Why the Dead Sea Scrolls Matter for Christians

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The Dead Sea Scrolls are currently on display at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science through September 3. This is the exhibit’s final display in the US before the artifacts will be taken back to Israel. (More information and tickets here)

Discovered in 1946 in caves on the North-West of the Dead Sea, the Dead Sea Scrolls are made up of 981 different manuscripts dating from the third century BC to 68 AD. They have been called, “the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times,” and it has been said that they have “forever changed New Testament scholarship”1

Why do the Dead Sea Scrolls Matter?

1. They Verify That the Bible Is Reliable and Hasn’t Been Changed Over Time

“The older the copies, the closer we get chronologically to the autographs, the fewer copies there are between the original Old Testament writings and these copies that we have,” explains Ryan Stokes of Southwestern Seminary.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are hundreds of years older than the previously known oldest manuscripts, and they prove that the Old Testament text had been faithfully preserved over the centuries, and that the Hebrew text translated for modern Christians accurately represents the Bible that Jesus read and the Bible as it was originally written.

In at least one instance, the Dead Sea Scrolls helped to solve a mystery which has great theological significance regarding Jesus.

Psalm 22:16 says: a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet.

Christians have always considered Psalm 22 and this verse in particular to be a prophecy about Jesus’ crucifixion, which is all the more incredible since it written hundreds of years before crucifixion had even been invented.

However, there was some dispute historically over whether this was actually what the original text said, since the Masoretic text (the Hebrew Bible preserved from the Middle Ages, and the oldest known version of the Old Testament before the discovery of the DSS) read, “Like a lion are my hands and my feet.”

However, this problem was resolved when scholars discovered that the much older Dead Sea Scrolls confirmed the text indeed should say: “they have pierced my hands and feet.”

2. They Give Us Insight into Jewish Culture at the Time of Jesus

Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the historical veracity of the New Testament was often called into question. From the expectation of the Jews regarding the Messiah, to the world of Pharisees and preachers like John the Baptist, many claimed that the world the New Testament described was purely fictional. However, with the discovery of the DSS, it could be confirmed that the New Testament very accurately described the culture and history of first-century Israel.

Of the nearly 1000 scrolls which have been found, around 700 of them are non-biblical writings. These non-biblical writings include things like community rules and expectations regarding the Messiah. It is from this that we learn that certain Jewish communities practiced baptism for repentance (ala John the Baptist), and that they were expecting two Messiahs: one who would be an priest and the other who would be a king. Jesus ultimately did fulfill this biblical expectation, albeit not in the exact way they expected.

Of the 240 biblical scrolls from Qumran, 235 are written in Hebrew and 5 are in Greek. Of the 701 non-biblical scrolls, 548 are written in Hebrew, 137 in Aramaic, and 5 in Greek. This shows that Jews at the time of Jesus did indeed speak Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic, the three languages of the Bible.

Scholars believe that many of the scrolls were originally taken from Jerusalem, when a group of priests who believed that the temple worship and leadership had become corrupt, left Jerusalem, taking with them many of the scrolls from the temple, and formed an alternative “pure” community out in the desert, where they proceeded to make many more copies of the biblical texts.

This parallels exactly what the New Testament describes about the corruption at that time of the office of the high priest and the religious leaders in Jerusalem.

Other scrolls were taken from Jerusalem when the Romans attacked Jerusalem after the Jewish Uprising in 68 AD, and they took them with them as they fled to Masada near the Dead Sea, where they were able to successfully hide some of these scrolls.

The long and short of it: We can trust the Bible.

The Bible stands up to scrutiny, and the more scholarship and archeology discovers, the more the Bible is proven to be accurate and trustworthy.

For more on this topic, listen to this recent sermon I gave at White Fields about whether we can trust the Bible:

As well as this Sermon-Extra addressing a few more proofs of the Bible’s veracity:

Overcoming Blind Spots

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Have you ever heard a recording of your voice and been appalled by how it sounds? “Surely there must be something wrong with that recording,” we think, “because there’s no way that that’s how I really sound!”

But guess what: That’s how you actually sound to other people. The problem isn’t with the recording, it’s that your perception of how you sound doesn’t match the reality of how you actually sound.

From Time’s article: “Why Do I Hate the Sound of My Own Voice?“: “When you hear people talking, sound waves travel through the air and into your ears, vibrating your ear drums. Your brain then transforms those vibrations into sound. However, when you’re the one talking, your vocal cords and airways vibrate. That means you receive two sources of sound: the sound waves that travel into your ears, as well as vocal cord vibrations.”

What is true of our voices is also true of us in general: we aren’t very good judges of how we really are. There is some amount of discrepancy between our perception of ourselves and how other people see us.

We call these things “blind spots.” They are the things about ourselves that we do not see clearly, or are completely unaware of. They can be habits, attitudes, fears, insecurities or other idiosyncrasies.

For example: I can see things in my wife that she doesn’t realize about herself. She is blind to them, but I can see them. The same is true the other way around.

We all have blind spots, but if you were to ask me, “Hey Nick, what are your blind spots?”, my response would be: “How the heck should I know?! By definition they are things that I am blind to! – that I don’t see about myself!”

And oftentimes our blind spots are our greatest weaknesses; they’re the things which can do the most damage to us or hold us back from reaching our goals – they’re the things which will lead us into ruin and trouble!

If that’s the case, then we’ve got a big problem! Because if there are things about us which have the potential to hold us back and even hurt us or wreck us, but we are unable to see them, then we are in big trouble! What can we do to overcome our blind spots?

The only way to overcome our blind spots is by having other people in our lives whom we allow to get to know us well enough that they can see those things about us, and by giving those people permission to speak into your life.

Not any old person will do for this. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what someone’s weaknesses or blind spots are, but it does take a loving person to be willing to come alongside someone and help them see their blind spots in a way that helps rather than hurts. This is why the Bible says, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Proverbs 27:6). Critiques which come from those who are not committed, loyal friends may often be accurate, but they can often be crushing.

Recently at a conference I spoke about the importance of bringing other people into a creative process. In this case I was speaking particularly about writing sermons, but I believe it is true of other creative processes as well. In order for you to overcome your blind spots, you need people who can help you overcome your idiosyncrasies and weaknesses, but who will do it from a place of commitment and a desire to help. I have experienced this, not only on a creative level, but on a personal level as well.

In order to become the people God is calling us to be, we need brothers and sisters.

Let brotherly love continue. (Hebrews 13:1)

For more on the subject of Christian community, check out this recent message from White Fields Church:

I Took a Poll; Here’s What I’ve Learned So Far

On Monday I posted an anonymous poll, asking people what they have found to be the greatest hurdles people today face in believing and embracing Christianity. I got a ton of responses! I’m still looking to get more input, so if you haven’t do so yet, please visit that poll and fill it out.

Shortly after I posted on Monday, as responses started rolling in, I added a second question to the poll, asking whether the person responding was a Christian or not. The reason was: I wanted to determine if there is a difference between the questions that Christians struggle with as opposed to people who aren’t Christians.

Here’s the data so far:

Of those who indicated their belief:

77% were Christians
18% were not Christians
5% were undecided

18% of responders did not indicate if they were Christians or not.

Moral issues seem to be a bigger stumbling block to faith than empirical issues

Most people (71%) said that hypocrisy amongst Christians is a major hurdle to believing Christianity.

In fact, the majority responses, particularly by people who are not Christians, were that the biggest hurdles for them are not necessarily empirical issues – things which are either true or not, such as science, the veracity of the Bible or the “Christ myth”, but rather moral issues, such as hypocrisy, suffering, and Hell.

This aligns with what I wrote about last week, on the topic of whether studying science leads to atheism or not. (Read that series here)

Some of the write-in responses were very telling as well. One person responded that one of the reasons they struggle with accepting Christianity is because they feel it is regressive in its views of sexuality. Another person wrote that they struggle to embrace Christianity because they see Christian culture as encouraging abusive behavior.

This also aligns with the results of a 2007 Barna research project, in which they asked people why they rejected Christianity. None of the top six answers were evidential reasons. They majority rejected Christianity for moralistic reasons, including hypocrisy and being judgmental. In other words, the biggest problem people had with Christianity was the behavior of Christians themselves. On some level, they had determined that if Christianity produced these kinds of people, then there must be something wrong with Christianity.

A few things to consider regarding hypocrisy

Fake disciples: many people who attend church aren’t Christians

Jesus began his ministry with a call to repent. And yet, who was he talking to: religious people or heathens? Religious people. In other words: there are a lot of people who are religious outwardly, but they are not truly disciples of Jesus.

A poll taken several years ago showed that the lifestyle activities of people who claimed to be Christians were statistically the same as those of people claiming not to be Christians when it came to the following categories: gambling, visiting pornographic websites, taking something that didn’t belong to them, saying mean things behind someone’s back, consulting a medium or a psychic, having a physical fight or abusing someone, using illegal or nonprescription drugs, saying something to someone that’s not true, getting back at someone for something they did, and consuming enough alcohol to be considered legally drunk. The study also found that people who claimed to be Christians were less likely to recycle than those who did not claim to be Christians (68 percent vs. 79 percent).1

Many of these people are those who have adopted a cultural form of Christianity, but whether they have truly been converted in their hearts is another question altogether. Jesus’ most scathing words were for people in this camp – the one to which the Pharisees belonged. He called them “whitewashed tombs” – they look good on the outside, they were outwardly religious, but on the inside there was no life, only death. Check out Jesus’ critique of them in Matthew 23.

Jesus mentioned that there are many people who believe they are Christians, but in fact they are not. See Matthew 7:21-23

James (James 2:14-18) and John (1 John 2:4,9) both say that if a person says they have faith, but their actions contradict what they claim to believe, then there is a seriously possibility that they are not actually a Christian at all. James 2:19 points out that even demons believe that God exists, but that doesn’t make them Christians. Simply believing in the existence of God doesn’t make one a Christian, but believing the gospel and following Jesus.

High standards bring the junk to the surface

It’s not just the “fake disciples” in the church who are hypocrites though… I’m sure that I don’t always live up to the standards which I whole-heartedly affirm. But that’s the nature of standards: the higher the standard, the more incongruity it will bring to the surface. If you don’t have a standard, then you won’t fall short of it and you won’t contradict it. The higher the standard, the more you will fall short.

The gospel causes an upheaval in our lives and spurs on a process of revealing our shortcomings and hypocrisies – but what true disciples do is repent of those things, and seek to change those things by God’s grace at work within them.

And here’s the good news: the message of the gospel is not about what we do, but about what God has done for us in Christ. For Christians though, it is really important to remember that other people care a lot about what we do and the attitudes we have as those who bear the name of Christ.

 

Reference:
David Kinnaman, and Gabe Lyons, unChristian, 46–47.

 

Poll: Common Hurdles to Believing Christianity

Starting the Sunday after Easter, we will be doing a series at White Fields called “The Trouble Is…”, in which we will be talking about and addressing common questions and objections that people have about Christianity.

You can help me by taking a second to fill out this quick anonymous poll to let me know what are some of the biggest hurdles to faith that you have experienced yourself or encountered in other people. Thanks!

(email subscribers can click here to access the poll)

Will Studying Science Make You an Atheist? – Part 3

In my previous two posts: Will Studying Science Make You an Atheist – Part 1 Part 2, we talked about how data shows that, contrary to the popular myth, studying science can actually build faith rather than undermine it, and that in reality everyone exercises faith when it comes to metaphysical matters.

The real question is: What is the content of my set of beliefs? And flowing from that: What is that content based on?

Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin wrote an article in which he admitted that he prefers naturalistic explanations for things because he has “a prior commitment…to materialism.”1

In other words, for Lewontin, his science isn’t driven by objective facts or reason, it is driven by an underlying philosophy. He approaches his scientific work with a faith position and a metaphysical belief, not the other way around.

Interestingly, in the field of philosophy, Alvin Platinga, considered one of the greatest living philosophers, is a theist who has so convincingly argued for the existence of God that it has changed the entire climate of academic philosophy, to the point where atheism, rather than belief in God, is now considered a “superstitious” belief.

Philosopher David Bentley Hart says of this,

“I do not regard true philosophical atheism as an intellectually valid or even cogent position; in fact, I see it as a fundamentally irrational view of reality, which can be sustained only by a tragic absence of curiosity or a fervently resolute will to believe the absurd,”2

I will leave you with this quote from one of my favorite authors, Oxford professor Alistair McGrath: “The idea that science and religion are in perpetual conflict is no longer taken seriously by any major historian of science.” He concludes by saying that the idea that “fact-based science” is “at war” with “faith-based religion” is “a myth.”3

 

References:
“Billions and Billions of Demons,” The New York Review of Books (January 9, 1997), 28., quoted in Clark, The Problem of God, (p. 31)
The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss, (p. 16)
The Twilight of Atheism, (p. 87)

 

Will Studying Science Make You an Atheist? – Part 1

In the movie Nacho Libre, the main character, Nacho, is a Christian who works at a church-run orphanage. At one point, he makes a friend named Esqueleto, and they have a conversation:

Nacho: I’m a little concerned right now. About… your salvation and stuff. How come you have not been baptized?
Esqueleto: Because I never got around to it, okay? I dunno why you always have to be judging me because I only believe in science.

Earlier in the film, Esqueleto declares: “I don’t believe in God. I believe in science.”

This reflects a common misconception: That faith in God is anti-rational and unreasonable, that science and belief in God are incompatible, and that you have to choose between being a person of faith or a person of science.

Richard Dawkins has said that “Faith is like a mental illness,” it is “the great cop-out, the excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence.”1 Dawkins holds the view that Christianity, and faith in general, will eventually go the way of the Dodo bird and become extinct as time goes on.

Except…that is not what is happening. Just the opposite is happening actually – and as it turns out, it is as a result of people studying science more…

As Alex Rex Sandage, considered the greatest observational cosmologist of all time, has said: “It is my science that drove me to the conclusion that the world is much more complicated than can be explained by science.”2

Lesslie Newbigin, the British theologian and social theorist, makes the claim that “statistically, the correlation between academic life and irreligion is much higher in the social sciences and the humanities than it is among the natural sciences—physics, chemistry, and biology. Atomic physicists are much more likely to believe in God than sociologists.”3

Is that true? Does studying science actually tend to lead people to believe in God rather than to become atheists? Studies would suggest the answer is: Yes.

There have been several recent studies on the topic of spirituality and higher education, including an an ongoing study at UCLA, another at the University of Michigan, and another by sociologists at the University of British Columbia which focused on the spirituality of professors.

The data from the former two studies was disseminated in an article titled “Studying science doesn’t make you an atheist… but studying literature does!”, which concluded with this quote from a University of Michigan researcher: ”Our results suggest that it is Postmodernism, not Science, that is the bête noir of religiosity.”

The University of Michigan study showed that those who studied and worked in scientific fields felt that science confirmed their beliefs about God rather than disrupted them.

…to be continued. Click here to read Part 2!

 

References:
1 The Nullifidian (December 1994)
2 Quoted in: Mark Clark. The Problem of God (p. 38).
3 Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (p.17).

What Science and the Bible Say About What Leads to Happiness

I recently stumbled upon the work of behavioral scientist Winfred Gallagher, author of Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, which made the New York Times Bestseller list a few years back. I found the basic premise of the book quite interesting in that through her research Gallagher has validated something which the New Testament has been teaching for almost 2000 years.

For Gallagher, it was an unexpected event in her personal life which set her on this journey: she was diagnosed with an aggressive and advanced form of cancer. Going into her treatment, she had expected it to be a miserable time, but instead found it to be a surprisingly pleasant period of her life. Although physically uncomfortable, she enjoyed many things during this time, including going on walks, and her personal favorite: an evening martini. This led her to later pursue investigating the role that attention plays in a person’s happiness.

After 5 years of studying this topic, she came away with what she called “a grand theory of the mind:”

Like fingers pointing to the moon, other diverse disciplines from anthropology to education, behavioral economics to family counseling similarly suggest that the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience, from mood to productivity to relationships.

If you could look backward at your years thus far, you’d see that your life has been fashioned from what you’ve paid attention to and what you haven’t. You’d observe that of the myriad sights and sounds, thoughts and feelings that you could have focused on, you selected a relative few, which became what you’ve confidently called “reality.” You’d also be struck by the fact that if you had paid attention to other things, your reality and your life would be very different.

The biggest factor which leads to happiness, in other words, is what you choose to focus your attention on.

Author Cal Newport, in reference to this says:

This concept upends the way that most people tend to think about their subjective experience of this life. We tend to focus on our circumstances: assuming that what happens to us, or fails to happen, determines how we feel. From this perspective, the small-scale details of how you spend your day aren’t that important, because what matters are the large-scale outcomes: whether you get a promotion or move to that nicer apartment. According to Gallagher, decades of research contradict this understanding.¹

In other words: our perception of the world and of ourselves is shaped less by our circumstances, and more by what we choose to focus on and pay attention to.

For readers of the Bible, this only serves to confirm what we already know and believe. This is the reason why the Bible says things like:

whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things…and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:8-9)

This is the reason why Paul the Apostle could write a letter from jail about being full of joy in Jesus; because he took his own advice to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” (Colossians 3:1-2)

This is the reason why to those suffering pressure and persecution as a result of their Christian faith, Paul’s advice was to “fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2-3)

As Winfred Gallagher rightly discerned: two people can be facing the same exact circumstances, but what they focus on will determine how they feel about it and deal with it. This has been a trademark of Christianity from its inception. However, as Christians, our focus is not on shallow pleasures and momentary distractions, but we draw from the deep well of hope that is found in Jesus Christ alone! For this reason:

we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

Whatever you are going through today, may you fix your eyes on Jesus, and may the hope you find in Him define your reality, giving you joy in the face of anything life brings your way.