Tag Archives: Craig Keener

Commentary on Acts 3-4 (Peter and John Arrested)

Sometime after Pentecost, Peter and John, who have been living in Jerusalem, walk to the temple around 3 pm for one of the daily prayer times. John Polhill, in vol. 26, Acts, The New American Commentary , observes that it

was also the time of the evening Tamid, one of the two sacrifices held daily in the temple. These had become prescribed times of prayer, and people would come to the temple at the sacrifice times to observe the ceremony and pray. The largest crowds would thus have been found at the times of sacrifice, as Peter and John must have been well aware; for they went to the temple for prayer and for witness.

As they approach one of the massive gates that connect an outer court to an inner court of the temple complex, a crippled man is begging for money. The text informs us that the man has been disabled since birth and we later learn that he is forty years old.

The gate at which the man begs is called the Beautiful Gate in the text. Polhill provides background on the gate:

Josephus spoke of ten gates in the sanctuary. Nine, he said, were overlaid with silver and gold; but the tenth ‘was of Corinthian bronze and far exceeded in value those plated with silver and set in gold.’ So massive was this gate that when it was closed each evening, it ‘could scarcely be moved by twenty men.’ This seems to be the same gate identified in the rabbinic literature as the Nicanor gate.

There is some discrepancy between the sources about the exact location of this gate. Josephus placed it at the far eastern access to the sanctuary, leading from the court of the Gentiles (the outer courtyard) into the court of the women. The rabbinic sources place it at the eastern access to the court of the men of Israel, thus between the court of the women and that of the men. Many scholars see Josephus as giving the correct location, since he was writing from living memory, whereas the rabbinic writings date from a period long after the destruction of the temple. This seems to be the most likely spot for Peter’s encounter with the lame man. He lay at the beautiful gate with its magnificent doors of Corinthian bronze, begging at the entrance to, but still definitely outside, the sanctuary.

When the crippled man asks Peter and John for money, they stop and ask him to look at them. Peter tells the man that they do not have money to give him, but they have something else. Peter heals the man and performs the healing in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Peter pulls the man up from the ground on his newly strengthened feet, and the man follows Peter and John into the inner court of the temple. Since disabled people are not allowed into the inner court of the temple, the man had never been here before (see Lev 21:17–20; 2 Sam 5:8). Luke reports that he walked, leaped, and praised God. All the people in the temple courts were amazed at the miracle that had just occurred.

We skip now to chapter 4.  Peter and John have been preaching and teaching about the resurrection of Jesus in the inner courts of the temple, and they have attracted a large crowd because of the miraculous healing of the lame beggar.  While they are preaching, some Levite priests, the Levite captain in charge of security in the temple, and some members of the Sadducees confront and arrest them. They leave them in prison overnight because the Sanhedrin is not allowed to convene until daylight. Luke notes that at this point in their ministry five thousand Jewish men have come to believe in Jesus.

Why would the Sadducees arrest Peter and John? Polhill explains that the

Sadducees were clearly the powers behind the arrest of the two. Josephus listed them as one of the three ‘schools of thought’ among the Jews of the first century, along with the Pharisees and Essenes (Ant. 13.171). The origin of their name is disputed but may go back to Zadok, the high priest in Solomon’s day. The Sadducees of the first century represented the ‘conservative’ viewpoint. They rejected the oral traditions of the Pharisees and considered only the written Torah of the Pentateuch as valid. They considered the concepts of demons and angels, immortality and resurrection as innovations, believing in no life beyond this life.

More important than their theology, however, was their political orientation. Coming largely from the landed aristocracy, they were accommodationists with regard to the Roman occupation of Israel. Possessing considerable economic interests, their concern was to make peace with the Romans, preserve the status quo, and thus protect their own holdings. In return the Romans accorded the Sadducees considerable power, invariably appointing the high priest from their ranks, who was the most powerful political figure among the Jews in that day. The prime concern of the Sadducean aristocracy, of whom the high priest was the chief spokesman, was the preservation of order, the avoidance at all costs of any confrontation with the Roman authorities.

But the question remains: how does the preaching of Peter and John threaten peace with the Romans? Polhill continues:

Note the wording in v. 2: not ‘they were proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus’ but ‘they were proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead.’ The idea of a general resurrection was an apocalyptic concept with all sorts of messianic overtones. Messianic ideas among the Jews of that day meant revolt, overthrow of the foreign overlords, and restoration of the Davidic kingdom. There had been such movements before (cf. 5:36–37), and the Romans had put them down. There would be many more in the future. In fact, the worst fears of the Sadducees were indeed realized when war broke out with the Romans in a.d. 66, with terrible consequences for the Jews. Here, with the large crowds surrounding Peter and John, their fears were aroused. The notes of Peter’s sermon alarmed them: resurrection, Author of life, a new Moses. These were revolutionary ideas. The movement must not spread. It must be nipped in the bud.

The next morning the Sanhedrin gathers together to question Peter and John. They ask them by what power or name they healed the lame beggar. Peter’s response is bold and confident because the Holy Spirit is guiding him, just as Jesus promised (see Matt. 10:19–20; Luke 12:11–12; 21:15).

Rulers of the people and elders, if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well.  This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone.  And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.

Peter proclaims that the name by which the lame beggar was healed is the name of Jesus, the very man they had sent to Pilate for crucifixion. Peter then refers to Psalm 118:22, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” Jesus is the chief cornerstone and the Jewish leadership are the builders. Craig Keener, in The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament , notes that “Peter learned this use of Psalm 118:22, cited here in verse 11, from Jesus; see Luke 20:17.”

Finally, Peter’s speech climaxes with an exclusive claim. Not only was Jesus’ name responsible for the healing of the beggar, but Jesus’ name is the only name by which any person can be saved from the day of judgment.

The Jewish council members are astonished that men with no formal religious education are speaking so openly and boldly about the things of God. Given the fact that the forty-year-old man was clearly healed by Peter and John, the council members are unable to say anything in response.

Their only recourse is to threaten Peter and John if they continue to preach about Jesus. Peter and John, however, respond that given a choice between obeying the Sanhedrin and following God, they must choose to obey God. Given the public nature of the healing miracle, the Sanhedrin cannot hold Peter and John any longer, for they are simply too popular. The council dismisses them.

Commentary on Acts 1-2 (Jesus’ Ascension and Pentecost)

In verses 1-11 of Acts 1, Luke reviews where he left off in his Gospel. Luke reminds Theophilus, his likely Roman sponsor (or patron), that Jesus appeared to the disciples, after his resurrection, for a period of forty days. During these forty days, the disciples saw proof (physical evidence) that Jesus indeed rose bodily from the dead. Jesus also continued to speak to them about the kingdom of God, which was the focus of his three-year public ministry.

Near the end of the forty-day period, Jesus commands the disciples to stay put in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit is given to them, as the Father had promised. John the Baptist had baptized with water, but they would soon be baptized by the Spirit of God.

The disciples, upon hearing of the imminent gift of the Holy Spirit, assume that the messianic kingdom will be inaugurated shortly thereafter. They ask Jesus when this will occur. Craig Keener, in The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament , writes, “This question was the most natural one for the disciples to ask Jesus. He had been talking about the kingdom (1:3), and the references to the outpouring of the Spirit in the Old Testament were all in the context of Israel’s restoration (Is 32:15; 44:3; Ezek 36:25–28; 37:14; 39:29; Joel 2:28–3:1).”

Jesus tells them that only God the Father knows when the messianic kingdom will begin, and that they are not to focus on the date. Instead, they are to use the power of the Holy Spirit to be “witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

The disciples are to take the message of Jesus first to the people of Jerusalem, and then the surrounding lands of Judea and Samaria, and then ultimately to Rome and the rest of the world. The Book of Acts, itself, will begin in Jerusalem (chapters 1-7), and then move to Judea and Samaria (chapters 8-11), and then move through Asia Minor, Greece, and ultimately to Rome (chapters 12-28).

Luke likely has in mind Isaiah 49:6. Speaking of the future Suffering Servant (the Messiah), God says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

Even though Acts ends in Rome, it seems clear from Old Testament prophecies that God’s goal is the evangelization of all nations and all ethnicities. Darrell Bock, in Acts, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament , writes that

this commission describes the church’s key assignment of what to do until the Lord returns. The priority for the church until Jesus returns, a mission of which the community must never lose sight, is to witness to Jesus to the end of the earth. The church exists, in major part, to extend the apostolic witness to Jesus everywhere. In fact, the church does not have a mission; it is to be missional and is a mission.

To what exactly are the disciples of Jesus supposed to witness? John Polhill, in vol. 26, Acts, The New American Commentary , explains, “In Acts the apostles’ main role is depicted as witnessing to the earthly ministry of Jesus, above all to his resurrection (cf. 1:22; 2:32; 3:15; 5:32; 10:39, 41). As eyewitnesses only they were in the position to be guarantors of the resurrection.” The resurrection, therefore, is a fundamental component of the church’s witness to the world.

While standing on the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem to the west, a bright cloud then surrounds Jesus and carries him up into the sky. Jesus ascends back to his Father in heaven and his earthly ministry officially comes to an end. While the disciples are still looking into the sky, two angels appear and inform them that Jesus will one day return to earth to the very same place, on the Mount of Olives, carried by clouds.

John Polhill recalls how the ascension reflects earlier biblical events:

The ascension narrative evokes rich biblical reminiscences—the translations of Enoch and Elijah, the cloud that enveloped Mt. Sinai. Indeed, clouds are often associated with theophanies. One particularly thinks of the transfiguration narrative of Luke 9:28–36. The picture in Acts 1:9 is that of a cloud enveloping Jesus as he disappeared from sight, just as in Luke 9:34–36 the appearance of the cloud led to the disappearance of Moses and Elijah. The vivid pictorial depiction of Jesus’ ascension into heaven serves to give tangible form to the apostles’ testimony to the exaltation of Christ. Indeed, Luke stressed this by referring to their seeing and looking intently no fewer than five times in vv. 9–11, and he returned to the importance of their eyewitness in v. 22.

Stanley Toussaint, in The Bible Knowledge Commentary , remarks that

the Ascension meant that the continuing work of Christ on earth was now placed in the hands of His disciples (Acts 1:1–2, 8). It was imperative that the Ascension occur so that the promised Comforter could come (cf. John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7; Acts 2:33–36). The Holy Spirit would empower the disciples as they ministered the gospel and waited for the kingdom.

In the remainder of chapter one, the disciples remain in Jerusalem, praying and waiting for the appearance of the Holy Spirit. During this time, they pick a disciple named Matthias to replace the traitor Judas Iscariot.

As chapter two begins, the disciples are in a house together on the day of Pentecost. According to Clinton Arnold, in John, Acts: Volume Two (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary) ,

The term ‘Pentecost’ is a transliteration of the Greek word pentēkostē, which means ‘fiftieth.’ It referred to the fiftieth day after the Passover festival when the Jews celebrated the Feast of Weeks—the annual harvest festival (see Lev. 23:15-21 and Deut. 16:9-12). This was the second of three festivals (the others being Passover and Tabernacles) that all Jewish males were required to attend in Jerusalem (Deut. 16:16). It occurred in early summer after the conclusion of the grain harvest. This was a joyous occasion when the Israelites expressed their thanks to God for his provisions through the year and renewed their commitment to him.

The Holy Spirit’s arrival is described in terms of a mighty rushing wind and tongues of fire that settle on all of the disciples in the house. The immediate effect of the Spirit’s indwelling of the disciples is that they are each able to speak the local languages of the Jews who are spread out all over the world of that time.

Wind and fire are both commonly used in the Old Testament to describe the presence of God. With regard to wind, John Polhill writes:

Wind phenomena often accompany an appearance by God in the Old Testament (cf. 1 Kgs 19:11; Isa 66:15). In Greek pneuma has the double connotation of both wind and Spirit, and that connection is to be seen here. As in Ezekiel the wind, the breath of Yahweh, is God’s Spirit, which brings life in the vision of the dry bones (Ezek 37:9–14).

With regard to fire, Darrell Bock writes, “God’s presence comes with fire in the burning bush of Exod. 3:2 (Acts 7:30), the pillar of the fire in Exod. 13:21 (Deut. 4:33; 5:24–26; 18:16), before Elijah (1 Kings 18:38), and in association with Ezekiel’s call (Ezek. 1:13–14, 27). God is described as a consuming fire in Deut. 4:24 and 9:3 as an image of judgment.”

The disciples most likely pour out of the house and rush over to the crowded temple precincts. When they arrive, they loudly and ecstatically praise God in at least a dozen languages. The disciples attract a large crowd. Jews who are visiting Jerusalem for Pentecost, and possibly Jews who have moved to Jerusalem, but who were born in other parts of the world, are able to understand the words of these Galilean men in their own native languages. Galileans would not naturally know these languages, and so the crowd is amazed at what is happening.

There are two reactions to the disciples: 1) amazement and curiosity and 2) ridicule and accusations of drunkenness. In our next lesson, the apostle Peter will stand before the crowd and deliver his first-ever sermon about the resurrected Jesus.

Commentary on Mark 15b (Jesus’ Crucifixion)

Crucifixion victims are often required to carry the horizontal crossbar of the cross, but Jesus is so weakened after his flogging that, sometime during the procession, the soldiers randomly choose a man from the crowd, Simon of Cyrene, to carry the crossbar for Jesus the rest of the way to Golgotha. Simon, and later his sons, Alexander and Rufus, would evidently become Christians, since Mark assumes his readers are familiar with them.

Mark’s account of the actual crucifixion is succinct. During the first three hours after Jesus is crucified, Mark reports the following: 1) Jesus is offered wine to deaden his pain, but he refuses to drink it, 2) Jesus’ garments are divided up among the four soldiers, 3) Jesus is crucified at roughly 9 am with two other men on either side of him, 4) a sign reading “King of the Jews” is affixed to the cross, indicating Jesus’ crime, 5) Jesus is mocked by spectators, Jewish religious leaders, and the two criminals crucified beside him.

After three hours on the cross, darkness comes over the land for the last three hours of Jesus’ life. Mark Strauss, in Matthew, Mark, Luke: Volume One (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary) , offers five possible meanings for the darkness:

  • “It was a sign of mourning (Jer. 4:27–28).”

  • “Darkness was associated in the ancient world with the death of great men.”

  • “In the Scriptures, darkness is an apocalyptic sign of judgment and could be construed as signaling the advent of divine judgment.”

  • “The darkness also announces the great Day of the Lord in prophets such as Amos, and the darkness that settles on the land signifies that the day has dawned with a new beginning.”

  • “The darkness may veil the shame of the crucifixion: ‘God hides the Son from the blasphemer’s leering.’”

At roughly 3 pm, Jesus cries out, ““My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” What could Jesus mean by this statement? Craig Evans, in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible), writes:

The important thing to recognize here is that he was quoting Psalm 22:1, a Davidic psalm expressing David’s feelings of estrangement. Jesus was revealing that he was the fulfillment of the typology of the psalm, that he was experiencing forsakenness because of our sins. What exactly that forsakenness entailed is uncertain, but it likely stemmed from Jesus’ taking on our sins so that sin would be judged. As the apostle Paul put it in 2 Corinthians 5: 21, God the Father ‘made the One who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.’

Mark Strauss adds:

One could not expect a crucifixion victim to recite an entire psalm, but it is possible that citing the first verse of the psalm refers to the entire psalm. Without chapters and verses to identify specific passages, initial words or key phrases were cited (see Mark 12:26). If this is the case here, Jesus prays the opening words of this lament psalm that, when read through to the end, expresses not only bitter despair but also supreme confidence. This interpretation does not deny the real anguish that Jesus experiences but understands his cry as an expression of trust that God will intervene and ultimately vindicate him.

Some bystanders misunderstand Jesus to be calling for the prophet Elijah to rescue him. According to Craig Keener in The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament , “Members of some circles of Jewish tradition believed that Elijah was sent like an angel to rescue famous teachers, in addition to his role in the time of the end.”

Finally, Mark reports, Jesus utters a loud cry and dies after six hours hanging on the cross. The way Jesus dies is unusual because crucifixion victims tended to last more than a day before succumbing to asphyxiation. Keener explains, “Crucifixion generally killed by asphyxiation: one became too weary to keep pulling one’s frame up on the crossbeam, the diaphragm was increasingly strained, and eventually one became unable to breathe. But death usually took a few days—much longer than the few hours Jesus suffered.”

James Brooks adds:

Most people who were crucified grew weaker and weaker and gradually and quietly expired. Mark’s account suggests that Jesus’ death was sudden and violent, that he was still quite strong at the moment of his death, that he voluntarily and deliberately died with the shout of a victor (cf. John 19:30). Therefore ‘breathed his last,’ although literal, is not an adequate translation in context. Mark’s concept of the death of Jesus is not unlike that of John 10:17–18.

When Jesus dies, one of the two giant curtains in the temple tears from top to bottom (we’re not told which). The outer curtain separated the sanctuary from the outer porch and the inner curtain separated the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place. Regarding the inner curtain, the Mishnah reports it being a handbreadth thick, sixty feet long, and thirty feet wide. This second apocalyptic sign (darkness being the first) that Mark reports has both positive and negative significance. Strauss writes:

Being torn from top to bottom points to its irremediable destruction and to God as the agent. It may signify the end of the Jewish cult and the destruction of the temple. . . . The rending of the veil may also be interpreted as a decisive opening. All barriers between God and the people have now been removed (Heb. 10:19–20).

The centurion in charge of Jesus’ execution, after taking in everything he’s seen, pronounces, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” Mark also carefully notes that several women disciples of Jesus witness his death from a distance.

The profession of the centurion would have been important to Mark’s original audience. After all, earlier in the Gospel, a divine voice and demons have called Jesus the Son of God. Here, at the end of Gospel, we have the first human to do so, but he is a Gentile Roman soldier, not a Jew. James Brooks aptly comments, “At last [Jesus] is confessed as such by a human being who is a type of thousands and even millions of Gentiles who later will stand by faith before the cross and confess that the man Jesus of Nazareth is the unique Son of God.”

Did the centurion have a full understanding of who Jesus was? Doubtful, but he clearly knew that Jesus had a unique relationship to God. Mark Strauss writes:

After Julius Caesar was deified, his adopted son, Augustus, became widely known as ‘son of god’ (divi filius). It was not a title applied to emperors in general. This soldier transfers the title from the most revered figure in the Roman imperial cult to a Jew who has just been executed. The opening words of the Gospel (1:1) and this confession directly challenge the claims of the imperial cult. Jesus, not Augustus nor any other emperor, is Savior and Lord.

Jewish law (see Deut 21:22-23) demanded that a body be buried the day of death. In addition, since the Sabbath would begin at sunset on Friday (no work could be done on the Sabbath), there was little time for Jesus to be buried. Instead of his disciples stepping forward to bury him, Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin and secret admirer of Jesus, goes to Pilate and requests that Jesus’ body be given to him. None of Jesus’ friends or family had approached Pilate, likely out of fear, so Pilate acquiesces to Joseph’s request. But first, Pilate asks his centurion to confirm that Jesus is indeed dead because he is surprised at how quickly Jesus died.

Joseph takes Jesus’ body down from the cross, wraps a linen shroud around him, and then places him in a tomb cut out of rock. He then rolls a stone over the entrance to seal the tomb. The women disciples are watching the burial from a distance so that they know exactly where Jesus is buried. Thus Jesus is buried in a tomb before sunset Friday evening.

To Which Generation Does Jesus Refer in the Olivet Discourse? Part 1

In Mark 13:30, Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” Matthew 24:34 and Luke 21:32 record the exact same words. To which generation does Jesus refer? Biblical scholars have offered several theories, but I will survey several a handful of well-respected conservative scholars to give the reader some ideas for further research.

James A. Brooks, in vol. 23, Mark, The New American Commentary , writes that “this generation” refers to Jesus’ disciples and their contemporaries. “Jesus meant that some of the people of his generation, and more particularly some of his disciples, would not die until the things of [Mark 13:5–23] had happened, including the very significant destruction of Jerusalem and its temple.”

Brooks argues that the cosmic signs and Jesus’ second coming (verses 24-27 in Mark 13) “constitute the end, not things that must precede the end. Furthermore, the various items in vv. 24–27 together constitute one climactic event that takes place at one point of time rather than a series of events spread over a long period of time.”

Craig S. Keener, in The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary , agrees with Brooks’ interpretation. He writes,

Whereas the signs Luke mentions mean that the kingdom is near (Lk 21:31; cf. 1 Clem. 23), ‘these things’ in Matthew 24 (cf. 24:2) apply to the desolation of the temple to occur within that generation (24:34). Though some (mentioned in Cullmann 1956a: 151; Mattill 1979a: 97; cf. Bonsirven 1964: 58) wish to take ‘generation’ (genea) as ‘race’ (cf. the distinct genos in 2 Macc 8:9; Jdt 9:14; 11:10), 23:35–36 leave no doubt that Jesus uses the term as normally (e.g., Jer 7:29) and as elsewhere in Matthew refers to the climactic ‘generation.’

Craig Blomberg, in vol. 22, Matthew, The New American Commentary,  also agrees that “generation” refers to Jesus’ contemporaries. He writes about Matthew 24:34:

Verse 34 does not imply that Christ will return within the lifetime of his hearers or within some later period of thirty to forty years during which all the signs occur. Nor is it necessary to follow the NIV margin and translate genea as ‘race,’ referring to Israel, a much less likely rendering of the Greek than ‘generation.’ Rather, ‘all these things’ in v. 34 must refer to ‘all these things’ of v. 33, which show that Christ’s return is near and which therefore cannot include Christ’s return itself. ‘All these things’ will then refer to everything described in 24:1–26 but will not include the Parousia itself (described in vv. 27–31).

We’ll look at more scholars’ views in part 2.

 

Commentary on John 8 (Jesus Declares Himself Equal to God)

Jesus has returned to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles (or Booths). While he is there, he is teaching in the temple complex. A large group of Pharisees are questioning him about his identity. Some appear to even accept what he has to say about himself.

Starting in verse 31, however, he speaks directly to the Pharisees who have believed what Jesus has said about himself so far. A true disciple of Jesus will obey his every word and follow him for the long-term. In fact, it is only through following Jesus that a person can be set free from spiritual slavery.

The Pharisees answer that they don’t need to be freed from slavery because they are descendants of Abraham, and thus already children of God. Gerald Borchert explains, in vol. 25A, John 1–11, The New American Commentary,

In contrast to the Zealots, the Pharisees did not regard political liberty as the test of freedom. Being sons of God, a holy people, God’s possession, according to Deut 14:1–2, was for them the test of being free. So being circumcised, according to the rabbinic view, was the guarantee of escaping the bonds of Gehenna just as the people of Israel earlier escaped the bondage of Egypt (Exod. Rab. 19:81; 15:11). Or as the famed Rabbi Akiba reportedly stated concerning the Israelites, even the poor could be proud that they were ‘sons of kings’ because they were sons of the patriarchs (b. Šabb. 128).

Jesus corrects their understanding by pointing out that they are not children of God, but instead slaves to sin. In order for anyone to become a true child of God, they must be first freed from their slavery to sin. Only God’s Son, Jesus, has the power and authority to free them. Gerald Borchert adds:

He judged that they were slaves because they were sinners. Their confidence in their sense of internal liberty had been misplaced because being Jews and not Gentiles was no guarantee that they could avoid condemnation by God for their sinfulness. Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), which had just passed, should have reminded them that they too were sinners. In the presence of God both Jews and Gentiles stood condemned for sin (cf. Rom 3:23). Being sinful slaves before God, therefore, they were in need of a redeemer—one who could set them free. The Son who was personally sent by the Father was indeed capable of supplying them with such genuine freedom (John 8:36) because he was the Lamb who removed the sin of the world (1:29).

Knowing that some of the Pharisees are seeking to kill him, Jesus observes that his words to them are obviously not sinking in. In fact, the Pharisees are simply following the lead of their true spiritual father.

In verse 39 the Pharisees continue to argue with Jesus. They repeat that their true father is Abraham. Jesus responds that Abraham listened to God’s word and obeyed Him. The Pharisees are, instead, trying to kill a man whom God has sent, which again proves that their true father is not Abraham at all.

The Pharisees become incensed at Jesus’ accusation that they are not children of Abraham, and thus not children of God. Jesus explains that he knows this because God sent Jesus to the Jews, and they should therefore love Jesus because God sent him. Since the Pharisees don’t love Jesus, they cannot be children of God. Instead their true spiritual father is the devil!

Referring back to Adam and Eve’s fall in the Garden of Eden, Jesus reminds his audience that Satan is a liar and a murderer. There is no truth in Satan. The reason the Pharisees are not accepting Jesus’ claims is because Jesus is speaking God’s truth. Those who have Satan as their spiritual father are incapable of hearing God’s truth and accepting it.

Jesus challenges their stubborn rejection of his words by asking a rhetorical question: “Which one of you convicts me of sin?” D. A. Carson, in The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, explains Jesus’ purpose in asking this question:

If the best theological minds, however much they may dislike Jesus’ claims and dispute his teachings, find it impossible to marshall convincing reasons that would convict him of sin in (the heavenly) court, should they not begin to question themselves? Perhaps he is telling the truth, truth that is identified both with what Jesus says (v. 43) and with what God says (v. 47; cf. de la Potterie, 1. 61–64).

At this point in the dialogue, the Pharisees begin personal attacks. They accuse Jesus of belonging to the hated Samaritans and of being demon-possessed! Jesus denies being demon-possessed and reminds them that they dishonor God by dishonoring him.

In verse 51, Jesus proclaims, “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” The Pharisees, thinking Jesus is referring to physical death, mock him by reminding him that Abraham died, not to mention all the other great prophets. Just who does he think he is? Does he think he’s greater than Abraham?

Jesus answers, “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” The Pharisees again ridicule Jesus by pointing out the obvious fact that Jesus could not have seen Abraham, who had lived roughly two thousand years before, given that Jesus was not even fifty years old.

Jesus responds with a shocking statement: “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” Upon hearing him, the crowd picks up stones to kill him, but Jesus slips away before they could stone him to death.

Why did the Jews want to kill him? Quite simply, Jesus was claiming to be equal to God. Gerald Borchert writes that Jesus’ pronouncement

was a reminder of the claims for God in the Old Testament over against creation (cf. Ps 90:2; Isa 42:3–9) and of the self-designation for the comforting God of Isaiah (41:4; 43:3, 13). The claim of Jesus, therefore, was clearly recognized from the Jews’ perspective to be a blasphemous statement they could not tolerate. Accordingly, they again made their judgment call, and their verdict implied death by stoning (John 8:59; cf. Lev 24:11–16; 1 Kgs 21:10–13).

Craig Keener, in The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, also notes:

’I am’ was a title for God (Ex 3:14), which suggests that Jesus is claiming more than that he merely existed before Abraham. This title of God may have been fresh on the minds of Jesus’ hearers at the feast: during the Feast of Tabernacles, the priests were said to utter God’s words in Isaiah: ‘I am the Lord, I am he’ (Is 43:10, 13).

Commentary on Matthew 13 (Parable of the Soils)

Jesus is teaching near the Sea of Galilee, but the crowds are so large that he climbs into a boat and moves out into the water. The crowds then gather on the beach to hear him. This takes place well into his ministry, possibly two years.

Unlike his previous teaching, he only communicates parables to the crowd. R. V. G. Tasker and I. H. Marshall explain the meaning in the New Bible Dictionary:

‘Parable’ is ultimately derived from Gk. parabolē, literally ‘putting things side by side.’ Etymologically it is thus close to ‘allegory,’ which by derivation means ‘saying things in a different way.’ Both parables and allegories have usually been regarded as forms of teaching which present the listener with interesting illustrations from which can be drawn moral and religious truths; ‘parable’ is the somewhat protracted simile or short descriptive story, usually designed to inculcate a single truth or answer a single question, while ‘allegory’ denotes the more elaborate tale in which all or most of the details have their counterparts in the application. Since ‘truth embodied in a tale shall enter in at lowly doors,’ the value of this method of instruction is obvious.

The first parable he teaches is known as the Parable of the Sower. The sower is scattering seeds on the ground to grow a crop. However, when the sower scatters the seeds, they fall on four different kinds of soil: soil along the path, soil on rocky ground, soil with thorns growing in it, and finally good soil. As most of Jesus’ listeners were familiar with scattering seeds, they would have understood the imagery Jesus is using to tell the parable. However, since we are two thousand years removed, here is some background from Michael J. Wilkins in Matthew, Mark, Luke: Volume One (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary):

Seed was sown ‘broadcast’ style by scattering it in all directions by hand while walking up and down the field. The average rate of sowing wheat varies from twenty pounds per acre (22.5 kilograms per hectare) upward, which allowed for wasted seed. Fields were apparently plowed both before the seed was sown and after, plowing across the original furrows to cover the seeds with soil. . . . It was common for seed to be scattered on the hard paths that surrounded the fields. Birds would swoop down as the farmer walked on and eat the seed.

Conditions for farming in many areas of Israel were not favorable. The hardships that many people experienced included insufficient amounts of water and soil. The terrain in most cases was uneven and rocky, with only thin layers of soil covering the rock. Seed that landed on this shallow soil could begin to germinate, but it couldn’t put down deep roots to collect what little moisture was in that parched thin layer of earth. Sprouting seed would soon wither and die in the hot sun (13:6).

Sometimes thorns were also hidden in the soil, so the farmer could not see them to pull them out by the roots. Therefore, when seed was planted beside the thorns, the thorns would grow rapidly and crowd out the seeds.

With regard to the good soil, Craig Keener notes in The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament:

Thirtyfold, sixtyfold and a hundredfold are tremendously good harvests from Galilean soil. The Jordan Valley normally yielded between ten- and a hundredfold, so a hundredfold need not be a miraculous harvest (Gen 26:12; cf. Amos 9:13). But for much of Palestine, the average yield was tenfold (meaning that 10 seeds were harvested for every seed sown), and all the figures Jesus reports here are very good yields.

Once Jesus has finished, his disciples pull him aside and ask why he has started teaching in parables. Jesus explains that only those who are truly following him (his disciples) will have the parables explained to them. The parables are revealing the secrets (mysteries) of the kingdom of heaven. Those who aren’t following Jesus will not hear the parables explained, and thus will remain ignorant about the secrets of the kingdom of heaven.

What does Jesus mean by the “secrets of the kingdom of heaven”? Up until Matthew 13, Jesus has been presenting himself to the Jews of Galilee and Judea as the Messiah, the long-predicted King of Israel. He has performed miracles, he has fulfilled prophecies, he has taught with authority, yet most Jews were rejecting his claims to be the Messiah. In fact, in Matthew 12, the Jewish leadership attributes his miracles to the power of Satan!

Given the rejection of Jesus as their King, Jesus will now start revealing to his disciples that the kingdom of God (heaven) that the OT predicted will be delayed until Jesus returns to the earth some time in the future. Until he comes back, however, the kingdom of God will exist, but in a different form than what the Jews would have expected. Jesus, then, is going to reveal to his disciples the characteristics of this new form of the kingdom which will exist between his first and second coming. This new form has never been revealed before, so that is why it is referred to as a “secret” or “mystery.”

Why would Jesus only want his closest followers to be told about the new form of the kingdom of God? Because the crowds that are coming to hear him speak are mostly composed of people who don’t accept his claim of being the Messiah and who don’t want to dedicate their lives to him.

Reflecting on verses 13-15, Craig Blomberg writes, in vol. 22, Matthew, The New American Commentary:

The hidden aspect of the parables’ message is thus both a cause of and a response to people’s unwillingness to follow Jesus. ‘Seeing’ and ‘hearing’ are each used in two different senses here, once for simple sensory perception and then for the kind of insight that leads to acceptance of the gospel and discipleship. ‘Understanding’ is a key word for Matthew in this chapter, especially in vv. 19 and 23, where he adds the term to his sources. The language of v. 13 is taken almost verbatim from Isa 6:9–10, LXX. Jesus declares that the words of Isaiah are now being fulfilled.

The word for ‘fulfill’ here (anaplēroō) is different from before, the only time in the New Testament this verb is used with reference to Scripture. Verse 14a probably means the prophecy of Isaiah applies to them—i.e., the pattern of behavior in Isaiah’s time is repeating itself and being completed in Jesus’ day among those who reject him. . . . Meanwhile v. 15 explains the current plight of those who reject Jesus. God confirms such people in their hard-heartedness in response to their freely chosen disobedience (as in the larger context of God’s call to Isaiah to prophesy to rebellious Israel; cf. also the sequence of events in Rom 1:18–32). Jesus sees his preaching in parables, in part at least, as a kind of judgment from God upon unbelieving Israel.

As for Jesus’ disciples, they are blessed. They will be taught the meaning of the parables, and thus the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven. They are learning things about the kingdom that not even the great prophets and saints in the OT were privileged to know.

In verses 18-23, Jesus explains the parable of the sower to his disciples. The seed represents Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of heaven. The four soils represent four different kinds of responses to Jesus’ teaching.

The first kind of person (soil on the path) never understands Jesus’ words and Satan snatches away the words before any understanding does occur. This does not a represent a person who simply needs more instruction to understand. This person willfully rejects the message they are hearing and they are therefore culpable.

The second kind of person (soil on rocky ground) receives Jesus’ words, but as soon as he is troubled or persecuted for his beliefs, he abandons Jesus.

The third kind of person (soil with thorns) also receives Jesus’ words, but money and earthly distractions make him an unfruitful disciple.

The fourth kind of person (good soil) receives and understands Jesus’ words, and becomes extremely fruitful in the kingdom of heaven. This is the only kind of person whom Jesus commends. To be fruitful means to be obedient to God in everything you do. Michael Wilkins adds his thoughts about the crop produced in the life of the good soil:

Many think that this ‘crop’ refers to converts won to Christ through the believer. This no doubt is partially correct, but in this context it refers to something more fundamental—the transformation of a person who has encountered the kingdom of heaven. In the fourth soil the crop represents the outworking of the life of the divine seed (cf. 1 John 3:9), with special reference to the production of the fruit of the Spirit (cf. Gal. 5:22–23), and the outworking of the Spirit in the gifts of the Spirit in the believer’s life (1 Cor. 12). This results in personal characteristics produced by the Spirit (Gal. 5:22–23), the external creation of Spirit-produced righteousness and good works (e.g., Col. 1:10), and indeed, new converts won through the believer’s testimony (e.g., Rom. 1:13). The ‘crop’ produced is the outward evidence of the reality of inward life of the kingdom of heaven.

Even though it is depressing to learn that only one of the four soils actually succeeds as a member of the kingdom of heaven, it should also be noted that the fourth kind of person produces a new crop that is thirty, sixty, or a hundred-fold. Thus the fourth soil more than makes up for the other three soils and their failure to produce.

A final word about the parable. Although the parable primarily speaks of fruit-bearing, there is a sense in which Jesus is referring to entrance to the ultimate kingdom of heaven. In other words, he is speaking about what we commonly refer to as salvation, or being saved.

Most commentators agree that the first soil is not saved and the fourth one is. However, there is no consensus about the second and third soils. Some argue they are not saved and some argue they are. I do not know the answer to that question, but I will say that everyone agrees that the only soil Jesus commends in the parable is the fourth. So, any Christian who does not aspire to be like the fourth soil is completely missing the point of the parable. The first three soils don’t cut it in Jesus’ kingdom.

Commentary on John 1-2 (First Disciples, First Miracle)

The traditional view of the Gospel of John is that it was written by John the son of Zebedee and brother of James, the disciple “Jesus loved,” between AD 80-90. Some scholars have suggested that a different disciple named John wrote the Gospel, but thus far that theory has not gained majority acceptance.

John likely wrote the Gospel while he was living in Ephesus, toward the end of his life. The Gospel appears to be the first of five books he wrote, the next ones being the three NT letters that bear his name and the book of Revelation.

Andreas Kostenberger, in John, Acts: Volume Two of Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, explains the purposes of John in writing his Gospel:

To demonstrate that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, by presenting and commenting on seven selected messianic signs. To show that the Christian faith is universal, applying to Jews and non-Jews alike, and the only way to God. To equip believers for mission. To evangelize unbelievers by equipping believers to share the good news.

After Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist, his public ministry begins. In chapter one, verses 35-37, Jesus passes by John and John proclaims to two of his disciples that Jesus is the “Lamb of God.” John is likely referring to the messianic “lamb,” prophesied in Isaiah 53:7, who would take away the sins of the people. John is urging his disciples to follow Jesus and two of them do. The two are Andrew and an unnamed disciple. Most scholars believe that the unnamed disciple is John, the author of the Gospel.

As the two disciples approach Jesus, he asks them what they are seeking, and they, in turn, ask him where he is staying. The disciples follow Jesus to where he is staying and they remain with him the rest of the day. Gerald L. Borchert, in vol. 25A, John 1–11, The New American Commentary, explains:

Disciples, learners, or followers in the first century were quite literally people who followed (walked after) a teacher and learned from both the words and actions of their mentor. The fact that they asked Jesus where he was staying or abiding (meneis) confirmed their intention of becoming his disciples. As noted earlier (cf. 1:32), this theme of remaining or abiding is one of the key Johannine themes that in the mashal or parable of the vine and branches becomes a focal term for the evangelist in his enunciation of genuine qualities of discipleship (15:4–7).

Andrew immediately goes to find his brother Simon to tell him that he has found the Messiah (the Christ). When Simon comes to meet Jesus, Jesus gives him the nickname Peter, which means “rock.” Peter would, of course, become one of the most important disciples of Jesus. He would be the primary source for the Gospel of Mark and he would write two letters to the church that would be canonized (First and Second Peter).

The next day Jesus travels north to Galilee and finds Philip. Philip, who is from the same town as Andrew and Peter, becomes his fourth disciple. Philip goes to his friend Nathanael and tells him that he has found the one whom “Moses in the Law and also the prophets” wrote about. The “Law and Prophets” is an expression which means the entire Old Testament. He is referring to the messianic prophecies found throughout the OT being fulfilled in Jesus.

Nathanael is not mentioned in any of the other Gospels, but many scholars believe he is the disciple called Bartholomew in the other Gospels. Andreas Köstenberger, in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible), writes:

The Synoptics never mention Nathanael, though John refers to him here and again in 21: 2. It is likely that this was the personal name of Bartholomew (Bar-Tholomaios = son of Tholomaios). Not only is Bartholomew absent from John’s Gospel, he is linked with Philip in all three Synoptic apostolic lists (Matt 10: 3; Mark 3: 18; Luke 6: 14; though not in Acts 1: 13), which corresponds to Nathanael’s connection with Philip in John’s Gospel. Since Bartholomew was a patronymic (a personal name based on the name of one’s male ancestor), it is very plausible that this man was also known by another name (Morris 1995, 143; Hill 1997, 47; cf. Carson 1991, 159).

Nathanael, hearing that Jesus is from Nazareth, questions how the Messiah could come from such a lowly village. Nazareth had a population of less than two thousand people and was never mentioned anywhere in the Scriptures as part of messianic prophecies, so Nathanael is rightly perplexed. Philip’s answer to him is to just “come and see.” Notice how simple evangelism is with the disciples. Their method is to simply bring people to meet Jesus.

As Nathanael approaches, Jesus says to him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” Jesus is comparing Nathanael to the original Israelite, Jacob. Gerald Borchert writes:

Jesus designated Nathanael as a true or authentic (alēthōs, here used adjectivally) Israelite in whom there was no deceit or guile (dolos, John 1:47). In making this statement, Jesus contrasted Nathanael with his forefather Jacob, the usurper (Gen 25:26), who by duplicity or guile (dolou, Gen 27:35, LXX) deceived his father and cheated his brother out of the blessing, to say nothing of his dealings with his uncle Laban, who also was skilled in guile. At the same time the designation of being an authentic or worthy Israelite placed Nathanael within God’s great intention of transforming Jacob and his offspring.

Nathanael asks Jesus how he knows him, and Jesus tells Nathanael that he (supernaturally) saw him sitting under a fig tree before Philip approached him. Nathanael responds with amazement and declares Jesus to be the Son of God and King of Israel. Both of these are messianic titles based on OT prophecies (2 Sam 7: 14; Ps 2: 7). The title “Son of God” should not be understood in a divine or Trinitarian sense at this point in Jesus’s ministry. It is strictly a reference to Jesus’s messianic credentials. Jesus’s followers had not yet connected the Messiah with divinity at this early date.

Jesus commends Nathanael for recognizing who Jesus is, but he assures Nathanael that he hasn’t seen anything yet! He tells Nathanael, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” Whenever Jesus prefaces a statement with “truly, truly” we need to pay close attention. He is preparing his audience for an important truth.

In this case, he refers to heaven opening up and angels descending and ascending on the Son of Man, which is a title Jesus often gives himself. What does he mean by this? Edwin A. Blum, in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, explains:

From 1:48, 51 it can be inferred that Nathanael was meditating on Jacob’s life, particularly on the incident recorded in Genesis 28:12. Jacob saw the angels going up and down a ladder. But Nathanael would see … the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man. Just as Jacob saw angels from heaven communicating with earth, so Nathanael . . .  would see Jesus as the divine Communication from heaven to earth. The Son of Man, replacing the ladder, is God’s link with earth (cf. Dan. 7:13; Matt. 26:64). Perhaps Jesus was also indicating that He is the new ‘Bethel,’ God’s dwelling place (Gen. 28:17; John 1:14).

Why does Jesus use the title “Son of Man”? Gerald Borchert writes,

Within Jewish literature Son of Man terminology was employed in Ezekiel to refer primarily to the humanity of the person addressed (e.g., Ezek 3:1, 4; 4:1; 24:2; 37:3, 11; 38:2, 14). In Dan 7:13, however, the Son of Man takes on greater significance as an eschatological mediator between God (the Ancient of Days) and the world.

Thus Jesus, who is the fully human mediator between God and the world, appropriates this title for himself.

As chapter two begins, Jesus and his disciples are attending a wedding in Cana, a town about 10 miles from Nazareth. His mother, Mary, is also attending, which may indicate that it was the wedding of a relative or friend of the family.

Mary goes to Jesus and tells him that the host has run out of wine. Andreas Kostenberger, in John, Acts: Volume Two (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), explains the significance of wine at a Jewish wedding:

In Jewish thought, wine is a symbol of joy and celebration: “There is no rejoicing save with wine” (b. Pesah. 109a). In John, running out of wine at the Cana wedding may be symbolic of the barrenness of Judaism. Prophetic expectation cast the messianic age as a time when wine would flow freely. At a cultural level, running out of wine was considered to be a major social faux pas, since the host was responsible to provide the wedding guests with wine for seven days.

Mary is asking Jesus to intervene in a potentially embarrassing situation for the host. Craig S. Keener, in The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, provides further background:

The women’s quarters were near the place where the wine was stored; thus Mary learns of the shortage of wine before word reaches Jesus and the other men. Her words probably suggest that he should do something; guests were to help defray the expense of the wedding with their gifts, and it seems that their friend needs some extra gifts now.

Jesus answers his mother, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” How are we to interpret what Jesus is saying here? Keener offers the following insights:

’Woman’ was a respectful address (like ‘Ma’am’) but hardly customary for one’s mother. Jesus’ statement here establishes polite distance (though ‘What have I to do with you’ is usually a harsh, not a polite, expression in biblical language). Because Jesus’ ‘hour’ in John refers especially to the cross, here Jesus is saying, ‘Once I begin doing miracles, I begin the road to the cross.’

Gerald Borchert comments:

It is here quite unlikely that Jesus was expressing hostility to his mother, but the statement does seem to imply that he wanted to set straight the parameters of his public relationship with his mother. Thus family relationships were not to be the determining factors in Jesus’ life. As his brothers later could not force Jesus’ timing of his destiny (John 7:3–9), so his mother here was not to govern his activity (2:4; cf. the temple scene in Luke 2:48–50; also cf. Mark 4:31–35). Although a Jewish mother might normally be able to exercise pressure on her children, it was not to be the case with Jesus.

Jesus came to do the will of his Father in heaven, not the will of his family or friends or disciples. His mother, by asking him to intervene in some miraculous manner, was overstepping her authority. Mary, however, is undaunted and commands the servants to do whatever Jesus tells them. She is confident her son will intervene.

Jesus instructs the servants to fill six stone jars with water. Each jar could hold between twenty and thirty gallons. He then tells them to draw a small amount of the water and take it to the master of the feast. Keener explains that the master of the feast

was a position of honor (Ecclus 32:1–2); one of his primary duties was to regulate the distribution of wine to prevent excess that would (especially in a Jewish context) ruin the party. At least in Greek banquets, guests elected this person to preside over the entertainment and to control the level of dilution for the wine; thus some observers might have held him partly responsible for the host’s running out of wine prematurely.

The master of the feast tastes the water (which has miraculously turned into wine) and remarks to the bridegroom that he has evidently saved the best wine for last. Typically, the better wine is served at the beginning of the week and the more diluted wine is served during the latter days of the week.

Verse 11 records that this was Jesus’s first miraculous sign and that it caused his disciples to believe in him as the Messiah. Borchert explains, “In John a sign is more than just a wonder; it is a powerful act for the one who has eyes to see because it points to the reality of who Jesus is.” Edwin Blum summarizes:

The significance of the miracle was explained by John as a manifestation of Christ’s glory. In contrast with the ministry of Moses who turned water into blood as a sign of God’s judgment (Ex. 7:14–24), Jesus brings joy. His first miracle was a gracious indication of the joy which He provides by the Spirit. The sign points to Jesus as the Word in the flesh, who is the mighty Creator. Each year He turns water to wine in the agricultural and fermentation processes. Here He simply did the process immediately. The 120 gallons of fine wine were His gift to the young couple. The first miracle—a transformation—pointed to the kind of transforming ministry Jesus would have (cf. 2 Cor. 5:17).

Why Was Hume Wrong about Miracles? Part 4

David Hume’s epistemology of strict empiricism is unworkable, unlivable, and unbelievable. Craig Keener, in Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, continues his discussion of Hume’s theory of knowledge:

As a more general methodological consideration, Hume’s unduly strict form of empiricism values experience above testimony, yet the vast majority of our general knowledge depends on testimony (the report of others’ experiences) rather than our own more limited personal experience. Granted that all eyewitness testimony is conditioned by observers’ interpretations, jurors are expected to be able to infer significant aspects of events behind such testimony; without this assumption, the modern court system would collapse.

Hume’s sword is so sharp that it cuts away at all knowledge of the past, not just miracle claims.

Virtually all historical claims depend on interpreted testimony and other interpretations of evidence; most of us would not for that reason discard any possibility of inferring information about some past events based on our extant sources. While this observation about testimony’s value is most obviously true and relevant regarding history, it applies even to most of our knowledge of science. . . .

The approach Hume applies to miracles would, if applied equally strictly elsewhere, rule out any newly observed event incompatible with or challenging current scientific understanding of nature. Hume’s skeptical approach would thus make scientific progress impossible.

How would the reigning king of the sciences, physics, fare if we adopted Hume’s skepticism of testimony?

As one scholar points out, particle physicists have never verified a proton’s decay, but this deficiency does not stultify investigation to detect proton decay. A physicist suggests that, even in its merely epistemic form, Hume’s “argument can be used to prevent a scientist from believing another scientist who announces a major discovery” that violates earlier understandings.

Physicists do not follow Hume’s approach; they were surprised by the announcement of “high temperature superconductivity,” impossible as it appeared by current understandings, but they did not reject the claims. They investigated the claims to confirm or disconfirm them; although anomalies face stricter interrogation, they are frequently recognized “even before the advent of rival theories which can accommodate them.”

Do historians and legal experts, both of whom heavily rely on testimony, accept Hume’s views? Hardly.

Moreover, whatever may be said of Hume’s relationship to physics, his epistemological arguments privileging norms over testimony do not allow the normal practice of historiography and legal testimony in their own spheres (as I shall note below). Yet these are the sorts of disciplines most often relevant to evaluating testimony, and are therefore more experienced in evaluating testimony than Hume is.

For example, even when we mistrust ancient historical sources on other points, we normally accept eyewitness testimony in them (though not always their interpretation), unless we have compelling reason not to do so. Is the existence of some fictitious information, usually outside eyewitness material, compelling reason to exclude all claims that do not fit our worldview? Historical events may be evaluated by analogy with kinds of historical events, but one can use this analogy to deny the miraculous only by presupposing that all historical testimony to miracles is invalid.

Perhaps most damning of all is the fact that Hume didn’t apply his skepticism to his own historiography.

Indeed, Hume does not follow this stringent approach to testimony in his own historiography. (It was Hume’s historiography that made him famous in his own day, though the rise of critical historiography ultimately made his approach to historiography obsolete. Hume’s epistemological approach, if followed to its logical conclusion, undercuts normal reasoning, including his own. One scholar explains that Hume’s epistemology excludes all beliefs as irrational and unjustifiable, but notes that Hume explained that he himself lived by that perspective, itself no more than a belief, only when doing his philosophic work. Hume may have helpfully pinpointed the question of what factors could tip scales to allow belief in events that would normally not be believed, but in his polemic against uncritical credulity he uncritically rejected the sufficiency of any evidence.

As Keener observes, “the evidence of testimony must be given ways to surmount prior improbabilities; otherwise ‘there is no way to underwrite the sorts of inferences made in everyday life and science,’ such as a newspaper report of a winning lottery ticket.”

In the end, Hume so stacks the deck against testimony of miracles that he cuts us off from most knowledge of the past. Thus he is of little help in the investigation of miracle claims, unless, of course, your goal is to do no investigating.

Why Was Hume Wrong about Miracles? Part 3

David Hume’s criteria for believing the eyewitnesses of miracles sets the bar so high that it is doubtful that we should believe anything anyone says about events that occurred in the past.

Craig Keener, in Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, discusses the consequences of applying Hume’s criteria to other disciplines. First, here is a review of this criteria as it applies to miracle testimony:

For this sort of case (eyewitness testimony for miracle claims), Hume thinks it unreasonable for people to depend on testimonial evidence, requiring instead direct experience. The fairness of this criterion should be questioned, however; those with such direct experience are in this case (but not in most others) considered unable to be trusted by others. Presumably Hume himself lacked this personal experience, but his uniformity argument generalizes from this lack in his immediate circle to that of all humanity.

On Hume’s epistemology, “uniform experience” involved passive recollection of a sequence of events known to oneself and possibly one’s colleagues, and no more. Such a generalization rests on too small a sample size to be legitimate (as his own epistemology warned); while he may speak authoritatively about his own experience, how can he speak in this way for the entire human race? His own “uniform experience” can hardly be used to exclude the experience about which another person testifies.

Is it reasonable to demand direct experience of something before we will believe that it has occurred?

Hume’s insistence on rejecting others’ testimony without personal knowledge, following the egocentric approach of Cartesian rationalists and Pyrrhonian skeptics, stood in bold opposition to contemporary English science, which stressed communal research and knowledge. Not surprisingly, moderate empiricists generally viewed Hume’s rejection of testimony as irrational. Few today follow Hume’s fairly thoroughgoing epistemological skepticism on other fronts; its survival with respect to the question of miracles may suggest the readiness of many to treat claims offered in religious contexts as a special category of lesser value than other sorts of claims.

In fact, many modern-day miracle skeptics reject Hume’s skepticism on every topic except for religion. Religious claims are singled out in a completely ad hoc manner.

Further, one critic rightly objects, “If Hume’s criteria for accepting testimony as true were employed outside of miracle claims, we would probably have to dismiss the vast majority of what we believe we presently know about the past,” since much of it depends on a single, untested source. This observation seems damaging to Hume’s argument; he advances the argument in terms of “general principles about evidence, reasonable credibility, and the like,” yet we clearly do not employ his approach outside of religion.

Where events are not explained spiritually, even when they are otherwise unbelievable, historians normally accept or check them if witnesses are credible, rather than simply rejecting the testimony. Granted, this might not be the case for an isolated testimony if the events in question were particularly unusual, but it would certainly apply to multiple, independent ones.

In part 4 , Keener continues to draw out the consequences of Hume’s epistemology.

 

Why Was Hume Wrong about Miracles? Part 1

The 18th century philosopher David Hume claimed that there had never been credible testimony offered by anyone claiming they witnessed a miracle. Numerous skeptics who have commented on this blog have basically said the same thing. There is no need, they claim, to investigate the claims of New Testament miracles because there has never been any evidence of reliable and credible testimonies about miracles.

This is, by far, the easiest position to take if you are too lazy to actually do the work of investigating miracle claims. By fiat, the skeptic asserts that there has never been credible testimony of a miracle, so it is a waste of time for them to look into it themselves.

Craig Keener, in Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, takes on Hume and the skeptics who follow him. Are Hume’s views on testimony convincing?

Hume, seeking to make his case, quickly denies that sufficient credible witnesses exist to substantiate miracles. By contrast, my subsequent chapters on miracle claims will emphasize that we have an overwhelmingly greater number of witnesses today than were available to Hume, an observation that should make his case far more tenuous for interpreters today than it appeared in his day. But let us consider his argument in more detail: Are the witnesses and their miraculous interpretations potentially reliable?

According to a common reading of Hume (which I think most probable), he rejects in practice the possibility of any witnesses reliable enough to challenge the unlikelihood of miracles. He circularly bases this denial on the assumed uniformity of human experience against such miracles, a uniformity that would deconstruct if there were any adequately clear instances of such miracles.

How can Hume claim uniform experience against miracles? How could he possibly know that?

Claiming uniform experience against miracles is not really an argument, scholars often note, because it “begs the question at issue, which is whether anyone has experienced a miracle.” Or as one critic puts it, “Hume used the unproved conclusion (that miracles are not possible) and made it a datum of his argument (miracles do not happen).” Some supporters of miracles articulate this logical problem even more bluntly: “It amounts to saying ‘miracles violate the principle that miracles never happen.’” . . .

Claims about nature and miracles both rest on experience, so claimed experience of the former cannot cancel out claimed experience of the latter. If experience is reliable in knowing that water is normally not turned to wine, why would it not be reliable in recognizing when water is turned to wine?

What would it take for Hume to accept testimony about a miracle?

Hume avers “that no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle,” unless the authentic miracle would be less extraordinary than the inaccuracy or deceptiveness of its reporter. Far from maintaining openness to this possibility that a reporter could be sufficiently reliable to establish such a claim, however, Hume essentially excludes it in practice.

He grants in principle that one might accept witnesses who were unquestionably reliable, claiming public events, and would have much to lose by lying; yet scholars note that in practice he rejects individual testimonies that, so far as anyone can discern by normal means of inquiry, would meet this very criterion.

Hume’s denial of any historical eyewitnesses qualified to testify about miracles is no more than a bare assertion offered on his own authority; by contrast, one of his early detractors offered more than one hundred pages of argument in response to such claims, which one might hope could count for more than bare assertions.

There are more problems with Hume’s skepticism about miracle claims. We’ll continue in part 2.