therefore we are all descendants of Adam and Eve. So that’s a very short quick answer.
QUESTIONER: The cave man and that kind of…
QUESTIONER: That’s a regression, in other words.
JOHN: Exactly. Absolutely. It’s a fruit of sin. It’s a fruit of broken relationship with God and with godly relationships. And we see this demonstrated throughout society in different places. Cultural anthropology demonstrates this. But it depends on what assumption you bring to bear when you are looking at these cave drawings. But I’m convinced the evidence shows an ancient universe, an old planet, a recent humanity, we’re all descendants of Adam and Eve.
QUESTIONER: I know what Bob would say, so… [laughter] So I asked John ‘cuz it’s really a comparison of the science to the bible view.
JOHN: I argue that the Bible, Genesis, is the only basis for a scientific worldview. And I would encourage you to go with every gusto you have into good, solid science. And so as questions come up, let’s talk about them.
QUESTIONER: Is that your theory in describing this? Or is there anything out there that…?
JOHN: Oh, yeah, I am certainly coming to my conclusions based on what I’ve studied. But when I talked about the framework theory theologically and what it describes, what it talks about and what it doesn’t talk about. It doesn’t talk about six 24-hour days in which God created the universe. It talks about a literary device of the week for a moral order of the universe, where God has order and he sets us above that order. That’s the structure. And then we rest at the completion of our work.
QUESTIONER: No, I understand that. I’m only trying to deal with that caveman.
JOHN: OK. OK. Yes, I believe it does so, because it is saying very quickly…
QUESTIONER: What kind of literature is there to support what you’re saying?
JOHN: Well, then I’d have to go into library resources. Write me and I’m glad to track that down for you. In terms of what ratifies the Bible’s self-description of civilization jumping quickly into iron working and so forth, Adam and Eve’s lineage, that you had culture and society and language and arts from the word go. And the cave man is actually someone who migrates away from that. Migrates away from God’s covenant relationship. Because many people who migrate are the outlaws, the anti-social, and the romantic adventurers who don’t carry culture with them. And the more that you migrate out, you could be those who wind up at the end, of no culture, no history, no tradition. And for example, all the Native Americans had no metallurgy whatsoever on this entire continent. And the genetic research shows that all Native Americans are descended from four women’s gene pools, which can go back to four men and women crossing the Bering Straight without technology and science. And they were incredibly smart. The pyramids down in terms of the Aztecs or the Inca irrigations and whatnot. Incredibly smart people but without certain resources and therefore lived more primitively.
QUESTIONER: Thank you very much.
QUESTIONER: Dr. Price. If it is reasonable not to believe or take historically John 1:14, the word was made flesh, as an historical fact that took place in time and space, then is Christianity possible for you? And if so, what is its meaning?
BOB: Well, I don’t think that’s even given as an historical statement, isn’t it? How would it be historical to say that the divine logos is born as a human being? Would that be, I mean that’s kind of a value statement about an unverifiable, I mean, to say that Jesus is the Son of God, you’re making a kind of philosophical type claim, aren’t you? Rather than an historical one?
QUESTIONER: See, I would want to believe and I think I do. I would have to take that statement as an historical fact in order for my Christianity to be possible and grounded on some type of reality and not just this wonderful story that I want to believe because it makes my life here a little bit better.
BOB: So it’s not so much that particular verse. You mean that if there were no real Jesus as an historical person…
QUESTIONER: Correct. That the word, the wisdom of God was made flesh in an historical being.
BOB: Well, this is a tough question that I think J. Gresham Machen wrestled with in a book called “Liberalism and Christianity.” Or the other way around, I forget. Once you begin to revise and retool Christianity and come up with modernism, does it deserve the name anymore when it winds up so different? And I don’t know how you would determine such a thing. Because who owns the copyright to it. It’s hard to say that if someone thinks they’re a Christian, or Buddhist or whatever, to say to them, oh, you’re not, because I’ve got this textbook definition. I don’t know who owns the copyright. But, however, I believe I catch the intent of what you’re saying. I did for many years try to come up with a revised theologically liberal form of Christianity. And I find it personally not to be viable and don’t consider myself to be a Christian. I still respect Christianity as I always did, Islam, Judaism and so on. But I personally don’t feel I believe enough of it, or agree with enough of it, to claim the name anymore.
QUESTIONER: OK. Quickly, Dr. Rankin, in terms of philosophy as a human endeavor, the search for the truth, unless you want to be a philosopher, masochist and go crazy,…
JOHN: I’ll pass.
QUESTIONER: …would you say that in order for philosophy to be a serious human endeavor, you have to take that statement, the word was made flesh, literally?
JOHN: Oh I do. Because philosophia is the love of wisdom. And I really believe that the wisdom of what you have in Scripture is the only basis for religious liberty, political liberty, for toleration of people who disagree, for civil rights, all the things in western history that we regard as good. It’s the only basis in Scripture for history and science and law. And so yes, the reason you study philosophy is to have wisdom by which to order our moral lives. I mean that’s the basic thrust of it. So yes, and that’s what I’m arguing, is only a biblical worldview starts with the assumption of verifiable history. None of the other ones do. And so if Bob has rejected Christianity, my question is, well, what then do you accept? And when he talks about accepting things about historical fact and verifiability, I then say where do you get the source from it? It’s inescapably biblical once again. And one brief response here. I thought, Bob, your use of copyright is delightful. That’s a historically myopic term invented in the last couple of hundred years. Because the early writers of both the Old and New Testament had no sense of copyright. They wrote what belonged to the community. And that’s why more than one person could sign a document and still call it the book of Moses, and still have Joshua’s input, or something like that. Or the redactors in the New Testament in terms of the traditions they bring together.
QUESTIONER: Thank you.
QUESTIONER: I wanted to ask whether you treat the Bible as one book? Is the Bible one book?
BOB: Not in any real, meaningful sense. It’s a set of books, almost every one of which is a kind of a patch- work quilt because of what you mentioned, the redactors and collections, traditions from all various ages, written and rewritten. And so you have to look at the transmission of particular stories and so on which makes it much more complicated. But I don’t think you can find too many instances of a single biblical teaching, like a teaching on which there is biblical unanimity even. So I think it is really a mixed bag with many voices.
QUESTIONER: ‘Cuz you were saying you gave before a similar thing that a lot of people say: you use the Bible to prove the Bible. When you’re actually critiquing books against books that were written centuries apart from several different authors, and different geographies and things. And one other point I wanted to make about mythologies in the life of Jesus, you see if anything, not a replaying of the Adonis myths and stuff, but really a fulfillment of the typologies of the tabernacle in the Old Testament and in the temple. So in the tabernacle you have the symbols of Aaron’s rod that budded, the symbol of resurrection, you have the manna, the word of God come down from heaven, and you have the law kept in the tabernacle as it kept in Christ. So you see, when you begin to look at the typologies in the life of the Jewish people, that Jesus, for lack of a better word, the mythology of the life of Jesus, this was really fulfilling those things, and not Adonis myths and Osiris myths. Would you comment on that?
BOB: It’s not an either or.
JOHN: If I could just respond to that question real quickly before we do the final thing. I just want to say I do view the Bible as united, as 66 books written over quite a number of centuries. When my book is done, coming out shortly, some weeks I hope, “First the Gospel, Then Politics,” the ethical dimensions I talked about is what I show as its unity. The one response here you’re talking about, Bob, about the redactors, when I use redactors, I’m talking about redactors not separate from community, but when in the community that had no individualistic copyright attitude. And therefore they are in God’s community receiving what was revealed and processing it, and publishing it in a non-modern sense of publication.
“The Price-Rankin Debate” is copyright © 1997 by Robert M. Price and John C. Rankin. All rights reserved.
The electronic version is copyright © 1998 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Robert M. Price and John C. Rankin.