07 Feb 2016

Portrait of the Bible Neophyte as a Young Man

Religious 28 Comments

Especially for those of you who are believers, I strongly encourage you to get into a systematic study of the Bible. This should include not only reading the whole thing cover to cover (you might take more than a year to do it), but also supplementing your personal reading with expert commentary. For example, once you get used to his style, you might really enjoy Vernon McGee. I travel a lot back and forth from Lubbock to Houston, and now the 9 hour trip zips by because I load up my iPod with McGee’s commentary.

To give an example of how much my own understanding of the God of the Bible has changed, let me relate a personal anecdote. Back when I was in grad school, but before I had gone through the experiences that rescued me from atheism, I wrote an article for LewRockwell.com in which I defended the website from someone who had launched a quite patronizing attack.

So the person attacking LRC had written something like, “Those whiny libertarians are banging their high chairs and yelling that they think taxes are TOO HIGH. God bless ’em.” (That’s a paraphrase.)

Now you must understand, I was an angry young man at the time, and this guy’s column really set me off. So in response to his “God bless ’em” line, I wrote something like, “The people at LRC would never ask their God to fight their battles for them.”

What I was trying to do was contrast the serious people who were warning about civil liberties and the warfare state, with the smart aleck Republican thinking we were babies and needed to defer to the adults in the room who knew the real issue was the payroll tax rate.

But now when I think back to that episode, it’s funny to me just how ignorant I was of the Old Testament–even though I had nominally read a lot of it when I was younger. In fact, the children of Israel were SUPPOSED to let their God fight their battles for them. They got into trouble whenever they DIDN’T rely on God, and instead tried to solve their problems through their own strength or alliances with pagan kings.

In conclusion, even if you are a believer and even if you have kinda sorta read the Bible cover to cover once in your life, I strongly encourage you to begin a systematic study with an expert commentator. You will begin to see themes and–if your experience is like mine–you will no longer see such a huge contrast between the super nice guy Jesus and that mean God of the Old Testament. Instead the whole book will become a seamless tale of God’s faithfulness in the face of His fickle children, who must ultimately be saved not because they earned it but because of His unmerited gift. Even the “heroes” of the Old Testament are often scoundrels, and their only admirable trait is that they occasionally have amazing faith that God will achieve mighty things through them.

28 Responses to “Portrait of the Bible Neophyte as a Young Man”

  1. Craw says:

    Good idea. Find an expert, someone who knows Hebrew and Greek, and the techniques of Higher Criticism, and has studied the manuscript evidence. You know, an expert with actual expertise. There are some good books by Geza Vermes for example, or Bart Ehrman, or E P Sanders. Who Wrote The Bible, about the Torah, by I think it was Friedman is excellent. (Hint, it wasn’t Moses.)

    • John Mann says:

      I completely agree on listening to experts with actual expertise.

      I don’t think that Vermes, Sanders, or Ehrman would be where I would start. Ehrman, in particular, is highly tendentious. Don Carson’s comments on Ehrman ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d15gsf27ryY ) are pretty shrewd.

      (And for the record, I have a degree in theology from the University of Edinburgh, did study Hebrew and Greek there, know about higher criticism and manuscript evidence. And I suspect that Vernon McGee probably knew Hebrew and Greek and the techniques of Higher Criticism and the manuscript evidence.)

      • Craw says:

        Out of curiosity I browsed a piece on the site Murphy linked, on the authorship of Hebrews, by McGee. I recommend it to anyone who finds this comment by John Mann convincing.

        • knoxharrington says:

          “In spite of the fact that the Pauline authorship cannot be stated in a dogmatic fashion, there is abundant evidence that Paul was the author. Both internal and external evidence support the authorship of Paul. The writer had been in bonds (see Heb. 10:34). He wrote from Italy (see Heb. 13:24). His companion was Timothy (see Heb. 13:23). The writing is Pauline. Also, in my opinion, Peter identifies Paul as the writer (see 2 Pet. 3:15–16). I believe that there is good and sufficient reason for Paul’s changing his style and for not giving his name in the epistle. I’ll call attention to these things as we go along. (See the Appendix for a full treatment of the subject of authorship.)

          The date of writing is particularly important in the case of the Epistle to the Hebrews because of the authorship question. Many scholars, even sound scholars, have taken the position that it was written after A.D. 70. Some give the date of A.D. 85, A.D. 96, and others up in the 90s. However, as you read this epistle, you are forced to the conclusion that the temple at Jerusalem was still standing at the time it was written. This means it had to have been written before A.D. 70, since Titus the Roman destroyed the temple in A.D. 70 and Paul had already gone to be with the Lord. I believe that it was written by the apostle Paul and it was written before A.D. 70.”

          From the McGee piece on Hebrews.

          “In general, the evidence against Pauline authorship is considered too solid for scholarly dispute. Donald Guthrie, in his New Testament Introduction (1976), commented that “most modern writers find more difficulty in imagining how this Epistle was ever attributed to Paul [instead of] disposing of the theory.” Harold Attridge tells us that “it is certainly not a work of the apostle”. Daniel Wallace, who holds to the traditional authorship of the other epistles, states that “the arguments against Pauline authorship, however, are conclusive.” As a result, although a few people today believe Paul wrote Hebrews, such as theologian R.C. Sproul, contemporary scholars generally reject Pauline authorship. As Richard Heard notes, in his Introduction to the New Testament, “modern critics have confirmed that the epistle cannot be attributed to Paul and have for the most part agreed with Origen’s judgement, ‘But as to who wrote the epistle, only God knows the truth.'”

          Attridge argues that similarities with Paul’s work are simply a product of a shared usage of traditional concepts and language. Others, however, have suggested that they are not accidental, and that the work is a deliberate forgery attempting to pass itself off as a work of Paul.”

          From the Wikipedia entry on the authorship of Hebrews.

          Just an FYI. I think the Dan Wallace conclusion is especially illuminating given his professorship status at Dallas Theological Seminary.

        • John Mann says:

          Which comment of mine are you referring to?

          1) Nobody knows who wrote Hebrews. I doubt that it was written by Paul, but I can’t prove it. A writer can be fluent in Greek and Hebrew, aware of the techniques of higher criticism and of the manuscript evidence and still believe that Paul wrote Hebrews.

          2) Whether Vernon McGee believes in the Pauline authorship of Hebrews proves nothing about whether his material is helpful or unhelpful for Christians who are studying the Bible. You can get details like that wrong, and still write helpful material.

          3) Personally, I wouldn’t recommend Vernon McGee. But I suspect that for Bob Murphy’s purposes, he is probably more helpful than Ehrman et al.

          • Craw says:

            I took you as defending McGee as an expert rather than as a pastor. My error.

            “I suspect that for Bob Murphy’s purposes, he is probably more helpful than Ehrman et al.”
            I agree completely. That’s my point. Bob Murphy isn’t interested in real experts and real expertise, nor the challenge to his beliefs that they present. He’s after something else.

            • Craw says:

              “You know, especially if you’re a fan, you should read the Socialist Worker regularly. And itt helps to listen to an expert. On my long drives I listen to the speeches of Bernie Sanders. There’s a real expert on the economy.” Would anyone guffaw?
              I am guffawing.

    • E. Harding says:

      None of these would be my first recommendations; I view them as either questionable or mediocre (or both). Start with Nadav Na’aman and Israel Finkelstein for the OT; not sure where to go to for the New, but I’ve found Richard Carrier’s and Neil Godfrey’s blogs useful (warning: extreme political bias). Only the first knows Greek, though.

      • Craw says:

        Finkelstein is an archaeologist, right? His book on the OT is good, but he’s not a biblical scholar. All the ones I cited are mainstream scholars who have written popular expositions.

        • E. Harding says:

          True, but the archaeology is more indicative of the reality than anything in the Bible. Really, I recommend you read some of his more recent papers, not The Bible Unearthed, which is fairly outdated.

          • Craw says:

            ” the archaeology is more indicative of the reality than anything in the Bible” Oh, I agree. And any Biblical “expert” should know some of the basic findings, such as: it never happened.

  2. Reader says:

    Thanks for the advice Bob! I love these Sunday posts. Also, episode 21 of ContraKrugman was great as usual. I hope you and Tom have another cruise a few years down the line so I can come, too!

  3. Arius says:

    The problem with the modern church, this article the the 2 above comments? You allow a supposed expert to interpret the Bible for you, when the there is only 1 true expert. The Holy Spirit.

    The entire church is under the spell of 4th century Constantine. Your belief system is actually a government mandate. Nicene Trinity,don’t know if you are coming or going, lol.

    Deferring to an *expert* is the entire problem. Bible comprehension is born inside of you and requires The Holy Spirit to coax it to the surface.

    Start here: Jesus is the Son of God. Nothing more, nothing less. Don’t get me wrong, The Son of God is Awesome. Dirt man is the first Adam, Spirit man is the last Adam.

    Read Acts to understand what Church God wants you to build and be part of, Embrace the Holy Spirit. Embrace Jesus. Worship God. But don’t get the 3 confused.

  4. Joseph says:

    Yes, J. Vernon McGee really put together a great resource! At my workplace during college we were allowed to listen to the radio, but only one station. Dr. McGee’s series ran every morning at the same time and I really grew to enjoy it and get a lot out of it.

  5. Guest says:

    Daily Bible reading is the best way to grow as a Christian. Daily Prayer is also important.

    The problem with most commentary is it all comes from a few similar points of view.

    First, most *expert* commentators believe Romans 13 is descriptive rather than prescriptive. I happen to believe Paul was speaking prescriptively. Paul would have been murdered by the Jews and Government if he would not have been lowered down from a window in a basket. This was major act of disobedient to civil government and the Jewish people. Why would Paul then turn around and say, you must always submit to government? Prescriptive or descriptive of Romans 13 changes your entire take on the Bible and your worldly outlook.

    Second, most *expert* commentators believe Jesus was God. However most of the New Testament says Jesus is the Son of God. This has a profound effect on the final interpretation of the Bible and what salvation really is. I would challenge you to carefully examine who Jesus really was, became and is. The masses have been taught lessons regarding who Jesus is that date back to 4th century Constantinople. Constantine mandated his Biblical interpretation as the official religion. Constantine and the Nicene council claim Jesus is God, not the Son of God. Dissenters were punished severely, Arius was murdered. In essence, your modern understanding of Christianity is a state edict. I would suggest Jesus is the Son of God, not God. This is a very important distinction and will effect your eternal destiny.

    Finally, The Holy Spirit is a major part of the book of Acts and building the new church( not a temple). The Holy Spirit is often overlooked and why should it not be, we are told from birth Ghost are not real. Absent Holy Spirit, you really are not a Christian.

    Next time you read the Bible, get on your knees first and pray the Holy Spirit come and guide your reading, give you discernment and correct understanding. You may be surprised how different you interpret scripture when you allow the Holy Spirit to guide you.

    Peace be with you.

  6. ThomasL says:

    Commentary on the Gospels does not get more expert than the Catena Aurea:


    It is the commentary of many of the Church Fathers’ edited and arrange by St Thomas Aquinas.

    (An aside, regarding the authorship of Hebrews, for every Bart Ehrman there is a Luke Timothy Johnson, equally learned and respected. And about the authorship of books attributed to Moses, for a Friedman(?) there is a Ronald Knox. Scholars disagree. I am not sure Geza Vermes even counts in this. The Gospels account for almost all our historical knowledge of Jesus. To try to look around and behind and through the Gospels and then pick out which lines are from the “authentic” Jesus is a creative, not a scholarly, exercise. It tells us a lot about Vermes, but nothing much about the “authentic” Jesus,)

  7. Jim O'Connor says:

    Thanks for the post, Bob.

    Opinions of the more experienced are helpful/useful, not determinative.

    • Guest says:

      I wonder is all the *experts* will fit through the gate?

      The Narrow Gate
      13″Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. 14″For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.

  8. Nick says:

    Using good commentaries is an important part of studying the Bible, though my caveat would be to not rely too heavily on just one commentator. Theology is not like other subjects (e.g., medicine, engineering, economics, etc.) where it takes some measure of expertise to really know the field. The difference is made insofar as the Holy Spirit indwells the Christian and enables him or her to understand the Word of God, even if that person has no formal theological training (though formal training can certainly be helpful).

    There is therefore no such thing as a ‘Bible expert’ or a ‘theology expert.’ There are people who are experts in very specific related academic fields. For example, you might have someone who is an expert in ancient Near Eastern languages and literature, and someone else who is an expert on intertestamental Second Temple Judaism, and someone else who is an expert on first century Roman history, etc. All of these things are highly-relevant to understanding the context of the Bible, and we should learn from these peoples’ expertise in their respective fields, while at the same time being careful to not depend on any one person as if they are an all-around Bible expert (which does not exist). This is one reason why a good preacher must also be a good generalist; he can’t be expected to know or be an expert in everything, so well-informed preaching will be based on consulting multiple experts in the specific field being preached upon and then presenting conclusions.

    This also applies individually to those Christians not in vocational ministry. The Christian should draw on multiple sources of teaching and then proceed to be a Berean and systematically synthesize and apply the Scriptures themselves based on what they have learned. This strikes the appropriate via media between the radical individualism of thinking we should only read the Bible without any outside teaching (which neglects the fact that God gave teachers to the Church for a reason), and avoiding the magisterial error of thinking that only ‘experts’ are able to properly interpret the Bible and we should just listen to whatever they say.

    McGee is definitely good. My caveat is just to consult multiple expert commentators in their relative specific areas of expertise, weigh what they are saying, and then draw your own conclusions based upon their insight.

  9. E. Harding says:

    Considering you travel a lot to Lubbock, why don’t you mention Mark Lanier? He’s pretty good, and far more informed by real (if conservative) scholars than your average church speaker.

  10. Gil says:

    Does that mean only Jews can be Christians?

    • Arius says:


      Christianity is for Gentiles and Jews. Oddly, Jews seem to have the harder time accepting.

      Romans 11:24 …23And they also, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. 24 For if you were cut off from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and were grafted contrary to nature into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these who are the natural branches be grafted into their own olive tree?

    • Arius says:

      Hi Gil,

      A few more.

      Acts 10:34-35New King James Version (NKJV)

      Preaching to Cornelius’ Household

      34 Then Peter opened his mouth and said: “In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. 35 But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him.


      Acts 10:44New King James Version (NKJV)

      The Holy Spirit Falls on the Gentiles

      44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. 45 And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also.

    • Arius says:

      Hi Gil,

      Here is more .
      Acts 13: 42
      42 As Paul and Barnabas were leaving the synagogue, the people invited them to speak further about these things on the next Sabbath. 43 When the congregation was dismissed, many of the Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who talked with them and urged them to continue in the grace of God.

      44 On the next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. 45 When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy. They began to contradict what Paul was saying and heaped abuse on him.

      46 Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: “We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles. 47 For this is what the Lord has commanded us:

      “‘I have made you[f] a light for the Gentiles,
      that you[g] may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’[h]”

      48 When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed.

      • Craw says:

        Where is Knox Harrington when you need him?

  11. Craw says:

    No new religious post this weeK?

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