A Response to Jason

Here's John W. Loftus, once again responding to Jason Engwer's post here.

Jason argued: On the subject of the alleged gullibility of ancient people, Loftus lists some ancient practices he disapproves of, such as the behavior of the prophets of Baal and astrology…

In other words, Loftus compares what he considers some of the worst elements of the ancient world to what he considers some of the best elements of the modern world. He doesn't mention the positive elements of the ancient world or the negative elements of the modern world. As I've said repeatedly in previous responses to Loftus, the large majority of the people in the world today are supernaturalists. I can produce a list of modern beliefs that Loftus would disapprove of that would be longer than his list of ancient beliefs he disapproves of in his latest article. Many modern people believe in God or gods, astrology, ghosts, psychics, etc. And while our technology is more advanced than ancient technology, people in the forty-first century surely will have more advanced technology than we have.

I believe no one who truly looks at the evidence can come away thinking that ours is as superstitious of an age as the ancient people were, especially with the rise of science, newspaper reporters, and the rise of an historical consciousness. We are comparing the masses of people in the ancient world, like Jonah, the Ephesians, the people of Lystra, those on the island of Malta with your average educated American.

Even among God’s people we see divination through the Casting of Lots. In the OT the lot was cast to discover God’s will for the allocation of territory (Jos. 18–19, etc.), the choice of the goat to be sacrificed on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16), the detection of a guilty person (Josh. 7:14; Jonah. 1:7), the allocation of Temple duties (1 Chr. 24:5), the discovery of a lucky day by Haman (Esther 3:7). The Urim and the Thummim are lots used to make important decisions where the answer was either yes or no (1 Sam. 14:41; 28:6; Exod. 28:29; Deut. 33:8; Lev. 8:7; Num. 27:21). In the NT Christ’s clothes were allocated by lot (Mt. 27:35). The last occasion in the Bible on which the lot is used to divine the will of God is in the choice of Matthias (Acts 1:15–26). Can you imagine any judges today casting lots to divide up land or to make any decisions?

Dreams. Dreams in the ancient world were believed to be communication from God. Dreams were thought to convey messages from God or the gods. (See Genesis 20; 21:32; 24; 31:24; 40-41; Judges 7:13-14). Pharaoh had two dreams and demanded that someone interpret them, and it’s claimed Joseph accurately interpreted them for him (Genesis 41); Solomon had a dream where he asked and received his request for wisdom (I Kings 3:5-15); Matthew records five dreams in connection with the birth and infancy of Jesus, in three of which an angel appeared with God’s message (Mt. 1:20; 2:12–13, 19, 22). Later he records the troubled dream of Pilate’s wife that Jesus is innocent, and this dream was considered by Matthew as at least enough evidence of Jesus’ innocence to mention it (27:19). On occasions there is virtually no distinction between a dream and a vision during the night (Job. 4:12f; Acts 9:10; 10:10, 30; 16:9; 18:9f.). There is a very close connection between dreams and visions and prophecies: “And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.” (Joel 2:28 & Acts 2:17, cf. Numbers 12:6) [On dreams see A. L. Oppenheim, The Interpretation of Dreams in the Ancient Near East, 1956].

Today’s modern educated people simply don’t accept that view of magic, divination, blessings, curses or dreams. Dreams, for instance, are the combined product of memory and sensation running wild, as the rational part of our brains is unconscious. CAT scans and probes tell us which parts of our brains are “asleep” and which parts are awake when we are sleeping. Dreams open the window of the mind. Dreams give us glimpse of a person’s unconscious self. The Bible contains far too many things that people living in our day and age simply cannot accept any longer. It is simply irrational and superstitious, in the light of brain science, to consider dreams as any communication from God, gods, or the dead.

Sometimes Jesus is called demon possessed simply because he says things that seemed to his hearers just plain crazy: “’Has not Moses given you the law? Yet not one of you keeps the law. Why are you trying to kill me?’ ‘You are demon-possessed,’ the crowd answered. ‘Who is trying to kill you?’” (John 7:20). “At these words the Jews were again divided. Many of them said, “He is demon-possessed and raving mad. Why listen to him?” (John 10:19-20, also John 8:48-51). Even John the Baptist was thought to be demon possessed. (Matt. 11:18). It was easy to claim someone was possessed in those days. Whenever Jesus’ acted contrary to what was expected or his teaching sounded strange or weird, they concluded he was a demon-possessed person, much like someone today might say, “you’re crazy.”

The Gospel of John

One huge piece of evidence that leads most scholars to believe John’s Gospel was written very late is his usage of the phrase, “the Jews.” It occurs about seventy times, in contrast to five occurrences in the other Gospels. In John’s gospel it is a stereotype for Jesus’ opponents. Compare 7:13: “for fear of the Jews no one spoke openly of him (Jesus)” (See also John 2:18-20; 5:15, 18; 7:1; 9:18, 22; 10:31; 12:9; 18:28; 19:38; 20:19). But they were all Jews! How do Jews fear the Jews? The Gospel writer himself was a Jew, if it was John! Such a usage reveals the complete break between official Judaism and Christianity, which occurred after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. by the Roman army. It is a very odd use of the phrase, leading some to believe John the Apostle didn’t even write this gospel, because he himself was a Jew. At the minimum it reveals that the author was not so much interested in historical facts, but in elaborating on history, and even creating history. [Someone might object that the phrase “the Jews” merely meant those people who lived in Judea, but several of these occurrences could not be just about people in Judea: John 2;13; 4:22; 5:1; 6:4, 41; 18:20, 33; 19:3,21,19,40].

Conservative scholar James Dunn, in The Evidence for Jesus, tells us the specific problem. It’s “whether we can use John’s Gospel as direct testimony to Jesus’ own teaching.” “This problem was not invented by modern scholarship; it was rather discovered by modern scholarship.” (p. 31). John’s Gospel is “obviously different” from the other three earlier Gospels in terms of style and content. In the other three Synoptic Gospels (so named because they see the same things) Jesus speaks in proverbs, epigrams (cf. Sermon on the Mount for example, Matt. 5-7) and in parables, whereas in John’s Gospel Jesus often speaks in long involved discourses (John 6, 14-17). In the three Synoptic Gospels Jesus speaks often of the “kingdom of God” and hardly anything about himself, but in John’s Gospel he speaks often about himself (“I am the light of the world…the bread of life…the way the life and the truth.”), but he hardly says anything about the kingdom of God.

At best, scholars see these differences as indicative of the fact that John’s Gospel is a theological elaboration of history, while still others see them indicating it is wholly theological in nature with not much historical value at all when it comes to what Jesus taught. Case in point is the question of the high view of Christ revealed in John’s Gospel. Even Dunn acknowledges that the number of times Jesus speaks of God as his “Father” or ‘the Father’ in John’s gospel (173 times—Dunn’s count) when compared to all three earlier Synoptic Gospels (a sum total of 43 times, many repeated between them) leads him to say that John’s Jesus is “the truth of Jesus in retrospect rather than as expressed by Jesus at the time…it is expanded teaching of Jesus.” (p. 45). And yet it is mostly because of John’s Jesus that we get a very high Christology. John’s Jesus is quoted as saying: “I and the Father are one,” (John 10:30), and “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John14:9). But, based on what we’ve just seen, he never said those things. This is John’s Jesus speaking, not the historical Jesus.

Furthermore, James D.G. Dunn asks a very important question with regard to the “I am” claims of Jesus: “If they were part of the original words of Jesus himself, how could it be that ONLY John has picked them up, and NONE of the others (emphasis his)? Call it scholarly skepticism if you will, but I must confess that I find it almost incredible that such sayings should have been neglected HAD they been known as a feature of Jesus’ teaching (p. 36).

Jude 14: “Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied about these men: “See, the Lord is coming with thousands upon thousands of his holy ones.”

It is just wrong that Enoch, the “seventh from Adam” said this, even though this is quoted from the Book of Enoch. Because it was written in the 2nd century B.C. and couldn’t have come from Enoch himself! About this text, listen to what James Barr said in his book After Fundamentalism (pp. 42-50): "The letter of Jude quotes from the Book of Enoch with all the air of accepting it as a fully authoritative religious book. It is not just a minor allusion, or the borrowing of a few words as a matter of style. It is the fullest and most explicit use of an older sacred text within the letter. It is aligned with a series of references: to the exodus from Egypt (v. 5), to Sodom and Gomorrah (v.7), to an incident involving the body of Moses, an incident not related in the Old Testament (v. 9), to Cain, Balaam and Korah (v. 11), and to ‘predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (v. 17). It is clearly intended to carry the strongest weight within the argument of the letter.”

“Enoch is regarded as having ‘prophesied’, just as Moses or Elijah or Isaiah had done. As all true prophets were, he must have been inspired. The citation of Enoch had, for the purposes of Jude’s argument, just the same validity and the same effect as the citation of the scriptures which came later to be deemed canonical….He quoted Enoch because it was an authoritative utterance of a prophet of ancient times, accepted as such in the church. To say…Enoch’s book ‘was not scripture’ would have been unintelligible to Jude.”