Christianity on Trial

Recently, I interviewed Mark Lanier, one of America’s leading trial lawyers.  He has written a wonderful book entitled Christianity on Trial: A Lawyer Examines the Christian Faith (InterVarsity, 2014).  I interviewed him on a radio show I co-host called “A Show of Faith” on 1070 KNTH The Answer. Thanks to the Salem Communications Network for the digital file.  We made an edited version of this interview on a podcast hosted by Houston Baptist University.  Christianity on Trial

The Historical Jesus

Not long ago I wrote a brief article on “The Historical Jesus” for the E3 Foundation.  It is a basic introduction to the question what is known about Jesus outside the New Testament.  I survey what Roman and Jewish sources are saying about Jesus in the decades and centuries after his execution. The Romans considered Christianity a dangerous superstition.  The Jews considered Jesus a false Messiah.  The Christian texts consider Jesus the Son of God.  Ironically, all these texts are biased one way or another, but you do find some important correlation between them.

Here is a link to that article:

Paul Straddled Four Worlds

There is a place in the western part of America where a person can straddle four states .  It is often referred to as the “four corners” region because four US states come together at one spot: Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah.  You can see it on any map.  Theoretically, it would be possible for a person to stand with his right foot planted firmly in New Mexico, his left foot in Arizona, and reaching to the north his right hand would be in Colorado and his left would be in Utah.

When we think about it, all of us straddle different worlds.  Some in my business straddle academic and church life in America.  Then, to make things more complicated, they go home to family that speaks Spanish and has little formal education.  We all have to make our way through a complicated maze of worlds.St. Paul

This was Paul’s story too.  Paul straddled four different worlds.  The first happened to be the world and culture of his birth.  His right foot was firmly planted in the world of second temple Judaism.  It was a world shaped in large measure by what Christians call the Old Testament or what someone like Paul would have called the law, the prophets and the writings (the Tanakh).   The Hebrew Scriptures boldly declared the existence of One, True God who created all things and had made covenants with Abraham and Israel at Sinai.  Israel’s God stood in sharp contrast to the many gods and lords worshiped by the nations.  Second temple Jews lived with a sturdy expectation that God’s Kingdom would come one day to right all the wrongs and make Jerusalem the center of the world instead of an occupied city on the outskirts of the Roman empire.

This brings me to the second world Paul occupied: the world ruled by Rome.  According to Acts, Paul was a Roman citizen and used it to his advantage when it suited him.  Though Paul makes no direct mention of this in his letters, it is not unlikely that someone like Paul enjoyed its favored status.  Paul’s Jewish heritage would have placed him at odds with many aspects of Roman empire, particularly their ultimate religious claims about their gods and a growing cult devoted to Caesar.  The empire’s political claim to provide peace and security were laughable for Jews who lived everywhere—but especially in Judea–under the heel of Rome.  In some ways Rome provides the perfect foil for Paul to rail against. Pagan sacrifices were not neutral; they were offerings to demons  (1 Cor 10:20).  As many NT scholars have noted: if Jesus is the true Lord and king and king of the world, then Caesar is not.

A third world Paul straddled was Greek.  Though Paul was certainly multilingual, the letters we have from him are all written in Greek.  Greek had become the lingua franca of most places Paul traveled, even though he would have encountered dozens of different local languages and dialects.  Language is only one thing but it is a big thing because with language goes literature, poetry, education and ideas which slowly but inevitably permeate society.  When Paul quoted the OT in his letters, more often than not he quoted from some Greek translation of the OT.  It’s possible he made up his own translations on the fly, of course. But since his quotations appear so similar to translations we know today, its more likely he drew from some standard version available to him.  Furthermore, Paul’s letters and accounts about him in Acts reflect a knowledge not only of Greek language but Greek oratory, literature, and rhetoric.  In Martin Hengel’s massive volumes translated into English as Judaism and Hellenism (1974), he argued that Jesus’ homeland, the land of Palestine, had been Hellenized by the middle of the 3rd century BC.  Judaism had not escaped the hellenizing edge of Alexander’s sword.

The fourth and final world Paul occupied was relatively new.  In fact, by the time he entered it and became one of its greatest advocates it had only been around a few years.  Saul the Pharisee became a Christ-follower probably only 3-5 years after Jesus’ execution.  But already there were traditions, practices, and beliefs which were beginning to mark out this first century Jesus movement.  We don’t have access historically to any material and literary evidence that come prior to Paul’s conversion. His letters contain a few hints here and there of the kinds of things early Christians may have been saying.  For example, the Philippian hymn (Phil 2:6-11) may have been sung, chanted, or recited in Christian gatherings before Paul came to faith.  What seems more likely is that Jesus’ death and resurrection are already seen as the fulfillment of God’s plan.  To put it another way, they are the climax of God’s covenant promises to Abraham, Moses and Israel.  In 1 Corinthians 15:3ff Paul writes:

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.

Paul says he “hands on” what he “had received.” The apostle to the Gentiles employs the language of tradition to let us in on some of the content of the church’s message before Paul.  Already the death of Jesus the Messiah was being understood as an atoning sacrifice.  Already the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus were seen as complementary to the Scriptures.  Not only do these crucial events not contradict what God had said previously through the prophets; they fulfill them.  Already, Cephas (namely, Peter) and the twelve had gained prominence as some of the first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection.

Paul not only straddled these four worlds, but as destiny would have it, he would go on to shape them as well.  It is hard to imagine what Christianity today would be like without Paul.  He is credited with having written nearly 1/2 the books of the New Testament. The  Protestant Reformation of the 16th century found in Paul its inspiration. And what of Judaism? As my friend Alan Segal often said, Christianity and rabbinic Judaism were like Rebekah’s children; both religions were very different twins formed in the womb of second temple Judaism. And what of Greece and Rome? Well, Rome soaked up much of the best of Greek culture.  Then after centuries of persecution, Christianity would go on to become the dominant religion of the empire.  In the end the many gods and lords of Rome would yield to the One God in three Persons.  Or as the apostle would put it (1 Cor 8:6):

Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

Nick Peters and Deeper Waters

Nick Peters is a remarkable young man.  He hosts a popular blog and podcast on his website:

Take a look at his story and I’m sure you’ll be impressed as I am with his heart, mind, and spirit.  Recently I sat down with Nick to talk about The Voice Bible project. We talked for 2 hours.  It was the most extensive interview I’ve done to date on the translation. 


Nick Peters of Deeper Waters

Nick Peters of Deeper Waters

Paul’s Divine Christology

About 18 months ago I purchased a copy of Chris Tilling’s book Paul’s Divine Christology (WUNT 2.323; Tuebingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012).  Because I was busy writing (2 books over the last 3 years) and  traveling (40 college and seminary campuses over the last 2 years), I had not had a chance to do anything more than browse it. This summer I’ve had a chance to sit down with mechanical pencil and highlighter in hand.

Chris is part of a new generation of scholars interested in the historical development of early Christianity.  Born in 1975, Chris studied at the University of St. Andrews and completed his PhD at the London School of Theology.  Although I don’t know exactly where he is teaching now, he has served as a tutor in New Testament at St. Mellitus College in London.

Chris Tilling

Chris Tilling


I don’t intend to do a full review of the book here but simply to alert you to a book which I—and many others—regard as an important contribution to the field.  I’ll engage him more fully in a new book I’m working on tentatively entitled An Early High Christology: Paul, Jesus, and the Scriptures of Israel.  That one, God willing, will be published in 2016.

Paul’s Divine Christology is Tilling’s contribution to a debate which has been going on over the last 30 years regarding whether Paul’s Christology can properly be described as “divine,” in what sense, and how it came to be.  Tilling answers the question in the affirmative: Paul’s Christology is indeed a divine Christology.  Other scholars like Gordon Fee, Larry Hurtado, Richard Bauckham, and me have been arguing a similar point.  Assuming the work of others on this topic (Cullmann, Hengel, and Moule, for example), each of us has offered something unique to the discussion.  Tilling does a good job in setting the table, working through the primary and secondary sources, and offering a new pattern of data which had been noticed (by C. F. D. Moule) but not fully described.

A phrase which carefully summarizes Tilling’s approach is this: “the Christ-relation is Paul’s divine-Christology expressed as relationship” (p. 3). For those who have dabbled in Paul you realize that Christ-relation language is significant so significant that some scholars regard the center of Paul’s theology to be “participation in Christ,” a shorthand way of describing the many ways in which the Christ-believers stand in relationship to and participate in the life of Christ.  Christ’s relation to his people stands in direct continuity with YHWH’s relation to his people Israel.  To put it another way, when Paul speaks about the relation between Christ-believers and the risen Jesus, he used the same language and themes found in second temple Jewish texts to speak of Israel’s relation to YHWH.  Tilling consistently says the data forms a pattern which Paul himself would have recognized.  In Tilling’s own words:

[I]t will be maintained that this pattern of Christ-relation language in Paul is only that which a Jew used to express the relation between Israel/the individual Jew and YHWH.  No other figure of any kind, apart from YHWH, was related to in the same way, with the same pattern of language, not even the various exalted human and angelic intermediary figures in the literature of Second Temple Judaism that occasionally receive worship and are described in very exalted terms. (p. 73, italics original)

In brief, I think Tilling is on to something important which scholars have noticed but frankly  neglected.

I wrote the article “Christology” for Oxford Bibliography On-line.  When I revise the article—which I have been asked to do recently—I will be sure to include Tilling’s book. It is one of the most important books on Paul’s Christology written in the last few decades. If you’re interested in these matters, go out and buy your own copy of Tilling’s book.  If that is not possible, borrow a copy from your local library.  Even if the library does not have it, most will have some sort of interlibrary loan program.

Paul's Divine Christology (Mohr-Siebeck 2012)

Paul’s Divine Christology (Mohr-Siebeck 2012)

My Interview with N. T. Wright

I recently sat down with N. T. Wright to talk about his book Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Fortress, 2013).  I’ve put a link to my interview.N. T. Wright

The Early High Christology Club

I am a card-carrying member of The Early High Christology Club (EHCC).  Well, in the spirit of full disclosure we don’t actually have cards, we have a mug.  It is a highly sought-after prize.  If you are mug-worthy and see one, do everything you can short of stealing it to get one.  Carey Newman of Baylor University Press, also an EHCC charter member, made the first investment in the mugs.  A bit of explanation is in order.EHCC mug

The Early High Christology Club is a loose affiliation of scholars who have written books or articles arguing that the early followers of Jesus—as early as we have evidence—had a high Christology, that is, their assessment of his significance included that he was, in some sense, divine. Now this is actually an historical conclusion based on our reading of the literary evidence; it does not depend on any confession. The earliest evidences we have in the New Testament or any Christian sources are the letters of Paul; so much of this historical construct has been built upon a close reading of his letters.  There are all sorts of issues involved: how did Paul and other NT writers express their “Christology”? what kind of language was used? where did that language come from?  how does this comport with their reading of the Christian Bible, the Septuagint? how early is “early”? how high is “high”? –how did these early Jewish Christians regard Jesus as divine without setting aside their monotheistic heritage?  Paul, for example, claims to be a monotheist and yet he appears to regard Jesus as divine (e.g., 1 Cor 8.6; Phil 2:5-11).  If Jesus were divine, then did early Christians worship him?  If so, did they worship him the same way they would have worshiped God?

Not all people agree, of course, with the members of the EHCC.  There is the Late, Low and Slow Club (LLSC)—though I don’t think they have a mug—which concludes that the early followers of Jesus regarded him as a human being only. Many decades later when Christianity moved beyond the constraints of its Jewish heritage, Christians began to regard Jesus as divine. The LLSC posits a lengthy period of development from a low to a high Christology, anywhere from 60 to 100 years.   Now, members of the EHCC also posit a period of development in the Church’s Christology, but they think this development happened rapidly, perhaps even within a few years after Jesus’ crucifixion.

Founding member, Larry Hurtado, presents an official EHCC mug to Professor Martin Hengel (seen here with his wife)

Founding member, Larry Hurtado, presents an official EHCC mug to Professor Martin Hengel (seen here with his wife)

The EHCC meets regularly and informally at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature.  Carey Newman and Larry Hurtado, distinguished (now retired) Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the University of Edinburgh, co-sponsor the annual gathering.  Carey provides the room.  Larry brings the food and drink.  Stories are told.  Friends catch up. There is a lot of laughter.  At a given moment in our gathering someone recites our founding myth.  Some who have heard it say that it is so good it cannot possibly be true; but those of us who were there know it happened just as we say.



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