Biblical Studies

Belief in an afterlife did not emerge until nearly the end of the writing of the Hebrew Bible

Did the ancient Hebrews believe there was a heaven and hell? Most likely not.

Most biblical scholars say they did not (this coincides with the fact that the Sadducees during the period of Jesus, which included all the Jewish temple priests, did not believe in a Resurrection).

Marcus Borg writes:

“For a long time now, mainstream biblical and theological scholarship has recognized that the belief in an afterlife did not emerge until nearly the end of the writing of the Hebrew Bible. The first unambiguous reference occurs in the last chapter of Daniel, seen by most scholars as the latest document of the Hebrew Bible, written around 165 BCE. Though the authors of the Psalms and other books often pray for deliverance from death, there is no clear affirmation of an afterlife until Daniel.This means that for all the previous centuries of the biblical period, people in ancient Israel didn’t believe in life after death. To state the obvious, “going to heaven” could not have been their motive for taking God seriously.”borg marcus


Some biblical authors viewed God as having the ability to deceive, others did not

Do the Biblical authors agree on who God is? In many cases they do, in others they do not.

Most biblical scholars say that the Bible was written by a diverse group of people with differing views and opinions about political and social issues (one only need look at some of the differences between the Hebrew Bible with it’s nationalistic focus, to the New Testaments pacifist ethics.)

As the Oxford Companion to the Bible (edited by leading Princeton/Harvard scholars Bruce Metzger and Micahel Coogan) asserts: “The Bible thus speaks with many voices, and, from the time of its emergence as an authoritative sacred text, readers and interpreters have noted its many repetitions, inconsistencies, and contradictions.”

How the biblical writers view god

The authors of the four gospels were not eyewitnesses

raymond brownAs a child I was taught the traditional view that the four Gospels were written by disciples who were eyewitnesses of the events they spoke of. Yet the biblical scholarship of the 20th century argues that the evidence strongly suggests the authors of the Gospels were not eyewitnesses.

In a book commenting on the fact that the Roman Catholic Pontifical Biblical Commission changed its stance, rejecting the dogmatic position that the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses, Raymond Brown, a leading Catholic biblical scholar writes:

“The view that the evangelists were not themselves eyewitnesses of the public ministry of Jesus would be held in about 95% of contemporary [biblical] scholarship.

The designation that you find in your New Testament, such as “the Gospel According to Matthew” are the results of late-second-century scholarship attempting to identify the authors of works that had no identification. No evangelist indicated who he was.”

The many voices of the Bible often disagree

I once preached that “the bible is a elegantly cohesive book that contains one voice and story” which is a very common idea among the most conservative of Christians.

However, the Bible, as it turns out, does not really reflect this simple declaration, instead it’s a complex book with many voices, and sometimes, these voices disagree.

Ronald J. Allen, a New Testament Professors at ‘Christian Theological Seminary’ writes that:

“Some biblical writers disagree with one another. The Deuteronomist, for instance, assumes that obedience begets prosperity while disobedience calls forth a cures, but the book of Job says, “not necessarily.” Readers are advised in 1st Peter to be obedient to the emperor since the emperor is Gods agent, but the book of Revelation regards the Roman empire as an instrument of Satan. The Bible is not a rigid anvil… [there are] many forms of pluralism in the Bible.”

biblical studies quote

Mark and Luke differ on when Jesus was seized in the Garden of Gethsemane

garden of gethsemane contradiction

While most historians and biblical scholars believe a historical Jesus existed and was crucified, many are also aware that the gospel narratives are told from very different perspectives, with significant idiosyncrasies.

There are many examples where the gospel stories diverge and contain discrepancies, and while this doesn’t mean the original events didn’t happen, it makes claims like “every word in the Bible is historically true” a bit misguided.

This picture shows yet another instantiation of these differences. What likely happened is that that the author of Luke, writing much later than Mark, was trying to defuse the image of early Christians being involved in a violent uprising, and this story in Marks gospel seems to show a violent incident that is neither corrected nor rejected by Jesus. Thus Luke alters this narrative by saying Jesus healed the dismembered ear and commanded the violence to stop, but in order to incorporate these two elements, Luke had to change the order of Marks account.

There are two different dates and times for the crucifixion of Jesus

crucifixion dates

As a kid I was always confused as to why different Christian groups have different days for the crucifixion (some say it was Thursday, others Friday). This uncertainty runs even deeper than tradition, for even the Gospels of Mark and John narrate different dates for the crucifixion.

In this example, there have been plenty of attempts by apologists to reconcile these two conflicting dates, speculating that perhaps John was using some different way of telling time or perhaps in one of the narratives Jesus decided to celebrate the Passover one day earlier, and thus it can be called “Passover” in that narrative, even while the other narratives refer to that date as “before Passover.” However, none of these highly speculative attempts have ever been taken seriously, and today, the view of mainstream New Testament scholars remains that:

“John differs from the Synoptic Gospels also in the date which he gives for the crucifixion:

According to Mark the last supper was a Passover meal; that is, it was eaten in the early hours of Nisan 15; the arrest and trial took place in the same night and in the course of the next (solar) day Jesus was crucified. All these events took place on Nisan 15. “

-According to John the crucifixion happened on Nisan 14, the day before the Passover; the last supper must have been eaten the preceding evening. Thus the events are set a day earlier than in Mark, and the last supper is no longer the Paschal meal; Jesus died at the time when the Passover sacrifices were being killed in the Temple. Here again is a real contradiction; it seems impossible to reconcile the dates.”

– C. K. Barrett, President of the Society for New Testament Studies (1973)