Jesus’ Improbable Plan

Jesus and the apostles expected the nations of the world to be won for him.  This is a historical statement that is historically true that will stand in the face of even the most stringent, critical analysis.

Consider how improbable such a vision must have been.

‘Make disciples of all nations’ he said but those to whom he said it were but eleven in number, simple uneducated men, without friends in high places.  Their own track record had not been good; one was a betrayer, another a denier and all were deserters.
He, their leader, had been handed over by the temple hierarchs and crucified by the Romans.

Yet he expected world conquest, but not achieved by naked power but by mere words backed up by an ethical life.

His apostle Paul looked for the full ingathering of the Nations and the salvation of all Israel.  But the members of the church in the city of Corinth were at odds with one another and with him.  And they were a mere handful of people, perhaps 150 in a city of 250,000.  Yet these issues did not seem to faze him.

The Christians in Rome were probably not more than few hundred and they were divided into separate groups that could not yet find a way to meet together as a single ‘church’.

Another apostle, John, wrote that the whole creation would worship God and the Lamb.  How improbable those words must have seemed to the tiny membership in the seven churches in Roman Asia, that were probably less than 1000 altogether.  These churches were fractured doctrinally, their members compromised by association with pagan cults and under extreme pressure to abandon worship of the crucified Lamb for the worship of the seemingly all-powerful Caesar.

If we exercise a little historical imagination we reach the staggering conclusion that these visions of a world won for Christ would have seemed absolutely implausible at the time.

And yet, within a few years there were signs of remarkable growth in early Christianity.  Two hundred years after Paul wrote the church in Rome had ‘an immense and countless laity’ who supported ‘no less than 1500 widows and persons in distress’ who were served by forty-six presbyters, seven deacons, seven sub-deacons and fifty two exorcists (Eusebius, History of the Church VI. 43.11-12).  This is a spectacular reversal of the broken and scattered communities Paul wrote to in his Letter to the Romans.

Historians debate the genuineness of Constantine’s ‘conversion’ early in the fourth century.  What cannot be disputed, however, is that the new ‘Roman Empire’ based on Constantinople (‘the city of Constantine’) was founded on Christianity.  That Christian empire stretched from the Balkans, through Greece, Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, Egypt to North Africa and it lasted from the mid-300s until 1453 when Constantinople fell to the siege of the Muslim Ottomans.

A Nestorian version of Christianity captured Mesopotamia, the Caspian region of Central Asia and extended eastward through India into China and southward into Africa.  Christianity in that massive geographical expanse continued until the twelfth until it was eventually extinguished by Islam.  See Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity (New York: Harper Collins, 2008).

Meanwhile Christianity spread north into Russia and northwest into Europe, Ireland and Britain.

Jenkins points out that for centuries there were three great geographical expression of Christianity ? Byzantine Christianity that ringed the eastern Mediterranean Christianity, European Christianity that extended from Russia to Britain and Nestorian Christianity that extended east Mesopotamia and Central Asia to China and southwards into Africa.  Jenkins’ argument is that we know about the Byzantine and European versions of the faith, but have forgotten the very extensive church of the Middle East and Central Asia and its expression in Africa.

In the Colonial Era Christianity spread to the Americas, Africa, Asia and Australia and New Zealand.

Thus the expansion of Christianity from its tiny beginnings is as amazing and improbable as the initial vision of Jesus was as re-stated by his apostles.  That expansion has occurred in the face of great opposition ? from Jews and pagans in the early centuries, from Jihardist Islam from the eighth century, from secular humanism from the era of the Enlightenment.  That opposition has often brought with it considerable suffering, even death.  The symbol of Christianity was and remains an instrument for killing people in Roman times, a cross.

As a consequence of that opposition Christianity has but disappeared from the the Middle East, Asia Minor and Central Asia and it is significantly diminished in secular Western Europe.   Nevertheless, it has survived the repression of atheistic communism in China, Russia and Eastern bloc countries.  Christianity has grown dramatically in Korea, China and Africa.

Thus despite all the issues, many of them created by Christians themselves, there is a remarkable statistic to note.  It is that 31% of the people in the world still identify themselves as ‘Christian’.  While there may be debate about the level of understanding and commitment in that statistic, it is nevertheless amazing in light of the impossible circumstances of Jesus and the apostle two thousand years ago.

There are two critical conclusions we draw from these observations.

One is that Jesus’ vision has been fulfilled by God and not man.  Men and women could not have brought made such an an unlikely dream the reality it still is.  Despite claims to the contrary God is emphatically not dead.  We think that God will continue to expand his kingdom in human hearts throughout the world.

The second conclusion is that we ordinary mortals are offered a partnership in this great project.  Ultimately God doesn’t need us.  He will do it regardless.

But should we choose to join hand with God what would be involved?

John and Paul give us some strong clues.

John, in writing to his seven churches, encouraged their hope that God would bring them out of ‘Babylon’ to ‘the New Jerusalem’, the City of God.  Their’s was to be a life and death commitment to the Lamb, who had been slain for them, and a disengagement from the worship of the Caesar and the pagan religions around them.

Paul encouraged the Romans each to present their whole selves to God in loving service of one another in the wholehearted exercise of their gifts.  In Romans 16 Paul calls on the readers to ‘greet’ twenty-six named members on account of their ‘work’.

‘Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you’; ‘Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord’; ‘Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa’.  Their ‘work’ is not specified, except in some cases ? Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus…greet the church in their house’.  Prisca and Aquila were church planters, who were also tent makers.  Note that word ‘also’.  It’s not in the text, but sits there between the lines.  Not one of the twenty-six is identified as a ‘presbyter’ or ‘bishop’, or any other church official.  Women were as prominent as men.

From Romans it is absolutely clear that they did not ‘work for’ their salvation since that was God’s gift in the crucified and resurrected Lord.  But the apostle certainly expected them to ‘work out’ that salvation in the hard work of ministry to others, both within and outside the community of faith.

Today we need to support our church institutions, but only if they are worthy of our support.  At the same time individual Christians and local churches should not depend on the central institution.  Like the laymen Shaftsbury and Wilberforce who took initiatives independently of ‘organised religion’ Christians in all ages need to be opportunists for the kingdom, entrepreneurs for Jesus.

Above all Christians need to get the idea ‘also’ right.  I must not think of myself a husband who is ‘also’ a Christian, a Christian who is ‘also’ a father, ‘also’ a neighbour, ‘also’ a friend.  I will seek to express my Christianity ethically and spiritually as a husband, father, neighbour and friend.  My engagement with the idea ‘also’ tells me about my ‘heart’ and my ‘heart’ regarding Jesus reveals everything.

Recently I visited the home of a woman I know well to be a great wife, mother and friend.  On her dining room table were dozens of gingerbread figures (dare I call them gingerbread ‘men’?).  They were all neatly wrapped in cellophane and there was a message inside.

She replied to my question that they were gifts for the other children in her boys’ school classes.  ‘What’s the message inside’, I asked.  Her answer: ‘Today to you is born this day in the City of David, a Saviour who is Christ the Lord’.

It took her initiative, her hard work, her love and it set a great example to her two young boys.  It is an example of godly opportunism, doing a simple thing that draws people to Jesus.

Paul Barnett
Christmas 2013.




The Cross-Shaped Bronze Serpent at Mount Nebo, Jordan

To stand at Mt Nebo looking across the Jordan Valley to Jericho is a great experience.

There across the river is the Promised Land that typologically symbolizes the Kingdom of God, the hope of the Christian.

There’s no evidence that Jesus ever stood there, although the site of his baptism is not that far away, so it’s possible.

The bronze serpent sculpture is a recent creation, but an inspired one.  It combines the serpent (as from Numbers 21) with the cross.  The sculptor has cleverly portrayed in bronze the words of Jesus to Nicodemus.

As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,
so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
that whoever believes in him may have eternal life (John 3.14-15)

Nicodemus was religious (a Pharisee), clever (the teacher of Israel), and eminent (a member of the Jerusalem Ruling Council).  What is more, he believed that Jesus was a teacher come from God on account of the miracles.  He believed about Jesus.

But none of these things gave him eternal life, but only believing in the Son of Man lifted up on the cross, as the Lamb of God who bore the sin of the world.

Under the leadership of Joshua the whole nation entered the Land.  It was their national possession, provided they carefully observed all they had been taught by their great prophet Moses.

But Jesus told Nicodemus that under God’s new arrangement each person individually had to be ‘born again’ in order to ‘enter the kingdom of God’.  God makes individuals his children, but their children must each be ‘born again’ to belong to God’s family, members of his kingdom.  It has been said that God has children, but not grandchildren.

The local Christians (the Franciscans) at Mt Nebo have done a great thing in creating the cross-shaped bronze serpent.  It is such a powerful symbol as it stands at the place where the Promised Land lies before you.

They have also installed a plaque with John’s words:

The Law was given through Moses;
grace and truth came through Jesus Christ (John 1:17).

Jesus, the One ‘lifted up’, was and is the ever-renewing source of ‘grace’ (= mercy) and ‘truth’ (faithfulness) to those who commit to him.  The message is clear even to a good, religious and clever man like Nicodemus: look to Jesus and be saved.

Constantine R. Campbell Paul and Union with Christ. An Exegetical and Theological Study (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012) 478 Pages

This is probably the most important biblical thematic study by an Australian since Leon Morris’s Apostolic Preaching of the Cross published in 1955.  Dr Campbell has already established an international reputation for his work on the Greek of the New Testament.  To this distinction he has now added the major thematic and theological work, Paul and Union with Christ that promises to be the benchmark on this key subject for years to come.

Paul and Union with Christ falls into three main parts.  In the first, Campbell surveys major contributors from Deissmann (1892) to Gorman (2009).  Although the analyses are necessarily brief they represent a massive achievement and in themselves make the book worth owning.

He proceeds, second, to the major core of the monograph, a two hundred page exegetically detailed study of every Pauline union-with-Christ text, related to the key prepositions en, eis, syn, and dia.  Campbell examines each text in turn providing his own translation of the Greek, all with attractive simplicity.  This section will prove to be invaluable for those who teach from or write on these critical Pauline texts.  The author concludes this part with a discussion on Pauline metaphors like ‘body’, ‘temple’ and ‘marriage’ that elucidate the union-with-Christ texts.

The final ‘theological’ section, occupying the latter 40 percent of the book, rests squarely on the foundational exegesis of Paul’s union-with-Christ texts in the second part.  Here he discusses the work of Christ, the Trinity, Christian living, and justification.

Dr Campbell is acutely aware of past as well as present attempts to understand Paul’s union-with-Christ texts in relationship with the apostle’s overall theology. The ‘occasional’ character of his epistles makes the task quite complicated, if not impossible.  Paul’s focus and emphasis from letter to letter depends on the issues he is addressing.  Romans is the closest to a systematic statement of his beliefs, yet even here Paul is addressing a series of specific pastoral issues amongst those in his mission in that city.

So do the ‘union’ texts represent the ‘centre’ of Paul’s thought, or perhaps their ‘key’?

Campbell is fully aware of these issues and that many (most?) of the union texts have layered and interconnected meanings and without a single, dominant, controlling idea.  So he settles on the notion of ‘webbing’: ‘…union with Christ is the “webbing” that holds it all [Paul’s thought] together…Every Pauline theme and pastoral concern ultimately coheres with the whole through their common bond – union with Christ’ (p. 441).

Inevitably such a massive work prompts some questions.  One is that he notes the fact but not the content of Dr John Lee’s trenchant criticism of the BDAG Greek lexicon (p. 27 n. 8).  Lee, an Australian, is an international expert on lexicons so it would have been helpful to know his concerns, especially since Campbell follows the structures BDAG to the degree he does (though not uncritically).  Another, is the question how historically Paul became ‘a man in Christ’ (2 Cor. 12:2) and how historically his addressees became ‘those who belong to Christ’ (1 Cor. 15:23)?  What was the role of Paul’s Damascus conversion for him and the role of his gospel preaching for those who became his churches?  Connected, third, is how important to Paul was his failed attempt to relate to God through law in contrast to his life-changing epiphany as from Damascus that he now knew his ‘Abba’, Father in the Crucified One, in the power of the Christ who loved him in him (Gal. 2:19-21).

Dr Campbell has put us deeply in his debt by his dedicated labours in producing this epochal book.  Despite its immense erudition and imposing research it is written humbly and simply and with due respect to those with whom he differs.

Paul Barnett

(A review published in Southern Cross, Sydney, April 2014)


Why I am Still A Christian

Why I am still a Christian

It was a long time ago.  I had become dissatisfied with my life’s direction and that of the friends in my social circle.  In my early twenties I began to attend a church and thankfully found the minister’s message and the congregation’s welcome deeply encouraging.  I began for the first time to read the Bible.  One day I attended a lunch hour service in St Andrew’s Cathedral where the speaker, Dr Howard Guinness spoke on John 6.37.  That’s where Jesus said, ‘Whoever comes to me I will in no wise cast out’.  I prayed a prayer in which I told Jesus I was ‘coming’ to him.  That was in 1957.

I could now go on and say that life had been easy ever since, one green light after another.  I have indeed been blessed with a wonderful marriage, a loving family and a satisfying life’s work, but there have been challenges to my life as a Christian.  Let me mention four.

One was doubt.  Yes, doubt.  While my ‘conversion’ was real and deeply helpful I had questions about the truth basis of Christianity.  My new friends assured me it was true, but they didn’t really know why it was.  Even four years in a good seminary (Moore College) didn’t really address that question.  It was only when I began Ancient History studies that I understood how numerous and early were the sources for Jesus and the spread of earliest Christianity.  I have sometimes often wondered about God’s providential dealings with people, but thankfully I have no doubts about the truth basis of our faith.

Another challenge was the difficulty of my wife Anita’s prolonged back pain.  She had been a nurse and this had left the unwelcome legacy of extreme back pain that lasted for many years.  Two operations failed but thankfully a third was successful, but that was after a decade of suffering.  Not that she complained or stopped her partnership with me in our work for the Lord.  She soldiered on bravely.  I am aware that many people don’t find the relief that she found, so we count ourselves much blessed by the way things have turned out.  But when things were bad we found it all very hard.

A third challenge has been discouragement.  I am thinking of my own luke-warmness as a Christian.  Truly I am a Laodician, neither hot nor cold!  My prayer life and Bible reading are pretty average and my ministry to people often falls short.  Along with that I have to say I have been discouraged by some of my fellow Christians, including fellow ministers, whose ethics are sometimes lower than the ethics of the non-Christian company I worked for.  I am thinking of people who have been a bit too keen on advancing their own interests rather than serving the Lord.  I sometimes think that behaviour in church circles are not unlike the attitudes of the chief priests and the Sanhedrin that condemned that innocent man who is our Lord.   But I pass this judgement as one who has not lived up to his own ideals, fully aware that it is precarious to judge the behaviour of others.

A fourth challenge has been what I am calling decadence.  I am thinking of the decline in the social fabric of society.  ‘Where is God’, I ask, ‘allowing this to happen?  Why have you allowed things to deteriorate so much?’  I am thinking of the media’s exaltation of celebrities regardless of their values or lifestyle, of the collapse into binge drinking and substance abuse by so many, and of the decline in civil discourse in public life, to mention just a few examples.

In a way there’s nothing new here.  The ‘good old days’ were not always that good.  The difference is that when bad things happened back then it was against the values of the times, values that were significantly Christian.  When many bad things happen today they are just accepted.

I realize that compared with the headwinds many have struggled against that mine seem relatively minor.  Yet for me they did and to a degree still do represent challenges to my faith and reasons not to continue as a Christian.

Jesus knew well that continuing to follow him would be fraught.  ‘Take up your cross and follow me’, he said, referring to the pain of rejection for those who identify with him.  When the crowd of 5000 whom he had fed drifted away due to his challenging words he asked the twelve who remained, ‘Will you also go away?’  In fact, they all did fall away when at last he came to Jerusalem.  One was a betrayer (for money), another a denier (for approval) and ten who were cowards (because of fear).  Their sins live on in us so that we fail him repeatedly.

It was because Jesus knew how morally feeble we are that he commanded his followers, ‘Abide in me’, words which simply mean, ‘Continue with me’, ‘remain with me, ‘don’t give up’.  St Paul said, ‘We don’t give up’, implying the struggle he had had to do just that.

So the following of Jesus was never going to be easy.  The exodus pilgrims’ journey from slavery in Egypt to freedom in Canaan anticipates the pilgrimage of the disciple of Jesus, the spiritual journey from conversion/baptism to the promised kingdom.  Soon after the Lord brought them out of Egypt they worshipped a golden calf, a pagan fertility symbol, in spite of their agreement to his covenant to refuse to make for themselves an idol or image that they will worship.  They grumbled and they sinned so that in the end only a minority actually arrived in the Promised Land.

So we must not underestimate the challenges of continuing and moving forward as a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ.

In the end, however, we depend on him to strengthen us to continue.  At the beginning he said, ‘Come to me.  I will welcome you and not cast you out’.  But he also said, ‘My sheep hear my voice and they follow me and no one will snatch them from my hand’.  Here the Lord makes two promises.  He welcomes us and he holds us.

This does not relieve us of the responsibility to continue.  ‘Make your calling and election sure’, said Peter.  That means I need to confirm and reconfirm my commitment to Jesus.  Bible reading, prayer and gathering with other Christians is basic to my continuance as a Christian.  I need to support and love of other members of the Christian family and they need mine.  We help one another along the way, not least in times of distress and heartache.

Why am I still a Christian?  Ultimately it is the Lord’s doing.  He made the invitation, ‘Whoever comes…’ and he gives the assurance, ‘no one will snatch them out of my hand’.

(A talk given in Brisbane in March 2013 under auspices of Matthew Hale public Library)

A New New Testament (March 2013)

A New New Testament (2013)

Hal Taussig and a team of eighteen scholars and religious leaders have chosen ten texts (out of sixty seven surveyed) to be published alongside the twenty-seven that comprise the New Testament and called it A New New Testament.  The ‘new’ texts are from the post-New Testament eras and are mostly ‘gnostic’ in character (an exception is the Acts of Paul and Thecla). (

 In fact, these texts are not ‘new’ but go back almost to the era of the apostle and for the most part have been known for many years by historians.

 The stated aim of the group is to bring these texts to the general public.

Publicity for the book asks, ‘…don’t we have a great deal to gain by placing them back into contact with the twenty-seven books of the traditional New Testament—by hearing, finally, the full range of voices that formed the early chorus of Christians?’  In fact, however, the New Testament and the extra texts did not form a ‘chorus’ of united voices.  The mainstream Christian leaders called the teaching in these texts ‘heresy’.  An intellectual and spiritual chasm separated these opposing religious viewpoints.

Hal Taussig and his colleagues say that the ‘canon’ of the New Testament was not really ‘closed’ until relatively modern times and that it is therefore valid to publish other texts with the twenty-seven of the biblical canon within the one book.  This asserts that the canon is, in effect, elastic.  It is an elastic canon, capable of the addition of new texts.

That was not the view, however, of church leaders in the 2nd and 3rd centuries.  By ‘church leaders’ I am thinking of people like Irenaeus who was a pupil of Polycarp, who was a pupil of John, who was a disciple of Jesus.  Irenaeus, through the chain of orthodox teachers going back to Jesus, was articulating the views of those teachers, back to Jesus himself.

In the 2nd century these leaders were confronted with strongly differing, in fact, antithetical views.  Marcion rejected the Creator God of the Old Testament and reduced his canon mainly to an expurgated version of Luke and some of the letters of Paul.  The Gnostics from Egypt created extra gospels (mainly gnosticized adaptations of Jesus’ teachings with little narrative), for example the Gospel of Truth and the Gospel of Thomas.  Scholars are broadly agreed that these are derived from the canonical gospels.

So the big issue for the true followers of Jesus in the century after the apostles was to establish which gospels were genuine and which were not.  A succession of 2nd century leaders asserted the fourfold gospel.  Irenaeus insisted that the gospel was ‘quadriform’, not less that four and not more than four.  Likewise the Muratorian Canon and Tatian’s Diatessaron (= ‘one through four’) each insisted that there were four gospels.  The codex P46 dated to the end of the 2nd century has in it the four Gospels plus the book of Acts.  The four superscriptions that date from the early second century – ‘according to Matthew’, ‘according to Mark’, ‘according to Luke’, ‘according to John’ – assert there is ‘one gospel’, but each ‘according to’ the four named gospel-writers.

Accordingly, it is clear that those who were disciples of the disciples of Jesus in response to Marcion, on the one hand, and to Valentinus, on the other, insisted on a closed canon of four gospels.

Following the first Easter the original followers of Jesus formulated creeds and confessions, for example, as quoted by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 that affirms the death for sins, the burial, the resurrection and the numerous sightings of the risen Christ.  This and other creed-like statements eventually became expanded as baptismal creeds in the second century (e.g., by Ignatius), which then became the great creeds of Christendom to expose heresies like Gnosticism (the Apostles Creed) and Arianism (the Nicene Creed).

These creed-like statements within the New Testament insisted on the facts of the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus and permeate the literature of the New Testament.

The Gnostics altered the sayings of Jesus in the genuine Gospels as vehicles for their alternative doctrines.  Those doctrines reacted against the historical and geographical facts about Jesus and formulated a religion that was essentially non-historical, mystical and meditative.  They reacted strongly against the Old Testament.  It was all about being absorbed upwards out of this material world into the pure world of deity.  It skilfully used New Testament terms like ‘enlightenment’ and ‘salvation’ which it employed in diametrically opposite ways to the New Testament.

Should these texts be published?  Definitely.  It would be helpful to have these texts and others like them available in good translations, with critical manuscript apparatus and scholarly commentary, but not published in the same book as the twenty-seven genuine texts.  Otherwise it would imply that the canon is indeed open-ended and that the genuine and that the non-genuine are reducible to the same level.

John Dominic Crossan, a leading member of the Jesus Seminar, was part of the panel of nineteen.  This sends a pretty clear message that the publishing group is somehow connected with the Jesus Seminar, a body of scholars dedicated to questioning the integrity of the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels.  Marcus Borg, another member of the Jesus Seminar, has written a glowing review the book as part of its advertising campaign.  In other words, this panel is not a broad-based body of scholars (for example, the Society of Biblical Literature) but an association committed to questioning the integrity of historic Christianity and promoting instead its own alternative version of Christianity.


Epiphany – Five Reflections from a Life Time


(Mere Anglicanism Conference, Charleston SC, January 2013)

 I count it a great privilege to share these thoughts with my fellow-Anglican Christians. Like the apostle Paul I do so with ‘fear and trembling’, though for a different reason.  Paul was amongst dangerous enemies; I am amongst friends.

My fear is threefold.  First, much of what I will say is in the realm of history, and history is a turn off for many.  Secondly, I want to speak personally, and that could easily sound egocentric and self-indulgent, another turn off.  Thirdly, and most worryingly, is my Aussie accent that I know is foreign to many ears.  So, please pray for me!

I am mindful of the critical times in which we live.  Yes we have the passionate campaigns of the New Atheists outside the church, but we also have the sceptics inside the church, amongst church leaders and scholars.  It would not be unfair to use the word ‘apostasy’ of some branches of the Anglican family.  The same sadly holds true in other traditions, Presbyterian and Lutheran, for example.

But I do not intend to dwell on the negatives but the positives and to do so in terms of my personal discoveries over the 55 years of my Christian journey.  ‘Discovery’ is not the right word because it puts the emphasis on me.  ‘Epiphany’, or ‘epiphanies’ would be better because these discoveries are really ‘revelations’ from God, God-given insights.  ‘Flesh and blood’ does not discover truth about God; God must reveal it.

As it happens it is, or recently was, the season of Epiphany – if you will cut me a little slack.

Nor will I speak mainly about theological issues, but historical ones.  Theology to be true depends on what happened historically.  If the Word did not actually become flesh in Bethlehem in the latter years of Herod, then the theology stated in John 1:14 is just empty words, akin to myth.  F.F. Bruce saw no incompatibility between theology and history and observed that ‘a man cannot be a good theologian unless he is a good historian’.[1]

The first epiphany happened in a class in Ancient History 101.  I was a mature age student, 29 years old.  I had not studied classical history at school, but I was now a junior professor at a seminary and my President sent me off the University to study Classical Greek and Ancient History.  My background had been in the Building industry.

Six years earlier I had been converted out of a totally unchurched background.  It was pretty dramatic, but I was wary of emotionalism and kept asking my new church friends, ‘How do we know it’s true?’ to which they replied, ‘It just is.  Just believe it’.  But the question remained, even when I spent 4 years in seminary and did well enough to become an instructor.

The epiphany happened when I suddenly realized how good were the historical sources for Jesus and the birth of Christianity.  We had been studying Alexander the Great and the Roman Caesars.  For Tiberius, the Caesar in whose time Jesus ministered, we mainly depend on Suetonius for information.  But Suetonius wrote about eighty years after Tiberius’ death, when no one was alive who could question what had been written.  Mark wrote his Gospel only 30 or so years after Jesus, when many Jesus’ contemporaries were still alive.

My first epiphany quickly connected with things I had come to know.  I knew that the 27 books of the New Testament were written by ten mostly independent authors, and were in circulation and use by the mid-90s – less than 60 years after Jesus; most of them much closer to Jesus, especially the epistles.  As well, I knew by then that these early texts had been accurately transmitted and copied from the time they were written.  I knew there are 5600 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament from the early centuries and 19,000 translations in Latin, Coptic, Arabic, and Armenian – more than 24, 000 in all.  Cross checking by Textual Critics means that the texts in our Bibles are 99% certain, and nothing doctrinally hangs on the 1%.

I cannot tell you how excited I was in that lecture room.  It was a ‘eureka’ moment.  The witness of the New Testament to Jesus more than holds its own relative to the documentation of the Caesars of those times, whose life stories are not in doubt.

Also connected with my first epiphany was a little book by A.M. Hunter, Paul and His Predecessors, which pointed out that Paul did not write the words we find in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7.  That’s where he quotes that Christ died for our sins, was buried, was raised the third day, and appeared on 5 separate occasions to more than 500 people.  Paul was quoting what he had been taught at or soon after his conversion, that is, only about one or at most four years after Jesus.  In other words, the idea that Jesus was the Messiah, who died for sins and who was resurrected on the third day, did not evolve decades later than Jesus but was part of Christian understanding from the beginning, in the immediate aftermath of his lifespan.  Why would the earliest Christians in Jerusalem have formulated this teaching, if it wasn’t true?

By now I was hooked on history and found myself researching a post-graduate thesis on first century Jewish history.  My topic was ‘Civil Disturbances in Judea in the First Century’.  Did you know that three civil wars broke out when Herod died in 4 BC, led by Judas in Galilee, Simon in Perea and Athronges in Judea?  Each of these claimed to be a king and it took the might of the Roman army from Syria to put down these revolts.  Then there were violent Pharisees like Saddok in AD 6, a prophet like Theudas who was killed in 46 in and patriots like Menahem who marched into Jerusalem in 66.  These were formidable figures with big followings, who spanned the era of the New Testament.

So why are these men who fill the pages of Josephus forgotten today and Jesus is a household word?  It’s because history is full of people who blaze briefly like comets and are then forgotten.  But Jesus claimed to be the Son of Man who forgave sins, who healed the sick and raised the dead, who entered Jerusalem as its Messiah-king, whose teaching on love and forgiveness was profound and unheard of, and who himself was resurrected from the dead.  Without the resurrection Jesus would have been just another mistaken prophet whose death guaranteed his relegation to obscurity, like the shadowy figure of the Teacher of Righteousness, the founder of the Dead Sea Sect, whose name we do not even know.

Now in my 30s, whilst pastoring a second congregation I had the opportunity to do research for a PhD.  This was not in theology but again in Jewish history in roughly the same era as the New Testament.  Following that I became head of a University College and a professor in New Testament history within an Ancient History university department.

It was then I began my visits to Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Turkey and Greece, which I still continue on an annual basis and have done for twenty-five years.  I am privileged to have visited every place mentioned in the New Testament, with one important exception – Tarsus, birthplace of Paul.  That was to have been in 2011, but for the civil war in Syria.

A second epiphany – in my forties – was based on my first visit to Israel and Jordan – and confirmed many times since.  That lake – the Sea of Tiberias – its storms, its fishing, its surrounding hills is the lake of the Gospels.  The towns of the Holy Land – Bethlehem, Nazareth, Cana, Capernaum, Chorazim, Bethsaida, Gennesaret, Magdala, Sychar, Caesarea Philippi, the Decapolis, the borders of Tyre and Sidon, Jericho, Bethany beyond Jordan, Bethany near Jerusalem are the towns and places of the Gospels.  They have been mostly continuously settled in the years since, with place names unchanged.  The geography of Galilee and the topography and streetscape of Jerusalem cohere amazingly with the biblical text.  The entire ministry of Jesus is embedded in places we can still visit.

The context of John’s ministry and Jesus’ ministry is stated by Luke (3:1-2) – the fifteenth year of Tiberius (AD 28 or 29) when Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod Antipas tetrarch of Galilee, Annas and Caiaphas high priests – link in exactly to the complex jurisdictions of the holy land after the death of Herod and Augustus’ division of Herod’s kingdom.

In Luke-Acts there are no less than sixteen texts that connect Luke’s narrative with famous named people in world history, like Sergius Paulus Proconsul of Cyprus, to take one example.  Then there are dozens of lesser figures like the centurion Cornelius in Caesarea Maritima who are no less authentic.  In other words, the geography, topography and history of the New Testament coheres with the geography and history of the era in which it is located.  This is the more impressive because such references are made in passing, matters of incidental detail, easily missed because of the weightiness of the narrative.

Luke-Acts is an amazing text covering 70 years from the birth of John the Baptist to Paul’s imprisonment in Rome and represents 25% of the volume of the New Testament.  It is widely commended by great secular historians like Mommsen, Meyer and Sherwin-White, but surprisingly spurned by many specialist Christian scholars.  Crossan’s index to his Birth of Christianity, for example, does not have a single reference to the book of Acts and declared the first thirty years of Christian history to be ‘dark decades…cloaked in silence’.  That is a convenient viewpoint if you want to write your own history of Christianity and present your own revisionist, designer theology!  Luke-Acts is critical to recovering Christian origins, the beginnings of Christianity.  Only this continuous text connects the rise of early Christianity to the impulse of Jesus, his identity, his saving death and his glorious resurrection.

As Luke tells us in his opening words, it was the original disciples of Jesus who handed over textual sources to Luke for him to write his great global history.  Who was better placed than them to do so?  The ‘we’ and ‘us’ passages in Acts 21-28 tell us that Luke was with Paul for the last five years of the narrative of Luke-Acts.  Luke was Paul’s companion and therefore well placed to write about Paul.  Who else but Paul could have given Luke the material he uses about Paul, his early life, his persecutions, his conversion, and his remarkable missions in Syria-Cilicia, Galatia, Macedonia, Achaia and Asia?  Luke-Acts shows us the immediate continuity between Jesus, crucified and risen, and the first three decades of Christianity.  The apostles preached Jesus as the risen Christ and Lord, because he was!

The archaeologists’ spade as well as accidental discoveries have confirmed much of the data we encounter in the biblical texts.

•A fishing boat from this period, discovered in 1985;

•an inscription bearing the name Pontius Pilate, discovered in 1961;

•a burial chest inscribed Joseph Caiaphas, discovered in 1990;

•the Pool of Siloam, identified in 2004;

•Jacob’s well near Joseph’s tomb under the shadow of Mount Gerizim;

•a Pool near the Sheep Gate, known as Bethesda;

•the tragic remains of the crucified man, Yehohanan, discovered in 1968;

•the discovery of rolling stones to seal tombs.

All these subtly but cumulatively reinforce the sense that we are in the realm of historical and geographical reality when we read the Gospels.

So far I have shared some ‘eureka’ moments, epiphanies.

•The quality, quantity of the sources for Jesus, and their closeness to him.

•The early, oral formulation of words embedded in 1 Cor. 15:3-7 about Christ’s death for sin, his burial, his resurrection on the 3rd day, and his multiple appearances.

•The linkages from Luke-Acts into world history, pointing to Luke’s integrity.

•Based on numerous visits to Israel the amazing coherence of geography, topography, and history, supported by archaeological finds and discoveries.

Each of these has confirmed my strong confidence in the integrity of the New Testament texts in their witness to Jesus, a the Son of God, who performed inexplicable miracles, who proclaimed the kingdom of God, who was the friend of sinners, who trained his disciples for world-mission, who died on the cross as our sin-bearer, and whom God raised from the dead to give us the hope that God has triumphed over evil and will triumph over evil – and who established the church.  I have absolutely no doubts about the authenticity and historicity of the New Testament.

One thing is certain.  No mere prophet or holy rabbi could have been the impetus for the amazing movement that arose in his immediate aftermath, as reflected in the New Testament in general and Luke-Acts in particular.  As I have mentioned, there were many warlords, prophets, and charismatic rabbis in Palestine in the first century, but they are lost in the dust of time.  It is only the deity of Jesus, his gracious miracles, his profound love ethic and his resurrection form the dead that explain not merely the survival of faith in him, but the immediate explosion of that faith and its rapid dissemination around the Mediterranean world.  Jesus gave hope to a hopeless world, and – thank God – he still does.

Let me share three other epiphanies.

The third was when I was lecturing at university.  I decided to make a detailed comparison of the accounts of a miracle that each of the four Gospels narrate.  I chose the miracle of the loaves and fishes.  As I spread out the four Greek texts in parallel, I was quickly reminded that Matthew and Luke make use of Mark’s account, often word for word.  Matthew and Luke are derivative texts, based mainly on Mark.  Most scholars accept that Mark’s is the earliest of the three, and that Matthew and Luke also incorporate other sources in their idiosyncratic Gospels making them both longer than Mark’s.  John, however, does not replicate any words from the other three, except for the statistics – 5000 men, five loaves, two fishes, twelve baskets, etc.

But there are other differences.  In John they are barley loaves and pickled fish that belong to the boy, details found only in John.  And his story line is a little different:  In John Jesus welcomes the crowd but in Mark he arrives after them.  Clearly Mark did not depend on John or John on Mark.  At a secular university with mostly secular students with no church background I set an essay question about this incident as in the four gospels.  The universal opinion was that Mark and John were primary, independent sources.  That means there are two independent witnesses to this miracle.

I was reminded of ‘Momigliano’s Rule’: ‘historical research is based on the distinction between original and derivative authorities’.  Professor Momigliano of Cambridge is one of the doyens of ancient history studies.

So what we have are two core texts – Mark’s and John’s – that are independent of each other.  Each is the final, written up version of a tradition – written or oral – that went back to the event, and that separately testifies to the truth of the event, the great miracle.  This criterion is called ‘Multiple Attestation’, and it is fundamental to all historical enquiry but no less to the jury process.  One witness may inspire confidence, but two or more – if credible – make for a weighty case.  But a second witness who merely repeats a primary witness is no use at all, according to Momiglinano’s wise counsel.

There are thirty-seven separate miracles of Jesus in the four Gospels. These fall into four categories – exorcisms, nature miracles, healings and raisings up from the dead.  These are found in the independent Mark and John and in the three independent sources underlying Matthew and Luke, known as Q (common to Matthew and Luke), L (unique to Luke), and M (unique to Matthew).  The thing is that each of these miracle types in found in at least two independent sources, of which the Miracle of the Loaves and the Fishes is a case in point.  Based on the principle of Multiple Attestation a historian would rightly conclude that these four miracle types – exorcisms, nature miracles, healings and raisings up from the dead – actually happened at the hands of Jesus, testifying to Jesus’ unique deity.

This is a matter of history, based on the historical method.  It is not mere unsubstantiated dogma.

My next epiphany – the fourth – occurred while I was giving a talk on a university campus about the reliability of the New Testament when a questioner asked me about the Qur’an.  I had to admit that I didn’t know enough to respond.  So I set about reading the Qur’an and thinking about the question.

Let me say, I do not doubt that Muhammad was a real person, with a huge impact, and that the Qur’an reflects the oracles he believed that God spoke to him.  But when I read the text, I was struck by an absence of linkages into world history and local geography that we find in the Gospels, Acts and Letters.  There are no people like Jairus, no places like Capernaum, no references like, ‘the next day’ that tie down the narratives about Jesus to other people, real places and actual times.  What we find in the Qu’ran is mainly ‘teaching’ that is not anchored – so far as I can see – into times, places or people within the Prophet’s life span 570-632.  The earliest extant biography of the Prophet, written by Ibn Hisham 213 years after Muhammad’s death has some of these details, but not the Holy Qur’an.  In this regard the New Testament is another world.  The letters of the New Testament – even the Revelation – are full of personal, historical and geographical information.

I discovered another fascinating difference.  To my knowledge there are no external contemporary texts that shed light on the Prophet or the early years of Islam.  Early Christianity is different.  Josephus, writing mid-90s from Rome, reports that Jesus was a ‘wise man’ whose tribe still continued sixty years later.  Tacitus writing ca. 110 observes that the ‘Christians’ took their name from Christus whom Pilate executed in Judea, but whose movement did not die with its founder but spread to Rome where it became an ‘immense multitude’, and a convenient scapegoat for Nero after the great fire in 64.

Also writing about 110 was Pliny, governor of Bithynia a Black Sea province, who said that the Christians’ practice was to meet weekly to sing hymns to Christ, ‘as to a god’.  This is a striking detail that confirms the witness of the New Testament that the early Christians met, worshipped and prayed to the exalted Jesus, ‘as to a god’, as Pliny would say.  Pliny confirms the witness of the New Testament that the early Christians met to worship Jesus as Lord.

It is striking that Josephus, Tacitus and Pliny strongly dislike Christianity and the Christians.  Tacitus and Pliny describe Christianity as a spreading disease.  Tacitus said the Christians pursued ‘vile practices’ and Pliny implies that they were fanatics.

Although these writers are opposed to the Christians their accounts of the raw facts about Christian origins and practice exactly correspond with the raw facts in the New Testament.  The interpretations of Jesus and the Christians are diametrically opposed, but the facts corroborate one another. These are unbiased, even hostile witnesses, yet they confirm the accounts written from inside the movement.  This is not merely Multiple Attestation, but Multiple Hostile Attestation that neatly dovetails with the narrative of the New Testament.

So to my final epiphany, the fifth.  It occurred in the mid-90s when I was a scholar in residence in a seminary in London preparing to give a public lecture series back in Sydney.  I stumbled across a book called The Practice of History by Geoffrey Elton, a distinguished scholar of Tudor history.  There wasn’t a thing in it directly related to the New Testament.  However, Elton made a distinction between ‘evidence…intended for publication’ and incidental information produced for ‘another purpose’.

I immediately thought the Gospels and Acts belonged to the first category of ‘evidence…intended for publication’ whereas the Letters were produced ‘for another purpose’, that is, informal even trivial documents relating to the passing, sometimes mundane needs of the recipient churches.   Elton shrewdly observed that those who wrote histories – documents intentionally written for publication – were open to suspicion regarding their motives to whitewash their subjects whereas surviving trivia like invoices and laundry lists were not, and were often full of useful information about the economy of the times, for example.

I thought to myself, ‘How important therefore are the New Testament epistles.  They have not been written as chronicles or histories to convince somebody, yet they contain lots of historical and chronological information.  This is especially true of Galatians, First and Second Corinthians, Romans and Philippians.  At so many points these texts ‘written for another purpose’ – the often trivial problems in the churches, and not originally intended for wider publication – confirm the details in the intentionally written Gospels and Acts.  For me this was an important discovery and it became a chapter in a book, Jesus and the Logic of History published in 1997.

So these have been some ‘Eureka’ moments, some God-given ‘epiphanies’ I have received over the years along with connecting ideas.

Epiphany 1:  The historical source material for Jesus is very close to Jesus.  In the case of Galatians it is a mere 15 years after the crucifixion and resurrection.  Information about Tiberius, the Caesar under whom Jesus was executed is approaching a century after his death in AD 37.

Connected with this:

•The text of the New Testament is recoverable because of the many manuscripts from the early centuries – 5600 in Greek, 19000 in translations in Latin, Armenian, Coptic, etc.

•Paul did not originally write the little catechism in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 that teaches Christ died for our sins, was buried, was raised on the 3rd day and appeared to many hundreds, several of whom are named.  The Jerusalem Christians had devised that catechism in a narrow time corridor of less than three years after Jesus.  Why would they have devised that catechism unless Jesus had been raised from the dead?

Epiphany 2:  My many journeys to Israel have convinced me that the Gospels reflect the time, and place and people – the history, topography and geography of Galilee and Judea in the late 20s and early 30s of the first century.

Connected with this:

•The numerous artefacts – the boat, the Pilate inscription, the Caiaphas ossuary, the Pool of Siloam – all combine subtly to reinforce the integrity of the Gospels.

Epiphany 3: Careful study of the Gospel accounts of the Feeding of the Multitude led me to conclude that there were two independent traditions to that miracle that arose in parallel because of that miracle.  The principle of Multiple Attestation -– so vital in the work of history and of jury trials – convinced me of the historicity of the thirty seven miracles classified as four types of miracles of Jesus, pointing to his unique deity.

Epiphany 4: Study of the Qur’an made me appreciate the contrasting historical and geographical character of the New Testament.

Connected with this:

•Study of the non-Christian witnesses – Josephus, Tacitus and Pliny – point to the principle of Multiple Hostile Attestation that confirms the raw facts of the New Testament about the crucifixion, the spread of Christianity throughout the Empire, and that the early Christians worshiped Jesus ‘as a god’.

Epiphany 5: The recognition that the New Testament letters are not intentionally written history but are confirmatory of intentionally written history, especially since they predate the writing of the Gospels and Acts.  The early dating of the letters of Paul indicate that the three or so decades between Jesus and the writing of Mark were alive with missionary work and the creation of Christian congregations far and wide.

There is more, but I mustn’t indulge your patience further.  History is not for everyone!  But I am encouraged in my confidence in the witness of the New Testament to Jesus, Son of God, Lord, and Saviour.  The creeds we confess in church arise out of the New Testament and the multiplicity of its sources and the integrity of its transmission undergirds its trustworthiness.

I could not reject the historical reliability of the New Testament, even if I wanted to.

Let me conclude by referring to your mission statement:


Mere Anglicanism’s vision is for a reformed, renewed orthodox Anglicanism  within North America. We recognize that to achieve a restored and faithful   Anglicanism, many battles must be fought, many lessons learned. Seminaries must be re-made with faithful, godly deans and teachers.


Today, however, there are teachers of biblical subjects in universities and seminaries who deconstruct the texts and reconstruct them in line with their own worldviews. The duly reconstructed then reconstructed Christ is a tame individual, with views similar to the collective ‘groupthink’.  This is not evidence of the Spirit of God, but the spirit of the age.  It promotes scepticism and doubt, including among church people.

By way of example, a recent article argued that the narrative about Paul in Acts 13-28 was imaginatively reconstructed from Paul’s letters by an unknown author in the Second Century.  Those chapters did not correspond with what actually happened in Acts 13-28, but were the novelistic creation of this unknown second century author.

According to the article this author wrote Acts 13 to identify Antioch in Pisidia as ‘little Rome’, anticipating Paul’s arrival in ‘big Rome’.  This was the point of a contrived narrative that was said to have had no basis in historical truth.

I can think of several historical reasons why this article in wrong, but let me mention two.  The first is the problem of an author fifty or more years later inventing the detail in Acts 13-28, detail that based on modern archaeology is quite credible to us.  It is far more likely that Paul himself was the source of the information that Luke used, that Luke had written up while Paul was still alive, or at least had begun to.  The subtleties of Paul’s seaboard and overland travels in Acts 13-14 are consistent with what we know of the sea lanes and road system of the region, but which may not have been imaginable to an author remote in time and place from the places and events in the narratives.

The second is that Luke in no way exploits a ‘little Rome’ / ‘big Rome’ typology because the words ‘Rome’ and ‘Roman’ do not appear in Acts 13.  It is true, as we now know, that this Antioch was a Roman colony, built on the model of Rome.  Luke may or may not have known this, but either way it is not the point he was making.  Luke’s point was that at Antioch God had ordained that the gospel the Jews were rejecting should be taken to the Gentiles.  That is the point that Luke is making, and that is the point we the readers should be understanding.

Do we understand what is going on here?  First, this scholar explicitly says that Acts 13-28 is not historically true, but is a fictitious narrative.  This robs the text of the truthfulness that Luke claimed for it in his Prologue to Luke-Acts.  Secondly, by finding a Rome-to-Rome motif would make the text of merely antiquarian interest, a talking point for the scholars’ guild.  But the text is not merely an ancient relic for scholars to discuss.  It is a canonical text of sacred scripture that has a continuing missionary mandate for us today and tomorrow and until the Day of the Lord.  That mandate if for us to spread the good news about Jesus to Gentiles everywhere, but also to God’s historic people, the Jews.

How can I say this?  We do not want our ministers in training shaped by that kind of scholarship.  The vision statement calling for ‘faithful, godly deans and teachers’ is exactly right, and the key to future revival of the faith. We want Christian scholars to apply their skills to teaching and applying the Bible, not deconstructing it.

So we need to hold the line and ‘contend for the faith once and for all delivered to the saints’.

Paul Barnett

Epiphany 2013.



[1]Bulletin of the Johns Rylands Library 51 (1969), 294.

Luke’s Acts as a Historical Source for Paul

The Acts of the Apostles is critical to historians for establishing (a) the connection between Jesus and earliest Christianity, and (b) a chronology of the life of Paul and its relationship with his letters.  In this brief paper we will direct our attention to (b).

During the twentieth century, however, four criticisms have been directed against the usefulness to historians of the book of Acts for providing a historical and chronological basis for the life and ministry of Paul (see R. Riesner, Paul’s Early Period Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 1998, 3-28).

Four Criticisms of the Acts of the Apostles

(a)            As compared to Paul’s own references the Acts is not to be regarded as a ‘primary reference’ but as a ‘secondary reference’. This view is especially connected with J. Knox but has become critical orthodoxy for many. For some authorities Acts as a ‘secondary reference’ means that it is of little or no use to the historian, whereas for others it means that it is of use where it can be shown to agree with Paul.

(b)            Closely connected is the viewpoint that discovers historical divergences in Acts as an unreliable secondary source from Paul as the reliable primary source.  These include the omission by Acts of Paul’s sojourn in Arabia (Gal. 1:17) and its conflicting accounts of Paul’s first and second return visits to Jerusalem (Gal. 1:18-21/Acts 9:26-27; Gal. 2:1-10/Acts 11:27-30).

(c)            Passages in the Acts of the Apostles are historically inaccurate and significantly diminish the value of its text.  A prime example is Gamaliel’s speech to the Sanhedrin where he locates the revolutionary prophet Theudas before the insurrectionist Judas, contrary to the witness of Josephus (Acts 5:33-39). Josephus states that Theudas led his insurrection in the mid-40s, thirty years after the uprising of Judas the Galilean (Antiquities of the Jews, xviii.3; xx.97-99).  It is no less serious that the Theudas incident occurred between AD 44-46 whereas Luke quotes Gamaliel speaking to the Sanhedrin about Theudas in ca. 34, about twelve years earlier.

(d)            There is such theological disparity between the Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s letters that the two authors must have been unknown to each other.  It is claimed, for example, that the two authors do not share the same attitude to the law, and therefore to the centrality of the cross of Christ and the role of faith for divine justification.

Responses to these Criticisms

It is possible to make reasonable responses to these criticisms.

(a)            Two responses may be offered to the distinction between Paul as the ‘primary source’ and Luke’s Acts as the ‘secondary source’.  By ‘secondary source’ critics of Acts do not mean that Acts is directly derived from or dependent on the Pauline literary corpus (as Luke’s Gospel was directly derived from Mark’s Gospel).  In their view, to the contrary, Luke’s Acts depends on extraneous, late and unknown sources.

This brings me response (i) to this criticism.  It is that the ‘we’ and ‘us’ passages (Acts 16:10-16; 20:5-21:18; 27:1-28:16) are most sensibly understood as indicating the author’s presence alongside or near Paul during the five years those passages narrate. Significantly, these chapters are intensely more detailed than the preceding chapters of Luke-Acts prompting J. Fitzmyer to refer to a ‘a diary-like record’:

…they [details in Acts] are drawn from a diary-like record that the author of  Acts once kept and give evidence that he was for a time a companion of Paul (J. Fitzmyer, Luke the Theologian: Aspects of his Teaching  (London:Geoffrey Chapman, 1989, 22).

Understood in this way means that the ‘we’ and ‘us’ chapters should be read alongside Paul’s letters (insofar as the narratives overlap) as an equal primary source.  Paul’s letter to the Romans spells out his intention to come to Rome and his letter to the Philippians (most probably) written from Rome indicates that did in fact reach Rome.  Acts 27-28 authentically narrates why and how Paul travelled from Corinth via Judea to Rome.

Luke’s companionship with Paul AD 57-62 would have provided opportunity for the author of Acts to know about Paul’s life beforehand.  Through conversation and perhaps written memoirs Luke would come to know of Paul’s birth in Tarsus, his resettlement in Jerusalem, his conversion, his ‘unknown years’ between Damascus and Antioch, and his subsequent westward missionary journeys prior to their years of companionship.

Response (ii) is to point out that ‘primary source’ material isn’t necessarily free from bias and that ‘secondary source’ material isn’t necessarily inferior or inaccurate.  Who is to say, for example, that Paul did not underplay certain details in his memoir to the Galatians in the first two chapters of that letter?  This is not to say that he did, only that the possibility is there.  On the other hand, based on the hypothesis that Paul told Luke about his earlier life, is there any good reason to argue that he falsified the details at hand?  It is not doubted that he shaped his raw material, but that is not the same as arguing against his integrity overall or in matters of detail.

(b)            That Luke’s details vary from Paul’s at some points does not necessarily indicate that the author of Acts was ignorant of Paul’s missionary movements.  Such a hypothesis would suggest that Luke’s source for chapters 13-20 (as well as details of Paul’s life to that point) was remote from Paul, not dependent on him.

In fact, both the Acts (explicitly) and the Pauline corpus (implicitly) refer to the same theological-geographical ‘narrative’ for Paul.  Both writers interpret the promises of the Old Testament as confirmed in Christ and envisage the gospel message proceeding from Jerusalem to the gentile world.  More specifically, both Paul and Luke trace the spread of the gospel from Jerusalem in a westerly, Rome-ward direction.  That sense of direction emerges clearly from Paul’s Romans (chapters 15-16) and from the entire narrative of the book of Acts.

Luke was constrained by the capacity of his scroll and was forced to abbreviate and omit detail to fulfill his Jerusalem to Rome narrative.  This might explain why, for example, he passes over Paul’s story from Damascus to Antioch, a period of about fifteen years, in a few sentences and omits Paul’s journey to Arabia altogether.

The major problem identified by scholars is the disparity between Paul’s second return visit to Jerusalem narrated on the one hand by Paul (Gal. 2:1-10), and on the other by Luke (Acts 11:27-30).  According to Paul the purpose of the visit was to secure the pillar-apostles’ recognition of Paul’s proposed circumcision-free mission to the Gentiles, whereas Luke states that it was to deliver famine relief from Antioch.

It is right to ask, however, why should Luke’s account be treated as incorrect?  It is quite possible that Paul focused on the divisive issue of circumcision while passing over the delivery of famine relief (an in Luke’s narrative).  It is well known that Luke generally tends to play down divisions within the apostolic community whereas Paul was prepared to highlight them, which he does implicitly in Jerusalem and explicitly in the ‘Incident in Antioch’ (Gal. 2:1-10; 11-14) – especially when defending his doctrines to the Galatians, as he does throughout this letter.

Furthermore, Luke’s account of the beginnings of the westward missions from Antioch occurred immediately after Paul’s return from Jerusalem (Acts 13:1-3).  This is entirely consistent with Paul’s note that the Jerusalem ‘pillars’ agreed that Paul and Barnabas should ‘go’ to the Gentiles (Gal 2:9).  Their condition was that Barnabas and Paul were to ‘remember the poor’, which, Paul adds, was the ‘very thing I have taken pains also to do’ (Gal. 2:10 – As translated by E. de Witt Burton, Galatians ICC (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1980, 99.).  Paul’s retrospective defensive remark confirming Luke’s account of the journey from Antioch to Jerusalem to bring famine relief (Acts 11:27-30).

Many scholars, however, seek to eliminate Acts 11:27-30 as a genuine visit to Jerusalem and prefer to equate Gal. 2:1-10 with Acts 15:4-29 (otherwise known as the Jerusalem Council) as Visit 2.

There are substantial problems with this reconstruction.  One is that Visit 2 according to Galatians was specifically held ‘privately’ between Barnabas and Paul and James, Cephas and John (Gal. 2:2) whereas the Acts 15 meeting involved ‘the apostles and elders with the whole church’ (Acts 15:6, 22, 23).  Furthermore, the private meeting in Jerusalem (Visit 2) preceded the missions to the Gentiles (Gal. 2:9) and the plenary meeting in Jerusalem (Visit 3) succeeded the mission to the Gentiles, and was held to address the issues raised by the missions of Barnabas and Paul ‘among the Gentiles’ (Acts 15:12).

Galatians does not mention a Visit 3 to Jerusalem for the simple reason that it had not yet happened when Paul wrote the letter.  Paul wrote to the Galatians following the Incident at Antioch (Gal 2:11-14), which occurred after his return to the Syrian capital after his missions in Galatia.  It was only then that Barnabas and Paul travelled to Jerusalem for Visit 3, the Jerusalem Council.

(c)            What, then, can be said regarding passages in Acts that are regarded as historically inaccurate, in particular Gamaliel’s speech to the Sanhedrin where he locates the revolutionary prophet Theudas before the insurrectionist Judas?

It is possible that Gamaliel is referring to an otherwise unknown Theudas who preceded Judas.  Theudas is an abbreviation of Theodotus (‘gift of God’) that in turn is the Greek version of the Hebrew name, ‘Jonathon’.  Was Gamaliel referring to an insurrectionist named Theudas who arose during the time of Archelaus (3 BC-AD 6) or, before him, in the time of Herod (40-4 BC)?  Whilst this is theoretically possible it is unlikely because Gamaliel’s quoted words about Theudas and Judas closely match Josephus’ references to men of that name.

It appears, then, that Luke has reversed the true sequence of Judas and Theudas and placed words anachronistically in the mouth of Gamaliel.

In defence of Luke it is possible that the fault lay with the source or sources that Luke used.  My thesis is that Paul was a good source for Luke, based on their extensive companionship.  But for other events like the Gamaliel incident Luke depended on hearsay or written fragmentary chronicles.  It is not reasonable to fault Luke for matters about which he would have been dependent on hearsay or upon an earlier written account of that incident.

In any case, the reference to Gamaliel is but one problematic reference amongst many references to people cross-referenced in world history that are regarded as historically reliable.   These include the named members of the Annas dynasty (4:6), the famine that occurred in the days of Claudius (11:28), Herod the king (12:1), Sergius Paulus, proconsul of Cyprus (13:7), the ‘Politarchs’ of Thessalonica (17:8), the exile of Jews from Italy (18:2), Gallio, proconsul of Achaia, and the ‘Asiarchs’ of Ephesus (19:31).

Thus whilst candour requires acknowledgment of problems in the Gamaliel incident, this needs to be recognized in the broader context of many other unproblematic references.

(d)            It not come as a surprise that there is theological disparity between the Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s letters.  Luke was probably a Gentile and a God-fearer whereas Paul was a Jew, in fact a strict and educated Pharisee.

The pre-Christian Paul may have outwardly seemed ‘under law blameless’ (Phil. 3:6), but within his conscience he was aware – however dimly – that he was ‘a captive under law, a prisoner’ (Gal. 3:23-25), a Jew like other Jews ‘under a curse’ as a law-breaker (Gal. 3:10), in desperate need of divine redemption (Gal. 3:13; 4:4).  Given this circumstance it is understandable that Paul should write so passionately about the cross of Christ as God’s instrument of freedom, and of the role of faith not ‘works of the law’ (Gal. 2:21; 5:11; 6:14-15).

Nonetheless, there are echoes of Paul’s ‘righteousness’ language in Luke-Acts (Luke 18:9, 14; Acts 13:38-39).

Luke was already a disciple (from Antioch?) by ca. 50 when he joined Paul in Troas and travelled to Philippi where he remained for the next seven years (Acts 16:10; 20:6).  By the time he re-joined Paul in AD 57 he had doubtless formed his own theological views so that there is no reason to expect these to have been identical with Paul’s very distinctive theology.

Thus it is quite unreasonable to demand similarity of viewpoints between Paul and Luke and to argue that Luke could not have known Paul because these were not identical.


Our argument has been that the case against the historical value of Acts based on historical and theological divergences from Paul are significant but not ultimately sustainable.  The ‘primary’ versus ‘secondary’ viewpoint fails because a ‘primary’ source may be tendentious or forgetful and a ‘secondary’ source may be based accurately on the witness of the ‘primary source’.

Moreover, it is fallacious to require a ‘secondary’ source slavishly to follow the narrative of the ‘primary source’.  Both Paul and Luke follow a Jerusalem-to-Rome missionary thrust, but for his part Luke omits and compresses his narrative according to his overall literary-theological design.  Whilst the Gamaliel incident raises significant questions for Luke’s accuracy this issue must be seen within the broader context where his historical competence is demonstrable, especially in the ‘we’ and ‘us’ passages.

Furthermore, the demand that Luke’s theology must cohere tightly with Paul’s is unreasonable.  Paul was an intensely religious Jew and Luke was apparently a Gentile so that to expect an identical theological framework is unfair to both men.

Unimaginable Details in Acts 13-20

The data about Paul in the book of Acts is extensive, especially for the span of years between his persecutions and his final journey to Jerusalem, where the principal ‘we’ and ‘us’ passage begins.  Within that quarter of a century Luke narrates Paul’s movements and mission in considerable detail, especially the westward mission decade AD 47-57.

That extensive detail includes the names of people and places and the passage of time and these are too numerous to repeat.  Did Luke invent these details, as some suggest, so that these narratives should be regarded as fictional?  One has only to compare the Acts accounts with various later apocryphal works to see how unlikely this suggestion is.

For the moment let us consider a few unimaginable details, but details that have been confirmed through modern study.  One such example is the travel information related to the journey of Paul and Barnabas through Pamphylia, Pisidia and Lycaonia, the so-called ‘first missionary journey’ (Acts 13-14).  Paul and Barnabas passed through Perga and travelled directly to Antioch in Pisidia and from there to Iconium, Lystra and Derbe, whereupon the missionaries retraced their steps to Perga but departed for Antioch from Attalia.

What is not clear from these references is the nature of the cities and network of roads between them.  From modern scholarship including archaeology we have information about these cities and roads that most likely would not have been available to a writer who was inventing this narrative.  How could a fictional writer located elsewhere know that the relatives of Sergius Paulus Proconsul of Cyprus were significant in Pisidia, as demonstrated by the discovery of the Paulli inscription in Antioch?  This would explain why Paul was so keen to travel directly from Cyprus to Antioch, without preaching in the major city of Perga.  Could someone who invented these narratives know that Antioch, Iconium and Lystra were Roman colonies and thus relatively safe for Paul the Roman citizen to visit, and explain by he bypassed other major cities in that region?  Would a novelistic writer know that Antioch, Iconium and Lystra were connected by a network of well-made Roman roads, including the Via Sebaste, providing further reason why the missionaries preached in those cities?  Could pure invention explain why they travelled on a non-Roman road to obscure Derbe, except to escape the immediate danger from Lystra and Iconium?

Similar questions could be posed about Paul’s numerous other travel details, which modern scholars understand through easy access to research information but which would not have been apparent to an anonymous chronicler in antiquity who would have lacked access to maps and encyclopaedias to inject verisimilitude into contrived narratives.

It is more realistic in every way to attribute the travel and other information in Acts 13-20 to Paul himself who, in turn passed it on to Luke, whether orally or by writing or both.

But this brings us again to the significance of the ‘we’ and ‘us’ passages in the Acts of the Apostles.

The Plausibility of the ‘we’ and ‘us’ Hypothesis

Our argument is that the unimaginable and otherwise inexplicable details in Acts 13-20 are best understood as originating directly from Paul to Luke, who then wove them into his global narrative in Luke-Acts.

The significance of the ‘we’ and ‘us’ narratives, especially in Acts 21-28, is that they directly connect Luke as Paul’s companion and for no less than five years.  The overwhelming probability is that Luke became acquainted with Paul’s earlier life, including his missionary travels, through those years of companionship.  Although many scholars dispute the ‘we’ and ‘us’ passages as pointing to this, Martin Hengel is clear on this point.

…the remarks in the first person plural refer to the author himself.  They do not go back to an earlier independent source, nor are they merely a literary convention, giving the impression that the author was an eyewitness… ‘We’ therefore appears in the travel narratives because Luke simply wanted to  indicate that he was there (Martin Hengel, Acts and the History of Earliest Christianity, London: SCM, 1979 ET, 66).

Such a conclusion is straightforward and sensible.  If indeed true it undergirds the historical integrity of the greater part of the book of Acts.  Without that integrity, as indicated earlier, it would not be possible to identify the connection between Jesus of Nazareth and earliest Christianity, or to provide any kind of framework for the missionary career of Paul and the dispatch of his letters to the churches of his mission.

Although written many years ago, the verdict of Alfred Plummer continues to be applicable.

It is perhaps no exaggeration to say that nothing in biblical criticism is more             important than this statement’ – ‘The Author of Acts was a companion of S. Paul’ (Alfred Plummer, St Luke ICC (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1901, xii.)


Although the various criticisms of Acts appear to damage the credibility of that text for commentary on Paul, those criticisms diminish when carefully evaluated.  The ’we’ and ‘us passages in Acts 27-28 are most cogently understood as the work of a companion of Paul throughout the five years, AD 57-62.  Such a companionship would equip one who was to write about Paul’s earlier years, especially the decade of westward mission, AD 47-57.  The alternative is that such narratives were essentially invented and therefore novelistic.  However, the numerous details of Paul’s journeys narrated in Acts, which are corroborated through modern research, would have been unimaginable to the writer of a contrived chronicle.




Twice in the Bible we read of God ‘dwelling with us’.

The first looks back in time when ‘the word became flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1:14) and the second looks ahead when ‘God will dwell with us’ (Revelation 1:3).  We live in between the two, looking back to the first and forward to the second.

Modernity is an enticing idea.  It suggests that all our hopes are located in the time that is ‘now’.  But when you think about it modernity is whenever you live.  When the wheel was invented it was modern times, or the dishwasher, or the iPad.

Modernity is always moving – on and on, faster and faster.  Go to any electronics outlet and the products are different from just a few months back.  Cameras do different things, likewise TVs, and computers.  I have the sense of being left further and further behind, helpless to catch up.  The machines seem to be getting more complicated.  By the time I reach step 4, I have forgotten step 2.  Anita loves gadgets and can’t wait to open them.  Mine stay in the packet, sometimes for months.

Don’t get me wrong.  I wouldn’t want to live at any other time or place.  We live in a functioning democracy at a time of great medical advance and ease of travel.  When I was a boy, like most people we didn’t have the telephone.  You had to find a phone box.  I wouldn’t want to go back to that.

Modernity looks exciting.  It makes church look ‘old’.  The world is ‘new’ (modern) but the church is ‘old’.  The reality is opposite.  Church buildings may be old, but the people inside are ‘new’ – ‘new creations’, people ‘born anew into the kingdom of God’, God’s ultimate and good future.  True modernity.

It is the world that is ‘old’.  This is because human nature doesn’t change, despite technological progress.

Progress and regress are in lockstep.  Man is in the image of God (capable of nobility), but is also ‘fallen’ (capable of depravity).

This means that even good things can be – and are – put to bad use.  Dynamite is great for building dams, but also for making bombs.  Aeroplanes take you to beautiful places, but they also drop bombs.  Photography is great for prompting the memory, but is used in the production of pornography.  Social media is great for keeping in touch, but insidious for cyber bullying.

There is a sense that although modernity is exciting it is also boring.  Any student of history will tell you that people have always found ways to exploite and be cruel, and that history is the chronicle of the struggle between good and evil.  Good has not always prevailed.

It’s not ‘New world, old church’ but ‘new church, old world’.  The world is ‘old’, even when modern and apparently so new.  But the people of the church – the true believers – are the new people, the people of the kingdom, the people of God’s ultimate and good future.


Modernity without morality is ugly.  We ask, who was the modern man in the past century?  We might say Einstein, or Marconi.  A.N. Wilson said it was Hitler.  Who advanced poverty stricken Germany to prosperity?  Who provided Volkswagens for all the people?  Who built the Autobahns?  Who made the trains run on time?  Who put on great open-air pageants?  Who devised the torch relays we still use at the Olympics?

The same Hitler suppressed all dissent, killed disabled children, attempted the total genocide of the Jewish race, sparked the first global war – that killed over 60 million people.  Ironically some members of the moral rearmament movement supported Hitler.  Modernity without morality is an unspeakable evil.

Let me return to our two texts.

The first, John 1:14, tells us that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  The Son of God walked among us, and men and women beheld his glory. An old, rarely used word (pronounced agapay, ‘love’) was infused with new radical meaning because of his others-centred life and sacrificial death.  He healed the diseased and disabled.  He taught us how to live, loving one another and forgiving our enemies.  By his death he reconciled people lost from God to God, and the estranged to one another.  Truly Jesus was the Prince of Peace.

The second, Revelation 21:3, tells us what our hope is – ultimate modernity:

The New Jerusalem

The New Heaven and Earth

No more death, crying, pain or injustice

The dwelling of God is with man.He will dwell with them, and they will be his people. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said,‘I am making everything new!

 The New Jerusalem comes down from heaven. It does not evolve up from us.  It cannot, because of human corruption.  It is God’s gift.  It is top down not bottom up.

here are dangers in man-made, state-sponsored, state-imposed Utopias.  Social engineering usually means oppression, loss of freedom.  Communism is a failed political experiment.  Pol Pot made Cambodia hell on earth.  Utopia comes from two Greek words and means ‘no place’.  There is no Utopia.

Let me suggest three responses to modernity.

First, be thankful for the good in modernity: medical technology, ease of travel to beautiful places; speed of communication between people.

We give thanks for modernity but are not seduced by it.

Technology changes but people haven’t. We humans are the same mix of nobility and depravity.  Good still struggles to survive against evil. We need a police force to protect us, but also agencies to monitor the police. We need ICAC to restrain corruption.  We live in fear of Identity Theft.  We have more and more laws to protect us.

But I for one am thankful for modernity, living at this stage in history in this place.  I wouldn’t want to live at any other time or place, except Palestine in the time of Jesus.  O, to have been there.

Second, we look forward in hope to the New Jerusalem.

No more death, crying, pain, injustice.  No more death. As Paul said, Christ will abolish the last enemy – death. Our hope is not about relating to God just in this life.  Of all people we would be most to be pitied if that is all there is, said Paul.  Our hope is over the horizon, not just within this life.  God is coming down here to dwell with us. God will make his home here with us, and wipe away every tear.

But is it just a dream, a mirage?  Jesus rose alive from the dead.  A fact of history.  That is the pledge of what God will do.  God raised Jesus from the dead and he will come back to us.  The resurrection was God’s triumph of good over evil.

Third, We look back to Jesus to guide us in the meantime.  He pointed to the Kingdom of God and said, ‘Come to me’.  We point to the Kingdom of God and say, ‘Go to him’.

He taught the truth to people and we teach the truth to people:

•the truth of the gospel

•but also all truth; it is God’s world.  All truth is God’s truth.

He healed the diseased and the disabled and we are committed to all kinds of healing. He reconciled people to God and to one another.  We reconcile people to God and to one another. He is our Saviour, teacher, our guide, our moral and spiritual compass.  He was the Prince of Peace, the peacemaker. We are missionaries of peace: peace with God, through Christ’s death; peace with one another

So we are not dazzled by modernity. We are thankful for the good in it. But we never forget that it’s not ‘Old church new world’. It’s ‘New church old world’.

The time is coming when God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

That is ultimate modernity.




















































































































350th Anniversary of the Book of Common Prayer

In 1660 the monarchy was restored in England, ending the decade or so rule under Cromwell’s ‘commonwealth’.  That decade witnessed the rise of Puritan and Presbyterian influence.   But in 1662 the Act of Uniformity was passed and accompanied by the Book of Common Prayer in that year.

This meant a reintroduction of the uniform use in churches of services that originated with Archbishop Cranmer’s 1552 services.  The 1662 services made only slight changes to the century old 1552 Prayer Book.

However, many ‘non-conforming’ clergy were not conscientiously able to fall in with the Book of Common Prayer and about a thousand were forced out of the Church of England.

Thus 1662 was a momentous year in Christian England.  It represented the beginning of the subsequent division between the Church of England and other churches.

The three-legged Stool

1662 gave us a three-legged stool – the BCP, the Ordinal and the 39 articles of Religion.

The BCP was the public face of Christianity with liturgies for Sunday and liturgies for the ‘occasions’ of life – birth, marriage, death.

The Ordinal set out the beliefs and practices to be followed by Bishops, priests and Deacons.

The 39 Articles of Religion specified the doctrines of the church.

Three Realities

First:            The BCP expresses a faith that is ‘catholic’.

This word means ‘whole’ or ‘complete’.  A complete account of Christian truth, based on the canonical scriptures.

In the early centuries ‘catholic’ defined those committed to the great creeds: - belief about the incarnation of the Son of God, his bodily resurrection and his revelation of the divine trinity.

In contrast to the ‘catholic’ were those who were deemed ‘heretic’ or schismatic’.

The BCP expresses ‘catholic’ Christianity as defined in the early centuries.

Second: The BCP expresses a faith that is ‘reformed’.

The medieval church had become corrupt in theology and practice.

Jesus commanded 2 sacraments – baptism and the Lord’s Supper – the Roman church introduced 5 others.

The gospel teaches that sinners are saved by grace; the medieval church taught that sinners were saved by works.

Jesus taught that divine authority is found in the Bible; the medieval church taught that authority was located in the Pope.

Cranmer provided for extensive church reading of the Old Testament, New Testament and the Psalms.

Reading of the Bible is the central part of the services of the BCP.

Following the reading of the Bible comes the creed.

We the people make our response to the Bible by saying, ‘I believe…’ That’s what credo means, ‘I believe’.

Cranmer made the Bible central in BCP services.

Following the reading of the Bible comes the creed. We the people make our response to the Bible by saying, ‘I (or we) believe…’

That’s what credo means, ‘I believe’. We believe based on what the Bible teaches.

Cranmer was influenced by the teaching of the Apostle Paul in chapter 14 of First Corinthians.

The written word is authoritative over what others speak (v.37).

Church services must be intelligible to the mind.

Church services need to be orderly for the sake of edification.

Third:            The BCP expresses a faith that is defended liturgically

Liturgy is not for aesthetics but employed to defend truth.

•By regular confession of sins expressing the need for forgiveness.

•By sustained reading of the Bible followed by the Creeds.

•By a church calendar for the great festivals and their doctrines:

-Incarnation at Christmas and the atonement and hope at Easter.

-The call to repentance in Lent.

-The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

-The Ascension of the Lord on ascension day

-The Second Coming at Advent.

Each needs to be emphasized throughout the year. But the Calendar gives opportunity to highlight these.

The calendar provides ministers opportunity to preach doctrinally.

The ‘collects’ are prayers that ‘collect’ doctrines.

The Future of the BCP?

 The BCP has survived non-conformist splits.

The BCP has nurtured leaders like C.S. Lewis, J.I. Packer, John Stott.

The BCP has struggled in the past century or so.

The Oxford Movement of the 1800s moved Church of England in a Roman Catholic direction.  It was Catholicism minus the Pope.

The first Anglo-Catholics were theologically conservative and creedal. Today  many Anglo-Catholics are theologically liberal. For them church is about aesthetics, a mystical experience. The items in the creeds are metaphors.


Another more recent struggle is: evangelical individualism. Post-modernism puts emphasis on the individual and evangelicals tend to be robust individuals. Many depart from the principle of commonality and uniformity and design their own services away from BCP.  There is one Bible reading (or even none); there is no creed (or just occasionally); there is no calendar and no collects.

For them preaching the preacher is the all-important thing.  The loss of liturgy means that the voice of the congregation is substantially silenced. Leaving only a single voice of the leader or preacher.

The preacher has replaced the liturgy as the defender of true doctrine.


Personal Opinion

I am committed to the centrality of teaching the Word of God.  This is the God-ordained way for us to come faith and grow. But the BCP – in modern language – is a great context to do that.

The preaching occurs in a great context of


-hearing God’s word

-saying, ‘I believe…’

-being focused on specific doctrines in the calendar and collects

-sharing in prayer for external – and not merely parochial – matters

Liturgy is also very efficient.

In my experience in other churches there is much trivia and no Bible reading and no Creed and somehow it all takes a long time.  I have often not been able to mount the pulpit under an hour of lightweight stuff.

In a well run BCP service we can confess or sins and be absolved, have two Bible readings and a Psalm, the Creed, expansive prayers, four hymns, a twenty minute sermon and be finished in an hour.

J.I. Packer said this: ‘Anglicanism embodies the richest, truest, wisest heritage in Christendom’.  Of course, Packer is not saying it is the only basis for church life, as vibrant non-anglican biblical based churches testify.

In 2000 years this is the best that Christians have come up with.  We anglicans would be wise to stick with it.

Even the best liturgy, however, is not infallible.  It is only useful to churches when it conforms to the authority of the Bible.   That, indeed, is the true anglican position as stated in article 6 of the 39 articles.  Unbiblical liturgy is clearly dangerous.


Luke 2:2 and the ‘first enrolment’

There is a well known problem in Luke 2:2, usually translated as, ‘This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria’.

The problem is that Luke locates the birth of Jesus ‘in the days of Herod’ who died in 4 BC (Luke 2:5, 26) whereas Josephus plainly tells us that the census occurred under Quirinius.  That census was conducted in AD 6-7 when the Romans annexed Judea as a province and which provoked the uprising led by Judas the Galilean.  Quirinius was a famous Roman general who does not appear to have been the governor of Syria before AD 6[1].  It seems Luke has made a significant error by locating Jesus birth about ten years too late!

There are four possible explanations.

The first is that Luke has innocently replicated an error in the written or oral information that he received.  Against this, however, is Luke’s clear understanding that Herod’s realm had been divided after his death (Luke 3:1-2) and that Joseph from Galilee would have paid his taxes in Galilee to the incumbent tetrarch so there would have been no need for him to travel to Bethlehem in Judea to be registered for paying taxes in that jurisdiction.

The second is that Luke deliberately introduced the error to make the theological point that he favoured the uprising led by Judas.  This is unsustainable since the only point Luke makes is to contrast the humble godliness of little, defenceless people like Joseph, Mary and the shepherds with the distant, uncaring figure of Caesar Augustus whose decree brought such suffering.

A third explanation is that the error lies with Josephus.  Whilst there are some discrepancies between Josephus’ Jewish War and his Jewish Antiquities any theory of error in this matter is unlikely.  Quirinius’ census was a momentous event marking the transition from Judea as a Jewish ethnarchy under Archelaus to a Roman province under its first prefect, Coponius.  The imposition of direct Roman rule in Judea meant the imposition of tax that was now payable directly to Caesar, symbolising that he, not God was the ‘master’ of the people.  It was this ‘numbering’ of the people that drove Judas to lead his rebellion (Acts 5:37; cf. Num. 1:2).  Twenty seven years later this was still a burning issue, inspiring the loaded question to Jesus, ‘Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?’ (Mark 12:14).

The fourth is that there was an earlier census but that Luke’s very brief sentence (9 words) is open to several interpretations.  The critical word is ‘first’ (pro|tos).  Grammar experts argue that ‘first’ in Luke 2:2 is an adjective meaning ‘first’ in a superlative sense (first of at least three)[2].

There are unsurmountable historical problems insisting that ‘first’ must be understood as a superlative sense.  It implies that there were at least two other censuses in Judea after Quirinius’ famous census in AD 6.  Quirinius’ census was a momentous event which provoked a rebellion, which Luke rightly called the census (Acts 5:37).  Had there been other subsequent censuses in Palestine after Quirinius we would know about them from Josephus, so controversial were they.

We note, therefore, that the word ‘first’ can also mean ‘foremost’, ‘most prominent’[3], that is, in an absolute sense, for example in the Prodigal father’s command, ‘bring…the best robe’ (Luke 15:22) or the question, ‘which commandment is the greatest of all?’ (Mark 12:28).  This use of ‘first’ meaning ‘foremost’ in an absolute sense is a genuine alternative to understanding ‘first’ in a superlativesense (first of at least three).  Understood in this way, Luke 2:2 would read as:  ‘This enrolment became most prominent when Quirinius was governor of Syria’.  (See Stephen Carlson, Luke 2:2 and the Census -

Luke’s words, then, are distinguishing the enrolment during Herod’s reign involving Joseph and Mary from the ‘most prominent’ enrolment under Quirinius in AD 6.  Thus it is possible that Luke 2:2 is alluding to some otherwise unknown enrolment during Herod’s time, when his kingdom was undivided and when Joseph of the line of David, was required to enrol in Bethlehem, his ancestral city.

Some argue against the historical possibility of a census earlier than Quirinius’ census.  We know that Augustus conducted an imperial census beginning in 18 BC (Res Gestae 8) and that such a census could have occurred within the domain of a client king like Herod (Tacitus, Annals vi.41)[4].  Furthermore, there is evidence of a Roman registration in Egypt in 104 BC requiring registrants to return to their ancestral homes[5].  We also know that Augustus Caesar required the ‘whole Jewish people’ in Israel to make an oath of allegiance to him in about 7 BC (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities xvii.42) though there is no information about a necessity for Jews to return to their ancestral cities[6].

Luke 2:2 has been the subject of hundreds of scholarly books and articles but the problems remain unsolved.  It seems Luke has either replicated an error from the sources available to him, or – more probably – has expressed himself  too briefly.  There is a strong possibility of an enrolment during Herod’s years that could have affected Joseph and Mary.  Either way it would be unreasonable to accuse Luke of wilful error, for what would have been his reason for doing so?  I do not think the problems in Luke 2:2 are a basis for the wholesale rejection of this author, his integrity or competence.

[1]The governors of Syria during this period were M. Titius (10 BC); C. Sentius Saturninus (9 – 6 BC); Quinctilius Varus (6 – 4 BC); Calpurnius Piso (4 – 1 BC); C. Iulius Caesar (1 BC – AD 4);  L. Volusius Saturninus (AD 4 – 5); P. Sulpicius Quirinius (AD 6).  See further E. Schürer, The History of the Jewish people in the Age of Jesus Christ  I (rev. and ed. By G. Vermes and F. Millar; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1973), 257-259.

[2]Yet Luke uses the same Greek adjective in Acts 1:1 in a comparative (non-superlative) sense where the ‘first book’ clearly means the first of two books, that is, ‘the former book’ (= Luke’s Gospel).

[3]As in Luke 15:22 (‘the best robe’) and Eph. 6:2.

[4]For examples of censuses being conducted in ‘vassal kingdoms’ (e.g., Apamea, Cappadocia, Petra and Samaria) see (H. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977), 16.

[5]Hoehner, Chronological Aspects, 15.

[6]P.W. Barnett, ‘Enrolment in Luke 2:1-5’, ExpT lxxxv.12 (1974), 374-380.