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Jesus Didn’t Need a Local Church, and other poor conclusions

One of the continuing discussions about the nature of ecclesiology and missiology concerns how various New Testament figures related to their contemporary churches often comes to the conclusion  that this figure didn’t use a local church for ministry. Usually this argument is angled towards the point of the building of the local church more particularly missing.

The point goes something like this: Jesus didn’t need a church building to do His ministry.

And sometimes looks like this: Paul doesn’t invite people to his local church to preach the Gospel to them.

Jesus ApostlesI suppose the point here is that institutional buildings are not part of the original, New Testament intent for the church(es) do go about its/their ministry. Of course, this is poor way of going about making this point historically and theologically.

To begin, we note that Jesus began His ministry, according to Luke, in the religious institution, and building, of His day: the synagogue. Luke 4:16-30 shows that, following His baptism, Jesus goes to the local synagogue in Nazareth and reads aloud from the Isaiah scroll, then performs a kind of midrash on the text. This would have been the natural step for a new rabbi in the Jewish community.  Now, the response is likely not the norm, but nevertheless, Jesus begins His ministry within the established building, and form, of the religious system He came to renew.

As a second point, we also recognize that Jesus often goes to the synagogues, and even the Temple, throughout His ministry as a starting point for ministry in a community. (cf. Matthew 13:54; Mark 3:1-5; 6:1; John 6:28-59.) This is not to say that the synagogue was to become the primary organizational centers for Christianity, though they certainly informed much of what would become the local churches. The synagogue was also, for Paul, a starting point in his travels and apostolic missionary work (Acts 17:2; 19:8; etc.)

We’d also be remiss not to point out that Pentecost is the inauguration, or beginning point, of the Church. Since Pentecost happens after Jesus’ ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection, it would have been hard to Jesus to start His ministry in an organizational form that didn’t exist.

Of course the final, and perhaps most important point, is that these kinds of statements purely earliest communitiesmisunderstand the nature of the earliest Christian ecclesial structures. Since no formal, distinctly Christian buildings appear to have existed prior to CE 300, it is hard to say that any New Testament figure either had a church building or did not have one. As Gehring has thoroughly worked out, local homes became the primary gathering places for almost all Christians by the middle the first century. This is not because the house was the preferred method, surely not the normative method, but it arose out of necessity when the earliest Christians were forcibly removed from synagogues and Temple.

So, these house based community gathering places became the epicenter of much of early Christian worship, ministry, an fellowship. The earliest Christians frequently gathered in these places, likely at multiple points during the week, and they became their “local churches.” Though they would go out to spread the Gospel and do ministry, as well as business and life, the local churches are where they inevitably returned.

If you are going to try to make the argument that the early Church, or some New Testament figure, distanced themselves from institutional forms of religion, you’re simply missing the reality of history or knowingly distorting the truth. This is not to say that monolithic, high Church Catholicism was evident in early Christianity, but it does point out that the churches of the first several centuries had more to do with local church ministry, based in a physical community, than some contemporary commenters allow for them.

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The Miracles of Jesus and Vespasian

This weekend, I was honored to be able to present a paper at the Southwest Regional Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society which was held at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. This is the first formal conference paper I’ve presented and it was a tremendous experience.

The title for the paper was, Evaluating the Healing Miracles of Vespasian and Jesus – Garet Robinson.

Vespasian To summarize the point of the paper, too often we hear a criticism that the authors of the New Testament simply drew on contemporary myths and stories to frame their various presentations of Jesus’ life and ministry. Especially when it comes to Jesus’ miraculous works, other examples stand as common stories out of which the Gospel writers framed and enhanced the historical Jesus.

One of the contemporary counter-examples is Vespasian, who rose to power at the end the year of four emperors in CE 69 and established the Flavian dynasty in Rome. Vespasian, for his many conquests and dramatic rise to power, also had some healing miracles attributed to him in the mid-60s during his time in Alexandria. Of his popular biographers, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio all describe these healing miracles.

As part of the method to evaluate the different healing miracles of Jesus and Vespasian, for Jesus’ part I used the data available from the Gospel of Mark and the six healing miracles which the Jesus Seminar has agreed are the most historically attested. (That will draw the ire of some for sure, but as this is a critical inquiry for apologetic purposes the method is to use the most critical scholarship to establish and evaluate the miracles regardless of my personal position.) The six hearings considered are: Peter’s mother-in-law (GMk 1:29ff); the leper (GMk 1:40-45); the paralytic (GMk 2:1-12); the hemorrhaging woman (GMk 5:24b-34); the blind man of Bethsaida (GMk 8:22-26); Blind Bartimaeus (GMk 10:46-52.)

Essentially what this boils down to is, that Vespasian has healing miracles of at least two men before a crowd in Alexandria of varying ailments after consulting some medical professionals and being assured of the successfulness of his venture. As his biographers note, because of this feat Vespasian was able to enlist the support of the Roman legion and add to his credentials (divine sanction being a plus) in the quest to become emperor of Rome.

Jesus, on the other hand, heals individuals who either seek him out or are brought to his attention, mostly in private and in the region where he was conducting most of his ministry. In each of the episodes Jesus is the only agent healing and does so without assistance from anyone else. These miracles, except Blind Bartimaeus, are attested to by the other Synoptic authors.

There are points of similarity between Jesus and Vespasian’s healing miracles:

  • They are effective to heal the individuals completely at their completion.
  • The agent (Jesus or Vespasian) is able to heal on their own without any additional assistance from someone else.
  • In the biographical accounts of the agent, there is somewhat close proximity to their life of these miracles. The Synoptics are written, by the latest account within 50 years of Jesus’ life; Vespasian’s biographies are dated later but still within 40 years at the earliest and 150 years at the latest.
  • Some aspects of the healing, spitting on the eyes or touching the individual needing to be healed, are similar between Jesus and Vespasian.

However, some differences to exist between the two story lines:

  • For those being healed by Jesus, they are beyond medical assistance and have been suffering with these ailments for quite some time. Those in Vespasian’s stories are not entirely beyond medical aid, as recorded by his biographers, and seem to only have been suffering for some short time.
  • Jesus’ healing miracles occur in the region of Galilee where he is conducting his initial ministry. Vespasian’s healing miracles occur in Alexandria, a major city for certain, but one that is far removed from the final seat of power in Rome. If Jesus’ healing miracles had been false they would have been easily seen as frauds and he would have been discredited whereas for Vespasian, only the most eager critic would have both the means and time to travel far to Alexandria and check his story out.
  • Vespasian’s healings appear to be limited to this one account, with some variance in the attestation by his biographers. Jesus’ healing miracles are multiple attested and Christus_Bartimaeus_Johann_Heinrich_Stoever_Erbach_Rheingauuniformly carry the same features. However, Jesus’ healing miracles are more numerous, even in this critical recounting, and across a wider breadth of his ministry.
  • Finally, Jesus seems to welcome those seeking healing without question of their motives or chastisement. Vespasian, however, mocks those coming and, only after being assured of his successfulness in performing the miracle, does he step forward to complete the task.

 

In the end, there is some similarity and some difference between Jesus and Vespasian’s healing miracles. Being able to consider them alongside each other is a helpful venture for apologetic and historical purposes.

As one of the observers to my session pointed out, it would be fascinating to consider if Jesus’ healing miracles stood as the example for the historical figures of antiquity (following Jesus’ life) to borrow from or mold their stories around. Usually we only hear about how the Gospel and NT writers drew from their surroundings and, as best I can surmise, we never hear about the reverse.

Hopefully, this is a step towards another discussion. The historical Jesus is an intriguing field of study and setting him alongside his contemporaries and near messianic rivals is worth our time and effort. It might be concerning for some, but in the end, with the proper methodology, I believe we reinforce the historical Jesus in such exercises.

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Two Upcoming Conference Papers

At the beginning of this year I submitted two proposals for papers to be read at theology conferences for March. As I am diligently working on my dissertation, these two papers will, hopefully, provide a way to see how my methodology and research do in formal settings. Hopefully both papers will meet the expectations of the conference hosts and provide real fodder for discussion.

Here are the two papers I’ll be presenting:

First Paper: Evaluating the Healing Miracles of Vespasian and Jesus

Conference: Evangelical Theological Society Southwest Regional Meeting

Abstract:  One criticism that is often brought by those questioning the messianic status of Jesus posits that his healing miracles are not uncommon enough in his first century context to be useful for proving either his messianic status or any divine attributes. Those who bring this claim often point a bevy of figures in the pre-modern world that were reported to have performed similar miracles. By way of directly engaging this criticism, this paper finds one individual who had characteristics similar to Jesus and was sourced from a near-contemporaneous situation. Vespasian, who would become the first Flavian Emperor of Rome in AD 69, is one figure who fits a criterion of similarity for comparison to Jesus. Jesus and Vespasian have miracle healings attributed to them by their biographers which carry many common attributes. In order to both delimit the number of Jesus’ miracles and provide the most reputable healings, specific attention in this paper will be paid to those healing miracles that are generally seen as authentic. To accomplish this, scholars such as Gerd Theissen, Walter Funk, and Graham Twelftree, among others, will guide the inquiry into Jesus’ healing miracles of the leper (GMk 1:40-45); Peter’s mother-in-law (GMk 1:29ff); the paralytic (GMk 2:1-12); the hemorrhaging woman (GMk 5:24b-34); the blind man of Bethsaida (GMk 8:22-26); and Blind Bartimaeus (GMk 10:46-52.) By laying these well-attested healing miracles alongside the reported healing miracles of Vespasian, the conclusions drawn will ultimately demonstrate that there is more authenticity behind Jesus’ healing miracles than even his most viable contemporary counter-example.

 

Second Paper: The Influence of Second Temple Clerical Structures on Pauline Ecclesiology

Conference: Houston Baptist University Theology Conference

Abstract: There is much to be said about the development and formation of the various New Testament churches between Pentecost and the Council of Nicaea. Given that many of the first Christians were Jewish believers, it is possible they would utilize familiar forms of religious structures in establishing their primitive communities while worshipping in local synagogues and at the Temple. How much, then, does early church ecclesiology owe to Second Temple Jewish clerical structures?

In the field of New Testament ecclesiological studies, there appears to be a gap in the research literature concerning the developing ecclesial structures of the earliest Christian communities and their relationship to Second Temple Judaism. With the Apostle Paul’s writings providing the great New Testament contribution about the form and nature ecclesiologies of this period, and given his background as a Jewish religious leader, how Paul leveraged existing Jewish clerical structures from both the Temple and the local synagogue are key to understanding his overall approach to the offices and authority in the New Testament church.

It is the proposal of this paper to study late Second Temple leadership structures and apply them against the Pauline ecclesiological model of leadership as provided in Paul’s Hauptbriefen. Though primary attention shall be paid to the leadership patterns from among the national Temple and local synagogues, additional forms from other, loosely affiliated, Jewish groups will also be in focus. As aspects of Second Temple clerical structures informed the developing Pauline ecclesiology, there continue to be influences seen in present day church method and theology.

 

The first paper is a from a previous PhD seminar in Miracles with Dr Gary Habermas. I’ve fine tuned the argument and broadened the discussion of Jesus’ healings to compare to my engagement with Vespasian. In the second paper, I will be taking a section from one of my dissertation chapters and modifying it a bit to fit the topic of the conference. I am looking forward to these two opportunities and am deeply grateful to the conference organizers for their diligent work. After the papers are presented I will attempt to post them here for public dissemination. Prayerfully, these will not lead to my ruin.

11
Feb 2014
POSTED BY Garet
POSTED IN

Theology

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The Historical Santa and the Historical Jesus Pt 2 – The Jesus of History

As we take up the second part of this brief two-part series comparing the Historical Santa and the Historical Jesus we now turn to consider Jesus Christ. For many scholars doing work in the area of the Historical Jesus, the parallel between Santa Claus and Jesus Christ is indeed an apt metaphor. Our goal is to look at the development of both individuals, in this Christmas season, and see how they relate to this larger issue of the Historical Jesus.

You can read the previous post, The Santa of Faith, by clicking here.

Though the term “Historical Jesus” is often a dirty word in evangelical churches, we should admit that the three, or four, quests have at least produced this benefit: we have a better understanding of the Jewishness of Jesus in His Second Temple era than before. Because of the pushback from rigorous scholars who have questioned the inculturated Jesus of their day, we now have a better view of who Jesus actually is and was in His day. Though there have been excesses and, let’s be honest, completely ridiculous side trails by a few scholars, the various quests have produced some compelling scholarship.

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Just like our previous inquiry about the Historical Santa Claus, the Historical Jesus is indeed rooted in an actual individual who lived in antiquity. Of the few things scholars of all camps generally agree on, Jesus Christ was an actual person who lived in Palestine during the late Second Temple period, had followers/disciples, and was crucified by Pontius Pilate. Outside of these facts there is little agreement down the scholarly line. Of course, once we get to the evangelical side (where I do align myself) we see a broader acceptance of biblical reconstructions of Jesus’ life.

Not to get too waylaid by the scholarly discussion, one of the realities about the Historical Jesus is that when we look across the timeline of history to see how Jesus Christ is portrayed there is a different result than when we consider the evolution of Santa Claus. Granted, there are certainly some terrible representations of Jesus that exist even in our day (i.e. Talking Jesus Action Figure…I have this on my office shelf for funsies.) Yet, in orthodox Christianity (small “o”) over the centuries between the death of Jesus Christ and now, the representation of Him (not necessarily the artistic one) theologically and liturgically has remained steadied in Christianity.

Of course, this is not the primary concern of Historical Jesus quests. Instead, they have sought to uncover (not deconstruct) the actual historical figure from amid the tattered depictions in the primary source documents: the Gospels and New Testament.

Jesus Christ is unique from Santa Claus in that there is an established corpus of literature that still remains as the sources for understanding how He was received and understood by His first followers. While the latest developments in scholarship showing the early veneration of Jesus by these followers is not entirely relevant to this discussion, it does bear some influence on how we understand the Gospels depictions. The Santa of faith relies almost entirely on translated traditions and oral transmissions of his story across 16, or so, centuries with varying depictions. The Jesus of history relies on a set of documents written within a generation, or two, of His death by both eyewitnesses and devoted followers.

With the evolution, or translation, of Santa Claus, we see a figure who entirely loses the original image between his fourth century historical life and his present day depictions. Gone is any attachment with a Catholic Bishop from the Middle East. Only visible is the overweight, bearded Scandinavian bestower of gifts from atop a sleigh pulled by eight tiny reindeer…and Rudolph. The present day image of Santa Claus bears no resemblance to the fourth century St Nicholas.

Yet the present day Jesus Christ, and the Jesus Christ of the Gospels, is very much in line with the Historical Jesus. He remains ensconced in His Second Temple era amid struggling Jewish socio-political identity. A prophet and rabbi who came into this world through miraculous means (even if this is disputed by present day scholars) and died on a Roman crucifixion stake, still is found to be as Jewish today as He was in the middle first century representations. Though some have attempted to understand Jesus in their present milieu or through a lens of theological liberation, the orthodox Jesus of History remains settled in the Gospel depictions of Himself.

Unlike Santa Claus, who is very much taken out of his original historical figure, the Historical Jesus that we know today looks very much like the first century Jewish messianic figure who is presented in the Gospel witnesses. As these Gospel authors are either eyewitnesses or relying on eye witnesses testimony, their unique purpose for writing and framing the actions of Jesus Christ still present a figure who is faithful to the historical figure that lived and died between sixty and forty years prior to the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

The Jesus of history that we have been able to recover aligns closely with characteristics of the Jesus of faith that has been venerated and celebrated in the liturgies and worship celebrations of the Church and churches since the first generation of Jesus’ followers. Regardless of where we stand on other issues around Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, the depiction of Jesus in the Gospels still stands as a historically faithful representation that has stood the test of time. Unlike the Santa Claus of faith, the Jesus of history remains attached to the historical, first century Palestinian Jew who lived among the tumultuous times of the late Second Temple period.

We can be thankful that instead of a benevolent saint who merrily grants wishes and bestows gifts to children, the Jesus of history is one who came into this world for a purpose and can be seen in the passages of Holy Christian Scripture as a savior who is given for the world for all days.

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Testing Miracle Claims

Over the past several weeks I’ve been working through my comprehensive examinations for my PhD. Part of my course of study has taken me through the topic of miracle claims and how we might go about evaluating them.

One of the best studies concerning miracles comes from Graham Twelftree in his work Jesus the Miracle Worker which explores, critically, the topic of miracles and the ministry of Jesus Christ. In the text, Twelftree explores four areas of inquiry concerning miracles: the contemporary views of miracles, surveying the miracles of Jesus in the Gospels, evaluating miracles in historical Jesus research, and some specific miracle categories.

Part of the discussion that Twelftree develops are historical tests for miracle claims. Since there are some other miracle claims from antiquity which often are compared to the miracles of Jesus, some historical criteria are important for comparison and evaluating miracle claims. Part of Twelftree’s discussion presents seven tests for miracle claims, taken in part from Robert J Miller’s work with the Jesus Seminar.

Twelftree’s seven criteria for testing miracle claims (specifically of Jesus but this can be applied broadly) are:

1. Burden of Proof – this helps formulate neutrality on the part of the testifier, it also prevents questions from being decided prior to inquiry or based on insufficient evidence.

2. Demonstration – shows how a valid position arises when the reasons for accepting it far outweighs the reasons for not accepting it.

3. Historicity – as Twelftree notes, this essentially is a default position, for it notes there is no other way to account for a story arising in history unless thoroughly discredited by a lack of affirmation from these tests.

4. Multiple Attestation – a story which arises in multiple, independent sources.

5. Dissimilarity – this is a preliminary evidence for historicity if the story is not essential to the narrative design and does not employ specific Christological themes that are distinctive to the Gospel in which the story arises.

6. Plausibility – is the scene plausible given the reconstructions of the text in which the scene is found and its relation to the overall narrative.

7. Coherency – is the saying or scene presupposes an authentic saying or if act is independently established, it is historical.

In these seven tests, Twelftree provides a helpful method for application to not just New Testament miracles, but others from antiquity. With many other claims of miracles that exist in antiquity, through these tests the miracle stories of Jesus are able to vetted alongside those others to evaluate if they are historical and probable.

I would add an additional criteria of evaluation to these, which has been noted by others include Dr Gary Habermas:

8. Timeliness – is the recording of the event done within an appropriate historical time frame of the actual story or event itself. Is it within a generation or two?

The issue here is that for many competing claims of miraculous works in antiquity, the recording of the event is done within reasonable proximity to the actual event and was able to survey eyewitnesses and primary sources to communicate the event reliably. For instance, in the scene where Pythagoras healed the sick and removed pestilence is reported by Porphyry in The Life of Pythagoras which was written in CE 223 whereas Pythagoras lived in 582-500 BCE. The event is recorded over eight hundred years later.

Jesus’ miracles are attested to by individuals who wrote about them within a generation and had access to the eyewitnesses to the events and, perhaps, primary source data. As Luke describes in his own Gospel, there was a plan of consulting these sources Luke 1:1-4. Likewise, the other Gospel writers and early New Testament documents have been widely established to have been written within close proximity to the death and resurrection of Jesus as to be faithful to meet this test.

So, these tests for miracle claims are helpful when we begin to compare the works of Jesus to others and also as we test the claims of the New Testament. Twelftree’s methodology is a fine framework that can be applied generally to this kind of historical research.

Even if one takes away possibly dubious miracle claims for Jesus work and ministry (which we don’t have to do) you are left with a suitable set of miracles that stand apart from other messianic claimants and humanly figures in antiquity. These tests provide a helpful lens for evaluating such claims.

Later on I’ll summarize my research comparing Jesus’ miracles with Vespasian. I’ve found Vespasian to be, possibly, the best test case outside of Jesus’ stories in the Gospels for encountering miracles in antiquity.

17
Sep 2013
POSTED BY Garet
POSTED IN

Apologetics

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Who is More Qualified to Write on Jesus?

At this point I think we can agree any topic related to Jesus causes a firestorm.

This weekend a new controversy has sprung up as it relates to Dr Reza Alsan’s interview on FoxNews about his new book Zelaot: the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth. Now I’m not going to comment on his text, however the controversy around his interview has gotten a conversation going. Over at First Things, Matthew J. Franck has put together a post about the challenge of Dr Aslan’s purported credentials. Whether or not Dr Aslan has a PhD which allows him to say he’s a historian is not my point. I generally support the view that to be considered a critical scholar on a subject one needs to have “a terminal degree in the specific field of their inquiry with relevant research and peer reviewed articles published while holding a relevant academic position at an educational institution.”

This definition should enough to begin to answer this question about who is more qualified to write on Jesus. Jesus is popular stuff and if you write a decent book and have the backing of a smoothly operating propaganda machine you should be able to sell some books. Western culture still loves to talk about Jesus.

So, does being a   (insert religious or non-religious moniker)  make one more credible or less credible when it comes to writing on Jesus?

From a position of academic scholarship, so long as someone has a relevant degree and has done quality research to answering a question, however one fills in the blank in the above line doesn’t matter. Academically, a Muslim with a New Testament degree is just as qualified as an evangelical Christian with the same degree to write about Jesus. Now, whether they have done a good job will be determined (not by 24-hour news channels) but by the scholarly community at large.

Scholars submit their work to review (both peer review and review articles) and it should withstand a healthy conversation that is either positive or negative. A writer who isn’t prepared, or willing to do so, isn’t a scholar and isn’t credible.

In our contemporary age, too many of us operate with an approach of suspicion when encountering a sympathetic scholar, or writer, who produces a work about a controversial topic. Surely the convinced Christian has less to offer than the critical atheist when asking historical questions about Jesus. Apparently there is a lack of credibility that comes from being affiliated with the group you’re critically engaging.

Now this might just be a product of our age.

I, for one, welcome Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Mormon, Buddhist, atheist, and agnostic inquiries into the picture of the historical Jesus developed by orthodox (small “o”) Christians since the establishment of the post-Apostolic church. Let’s get our cards on the table and have a generous conversation. Let’s use the same historical methodology to evaluate all of our leaders by which we evaluate Jesus. Let’s compare the historical Jesus against the historical Mohammed, Joseph Smith, Siddhartha Gautama, and others.

Now, the larger question for Muslim scholar such as Reza Aslan, does he welcome appropriately credentialed Christian scholars to investigate Mohammed?

It’s easy to write a book about Jesus. Dan Brown stole material from another book and now lives in a very large house after writing a very bad book about Jesus. But he’s not a critical, or any kind of, scholar.

The challenge is writing a good book about Jesus that authentically and critically engages the historical scholarship in a quest (no pun intended) to answer the author’s primary question about Jesus. It’s been done, but only in limited form and usually in a manner that doesn’t interview well on the 24-hour newsfeeds.

Finally, we shouldn’t miss the point that Reza Aslan has provided a critical interaction with the theme of resurrection and how it would have reflected a political and religious reality of the historical Jesus. This seems to be, obviously, completely missed by the interviewer. Now that is an interesting topic. One of the challenges Islam brings to Christianity is a denial of the crucifixion. I believe that is one of the more historically established events in antiquity. If Dr Aslan is offering a new perspective, I’d be willing to hear it.

Of course, we must point out that any scholar going on any of the 24 hour news channels (or Comedy Central) shouldn’t expect to be received with any respect for critical nuance. That’s probably more of a statement about the journalistic torpor of our days than a commentary on the failures of scholarship. Long gone are the days when scholars would be interviewed by learned journalists who probed their insights and helpfully developed the discussion. This FoxNews interview is a blight on our culture and the interviewer misses the entire point. Since Foxnews has a history of failing to critically engage scholars, I simply think they don’t have much to offer in this conversation.

So, Who is More Qualified to Write on Jesus?

First, we must consider the qualifications (academically) of an author. No offense to my Christian brothers and sisters, but if you have a high school diploma with no additional undergraduate, graduate, or post-graduate study, you aren’t as qualified to write on Jesus as someone who has those degrees. Also, any of these degrees of collegename.com diploma mill doesn’t qualify you either.

Second, just because someone is a Christian (including us terrible evangelicals) doesn’t mean our opinion is less suitable than a non-believer. If an evangelical has done the work their voice should be heard.

Third, just because someone isn’t a Christian who has the requisite academic work, doesn’t mean they are more worth hearing by the population at large. Critical inquiry demands peer review. It demands the qualified conversation of specialists who can review and consider the piece.

So finally, let those who choose to write on Jesus be subject to the process of answering the question about their credentials and then let their work stand (or fall) on its own.

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