Tag Archives: Craig Keener

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.

How Are Western Academics Prejudiced Against Miracle Claims?


Many western scholars take the position that miracles don’t occur because they’ve never experienced one and they don’t know anybody credible who has either (this was David Hume’s position as well). But there’s a serious problem with this assertion: they are discounting the testimonies of millions of people they don’t know and to whom they’ve never listened.

Craig Keener, in Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, brings this point home with the following analysis:

If even a handful of miracle claims prove more probable than not, Hume’s argument fails, removing the initial default setting against miracles. Without a special burden of proof against miracle claims, they can be evaluated on a case-by-case basis by normal laws of evidence like any other claims.

To reject all eyewitness claims in support of miracles (when we would accept in court eyewitness claims of similar quality for other events) simply presupposes against miracles from the start, rigging the debate so as to exclude in advance any supportive testimony as reflecting misunderstanding or deception. At present, however, the primary issue is whether witnesses can claim firsthand knowledge of what they believe are miracles, and here the evidence is overwhelming from the outset.

How is the evidence overwhelming? Surely western scholars would know about this overwhelming evidence. Keener continues:

Even if outside the experience of most Western scholars, today’s world is full of firsthand claims to have witnessed miracles, and there is no reason to suppose that the ancient world was any different. Western scholars may readily dispute the explanations for such phenomena, which may vary from one claim to another, but when some scholars deny that such phenomena ever belong to the eyewitness level of historical sources, they are not reckoning with the social reality of a sizable proportion of the world’s population.

Indeed, millions of intelligent but culturally different people will be compelled by what they believe to be their own experience or that of others close to them to dismiss such scholarship as an experientially narrow cultural imperialism. In the face of far less information about other cultures than is available today, in fact, Hume and the thinkers he followed unashamedly assumed cultural superiority over supernaturalist cultures . . . .

Bad news for western skeptics of miracles. It turns out you will actually have to get up off your couches and go look at the evidence for miracle claims. Your ignorance of the data is embarrassing and you need to so something about it, but that’s going to mean some work. You can get started by reading Keener’s book.

Was Jesus a Miracle Worker?

There continue to be liberal Christians, and even non-Christians, who really like the moral teachings of Jesus (e.g., “Love your neighbor”), but who set aside the accounts of his miracles (e.g., raising Lazarus from the dead). They chalk them up to legend or they insist that the miracles were not what his ministry was about. In their mind, a serious Bible student can ignore the miracle accounts in the Gospels and just focus on the Sermon on the Mount or Jesus’s other ethical discourses.

But are you a serious Bible student if you ignore the miracle accounts? Are the wonders Jesus performed peripheral to his mission, a sideshow that can be carved out?

Setting aside the issue of whether you believe miracles can occur, there is absolutely no doubt that Jesus and the people who witnessed his ministry thought that they could and did occur. Craig Keener, in his book Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (2 Volume Set), teaches us that a modern person simply cannot ignore this part of the Jesus traditions.

Although limited in kind (i.e., no artifacts), the available evidence for Jesus as a miracle worker is substantial. Although the evidence is limited concerning most particular miracles, all of the many ancient sources that comment on the issue agree that Jesus and his early followers performed miracles: Q, Mark, special material in Matthew and Luke, John, Acts, the Epistles, Revelation, and non-Christian testimony from both Jewish and pagan sources. . . .

Most scholars today working on the subject thus accept the claim that Jesus was a healer and exorcist. The evidence is stronger for this claim than for most other specific historical claims that we could make about Jesus or earliest Christianity. Scholars often note that miracles characterized Jesus’s historical activity no less than his teaching and prophetic activities did. So central are miracle reports to the Gospels that one could remove them only if one regarded the Gospels as preserving barely any genuine information about Jesus.  Indeed, it is estimated that more than 31 percent of the verses in Mark’s Gospel involve miracles in some way, or some 40 percent of his narrative! Very few critics would deny the presence of any miracles in the earliest material about Jesus. (emphasis added)

Where is the consensus of historical scholarship on the issue of miracles in Jesus’s ministry?

It is thus not surprising that most scholars publishing historical research about Jesus today grant that Jesus was a miracle worker, regardless of their varying philosophic assumptions about divine activity in miracle claims. For example, E. P. Sanders regards it as an “almost indisputable” historical fact that “Jesus was a Galilean who preached and healed.” Using traditional historical-critical tools, John Meier finds many of Jesus’s reported miracles authentic. Raymond Brown notes that “scholars have come to realize that one cannot dismiss Jesus’s miracles simply on modern rationalist grounds, for the oldest traditions show him as a healer.” Otto Betz regards it as “certain” that Jesus was a healer, arguing “even from the Jewish polemic which called him a sorcerer.” The miracles, he notes, are central to the Gospels, and without them, most of the other data in the Gospels are inexplicable. Even Morton Smith, among the recent scholars most skeptical toward the Gospel tradition, argues that miracle working is the most authentic part of the Jesus tradition, though he explains it along the magical lines urged by Jesus’s early detractors.

Keener continues:

These observations do not resolve the question of individual miracle stories in the Gospels, but they do challenge one basic assumption that has often lodged the burden of proof against them: against some traditional assumptions, one cannot dismiss particular stories on the basis that Jesus did not perform miracles. One need not, therefore, attribute stories about Jesus’s miracles purely to legendary accretions. Nor should one expect that the church’s later Christology led them to invent many accounts of Jesus’s miracles; it may have influenced their interpretation and shaping of the accounts, but there was little reason to invent miracles for christological reasons. We lack substantial contemporary evidence that Jewish people expected a miracle-working messiah, and nonmessianic figures like Paul were also believed to be miracle workers (2 Cor 12: 12). Rather than Christology causing miracle claims to be invented, claims already circulating about Jesus’s miracles, once combined with other claims about Jesus, undoubtedly contributed to apologetic for a higher Christology. (emphasis added)

Where does this evidence leave us? It would seem that the miracles Jesus performed were an integral part of his ministry. The hope that historical Jesus can be separated from the wonders he performed is a lost cause. It’s really a package deal. Jesus loved his neighbors not by talking to them about good morals, but by miraculously healing them.

How Do You Tackle Obscure Bible Passages?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Many passages in Scripture are relatively straight-forward to understand.  A person of even minimal intelligence can read and understand much of the Bible.  The greatest obstacle that faces readers of the Bible – the fact it was written in ancient Hebrew and Greek – is largely mitigated by the hard work of Hebrew and Greek language scholars who translate the words of the Bible into modern English.

However, even though we are able to read the contents of Scripture in our own language, we are still faced with obscure passages that seem to elude our understanding.  Why is this? 

The eighteenth century philosopher Johann Martin Chladenius pointed out that the problem is usually a lack of background knowledge.  Jean Grondin, in his book Introduction to Philosophical Hermeneutics, explores Chladenius’s insight:

The obscurity to which Chladenius here refers is that due to insufficient background knowledge. It is indeed often the case, especially with older texts, that the language seems completely clear, though the texts still remain unintelligible because we are lacking in historical or factual knowledge. In other words, we are unacquainted with the subject matter or with what the author really wanted to say.

At first, as I noted above, this kind of obscurity may seem rather trivial. Yet Chladenius here touches on an absolutely fundamental phenomenon of language. Language always tries to express something literally, but this “something” often enough remains in the dark, because the words do not occasion the same meaning or effect in the receiver as intended by the speaker. Chladenius views this as a purely linguistic process, as he explains while introducing his idea of hermeneutics as a universal science: “A thought that is to be conveyed to the reader by words often presupposes other conceptions without which it is not conceivable: if a reader is not already in possession of these conceptions, therefore, the words cannot effect the same result in him as in another reader who is thoroughly knowledgeable about these conceptions.”

When we read the Bible, we must remember that the individual biblical authors are assuming that their readers share a common background knowledge.  This background knowledge can include geography, political rulers, folklore, religious texts, poetry, agriculture, worldviews, and more.  As a modern reader, what hope do we have of knowing these things?

This is where good commentaries and Bible dictionaries come in.  These books provide the background information that enables a modern reader to better understand the ancient biblical writings.  They can provide us with keys to unlock the meanings of obscure passages.

When I sit down to read a difficult biblical passage, I will first read the passage, and then consult several commentaries or dictionaries to gain the needed background knowledge.  Several years ago, I bought the Logos Bible Software package, which enables me to consult dozens of commentaries on my PC.

Even though I have access to so many commentaries, I find myself going back to three of them over and over again:  The New American Commentary from Broadman & Holman Publishers; The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament by Craig S. Keener, from InterVarsity Press; The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures from Victor Books.  All of these commentaries do an excellent job of teaching the background knowledge needed to interpret Bible passages.

Whether you have these particular commentaries or not, it is imperative that you invest in resources that can teach you the background information you need to understand your Bible.  The serious student of the Bible cannot get along without them.