Thursday, September 24, 2009

Bad Exegesis in Less Than Five Minutes

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from the NASB 1995 updated edition.

This video purports to disprove the existence of Jesus in less than five minutes.

I'm responding to this video for two reasons:

1. If you're a normal, intelligent adult, you may or may not know what context is, even if you've heard the phrase "taking a verse out of context" before. I do not assume that everyone knows this because experience proves that people in general like to quote-mine (that is, grab any quote from a book without paying attention to the point of the entire body of text). So I think this is a good case study in how to accurately handle any kind of text (not just the Bible).

2. The video does raise some interesting points for theological discussion. If Jesus is not imaginary, then why doesn't He just appear to people on a regular basis? Also, if He doesn't appear to people, does that make Him imaginary?

The video, put together by Marshall Brain (who operates websites known as and, appeals to two separate texts of Scripture to prove its case:

1. "For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for your sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also" (1 Corinthians 15:3-8).

Brain wants us to notice "[t]hree important facts" about this passage, which is taken from Paul's explanation of Jesus' resurrection to the Corinthian Christians, which is the earliest text we have about the resurrection of Jesus: First, "Jesus proved His resurrection by appearing to people." Second, it is "OK [for Jesus] to appear to people." And third, Jesus' act of appearing to people "does not take away free will or harm faith." In fact, just the opposite is true. According to 1 Corinthians 15 (and the Gospel accounts), as Brain is intent on showing us, Jesus' act of appearing to people ignited the faith of the people Paul lists, including himself.

2. "Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst" (Matthew 18:19-20).

At this point, Brain's exegesis begins to get a bit sloppy. He says that we learn that "Jesus is already here amongst us" from this passage and that "God will do anything we ask." He is wrong on both counts. Here's why:

Read all of Matthew 18 here (pay special attention to verses 15-20). We know that in this passage, Jesus is talking to His disciples about discipline in the ἐκκλησία (ekklesia, Greek for "assembly" or "church"). Keep in mind that Jesus and His disciples are all Jews.

As a Jew, Jesus appeals to the Hebrew Scriptures (what Christians call the "Old Testament") in verses 15-20, reproduced below with some explanatory clarification in brackets (the words I put in bold font indicate the part of the passage that is quoting the Old Testament):

"If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed [a quote of Deuteronomy 19:15; see the context here, which lists laws God set forth for the people of Israel]. If he refuses to listen to them [the "two or three"], tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector [Jews during this period did not typically associate with Gentiles or tax collectors]. Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven [on the meaning of "binding" and "loosing," see here]. Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst [notice the "two or three" phrase, which hearkens back to the earlier allusion to Deuteronomy 19:15]."

Deuteronomy 19:15 is one of the laws that Jesus and His contemporaries would have known well, since it was part of their Scriptures: "A single witness shall not rise up against a man on account of any iniquity or any sin which he has committed; on the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed" (Deuteronomy 19:15). Again, notice the "two or three witnesses."

So when Jesus says that when "two or three have gathered in My name," He's talking about something very specific: two or three witnesses against a brother accused of a particular sin is to have Jesus there to judge the situation. So the "anything that they [the two or three] may ask" in this case refers to whatever may be done to resolve the issue of the brother caught in sin. Churches today follow this procedure in regard to cases when a particular Christian is accused of committing a sin.

(Note: There are other "anything" passages that AREN'T found in a church discipline context, so be careful. Brain brings them up on his website, but we'll save those for another day. Suffice it to say that understanding what Jesus means by anything in those passages is incredibly important. It is NOT, as Brain accuses Christian interpreters elsewhere, to say that "anything" doesn't really mean "anything." No, Jesus said what He meant, and He meant what He said. But as with any statement, misunderstanding of what is meant by a particular word can indeed crop up if we aren't responsible with our exegesis. Clarification on the term exegesis: Also, in case you're wondering what this strange word exegesis means, keep the following in mind: exegesis [pronounced "EX-eh-jee-siss"] is the act of carefully drawing the meaning out of a text, while eisegesis [pronounced "EYE-seh-jee-siss"] is the act of irresponsibly reading a meaning into the text, which is exactly what Brain is doing. That is, he's engaged in eisegesis, not exegesis.)

Finally, Brain proposes that we pray for Jesus to spontaneously appear to us (based on his sloppy exegesis), and he asks, "What do you think will happen?" The answer, according to Brain, is nothing. He says that we know from the Bible that "Jesus is already here," it would "be trivial for him to appear," "it is OK for him to appear," and supposedly Matthew 18:19-20 shows that Jesus "has promised that he will appear [to us at any moment based on our whims]."

Brain concludes that because "nothing will happen" after such a prayer for Jesus to spontaneously appear to us, Jesus is imaginary. I leave these questions to you:

1. Do you think Brain is right? Whether you do or not, please post a comment saying why or why not.

2. If Jesus ISN'T imaginary, then why do you think He doesn't always choose to appear to us individually, but He did appear to people like Peter, James, and Paul to confirm His resurrection? I don't have an answer to this question, but I'm posing it because I do think it's worth thinking about.

May your day abound with grace.

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