Where is the dragon in the nativity?

There’s a scene in the film Love Actually where a little girl announces that she’ll be playing “first lobster” in the school nativity play. “There was more than one lobster present at the birth of Jesus?” asks her surprised mum, which leads the girl to sigh in exasperation at such profound levels of parental ignorance. My favourite character in the play is the octopus, who sits between David and Natalie as they drive to school. (You can even buy a Love Actually nativity set if you really want.)

But having unusual creatures in the nativity raises an important biblical and theological question: where is the dragon? He is a central character in a key nativity passage—not from Matthew or Luke, but from Revelation 12:

And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child nhe might devour it. She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days. (Rev 12.1–6, ESV)

This is a fascinating text for several reasons. First, it sits at the heart of Revelation’s narrative, and so makes claim to be an interpretive key to the whole text. Second, all commentators note that there is a decisive literary break at Rev 12.1, where for a whole chapter John abandons his usual ‘and I saw’ formula for ‘there appeared a great sign’ (the TNIV inexplicably as ‘a wondrous’ for no reason). (What other commentators don’t appear to notice is that chapters 11 and 12 are pinned together by the threefold articulation of the time period 42 months = 3.5 years [time, times and half a time] = 1,260 days—which just goes to show that everything in Revelation is more complicated than you realise!).

And the hymn in Rev 12.10–12 makes a statement of central importance, both for understanding Revelation’s theology and its construal of time:

Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Messiah. For the accuser of our brothers and sisters, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down…

So the victory of God has been realised; this is expressed in terms of Christus Victor, where the significance of the atonement is in terms of the defeat in spiritual battle of Satan; the victory has been won by Jesus’ death on the cross (‘by the blood of the lamb’); but this victory is only partially realised at the moment, since the devil has gone down to earth and still has a ‘short’ time.

But, despite the importance of this passage, most ordinary readers find it very difficult to make sense of. There are three mains reasons for this.

First, the chapter is divided up into four sections in terms of its genre and subject, with the first and last sections continuing one narrative, and the two middle sections function as ‘epexegetical’ (explanatory) of this plot.

vv 1 to 6The woman, the dragon and the child who is born and snatched to heaven
vv 7 to 9 Cosmic battle between Michael and his angels and the dragon and his angels
vv 10 to 12 Hymn of victory of the Messiah, celebrating Satan cast to earth
vv 13 to 17The dragon pursues the woman and her offspring but they are protected by God

Continuity between the first and fourth sections is effected by re-introduction of the characters of the dragon, the woman, and the male child, the repetition of the wilderness from v 6 in v 14, and the reiteration of the time formula of 1,260 days from v 6 in the equivalent formula of ‘time, times and half a time’ in v 14. It appears that, for those who are unsure of the meaning of the main narrative, the Jewish apocalyptic battle explains it in vv 7 to 9, and for those still unclear, the hymn makes it plain in vv 10 to 12.

But who are the characters, and where does this narrative come from? To answer the first question, you need to know your Old Testament:

Is 26.17: As a pregnant woman about to give birth writhes and cries out in her pain, so were we in your presence, LORD.

Is 66.8: Yet no sooner is Zion in labor than she gives birth to her children.

Micah 4.9–10: Why do you now cry aloud— have you no king? Has your ruler perished, that pain seizes you like that of a woman in labour? Writhe in agony, Daughter Zion, like a woman in labour…

Micah 5.3: Therefore Israel will be abandoned until the time when she who is in labour gives birth and the rest of his brothers return to join the Israelites.

Ps 2.9: You will break them with a rod of iron; you will dash them to pieces like pottery.

Gen 3.13 ‘The serpent deceived me…’

Job 1.6: Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan (the adversary, the accuser) also came among them.

Zech 3.1: Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him.

In other words, the characters are: the people of God, suffering oppression, and waiting to be delivered by God (pun intended!); the primeval opponent of God, his people, and humanity, their adversary and accuser; and the promised king who would liberate God’s people.

But what of the plot? Modern political cartoonists take characters from one place, and drop them into a narrative from another, in order to make a point about them; here is a very recent example from Peter Brookes of The Times; can you identify the story, and the character? Can you see the way the one is used to interpret the other? And do you notice how difficult this is to interpret if you are not familiar with both?

In the same way, John has dropped these biblical characters into a pagan myth, one that was often used in imperial propaganda:

Python, son of Terra, was a huge dragon. He was accustomed to giving oracles on Mount Parnassus before the time of Apollo. He was informed by an oracle that he would be destroyed by the offspring of Leto. At that time Zeus was living with Leto. When [Zeus’ wife] Hera learned of this, she decreed that Leto should give birth at a place where the sun does not reach.

When Python perceived that Leto was pregnant by Zeus, he began to pursue (her) in order to kill her. But, by order of Zeus, the North Wind (Aquilo) lifted Leto up and carried her to Poseidon; Poseidon protected her, but in order not to rescind Hera’s decree, he carried her to the island Ortygia and covered the island with waves. When Python did not find Leto, he returned to Parnassus.

But Poseidon returned the island Ortygia to the upper region, and it was later called the island of Delos. There, holding on to an olive tree, Leto gave birth to Apollo and Artemis, to whom Haphaestus gave arrows as a gift. Four days after they were born, Apollo avenged his mother. He went to Parnassus and killed Python with arrows.

Emperors, particularly Domitian, told this story, putting themselves in the role of Apollo, the slayer of the chaos-monster Python, insisting that coming into the fold of the Empire, and doing obeisance to the emperor, was the only way to peace and prosperity. But John inverts this; by associating the beasts, the successive imperial powers from Daniel 7, with the dragon, and the promised ‘male child’ of Jesus with Apollo, he shows how the demands of imperial loyalty usurp the place of God, and raises the stakes for all followers of Jesus.

This is the central message of the Book of Revelation. The world is not as God intended; it is ruled by malevolent forces, and as a result it is beset with all kinds of suffering, from disease and famine to war and disaster. What is God doing about it? He has sent his Son, suffering as a sacrificial lamb who has been slain, but has been raised to life and now standing in the place of power and authority, to redeem not just ethnic Israel but a new Israel from ‘every nation, tribe, people and language’ (Rev 7.9). The decisive victory has been won by Jesus, but this victory is made real day by day in lives given up to him (Rev 12.11), as his followers share the word of their testimony as faithful witnesses following the example of Jesus. This is God’s plan to win the world!

For an introduction to reading the Book of Revelation, see my Grove booklet How to Read the Book of Revelation

For an in-depth though applied study of the text, see my IVP Tyndale New Testament Commentary.

For group Bible study in five sessions, see my IVP/LICC study Revelation: Faithfulness in Testing Times.

What has this to do with Christmas and the nativity? Everything! It is certainly true that the nativity accounts in Luke and Matthew don’t bear any resemblance to the stories of kings born in palaces (though there are themes of kingship). Yet, in contrast to much contemporary preaching, they do not focus on the idea that Jesus came to the poor and marginalised; he was not born in a stable, but a normal home; he was not particularly poor; and those who came to see him were not despised outcasts, but local people going about their daily business, but who respond in obedience and testify to what they have seen.

The primary point of the accounts in both Matthew and Luke is that here is born the long-for deliverer, who will defeat the powers of darkness, and set his people free. Chad Bird draws this out as he connects the nativity with Rev 12:

‘I’m still searching for a Christmas card with a red dragon in the nativity, lurking amidst the cows and lambs, waiting to devour the baby in the manger. None of the Gospels mention this unwelcome visitor to Bethlehem, but the Apocalypse does. John paints a seven-headed, ten-horned red dragon onto the peaceful Christmas canvas. You can read all about it in Revelation 12. It’s the nativity story we don’t talk about. A dragon trying to eat our Lord.

The red dragon was standing “before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron.” Clearly, more was going on at Christmas than drinking eggnog and kissing under the mistletoe. Or even peace on earth.

Hark the herald angels sing, a dragon waits to eat our king.

December 25 marks the genesis of war. God invading our world. Hell’s foundations quaking as the ancient terrors of demons awake. The dragon spreading his wings and flying into battle, flames bellowing from his lungs of brimstone and fire. Philip Yancey writes, “From God’s viewpoint—and Satan’s—Christmas signals far more than the birth of a baby; it was an invasion, the decisive advance in the great struggle for the cosmos.”

Silent night,
violent night,
hell and heaven
meet to fight.

Wars have been waged over money, property, honor, power, and oil. But this war—the greatest conflict in human history—is over us. The dragon sports many names—the serpent, the liar, the god of this world—but perhaps his most fitting name is Satan. It means Accuser. That’s what John calls him later in the chapter: “the accuser of our brethren … who accuses them day and night before our God.” He wields the weapon of accusation. And by it he enslaves us in guilt, shame, depravity, and lies. Each evil is a link in the chains that bind us. And each chain the Accuser wraps round and round our souls. His greatest fear is that we will hear that his enemy has come to set us free. So, in the little town of Bethlehem a red dragon swoops in to swallow this child who has come to liberate us from accusation. To make us children of his Father. To shatter every chain that binds us to a life of bondage. He must be stopped. He must silenced. He must be killed.

The Christmas story begins the narrative of violence that marks the life of the Liberator. The dragon misses his opportunity in Bethlehem. So he hounds our Lord down to Egypt. Then back to Galilee. He trails him into the desert with tempting words. And, finally, after 33 years of warfare—and repeated defeats—he finally wins. The dragon who failed to devour the child in the manger swallows the man atop the cross. In so doing, unbeknownst to this beast, he ate poison. For if anything will destroy an accuser, it is taking freedom into his bowels. At the death of Jesus there was a great rattling of chains. The links of evil that bound us snapped in two. A world held in bondage to the dragon was, in the death of the Son of God, immediately and irrevocably freed forever from his captivity.

It all began in Bethlehem. Unseen by human eyes, hell and heaven battled over us. And heaven, in the end, stood on the neck of hell and pressed his foot into the throat that had so long accused us. The accuser of our brethren, John wrote, “has been thrown down.” He was conquered “by the blood of the Lamb.” All the dragon gets for Christmas is a mouthful of shattered teeth, fiery lungs flooded with oceans of divine wrath, and a sword swinging down from above to chop off the head that spouted accusation.

Merry Christmas! The dragon is dead, the baby is alive, and his victory has set you free.’

Do we really find these elements of apocalyptic, eschatological hope in the Christmas story? Yes we do.

In Matt 1.21, the dream-angel tells Joseph that the child she bears will be a second Joshua, leading them to a promised land of salvation from their sin. In the following verse, this child will make real to Israel the powerful presence of God who will save the nation from their enemies and ‘lay waste’ their land (Is 7.16).

The promise from Micah 5.2 that the chief priests and scribes quote to Herod in Matt 2.6, of ‘a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel’ is immediately followed in Micah 5.3 by the description of Israel as a woman in labour that lies behind the image of the woman in Rev 12.1. And the journey of Jesus from Egypt to Nazareth reminds Matthew of God’s liberation of his people from slavery to the promised land (Matt 2.15).

The theme of Mary’s song, the Magnificat, in Luke 1.46–55, is not mere social change, rearranging the economic furniture, but of radical regime change: the mighty are put down, and the proud are scattered, as God shows ‘the strength of his arm’ as he did in days of old, leading his people in liberation from their enemies. This is fulfilment of the age-old promise to Abraham, which of course is that his offspring would be like the sand of the seashore, and through him all nations will be blessed.

And Zechariah’s matching song, the Benedictus in Luke 1.68–79, brings this out even more strongly. God has raised up a ‘horn of salvation’, or a ‘mighty saviour’, who will defeat Israel’s enemies and set them free to live in peace and without fear. At first this sounds strongly political, until we note that this comes through ‘the forgiveness of all their sins’ and enables them to live in ‘holiness and righteousness’ all the days of their lives. It is the enemy of sin and the power of death which is defeated and this victory brings the light of the hope of life to all who receive it.

In the birth narratives, it is not mere social action that is the focus—that is in fact almost completely absent. Neither is there much focus on the classical theological themes of the incarnation, of God with us in human form as a kind of affirmation of the dignity of humanity. (In fact, to be human is, as far as Paul is concerned, ‘poverty’ in 2 Cor 8.9.)

No, the primary themes are God fulfilling his promise, defeating the enemies of sin and death, and setting his people free to live in peace and testify to his power and grace. Isn’t this what our world desperately needs to hear? Surely this should be the theme of our Christmas preaching—and as Glen Scrivener demonstrates, you can even tell this to the children!

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68 thoughts on “Where is the dragon in the nativity?”

  1. That is a very helpful and clear exposition of this passage Ian – thank you.

    Methinks I need to study a bit more Greek mythology…

    A Merry Christmas to you!
    (and goodwill to all commenters here)

      • Ian
        I suppose you are referring to your comment

        “So the victory of God has been realised; this is expressed in terms of Christus Victor, where the significance of the atonement is in terms of the defeat in spiritual battle of Satan; the victory has been won by Jesus’ death on the cross (‘by the blood of the lamb’); but this victory is only partially realised at the moment, since the devil has gone down to earth and still has a ‘short’ time”.

        But Revelation 12 does not mention our deepest need – to be delivered from the wrath and condemnation of God, by the atonement fact that Christ bore that wrath and condemnation for all who believe when he died on the cross.

        Phil Almond

        • So the pivotal chapter in the book most concerned with judgement, evil, and salvation does not mention the theological issue which you claim is the most important.

          I wonder what we should conclude from that…?

          • Conclusion?
            That the whole of scripture, whole Counsel of God, pivots on your theological extrapotion of pivoting on and around Revelation 12?
            And is that now what it means to be evangelical? It is Christus Victor, full universal, atonement in the birth of Christ, alone?
            A step too far, methinks.

          • Ian
            It is clear from the New Testament that we all do deserve God’s wrath and condemnation because of Adam’s sin and our personal sins (do I need to give you chapters and verses?). How can deliverance from that not be our deepest need?
            Phil Almond

          • I am just pointing out that John in Revelation doesn’t appear to share your assessment. Are there passages in Revelation which show I am wrong in thinking this?

          • … you shall call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins.
            Matthew 1:21
            YBH : Yes, but, how?
            Why? When?

          • Ian
            We have to consider what the whole New Testament says, don’t we?
            Do you not believe we face the wrath and condemnation of God – as in Romans 5:12-21 and Ephesians 2?

            Phil Almond

          • Ian
            And dosn’t Revelation give the terrible warning at the end of chapter 6? And what about the words of someone (John Newton I think):
            “Be thou my shield and hiding place that sheltered by Thy side
            I may my fierce accuser face and tell him Thou hast died”
            This is how we overcome by the blood of the Lamb. Because in hid death Christ bore Giod’s wrath and condemnation.

      • Catholics have a fascinating interpretation of Revelations 12.

        For starters, Catholics believe that the symbolism in the Book of Revelation has nothing to do with the future. Catholics believe that the author of Revelation was not writing prophecies, but using cloaked language and symbols to attack a powerful enemy. He was attacking the great enemy of the Christian Church at the end of the first century: Rome. Openly attacking Rome in the first century was a sure recipe for arrest and execution. So, in the tradition of previous Jewish writers living under foreign occupation, he wrote in code to attack the oppressor of God’s people. The great dragon is Rome. But who is the woman in chapter 12? Catholic scholars believe that the author of Revelation was using polyvalent symbolism: a single character in the story could represent multiple historical persons and/or entities.

        Catholic website, Catholic Answers: “The Woman in Revelation 12 is part of the fusion imagery/polyvalent symbolism that is found in the book. She has four referents: Israel, the Church, Eve, and Mary.”

        Imagine if Catholics are right! There will be no rapture. No seven years of tribulation. No 1,000 year millennium.

        Growing up evangelical in the 60’s and 70’s, I never imagined I would reach adulthood, attend college, or get married. My pastors assured me that the Rapture was at hand. “The generation which sees the return of the Jews to the Holy Land will not pass away before the return of Christ.” We had even calculated the year of Christ’s return: 1974. Obviously, Jesus didn’t return in 1974. In the 80’s, our pastors found a new way to interpret the above passage involving the re-establishment of Israel. No. The prophecy was not wrong. Jesus hadn’t failed to return as he promised. We had misinterpreted the passage. It was our fault. But Jesus IS coming soon, we were told. Any day now.

        Let’s take a look at a section of Revelation chapter 12 and replace some of the symbols with entities and/or persons of the first century:

        “When [the Roman Empire] saw that [it] had been [defeated at the crucifixion], [it] pursued [Mary/the Church] who had given birth to [Christ]. 14 The woman was given the two wings of a great eagle, so that she might fly to the place prepared for her in the wilderness [the escape of the Holy Family to Egypt], where she would be taken care of for a time, times and half a time, out of the serpent’s [Herod/Rome/Satan] reach. 15 Then from his mouth the serpent spewed water like a river, to overtake the woman and sweep her away with the torrent. 16 But the earth helped the woman by opening its mouth and swallowing the river that the dragon had spewed out of his mouth. 17 Then [Rome] was enraged at [the Church] and went off to wage war against the rest of her offspring—those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus.”

        What clever imagery! The author of Revelation was not talking about events 2,000 years plus in the future. He was talking about the then and now. He was providing comfort and hope to his Christian brethren who were suffering horribly due to the oppression and persecution of Rome.

  2. Thanks Ian…. and for the other posts this year with your desire to “know the truth” and for Christians to live in it.

    One of my favourite images is the slaying on the side of Coventry Cathedral. I wonder if they preach it.

    PS Seeing today’s Times I think the Archbishop of York might need a Nativity real-story reminder. I have empathy with his conclusions but think he’s doing a Yuri Geller with the story to arrive at them.

  3. It is odd to see a series of excellent posts debunking the myths of the modern Christmas followed by one that introduces myth of another kind.

    The article is written on the basis that Revelation is John’s message to the Church. Actually, it is Jesus’s, and all that John did was write down what he saw and heard (Rev 1:1-3 and passim).

    Roman mythology, like Greece’s, had diverse roots, some going back to the Ancient Near East, but I doubt whether contemporary readers would have picked up a reference to Apollo, Leto and Python. Python was not depicted as a seven-headed monster, so far as I know. Archaeological evidence show that the image goes back to 3rd millennium Mesopotamia – see for example figs. 1 and 14 in T. Lewis (1996) CT 13.33-34 and Ezekiel 32: Lion-Dragon Myths, J. Am. Or. Soc. which readers can search for.

    John was probably not himself aware of the ANE motif, but no matter. What he records is a vision given to him by Christ, so it is he who is using the myth, and it is we, with our archaeological hindsight, who are intended to understand it. OT references to the ANE myth are at Ps 74:14 and (looking forward) Isa 27:1. The ten crowns on the seven heads refer back to Daniel 7, which is the main scriptural reference for understanding the dragon in Revelation, along with Gen 3. John will have understood that the human embodiment of the serpent in Rev 12:4 was Herod (Matt 2:13, 16) rather than the Emperor. Herod did not hound the Lord down to Egypt (Matt 2:13), nor back to Galilee (Matt 2:20-22). Micah 5:3 is not a reference to the nativity.

    Rev 12:7-12 refers to developments long after Christ’s death and resurrection, when his followers achieved victory over their enemy (Rev 12:11).

    • ‘I doubt whether contemporary readers would have picked up a reference to Apollo, Leto and Python.’ Why? The parallels are striking, and the myth was very widely known across the eastern mediterranean.

      ‘Python was not depicted as a seven-headed monster, so far as I know.’ No, that comes from Daniel 7, just as political cartoons insert characters from one place into narratives from another. I am not aware of Lady Susan Hussey dressing like Mary Poppins; does that make Peter Brookes’ cartoon incomprehensible?

      John doesn’t say that the dragon has any human embodiment; he says that human agents do the will of the dragon, and his particular target here is the Roman Empire. But that does not exclude the possibility of other beasts.

      Micah 5.3 expresses the longing of the people of God, in the pains of their suffering, longing for deliverance. Jesus is the one who comes to bring that deliverance.

      Jesus’ followers achieve victory over their enemy every day that they live as faithful witnesses in the resurrection life of Jesus, and they have done so since Pentecost.

      • I’m afraid the Roman myth is just a rehash of the Greek myth about Kronos, Typhon (= Python) and Zeus. The Greek myth, in turn, was a rehash of the Sumerian myth about Tiamat, Qingu and Marduk, and that myth was a corruption of the pre-Babel tradition (preserved in Gen 2-6) concerning the Serpent, the seed of the Serpent and the seed of Eve.

        The seven-headed serpentine monster (Tiamat, Litan, Leviathan) is part of the Sumerian version. However, while Rev 12 alludes to the myth and to Gen 3, the key point regarding the dragon is that he has 7 heads and 10 horns, so we are meant to think primarily of the vision in Dan 7, not any myth, and interpret accordingly. All this may be difficult to grasp, but it’s dealt with at greater length in my book.

        Regarding Micah 5:3, the context is:

        (v. 2) But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are little among the clans of Judah,
        from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.

        ‘come forth’ = appear, be born, thus the nativity of Luke 2
        ‘Me’ = Yahweh,
        ‘one who is to reign’ = the Messiah, reigning over Israel in the future

        (v. 3) Therefore he will give them up until the time when she who is in labour has given birth and the remnant of his brothers will turn back to the children of Israel.

        ‘he’ = the Messiah
        ‘the time’ = coinciding with his return in glory, he will be great to the ends of the earth
        ‘she who is in labour’ = the daughter of Zion (sensu Jerusalem in Gal 4)
        ‘given birth’ = by resurrection from the dead
        ‘his brothers’ = the Messiah’s brothers, viz. the exiled northern tribes
        ‘the children of Israel’ = the Jews (southern tribes)

        Thus the woman in labour in Micah 5:3 cannot be Mary giving birth to Jesus.

        (v. 4) And he will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of Yahweh, in the majesty of the name of Yahweh his God. And they will abide, for now he will be great to the ends of the earth.

        ‘he’ = the Messiah

  4. Thanks Ian for adding a further “Birth Narrative” for consideration. I wondered if it was something for the Crib Service today, but decided against it, but maybe another year. But you are right that it brings the conflict of the Incarnation, the great fight with against evil / sin into the foreground otherwise the nativity becomes a rather “sweet” story.
    I am not sure I can go as far as seeing us (simply) as the object fought over, not without some further comment – we are both bound in sin and we have an autonomy to choose. That is one of the unresolvable tensions, one of the great both-ands of our faith. While this passage focuses on the “cosmic” fight, we are also expected to overcome, to join in, because as we discover, the dragon and the beasts control the powers and the rulers, or rather the rulers are in hock to them.
    Thank you for linking the violence of Herod against the child(ren), that part of the Christmas story that we find difficult but which Matthew spends more time on than the birth!
    I have never been too sure how well the Python myth was known to the wider populace and there are clearly OT references as well, not least Daniel. I wonder if it is a layer of interpretation rather than the principal way to unpack this dense chapter.
    “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight” – O come let us adore him.

  5. One can assume that the birth narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are inspired and therefore historically reliable, since very early on, the universal Church accepted the canonicity of these two books. The same cannot be said for the book of Revelation.

    “Revelation, the final book in the New Testament, was “squeezed into the canon in the fourth century,” said Pagels, and barely made it into the 27-book lineup. Over the centuries, it continued to draw the ire of critics, from theologian Martin Luther to author D.H. Lawrence. To this day, Eastern Orthodox Christian sects decline to use Revelation in public worship.”

    Source: https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2009/12/revelations-on-revelation/#:~:text=Revelation%2C%20the%20final%20book%20in,Luther%20to%20author%20D.H.%20Lawrence.

    The fourth century??

    It took Christians 300-350 years to finally decide that God inspired the content of this book…and certain sects of eastern Orthodox Christianity still question its place in the cannon.
    If even Christians are so unsure of the “divinity” of this book, I think the rest of us can sleep well ignoring its fantastical tales of dragons and multi-headed beasts.

    • Hi Gary, are you aware that it was not until the 4th century that there was any attempt to generate a formal list or ‘canon’ of texts which should be considered as the core texts, and it was not finalised until fairly late in that century, admittedly with some debate about some of the texts. So nothing at all was ‘canonical’ in the year 300! If my recollection is correct, the main criterion was association, if not actual authorship, with the apostles, i.e. the link to the earliest years of the Christian church.

      Some significant early church fathers refer to Revelation. For instance, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Eusebius, Origen and, not least, Augustine.

      One significant problem for those in the line of Greek rationalism is those substantial parts written in the genre of ‘apocalyptic’ (a name which derives from Revelation itself). This style of writing was not at all unfamiliar to the Jews of the first century. There are other contemporary writings with similar use of dramatic and imaginative imagery. Perhaps this style was devised to make the meaning of the text obscure to the rational Greek or Roman reader who is unfamiliar with the conventions.

      • The Book of Revelation is truly a fascinating book. It has fascinated its readers for 2,000 years. It’s vivid, war imagery has been invoked by Martin Luther against his anti-Christ, Pope Leo X, and even used by both sides in the American Civil War to vilify the other. Many scholars believe that the Book of Revelation was more of a rant against the abuses of the Roman Empire than a prophecy of the distant future, much like the Book of Daniel was a rant against the abuses of the Seleucid Empire, not of future events.

        —History appears to have been a powerful influence on John, including the then-recent Jewish uprising against Rome (66-70 CE), which led to the destruction of Jerusalem by victorious Roman armies. “We can’t understand this book,” said professor of religion and history, Elaine Pagels, of Revelation, “unless we know it is war literature.”

        Traditional prophets, Isaiah among them, had centuries before predicted Babylon would destroy Jerusalem. John of Patmos simply modernized the old prophecies, said Pagels, using Isaiah’s corrupt Babylon as an allegory for what was then present-day Rome.

        “Jews would typically write in a kind of code,” she said, unleashing hellfire on a present-day enemy, but obliquely. Revelation, in a touch of irony, was written to be not too revealing. —

        • Well, yes and no. The interesting thing is that it invites from its readers a non-violent response of ‘patient endurance’.

          I think many of the ways in which Revelation is obscure to us arise because of our cultural distance, at least as much as the text’s obscurity.

          • ” The interesting thing is that it invites from its readers a non-violent response of ‘patient endurance’.”

            I agree. In both the Book of Revelation and the Book of Daniel, “God’s people” have suffered terribly for their faith. They are weak and helpless. They are unable to rise up against their oppressors. The authors of both books know this. They understand the feelings of profound despair and helplessness this provokes. To alleviate the suffering of their people, they call upon God to bring down the severest of judgments against their enemies (the Romans/Seleucids). Both books are prayers for divine vengeance against one’s oppressor.

        • ‘much like the Book of Daniel was a rant against the abuses of the Seleucid Empire, not of future events’

          well if you believe Daniel was written c.165BC . But I would suggest the evidence is against that.

          • Yes, there is a difference of opinion among scholars on that subject. There is a majority opinion, but no consensus, by any means.

    • Gary, Pagels is completely mistaken here. I have found her to be a very unreliable commentator on Revelation.

      As Michael Kruger demonstrates, Revelation was accepted at the earliest point, but questions were raised later because of its association with Montanism, the ‘New Prophecy.’ It was then readmitted, as it were.

      ‘The story of the book of Revelation is not what one might expect. Other debated books tended to have a lukewarm reception at the earliest stages, only to gain more and more acceptance over time. Revelation, on the other hand, had nearly the opposite experience; it had a very early and positive reception in many parts of the church, only to run into serious challenges at a later point.

      Lately, I have been doing a good bit of research on Revelation’s canonical history in preparation for writing an academic piece on the subject. Here are a few highlights about Revelation’s journey:

      1. Revelation’s early reception was Outstanding. Perhaps as much as any other NT book, we have evidence for an early, widespread, and consistent reception of Revelation. Our evidence goes back as early as Papias (c.125) and also includes Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, the Muratorian Fragment, Hippolytus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Origen. That is an impressive list.’


      • Like on most subjects involving the Christians Scriptures, the opinions of liberal Protestant and atheist scholars on the Book of Revelation diverge dramatically from that of evangelical and conservative Protestant scholars. Whenever this divergence of scholarly opinion occurs, I like to look at a large group of scholars in the middle, so to speak. A large group of scholars who believe in the supernatural, miracles, the Virgin Birth, and the bodily resurrection of Jesus: Roman Catholics. Here is the Catholic perspective on the Book of Revelation:

        –This book contains an account of visions in symbolic and allegorical language borrowed extensively from the Old Testament, especially Ezekiel, Zechariah, and Daniel. Whether or not these visions were real experiences of the author or simply literary conventions employed by him is an open question.

        This much, however, is certain: symbolic descriptions are not to be taken as literal descriptions, nor is the symbolism meant to be pictured realistically. One would find it difficult and repulsive to visualize a lamb with seven horns and seven eyes; yet Jesus Christ is described in precisely such words (Rev 5:6). The author used these images to suggest Christ’s universal (seven) power (horns) and knowledge (eyes). A significant feature of apocalyptic writing is the use of symbolic colors, metals, garments (Rev 1:13–16; 3:18; 4:4; 6:1–8; 17:4; 19:8), and numbers (four signifies the world, six imperfection, seven totality or perfection, twelve Israel’s tribes or the apostles, one thousand immensity). Finally the vindictive language in the book (Rev 6:9–10; 18:1–19:4) is also to be understood symbolically and not literally. The cries for vengeance on the lips of Christian martyrs that sound so harsh are in fact literary devices the author employed to evoke in the reader and hearer a feeling of horror for apostasy and rebellion that will be severely punished by God.

        The Book of Revelation cannot be adequately understood except against the historical background that occasioned its writing. Like Daniel and other apocalypses, it was composed as resistance literature to meet a crisis. The book itself suggests that the crisis was ruthless persecution of the early church by the Roman authorities; the harlot Babylon symbolizes pagan Rome, the city on seven hills (Rev 17:9). The book is, then, an exhortation and admonition to Christians of the first century to stand firm in the faith and to avoid compromise with paganism, despite the threat of adversity and martyrdom; they are to await patiently the fulfillment of God’s mighty promises. The triumph of God in the world of men and women remains a mystery, to be accepted in faith and longed for in hope. It is a triumph that unfolded in the history of Jesus of Nazareth and continues to unfold in the history of the individual Christian who follows the way of the cross, even, if necessary, to a martyr’s death. —

      • The formation of the New Testament Canon, according to Catholics:

        –Just when were these inspired texts canonized and who placed them into the table of contents we all find at the front of our Bibles today? It’s interesting to ponder the following, first. Oftentimes, our Protestant brethren forget that the Bible is a Catholic book. It was Pope St. Innocent I that had authoritatively confirmed the declarations of local councils in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. The New Testament that the various Protestant denominations have received, and still use today, was decided upon by the successors of the apostles; that is, the bishops of the Catholic Church. It’s ironic to note that the same Protestants who would rather rely on the opinions and decisions of first century Jewish rabbis for their Old Testament canon (see Gary Michuta’s “Why Catholic Bibles Are Bigger” for a lengthy treatment) would also reject the opinions of many early Christians. Believe it or not many early Christians, including saints and early Church Fathers, rejected books such as the Letter to the Hebrews and the Book of Revelation.

        On the flip side, books like the Shepherd of Hermas, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Letters of Clement, and even the Didache, were accepted by many as truly inspired Scripture. Today we recognize those books as apocrypha, but still receive spiritual benefit from reading these writings. But especially during those first two centuries of the Church’s existence, the canon of the New Testament was very murky. The earliest surviving list of books comes from the Muratorian Fragment, dated between the years 170-190 A.D. This canon excluded the Letter to the Hebrews, James, and both letters of Peter, yet included the apocryphal Apocalypse of Peter. Clearly this was an issue that wouldn’t be going away, and councils were convened to discuss the matter.–

        –Ascension Press

        • It is not true that the Bible is a ‘Catholic’ book. To talk of the early church as ‘Catholic’ with a Big C is anachronistic.

          It is not the case that the Church created the Bible, any more than those printing my wife’s certificate of qualification ‘made’ her a doctor.

  6. On the balance of probabilities, that us, more likely or not, as opposed to a middle ground, or consensus which would match our expectations, the would no New Testament, including Revelation without the Resurrection of the Messiah and ascension (and the prior incarnation) nothing that is unique to Triune Christianity.
    Which, in all his learning and expertise CS Lewis saw it as true myth, that is, all the symbolism of myth is played out in the reality of Triune God as revealed in the ( backwater birth at Bethlehem birth- life- death- resurrection, of God the Son, that we may be brought into personal relationship with God the Father, God the Son and indwelt by God the Holy Spirit, that we may be saved from sin, self and Satan, for, brought into life eternal and inheritance with God, staring now.
    Blessed Assurance Jesus is mine, O what a for taste of heaven divine.
    Either tha is true; reality or we are living in a closed materials world system as describe by Alastair McGrath – within the Dawkins delusion.
    I took the opposite journey from Gary’s, as did numerous Christians, CS Lewis included: raised in an unchurched atheist family and converted as. 47 year old.solicitor.

    From a backwater birth in Bethlehem, to every tribe, tongue, nation – an article from an Anglican university professor:

    Have a joyful Christmas Gary, though you do seem to be Christ haunted, rattled in your determined anti- Christ mission to shake off all traces to your past.
    Perhaps you are being persued by the “Hound of heaven?”
    May we have the joy and peace that is deeper than fleeting happiness, indeed the Joy of the Father at the birth of His Son: joy in the Holy Spirit. Amen

    • I do not get the impression that Gary is rejecting christianity per se but questioning some of the assumptions on which the protestant Canon is based and those of the reformers. Is that correct Gary?

      • Chris,
        Could it be suggested you look at his blog (see the previous comments sections) with his deconversion story. He has made comment on this site a few years ago now (when Simon made some comments). He has also made trenchant comments in opposition to Christianity, again come years ago, on David Robertson’s, weeflea blog.
        Sure he is well rehearsed, and read and collated articles and arguments all in opposition. The arguments are not new, well used in the so- called new atheist movement.
        I do wonder what drives him and suspect some of it is seeking to justify moving away from his early life, influence as it was by Christianity.
        It seems to me that it is no less than to *convert* people to unbelief, his philosophical world view or as he puts it, if I recall correctly, *cold truth*. (No doubt that can be corrected, if wrong, by looking at his blog, where you will find his attempts at debunking of NT Wrights, Resurrection, and Richard Bauchkam’s, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses…as well as McDowell’s , Evidence that demands a Verdict, some of Craig Keener’s work and others.
        Gary’s comments here are not isolated, but appear to part of his mission strategy.

        • And if Gary seeks consensus between Catholics and Protestants look to the Apostles Creeds. (As this is more or less wholesale Christian consensus, presumable Gary will accept it. How about it Gary?) And with Hebrews, look to Messianic Jews.
          Evidence is that Gary will harness comments from various sources to seek to undermine various tents of Christianity; in this instance it is the Canon of scripture; previously it was Jewish opposition the Jesus being the Messiah ( therefore, he isn’t according to Jewish consensus! But is according to “all” Messianic Jews!)
          Now all of this has some interest, and is of import in Christian theology and training, whatat or may not be taught in Christian reading centres and in all your years in Christian ministry you will have looked at this more than once) and given time and Christian scholarship can be edifying and a test and enhancement to faith, but I’d counsel caution as far as motives are concerned.
          As this coming year is one step further into my 70’s, I weary of it. It is for more vigorous Christian scholars ( I’ve never been one) and apologists to respond, as they already have.
          As a postmodern, higher biblical critic, anti- Supernaturalist, modern science atheistic believer, Gary would be sure to find a place in leadership in some churches.

          • I promised Ian to stay on topic and I intend to keep my promise.

            The Bible is the most read and influential book in the history of human kind. It shaped western culture and continues to influence our governments, laws, and politics. It contains some of the most beautiful pieces of literature in the English language. Because of this influence on western culture, and the world, I encourage all people, Christian and non-Christian, to read this collection of books. And of all the books in the Bible, the Book of Revelation is the most fascinating. Whether or not it was written with the divine guidance of the Christian god is a theological question. But the history of how and when it made it into the Christian canon is an historical question. That is the topic I am addressing.

            And yes, I am a non-supernaturalist.

          • Hello Gary,
            Just what is the topic, here? Genre? Canon of scripture? Or God of the genre, God of the canon?.
            Christ as light in a dark unseeing, unknowing world? God in Christ as Victor over Satan, sin, self: light over darkness?
            Surely it is all of a piece- not the good information, not the good advice, not good scholarship, consensus or otherwise, but the Good News of Jesus, the God child, born of woman.
            And if you want more in the same vein of the article from the Spectator that I linked, but in an extended book length form, please read Glen Scrivener’s, “The Air that we Breathe”.
            He too is Anglican. It is his dragon video, that Ian linked in his article.

    • In what way? The book is the ‘Revelation of Jesus Christ’ so why shouldn’t we look to it to understand Jesus?

      Or are you operating with a ‘canon within the canon’? On what grounds?

    • Not sure how well you’ve read and comprehended this Ron.
      Sure, Ian is a scholar of the book of Revelation, but he demonstrates it is of a piece with the whole of scripture ( application of longitudinal Biblical theology) from Genesis – that is, Jesus is the (victorious) promised seed who crushed/ bruised Satan’s/ dragon’s head, through, to Revelation- the Good News of God in Jesus, God the Son: that is THE Gospel. Outside of Jesus there is no Good News, it is cyclical, continuous, grinding Grim News, darkness, hell, if it, the world, humanity, were not sustained by goodness or grace of God, common to all.
      Both common grace and saving grace, which are respendant as we celebrate the Christian festival/ feast of Christmas, are decried, denounced, debunked, disowned in our superior human ignore (ance), rebellion, cleverness, craftiness, cataracts on our sight, vision, with revelation from God.
      Or, as CS Lewis put it, it is always winter but never Christmas.
      As an older retired dentist friend, wisely and irrefutably said either the whole of scripture is a revelation of and by God, or it is nothing.
      E – J= O.
      O + J = E

      E – everything
      O- nothing
      J – Jesus

      Bad News/ Good News

      You chose. Chose life; chose Jesus.

    • That’s a really odd view of scripture. But Definitely “Ronian”…. ()

      Why are you ruling out Revelation as part of the Canon of Scripture… Or, if you’re not, why are you putting it outside the “witness of the Gospel’s Good News”? I didn’t think you were on favour of a narrow half-truth Gospel….

  7. “Gary, Pagels is completely mistaken here. I have found her to be a very unreliable commentator on Revelation.” – Ian Paul.

    It is pretty obvious to people – even outside of the Church who may be the most legitimate target of the Good News of the Gospel – that ALL academic theologians are in dispute with one or other of their contemporaries on what is ‘The True Gospel’. Academics are never the source of faith; they are either helpers or hinderers along the way. “God works in a mysterious way, God’s wonders to perform”. Purely academic sermons are so often a hindrance – rather than a help to people longing for an understanding of ‘the great love of God as revealed in The Son’.

      • You have mentioned ‘scholarly consensus’ previously. But you need to realise that theology and biblical studies are not like physics or other hard sciences. A consensus doesn’t often exist, and even if there is a majority view, it means nothing in terms of any sense of objective truth.

        The discipline as it is practiced is much more like eg English Literature. Just because the consensus ‘view’ is post-structuralism, it does not mean that this is the only or right or even best way to read a text.

        Many academic approaches to biblical studies are deeply embedded in philosophical presuppositions, which are not made explicit, not examined, and not challenged. The main one of this is a programmatic assumption of anti-supernaturalism.

        The result is that many ‘mainstream’ theories are completely circular. The position they end up in is not much more than a reflection of the assumptions made at the beginning. Or, as they say in computing, garbage in, garbage out.

        • Ian – well, I’m not exactly clear on what you mean by ‘anti-supernaturalism’, but, taken at face value, I’d probably go along with this – by which I mean that I believe that God created the laws of nature and God works though His natural laws; anything `supernatural’, i.e. miracles by Jesus, his disciples, apostles, whereby the laws of nature are violated is there to point towards the once-for-all supernatural event, God became man, crucified under Pontius Pilate and rose again. Matthew 11v4,5 completely loses its force if ‘supernatural’ miraculous events become ten-a-penny, the one rupture of the natural laws, necessitated to remedy our fall.

          I also have the same basic objection to ‘Intelligent Design’ which – as I understand it – is not a theory which takes delight in God as creator of a beautiful set of natural laws through which He governs His universe, but instead seems to look out for places where natural laws would seem to be violated and take this as evidence of a creator. If this is what they are doing, then they should rename ID as SD or ‘stupid design’, since they don’t believe in a Creator God smart enough to come up with a coherent set of natural laws.

          • Ian – OK – so by ‘rejection of supernaturalism’ you basically mean rejection of basic Christian theology, of the once-for-all event, by which we are saved.

            Well, probably a fair assessment of most biblical scholarship – by people in antagonistic opposition to the gospel, investing a lot of energy trying to prove this.

        • It is certainly possible that there is an anti-supernatural bias among liberal Protestant scholars and certainly among atheist/agnostic scholars. And if these were the only scholars who favored the non-eyewitness authorship of the Gospels, I too would be suspicious of their position. But that is not the case. A very large number of Christian NT scholars who very much believe in the supernatural also doubt the eyewitness/associate of eyewitness authorship of the Gospels. Who is this group: Roman Catholic scholars. Here is a quote from the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on the authorship of the Gospel of Matthew:

          –The questions of authorship, sources, and the time of composition of this gospel [Matthew] have received many answers, none of which can claim more than a greater or lesser degree of probability. The one now favored by the majority of scholars is the following.

          The ancient tradition that the author was the disciple and apostle of Jesus named Matthew (see Mt 10:3) is untenable because the gospel is based, in large part, on the Gospel according to Mark (almost all the verses of that gospel have been utilized in this), and it is hardly likely that a companion of Jesus would have followed so extensively an account that came from one who admittedly never had such an association rather than rely on his own memories. The attribution of the gospel to the disciple Matthew may have been due to his having been responsible for some of the traditions found in it, but that is far from certain.–

          When I have pointed out this fact to other conservative Christian apologists, their response has been “Roman Catholic scholars are biased against the supernatural”.


          The idea that Roman Catholic bishops and Roman Catholic scholars have a bias against the supernatural is outrageous. Where is the evidence for this preposterous claim? Roman Catholic scholars do NOT have a bias against the supernatural. For example, preeminent RC scholar Raymond Brown said of the Virginal Conception: There is little evidence for this claim other than the uniqueness of the claim itself. However, I believe it as historical fact not because of historical evidence but because of my faith in the testimony of the Church. (paraphrase)

          So claiming that the majority scholarly position on the authorship of the Gospels is due to a bias is not accurate. One must explain why such a large percentage of scholars who do believe in the supernatural still doubt the eyewitness authorship of the Gospels.

          • I challenge any reader of this blog to provide even ONE statement by a Roman Catholic scholar—who remains in good standing with the Vatican—who has stated in his or her work that the supernatural claims in the Gospels cannot be accepted as literal; that they are non-historical.

          • Just to clarify: Roman Catholic scholars may believe that some of the supernatural claims in the Gospels are non-historical, such as Matthew’s claim of dead saints shaken out of the graves, but so do some evangelicals (Michael Licona). That is not what I am saying. I am saying that the overwhelming majority of Roman Catholic scholars do not discount ALL supernatural claims in the Gospels simply because they involve the supernatural.

          • Gary – we do have to get decent working definitions of what we mean by ‘supernatural’. I suggest that huge swathes of Roman Catholicism and Pentecostalism are anti-supernatural.

            The point is that if you have something that may be unexplained, but is recurrent (and happens over and over again), it is no longer within the sphere of the ‘natural’ (even though scientists may not, thus far, have been clever enough to understand the natural laws that govern it and even if it goes wholly against what scientists think the laws of nature actually are).

            So, if you have lots and lots of ‘miraculous healings’ then, by the simple fact that they continue to happen time and time again, they are no longer ‘miraculous’ and, if we believe that they have actually happened, then by the fact that they are recurrent, they actually form part of nature (nothing supernatural about them) and our scientists should be earnestly investigating the circumstances surrounding them, trying to figure out the natural laws, etc …..

            From what I understand of Catholicism, I’d say that the do not deny that the miracles took place, but large numbers of them do not relate them to the once-for-all event and instead think of them as recurrent, thus denying the supernatural element and bringing them into the sphere of the natural.

            In this sense, they do deny the supernatural.

          • The overwhelming majority of Roman Catholic Bible scholars believe that:

            –Mary conceived Jesus, the Son of God, while still a virgin, by the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit. The father of Jesus was God himself, not a man.
            –Jesus was literally—not figuratively, not spiritually—but bodily resurrected from the dead by the power of the God and appeared in bodily form to his disciples.

            If you cannot agree with me that these two (alleged) events meet the definition of “supernatural” then we have no basis of discussion. We do not speak the same English language.

            The overwhelming majority of Roman Catholic scholars believe the central supernatural claims of orthodox Christianity to be historical facts, not allegories, not fiction. I challenge anyone to prove me wrong.

            So why then do they doubt the eyewitness authorship of the Gospels? Answer: EVIDENCE!

          • Hi Gary. A few things worth teasing out here.

            1. Catholic scholarship has had a mixed relationship with ‘critical hermeneutics’ since the late 19th C.

            2. Those who are anti-supernaturalist don’t believe the gospels were eye-witness accounts. That does not imply that all those who don’t believe the gospels are eye-witness accounts are anti-supernaturalist.

            3. No gospel makes any claim about authorship. So whether Matthew wrote Matthew is not a judgement about the reliability of the gospel.

            4. In fact, no-one who is attributed authorship actually wrote their gospel, since texts were written by scribes, not by the attributed authors. In the same way, Paul wrote none of his own letters; that is not how things were written in the first century.

            5. I think the question of why a disciple would copy over from another gospel is interesting, but not decisive by any means.
            a. There is a bigger question of why anyone would write another gospel when others were already written. It is clear that all were circulated to all; I am not aware of a convincing answer to this anywhere, other than that of Irenaeus.
            b. I don’t think we need to believe that Matthew wrote Matthew in order to believe that the gospel is based on the eye-witness testimony, possibly of the apostle Matthew.
            c. If Mark was indeed based on Peter’s testimony, the inclusion of Markan material in fact plays into the idea that all the gospels are eye-witness accounts.
            d. How do we account for ‘M’, the material unique to Matthew? There is simply zero evidence of the long period of oral transmission which is foundational to form criticism.

            So I think the question is more nuanced than the either/or I think you are implying.

            And for all the gospels, if they are not connected with eye-witness accounts, how do we account for the remarkable onomastic (naming) and geographical details, as set out by Bauckham?

          • Gary – Yes – I personally believe that these two events that you pointed to are supernatural.

            I was more referring to the understanding of the miracles accompanying Jesus (such as feeding the five thousand) which were also supernatural events, the purpose of which was to establish that Jesus was who he said he was. There are two such events recorded in Scripture, both by Jesus, during the time of His minstry.

            I have heard people talking of ‘food miracles’, whereby exactly the same thing (apparently) has happened in some village, which led to the conversion of everybody in the village. If one believes that, then the event is therefore recurrent and is part of nature and no longer supernatural.

            The virginal conception (to give it the term that Ian Paul prefers) is supernatural if and only if you believe that this happened exactly once. If someone believes that this is something that does happen from time to time, then for them it is no longer something supernatural, but something that belongs to the natural order.

            Similarly, I believe that the bodily resurrection written about in Scripture was a supernatural event. But anybody who believes that from time to time people are bodily raised from the dead don’t see it as something supernatural, but rather something that is part of the natural order.

            If you read Walter Brower’s Scotichronicon (from the 15th century), which is a history of Scotland, at some stage he points to an event where God parted the Firth of Forth in just the same way as He parted the Red Sea for Moses, so that the Scottish army could pass through and score a major military victory against the English. If you believe that, then the parting of the Red Sea is no longer a supernatural event, but is then part of the natural order (which might give the Ukrainians some idea of what to do now that the Russians have destroyed most of the bridges over the Dnieper).

          • Good morning, Ian.

            “Those who are anti-supernaturalist don’t believe the gospels were eye-witness accounts. That does not imply that all those who don’t believe the gospels are eye-witness accounts are anti-supernaturalist.”

            Very good. The question is then: Why do almost all liberal Protestant, moderate Protestant, and Roman Catholic scholars doubt the eyewitness authorship of the Gospels, when a sizable percentage of these scholars have no bias against the supernatural? Why is it that only very conservative Protestants and evangelicals hold to the eyewitness/associate of eyewitness authorship of the Gospels? Is it possible that THEY are the ones with the bias? After all, these Christians have only Scripture as their final authority. They cannot appeal to a Magisterium. So to admit that the Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses or the associates of eyewitness would call into question the historical reliability of these ancient Christian texts. Such an admission would be devastating for conservative Christian apologetics!

            You believe that even if the Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses they are still historically reliable. But that is not the position of many Bible scholars, including Roman Catholic Bible scholars who do not have an anti-supernatural bias:

            Roman Catholic scholar, Raymond Brown: “No gospel identifies its author. The common designations placed before the Gospels, e.g., “The Gospel according to Matthew” stem from the late 2d cent. and represent an educated estimate of the authorship by church scholars of that period who were putting together traditions and guesses pertinent to attribution. To this a caution must be added: The ancient concept of authorship was often less rigorous than our own, at times amounting to identifying only the authority behind a work (however distant) rather than the writer. …Among the four, John manifests the most detailed knowledge of Palestine.

            Jesus did not write an account of his passion; nor did anyone who had been present write an eyewitness account. Available to us are four different accounts written some thirty to seventy years later in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, all of which were dependent on tradition that had come down from an intervening generation or generations. That intervening preGospel tradition was not preserved even if at times we may be able to detect the broad lines of its content. When we seek to reconstruct it or, even more adventurously, the actual situation of Jesus himself, we are speculating.

            Source: The Death of the Messiah, pp. 4-5

            Raymond Brown: I have already said that I do not think of the evangelists themselves as eyewitnesses of the passion; nor do I think that eyewitness memories of Jesus came down to the evangelists without considerable reshaping and development.

            Source: The Death of the Messiah, p. 14

            “Without considerable reshaping and development”= embellishments! Fiction.

            How can anyone claim that stories written by unknown authors in the first century CE, which most scholars believe contain considerable embellishments, are historically reliable? It is just not a rational argument, Ian. I suggest you consider the strong possibility that your position is based on bias.

          • Richard Bauckham may believe that the Gospels are historically accurate, but he admits that this is not the position of “almost all” of recent scholarship. Why is “almost all” of recent scholarship wrong, and he and his evangelical brethren, which by his own admission represent a small minority opinion, are right??

            ““The argument of this book [Jesus and the Eyewitnesses]–that the texts of our Gospels are close to the eyewitness reports of the words and deeds of Jesus–runs counter to almost all recent scholarship. …the prevalent view is that a long period of oral transmission in the churches intervened between whatever the eyewitnesses said and the Jesus traditions as they reached the Evangelists [the authors of the Gospels]. No doubt the eyewitnesses started the process of oral tradition, but it passed through many retellings, reformulations, and expansions before the Evangelists themselves did their own editorial work on it.” p. 240 ” –Richard Bauckham

            Gary: I again suggest that the reason evangelicals and conservative Protestants hold to the minority position on the authorship and historical reliability of the Gospels is not due to evidence, but due to their fear (bias) that in admitting that the Gospels contain significant embellishments (fiction) , the believability of their supernatural belief system because much, much less defendable.

          • Sorry. TYPO:

            I again suggest that the reason evangelicals and conservative Protestants hold to the minority position on the authorship and historical reliability of the Gospels is not due to evidence, but due to their fear (bias) that in admitting that the Gospels contain significant embellishments (fiction) , the believability of their supernatural belief system BECOMES much, much less defendable.

  8. “Modern Protestant and Catholic scholars are in surprising agreement on the generally figurative and non-historical character of the infancy narratives.”

    —Raymond Brown, preeminent Roman Catholic scholar, “The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus”, p. 52

    Gary: Is the Roman Catholic position on the non-historicity of the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke based on an anti-supernatural bias, as evangelicals and conservative Protestants allege, or due to the EVIDENCE? The burden of proof is on evangelicals/conservative Protestants to provide evidence of this anti-supernatural bias in the works of Roman Catholic scholars such as Raymond Brown. They won’t find it! I have read the above work by Brown and Brown’s two volume master work, “The Death of the Messiah”, cover to cover, and there is ZERO evidence of bias against the supernatural. On the contrary. Brown very much believes in the virgin birth and the bodily resurrection of Jesus.


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