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Do You Need the Holy Spirit to Interpret the Bible?

Every now and then I receive an email from a devout Christian who tells me that no one (including, well, me) is able to interpret the Bible correctly without guidance of the Holy Spirit.  I take this view seriously, but I've never found it convincing. Well, OK, I did when I was a student at Moody Bible Institute in the mid 70s; but not for much longer than that afterward.  Today, of course, I don't believe the Holy Spirit can guide one in reading the Bible since, as an agnostic,  I don’t believe in the Holy Spirit at all (since I don’t believe in God).  But even when I did believe in the Holy Spirit (after Moody), I came to think that it made no sense to claim that a person needed divine guidance through the Spirit to interpret the Bible correctly.  This was for two main reasons, both of which -- when they occurred to me -- struck me as virtually irrefutable. The first is this: if it is true that  Are you interested [...]

2022-09-01T11:10:47-04:00September 7th, 2022|Reader’s Questions, Reflections and Ruminations|

Jesus as God in the Synoptics: A Blast From the Past

I sometimes get asked how my research in one book or another has led me to change my views about something important.  Here is a post from four years ago today, where I explain how I changed my mind about something rather significant in the Gospels.  Do Matthew, Mark, Luke consider Jesus to be God?  I always thought the answer was a decided no (unlike the Gospel of John).  In doing my research for my book How Jesus Became God, I ended up realizing I was probably wrong.  Here's how I explained it all back then. ******************************************************************************** This, I believe, will be my final post on an issue that changed my mind about while doing the research for How Jesus Became God.   This last one is a big one – for me, at least.   And it’s not one that I develop at length in the book in any one place, since it covers a span of material.   Here’s the deal: Until a year ago I would have said – and frequently did say, in the [...]

2020-04-03T01:27:06-04:00April 13th, 2018|Book Discussions, Canonical Gospels|

The Virgin Birth and the Gospel of John: A Blast from the Past

As I've indicated on the Blog before, I tend to go to a Christmas Eve Midnight service with my wife Sarah (usually my one time in church during the year), and this year was no exception.  We were in Suffolk, England, in the town of Woodbridge, and attended the Anglican church there for a very nice service.  The Gospel reading was from John (1:1-14), a standard reading.  But I wondered whether anyone in the congregation realized that this passage in John says nothing about Jesus' being born of a virgin -- one of the very big points of the Christmas message today!   And just now I wondered if I had ever talked about that very interesting factoid on the blog.  It turns out, the answer is yes, precisely three years ago today.  This is what I said then. ********************************************************************* I have pointed out that our earliest Gospel, Mark, not only is lacking a story of the virgin birth but also tells a story that seems to run precisely counter to the idea that Jesus’ mother [...]

2020-04-03T01:41:15-04:00December 28th, 2017|Canonical Gospels, Public Forum|

Is This the Same Teacher? Jesus in John and the Synoptics.

I have been talking about the differences between John and the Synoptics, and have discussed the overall contents of John and its unusual take on Jesus’ deeds.  Nowhere is this more obvious than in Jesus’ teachings, whichy are very different here from what you find in the other three Gospels. Here is how I explain it in my New Testament textbook. ****************************************************** John’s unique understanding of Jesus’ miracles is matched by his distinctive portrayal of Jesus’ teachings. In the Synoptic Gospels, you will have noticed that Jesus scarcely ever speaks about himself. There his message is about the coming kingdom of God and about what people must do to prepare for it. His regular mode of instruction is the parable. In John, however, Jesus does not speak in parables (which he never uses), nor does he proclaim the imminent appearance of the kingdom (which he never mentions). He instead focuses his words on identifying himself as the one sent from God. In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus... The rest of this post is for members only.  [...]

2020-04-03T01:59:02-04:00October 4th, 2017|Canonical Gospels, Public Forum|

Jesus’ Miracles in John and the Synoptics

I’m trying to explain how John is so very different from the other three Gospels in its presentation of Jesus’ words and deeds.  As I have shown, John tells different stories from the others. More striking when it tells the same kinds of stories, there are stark and compelling differences.  Here is how I explain it in my New Testament textbook. ****************************************** The differences between John and the Synoptics are perhaps even more striking in stories that they have in common. You can see the differences yourself simply by taking any story of the Synoptics that is also told in John and comparing the two accounts carefully.  A thorough and detailed study of this phenomenon throughout the entire Gospel would reveal several fundamental differences. Here we will look at two differences that affect a large number of the stories of Jesus’ deeds and words. First, the deeds. Jesus does not do as many miracles in John as he does in the Synoptics, but the ones he does are, for the most part, far more spectacular. [...]

2020-04-03T01:59:10-04:00October 3rd, 2017|Canonical Gospels, Public Forum|

Differences Between John and the Synoptics

In this sub-thread I'm trying to explain why I do not use the fourth Gospel extensively in trying to decide what Jesus actually taught (specifically about the afterlife, but about much of anything else as well).   One of the main issues involves the differences between John and the three Synoptic Gospels (all of them earlier than John), Matthew, Mark, and Luke.   Here I discuss one aspect of these differences: at the very fundamental level, John simply has Jesus say and do different things than he does in the others.  This is how I put it in my introductory textbook. ************************************************************ Even to the casual reader, the Fourth Gospel may seem somewhat different from the other three within the canon. Nowhere in the other Gospels is Jesus said to be the Word of God, the creator of the universe, the equal of God, or the one sent from heaven and soon to return. Nowhere else does Jesus claim that to see him is to see the Father, that to hear him is to hear the Father, [...]

2020-04-03T01:59:16-04:00October 1st, 2017|Canonical Gospels, Public Forum|

An Introduction to the Gospel of John

I have started to discuss Jesus’ view(s) of the afterlife, and it has occurred to me, based on some readers’ comments, that it may not be clear why I am not appealing to what Jesus says about such things in the Gospel of John.  That raises a very large question (or two) that I don’t recall dealing with head-on on the blog before (though surely some sleuth will point out that I did!): how John differs from the other Gospels and whether it can be used to establish what the historical Jesus of Nazareth actually preached and taught. My views are that John is (a) *very* different from the other Gospels and that it is (b) *not* a reliable guide to the word of the historical Jesus.  That will be important for my discussion of Jesus’ view of the afterlife, and so I will devote several posts to the issue as a kind of sub-thread. In this post I begin by giving some essential information about John’s Gospel, a foundational introduction to what it actually [...]

2020-05-08T11:46:50-04:00September 29th, 2017|Canonical Gospels, Public Forum|

Was John the Son of Zebedee Capable of Writing a Gospel?

I deal with an interesting question in this week’s Readers’ Mailbag: is it plausible that the apostle John could compose a Gospel in Greek?  If you have a question you would like me to address, ask away, and I will add it to my long list!   QUESTION: You mention in your book Forgeries and Counter Forgeries that John most likely did not write the Gospel attributed to him as he almost certainly could not write in Greek. I seem to remember you writing that the Greek of that Gospel was good and fairly nuanced. However, I am being told by someone who is fairly conversant in these matters that John could easily have learned the Greek necessary to write the Gospel, since he lived for over 60 years on the mission field and that his Greek is the most basic of the NT. Is he right? And if so how would you respond?   RESPONSE Yes, I get asked this question a lot, or rather, get told this a lot – that if an [...]

2021-01-20T00:51:04-05:00August 20th, 2017|Canonical Gospels, Reader’s Questions|

The Woman Taken in Adultery in the King James Version

Among the most popular stories about Jesus that you will find in the King James Version is one that, alas, was not originally in the Bible, but was added by scribes.  This is the famous account of Jesus and the Woman Taken in Adultery.  The story is so well known that even most modern translations will include it – but place it in brackets with a footnote indicating there are doubts about its originality or, in some translations, making an even stronger note that it probably does not belong in the New Testament. In fact, even though it is technically true that the passage “probably” does not belong in the New Testament, the reality is that it is not a debated point among textual scholars and translators.  The passage was not part of the Gospel of John originally.  Or any other Gospel.  People know it so well principally because it appeared in the KJV Here is what I say about the passage in my book Misquoting Jesus. ****************************** The Woman Taken in Adultery The story [...]

Does a Person Need the Holy Spirit to Interpret the Bible? Is John’s Gospel Accurate? Readers Mailbag August 7, 2016

Does a person need to “have the Holy Spirit” in order to interpret the Bible?  And does the Gospel of John give a historically accurate accounting of the teachings of Jesus?  These are the two questions I will be dealing with on this week’s Readers’ Mailbag.  If you have any questions, simply ask them as a comment to any of the posts on the blog, and I’ll add them to the list.   QUESTION: How do you respond to those who say “you can’t correctly interpret the bible unless you have the Holy Spirit”   RESPONSE: I’ve never found it at all convincing that a person needs the Holy Spirit in order to interpret the Bible.  As an agnostic, of course, I don’t believe in the Holy Spirit (since I don’t believe in God).  But even when I did believe in the Holy Spirit, I thought that it was silly to claim that a person could not interpret the Bible correctly without the Spirit – for a couple of reasons that have always struck me [...]

The End of Time in Revelation and the Gospel of John

I have been arguing that the author of the Fourth Gospel and the author of the book of Revelation could not have been the same person, and in looking back at my posts I realize that I have left out an important point, one of the strongest arguments that we are dealing with two different people.   The theology of these two books is radically different on an issue that is completely central to both of them: their understanding of “eternal life.” It is true that in some respects these two books have similar theological views.  I have already mentioned, for example, that both see Christ as the “Word” of God (no other NT author expresses this view) and as the “Lamb” who was slain (again: these two books alone use that image).   But both of them are very much interested in views of eschatology, and on these views they differ radically. The term “eschatology” means the “understanding of the end times.”  Just about everyone has a view about what happens at “the end.”  Some think [...]

2020-04-03T03:28:05-04:00August 3rd, 2016|Canonical Gospels, Public Forum, Revelation of John|

Did John Write the Fourth Gospel?

In my previous post I explained why the author of the book of Revelation, someone named John, was not claiming to be John the son of Zebedee and in fact probably was not John the son of Zebedee.   I also showed why this author was not the same one who produced the fourth Gospel, the Gospel of John.  Now I want to talk about the Gospel to show that it too was probably not written by John. The first thing to stress – it can’t be stressed enough – is that like the other Gospels of the New Testament, the Gospel of John (as I’ll continue to call it, for the sake of convenience, since that is, after all, the title that was later given to it) is completely anonymous.  The author does not tell us his name or identify himself in any way. I have already explained why people in the early church came to *think* the book was written by Jesus’ earthly disciple, John the son of Zebedee (see from a few [...]

2021-01-20T00:54:47-05:00August 2nd, 2016|Canonical Gospels, Public Forum|

Who Wrote the Book of Revelation and the Fourth Gospel?

Speaking of the Apocalypse (from the previous post giving that odd video):  Someone recently asked me if the same author could have written both the book of Revelation and the Gospel of John.   Interesting question!   Traditionally, both books have been identified as coming from the same person, John the son of Zebedee, the fisherman who was one of Jesus’ closest disciples.   In answering the question I would like to stress two points: first, they almost certainly were not written by the same person (note: they do not claim to be); and second, whoever these two authors were, neither one of them was John the son of Zebedee. Before making these two points, I need to explain the traditional view: same author for both, John the son of Zebedee.   With the book of Revelation, the reason for the identification was simple: the author explicitly says that he was named John.    Already in v. 1 he indicates that the Revelation was given to himself, John, and in v. 9 he is even more explicit: “I, John, your [...]

2020-04-03T03:28:42-04:00July 28th, 2016|Public Forum, Reader’s Questions, Revelation of John|

Some Comments on the Gospel of John: (Based on John Spong’s Book). A Blast from the Past

A couple of people on the blog have suggested that as a feature of the blog, I periodically provide a Blast From the Past -- that is, repost a blog post from a few years ago.  I think it's a great idea.  My guess is that most people on the blog haven't read everything from then, and if they have, if they're like me, they won't remember them!  So I decided to go back from three years ago today (well, tomorrow) and see what I was saying.  Here's the post.  I don't remember it at *ALL*!!!  But I still think now what I did then. ************************************************************************************* John Shelby Spong, former Episcopal bishop of New Jersey and highly controversial author (because of his skeptical views about the New Testament and traditional Christian doctrine) has just published a new book on the Gospel of John, called The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic. I have not read the book, but Spong has written an interesting article on it that appeared in the Huffington Post yesterday, at [...]

Wine in the Kingdom

Writing my last post on Papias made me think of something that is rather humorous even if it is only very tangentially related.   If you recall, Papias claimed that Jesus taught the following about the future utopian kingdom on earth:  The days are coming when vines will come forth, each with ten thousand boughs; and on a single bough will be ten thousand branches.  And indeed, on a single branch will be ten thousand shoots and on every shoot ten thousand clusters; and in every cluster will be ten thousand grapes, and every grape, when pressed, will yield twenty-five measures of wine.  When I was writing up that post, I was reminded of the story in the Gospel of John in which Jesus turns the water into wine.   Jesus appears to have enjoyed wine in great abundance. The story in John is particularly interesting, and what is humorous to me is how I’ve heard it interpreted by well-meaning conservative Christians who were certain that Jesus would not ever encourage people to partake of alcoholic beverages. [...]

2017-11-29T21:42:39-05:00June 6th, 2015|Canonical Gospels|

The Nature of John’s Signs Source

I have given one of the major pieces of evidence that there was a Signs Source that was used by the author of the Gospel of John, a written document that enumerated seven miraculous deeds of Jesus that were designed to show that he was a divine being, the Son of God.   There is another piece of evidence.  It is the concluding comment of chapter 20 of the Gospel, which I have already quoted a couple of times: “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, but these are written so that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you might have life in his name.” (20:30-31) The reason this verse seems to suggest the existence of a signs source is that it doesn’t really make very much sense where it now occurs, at the end of the stories of Jesus’ resurrection (Note: as I’ve indicated before, scholars frequently think that chapter 21 of John was tacked on later, in a second edition; [...]

2020-04-03T13:37:43-04:00May 28th, 2015|Canonical Gospels|

Some Evidence for a Signs Source in John

I started this mini-thread by mentioning one of the now-lost documents of early Christianity that I would love to have discovered, the alleged “Signs Source” of the Gospel of John.  Before giving the evidence that there may have been some such source, I went off on a tangent, in order to show that John has a different view of Jesus’ spectacular deeds from what you find in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.   In these earlier Gospels, Jesus does “miracles,” both because he feels compassion for those in need and in order to illustrate his teaching that the Kingdom of God was soon to appear.  In John, however, he does “signs” to prove that he really is a divine being. So, what evidence is there that John’s accounts of Jesus’ signs derive from a previously existing, but no longer surviving, written source?   The evidence does not make a slam-dunk case, and so the matter is debated among scholars.  I’ve long thought, though, that there probably was some such source. First, some basic factual information.  These are the [...]

2020-04-03T13:37:51-04:00May 27th, 2015|Canonical Gospels|

Signs in the Gospel of John

For many decades now there have been scholars who have been convinced that the Gospel of John is based, in large part, on written, but no-longer surviving, sources.   It is much debated whether John relied on the Synoptic Gospels for any of its stories, or whether in fact its author had ever read (or even heard of) Matthew, Mark, and Luke. There are very few verbatim overlaps between John and the others, and outside of the Passion narrative there is not a lot of overlap in the stories told.  Somewhat like the Synoptics John does have the healing of a Capernaum official’s son, the feeding of the 5000, and the walking on the water – all told in striking different ways.  John’s four other miracles (which he doesn’t call miracles, but “signs”) are unique to his account (including the favorite miracle on college campuses everywhere, the turning of water into wine, and the favorite of most Hollyood screen writers, the raising of Lazarus). Moreover, the teachings of Jesus are highly distinctive in John.  Almost nothing [...]

2020-04-03T13:38:55-04:00May 23rd, 2015|Canonical Gospels|

The Community Behind the Gospel of John: Part 2

In the last post I began to discuss what we can know about the history of the community that produced (or that produced someone who produced) the Gospel of John.   The reason for dealing with this question is this:  one of the overarching theses of my book on memory and the historical Jesus is that the things we experience in the present affect how we remember the past.  They affect which parts of the past we remember (if they something in the past isn’t relevant for something in the present, we don’t bother to recall it; that’s just how memory works) and they radically affect how we remember.  The past is always shaped, in our minds (unconsciously), by the present. My argument in the book is that this is true not only of us as individuals but also for us as social groups.  Collective memory reflects the present as well as the past, or rather it reflects the past as it is molded by the present.  To illustrate the point here on the blog, I’m [...]

2020-04-03T13:47:19-04:00April 27th, 2015|Book Discussions, Canonical Gospels|

The Community Behind the Gospel of John

In chapter 6 of my proposed book Jesus Before the Gospels, after I deal with collective memory in theory, I move on to talk about how Jesus was remembered in three different early Christian communities, those behind the Gospels of Mark (our earliest canonical Gospel), John (our latest canonical Gospel), and Thomas (our best known non-canonical Gospel).   One thing we have learned from memory studies is that the present affects not only what is remembered about the past, but also how it is remembered.  That is true for communities as well as individuals.   And so in my treatment of how Jesus was remembered in such different ways in these three communities, I discuss as well what can be established or at least surmised about the historical circumstances that would have made such memories plausible. I don’t want to spill the beans here about what I say for each of these communities, but I do want to show how scholars have tried to establish the historical context for one of them, the one behind the Gospel [...]

2017-12-09T08:26:39-05:00April 25th, 2015|Book Discussions, Canonical Gospels|
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