Jesus vs. Paul

Viewing the roles of Jesus and his Apostles through the lens of corporate CEO and COO roles.

It’s not uncommon, in Christian circles, to hear someone say that they like Jesus better than Paul. I think Paul would enthusiastically agree with them.

These commenters, though, aren’t actually talking about Jesus and Paul, they are talking about what and how Jesus taught, as revealed through the four Gospels, as compared to what and how Paul wrote about as he desperately tried to build and hold together the early Church. An interesting analogy to help understand these two men and their ministries is to consider the differing roles between the CEO and COO of a corporation.

A story that has circulated in business circles, is of the time that Apple’s engineering team showed the very first prototype of a new iPhone to Steve Jobs. Steve took one look at it and said make it smaller. The engineers then took great pains to explain to him that the phone was as small as it could possibly get, given the current limitations of chip technology at the time. Steve then asked them to hand him the prototype, and without even turning it on, walked over to a fish tank adorning the back of the room, and dropped the phone in. As it settled to the bottom of the tank, a few air bubbles leaked out and made their way to the surface. Steve turned to the engineers and said, if there is room for air bubbles, it can be smaller.

The role of a CEO is to set a vision – to convey a new way of looking at the world. The role of a COO is to understand this vision, and then go make it happen. Jesus was the CEO of God’s redemptive plan for the salvation of the world. The Apostles became his COOs. In some ways, it looks easy to be a CEO – how hard is it to drop a phone into a fish tank? As you read through the Gospels, you see the similarity. Jesus would step into a synagogue, expound mind-blowing teaching, and then walk on to the next town. He didn’t wait around to make sure people understood or believed. In fact, the Gospels seem to indicate that he cared little for this type of follow-through. When we read the Gospels carefully, it appears that Jesus’ primary concern was making sure that his COOs, his apostles, understood the vision. His parting words: … go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you … (Matthew 28:19-20) indicated that it was time for them to take the vision and execute – time for the hard work to begin.

What sets apart Paul’s letters from all the other writings of the New Testament, is that in them Paul reveals himself – his heart, his passion, his frustrations, even his anger. He was a logical thinker, trained in rational thought, studious and well versed in scripture as well as Hebrew, Roman, and Greek culture, and most of all, he was disciplined. After finally being faced with the truth (on his journey to Damascus) Paul immediately took the time to re-learn the scriptures in light of the revelation of Jesus, thought through the meaning of it all from multiple angles, and began his ministry of sharing the great news of Jesus Christ.

He soon learned, however, that his missionary field included those who were not nearly as studious, rational, disciplined, or well educated as himself. Where Jesus would walk out of a town, after preaching, not concerned with how well the message was received, Paul stuck around and followed up – and was hurt when his people didn’t understand. When he learned that Gentile and Jewish Christians in Rome were treating each other with callous disrespect, it broke his heart and he took great pains to do something about it – to purchase papyrus, to write his well-thought out letter to the Romans, and to find someone to convey it those churches. When he heard that Judaizers where tearing away the very foundations of the small-town churches he planted, he traveled to Jerusalem to put an end to this destructive theology. Few think about how many miles of dangerous road he walked in order to do this.

Paul’s letters and teachings delve into the nitty gritty; they deal with the in-fighting, sexual immorality, and bickering that beset the early churches. Paul dealt with all the things that Jesus didn’t step into, and he worked long and hard to find ways of sharing the gospel message so that people would understand, whereas Jesus taught in parables that few understood at the time.

It is interesting to think in terms of these roles: CEO vs COO, because they are typically not interchangeable. A gifted CEO can share a vision in a manner that no one else can, and a gifted COO can grind through an execution plan with a focus on detail that most CEO’s could never do. In the same way, Jesus did what no else could possibly do, but is it possible that the Apostles, the disciples, and even us, are charged with a task that Jesus could not do? It may seem to be a heretical thought, but the fact is, Jesus did not do it. He left it for us to do.

Pastors like to give sermons on Jesus’s final words on the cross conveyed in John 19:30: It is finished, but the Greek may better be translated as It is paid for. There are many milestones in God’s plan for redemption, and Jesus’ death on the cross, the propitiation for our sins, is a major one, but not the only one. Three days later, Jesus came back and continued his ministry on earth for forty days, teaching and expounding on the meaning of his previous teaching. The great commission can be seen as another great milestone, followed soon after by another: the gifting of the Holy Spirit. Viewing God’s redemption plan as something that is finished is misleading, and unwisely diminishes the efforts of his COOs, the hard and tedious work of the Apostles and first disciples. In the same way, it also diminishes the efforts and responsibilities of his current disciples – of us.

While a believer may be able to say that the Lord’s redemptive work is completed in themselves, they cannot say that it is completed in our unbelieving neighbors and co-workers, and they cannot always say that they have created a community of worshiping believers that provides an ideal example and welcoming environment to those still in need of redemption. This is where the encouragement and wisdom of Paul can be most appreciated.

Maybe we like Jesus better because we wish we could make those grand pronouncements. Call out the hypocrisy in our leaders, and walk out the door. Or maybe we like Jesus because we wish it was sufficient for us to demand, from those we meet, are you in our out? Leaving no time for growth or indecision. And maybe we think less of Paul’s teachings because he struggled the same way we do. He struggled when hearing that those he shared the gospel with didn’t quite get it, didn’t let it seep into their lives the way he prayed it would.

Paul struggled to find new ways of explaining what, to him, were obvious truths. He struggled to see people that he had come to know as dear friends fade away from the Church. For myself, I’ve always loved Paul for these very same reasons.

We call the Bible inspired, because it is, it all is. We could never fully understand the Old Testament, without learning, through the Gospels, how Jesus recast it as a new vision. In the same way, we may never truly understand the Gospels without learning how Christ’s message was lived out by his very human, and very fallible first disciples. It is the combination of perseverance and fallibility, as conveyed by the epistles, particularly Paul’s, that give us true hope that we are welcome participants in the Kingdom of God, revealed to us through his son, Jesus Christ.

Why is there so much evil in the world?

This post delves into recent research on the human behaviors that underlie social conflict, and reveals the Biblical strategies to counteract this evil.

A close brother of mine wrote an open letter to the Christian community from his prison cell during the COVID epidemic. Locked into his cell, the hard concrete walls amplifying the sounds (and fears) of the coughs and sniffles of his fellow inmates, he listened to the news of the outside world – of the clashes between protesters and counter-protesters of racial injustice, and of the political arguments dividing the country and penned this question: Why is there so much evil in the world?

It’s a question that most of us have pondered at one point or another, and one that is often posed to Christians either by those seeking a measure of peace in time of crisis, or by those trying to disprove God and free themselves of His convicting Spirit.

Academic research over the past quarter century has provided a way of viewing our communal life through a new lens, and whenever we increase our understanding of ourselves and each other by incorporating such additional viewpoints, we have the opportunity to increase our sense of compassion for ourselves and each other, and so re-exploring the question of evil has value.

For those seeking peace — those trying to gain visibility into some greater hope that could help them make sense of tragedies that they are experiencing — the answers that Christians have to offer often fall short. Peace, during these times, comes from the knowledge that our Lord is walking beside us, and it is only through long-cultivated faith that we can trust the Lord without understanding.

Having said this, the question posed by my brother is an old one, and has been answered by theologians and philosophers throughout the ages. The problem that we face is that answers that may have satisfied people hundreds or thousands of years ago no longer satisfy some today. Human knowledge has advanced, and with it, our ability to grapple with the complexities of the topic.

The stock Christian answer to the question of evil is that God created the world without evil, but then Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and brought sin and corruption into the world. This answer seems lacking, though. First, how could there be knowledge of evil, without there first being evil to know about? The tree must have been named after evil existed. Second, a careful reading of Genesis 2 through 4 reveals far less of the story than is often preached, and third, the story seems almost as if God setup Adam and Eve. That is, He created Adam and Eve with curiosity and naivety, and so an all knowing God must have known that Adam and Eve would taste the apple eventually. And if so, then one could argue that God authored the evil that resulted from this trespass by creating the situation. But this is one of the oldest stories in the Bible, dating back thousands of years, and we can only assume, from its brevity, that much of the encounter has been lost to time; therefore, attempting to make the argument that God authored evil is an unjustified stretch of the available information. The Bible preserves the knowledge God wishes to be passed down through the ages, not necessarily all that is needed to satisfy our curiosities.

The question of evil can be divided into two parts: evil caused by man, and evil caused by the environment. The question of why God allows volcanoes, tornadoes and disease is more difficult to answer. Death of any kind is sad, frightening, and painful, regardless of its cause. If there was no death, though, there wouldn’t be standing room on earth, and so death by accident, environmental causes, and the slow degeneration of our bodies is a natural part of the cycle of life, and may not necessarily be an evil from the viewpoint of our Lord.

Evil caused by man, though, is another story. God could prevent us from doing or saying evil things to each other, but this would necessarily remove our free will. We would become little different than programmed robots. From God’s perspective, then, we would be as the trees. A tree stays where God planted it, and has no choice but to shade the patch of land that God wishes shaded. God created trees, and plants, and animals that do and act the way God programmed them to do and act, but we can surmise that He created man because he wanted a people that had the capacity to be a true friend, and a true ally. And to become a true friend or a true ally is a choice, and thus requires free will.

In one of Paul’s most intimate passages (Romans 7:15-20), where he struggles to understand his own selfish inclinations towards evil, he opens with: I do not understand what I do.

Paul, lived two thousand years ago, and while his diverse education enlightened him to the best of Greek, Roman, and Hebrew thinking of the time, his ability to articulate this internal struggle was still confined to these ancient frameworks of understanding. Recent advances in psychiatry, sociology, economics (surprisingly enough), neurology, and game theory provides us, though, with a new language and approach to thinking about Paul’s question: Why do we make the decisions we do? and it is worth exploring these advances to gain a fresh perspective on this question that has been debated since the time of Moses. 

We’d like to think that we make decisions after carefully weighing the risks and rewards of a particular choice. This balancing of information is something that we do in our cerebral cortex, the advanced part of our brain that has the power to contemplate and philosophize. From an evolutionary perspective, though, this has never been quite good enough. First, our cerebral cortex is too slow. In prehistoric times, if someone from an enemy tribe jumped out at us from behind a tree and we stopped to ponder what we should do, the delay could get us killed. The second problem with this, is that making these sorts of decisions requires knowledge and experience. What if we’d never been confronted with an enemy before? Would we stand there and wait to see what happens so that we’d know what we should do next time? Again, not a life preserving reaction.

As it turns, our brains have a complex, multi-stage mechanism for making decisions. Cognitive psychologists simplify the complexity by talking in terms of System One and System Two decision processes. System Two is the part of the brain that does higher-order thinking, the part that ponders, considers, and evaluates information. That little voice in our head lives squarely in System Two. In contrast, System One is physically located deep in the core of our brain and consists of neural hardwiring capable of processing information (particularly visual information), and then making decisions on that information fast. Cognitive psychologists use the terms heuristics, or mental biases to describe the type of decision making that happens in System One. When someone jumps out in front of us, we will either punch them or jump away from them: fight or flight. Our reaction is often so sudden that it even catches us by surprise. It’s a surprise, because the entire process of observation, to decision making, to executing that decision happens before any information is passed on to our System Two. Either our feet, or our fist will have been moving for some time before the little voice in our head enters into the conversation.

Much of our daily decision making starts out in the System One part of our brain, and then, time permitting, may be corrected by System Two thinking (which is why counting to ten when you are angry is a good thing to do), but this correcting comes with a cost. Exercising the System Two parts of our brain literally consumes far more calories than the System One part of our brain, and researchers have found that we have biases that discourage us from overthinking issues. A well-known bias, confirmation bias, is one such energy-saving bias. Studies have shown that once we make a decision, we will tend to readily accept any new information that confirms our previously held beliefs, and casually reject any new information that contradicts our previously held beliefs: this way, we don’t need to expend the mental energy to re-think the decision from scratch. Some speculate that, evolutionarily, this makes sense, since food was a scarce commodity for most of human history: biases that minimize energy consumption would help our species survive.

The examples mentioned so far, are biases that help us individually. For tens of thousands of years, though, humans haven’t lived alone … they’ve lived in tribes, and as expected, we have all sorts of social, or tribal heuristics wired into us.

An interesting study of just one tribal bias was performed by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They recruited several batches of students from Carnegie Mellon University to participate in a 15 minute, 20 question “math test”, telling them that they would get paid fifty cents for each problem they got right (the problems were made difficult enough, that there was no way for anyone to complete them all in 15 minutes). The students were given an envelope containing $10 in cash, and an exam paper. After finishing the test, they were to grade their own work, take what money they earned, and return the rest.

They conducted the test in batches, and ran several normal batches first, to determine how many students, on average, would cheat.

Afterwards, the researches secretly added a paid actor to the next batches of students who, one minute into the test, raised his hand and asked “I solved all the problems, what should I do?” The teacher reminded him of the instructions he gave before the test started, telling him that if he got them all right, and had no money to return, he could just leave. And so the actor did.

What the researchers found is that after seeing the first student obviously cheat, many more students cheated. The researches then ran the experiment a second time, but this time, they had the actor wear a sweatshirt with a large logo of a rival University. In this scenario, they found that far fewer students cheated after watching their rival cheat.

This research study is one of many that reveal that humans have a number of “tribal” biases. Our biases, or System One thinking, leads us to follow, model, and trust those who we see as part of our tribe, while feeling superior to, and having less trust and empathy for those that we see as different from our tribe.

In addition to being an energy-saving bias, the confirmation bias mentioned above also serves as a tribal bias. Tribes are more peaceful, cooperative, and productive when all the members share similar ideas, and so heuristic biases that encourage us to avoid arguing or questioning the values, beliefs, goals, and plans of tribemates keeps the tribe strong, which in turn, increases the security and survivability of its members individually. This is why many of us tend to treat the beliefs of the tribes that we identify with as foundational truths, and harbor some level of disdain (less empathy) for those who do not accept these same beliefs.

Two additional sub-categories of tribal heuristics are our sense of fairness and our desire for revenge, and research has been done to help us understand how these impulses integrate into our decision making.

To analyze human’s biases towards fairness, a UCLA psychologist ran an experiment where person A was given a certain amount of cash along with instructions to divide it, any way they wished, with another person B. Person B could accept that cash, and go home with some free pocket change, or reject the deal, in which case the money was taken away from both person’s A and B. What the psychologist didn’t tell their test subject B, was that person A was in on the experiment. In a series of tests, they would hand person A different amounts of money. In one scenario, they gave them, say $23 dollars, and in another $10. In each case, though, person A offered exactly $5 to person B. If you think about it, the smart thing for person B (the actual test subject) to do in each scenario, would be to accept the offer and go home $5 richer. What they found, though, is that if person A was given larger amounts of money, say $23 dollars, then the test subject would get disgusted at being given only $5 and reject the deal, walking away with nothing. On the other hand, when person A was given $10 and then split it evenly, person B would happily accept the offer. They then ran brain scans on person B after the test, and found that the area of the brain known to be related to aversion was activated by the unfair deal, while the area of the brain know to be related to reward was activated by the fair deal. The UCLA research team found that humans are hard-wired to appreciate fairness and have a strong aversion to unfairness. (Although what people consider to be fair is culturally dependent.)

Neuroscientists have identified a pathway in the brain that they’ve termed the rage circuit that is fed by other areas of the brain, including that area that detects unfairness. This circuit activates the insular cortex, which causes people to experience feelings of pain, anger, or disgust, at which point, the brain can move into different modes. In one mode, our brain works to overcome these unpleasant feelings helping us to move past the negative situation. In another mode, however, our brain transitions into a pleasure-seeking state, while day-dreaming, plotting, or planning revenge — giving us the same type of pleasurable feelings we might get as we head to a local diner to get a slice of peach pie, with a side of vanilla ice cream and a cup of fresh coffee.

With all these emotions and decisions being made by our System One processes, sometimes with little awareness by our System Two processes, it is a wonder that humans can live peaceably at all. But it is possible.

As it turns out, a number of experiments in game theory have revealed that these System One processes may have actually helped maximize peace in our ancestor’s tribal environments, and so it is worth discussing, at a high level, these experiments.

A foundational experiment is called the prisoner’s dilemma. Consider this: two men are caught at a crime scene by the police and put in separate interrogation rooms. Each is given a choice to cooperate with each other and say nothing or defect on their partner. If they defect, they will go free, while their partner gets six months. If both defect, they each will get a lesser sentence of three months, but if neither defect, that is, they both cooperate with each other, then they will both only get one month, because without confessions they can only be convicted of a lesser charge.

What is more interesting than the prisoner’s dilemma, in the study of human decision making, is what has been termed the iterated prisoner’s dilemma. Imagine the same scenario, but then imagine the men remain partners and after they are out of prison commit another crime together where the same thing happens, so they are again given a choice: defect or cooperate with each other. The iterated prisoner’s dilemma doesn’t make much sense in terms of long prison sentences, but the same concept applies to many other situations where cooperation gives the best outcome, but self-serving defection avoids the worst outcome. It applies to anything from the sharing of cleaning chores among roommates to international trade agreements, and the scenario is easily extended from two people to many people, because in reality, we are often in situations where multiple people, or multiple groups, need to work together, and in these situations, we may have opportunities to cooperate fairly, or cheat.

As you might imagine, if one person cheats, or defects against the others in one round of the experiment, the others are far more likely to cheat or defect, themselves, in subsequent rounds. Researches have run many simulations of the game theory in order to determine the most advantage course of action for a participant. In each iteration, each participant has only one choice: to cooperate, or to defect. If everyone cooperates, everyone is rewarded: people working together can always accomplish far more than if we each work alone. And if everyone defects too much, everyone ends up losing. What the simulations revealed, is that the smartest course of action is to mirror the partners last move. If the partner cooperates, then you cooperate, and if the partner defects on you, then you take your revenge and defect as well. This motivates the original defector to begin cooperating.

Theorists then advanced the simulation by introducing the idea of accidental defections. That is, sometimes we “defect” on our partners by mistake. These situations can cause a cascade of defection, as others take revenge, and then we take revenge on their revenge, etc. What they found counteracts this, though, is occasional forgiveness. That is, if we mostly response tit-for-tat, mirroring our partners choices, but sometimes we cooperate, even when they defect, then run-a-way cycles of revenge are stymied and our prosperity is maximized. These game-theory simulations model the same sort of dynamic that was needed in ancient tribal life and may reveal why our brains our hardwired to respond with satisfaction when treated fairly, and leap towards feelings of rage and desires for revenge when cheated. It turns out, that without adding any System Two thoughts to the process, our System One’s circuits drove the type of behavior that optimized cooperation within a tribal community.

Recent studies on the history of human violence, though, have shown us that System One “optimized” cooperation doesn’t necessarily mean things were ideal. While System One heuristics, like our fight-or-flight response or propensity towards revenge, may have given us a slight survival edge thousands of years ago, it didn’t always generate a good response: sometimes we fight when there’s no need, and of course, many of our System One responses became harmful as societies evolved into more complex structures.

For much of human history, murder and tribal conflict were the leading causes of death for humans, as is reflected in the stories contained in Old Testament books such as Samuel 1 & 2 and Kings 1 &2, but rates of violence have been declining recently, and in Western society, declining significantly since the Middle-Ages. When news stories report every violent crime that occurred in the past 24 hours, we may feel like the world has devolved into chaos of bloodshed. What is different now, though, is that we live in very large cities, and the news never reports on the millions of people who managed to interact, in that same 24 hour period, in a peaceable, cooperative fashion. In actuality, the level of cruelty and violence in the Western world, is at its lowest level ever, and this, researchers have found, is due to changes in our System Two thinking.

What separates humans from most animals, is our ability to do high-level System Two thinking: we have the ability to override our System One impulses and improve our decision making.

Historians, studying the decline of violence in civilization have noted several System Two processes that have heavily influenced this decline, but two stand out: the honor/shame culture, and the introduction of societal Leviathans.

Honor/shame cultures are as old as civilization itself, and for much of the time, and for much of the world, honor and shame has been the predominant System Two construct for mediating human behavior in tribal groups. (In today’s society, the word “tribal” applies to any number of different types of groups: families, clans, villages, towns, football fans, church groups, etc.) Over the past half century, the notions of honor and shame have diminished significantly in America, albeit regionally unevenly, but they still exists, and because of this, it is useful to discuss the components of the honor/shame construct.

Within a group, honor has both horizontal and vertical aspects. Horizontal honor is honor among peers: it is what gives a member the right to be respected, and is based on a mutually understood Code of Honor that describes the individual behaviors necessary for a member to obtain and maintain their honor, and conversely, individual behaviors that would bring shame (loss of honor) and possible exclusion from the group. In order for the honor group to survive, the group must defend their own honor, monitor their peer’s behavior, and swiftly impart shame and rejection on peers that fail to follow the code. In addition to this, members of an honor group must defend the code of honor, itself, and the values encapsulated by it, which may explain why one of the strongest motivators of man is to pass along his culture and values to his children.

While this may sound complex, it is, in fact, very natural and useful structure in small groups. In ancient, tribal times, villages were always under threats of attack and plunder from neighboring villagers, and so traditional honor codes required men to be brave and to defend their town, to develop skills (such as hunting, farming, or toolmaking) that would be beneficial to the community, and to not steal from, or take advantage of, their fellow tribe members. Having children, for a supported women, was a great honor because tribes needed new members to survive. However, given that a pregnant girl or small child is a burden on the entire tribe when there is no man to provide for them, traditional honor codes shamed those engaged in inappropriate sexual relations. In highly structured organizations, such as a military academy, the code of honor may be carefully documented and members required to memorize and recite it. In most honor societies, though, it is an unwritten code that members are expected to just know.

The honor/shame culture, within a society, reduces intra-group violence because members know that the consequences of violating of the code will be swift and severe, and the code, itself, is impersonal. If one villager steals, say a goat, from a neighbor and is caught, the community will heap shame on the thief, and the victim of this crime is obligated to defend his honor, perhaps by striking down the thief. Because everyone understands the honor code and the need for it to be defended, the family of the thief is unlikely to initiate revenge, and in fact, may be at risk of losing their own honor. Within an honor community, honor is both earned, and ascribed. That is, honor can be earned through following the code: acting bravely in battle, or coming to the aid of a neighbor, and it can be ascribed through association. If a young man’s father was highly respected in the community, that family honor may be conveyed to the child until he establishes a reputation of his own. Conversely, as in the example above, if a family’s honor was put in question, family members may need to perform particularly exemplar activities, such as unusual bravery, to re-affirm their honor status within the community.

Within a horizontal honor group, there may also exist a vertical honor hierarchy, with higher levels of respect going to those who earned it through actions in line with the code. In military units, these honors may be conveyed through promotions or the awarding of ribbons or medals.

Because of the honor code, adverse behavior is kept in check, and bloody cycles of revenge, within the group, are kept under control. As mentioned above, the honor/shame culture requires face-to-face relationships to work. If individual members can simply hide their poor behavior, then the system breaks down. Social scientists have found that honor is prioritized. That is, a man will prioritize the defense of his families honor and well-being over that of his town, and the honor of his town, over that of his country.

Aside from minimizing violence and intra-group strife, honor-based societies have the additional advantages of providing individuals with a sense of life-purpose, respect, and a sense of identity as being part of the group. Furthermore, this need to monitor other’s compliance to the code encourages social behavior, and so community and family gatherings, and a predisposition towards hospitality are natural outgrowths of the honor culture.

The challenges to the honor/shame cultural model include the fact that it breaks down when close personal connections cannot be maintained, that it has limited room for consideration of extenuating circumstances when an offense occurs, and that it doesn’t necessarily minimize inter-group violence. Social scientists found that, on average, humans can know up to about one hundred and fifty people reasonably well, and have also noted that, historically, tribes or villages would often split once they grew beyond this size. (Even going back to Roman times, military units were kept to within one hundred fifty people, enabling them to form their own honor group. Soldiers are typically far more motivated to fight for their brothers-in-arms, than for whatever abstract principal is behind the conflict itself.)

As civilization grew during the Middle Ages, towns and extended commerce began to outgrow the honor/shame culture. In large cities, people can easily hide the seedy side of their personal life and can remain mostly anonymous to those around them. At the same time, those pondering the teachings of Christ began to see conflict with their honor codes. Honor/shame societies were built around the idea of honoring and shaming one’s public behavior, but Jesus teachings, such as that in Matthew 5:8 (Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God), put the focus on inner thoughts and behaviors. The intellectually inclined Europeans, during this time, began re-defining their honor codes to be more self-focused – developing the idea that personal integrity, sincerity, and authenticity should be the traits that define a man’s honor.

The honor code system in the more populated regions of Europe was eventually replaced with the concept of a Leviathan. A Leviathan is, essentially, an impartial, disinterested referee between two parties, and our societies expression of this consists of a government with well-defined laws, and independent judges. Previously, if, for example, a member of the Hatfield’s clan killed a member of the McCoy clan, the McCoy clan would be honor-bound to avenge the death of their family member by striking out at the Hatfield’s. And then the Hatfield’s would feel honor-bound to retaliate back against the McCoy’s and so on.  With a strong government that upholds well-defined rules, the motivation for revenge is eliminated in inter-tribe conflicts. Instead of this being a Hatfield’s vs. McCoy conflict, it would become a Hatfield vs. the People of the United States. An impartial Judge, who doesn’t know either the Hatfield’s or the McCoy’s, would evaluate the facts behind the infraction and prescribe an appropriate judgement in accordance with the law. In the honor/shame cultures our motivations are to seek honor and avoid shame. In the Leviathan system, we are motivated to seek innocence, and avoid guilt. Those primarily influenced by honor and shame will have little regard for law enforcement and courts, and instead believe that the right and responsibility of settling trespasses is their own. Those primarily influenced by a Leviathan framework will consider someone settling their own disputes as criminals, themselves, and will believe that solutions to conflict require more legislation, and more legal action.

The introduction of Leviathans in the form of strong government, law, and impartial judges was a major driving force behind the rapid decline of violence in Europe and the United States over the past several hundred years.

This transition began in the cities of Europe, and as America grew, immigrants from these cities brought the Leviathan principle with them as they populated the American Northeast. In very rural areas of Europe, Leviathan principles didn’t take hold because these areas were too remote for governments to maintain much influence. Immigrants from these remote, largely pastoral or agricultural areas of Europe tended to move into the American South, and for this reason, the American South’s culture was heavily influenced by the honor/shame way of life, and in some respects, still is today.

People in the South are far more likely to feel outraged by an insult against themselves or their family, and far more likely to feel like it is their duty and right to settle a dispute themselves, rather than bring it to court. At the same time, Southerners are far more likely to volunteer for military service out of a sense of duty toward country. In fact, throughout American’s history, the South has always led the country in military volunteerism.

The honor/shame culture also thrives in areas of America that are under-served by traditional law and order, such as in certain low-income neighborhoods or very remote towns.

The Bible doesn’t mention System One and System Two thinking, because these are 20th Century scientific terms. However, the Bible does reveal an uncanny correspondence between God’s teachings and the discoveries that modern academics have made in regard to techniques for reducing violence.

On a heuristic (System One) level, our scientists now know that we inherently don’t trust, and have less empathy for, those that are not of our tribe. Understanding this, it is easy to see that emphasizing shared cultural traits is necessary to pacify the System One tribal biases. Galatians 3:26-28 tells us that for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Through Paul’s letter, God is teaching us to disregard all the markers that we might traditionally use to distinguish between tribe members. Furthermore, Paul’s words echo Christ’s use of familial language (calling us sons), to indicate that we are closer than normal tribe members, we are, in fact, part of the same family. By directing us to focus on what we have in common, and to see each other as family, this teaching enables us to bypass the System One filters, and thereby enables us to have empathetic responses to others.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. This advice from Jesus (Matthew 5:43-45) provides an additional shaping of our System One filters through what scientists call mental priming. By continually praying for, and keeping your enemies in mind, you are mentally humanizing them and building empathy for them. In other words, you are making the decision to love your enemies in advance of any conflict. Once conflict does arise, the confirmation biases will avoid changing this decision, and so will again lead your reaction towards a positive response.

Romans 12:10, touches on our System Two sense of honor as it teaches us to Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Within an honor group, members often jockey for vertical honor and diligently follow the honor code to maintain their sense of honor. In his letter, Paul doesn’t attempt to overthrow the honor code culture, but instead, re-defines how we are to behave when living within an honor/shame paradigm.

Within this same chapter, Paul emphasizes God’s role as our ultimate Leviathan. Verse 12:19 tells us to … never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”

While the level of violence in the world, and in particular, Europe and America has gone down dramatically in the last few hundred years, we still have challenges. An emerging challenge is the rapid growth of transportation and information technology, which is exacerbating conflicts of local philosophies. Both the honor/shame style cultures and Leviathan-based cultures can curb violence when all members understand society’s workings, but problems arise when people with different cultural understandings are suddenly forced together, as has happened on a grand scale as a result of these new technologies.

During the American civil war, the Northern army had a number of issues caused by the fact that the officers tended to be of the highly educated, elite class who had begun to adopt the European idea of honor as being one of integrity and self-control, while the enlisted tended to be from the lowest classes who still held to old-style notions of honor that emphasized fighting prowess and quick defense of any insults. The result was that soldiers considered the officers to be wimps for maintaining self-control in the face of insults, while the officers considered the men unruly savages. Neither understood the code that the others lived by.

Similar conflicts are happening today. Those from the Northeast tend towards Leviathan thinking, with first thoughts on a subject being in terms of legal/illegal and guilty/innocent, and expecting that legislatures and judges will listen to well-thought out arguments when dictating society’s behavior. However, many in the South continue to think, first, in terms of a person or situation either upholding or tarnishing the honor of themselves, their family, their ancestors, their community, or their way of life, and may not be inclined to listen to any well-thought out arguments on the topic of dispute until the topic of honor is first addressed. When colleges or companies in the North or South attract large numbers of people from the other side of the Mason-Dixon Line, communities suddenly find themselves inhabited by groups of people who have very different ideas about how conflicts should be resolved, and who become frustrated that those of differing groups cannot grasp points of view that seem obvious to them.

Combat groups, first responders, and police have always had an honor code, because each member sees their comrades in arms as vital to their survival. Politicians who have never experienced the stresses of these occupations express contempt for these honor codes, and in doing so, cause each soldier or officer to feel rejected by the society that they are trying to serve, inadvertently driving an even deeper psychological need for the support of their honor group peers.

In Mark 12:28, Jesus commands us:  And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” As Christians, we do not always put enough emphasis on the with all your mind aspect of this great commandment. Over the past century, human minds have advanced our understanding of human behavior, and while many of these scientists and researchers were not men and women of faith, Jesus’ command shows that Christians do have an obligation to leverage this new research in our endless pursuit to become peacemakers.

For Christians with Southern roots, the impulse may be to reject legal policies proposed by those in the Northeast that conflict with their sense of honor and history. Christians with Northern roots will often hold notions of honor and shame with antipathy, and feel obligated to force their “intellectually superior” Leviathan ideals on the South, and Christians coming from other cultural backgrounds may find little common ground with either group.

Upon reflection, though, most of us living today in America may realize that we all simultaneously live in a number of micro-cultures. That is, we may have a home culture, a church culture, a work culture, a school culture, and a “hang out with the guys/gals” culture, and our motivations within each environment may derive from various blends of Leviathan sensibilities and honor/shame factors, making it difficult to find effective strategies to initiate peace once trouble brews.

The Apostle Paul, who wrote the letters of Galatians and Romans quoted above, was a master of peacemaking. He was born to a Roman father, a Hebrew mother, and raised in a Greek environment, and through this, he learned how to bring the love of Christ into the hearts of men and women of all different backgrounds. His approach was to learn and understand the culture, and then work within that culture to affect change. He didn’t try to overthrow honor/shame cultures, he didn’t try to overthrow the Leviathan-based Roman government, or the Jewish authorities either. He learned how to love people who lived in a variety of different cultural systems, and he sought ways to influence the expression of their cultural philosophies for the glory of God. He found that those oriented towards Leviathan thinking could be influenced through instructions and commands that define right and wrong, but those oriented towards honor and shame could only be influenced through leadership, and since Paul’s audience (like our own) was diverse, he provided a mix of both approaches.

He emphasized the giving of honor to those living under the honor culture, and he emphasized mercy and forgiveness to those of Leviathan disposition (see 2 Corinthians 2:5-7).

With an understanding of System One tribal biases and the System Two honor/shame and Leviathan cultures, we can see that much of the tension found in the news is misunderstood by all parties, and because of this, insults and arguments have erupted that serve to deepen our sense of belonging to one tribe or another, and in turn, lessen our empathetic, peace-making impulses. Peace will come when we heed Paul’s advice and see that not only are we all brothers and sisters of one family, in Christ, but that we all need each other, as Paul taught in 1 Corinthians 12:20-22 As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.

And through all our societies turmoil, remember to follow Paul’s advice, shared in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18: Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

Great books for further reading:

Wray Herbert: On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind’s Hard-Wired Habits

Brett H. McKay: What Is Honor? And How to Revive It

Steven Pinker: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined

Reverse Engineering God–Part VI: Is the Bible Text Accurate?

Several years ago, I was sitting at a table during a prison ministry training session when the host handed me a slip of paper that read I was driving to the store, after attending service, when I was hit by a red pickup truck as it turned at the corner, and its cargo of green boxes spilled on the street. I was then instructed to memorize the message, put the slip of paper in my pocket, and then whisper the message to the person seated to the right of me. That person, in turn, was to whisper it to the person to the right of them, and so on. It was the classic telephone game. By the time the message made it around the table, it bore only a vague resemblance to the original message.

Understanding how easily messages can be garbled in transmission, the question that every student of the Bible should ask is How can we trust that our copy of the New Testament is accurate, given that it was written 2000 years ago, and how can we trust the Old Testament, given that the stories of Genesis go back over 5000 years?

Conceived Transmission Of Mark

The beginning of the answer to this question starts with the understanding that followers of the Jewish and Christian faith have historically been fanatical about maintaining the accuracy of their texts, and this is exemplified in the work of the Massoretes: scribes who maintained a particular tradition of insuring the accuracy of scriptures that they copied.

Let’s re-play our telephone game, but this time, using the Massortic processes. Instead of whispering what was written on the slip of paper, copy it carefully onto another slip of paper. Then check it, and check it again. Then count all the words on the original and on the copy. Then count the number of occurrences of each alphabetic letter in the message and compare, then compare the middle character of each word in the message, then check the middle word of the message. As these checks are being done, determine if any single letter is printed either larger or smaller, and if so, carefully duplicate it. Make note of any misspelled words, and instead of correcting them, place a dot above them to indicate that the misspelling was in the original text. If any variations are found in the copy, destroy it and start again. Once the copied message is perfect, hand it to the person to the right, and instruct them to do the same.

Given the new rules of the game, high confidence that the message would make it around the table in tact would be justified. Within the Hebrew tradition, any copy of the Old Testament scriptures that was in error or that began to show signs of excessive wear from use was disposed of ritually. For this reason, the oldest known (nearly) complete copies of the ancient scriptures are relatively new. The best of these manuscripts being the Aleppo Codex (10th  century A.D.), the Leningrad Codex (11th century A.D.), the Cairo Codex (9th century A.D.), and the British Library Codex of the Pentateuch (10th century A.D.). Scripture fragments found in the dead sea scrolls, dating back to the 3rd century B.C. show that the text is identical with the text of the Old Testament we have today, with only minor variations such as in Isaiah 6:3 they were calling vs. our current one called to another, and holy, holy vs. our current holy, holy, holy, and in Isaiah 6:7 sins vs our current sin. So after 1300 years, the manuscripts are found to be nearly identical.

Early Christians felt no obligation to follow the practices of the Hebrews when copying the letters and books of the New Testament, and because of this, scholars have hundreds of copies, and partial copies of these ancient letters at their disposal. The art and science of analyzing ancient documents is called textual criticism, and its traditional goal has been to determine, with as much accuracy as possible, the text of the original autograph. New Testament textual critics, though, are beginning to question if the traditional goal of their profession is appropriate. To understand this, we can describe the more likely process that provides us the New Testament we read today.

Jesus began his teaching ministry in the year 28 A.D. and shared his message in homes, synagogues, fields, and cities throughout Judea, Galilee, Samaria, and of course, in the Temple in Jerusalem. The NASB version of the New Testament captures a record of 31,426 words that Jesus spoke during this time, which equates to about four hours of total speaking time. So what did He say the rest of the time? The answer is twofold. First, He did and said things for which we have no record as John records in his gospel Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written (John 21:25), and second, it is likely that Jesus shared aspects of His message and parables over and over, just as every modern day evangelist and politician does when on the road.

After Jesus crucifixion, the apostles and disciples went out into the world, spreading the good news of Christ. And like their master, it is likely that Peter, Mark, Matthew, and the other disciples repeated the same stories over and over again in the streets, homes, synagogues, and churches that they visited in their missionary work.

At some point it became apparent to Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John that in order to spread the good news of Christ to a wider audience, they would need to commit it to writing. And although Jesus taught his disciples in Aramaic, the only consistently understood language throughout the Roman Empire was common (Koine) Greek. And so while Greek was a second language to these men, it was the language they chose for their message.

Most scholars believe that Mark was the first to write a gospel, but the specific year has been in debate because of certain references included or omitted from the text. Some believe it was written in the 50’s, while others believe it was written after Peter’s death, between 67 and 70 A.D. A growing idea in the field of textual criticism, is that the authors of the New Testament writings may have made a copy of the writings, themselves, and may have shared more than one copy of their work, conceivably sending out revisions over a period of time. This revelation in the field is what calls into question the defined goal of textual criticism. Historically, it has been to determine, with the greatest degree of accuracy possible, the original text of the writings. But if, for example, Mark sent out different copies of his gospel to different churches at different times, with possible edits to wording and additions in the later copies, what is meant by the original?

We’ll pause the story of the written transmission of the New Testament to consider the spread of the gospel before it was written down. The Book of Acts records that persecution against Jesus’ followers broke out following the stoning of Stephen (Acts 8:1-8), and many of the disciples fled to other towns and countries. Further, many of the three thousand that came into faith at Pentecost (Acts 2) were visitors to Jerusalem from other countries (recall they spoke different languages), where they then returned to spread the message of the messiah, and soon small churches were forming throughout the Empire: all based on the oral teachings of the apostles and disciples.

Understanding how the gospel message was spread in the early days may explain why textual critics have noted that there are more variants in the oldest copies of the New Testament documents than those from later periods: If you were a scribe making a copy of the Gospel of Mark to send to another church, and Peter or Mark, themselves, happen to have taught in your church, in person, you may feel freer to add, or clarify, the stories as you make the copy, based on what was taught at your church.

In the early 20th century, Caspar René Gregory developed a system for cataloging all the known copies of New Testament manuscripts, the earliest of which were all written on papyrus (a paper made from strips of reed grass). The system is simple: whenever archeologists uncover another papyrus manuscript, it is assigned the next sequential number. To date, the last discovered papyri is P140, and a number of the 140 registered papyrus manuscripts date back to as early as the 2nd century.

While papyrus was cheap and readily available in the 1st century, it was, unfortunately, fragile and with age simply crumbles to dust. This is why, in later years, Christians began recording the New Testament writings on more expensive, but significantly more durable velum (animal skins scraped, stretched, and dried), and because of this, history has preserved over 5500 additional ancient copies of the manuscripts. Most of these are copies of only portions of the New Testament, and some are translations into languages other than Greek, but aggregated, provide far and away a more complete textual history than any other work of antiquity. Out of the 5500, three manuscripts have prominence because they are nearly complete copies of the whole New Testament. Dating to the 4th century A.D.: Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus, and from the 5th century: Codex Alexandrinus. With this understanding of the multitude of evidence, a more complete transmission picture of the New Testament emerges, as shown below.

Realistic Transmission of Mark

Textual critics have noted an overriding goal, throughout history, in the scribal work of the copyists: that of providing the most accurate representation of the gospel messages. To that end, there is ample evidence that many scribes attempted to correct mistakes or errors in their efforts. For example, since Greek was a second language for Mark, he frequently used singular versions of words in places where Matthew used plural words. Early scribes would attempt to correct, or clean-up the language. Other scribes made limited attempts to harmonize the writings, by adding words or elements from one Gospel to another. Just as English has evolved over time, the Greek language evolved, and some later manuscripts have signs that words were updated to modern variations (the same thing can be seen when comparing the English translations of the original King James version to the New King James version). There are indications that some scribes made word choices to emphasize a particular theological view. For example, to emphasize the virginity of Mary, some versions of the manuscript changed the word father, in Luke 2:33, to Joseph, and the word parents, in Luke 4:43 to Joseph and his mother. One of the most difficult variations is in Hebrews 2:9 where some manuscripts have the grace of God, while others have without God. However, most of the variations are along the lines of the difference in Mark 1:4 where some manuscripts read John came, baptizing and preaching, others read John the Baptist was preaching.

In the early 18th century, scholars began working on a critical edition of the Greek New Testament, with the goal of creating a version of the text that most likely matches that of the original autographs. The latest renditions of this are Nestle-Aland edition #27 and companion United Bible Societies #4 (frequently noted as NA27/UBS4). These critical editions serve as the source material of the modern English language translations we use today. Textual critics use both internal and external evidence when choosing between variants. Internal evidence is based on analysis of the original author’s theology and writing style, an analysis of individual scribes and common scribal techniques, and other considerations such as the possible influence of prominent ideas in later church theology. External evidence considers the age of the document, its provenance, and correlations with other copies that contain the same variants. Scholars have found three primary threads of transmission, where variations were introduced and then transmitted to future copies. They have termed these threads text types, the three prominent being Alexandrian, Byzantine, and Western.

Given the vast number of manuscripts, some known copies dating close to the time of authorship, the fact that most of text, from copy to copy, is identical, and where there is variation, the differences make no difference to the basic understanding of the passage, we can have high confidence that the text we have available to us today is nearly identical to what was originally written by the New Testament authors. In most study bibles on the market, the publishers have footnoted the more significant variations (from the ESV, see Mark 14:59 Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you? with the disclosed variant being Have you no answer to what these men testify against you?). When variants include whole sentences or passages, they are typically shown within square brackets, as is the case with the ending of the Gospel of Mark (Mark 16:9-18) which is missing from many early manuscripts.

So if we have high confidence that the current versions of our Bible match what the authors originally wrote, does this mean that we can know the exact words of Jesus? Not necessarily, and the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12 and Luke 6:20-22) demonstrate this. Both Matthew and Luke recorded the Beatitudes in their gospels, but the wording between the two is different, and there are a number of reasons why this may be the case.

First, as mentioned earlier, it could be that Jesus shared these same basic truths in multiple towns and places, and may have used slightly different wording each time he spoke. Second, psychologists have long known that human memory is malleable–each time we recall and share a memory, the memory gets altered slightly. In the 20-30 years between Jesus ministry, and the actual writing of the Gospels, the disciples almost certainly shared their memories hundreds of times over, so their recollections would have solidified around the wording they, themselves, used to tell the story. Wording that may have been in Greek rather than in the Aramaic that Jesus actually spoke. Third, the gospel writers were interested in sharing the message of Christ, not necessarily in providing a transcriptionally accurate accounting of their experience. That is, Matthew, who was writing to a Jewish audience, may have chosen wording that would convey the truths of the message best for a Jewish audience, while Luke, writing to a Gentile (non-Jewish) audience, may have chosen wording that would convey the truths best to the Gentiles.

This notion can be a challenge for those of us in the 21st century who want to see the evidence for ourselves, but the growth of the church for the first three hundred years following Christ’s death attests to the fact that it is the message (ideas) of the gospel, and not the specific written words of the gospel that impact people’s lives. While individual copies of the four gospels, and copies of the various letters that comprise the New Testament were passed around the churches, the canon of the New Testament (e.g. the official list of 27 books and letters that are considered God inspired) wasn’t fully established until the mid-4th century. During this time, the 120 disciples that huddled in fear after Christ’s death (Acts 1:15) went out into the pantheistic Roman Empire and began to share the good news of Christ orally to all who would listen, and by 313 A.D. monotheistic Christianity was so widespread that it was declared a legal religion of the Roman Empire. It is hard to overstate the unlikeliness of this transformation. During this time, a complete and accurate understanding of the gospel message was elusive for many, because of inconsistent teaching, but in spite of this, God was still able to do a mighty work during this period. Knowing this, we can see that a perfectly accurate transmission of the Bible isn’t necessary for the Christian life.

With an understanding of the variations between different copies of the individual New Testament documents, we can consider, also, the variations between the different Gospel accounts given by Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. Reading Mark, Matthew, and Luke, it is easy to see that they share many of the same stories, and for this reason, they have been called the synoptic gospels. Some speculate that both Matthew and Luke had copies of Mark’s gospel available to them when they wrote their own. Others suspect that a third document, called simply “Q”, contained a listing of the sayings of Jesus and was used as a source for all three accounts. It seems just as likely, though, that the stories contained in the gospels were the same stories that the disciples had shared orally as they worked together to spread the word to countless followers in the course of their long ministries. It’s the differences between the accounts, though, rather than their similarities that provide strong evidence that the gospels are, in fact, genuine eye-witness accounts of the historical events. One of the more popular and entertaining books discussing this, is J. Warner Wallace’s Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels. In the book, Warner Wallace applied the same techniques he used as a homicide detective in Los Angeles to reveal the likely truthfulness of the apostles’ claims. The minor variations between the accounts, he explains, is one of the best indications that the stories are true. Of further note, is that the motivation of the early Christian writers was non-self-serving. That is, the early writers had nothing to gain by sharing the message that they shared. In fact, they suffered beatings, stonings, shunning, and ultimately execution for sharing their message. They had nothing to gain and everything to lose by spreading this message, unless of course, they were telling the truth.

The historical existence of Jesus is attested to by numerous non-religious sources, and archeological findings confirm the historical accuracy of the gospel accounts in regard to places, customs, and the techniques of crucifixion. Lee Strobel, an investigative report for the Chicago Tribune, provided a very readable discussion of this evidence in his book: The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus.

What remains, though, is to know if the Bible provides us with a spiritually accurate message. Historically, this has been addressed by looking at internal evidence. That is, by looking at what the Bible has to say about itself. The two most referenced Biblical passages used to address this are 2 Timothy 3:16-17 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. And 2 Peter 3:15-16 And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.

Thus, Paul declares that all scripture is God breathed, and Peter declares that Paul’s writings are to be considered as scripture, in addition to the Old Testament. Internal evidence for the spiritual validity (but not historical accuracy) of the Old Testament comes from Jesus himself in that He quoted the Old Testament extensively. The argument is that, assuming Jesus is Lord, then His reference to and quoting of the Old Testament books conveys a heavenly stamp of approval on those books. In fact, He quoted throughout the Old Testament Canon from Genesis 1:27 (see Matthew 19:4) to Malachi 4:5-6 (see Matthew 17:10-11) and from this, the Lord is seen as validating the entirety of Old Testament scripture. Interestingly, many more of His Old Testament quotations appear to be quotes from the Septuagint version rather than the Hebrew version.

In the mid-3rd century B.C., a group of 70 Jewish scholars created a translation of the Hebrew Torah at the request of the Greek king of Egypt, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, and at the time of Christ, this Greek version, rather than the original Hebrew version, was the more widely available. In general, the textual history of the Old Testament writings is far less understood than that of the New Testament, and so it is significant that Jesus relied on the more readily available version in His teaching, and it is also worth noting that this version corresponds with the Old Testament text we have available to us today.

Setting aside the circular nature of internal evidence (e.g. the idea that we know the Bible is true because the Bible says it’s true), it is important to note that 2 Timothy 3:16-17 expresses an important caveat. In this verse, Paul carefully defines the truthfulness of scripture. He doesn’t claim that it is always historically accurate in the sense that a 21st century news reporter or archeologist might consider historically accurate (see the post on Genre and Historiography). He says that it is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. In other words, scripture is intended to address us spiritually, and is not intended to satisfy our unrelated curiosities. This was a mistake the church made when it arrested Galileo for discussing scientific ideas on the structure of the Solar System.

Given that internal evidence of the spiritual truth of the Bible is circular, and therefore, presents an invalid argument, we must look to external evidence. However, seeking external evidence of the spiritual truths of the Bible is ineffectual, because all writings carrying sufficient authority to be trusted were added to the Bible in the canonization process, and thus have become internal. We are left with the same problem that Paul faced when writing to the churches of Rome, which is why he pointed out that the Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God (Romans 8:16), and For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse (Romans 1:19-20). These truths can only be found when we look inward, setting-aside our unreasonable objections. Paul wrote that all scripture is God breathed, a unique phrase without a clear definition, but one that imparts the notion that God was the inspiration behind each of the twenty-seven texts that comprise the New Testament. It’s clear, though, that God is still breathing, and has been breathing His inspiration into the countless scribes and scholars who have taken considerable care in passing along His spiritual truths through the centuries for the benefit of us all.

So to summarize, we have strong, scholarly evidence that the New Testament accounts we have available to us today are accurate representations of the original writings, we have strong evidence that the gospel writers were witnesses to the life of Jesus, we have external evidence from non-religious sources verifying the historical accuracy of the accounts, and we have Jesus word that the Old Testament text we have today is valid for spiritual understanding. And because of this, the idea that the New Testament is just another muddled fairy tale is without justification, and can no longer be used as an excuse to avoid the offer of Christ. The Bible brings a strong message, and ultimately, each one of us needs to choose to accept or deny it. Each one of us needs to accept or deny a faith in Jesus Christ.

For further reading:

Neil R. Lightfoot, How We Got the Bible
David Alan Black, Rethinking New Testament Textual Criticism
Peter M. Head, Christology and Textual Transmission: Reverential Alterations in the Synoptic Gospels
Michael W. Holmes, The Text of the Matthean Divorce Passages: A Comment on the Appeal to Harmonization in Textual Decisions
Pastor Jeff Riddle, Text Note: Luke 9:55-56
The Synoptic Gospel, How Many Words of Jesus Christ are Red?

Reverse Engineering God–Part IV: What is Not Truth?

In the two most recent posts, we explored What is Truth?, and also introduced the idea that there are constraints in Conveying Truth. It is important that those discussions don’t give the misleading impression that there is no truth, or that people are free to make up their own truth.

In discussing the seemingly simple question “What color is the sky”, we learned that truth can have multiple facets, and that gaining a full understanding of that truth may take work to comprehend.

Philosophers have argued over a number of different theories of truth. One theory, termed the pragmatic theory of truth, expresses the idea that an inquiry into what is true ends once a truth is found that is useful. In our running example, we can say that for the purposes of selecting a crayon to use for a child’s drawing, the statement “the sky is blue” should end the inquiry–this statement should be accepted as truth because everyone could agree that it is ideally useful for the task at hand.

However, this statement does not capture the full truth of the question: “What color is the sky?”

A second theory of truth is termed relativism. The idea conveyed by this theory is that a statement can only be judged as truth from within a specific framework or perspective. So in our example, from the kindergarten teacher’s perspective, “The sky is blue” is true, while from the astronaut’s perspective, “The sky is black” is also true, but these truths must be considered independent of each other.

However, again, neither of these statements capture the full truth of the question “What color is the sky?”

A third theory of truth is the correspondence theory, and that is the idea that a statement can only be considered true if it corresponds to a static, fixed reality. Previously, we discussed the idea that the kindergarten teacher might have said “the sky is gray”. Since this statement would not have corresponded with reality, it would have been false.

Many argue that these three theories stand in contradiction to each other, and perhaps at an academic level they do, but for our reverse-engineering exercise of trying to understand God’s truth, we gain value from harmonizing them.

The challenge made to relativism is that it appears to enable someone to invent any truth they want by claiming that they are taking a different perspective. In one of Paul’s letters to the Corinthian Church, he shared wisdom for that church. It would be fair to say that there are significant differences between the culture of that time and place and the culture in our hometown today; therefore, if we take the relativist line of reasoning, in isolation, it could be argued that the wisdom that Paul shared doesn’t apply to us. In fact, a simple extension of this line of reasoning would lead to the argument that none of the wisdom in the Bible should be applied in our own lives today. What might give us pause to think, though, is the fact that God has inspired a multitude of men and women, through the ages, to carefully preserve for us His wisdom as recorded in the pages of Scripture. Why did He do that, if He didn’t intend us to apply it in our lives?

The answer lies in the harmonizing. Moving back to our “What color is the sky” question, we can see that pragmatically true statements can be made from multiple perspectives, but each of these truths derives from a static, fixed reality. In the “What color is the sky?” case, that underlying truth is best described in the language of physics and chemistry. Photons of light are emitted from the sun and other celestial bodies at various wavelengths and these photos interact with the atoms and molecules in the atmosphere in ways that science can now mathematically model with a high degree of accuracy.

One notion that becomes apparent, through this discussion, is that truth is always observed through one specific perspective at a time, but to understand the full nature of that truth, we need to step out of the box of that perspective and consider many other perspectives. In our search for God’s truth, we can find many such perspectives in the many different books of the Bible. But it may take work, and thought, to discern the underlying, corresponding truth of God revealed through those books.

In Genesis 28:20 we learn that Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you.” If we assumed the correspondence theory alone, and ignored perspective, we might read into this that the Lord is perfectly fine with us negotiating with Him, and that it is just fine for us to demand that God provide specific value to us before we accept Him as our Lord. However, if we look at a different perspective, from a different time and place in Biblical history, we can find another exchange between a man and the Lord:  And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” (Luke 1:18-20). Here Zechariah was essentially asking for nothing more than a brief explanation before placing full trust in the Lord, and he was punished for it. Arguably, a contradictory wisdom is expressed between these two passages.

However, once we consider the different perspectives, the contradictions go away. Zechariah was a trained priest who had the benefit of the teachings and writing of Moses and all the prophets to help guide his understanding of who God is, and to understand the relationship that God sought with the Israelite nation. Jacob, on the other hand had none of these. He lived in a multi-theistic culture and likely had only the stories told to him by his own father to guide his simple understanding of this one, specific god that spoke to him. An underlying truth that we can draw from these two stories might be that God knows us and meets us where we are in faith, and another is that he expects more from those who have been given more: a similar lesson to that expressed by the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30).

Another notion becomes apparent once we stop to consider why we are so interested in the truth of God. The answer, of course, is that we seek to understand God and his wisdom because we wish to apply His wisdom to our own lives. But in the end, it is only pragmatic truth that is actually applied, and applied in our own cultural context. So truth is not found in plainly false statements, truth is not found in a superficial understanding of statements or events taken from a singular perspective, and truth is not something we can make up to suit our will. Truth is revealed through multiple perspectives, one facet at a time, and it may take work, courage, and perseverance to set aside our own perspective so that we may gain a fuller understanding.

Up next Genre and Historiography of the Bible

Reverse Engineering God: Part III–Conveying Truth

In the previous post, What is Truth?, we developed the understanding that truth is inherently multi-faceted, and that gaining a full conception of the truth of an entity or topic requires a cohesive understanding of every conceivable perspective of that entity or topic. In light of this, it becomes obvious that even if we do develop such a rich understanding of the truth of a thing, that we may run into an obstacle when it comes to conveying this knowledge to others. And this has been a challenge for the authors of scripture from the beginning: how to convey an eternal spiritual truth in a way that their target audience can readily understand and apply.

Every human has a complexity limit-we can only absorb so much detail before we become overwhelmed or bored with the topic. Additionally, every human defaults to their own cultural and occupational framework of reference when first evaluating what someone else has said or written. Understanding these, we can see that both the natural “complexity limit” and cultural and occupational frameworks of of the audience place a constraint on the ability for a speaker or writer to share truth.

For the duration of Biblical History, the vast majority of God’s followers were uneducated peasants living a day-to-day existence in primitive societies and were steeped in the types mystical thoughts and lore common in nearly all early civilizations. This is why much of the Bible is written in a very plain, simplified way, and also why much of it is framed in the context of the culture and lifestyle of the original authors—they were writing within the constraints of their time and place in history.

As an example, consider the story of the creation of the universe. To explain how God created the universe and everything in it to a PhD Physicist, it would make sense to provide them with multiple textbooks on mathematics, quantum physics, chemistry, and cellular biology. You might take this approach, because you know that a physicist is the type of person who would want to use this information to make other discoveries–perhaps to look for cosmic microwave background radiation.

Moses, however, when he attempted to explain the creation of the world to former slaves (who spent much of their life mixing clay with straw to make bricks for a pharaoh’s temples), chose to write: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The perspective of truth that Moses was interested in conveying was that which explains man’s relationship to God.

So who conveyed truth, the authors of those science textbooks or Moses? For reasons articulated in the previous post, we can conclude that they both did in regard to the perspective they were taking. But from a philosophical point of view, it could be argued that neither expressed the complete truth of creation, because neither presented a comprehensive, coherent description of creation from every conceivable perspective. But as mentioned earlier, this level of description is neither attainable for us, nor necessary for any practical purpose.

Since Copernicus, and especially since Darwin, a great debate has raged in regard to the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture to the great detriment of many. When a Bible passage appears to be in error, we may be tempted to jump to the conclusion that the passage is in error. A valuable exercise, at these times, is to make the logical leap that it is our perspective on the passage that may be wrong, and then seek to understand what perspective was taken by the original author. Recent work in archeology, psychology, anthropology, and other sciences provide us with a wide variety of resources to draw upon in our search.

Extending this line of reasoning, we can see that even when we believe a Bible passage to be true, it is valuable to seek out the original cultural perspective because the truth we are perceiving may not, in fact, be the spiritual truth that the original author was trying to convey. Leviticus 19:28 provides us an example of this. In this passage, the Lord says: You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord. On the surface, we may take this to mean that the Lord doesn’t like tattoos. However, in the culture of the day, tattooing was done as a religious expression and part of the worship of other gods, and therefore, the primary point of this passage was that the Israelites should have nothing to do with the practices or worship of other gods. We can more accurately conclude that Leviticus 19:28 was essentially a corollary to Exodus 20:3: You shall have no other gods before me.

When reverse engineering a system, a regular exercise is to attempt to put ourselves the shoes of the original authors of a system and then imagine what constraints they may have been under, and then working within those constraints, think about how we might try to accomplish the same goals. This type of exercise holds value when trying to understand the Bible, as well. Put yourselves in the shoes of the original authors, think about the cultural beliefs of the original audience, their history, their occupational knowledge and their ability to absorb complexity, and then ask yourself how you would have conveyed the spiritual truth to this audience. This exercise can help us to see where we, ourselves, may be misunderstanding the intended truth of the Bible.

A danger exists, though, when we are considering the multiple facets of truth, knowing that these truths may have been conveyed in a constrained fashion, and that is we may be tempted to synthesize “truths” that do not exist. We’ll explore this in the next post, What is Not Truth.

Reverse Engineering God: Part II–What is Truth?

In this blog series, we are learning how to understand God’s truth in a new way, following the principles of reverse engineering.

But what is Truth?

Almost every book on theology and philosophy spends time discussing exploring the truth. Truth is a strange concept, in that most of us think “of course we understand it”, but when pressed to fully explain it, run short of words.

So as at other times, I’ll revert to stories and analogies to convey a concept that is otherwise hard to explain.

A kindergarten teacher was giving her students time to do crayon drawings after they had spent the afternoon playing outside. It was a beautiful day.

“What color is the sky?” a young boy asked. “Blue” answered the teacher.

So a question we can ask is: Did the teacher tell the truth?

Now it so happened this was the school’s annual parent visitation day, and many parents had taken off work to come watch their child’s day at school. One of these parents was a world-renowned artist who had been mentoring his daughter in the fine art of painting. He leaned over and whispered to his daughter: “Actually, the sky is many hues of blue. In the west, where the sun was beginning to head, the sky was a very light blue, almost white, while towards the west, it was a deeper blue.”

Was the artist telling the truth? In light of this more complex explanation, do we no longer say that the teacher had conveyed the truth?

Another parent, an astronaut who had spent many days in space, after overhearing the artist, leaned over to his son. “Actually,” he whispered “the sky is the blackest black you can imagine, with thousands of little pinpricks of white where the stars are.”

Was the astronaut telling the truth? Certainly any other astronaut would think so.

Yet another parent, who also overheard these whispers, and so happened to be an operator of the Hubble space telescope, bent down to his daughter saying “the astronaut said the sky was black, but it is really completely white. It is only because our eyes are limited, and because our telescope limits the length of exposure that we get the illusion of black. When we leave the camera shutter open a very long time, we see that every speck of space is full of stars, shining away. Because of this, the sky is white.”

A physicist then told their child that “The sun baths our planet in all colors so that it looks white, but the blue wavelengths are heavily scattered by molecules in the atmosphere, giving us the illusion of a blue sky, but the truth is, the sky is no color at all.”

In turn, a poet told his child “The color of a clear sky is the vibrancy of life!”

A blind girl in the classroom said that the color of the sky was warm, while another classmate, one who experienced Synesthesia (google it–it’s fascinating) announced that the color of the sky was a bugle.

Thomas Aquinas, speaking of truth said veritas est adaequatio rei et intellectus. That is, truth is the adequation, or conformity, of intellect and thing, and also argued that “God is Truth”. His definition of truth, though contains two definitions.

The first, is that truth is that which is, truth is the thing itself. The second, is related to how well our conception of that truth corresponds to the reality of that truth. If the teacher had not been outside that day, and had told the child that the sky was gray and overcast, her conception of the true state of the sky would be in error. We have often heard witnesses being asked to “tell the truth”. What is being asked, here, is for the witness to describe their conception of the truth without deceit. Whether the witness’s conception of the truth conforms to the truth, itself, is another story.

As the story above points out, truth is more than “that which is”, and more than our conception of the truth. Truth is also defined by our perspective of truth, and our perspective is tied closely with the purposes for which we use the information. For the kindergarten teacher and student, “the sky is blue” is true, because to the simple mind of a five year old trying to select a crayon for the picture he is drawing for his mom, the sky is blue. For a telescope operator training an apprentice on the technical challenges of space photography, “the sky is white” is true. In fact, in our story above, everyone told the truth, all while saying very different and seemingly contradictory things. We can see that because of the great complexity of the world, truth is a many faceted thing. To understand the full, comprehensive truth of the coloring of the sky, we would need to develop a cohesive understanding of every conceivable perspective on the topic, which may be an impossible task.

We can understand, though, that each new facet or perspective that we can tease out, yields back a richer understanding of that truth.

In the next post, we begin to explore one of the constraints to revelation as we discuss Conveying Truth.

Reverse Engineering God–Part V: Genre and Historiography

Historiography is the study of how people think of and record history. The view that we are all part of history, occupying a small segment of time, that our world was shaped by our past, and that we are participants in the shaping of the future … is a western concept. One of the “givens” of our outlook on life.

The warning that history repeats itself is predicated on this western understanding, and it is why we have a number of literary genre’s documenting history: biographies, auto-biographies, documentaries, historical non-fiction, and more. We read about events of the time, and how our predecessors handled these situations with the hope that it may aid us if, or when, we face a similar situation.

Mesopotamian history and culture parallels, and intertwines with, that of the ancient Israelites, and for this reason, an understanding of how the Mesopotamians thought and wrote can provide insight into the writings of the ancient Hebrews.

Since the Mesopotamians did not have the same sense of cause and effect, did not view history as a process by which a societies past actions and decisions would determine its future state, their historical genres are different than ours. In fact, our definition of history as a process is incomplete. To capture a more comprehensive notion of history, Johan Huizinga, a Dutch historian, defined history as the intellectual form in which a civilization renders an account to itself of the past.

The central theme or goal in the majority of the genres of the Mesopotamians is praise. In the mindset of these early writers, there was a sense that their writings could re-activate the virtues being praised. Hymns embodied praise, much as they continue to do today, and were intended as expressions of loyalty. Two narrative genres that embodied praise were myths and epics. Myths were god centered, similar in nature to the opening two chapters of Genesis. Epics, on the other hand, tended to be centered on the doings of rulers, especially kings and the monarchy. Stories of David’s life in the 1st and 2nd books of Samuel have a correspondence with Mesopotamian epics. Laments, are an interesting genre, in that they are praise of powers lost. Penitential psalms are similar to laments, but personal in nature and often intended to invoke the pity of some deity.

What is import to note, as expressed by historian J.J. Finkelstein in his article Mesopotamian Historiography is that … genres of Mesopotamian literature that purport to deal with past events, with the exception of the omens and chronicles, are motivated by purposes other than the desire to know what really happened, and the authenticity of the information they relate was not in itself crucial to the point for their authors.

The main point of J. J. Finkelstein’s article is that the genre of omen texts, and not myths, epics, or sagas, likely provides the best account of true Mesopotamian history as we would define history today, but it will take a slight digression to understand what an omen text is, and why this might be true.

When my wife was first pregnant, she was chatting with her grandmother on the phone, one afternoon, when a bird crashed into our picture window with a loud thump. My wife shared what the noise was, and her grandmother was suddenly beside herself with distress. This means you might have a miscarriage, she cried. When a bird thumps into a window, it means someone is going to have a miscarriage. I came to learn, over time, that her grandmother had all kinds of folksy wisdom like this, passed on to her through the generations in the rural community where she lived.

How could this idea have started? Undoubtedly, years ago someone had a miscarriage shortly after they saw a bird fly into a window, and the new omen connection was formed. Human beings have an incredible capacity to make associations, and this capacity manifests in ways that we might otherwise consider illogical. However, the thought process behind the folk wisdom of this rural community is very similar to the mindset of the ancient Mesopotamians. They saw the world as a sort of cosmic matrix, where correlations existed between all manner of observed objects and events.

We make correlations today, but we strive to use science to support those correlations. For example, we understand that the polar caps are the coldest places on earth because of the lack of sunlight, and so if a winter storm comes down from the North, we could say that conditions are favorable for snow. The Mesopotamians had no concept of weather science. For them, if they ever observed a winter storm coming down from the North, and at the same time, noticed that the liver of a sacrificed lamb had spots on it, and then it snowed the next day, they would see these as connection points in the cosmic matrix. They would dutifully record these events in omen texts, and so the next time a winter storm showed up on the Northern horizon, they would sacrifice a lamb, look at the liver, and divine a favorable or unfavorable prediction for snow, based on the pattern of any spots found.

Diviners of the day took their craft as seriously as any weatherman, and just as weather scientists will record temperature, humidity, and air pressure readings in hurricanes to serve as a basis for future weather forecasts, so the Mesopotamians recorded all sorts of observations of objects and events to aid in future divination.

There focus was not just on correlations of small events, but of whole dynasties as well. For example, if some particular dynasty lasted twenty years, and in that time had three crop failures, and after which they won a great battle, then years later, diviners in the service of some king that had been ruling for twenty years, would compare the count of crop failures during the present king’s rule with crop failures record in the omen texts in order to provide the most accurate favorable/unfavorable assessment of some upcoming battle.

Because they considered such divination as the best way of predicting future victories or defeats, feasts of famines, etc., they were meticulous in the recording of events, and so unlike sagas, epics, and myths, the events recorded in the omen texts tended to be, from our point of view, the most accurate.

In the Bible, we see fragmented references to the art of divination (see Numbers 22), and in fact, Deuteronomy 18:9-12 recorded a ban on the practice of divination for the Israelites:  When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord. However, while divination was banned, the Bible has a number of references that reveal the Mesopotamian mindset behind it, that is, the mentality that our own actions and decisions are not central to future events, but rather there is some sort of mystical cosmic web outside our control that defines destiny. Throughout the early scripture narratives, we see many references to leaders going to prophets to gain predictions of favorable or unfavorable outcomes (see 2 Chronicles 18). The difference, of course, is that the Israelites did have a Lord, and the Lord did have a plan. But to what degree these outcomes were the result of man’s free-will choices vice the result of God’s direct interference is not always clear to be seen.

Something that students of the Bible soon learn is that many of the stories of the Old Testament don’t, on the surface, appear to be conveying any great moral message. Instead, they just tell it as it was. They are descriptive, not prescriptive as one of my pastors used to say. In the narrative of Jacob (see Genesis 25-35), he doesn’t come across as a great husband and father, and it is important that we don’t take this story to imply that we should model Jacob’s behavior in our own families. Students must learn to accept the narratives for what they are.

A similar lesson needs to be learned from our understanding of Mesopotamian literature. It is what it is, and the Mesopotamian influence certainly crept into the literature of the ancient Hebrews. We see echoes of myths, epics, hymns, laments, psalms, and even omen’s throughout the text, and we fail as a student, if we read them from a singularly Western mindset of history. We need to accept them as they are. An epic tale recorded in the pages of scripture is an epic tale, written with the goal of praising the virtues of its central figure, and never intended to convey history to the accuracy of 21st century western standards. Rather than be frustrated that these writers did not convey the chronological picture of history the way we want to see it, we should feel blessed that the Lord has inspired generations of scribes and scholars to pass these early writings down through the centuries for our enrichment today.

To aid in our understanding of God’s Word, scholars studying the ancient Hebrew and Greek texts of the Old and New Testament have categorized the works into a number of genres: Law, History, Narrative, Poetry, Wisdom, Prophecy, Epistles, and Apocalypse. Some books of the Bible, of course, appear to have sections of various genres pulled together to form a cohesive work. Understanding that books in the Wisdom genre tend to have metaphors can help us understand what the authors were attempting to convey, and perhaps more importantly, what they were not trying to convey. Gaining a better understanding of our own western mindset, and contrasting it with that of these early writers, along with an understanding of the intent and purpose behind these different genres brings us closer to understanding the truth of God.

Up next Is the Bible text accurate?

Reverse Engineering God–Part I: Where is Truth?

Reverse engineering is a technique engineers use to understand an existing system–to learn what it does, and sometimes to understand why it does. That is, to understand why someone created it in the first place. To explore how we might reverse engineer God, let’s take a moment to understand reverse engineering through an analogy:

Graphic showing God machine - by Henry Koether

Imagine you are taking a factory tour, and the guide leads you across the shop floor, stopping in front of a big machine. Feeding the machine are several clear plastic tubes, one of which contains something that looks to be red paint, and to the left of it is another tube that is similar, but feeding a substance of deep blue. There is one other large tube attached to the top, but it is stainless steel, and you so you don’t know what it might contain.

Suddenly, there is a click and whir, as the machine kicks to life. A conveyor belt underneath this behemoth advances an empty pail under the machine. Once the pail is aligned, you see yet another tube on the bottom of the machine, out of which comes a thick stream of aqua-blue, filling the can.

Once the can is filled, our tour guide leads us over to the conveyor belt, hands us a small wooden stick, and lets us dip it into the can, where we can see that it is an aqua-blue latex paint.

Soon after, another click and whir is heard, another pail is advanced on the conveyor belt, and a large selector knob rotates towards the red input feed. As before, this new pail is filled from the tube at the bottom of the machine, but this time, with a paint in a pinkish hue.

As you are watching this, a worker walks over, and begins to turn the knobs on a third plastic tube located to the far left of the machine. This tube appears to be full of yellow.

What can reverse engineering tell us? Well, we can take a guess that the machine is some sort of paint mixer that takes feeds from different input ports. And so a question is: once the yellow is selected, what might come out of the bottom and into the next can?

Based on what we’ve seen, we might guess that the stainless steel feed from the top is white paint, and that a pale yellow will come out of the bottom. But the truth is, the stainless steel tube might be some kind of chemical enzyme that is interacting with chemicals in the red and blue feed to create pink and light blue, but when it reacts with yellow, it could create black for all we know. It could also be that stainless steel tube is simply a clear paint thinner, and the machine is applying high-heat to the pigments to change their color, and so again, it may not be clear how it will interact with the yellow pigments. So there is some level of uncertainty.

Now for the analogy part.

The blue tube represents the culture of the times of King David. The red tube represents the culture in the time of Jesus. The yellow represents our own culture. And the stainless steel feed on top? That represents the truth of God. The machine itself is the workings of God on each generation, and the output of that machine, the paint in the pail, is what we can explore in the pages of Scripture.

We make a mistake when we think the truth of God is squirting out of the bottom. What we read on the pages of the Bible is a narrative of how the truth of God was been revealed to specific people at specific times. If King David was raised as a leader or Jesus was born to us, now, in the 21st century, the color of the paint in the pail would be different. Their actions and stories would be different, but the truth of God would be the same.

When we, as Christians, study the Bible, our primary goal is to understand how God’s  truth applies to us today, that is, what should the paint in the pail look like when the yellow hose is activated? When reverse engineering a system, there is almost always some level of uncertainty in the conclusions, and so answers tend to be caveated in terms of probabilities. For this reason, engineers have developed a number of techniques to narrow the probabilities, and these same techniques can be applied to help us understand what God’s Word has to say to us today.

One of the first rules of reverse engineering is to question the assumptions. In this post, we discussed where to find to find God’s truth, but this very question assumed that we understood what this truth is that we have been looking for. We’ll explore this more in the next post, What is Truth?

Reverse Engineering God: Part 0–The Influence of Profession on Biblical Interpretation

The problem-solving mindset of our profession adds a new hermeneutic framework for Biblical interpretation.

After completing the first draft of my Bible Study guide on Genesis, I pulled together a small group of men and, together, we gave it a test run. Within our group, we had a Ph.D. research psychologist, an executive, a lawyer, and myself, an engineer by trade. All of my guides are designed to draw out discussions, and early on, many of the discussions in this group became intense as we each tried to sort out what God was trying to share with us through this first book of the Bible.

Driving home, after the study, I think we all wondered why we had such a hard time convincing the others of the logic of our own positions—after all, our own views just made so much sense to us. What I came to realize is that each of our approaches to understanding and interpreting the Word was heavily influenced by our own professional training. This revelation occurred to me after one particularly frustrating discussion. As an engineer, I was trying to pull the conversation to the bigger picture Step back and look at what God is doing here … I would argue. The lawyer countered with But you have to look at the wording of the verse. The text says … . I realized that this is exactly what a lawyer would say in court. To a lawyer, the words of a contract are truth. Engineers, on the other hand, used to the fact that documentation is often misleading, have learned that truth can only be discovered by looking at what the system is actually doing.

Hermeneutics, the branch of Biblical scholarship that explores the differing principles of biblical interpretation (e.g. literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical), provides one framework for understanding how to read the text. Understanding that our occupations have shaped our overall approach to sifting through the complexities of life reveals that there is an additional framework at play as we read and interpret the stories in God’s Holy Word.

Being cognizant of our own approach to seeking to understand the text is valuable for several reasons: it helps us to understand that, when sharing the gospel of Christ, our approach to explanation needs to be tailored to fit our audience; there are different dimensions to thinking about what God has written to us; our default approach to understanding truth may have limits; and the truth of God, as conveyed on the pages of scripture, may be discovered through many different paths.

Lee Strobel was a journalist who didn’t believe. He’d heard plenty about the Bible, but it never rang true until he was motivated to prove it wrong his own way. He began investigating Christ as any investigative journalist would do. Digging up resources, interviewing experts, and putting all the facts together. In the end, this journalistic approach led him to faith in Christ, as he documented in his book, The Case for Christ.

Josh McDowell was a law student who didn’t believe, and so he set about to discover the truth of this Jesus character as any good lawyer would do, by looking at the evidence, and in particular the testimonies of the witnesses. Josh’s examination led him to become a believer, and like Lee, he documented his work in The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict.

In the early 90’s, I wasn’t a journalist and I wasn’t a lawyer. I was a young engineer whose atheistic views were wavering after meeting a few good men who lived their life in faith. Their lives led me to believe that something was missing, and so I began my own journey toward truth.

Just as Lee Strobel and Josh McDowell’s books undoubtedly helped many like-minded people come to see the truth of the Gospels in a new light, so might my own journey, as an engineer, help others see the truth and logic of the Bible in a new light. Much of what I’ve learned through this journey is embedded in God Worth? A Short Course in Christianity, but the journey itself remains to be documented. In the meantime, some of the additional insights I’ll share through a few blog posts. So stay tuned.

Up next: Reverse Engineering God–Part I: Where is Truth?

Developing a Christian Response to Incarceration

Developing a Christian response to incarceration, based on a re-evaluation of Criminal Justice theories in view of a modern understanding decision science.

It doesn’t take long, in studMCI-Hying the scriptures, to realize that the Christian God is a god of love, and so the question for those who put their faith in Christ is not should I love?, but how best to show love? These questions are quickly put to the test when considering how to respond, as a society, with those who have committed, and are likely to continue to commit crimes. Saying I will show mercy and forgives, and do nothing may sound like the Christian thing to say, but is doing nothing showing mercy to this individual’s next victim? Obviously not.

When someone close to us is victimized by a crime, most of us have an immediate visceral response toward the perpetrators: we want them hunted down and punished. An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth, we may cry, mistakenly taking this paraphrase of the Hammurabi’s Code (Hammurabi ruled the Babylonian Empire from 1792-50 BC) as Biblical scripture.

What I’ve termed a visceral response is more appropriately termed a heuristic response: a decision arising from the hard-wired, low-level neural pathways that have helped the human race survive since the dawn of time. One of the key characteristics that sets humans apart from animals is that we have been gifted by God with an alternative means of decision making. We have the ability to pause, to ponder, and to over-ride our low-level automated responses, by weighing and analyzing facts and evidence.

Most animals do not have this ability. For example, many of us have had the unpleasant experience of straying too close to a honeybee’s hive and have paid the price with a bee sting. Honeybees pay the ultimate price for defending their family–their bodies are torn apart as their barbed stinger lodges itself into the intruders flesh. The heuristic response of a honeybee is very similar to that of humans, because our heuristics were both developed for tribe-oriented preservation, and the bee’s decidedly un-analytic response to threats against its tribe (hive) have obviously served the species well, in that honeybees are still around today.

And in the same way, if taking the survival of the species as the sole measure of success, our human heuristic response of an eye for an eye has worked for millennia. But Jesus does not take the survival of the species as the sole measure of success, He wants more. In Matthew 5:38-39 Jesus said: You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.

Pondering these words demands that we set aside our heuristic response and take the time and energy to carefully analyze our approach to criminal justice. The idea of demanding more than the heuristic response isn’t a new message from Jesus. The same notion is echoed in Zechariah 7:9: This is what the LORD Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another.’

Modern theories of punishment, as studied in introductory classes on criminal justice, discuss four reasons for punishing criminals: retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation, but notice that these reasons are derived from different sources.

The first, retribution, is nothing more than a re-wording of King Hammurabi’s an eye for an eye. It is the heuristic decision making response that is no different than the honeybee’s save the hive sting-an evolutionary response that has achieved the same tribe-survival purpose as deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation, but without the thought.

In Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, the theologian reminds us that when Jesus died on the cross, he took on himself the punishment of all sin, and therefore, it is impossible for someone to both accept Christ and demand punishment for sin. If you accept Christ, you have to accept the fact that Christ paid the price for everyone else’s sin at the same time He paid the price for yours. His death was the completion of the Lord’s claim, in Deuteronomy 32:35, Vengeance is mine.

The second, third, and fourth reasons for punishment are analytic responses to criminal behavior. They are an alternative, reasoned, three-pronged approach to maintain the safety of our families and society.

All of us are born with selfish desires, and all of us struggle, to varying degrees with temptations. Even the great Apostle Paul, who wrote (in perhaps the most transparent passages of all scripture) I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do (Romans 7:15). With solid family and community support, and active male and female role-models in our lives, most of us learn to overcome these selfish desires, understanding that our decisions and behaviors that benefit our family and community, as a whole, benefit us, as a whole, as well. However, we do not live in a utopian society, and many grow up without positive guides to our thinking, and therefore, the selfish desires have a tendency to win out. Deterrence, consists of a bold reminder by society, that attempting to satisfy selfish desires at the expense of others will not lead to satisfaction at all, but rather will lead to misery. Deterrence should stand as the last ditch, yellow-striped guardrail of community support. It has limited effect when it becomes the primary community support mechanism, and almost no effect on those under the age of 26, which is when the part of the human brain that makes risk-based decisions completes formation. Prescribing punishment to others, as a means of deterrence, should always be carried out wisely, and communicated effectively, so that the message of deterrence registers.

Incapacitation simply means to take a dangerous person off the streets. If a person is a sexual predator that has been attacking women, then it is not merciful to the women of our society to allow them to roam free. Incapacitation does not mean tiny prison cells, frightening and dangerous living conditions, and substandard food, sanitation, and medical care. These are the hallmarks of revenge, not incapacitation. Incapacitation is not about punishment, it is about the safety of the rest of the community.

Rehabilitation is the third prong of the reasoned approach to punishment, and the main point of entry, for Christians, into the hearts and lives of the incarcerated. In Mark 2:17 Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” And from Romans 12:14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse, and from Matthew 25:44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’”

With deterrence and incapacitation, we begin to live up to the wisdom found in Isaiah 1:17 Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.

With rehabilitation, we can begin to live out the wisdom from Micah (Micah 6:8) He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

Having devoted some time to prison ministry over the past few years, I’ve come to understand the Lord’s words on humility. Many of the men I’ve met were incarcerated for a decision they made in a split second. A quick flash of anger, an over-zealous response to an attack, or a sudden fit of jealousy, or envy. I’ve found myself in similar situations in the past, and it is only through the Grace of God that nothing tragic happened in those moments. Many others I’ve met in prison, most, I would say, have themselves been victims or traumatic crimes in their youth, and most did not grow up in positive communities, with loving mothers, fathers, and neighbors, watching and guiding them as they tried to navigate the emotional whirlpools of adolescence, and instilling in them firm moral foundations. At the end of a day of ministry, behind the prison walls, I exit the institution thinking that it is society that has acted criminally towards these men, allowing them to have been raised in such a manner. How many of us, would not also be living behind bars if we had been raised under such circumstances? Humility.

And so with humility, we recognize that we all have weaknesses, and we all have moments where we find those weaknesses being left unchecked.

As the attitude of humility sinks in, another understanding of Micah’s call to justice comes to light. Western culture, and particularly American culture, is very individual centric, and because of this, we have a tendency to hold each individual accountable for their own decisions and their own success in life. We are blinded to the fact that we live in near total dependence on the rest of society. Which of us could live a week without the water lines or grocery stores that others have built? How should we, as a society, show justice to men and women raised in the foster care system, raised in drug and crime ridden neighborhoods, who suffer psychological disorders, learning disorders, or have suffered traumatic life events with no one walking beside them, serving as their guide in this complex world?

In the city of Rome, in the early days of the Church, what set the Christians apart is that they took care of the weak and unwanted. In Rome, the unwanted young and the weak were left to fend for themselves and die, but the Christians cared for the helpless. Through these actions, the light of Christ showed through them, and it was noticed, and it is a major reason why we still know the name of Jesus today.

The part of justice that is missing, then, is the justice that society must give to those who have fallen through the cracks and into the self-serving, selfish patterns of criminal activity. Christ came along side us, in our sin, and helped us (and continues to help us) to understand how to leave it behind and grow into a new pattern of thinking. In this way, we, as Disciples of Christ, must come along side those in prison and do what we can to help them come into a new way of understanding the identity that awaits them in the Kingdom of God, which is here now. In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us that as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them (Luke 6:31). For those who have come to faith, we know that others have already done to us. Others have stepped in and helped us understand ourselves, our place in God’s Kingdom, and our role in His community. The natural response to this blessing, would be to share it with those still in need.

And finally, mercy. While it is true that societal weakness and unhealthy social micro-cultures have a major and direct impact on the decision patterns of individuals in a community, our God is a God of free will and as Paul writes, in 1 Corinthians 10:13, No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.

So the truth is that in most cases, just a moment before a crime is committed, an individual has made a decision to commit the crime. They accepted the temptation, they took what did not belong to them, they hoped to gain, and caused another to lose.

Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. Luke 11:4. The Lord’s Prayer. For those who can accept this teaching as a command, then it is as simple as that. For those who don’t accept commands without further understanding, Jesus provides it a few chapters later in Luke 17:3-4.

If your brother or sister a sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.

Rebuking in the form of a sharply worded criticism is occasionally effective to one with a prepared and receptive mind, but for those who are truly lost in themselves, an effective rebuke is a long process. It means taking the time to listen and understand where the person is at mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, and then going from there. Showing them the love of God in tangible ways, through the creation of safe and stable environments, through caring, teaching, counseling, mentoring, and often through medical care. When we take the time to do this, we find that we, ourselves, draw closer to Jesus, because we become more aware of how Jesus, himself, is doing these same things for us.

Christ’s forgiveness is always available to us, and it is our repentance that enables us to accept it. And so in the same way, our forgiveness must always be available, waiting for the moment when the trespasser finally repents, enabling us to transfer this blessing onto them.

Christ taught in an environment in which there was little hope for his disciples to participate directly in public policy debates, nor did Peter, Paul, or the other disciples, and so the Biblical text provides little direct guidance in this area. But as Christians living in democratic societies, we have an opportunity to take the love and wisdom of the Lord’s teaching and translate it into a language that the rest of our community can understand. The value and effectiveness of God’s wisdom isn’t limited to those who accept the teachings of the Bible: it actually does work for the good of all in a secularized society.

When societies forgo revenge, establish rational, effective deterrence, take swift action to remove those who are actively harming society, but then puts in the effort to rehabilitate those incarcerated, everyone benefits. Pains are healed, families are restored, mothers and fathers are returned to their children, and men and women can contribute to society, rather than society paying to warehouse them in dark prison institutions.

While the message of the New Testament highlights our personal relationship with the Lord and subsequent personal response to his calling, the message of the Old Testament still stands. God held his people, as a people, accountable to His calling. And so our response to our faith must consider multiple aspects: our personal response to those who harm ourselves and our families, our personal response to those currently behind bars within the local prisons of our community, and finally, our response as community members who can participate in shaping the social and political landscape of our communities, to encourage public policy founded on analytic and rational response to the problem of crime in our society, in accordance with the wisdom gifted to us by the Lord.