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Cold-Case Christianity by J. Warner Wallace

J. Warner Wallace was an atheist and a homicide detective with many years of experience when he decided to apply his professional skills to evaluating the New Testament’s claims about Jesus. Now he’s a believer.

That’s what happens when you follow the evidence rather than your emotions and the orthodoxy of atheist dogma.

The New Testament makes certain claims about Jesus:

  • He was conceived through divine intervention.
  • He was born at a certain time and place.
  • He performed many miracles, including healing, manipulating nature, and raising the dead.
  • He was a popular Jewish teacher for a few years.
  • He repeatedly clashed with the Jewish religious leadership.
  • He was falsely accused of blasphemy and executed on a cross for being a rival to Caesar.
  • He rose from the dead and appeared to many people.
  • He ascended to Heaven.
  • And many others…

While some of these claims can never be proven through evidence one way or another, many of them should have left some kind of trail. The Gospels claim that there were many witnesses to Jesus’ miracles, trials, a crucifixion, and a resurrection. The first century wasn’t completely illiterate, so such remarkable events should have left some kind of historical record that can be examined and dissected in order to discover the real facts, or at least say which claims are more likely to be true than not.

In Cold-Case Christianity, Wallace takes you through the basic logical toolkit of a cold-case detective and applies it to the foundational claims of Christianity. The book is divided into two sections. The first section details ten principles of gathering and evaluating evidence, specifically Forensic Statement Analysis, the art and science of interpreting eye witness accounts and filtering fact from fiction. The second section takes those ten principles and uses them to test the witnesses and documentary evidence of the New Testament.

After reading this book, you will feel entirely justified in ignoring all further historical assertions made by people who claim that Jesus never existed. Nobody’s life is more thoroughly attested by ancient history than that of Jesus, and there is no stronger evidence that a person is historically ignorant than to claim Jesus never existed. By the end, Wallace demonstrates that the historical evidence for the existence of Jesus (aka Yeshua) and for the authenticity of the New Testament (the Gospels in particular) is stronger than for almost any other accepted fact of antiquity.

What Bible Beliefs Really Matter?

What Bible beliefs really matter?

And what beliefs don’t?

I’m probably about to offend you. I don’t mean to, it’s just that there are things that need to be said, and those things won’t set easily on many. Everyone has beliefs that they hold so strongly that they get angry when they are challenged, that they will fight to protect. This is especially true when it comes to beliefs about the things that give our lives meaning.

Although the idea that religion is the cause of most wars is a myth invented by atheists who held propaganda value higher than factuality, religion has always been a contentious topic. People have been fighting over religion and doctrine since the very beginning, even to the point of being willing to snuff out millions of lives to promote one belief over another.

Jews killed Christians. Roman pagans killed Christians and Jews. Christians have even killed fellow Christians over esoteric theologies that were based more on human imagination than any divine revelation. In fact, the very first murder was over a religious difference. Abel’s offering was accepted by God and Cain’s wasn’t, so Cain killed Abel.

But few beliefs are all that important. Even among beliefs that we would never commit murder over, some matter more than others, and some hardly matter at all.

Let me propose a rule of thumb for judging the relative importance of a religious belief: Does it change what you do, how you live, or how you treat other people? If not, then you need to seriously consider whether it’s worth getting into an argument or an emotional bind over.

I want to give you a few examples of beliefs that don’t matter very much and some that matter somewhat more, but I need to ask you to set your ego aside first. Don’t rush to judgment, don’t assume more than what I have written, and accept the undeniable fact that you might be wrong about a whole lot of stuff.

Here’s why I want you to slow down while you read this:

  1. I know that you believe the Bible is crystal clear on some of these issues. The problem is that people who strongly disagree with you believe the same thing. You can’t both be right, so please consider the possibility that two perfectly reasonable–and Spirit-filled!–people can read the exact same passage and draw completely different conclusions from it. The Bible is ambiguous about a lot of issues, and living at peace with your neighbors often requires living at peace with that fact.
  2. I’m not saying that you’re wrong about anything in particular. Your belief about some esoteric point of doctrine might be correct in every respect…and still not be very important.
  3. I’m not saying that the facts of various mystical truths aren’t vitally important in many ways or that the truth doesn’t matter. Some spiritual truths are monumentally important to the mechanics of the spiritual universe, but they will go on functioning as they always have whether you are aware of them or not. What goes on at the center of the sun is really important for the entire solar system. What you believe about what goes on in there? Eh. Not so much. On a spiritual level the same thing is true about the internal structure of God.

What Bible Beliefs Don’t Matter?

Here are a couple of beliefs that are unlikely to have much impact on how you behave toward God, your neighbor, or even yourself:

The Trinity or No? Is God a single, indivisible entity, or is he three distinct persons in one being? People have been excommunicated, disfellowshipped, tortured, and killed over this question, but–other than how unbalanced people react to disagreement–I can’t even imagine how believing one or the other can have any real affect on your life. The anatomy of God is hinted at in Scripture, but is never spelled out clearly. Ultimately, we have less hope of understanding the structure of God as an ant does of becoming a neurosurgeon.

Does being a Trinitarian help you care for your elderly neighbor? Does being a Unitarian help you feed anyone? Probably not. No matter what you believe, it doesn’t change you, your relationship to God, or how you treat your neighbor.

Predestination or Free Will? Calvinism vs Arminianism is the soap opera of theological debates. There’s a new episode every day. Probably thousands of them. Forever. Those aren’t the only two camps, of course, and the extent and nature of predestination held in each camp varies significantly, depending on who you ask.

If one person believes he has no choice in whether he is eternally saved or not, he behaves as if he does. He studies, he considers, and he makes decisions. If a second person believes he is able to choose to accept salvation, he behaves exactly as the first, whether he actually has that ability or not. He studies, he considers, and he makes decisions.

Some people will choose (or not) a thoroughly immoral life and blame it on destiny. If we are automatons, then I can do whatever I want, because I have no control anyway. Other people do the exact same thing, while claiming they’re exercising their freedom to rebel against God.

I don’t think I have ever encountered a person whose life was change in any significant way because he believed in either predestination or free will. People appear to be moved to act or to choose to act in exactly the same manner, regardless.

There are many other such questions, but I think you understand my point, so I don’t need to see how many more angels I can cram onto it. (Bonus points if you understood that reference!)

What Bible Beliefs Matter?

On the other hand, there are many beliefs that do have a direct impact on how we live. If you hold one of these beliefs, then your life is different than if you did not hold it. You think differently and serve God differently; you are kinder or meaner to that irritating neighbor who talks too much. These are the beliefs on which we act.

Is the weekly Sabbath on the first day of the week or the seventh? Does the Sabbath apply to believers in Yeshua at all? These might seem like relatively unimportant questions, but you can’t deny that what you believe about them will have a real–and sometimes dramatic–impact on how you live. You will keep the Sabbath or you won’t. You will keep it with a holiness church on Sunday or you will keep it with a Messianic synagogue on Saturday or some other congregation. If you believe contrary to the majority opinion in your society, you will quickly discover how strongly you believe it.

Is the earth a sphere or a relatively flat disk? Amazingly enough, belief in a flat earth is on the rise in recent years. I have seen–and sometimes joined–numerous “debates” on this topic in online forums, and almost inevitably, some well-meaning soul will attempt to make peace between the sides by pointing out that whether the earth is flat or round has no significant impact on how anyone lives and no impact at all on anyone’s salvation. So why fight about it?

Before the advent of modern geometry, astronomy, physics, geology, cartography, and aeronautics, I would wholeheartedly agree with that assessment. Unfortunately the proponents of a flat earth must also believe that uncountable millions of people are actively involved in a conspiracy to hide the shape of the earth from the rest of humanity. Scientists and engineers in numerous disciplines provide fake, computer-generated evidence of a spherical earth and a vast universe beyond the atmosphere. Shipping and airline crews, business people, and athletes who cross the South Pacific every day are all lying about it. Travel agents advertise impossible flights. The United Nations maintains an enormous fleet to keep anyone from approaching the great ice wall that circles the world.

A person might be paranoid if he believes the earth is a sphere, but he would have to be paranoid, delusional, or both to believe it’s a disk. He would be guilty of false witness on a grand scale, or else he would have to be egotistical enough to believe he exists in a world like Truman Burbank‘s. I know that’s harsh, but I cannot see any way around the fact of it, and I have witnessed the truth of it many times. Flat-earthism has a profound negative impact on the social and spiritual lives of people who adopt it.

The tithe is mandatory or a good example to follow or a total waste of time. Whatever you believe about it, that belief will affect how you use your resources. Will you give to your local church or synagogue or some other charity? Will you share your garden produce with the Cohen family down the street? Your beliefs about the tithe will change how you see what God has given you and what you decide to do with it.

Humans bear the Image of God. If you believe that every single person you meet is a shadow of the Creator, you will look at the toothless beggar behind the dumpster and see God somewhere beneath the crud, and you will treat him differently than if you did not believe it.

What does it mean to love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind? If you have some idea of an answer, then your behavior will be measurably different than if you didn’t. You might spend more time in prayer, you might talk to people about God, or you might make an effort to keep his rules for living. You will certainly express more love for your neighbor. How you believe you are to love God is a profound matter that will impact every aspect of your life.

If I haven’t stepped on your virtual toes at some point in this essay, I will be surprised. As I wrote at the start, I haven’t set out to offend anyone, but offense is inevitable when discussing those religious beliefs around which people tend to build their identities.

Dogma as Identity

Perhaps that is the ultimate problem: we have identified with our dogmas rather than with our Creator and his people, Israel. On some level, the truth always matters. All truth is from God or else within God who is infinite. For that very reason, we also have to recognize that most of the truth in the universe is probably unknowable.

The secret things belong to YHWH our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law.
Deuteronomy 29:29

“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,” declares YHWH. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways And My thoughts than your thoughts.”
Isaiah 55:8-9

It’s fine to talk about and even to debate almost any topic in the right circumstances, but we need to be careful about what we allow to disrupt our relationships. Whenever we feel the tension rising in a doctrinal discussion, we need to ask ourselves what Bible beliefs really matter relative to others? We need to keep all things in good perspective, weighing the value of establishing a particular truth with the value of the relationships and impact on our lives.

Love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. Love your neighbor as yourself. Fear God and keep his commandments. All else is debatable.

Understand the Bible, Rule #3: The Clear Interprets the Obscure

Bible Study Foundational Principle 3: The clear interprets the obscure.

For on the one hand, a former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness.

Hebrews 7:18

At face value, this verse seems to be saying that some old commandment was weak and useless, so God threw it out, but which commandment? It is generally assumed that it’s talking about the Old Covenant, including the Law of Moses. Most people believe it’s only the ceremonial laws pertaining to the Levitical priesthood that were weak and useless, while others believe it was the entire Law of Moses.

But is that really what this verse is saying? If we look at the context of the whole Letter to the Hebrews, it seems like a plausible explanation.

To summarize:

Jesus is a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek, to whom Abraham gave a tenth, and by whom he was blessed, and Levi through the loins of Abraham gave a tenth to Melchizedek. Perfection is unattainable through the Levitical priesthood, so we needed a a priest like Melchizedek instead of like Aaron, and if the priest changes, the law has to change too, because Jesus, who is like Melchizedek, came from Judah, not Levi.

So a former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness, because the law can’t make anything perfect.

Former priests died, made daily sacrifices, and were weak in themselves. But Jesus guarantees a better covenant, because his priesthood was established by an oath from God, he lives forever, and sacrificed himself once for all time.

Now, that summary might seem a little confusing, but I honestly think the original is even harder to understand.

The writer of Hebrews assumed that his readers already possessed substantial knowledge of Jewish tradition and Levitical law, something that very few Christians in any age could claim to have. I’m a decently intelligent guy who’s been studied Torah for nearly 20 years, yet I still struggle to make sense of much of this book. 

Anyone who tells you that Hebrews is straightforward is selling snake oil.

At no point does the writer spell out exactly what he means by “the former commandment” in verse 18, though it seems clear it must have something to do with the Levitical priesthood. What does he mean by “weak and useless”? Didn’t the divine presence rest in the Tabernacle while Aaron and his sons offered their sacrifices there? Surely God wouldn’t give the Israelites weak and useless rules for his personal house in Israel! Paul himself wrote that “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:12). God isn’t a politician to make useless laws to appease the masses.

The third fundamental rule of interpreting the Bible is this: the clear interprets the obscure, and never the other way around. If one or more passages makes a very clear statement about a topic, while another passage makes a convoluted or ambiguous statement about it, the clearer passage should normally take precedence. 

(In practice, we also have to take into account the context, format, and intent of each statement. For example, we can expect a legal judgement to be quite clear, while a personal conversation might involve hyperbole and sarcasm which doesn’t always translate well across in print and across languages. Such personal communications are usually much easier to take out of context and misinterpret. Poetry must be treated as even further removed from the literal.)

Are there clear passages that talk about the strength and usefulness of the Levitical priesthood or its durability? 

  • Exodus 28:43 And [the priestly garments] shall be on Aaron and on his sons when they go into the tent of meeting or when they come near the altar to minister in the Holy Place, lest they bear guilt and die. This shall be a statute forever for him and for his offspring after him.
  • Exodus 29:9 And you shall gird Aaron and his sons with sashes and bind caps on them. And the priesthood shall be theirs by a statute forever. Thus you shall ordain Aaron and his sons.
  • Leviticus 6:22 The priest from among Aaron’s sons, who is anointed to succeed him, shall offer it to the LORD as decreed forever. The whole of it shall be burned.
  • Leviticus 9:6 And Moses said, “This [the initial offerings made by Aaron in the Tabernacle] is the thing that the LORD commanded you to do, that the glory of the LORD may appear to you.”
  • Leviticus 16:34 And this shall be a statute forever for you, that atonement may be made for the people of Israel once in the year because of all their sins.” And Aaron did as the LORD commanded Moses.
  • Leviticus 24:3 Outside the veil of the testimony, in the tent of meeting, Aaron shall arrange it from evening to morning before the LORD regularly. It shall be a statute forever throughout your generations.
  • Joshua 1:7 Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go.
  • Psalms 19:7 The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple…
  • Matthew 5:17-18 Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.

There are many, many more statements like these scattered all throughout Scripture, in both the Old and New Testaments. According to hundreds of passages, the Law is personally and nationally transformative and enriching, the rituals of the priesthood and the priesthood itself are enduring, as well as preserving the lives of the priests, atoning for the sins of the priests, the nation, and the individual, and enabling God’s presence among the people. 

There is nothing about the Law of Moses that is weak or useless!

What does Hebrews 7:18 mean, then?

If it doesn’t mean that the Law or the Levitical Priesthood were weak and useless, it seems to me that there is only one reasonable interpretation that doesn’t make the text hopelessly convoluted.

Hebrews 7:18 means that the Levitical Priesthood and the sacrificial system of that law was weak and useless for attaining eternal salvation. That was never its purpose! For this, we need a better covenant with a different kind of priest to mediate it. We can’t earn eternal salvation through the blood of bulls and goats, but we can through the blood of the perfect Son of God! There is one law that pertains to the daily sacrifices, Yom Kippur, and the appointing of the sons of Aaron, and there is another law that pertains to the one, eternal sacrifice for all our souls, and the appointing of the ultimate High Priest in Heaven.

So like setting aside a hammer, which is a weak and useless tool for driving screws, when working on this eternal task, we set aside the Covenant and Law of Sinai and pick up the Covenant and Law of Calvary. 

The Sinai Covenant isn’t thrown in the dustbin because we have a new covenant. Paul wrote that “Even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified (Galatians 3:15).” It’s merely relegated to its proper place, which is as a witness against sin, a judge of sinners, and a guide for righteous behavior.

The Clear Interprets the Obscure

Sometimes this rule is given as “The Explicit Interprets the Implicit.”

A great many passages in the Bible can be confusing or deceptively simple when taken on their own, but no passage exists alone. Every word must be understood in light of every other word, and the obscure must always be subordinate to the clear.

Go back to Foundational Principle #2: Scripture Interprets Scripture.

Understand the Bible, Rule #2: Scripture Interprets Scripture

I can rob banks without getting caught, jump off cliffs without getting hurt, and run through traffic without getting hit by a truck because I can do all things through him who strengthens me!

Right!? It says so right there in Philippians 4:13, just plain as day.

Of course, only the mentally unstable and the most virulent atheists would insist that Paul meant we could literally do anything at all. Yet people still quote that verse in all kinds of situations as if they did. If you are in this group, you are likely already a serious Bible student, and you know what Paul really meant. It probably seems silly to you that Paul meant we can do stupid, harmful things. But how do we know he didn’t?

Because Scripture interprets Scripture.

We know that Paul didn’t mean that we can commit sin through the power of Christ without penalty, because in 1 Corinthians 6:9, he also wrote, “Don’t you know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?”

But what about soccer games? Can we win every game through Christ who strengthens us? Apart from the logical conundrum of both teams claiming that God is going to help them win, we have to use the same principle of Bible study here too. Does Scripture say that Philippians 4:13 means we can win every soccer game through the power of Jesus?

Understand the Greater Context

In order to understand what any particular passage means, we have to understand what it meant to the person who wrote it and to the people to whom he wrote.

Paul was the penultimate Bible scholar. He probably had the first five books of the Bible (aka Torah) memorized in Hebrew and much of the rest of the Bible too. He spent decades studying with the greatest Jewish scholars of the first century. So in order to be confident that we understand what Paul meant by anything he wrote, we also have to be very familiar with the rest of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament.

Next, we have to understand the world and circumstances in which Paul wrote the Epistle to the Philippians. From chapter 1, we know that Paul was writing to fellow believers who lived in Philippi (v1), that he knew the intended recipients well and considered himself to be their spiritual mentor (v3-11), and that he wrote from a Roman prison (v12-14).

Understand the Immediate Context

In chapter 1 and the first half of chapter 2 Paul discussed the purpose of suffering for the sake of the Gospel and what a great witness it is to suffer without resentment and to keep working for the Kingdom of God despite persecution. He then praised Timothy and Epaphroditus for their hard work and perseverance despite their own hardships. In chapter 3, he continued the theme of rejoicing through suffering, adding a few words of condemnation for those who had turned away from the faith.

In chapter 4, Paul first told the Philippians to set aside their personal differences and join with their fellows who have worked to further the gospel. He thanked them for their concern over his plight and for the financial assistance they had provided for his ministry. This is where we find the verse in question, but no verse exists in isolation. Every line is written as part of a greater whole.

Understand the Genre and Structure of the Passage

Here is the structure of the passage, Philippians 4:10-20:

  • v10 – Gratitude for concern
  • v11 – Contentment in whatever situation
  • v12 – Low and high, any and every, plenty and hunger, abundance and need.
  • v13 – I can do all things through him who strengthens me
  • v14 – Gratitude for concern
  • vs15-20 – Gratitude for financial assistance

If you are familiar with the concept of chiasms, you might have noticed something interesting in this outline. A theme in verse 10 (gratitude) is repeated in verse 14, a theme in verse 11 (whatever situtation) is repeated in verse 13 (all things), and verse 12 contains what almost reads like a poetic Hebrew parallelism.

To make it more plain:

A chiasm in Philippians 4:10-14 illustrating Paul's intent in "I can do all things through him who strengthens me." Let Scripture interpret Scripture.

If verse 14 reflects verse 10 and the four clauses of verse 12 all echo each other, it follows that verse 13 reflects verse 11. In other words, Paul meant “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” to mean essentially the same thing as “I have learned to be content in any situation.”

Put It All Together, Letting Scripture Interpret Scripture

The overarching theme of the Epistle to the Philippians is perseverance through suffering, a theme which is carried through the trials of Abraham, the slavery of the Hebrews, the testing of Job, and all the other writings of the Old Testament, not to mention the sufferings of Christ himself.

The context of the letter, the structure of the passage, and the testimony of the rest of Scripture all tell us that Philippians 4:13 means “I know that I can persevere in the faith through good times and bad because God is with me.”

Does that mean God won’t help you win your soccer game or survive jumping from a cliff on a dare? Nope. Maybe he will. It only means that this verse doesn’t apply to those situations.

I chose this passage because it was relatively easy to parse, so it served as a good example to demonstrate Scripture interpreting Scripture. In general, you will want to follow this plan:

  • Be familiar with the whole Bible before being too confident in your ability to interpret any particular difficult passage.Know the historical context and the genre (letter, history, poetry, etc.) of the book or passage you are studying.
  • Know the contents and purpose of the book (or passage for long books with distinct divisions).
  • Dissect the passage to be sure you know the theme and structure.
  • If there are uncertain words, check to see how the same Hebrew and Greek words are used elsewhere in Scripture.
  • This should work for most passages, but be flexible. Be prepared for ambiguity, hyperbole, and even sarcasm. Although every book in the Bible was inspired by God, the authors were still humans communicating with humans, and they wrote like it.

Understand the Bible: Rule #1

Common Sense Bible Study Foundational Principle #1: The Bible was written to be understood.

Three principles of Biblical interpretation are absolutely foundational to helping you understand the Bible. Without grasping these three rules, you will be blown around by doctrinal winds and fall prey to theological pied pipers.

Principle #1: The Bible was written to be understood.

Every sane person who publishes a book or writes a letter does so to communicate with other people. He writes in such a way that his intended audience will understand his message.

If he only wanted to work out personal frustrations or ensure he didn’t forget something, he could write it in a journal and use whatever obscure code he wanted. He could make up his own alphabet or use nicknames to hide his true meaning from snoops.

Real Meaning

But there’s nothing like that in the Scriptures. Everything in the Bible was written to be understood by someone other than the author. Some passages are obscure due to linguistic or cultural differences and others were written using veiled language for political or prophetic reasons. Those factors certainly complicate the process of interpretation, but you will never need a secret decoder ring to work it out.

If you understand who the author was, the cultural, linguistic, and historical context in which he wrote, and who his intended audience was, then the meaning shouldn’t be too difficult to tease out.

Real Language

The author won’t have invented his own words or new meanings for words that were already commonly used. He would write with words that were already familiar to his audience, and he would primarily use them in the context his audience would expect. He might use idioms or religious jargon, but only if he thought his audience would know what he meant. If he used a word in an unexpected way, you can expect him to explain it or give some kind of hint in the text.

Real People

Was the author a king, farmer, or priest? Did he live in times of peace or of foreign subjugation? Did he live in the shadow of the Temple or did he live in a distant land? Did his intended audience consist of relatively new converts or people who had grown up in the synagogue, attending every festival in Jerusalem? All of these circumstances and more will have profound impacts on the language and imagery he uses in his writing.

Yes, you can understand the Bible. You don’t need any secret algorithms, mystical diagrams, or urim and thummim. The only secret decoder ring you need is sufficient background information.

Up next… Foundational Principle #2: Scripture Interprets Scripture.

The Importance of Primary Sources

The importance of primary sources in finding the real truth.

Let’s pretend for a moment that there’s a newspaper out there that employs unbiased reporters and never confuses reporting with opining. I know that’s a stretch, but let’s pretend anyway. We’ll call it The Daily Truth.

If you want to know what’s been going on in Congress you have four choices:

  1. Read the Congressional Record, which is a play-by-play created by people who were there and participating.
  2. Read the Politics section of The Daily Truth, which may or may not include reporting by people who were present at the events, but certainly includes narrative based on the Congressional Record.
  3. Read the Opinion page of The Daily Truth, which includes personal opinions about the news reported in the Politics section written by people who definitely weren’t there.
  4. Check Facebook, which is like the Opinion page in the junior high student newspaper. You’ll be lucky if anyone even knows The Daily Truth exists, because it’s not allowed on Facebook.

Now, the Opinion page will certainly have content relevant to current events and even to specific and important political issues, but opinions aren’t facts. If you want to know what actually happened as opposed to what some pundit thinks about what happened, you only have two reasonable options: the Congressional Record and the Politics section of The Daily Truth, and most of the Politics section is probably written by people who don’t have any first-hand knowledge of the events they’re reporting.

So, if you want to get the bare facts–or as close to the facts as possible–then you have to go to the primary sources.

What is a primary source?

A primary source is a record of events by someone with first-hand knowledge. Examples include meeting minutes, personal diaries and letters, and first-hand accounts of historic events.

A secondary source is opinion about a primary source. Examples include most news articles, history books (not written by witnesses), academic papers, documentary videos, and commentary.

A Facebook post is a quip about headlines about opinions about primary sources.

Secondary sources can be interesting and informative, but they will never be anything more than opinion about someone else’s reporting of the facts. If you want to know the actual facts, and not opinions, you have to go to a primary source.

Of course, that doesn’t mean secondary sources are useless.

All translations of primary sources are, to a great extent, secondary sources, because translations are always affected by the knowledge and biases of the translator. Many words in one language have no direct equivalents in other languages, and sometimes the same word can have multiple meanings. If you were to translate a personal letter from Russian to English, you would have to make some guesses about what the author meant by some phrases. You would have an even harder time with translating across very different cultures in different eras.

Dictionaries, encyclopedias, commentaries, etc., are almost always secondary sources and can have huge disparities in their reliability.

The solution is to consult primary sources whenever possible and to consult several secondary sources when necessary. Make it your habit to compare Bible translations, Hebrew and Greek dictionaries, and commentaries. Over time, you will cultivate a good feel for which of these resources are reliable, which are interesting, and which are safe to ignore completely.

Even then, remember that the most reliable secondary source is still someone’s opinions about a primary source. They might be excellent opinions, but they’re still just opinions.

See this guide from the University of Massachusetts Boston for more information: description and examples of Primary vs Secondary Sources.

Be Aware of Your Assumptions when Reading the Bible

Everyone assumes.

That’s not a bad thing in itself. We have experiences and we’ve been taught things about the world, and we use this information from our past to help us understand what we experience in the present and what we expect from the future. We will never know everything there is to know about any event in our lives or that we read about, but we make assumptions about things that we can’t see based on what we have seen in similar circumstances before.

If you see a masked figure running from a bank, the movies you’ve watched, the news you’ve read, and your personal experiences with masks and banks will probably lead you to assume that the person has just robbed the bank. You’d probably be right.

Without assumptions, we’d be paralyzed by every new event. We would never be able to make decisions about anything because we’d have to analyze every detail and every detail about those details.

Unfortunately, our assumptions aren’t always right. Maybe there’s an employee costume party going on at the bank or the running figure was a horribly disfigured man late for an appointment with his plastic surgeon. Neither explanation seems likely, but they’re both possible.

The farther a situation is from our personal experiences, the more likely it is that our assumptions about it will be wrong. The passing of only a few decades or a few thousand miles can mean dramatic cultural changes.

Consider the differing experiences of farmers across the world in the same year. The work of a coffee grower in Indonesia, a Chinese rice farmer, a corn farmer in Iowa, and a greenhouse grower in Massachusetts has significant similarities. They plant, cultivate, harvest, and sell, but the differences are also significant. One might be a technician with an advanced degree in botany or biology, while another might be an illiterate slave. They speak different languages, use different tools and methods, have different values, follow different growing seasons and development cycles. They would not use the same vocabulary to record their life stories, nor the same metaphors to communicate their thoughts about God.

War, mass migrations, changes in language, economic conditions, technology… the potential complications can get…um…complicated. Now, extend that across thousands of years, a hundred generations and dozens of genocides, the rise and fall of empires and religions.

Welcome to Bible study.

The Bible was written over the course of 1500+ years, in multiple languages, by people with vastly different personal experiences and assumptions about the world. When you read it, you need to be aware of the historical, cultural, linguistic, and personal context of the original text, and even more aware of your own presuppositions.

If you approach the Bible wearing your modern American assumptions over your eyes, you are going to see much that isn’t there, and you will miss much that is. Your study will tend to reinforce what you think you already “know” rather than reveal what actually is.

The Holistic Nature of Scripture

To resolve apparent contradictions and other points of confusion, realize that Scripture is a palace, not a line. Read and understand it accordingly.

When God made mankind, he put them in the Garden and told them they could eat from every plant, right?

Genesis 1:29 And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food.”

Genesis 1:1-2:3 is a summary of creation week. Genesis 2:4-25 tells the same exact story but from a different vantage point. It’s hazy regarding the passage of time, leaves out some details, and adds some others. That doesn’t mean the two accounts are contradictory, only that they have different foci.

There is one problem, however. There is an apparent contradiction between Genesis 1:29 and 2:16-17.

Genesis 2:16-17 And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

Which is it? Can man eat every plant or not? The answer is yes!

There is no contradiction. The confusion is not in the words, but in the reader who treats them like a mathematical text. Genesis was written to be understood by ordinary people. It’s bare meaning had to be accessible to shepherds and farmers, so it was written in the same basic language that they themselves used.

When a subsistence farmer says, “Let’s get all these fields planted,” does he mean every single field in existence? Of course not. Does he even mean all of his own fields? No again. He only means all the fields that are supposed to be planted at this time, and he expects that everyone to whom he is speaking will understand that.

The ancient Hebrews knew the story of the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. When they heard or read, “I have given you every plant that grows on the earth,” they didn’t need to hear “except for this one” to understand that there was at least one exception.

We don’t need to hear it either. Instead, we need to understand that God and his words recorded in the Scriptures are holistic. They are a unified whole (echad in Hebrew) with depth and height and breadth. We cannot understand the words of Paul or John without understanding Moses and Isaiah, because the latter are a foundation and framework for the former. Likewise, since we do not live within the cultural context of Moses or Isaiah, we cannot completely understand their words either without Paul and John to finish the walls and trim.

Scripture is a palace, not a line. Read and understand it accordingly.

Patterns, Themes, and Other Advanced Topics

Patterns, Themes, and other advanced topics in Common Sense Bible Study

In this Common Sense Bible Study series, we’ve talked about many tools that can help you gain a better understanding of Scripture, about distractions that can lead you down unending, counterproductive rabbit trails, and about good personal study habits.

In this installment, I want to get into some more advanced topics. We’re going to step just a little bit beyond where basic common sense might normally take you…

Well, that’s odd…

Have you ever read something in the Bible that just left you scratching your head and wondering what possible reason God could have had for inserting that odd bit?

If you haven’t had that experience, then you need to close this email right now and go back to your Bible. You either haven’t read enough of it or you didn’t pay sufficient attention, because there is strange stuff everywhere, and it’s not there just for the entertainment value.

Writing materials in the centuries in which the Bible was compiled were very expensive. For most of history, scribes and printers used parchment and not paper for making Bibles, and they had to be copied by hand. There were no printing presses and no computers, not even a typewriter. It could take years of manual labor and the skin of hundreds of sheep to make a single copy of the Bible. Even if it were only the work of men and not God, they would have tried to keep the waste to an absolute minimum.

Surely God would put at least as much thought into the content of his communications as men would theirs!

I think we can be fairly certain that there is no wasted text in Scripture. Every word is important and is intended to convey meaning, and scribal errors have been repeatedly shown by competent scholars to be vanishingly rare. So if there seems to be something odd or pointless, the problem isn’t in the text. The problem is in our understanding of it. 

Four Scriptural Oddities

There are four kinds of Scriptural oddities that I want to call your attention to:

  1. The dull
  2. The weird
  3. The repetitive
  4. The contradictory

The Dull

Patches of dullness are scattered through the Old Testament like sheep in a pasture. Genealogies, lists, censuses, textual schematics, detailed rituals… It’s difficult getting through some of those passages.

None-the-less, they are important. There was an immediate, practical purpose to everything recorded.

  • Some genealogies were included to show lines of inheritance.
  • Censuses show us the relative sizes of families and tribes, and help to explain why this tribe had this territory and that tribe had another.
  • The Tabernacle was the focus of God’s presence among the people, and detailed instructions for its construction and use were absolutely necessary for the priests who would atone for sins and work in proximity to the unimaginable power of God. It was vital to the health of the nation and to the daily survival of the priests that they get it right.

But is that all there is to it, just public records and an instruction manual? Definitely not.

For example, Ezekiel 43:10 says, “As for you, son of man, describe to the house of Israel the temple, that they may be ashamed of their iniquities; and they shall measure the plan.” There is something about the design of the Temple that ought to make us ashamed of our sins. Clearly, the details weren’t written down just to make sure it was built correctly.

The original readers of Exodus and Ezekiel probably understood things about the symbolic meanings of numbers, shapes, and materials that we don’t. By examining how those things are used elsewhere in Scripture, we can get clues about what God meant by what he told Ezekiel. For example, various metals appear to be associated with spiritual ideas: gold with righteousness, silver with blood, and bronze with judgment. 

For another example that might have been more obvious to ancient peoples, look at the many genealogies. In some cases, they are there to provide historical context or to prove lines of descent. In other cases, there is almost certainly something deeper intended. Keep in mind that names in the Bible have meanings and that something important about a person might be memorialized in the name–or names, since they sometimes changed–that has been passed down to us.

Think of a dull part of the Bible like a tapestry that seems plain and gray from a distance, but that becomes more detailed and complex the closer you examine it.

The Weird

There are sooo many strange things in the Bible, and not just because it’s the product of a very foreign culture. There are mysteries and things that are just plain beyond our comprehension.

How would you explain sales technique to an ant? It doesn’t use money or even barter. It doesn’t use speech, but has a language consisting of a small vocabulary of dance moves and pheromones.

That’s like God and us.

There is a great deal about himself and his thoughts that God hasn’t told us, either because it’s not our business or because we couldn’t understand it if he did. His language, his motivations, his plans are more complex than we can imagine.

Just as our communication methods are more varied and complex than that of ants, so are God’s more complex than ours. He can’t communicate with us directly in his own way. The closest we have ever come was at the foot of Sinai, and it nearly killed us.

Instead of spelling everything out in plain words, God couches much of his communication in stories, parables, and metaphors. A picture can communicate much more than a thousand words in a single glance. It can tell bare facts, but it can also reveal character and even relationships. Likewise, a well crafted story can tell more than just the story. An interlocking network of stories can describe plots within plots, sub-plots, a universe, perhaps even layers of universes. 

A master story teller leaves indications–shadows–in his text of the stories behind the story, and God has left these clues everywhere in the Bible. Whenever you see something especially odd–an inexplicable action, a bizarre ritual, or a talking donkey–it’s a signal that you should stop and take a closer look.

Consider Balaam’s donkey. Although stories of miracles in the Bible are usually meant to be understood as literally true, some stories seem more out of place than others. Animals don’t talk, and there is no hint anywhere else in Scripture that we should expect them to as a miraculous manifestation of God’s power, so when the Bible tells of a talking animal, then the real story isn’t the talking animal, but something hidden beneath the bare text. When I was considering this portion of this article, I realized that there is only one other story in the Bible that involves a talking animal: the serpent in the Garden. The two stories must be connected.

Although the elements of the two stories are not in the same order, the parallels are astonishing: the crushed heel, the angel blocking the way, the questioning of God’s instructions, etc. Clearly the author of the Balaam story wanted his readers to see the connection, but since he didn’t explain why, he must have also wanted us to think through the connections for ourselves in order to learn something deeper.

Now, all sorts of truths and lessons could be derived from this particular connection, and I don’t intend to talk about them here. My point is that the connections exist. There are profound lessons to be derived from them if we are willing.

When something in the text stands out as odd or out of place, you can often gain a better understanding and even make some startling discoveries by looking for thematic connections with other passages.

The Repetitive

There are three different kinds of repetition in Scripture. 

  1. A single phrase or theme might be repeated within a short span of text.
  2. A set of images, actions, or objects might reappear together in a distant part of Scripture.
  3. A word or phrase might be repeated with a twist in spelling or usage.

There is a lot of overlap in this section with the previous two. The first type of repetition often seems tedious and the second type signals thematic connections that highlight deeper truths behind seemingly unrelated passages.

Parallelisms and Chiasms

Parallelisms and chiasms are some of the more interesting examples of repetition. They are literary structures meant to serve as mnemonic devices as well as to draw the readers attention to contrasts, central points, and connections within a block of text. 

One of my favorite chiasms is in Genesis 27. In verses 18-19, Isaac asks Jacob, “Who are you?” and Jacob responds with “I am Esau, your firstborn.” In verses 31-32, Esau approaches Isaac and says “I am your firstborn, Esau,” and Isaac responds with “Who are you?” If you read this entire passage in a single sitting, when you get to verse 32, you might be left with a vague sense of deja vu, and you’re supposed to. If you work forward from verse 18 and backwards from verse 32, you’ll find a series of parallel events and statements in reverse order until you get to the center of the story in which Isaac sets aside his doubts and believes Jacob’s lie.

I posted a graphical representation of that chiasm here: A Chiasm Centered on the Deception of Isaac.

You can see my growing list of chiasms and parallelisms here: An Index of Biblical Chiasmi and Parallelisms.

Thematic Repetitions

Thematic repetitions, like the serpent and the donkey discussed above, are less structured than chiasms, but are no less significant. The Bible is packed full of them.

For example, the imprisonment and resurrection of Joseph is a foreshadowing of the death and resurrection of Yeshua.

In another example, the competing claims of Mephibosheth and Ziba on Saul’s inheritance during the reign of David (told throughout the book of 2 Samuel) are almost identical to the claims of the two women on the same baby during the reign of Solomon (told in 1 Kings 3). The former story was left with an unsatisfying resolution, but in the second story, the child was restored to his real mother because of Solomon’s shocking proposal to cut the baby in two. The writer’s intent was probably to show how the son’s wisdom had eclipsed even that of David, his illustrious father.

There are many, many more examples.


Anaphora is the repeated use of the same or very similar words in successive phrases or sentences as a form of emphasis or parallelism.

This third category of repetition might be the easiest to miss and sometimes can only be clearly seen in the Hebrew. In Biblical anaphora, a word or phrase is repeated in order to emphasize different meanings. The repeated text might be changed slightly to illustrate a difference in perspective or intent, as in the commissioning of Joshua in Deuteronomy 31 (See more detail on that here: Shadows of Jesus in Joshua) and Yeshua telling Peter to feed his sheep in John 21, but it could also use the exact same words each time, relying on oral tradition or greater context to draw out the real meaning, or even on puns that are frequently lost in English translations.

Remember that God doesn’t waste words. He doesn’t repeat himself without reason, so when you see repetition, ask why, and look for differences and similarities.

The Contradictory

We’ve all heard about the many so-called contradictions in the Bible, and since you’re still reading this, you probably already figured out that most of them aren’t contradictions at all. They’re obviously taken out of context and deliberately misinterpreted by dishonest people with an anti-Christian agenda.

On the other hand, we have to be honest with ourselves about some troublesome passages too. There really are some sticky conundrums in the canon. I’m willing to concede that there might be some scribal errors in some of the historical books, but there are some other apparent contradictions that can’t be dismissed so easily. 

Take this one, for instance:

Deuteronomy 15:4 says, “There will be no poor among you.” Yet just a little further down the page, verse 11 says, “For there will never cease to be poor in the land.” Which is it? Will there never be poor or will there always be poor?

For another example, one of God’s many titles is YHWH Tsevaot, which means, God of Armies. Yet Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 14:33 that he is a God of peace. Which is it? Is he a God of Armies or a God of Peace?

Whenever you encounter apparent contradictions like these, the first thing you can be sure of is that there is no contradiction. The conflict can be resolved by adjusting your perspective. One or more statements could be metaphor or intended to be limited in scope. In the example from Deuteronomy 15 cited above, one statement could be meant as a goal, while the second could be an observation about how life is actually going to play out. No plan of battle ever survives first contact with the enemy, as they say.

There could be any number of explanations for apparent contradictions, but you’ll have to dig for them. You’ll have to study and think to find a resolution, and that’s a good thing! The Bible isn’t a children’s story book, and it wasn’t designed for casual reading.

God Loves Patterns

His creation is a complex weave of interconnected, synergistic parts and modular sets of instructions that serve multiple, simultaneous purposes in widely varying circumstances. His word written on paper is built on the same principles as his word written in the stars and in DNA.

When you step back from the Scriptures and examine them more broadly, you will see things that you can’t see from close up. When you examine them in minute detail, you will see things you can’t see from a distance. And when you turn them just so to look from another angle, the light is refracted as in a diamond into yet more beautiful patterns.

You will never know everything there is to know about God and his plan. You can study the Bible for a dozen lifetimes and still find new layers, new truths, new wonders that testify to God’s infinite wisdom and creativity.

Enjoy the treasure hunt. It’s part of what we were built for.

Guilt by Pronunciation: How the quirks of language can waylay unsuspecting Bible students

False cognates can be confusing to people who aren't aware of them.

The Apostle Paul wrote,

For God is my record, how greatly I long after you all in the bowels of Jesus Christ.
Philippians 1:8 KJV

What a curious thing to say. Paul wants Jesus to eat us all!

No, really. It says so right there.

Wait. That’s not what Paul meant, you say?

Well, of course not. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s easy to see that the original intent isn’t what it seems to be in plain English, so we know that Paul was using an expression that just didn’t translate well. With a little thought, we can work out that he actually meant “with the heart/affection of Jesus”.

Every language uses metaphors and colloquialisms that can be difficult to translate. In the case of Philippians 1:8, the King James translators used English words that people of the 17th century were likely to understand, but that have changed meaning over the centuries or fallen out of usage altogether. The result is very strange and startling to modern ears. Fortunately, it’s so odd that very few people will take it literally.

However, there are a number of similar mistakes that people commonly make either because they are not considering potential problems with translation or because they are unfamiliar with the historical realities of how languages, culture, and expression change over time.

Cognates and False Cognates

Let me give you two examples of bad interpretation resulting from a failure to understand history and language that remain bizarrely persistent despite obvious problems.

If you’ve ever studied another language, you have probably encountered the term cognate, which means a word that sounds the same or very similar to a word with the same meaning in another language. Here are a few examples:

  • English “music” – Russian “muzika”
  • English “perfect” – Spanish “perfecto”
  • English “sabbath” – Lithuanian “sabatas”

Cognates are very common among languages within the same family. Russian, Spanish, English, and Lithuanian all descend from a single, ancient language that linguists call Indo-European because it is the ancestor of languages that are spoken today from India to Europe and everywhere that those people have migrated. There are many language families in the world. You can get an overview of the topic here:

Even worse, some words in the same language can have the same sound or spelling, but still have different meanings or linguistic origins. Consider the English word “ball”.

  • Ball – An air-filled sphere used as a toy or as an integral part of a sport.
  • Ball – A party characterized by formal dress and dancing.

Without more information, the meaning of even a simple sentence like “Let’s go to the ball.” is ambiguous.

One language can also have words that sound similar to words in other languages, but have completely different meanings or descend from different original words. These are called false cognates, and they can be very tricky for students. Languages in the same family frequently have false cognates (Carpeta doesn’t mean carpet in Spanish. It means folder or binder.), but they can also occur in languages from different families, like English and Hebrew.

  • English “show” – Japanese “sho“, which means document.
  • English “data” – Portuguese “data“, which means calendar date.
  • English “offer” – Swedish “offer“, which means victim.

I’m sure you can see how all of this might be very confusing for someone who isn’t fluent in both languages. Frequently, a little knowledge can get people into trouble in this respect.

God vs Gad

Another good example that I see on social media all the time is the English word “god” and the Hebrew word “gad“. They sound the same and are even spelled the same (gd) if you use Hebrew characters instead of English, because Hebrew doesn’t use vowels. The English word is a generic noun we use to refer to any deity, while the Hebrew has several possible meanings.

One of the Sons of Israel was named Gad. Translators disagree about what his name means because there are at least three Hebrew words that are spelled and pronounced in the exact same way. They variously mean “fortune”, “troop” or “crowd”, and “coriander”. So was Gad named Fortune, Troop, or Coriander? We can probably eliminate Coriander, but translators disagree about whether his name means troop or fortune.

To complicate matters even further, many ancient cultures had gods of fortune or prosperity, and Isaiah 65:11 contains a reference to such a deity that went by the name Gad, literally the god of fortune.

This seems like a pretty minor issue, until you learn that some people believe we shouldn’t call YHWH “God” because we are commanded not to call on the names of false gods. If they are right, then we might be guilty of idolatry (at worst) or disrespect (at best) by referring to YHWH as “God.”

Here is where an awareness of history, linguistics, and common sense comes in very handy. If there is a real historic or linguistic connection between the Hebrew Gad and the English God, then we should seriously consider this objection. If there isn’t, then it’s safe to dismiss it as nonsense.

Gad – All three Hebrew words come from a common Hebrew root verb (gadad) that means to cut or furrow. The derivation probably came from one of three possible implications of cutting:

  1. Almost all wealth ultimately comes from the ground, whether it be through farming, ranching, or mining. All of which involve cutting or furrowing the ground to get something valuable out of it.
  2. Uncovering a hidden treasure requires digging, cutting, or breaking something to get to it.
  3. Wresting wealth from someone else’s control requires force, which usually involves a troop with weapons designed for cutting or piercing.
  4. There is no real doubt among linguists that the word gad is native to Semitic languages and probably wasn’t adopted from some other language family. In other words, the Hebrews didn’t borrow the word from the Germans or their ancestors.

God – According to, the English word god has remained unchanged in meaning for at least 1500 years, but comes from a Proto-German word that probably meant “that which is invoked” or from a Proto-Indo-European word that meant “poured out”. In either case, it is definitely of Indo-European origin, and not Semitic. In other words, the proto-Germanic people didn’t borrow the word from the Hebrews.

Here are the possible connections:

  • They sound alike…but that’s not really a connection since both words have ancient, unrelated roots in different language families.
  • Isaiah 65:11 mentions setting a table for “Gad” and filling cups for the God of Destiny, and a possible Proto-Indo-European root for “god” might have something to do with pouring stuff. However, the god associated with pouring drinks in Isaiah is Destiny, which, in Hebrew, is meni not gad.

Seems pretty weak to me.

The Hebrew word is a common noun that was expanded to a title (god of fortune), that was then shortened again to be used as a proper noun (Gad/Fortune). Misuse of the word gad doesn’t make it pagan anymore than the words sun and moon, both of which have had their associated deities. If we had a god of fortune and over many centuries came to call it simply “Fortune”, that wouldn’t make the word “fortune” pagan. It would only make pagan those people who worshiped fortune as if it could be a god, when in fact, the true God really is a fortune in almost every sense of the word.

We can’t abandon every word simply because some group of pagans might have once slapped it onto an imaginary being.

As I hope you see, the connection between “gad” and “god” is so extremely tenuous that I think it’s safe to say there is no connection there at all. Gad and god are merely false cognates, words from different languages that sound the same, but aren’t.

Jesus Doesn’t Come from Zeus

There are many, many other examples of mistaking false cognates for true ones.

For example, some people claim that the name Jesus is derived from Zeus (as in Yay-Zeus or something like that), despite it being spelled and pronounced very differently. The Hebrew name Yeshua was commonly transliterated into Greek as Iesous (Iesou plus the masculine ending -s) long before Jesus/Yeshua was born. Being a transliterated Hebrew name, and not a translation at all, it is meaningless in Greek, so claiming that it means “healing Zeus” or “hail Zeus” is pure fantasy, as every scholar of ancient Greek will attest.

Be Skeptical of Theological Claims Based on Spelling or Pronunciation

I could give you more examples, but I hope this is sufficient to demonstrate that similar sounding words in different languages don’t necessarily share any meaning or history. Whenever you encounter theological claims based on the spelling or pronunciation of English words, be very skeptical. The English language didn’t even exist until many centuries after the last book of the Bible was written, and the Old Testament was written in languages that aren’t even in the same linguistic family tree as English.

When in doubt on any similar kind of question, check with a reputable linguist and historian, not with a theologian or blogger, not even one who wrote a book or two. Especially don’t rely on the claims of social media denizens.

In the meantime, don’t stress about it. Focus on what’s clear and important first. Worry about obscure questions and gray areas more after you’ve mastered love and mercy.