Catholic in Yanchep

The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium)


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EASTER | Some stats and graphs on why the Biblical accounts of Jesus’ resurrection are extraordinary

Have you ever been told that the Bible is historically unreliable and not been sure how to respond?  Most people who make that claim are using it as a lever to excuse themselves from taking Christianity seriously.  Press them, and you find they have not actually studied the facts about the Bible’s historicity.  It’s a sign of the craziness of our times that the word ‘facts’ has itself become contentious.  Setting that aside, it’s instructive to look at the statistics relating to the extant New Testament manuscripts.  If we dig into the figures, we discover some striking data that rarely seem to find their way into the popular media.

I first became interested in this subject when I read Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ, which has recently been released as a film and will be available in Australia in May 2017.  While I don’t agree with everything Strobel writes, and find his writing style annoying in its lack of subtlety and constant attempts to re-create the scene, his interviewees are usually well-known scholars in their fields.

We’re all familiar today with the way some news items ‘go viral’.  A similar thing happened after Christ’s Resurrection: an astounding explosion in documented output by authors describing it.  So singular, extraordinary, impossible, fantastic, and unbelievable was this event, that not only did it inspire four contemporary eye-witness and/or “one-step-removed-from-eye-witness” authors to produce accounts (something unheard of for any other event in ancient history), but the sheer volume and speed of propagation of these documents is unparalleled, considering the technology available in this period of history.

Focussing in on just two aspects of this phenomenon, I’d like to share with you some graphs for those of you who are visual learners.  I will concentrate on these two questions:

  1. Number of manuscripts.
    1. How many ancient manuscripts of the New Testament exist?
    2. How does this compare with the number of manuscripts of other ancient documents?
  2. Time interval
    1. What is the time interval between the date of composition and the earliest extant manuscript?
    2. How does this compare with other ancient documents?

Just to define my terms, I should mention that by manuscripts I am including handwritten copies prior to the invention of the printing press, inscribed on papyrus, parchment, vellum, and paper, in any number of languages from that period:  Greek and Latin, Syriac, Slavic, Gothic, Ethiopic, Coptic and Armenian, amongst others.

Comparing the most well-known works from this period, we find a breakdown as shown in Table 1 below.  Surprising, isn’t it, that there are only seven manuscripts of Virgil’s Aeneid, ten of Caesar’s Gallic Wars which it was de rigueur for every Latin scholar of my era to read, but over 24,000 of the New Testament?  Testament, indeed, to the power of the Gospel.  Even Homer’s Iliad is fewer by about 37 times.  A graph makes the disparity even more striking.  When it’s the Bible versus ‘everything else’, ‘everything else’ pales, mathematically speaking, into insignificance.  And I haven’t even included the numerous commentaries about the New Testament which would explode the figures into the stratosphere.Manuscript-Number-Graph

 

 

Manuscript-Numbers

Manuscripts of Iron Age writings: the Numbers

Another measure we can look at is the time interval between the best-estimate date of composition and the earliest extant manuscript.  Disputants like to claim “Oh well, the New Testament was written long after the events it describes”.  Actually, when the Bible is compared to other works from about the same era, one finds that the intervals involved for the Bible are relatively short.  The bars on the graph below show the time interval from the creation of each work (bottom of bar) to the date of the first extant copy (top of bar) of each manuscript.  Using the same criteria as historians use for other works, the New Testament compares favourably – in fact it appears to be more reliable than other ancient texts.  I have arranged these by date of composition, so that it is clear which documents are contemporaneous with each other.

Manuscript-Summary

Interval-Authorship-to-Extant

So now, when you are challenged about the reliability of the Gospels, please share with your friends these facts and figures.  There are numerous other points that can be made regarding the Resurrection of Christ as a real event, and I encourage you to go and see the film, The Case for Christ, when it is released next month.  And for a Catholic version on a similar theme, try Dr Brant Pitre’s The Case for Jesus  – written in a more scholarly style, with much additional data, but still accessible to the general reader.

Wishing all readers a joyful and blessed Easter!


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Easter Sunday | The Disturbing Fact of the Resurrection

'CHRIST RISEN FROM THE TOMB' BY BERGOGNONE

Christ Risen from the Tomb, Ambrogio Bergognone (c. 1470-1523), Samual H. Kress Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington

 

A very Happy Easter to you all!  Two messages today:

First Mark Shea:  “The Resurrection did not happen in cloud-cuckoo land, Olympus, Shangrila or Once Upon a Time. It happened in a particular place locatable by GPS, on a particular morning during the rule of a minor Roman procurator named Pontius Pilate. A real physical body that had been buried on Friday evening was no longer there on Sunday morning because something beyond human language happened and it stopped being an it and resumed being He. The disciples who witnessed the Risen Christ struggle to describe the experience in human language and are ultimately stymied by the attempt. He is real, can be touched, can eat food, and is heard not “in the heart” but with the physical ear. He is not a ghost, yet can appear and disappear at will. He is capable of tearing a piece of bread it two, but also of vanishing from sight. Nor is he a hallucination since a) you don’t hallucinate someone you desperate want to see and then not recognize him on three occasions; b) nobody thought he was going to rise from the dead; and c) mass hallucinations don’t happen and are only invoked as a last ditch effort to explain away the Resurrection. Occam’s Razor says “The Resurrection actually happened and the Christian explanation is the actual one. Not that Christians understand it any more than anybody else. It’s just that they’ve abandoned all the other explanations as super lame.”

From Bishop Robert Barron:

The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the be-all and the end-all of the Christian faith. If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, all bishops, priests, and Christian ministers should go home and get honest jobs, and all the Christian faithful should leave their churches immediately. As Paul himself put it: “If Jesus is not raised from the dead, our preaching is in vain and we are the most pitiable of men.” It’s no good, of course, trying to explain the resurrection away or rationalize it as a myth, a symbol, or an inner subjective experience. None of that does justice to the novelty and sheer strangeness of the Biblical message. It comes down finally to this: if Jesus was not raised from death, Christianity is a fraud and a joke; if he did rise from death, then Christianity is the fullness of God’s revelation, and Jesus must be the absolute center of our lives. There is no third option.

I want to explore, very briefly, a handful of lessons that follow from the disquieting fact of the Resurrection. First, this world is not it. What I mean is that this world is not all that there is. We live our lives with the reasonable assumption that the natural world as we’ve come to know it through the sciences and discern it through common sense is the final framework of our lives and activities. Everything (quite literally, everything) takes place within the theater of our ordinary experience. And one of the most powerful and frightening features of the common-sense world is death. Every living thing dies and stays dead. Indeed, everything in the universe, scientists tell us, comes into being and then fades away permanently.

But what if this is not in fact the case? What if the laws of nature are not as iron-clad as we thought? What if death and dissolution did not have the final say? What if, through God’s power and according to his providence, a “new heavens and a new earth” were being born? The resurrection of Jesus from the dead shows as definitively as possible that God is up to something greater than we had imagined or thought possible. And therefore we don’t have to live as though death were our master and as though nihilism were the only coherent point of view. After he had encountered the risen Christ, Paul could even taunt death: “Where is your sting?” In light of the resurrection, we can, in fact, begin to see this world as a place of gestation, growth and maturation toward something higher, more permanent, more splendid.

Here’s a second lesson derived from the resurrection: the tyrants know that their time is up. Remember that the cross was Rome’s way of asserting its authority. Roman authorities declared that if you run afoul of our system, we will torture you to death in the most excruciating (ex cruce, from the cross) way possible and then we will leave your body to waste away be devoured by the beasts of the field. The threat of violence is how tyrants up and down the centuries have always asserted their authority. Might makes right. The crucified Jesus appeared to anyone who was witnessing the awful events on Calvary to be one more affirmation of this principle: Caesar always wins in the end. But when Jesus was raised from the dead through the power of the Holy Spirit, the first Christians knew that Caesar’s days were numbered. Jesus had taken the worst that the world could throw at him and he returned, alive and triumphant. They knew that the Lord of the world was no longer Caesar, but rather someone whom Caesar had killed but whom God had raised from death. This is why the risen Christ has been the inspiration for resistance movements up and down the centuries. In our own time we saw how deftly John Paul II wielded the power of the cross in Communist Poland. Though he had no nuclear weapons or tanks or mighty armies, John Paul had the power of the resurrection, and that proved strong enough to bring down one of the most imposing empires in the history of the world. Once again, the faculty lounge interpretation of resurrection as a subjective event or a mere symbol is exactly what the tyrants of the world want, for it poses no real threat to them.

The third great lesson of the resurrection is that the path of salvation has been opened to everyone. Paul told us that “though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not deem equality with God something to be grasped. Rather he emptied himself and took the form of slave…accepting even death, death on a cross.” In a word, Jesus went all the way down, journeying into pain, despair, alienation, even godforsakenness. He went as far as you can go away from the Father. Why? In order to reach all of those who had wandered from God. Then, in light of the resurrection, the first Christians came to know that, even as we run as fast as we can away from the Father, all the way to godforsakenness, we are running into the arms of the Son. The opening up of the divine life allows everyone free access to the divine mercy. And this is why the Lord himself could say, “When the Son of Man is lifted up, he will draw all people to himself,” and why Paul could assert in 1 Corinthians, “When everything is subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who subjected everything to him, so that God may be all in all.” The resurrection shows that Christ can gather back to the Father everyone whom he has embraced through his suffering love.

So on Easter Sunday, let us not domesticate the still stunning and disturbing message of resurrection. Rather, let us allow it to unnerve us, change us, set us on fire.

The readings for the Easter Vigil Mass:

Word format:Easter A B C

Pdf format: Easter A B C


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3rd Sunday of Easter, Year B | They stood there dumbfounded

The Resurrection, showing Christ raising Adam and Eve, Greek Orthodox Byzantine Icon, egg tempera on wood panel.

The Resurrection, showing Christ raising Adam and Eve, Greek Orthodox Byzantine Icon, egg tempera on wood panel.

Why do people change their minds?  In today’s readings the apostles are dumbfounded to realise that Jesus’ resurrection is right here, right now and not at some vague time ‘at the end of the age’.  Matt Nelson writes about the reasons atheists change their minds about God and and more specifically, about Christ.  An extract from his latest article:

The Word of God is living. It has power beyond human comprehension because it is “God-breathed.” God speaks to man in many ways; but especially through prayer and the reading of the inspired Scriptures. When curiosity (or even interest) of non-believers leads to experimentation with prayer or reading the Bible the results can be shocking, as many converts attest.

One former atheist who was profoundly affected by prayer and the Scriptures is author Devin Rose. On his blog, he describes the role that God’s Word played in his gradual conversion process from atheism to Christianity:

“I began praying, saying, “God, you know I do not believe in you, but I am in trouble and need help. If you are real, help me.” I started reading the Bible to learn about what Christianity said…”

Once Rose began to read the Scriptures and talk to God, even as a skeptic, he found himself overwhelmed by something very real:

“Still, I persevered. I kept reading the Bible, asking my roommate questions about what I was reading, and praying. Then, slowly, and amazingly, my faith grew and it eventually threatened to whelm my many doubts and unbelief.”

And the rest was history for the now rising Catholic apologist and author of The Protestant’s Dilemma.

Similarly, renowned sci-fi author John C. Wright distinctly recalls a prayer he said as an adamant atheist:

“I prayed. ‘Dear God, I know… that you do not exist. Nonetheless, as a scholar, I am forced to entertain the hypothetical possibility that I am mistaken. So just in case I am mistaken, please reveal yourself to me in some fashion that will prove your case. If you do not answer, I can safely assume that either you do not care whether I believe in you, or that you have no power to produce evidence to persuade me…If you do not exist, this prayer is merely words in the air, and I lose nothing but a bit of my dignity. Thanking you in advance for your kind cooperation in this matter, John Wright.’”

Wright soon received the answer (and effect) he did not expect:

“Something from beyond the reach of time and space, more fundamental than reality, reached across the universe and broke into my soul and changed me…I was altered down to the root of my being…It was like falling in love.”

Wright was welcomed into the Catholic Church at Easter in 2008.

Read more here.

Today’s readings:

Word format: Year B Easter 3rd Sunday 2015

Pdf format: Year B Easter 3rd Sunday 2015

And for a scripture study on today’s readings go to Dr Michael Barber’s commentary here.