The Resurrection Witness of “Half-Frantic” Women (Part 3) Harmonizing the Empty Tomb Accounts

Women-at-tomb

READ PART 1: The Resurrection Witness of “Half-Frantic” Women (Part 1) The Significance of the Women Witnesses

READ PART 2: The Resurrection Witness of “Half-Frantic” Women (Part 2) Understanding Differences Between the Accounts

 

To review from last article, when reading ancient biographies, like the Gospels, we find:

  • Selective Details
  • Paraphrasing
  • Telescoping (Extending or Compressing)
  • Selective Representation
  • Selective Chronology

 

Now, armed with this understanding of ancient biographical writing conventions, we’ll place the events surrounding the women and the empty tomb in chronological order.

 

MAKING SENSE OF MATTHEW’S ACCOUNT

Selective Chronology doesn’t really come into play with the accounts of the women and the empty tomb with the exception of — possibly — Matthew’s Gospel. This isn’t surprising since Matthew is the Gospel writer who most arranges things thematically and the one who regularly gives condensed versions of accounts that read very differently than the other Gospels’ accounts. 

When you read it, it’s easy to visualize what Matthew writes as unfolding as follows: 

(1) Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go to the tomb, (2) an earthquake happens, (3) an angel descends, rolls back the stone covering the tomb’s entrance and sits on it. (4) The guards pass out. (5) Still sitting on the stone, the angel speaks to the women. 

But I don’t think this is the chronological order of these events. Is Matthew using “creative license” here with chronology? The other accounts make no mention of the earthquake, the angel’s descent, and the actual rolling away of the stone. Matthew is the only one to mention these events, and it makes sense that they would have happened before the women arrived because the other accounts report the women find the stone already rolled away upon arrival (and they encounter the angle inside the tomb). 

I think the description of the angel rolling back the stone and the guards fainting is a flashback to what happened before the women arrived. I believe it’s acceptable to read Matthew’s account as: 

(1) An earthquake occurred, (2) an angel descended, rolls back the stone covering the tomb’s entrance and sits on it. (3) The guards pass out. (4) Later, the women arrive (the guards have likely awoken and run off by now), and the women find the empty, open tomb. (5) The angel (no longer on the stone) speaks to the women inside the tomb.

Thus, the earthquake, the angel’s descent, and the guards’ falling into unconsciousness is a flashback sandwiched between Matthew telling us the women went to the tomb and the angel speaking to the women. So, Matthew can be understood as follows:

Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2 And behold, [before they arrived] there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4 And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. 5 But [after the women arrived] the angel said to the women [inside the tomb], “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here, for he has risen… (Matthew 28:1–6)

After looking at the other Gospel accounts, we see that Matthew drastically condensed his account, taking many shortcuts in his retelling, but giving the key elements. Because of Matthew’s “shortcuts,” it’s easy to visualize his account differently had we not had the other accounts to compare it to.

 

HARMONIZING THE RESURRECTION ACCOUNTS

But the big differences just don’t appear in Matthew, as we touched on in the last article. Understanding the ancient (and non-ancient) writing conventions we looked at in the last article will now continue to assist us as we put the pieces of the four Gospels together to get a complete picture of the events surrounding the finding of the empty tomb.

Based on a careful reading of all four Gospels, I believe the events played out in the following way:

  • An earthquake occurs, the angel descends and rolls back the stone before the tomb’s entrance and sits on it, and the guards “become like dead men.” (Matthew 28:2-4)
  • Sometime later, around dawn, Mary Magdalene and other women go to the tomb. (Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:1-3, Luke 23:55-24:1, John 20:1)
    • Selective Representation – John only mentions Mary Magdalene and the other writers mention select women with her.
  • Mary Magdalene and the other women find the stone rolled away from the tomb’s entrance. (Mark 16:4, Luke 24:2, John 20:1)
  • Mary Magdalene splits from the other women and runs to tell Peter and John. (John 20:2) 
    • We’ll pick back on Mary Magdalene’s path below…
  • The remaining women enter the tomb and find Jesus’ body missing. (Mark 16:5-6, Luke 24:3)
    • No specific women are named here — just a general reference to the women entering the tomb. Because of this, it’s easy to imagine Mary Magdalene still with them when we read Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but we know from John’s Gospel she has run off.
  • The women see at least two angels in the tomb.
    • Selective Representation – Luke mentions two angels, where Mark 16:5 and Luke 24:4 mention one, likely the one speaking.
  • The women are told Jesus is risen (Matthew 28:5-6, Mark 16:6, Luke 24:5-7)
    • If we only had Matthew’s account, we can imagine the conversation taking place outside the tomb. Matthew’s condensed version leaves out the details of them entering the tomb.
  • The women are told to go tell the disciples (Matthew 28:7, Mark 16:7, Luke 24:8-10).

 

A CHALLENGE IN MARK’S ACCOUNT

After this, both Matthew and Luke tell us the women go and tell the disciples, but Mark seems to make a big issue for us: Mark tells us the women flee the tomb in fear and tell no one! This is where his Gospel ends. How do we rectify this?

One common way, which I’ve encountered many times, is to say that the women at first didn’t tell anyone, yet we know from the witness of the other Gospels that they eventually did. It’s often said that Mark chose to end his Gospel at this moment to emphasize what Christians are not to do. Christians are not to “keep it to themselves,” but share the good news of Jesus Christ. I’ll let you decide if this is a reasonable solution to Mark’s ending, but based on what we talked about concerning ancient writing, I think we have another, better option.

I believe it’s possible that Mark is using Selective Representation. So, just like we had a person split off from the group when Mary Magdalene ran off after seeing the open tomb, here we have another split in the group of women: Some of the women listened to the angel and ran off to tell the disciples where another section of the group ran off and didn’t tell anyone. Mark is only focusing on those women who didn’t tell.

After all, Matthew tells us the women left the tomb with both “fear and great joy” [emphasis mine]. Are both groups of women in sight here in Matthew? Luke gives us a general statement about “Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them” telling the disciples, the same women named at the beginning of his account.  Salmone is the only woman named in any of the Gospels (in Mark’s Gospel) but not named here in Luke. Was she one of the unnamed “other women” in Luke or was she one of the women who didn’t tell anyone about Jesus’ empty tomb? Mark is the only one to name Salmone, and Mark is the only one to include that (some of) the women didn’t tell anyone. 

So, to continue our timeline:

  • Women Group A runs off and tells no one. (Mark 16:8)
  • Women Group B runs off to tell the disciples and meets the risen Jesus. (Matthew 28:8-10)
  • Women Group B tells the disciples all they experienced, but the disciples doubt it. (Luke 24:11)
    • Luke 24:11 includes Mary Magdalene here. We can assume she joins back with the other women later when she returns to the disciples. Even if that’s not the case, this is just a general statement by Luke about who told the disciples about the risen Jesus. 
    • This is where Mary Magdalene’s path and John’s account begin to overlap again with the other Gospels.
  • But Peter runs to the empty tomb (Luke 24:12, John 20:3-9)
  • Peter returns home. (Luke 24:12, John 20:10)

 

JOHN’S GOSPEL & MARY MAGDALENE

Backing up in time a bit and returning to Mary Magdalene’s path and John’s Gospel:

  • After Mary Magdalene leaves the other women at the open tomb, she runs to tell Peter and John. (John 20:2)
  • Peter and John run to the tomb and find Jesus’ body missing and burial clothes laying inside. (John 20:3-9)
    • Selective Representation – Luke only mentions Peter. (Luke 24:12)
  • Peter and John head back home. (John 20:10)
    • Selective Representation – Again, Luke only mentions Peter. (Luke 24:12)
  • Mary weeps at the tomb. She has either arrived after Peter and John left (since they literally ran there – John 20:4-6) or she arrived while they were still there and remained after they headed back. (John 20:11)
  • Mary looks inside the tomb and sees two angles, who speak to her. (John 20:11-13)
  • She turns and encounters the resurrected Jesus. (John 20:14-17)
  • Mary goes and tells the disciples she has seen the risen Jesus. (John 20:18, Luke 24:10)

There’s room for other interpretations within my timeline of these events, but I think this is a plausible option for harmonizing the four accounts of the women finding the empty tomb of Jesus and — more importantly — encountering the risen Lord himself.

All glory to Christ!

READ PART 1: The Resurrection Witness of “Half-Frantic” Women (Part 1) The Significance of the Women Witnesses

READ PART 2: The Resurrection Witness of “Half-Frantic” Women (Part 2) Understanding Differences Between the Accounts

Related GFTM articles:

The Joy & Angst of Four Gospels – Part 1 – Differences or Contradictions?

The Joy & Angst of Four Gospels – Part 7 of 7 – Positive Evidence: Going on the Offensive

 

Visit my ministry site: confidenceinchrist.net

Confidence in Christ v2

The Resurrection Witness of “Half-Frantic” Women (Part 2) Understanding Differences Between the Accounts

THE CHALLENGE OF FOUR GOSPEL ACCOUNTS

 

Women-at-tomb

READ PART 1: The Significance of the Women Witnesses.

THE PROBLEM OF 4 ACCOUNTS

To get the most out of this short blog series, I suggest taking some time to read the 4 Gospel accounts of the women and the empty tomb:

  • Matthew 28:1-10
  • Mark 16:1-8
  • Luke 24:1-12
  • John 20:1-18

When we read the accounts of the women finding the empty tomb and the events that immediately follow (including the resurrection appearances of Jesus) we run into some major challenges: All four Gospels, at first glance, seem to have major differences!

For instance, in Matthew, Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” go to the tomb. In Mark, Mary Magdalene, Mary (James’ mother), and Salmone go to the tomb. In Luke, Mary Magdalene, Mary (James’ mother), Joanna, and “other women” go. And in John, only Mary Magdalene is mentioned.

Further, in Matthew, it appears that an earthquake happens, an angel in a dazzling white robe rolls back the stone in front of the tomb’s entrance and sits on it as the Roman guards pass out from fear. Then, it seems, the angel speaks to the women from atop the stone about Jesus’ resurrection. 

Yet, in Luke, the women find the stone already rolled away from the tomb’s entrance when they arrive, and once they go inside, two angels in dazzling clothes announce Jesus’ resurrection. The women go and tell Jesus’ disciples.

In Mark, the women seemingly find only one angel in the open tomb, and the angel tells them to go tell Jesus’ disciples. Yet, the women flee in fear and say “nothing to anyone”!

And in John, it seems Mary Magdalene alone finds the stone rolled away from the tomb’s entrance and Jesus’ body missing. She runs to tell Peter and John. After Peter and John race to the empty tomb, they leave, and then Mary encounters two angels and the risen Jesus. She, then, goes and tells Jesus’ disciples.

As you undoubtedly see, all four of these share similar key details but have considerable differences. What are we to make of this, and can the differences be rectified? Do we have to accept that the Gospel writers got the “big” details correct, but got the “smaller” details wrong?

 

UNDERSTANDING THE GOSPELS AS ANCIENT BIOGRAPHY

First, we need to understand some basic characteristics of ancient historical writing. The Gospels reflect the style of ancient biographies. In short, these ancient biographies sometimes used literary devices that may seem a bit odd to us today.

This has been thoroughly documented by Michael Licona in Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? What We Can Learn From Ancient Biography as well as elsewhere. What follows is my own simplified explanation and own phraseology, some of which differs from Licona. For a more in depth look at this, along with many more examples from the Gospels, see my earlier GFTM blog 7-part series: The Joy and Angst of Four Gospels.

Once we understand these ancient literary conventions (which, in truth, most are used by modern writers as well), the chain-of-events surrounding the empty tomb will fall into place. Understanding this will not just help here in understanding the differences between these passages, but will help any time you read parallel passages across the Gospels and notice differences.

 

1. Selective Details

First, writers must leave out much more than they include in a retelling of true events. All good writers are selective in what details they include, and they select those details for a specific purpose.

Keep in mind, a difference and a contradiction aren’t the same thing. Writers may select certain details to emphasize something while totally ignoring other details another writer may include. That’s not a contradiction. Things that contradict can’t both be true. So, when we’re looking at parallel passages, we have to ask ourselves: Can the differences all be true without contradiction?

 

2. Paraphrasing

Differences in dialogue between Gospels can be understood with two simple concepts.

First of all, the authors are likely not giving us the full dialogue but only selective sections.

Second of all, the dialogue — or at least parts of it — might be a paraphrase. Though modern Bibles have quotation marks around dialogue, quotation marks didn’t exist in ancient Greek. Also, keep in mind, Jesus likely taught primarily in Aramaic, but the Gospels were written in Greek. Thus, we don’t know if what is written is supposed to be a word-for-word representation or a paraphrase or a summary. 

Even in modern times, when telling a true story, people rarely repeat the dialogue verbatim. Instead, they sum up the dialogue by paraphrasing.

 

3. Telescoping (Extending or Compressing)

Next, think of a telescope. A telescope can be extended to its full length or it can be compressed to a much smaller size. Ancient historians sometimes give a longer account with more details, but sometimes they compress the account, cut out details, and tell it in abbreviated form. To understand this better, share about a true event with your friend and take a good five minutes or more to tell it. Afterwards, tell the same story again but in 30 seconds.

To illustrate telescoping (as well as some other literary concepts covered here) let me tell you about Paterson, New Jersey and mixed martial arts fighter Jon Jones. 

Established in 1792, Paterson, NJ is the first planned industrial city in the United States, thanks to Alexander Hamilton and a 77-foot waterfall called the Great Falls on the Passaic River. The Great Falls produced a lot of energy for running mills, making Paterson a major player during the Industrial Revolution. Not only was the city known for its cotton, wool, and (later) silk mills, but the first locomotives and the first Colt revolvers where manufactured there. I taught high school English for 16 years in downtown Paterson, a short walk from the Great Falls. It’s an interesting sight: A huge waterfall in the middle of one of the most urban areas of the United States. In 2011, the Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park was established thanks to President Obama.

In 2011, I had been involved in martial arts for about as long as I had been teaching in Paterson when I heard the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) was coming to Newark, NJ. On March 19, 2011, Jon “Bones” Jones would fight Mauricio “Shogun” Rua for the light heavyweight belt. I bought my tickets and was anxiously awaiting fight night when these two very different parts of my world collided.

On the day of the fight, Jon Jones had visited the Great Falls. But the really exciting news was that he had stopped a thief from stealing a woman’s purse while there. I was at work when I heard this, barely a block away from where this happened, so I got on the internet as soon as I could to find out more details. Evidently, Jon Jones had gone to the Great Falls to relax before his big fight and, instead, found himself using his martial arts skills to take down a bad guy not unlike a comic book hero.

So, here’s how all this about Paterson, Jon Jones, and the Gospels intersect: As I read various online articles about the incident — some very short, some longer — it was interesting to see how different articles gave different details. Longer articles would fill in details that the shorter articles left out. The shorter articles took shortcuts in retelling the story. It wasn’t until after reading several different articles that I felt like I had a full picture of what happened.

For example, one article only mentioned that Jones stopped a thief who stole a woman’s purse, so in my head I was picturing a purse-snatching or mugging. But another article explained that the purse was grabbed through the window of a parked car. One article only stated that Jones chased down and physically stopped the thief, where another gave the detail that a double-leg takedown (a standard wrestling move) was involved.

This is similar to the differences we find between the four Gospels. Ancient writers write differently than we’re used to and we can’t expect them to write like modern newspaper reporters, but there are shared similarities. In their articles, modern reporters select the details they will or will not share; sometimes they include direct quotes and sometimes they paraphrase or summarize what someone said; they “telescope” — sometimes they retell the events in a longer format or they compress it all into a shorter telling.

Finally, they also use “Selective Representation.”

 

4. Selective Representation

Selective Representation is when an ancient writer only focuses on one person instead of everyone involved. At other times, the writer may focus on several people to represent the larger group. This explains why Matthew and Mark mention only one angel in the empty tomb, but Luke mentions two. Matthew and Mark appear to be only focusing on one, likely the one who spoke. Let me point out this isn’t a contradiction. It would be a contradiction if one of the writers claimed that there was only one angel in the tomb, which none of the writers do. 

Likewise, this explains why Matthew, Mark, and Luke mention different women with Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb and John only mentions Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene is the most known of the women, so John only focuses on her. This may seem odd to us today to not mention the other women with her at all, but even modern writers do this. When I read the articles about Jon Jones stopping the purse thief, several writers only mentioned Jon Jones being involved. It wasn’t until I read other articles that I learned that Jon Jones’ trainers were also involved in chasing and stopping the thief! Thus, some of the articles focused only on the person with the big name, the most famous person involved — Jon Jones. Likewise, John’s Gospel only focuses on the “big name” of the women, the most “famous” person involved — Mary Magdalene. Again, let me point out that this isn’t a contradiction. For it to be a contradiction, John would have had to written that only Mary Magdalene found the tomb empty.

 

5. Selective Chronology

Of these literary conventions used by ancient authors, this may be the one that is most odd to us today. Ancient writers, even when retelling true events, didn’t feel as compelled as us today to place things in chronological, linear fashion. Ancient writers used more flexibility in narrative sequence than modern writers. In other words, they were okay with moving things around to emphasize a point. Sometimes they organized things in topical or thematic groups. The overall structure of the story remains the same, but the smaller units within the bigger framework may be moved around. 

For example, in Matthew 13 we find several parables of Jesus with similar messages. Did Jesus say all of these parables one-after-another or did Matthew lump these parables with similar themes together? Either option is possible. 

Another example: When did Jesus drive the merchants out of the Temple? John has it happening at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, but the other three Gospels has him doing it at the end. One possible explanation is that John is using Selective Chronology to emphasize Jesus’ zeal at the beginning of his Gospel. (Of course, another simple explanation is that Jesus drove out the merchants twice — once towards the beginning and once towards the ending of his ministry.) 

To sum up, when reading ancient biographies like the Gospels, we find:

  • Selective Details
  • Paraphrasing
  • Telescoping (Extending or Compressing)
  • Selective Representation
  • Selective Chronology

 

Next, armed with this understanding of ancient biographical writing conventions, we’ll place the events surrounding the women and the empty tomb in chronological order.

NEXT: The third (and final) article in this series: Harmonizing the empty tomb accounts.

READ PART 1: The Resurrection Witness of “Half-Frantic” Women (Part 1) The Significance of the Women Witnesses.

READ Part 1 of The Joy and Angst of Four Gospels.

The Resurrection Witness of “Half-Frantic” Women (Part 1) The Significance of the Women Witnesses

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE WOMEN WITNESSES 

Women-at-tomb

After Jesus’ arrest, Peter — one of Jesus closest disciples — denied association with Jesus three times and the rest of the remaining 12 “inner circle” disciples ran off, abandoning Jesus (Mark 14:50). Even if we were to take a skeptical stance when reading the Gospels, this doesn’t seem like an invented detail by the early church since it certainly doesn’t make the disciples look good; these same men would be leading the early church, especially Peter. It was the woman who stayed by Jesus to watch him die on the cross (along with John)(Matthew 27:55; Luke 23:49; John 19:25-27), and it was the women to first see him alive afterwards.

The New Testament Gospels report that at least five women, several who are named, including Mary Magdalene, were the first to find Jesus’ tomb empty, and Jesus’ first post-crucifixion appearances were to Mary Magdalene and (at least some of) these other women (Matthew 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-11; John 20:1-18). Considering that in first-century Israel women’s testimony wasn’t taken seriously, even in a court of law, this is an interesting detail.

The Talmud, a written commentary on the Jewish oral law, gives us insight into attitudes towards women in first-century Israel when it puts the testimony of women as witnesses on the same level as gamblers (dice-players and pigeon-racers, to be exact) and slaves [1]. A well-known morning prayer for Jewish men thanks God that “You have not made me a Gentile, a slave, or a woman.” With this, first-century Jewish historian Josephus writes:

“But let not a single witness be credited; but three, or two at the least; and those such whose testimony is confirmed by their good lives. But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex.” (Antiquities of the Jews 4.8.15)

In fact, when the women share that they witnessed Jesus alive, the disciples don’t take them seriously (Luke 24:10-11) — yet another detail not likely to be invented; it certainly makes the future leaders of the church look clueless. Even 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, an important early confession of the church, mentions numerous eyewitnesses of the resurrection by name but leaves out naming any women. (We can assume the women were numbered with the 500 unnamed witnesses it mentions.)

So, the big question is: Why would all four Gospel writers claim that women were the first witnesses to the resurrection when no one in their culture would take the testimony of women seriously? Even in the second-century Greek philosopher Celsus mocked Christianity as a religion based on the testimony of Mary Magdalene, a “half-frantic woman.” [2]

Therefore, it seems unlikely the Gospel writers would invent this detail if they were only looking to convince people of Jesus’ resurrection. In fact, this detail points towards the opposite: The Gospel writers were more concerned with reporting what they believed to be true than creating a story of mass appeal. 

The combination of the embarrassing details of Peter’s denial and the male disciples’ abandonment of Jesus; the absurdity of worshipping a crucified God-man to first-century Jews and Romans (which I wrote about before); and the first witnesses of the resurrection being women all are details very unlikely to be invented if the Gospels were mere fictions, especially if they were invented to win converts to a new religion. 

 

THE CHALLENGE OF FOUR GOSPEL ACCOUNTS

As I pointed out before, when we read the retelling of the same event in more than one Gospel, sometimes they’re told differently and this often causes confusion. (Let me point out, this is often the case when reading four independent accounts of any incident.) For instance, the two birth narratives in Matthew and Luke share key details but are also extremely different, almost seeming like two different stories. But when we read them carefully, we can figure out how they fit together like pieces of a puzzle. Much of Matthew’s account — including the visit of the magi and the flight to Egypt — occur later than many of the events recorded in Luke’s account, perhaps months or even a year or two after Jesus’ birth.

When we read the accounts of the women finding the empty tomb and the events that immediately follow (including the resurrection appearances of Jesus) we run into the same challenge but worse. All four Gospels, at first glance, seem to have major differences!

Take some time to read the 4 Gospel accounts of the women and the empty tomb:

  • Matthew 28:1-10
  • Mark 16:1-8
  • Luke 24:1-12
  • John 20:1-18

Next article, we’ll tackle how to understand these differences.

NEXT: Differences vs. Contradictions & the Gospels as Ancient Biographic Literature

[1] Rosh Hashannah 1.8

[2] Quoted by Origen in Against Celsus.

If Jesus is “Only-Begotten,” How is He Eternal God? Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: John 3:16 (& 1:18)

JW Kingdom Hall

Previous posts:

Was Jesus “a god”? Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: John 1:1

How Can Jesus be “Firstborn of All Creation” yet Eternal God? Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: Colossians 1:15-19

MONOGENES

The fact that Jesus is sometimes called “only begotten” causes a lot of confusion (and is, likewise, emphasized by our Jehovah’s Witness friends).

The King James Version famously says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son.” John 1:18 in the King James Version also reads, “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.”

If Jesus is the eternal Son of the Trinity, how could he be “begotten”? This is a valid question. I always wondered myself how the early church justified the Son being both eternal and begotten.

First, why are we – today – still saying “begotten”? Can’t we update to “born” already? Have you ever said, “Congratulations on your newly begotten daughter”? But I digress.

Secondly, the Greek word mongenes that is sometimes translated “only begotten” can also be translated as “one and only” (as the NIV does) or “unique” or simply “only” (as the ESV and NRSV do). In fact, if you were to do a study of all the available Bible translations, you’d notice something: It’s usually the older versions that translate it as “only begotten.” Why is this?

This is because Greek scholars used to think the two smaller words that form the compound word monogenes (“mono” + “genes”) meant “only” (mono) and “to beget” (gennao). But after discovering and studying more and more ancient Greek writings, it became clear that the second word wasn’t from the Greek word gennao (to beget), but genos (class, kind). The term monogenes literally means “one of a kind.” To understand monogenes as “only birthed” or “only born” is incorrect. New Testament scholar Michael S. Heiser describes “only begotten” as an “unfortunately confusing translation.”

The definitive Greek to English lexicon (BDAG!) give only two definitions for mongenes: “[pertaining] to being the only one of its kind within a specific relationship, one and only, only” and “[pertaining] to being the only one of its kind or class, unique (in kind).” [1] Notice, BDAG only gives two definitions for monogenes; neither are “only born.”

 

BEGOTTEN, NOT MADE

The theologians who created two important creeds of the early church clearly didn’t take “begotten” literally. These creeds were statements of faith based on a close study of the Bible. 

In the Nicene Creed (325 AD), Jesus is described as “eternally begotten of the Father.” How can one be eternally born? The creed goes on to describe Jesus as “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,” and then they wrote this: “begotten, not made.” Seems to me they’re emphasizing that “begotten” shouldn’t be taken literally. 

The main purpose of the Athanasian Creed (500 AD) is to explain the Trinity. It states, “That we worship one God in Trinity…  The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated…. The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal.  And yet they are not three eternals, but one Eternal.” It goes on to say, “The Son is of the Father alone, not made, nor created, but begotten.” Clearly, the hardcore Trinitarians that wrote out this long creed to explain the Trinity as precisely as possible didn’t see any contradiction is calling Jesus “eternal” and “uncreated” but also “begotten.” This is a big clue that “begotten” isn’t being used in a literal sense.

Still don’t believe me? God calls Isaac Abraham’s “only son” three times (in Hebrew) during the event of Abraham’s way-too-close sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22. Then, the Greek word monogenes is used by the author of Hebrews in the New Testament to describe Abraham’s son Isaac: 

“By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only [monogenes] son.” (Hebrews 11:17)

Isaac was neither Abraham’s only son nor first son. Before Isaac’s birth through Sarah, Abraham had his son Ishmael with Hagar. Monogenes illustrates Isaac’s unique relationship with his father and special status to his father, just as Jesus, God the Son, holds a unique relationship with and special status to God the Father. 

*This is an excerpt from my upcoming, vastly revised and expanded edition of Who Jesus Ain’t.

[1] Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., Bauer, W., & Gingrich, F. W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., p. 894). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Previous posts:

Was Jesus “a god”? Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: John 1:1

How Can Jesus be “Firstborn of All Creation” yet Eternal God? Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: Colossians 1:15-19

Visit my other website: Confidence in Christ

Confidence in Christ v2

How Can Jesus be “Firstborn of All Creation” yet Eternal God? Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: Colossians 1:15-19

JW at Door

READ: Was Jesus “a god”? Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: John 1:1

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell…” (Colossians 1:15-19)

PROTOTOKOS” – LITERALLY?

Our Jehovah’s Witness friends believe Jesus is not the second Person of the Trinity and God-in-the-flesh but a created being lower than God but higher than the angels. Because of this, they focus on the part in Colossians 1:15 above calling Jesus “the firstborn of creation” as evidence for this belief. Where Paul giving Jesus that title seemingly favors the Jehovah’s Witness’ understanding of Jesus, we’d have to ignore much of the rest of the passage (and other scripture) to hold their understanding.

Remember: Context! Context! Context! 

First, we see “firstborn” (prototokos in Greek) used twice in this passage. Jesus is also called “the firstborn from the dead.” This is a reference to Jesus’s resurrection. The Bible teaches of a future resurrection of all the dead, and Jesus is the first – a foreshadowing of this event. The point to get here is that “firstborn” is not used in a strictly literal sense in 1:18, so it’s possible it’s not used in a strictly literal sense in the earlier usage in 1:15 either.

PAUL GETS REDUNDANT

Secondly, Paul says Jesus created “all things… in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible.” The Jehovah’s Witness literature explains, “Jesus is the only one directly created by God. Jesus is also the only one whom God used when He created all other things.” But that’s not what the passage says! It says Jesus created “all things.” Yes, “all things”! Not all other things. 

Also, “heaven and earth” is a Hebrew way of saying “everything.” Paul is basically saying “Jesus created everything everything.” And he’s not stuttering; he’s emphasizing a point! If you don’t get it the first time, he goes on to say again: “all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things”! 

Let’s keep in mind, the Bible starts by filling two whole chapters explaining about God creating everything (Genesis 1-2). Elsewhere, God fills four chapters explaining to Job how he created everything and reigns over it (Job 38-41). God being the one and only creator of all things is repeated again and again throughout the Bible. This is undeniable.

Thus says the LORD, your Redeemer, who formed you from the womb: “I am the LORD, who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself (Isaiah 44:24–25)

You are the LORD, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and you preserve all of them; and the host of heaven worships you. (Nehemiah 9:6)

Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”  (Revelation 4:11)

And this is just the tip of a very large, unavoidable iceberg. Nowhere does the Old Testament or New Testament say, God created Jesus and then Jesus created everything else. No, God created “all things” and Jesus created “all things”! If there’s anything Paul is trying to emphasize in this very repetitive passage, it’s that!

ASK THE EXPERTS

Considering that Paul spends so much time hammering home this point, this is a pretty huge clue that (1) this is important and (2) “firstborn of all creation” must mean something other than Jesus is a created being. So, after doing some research, we find prototokos (“firstborn”) is often used not in the sense of the literal first child born, but as a title of prominence. 

The definitive Greek to English lexicon by scholars Bauer, Danker, Arndt, and Gingrich, (call it “BDAG,” if you’re nasty) defines prototokos as “[literally: pertaining] to birth order, firstborn,” but the second definition is “[pertaining] to having special status associated with a firstborn, [figurative].” [2]

Turn to the Psalms to see prototokos in the second sense, the figurative sense (whether in the Greek of the Septuagint [the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament] or the equivalent in the original Hebrew). Speaking of the eminent King David (Psalm 89:20), God says,

And I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth. (Psalms 89:27)

David wasn’t the first child born to his father, Jesse. Not by a long shot. He was the youngest of several brothers (1 Samuel 17:13-14). Further, if anyone is God’s literal “firstborn,” it’s Adam, the first man ever created (Genesis 2). And God doesn’t say David is the firstborn, but he will “make him the firstborn.” This can’t be in any sort of literal sense because David is already born! 

Likewise, in Exodus God calls Israel “my firstborn son,” and in the Book of Jeremiah, God calls Ephraim “my firstborn.” Whether speaking of a person (Genesis 41:51-52), location, or tribe, it’s impossible to understand these uses of “firstborn” literally. 

“Firstborn” is a title given to someone or something that holds a special place of importance. Jesus – the eternal second person of the Trinity in the flesh – holds a place of prominence and unique intimacy with God the Father as the “firstborn” over all of creation.

*This is an excerpt from my upcoming, vastly revised and expanded edition of Who Jesus Ain’t.

READ: Was Jesus “a god”? Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: John 1:1

[1] What Does the Bible Really Teach? Watch Tower Society

[2] Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., Bauer, W., & Gingrich, F. W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., p. 894). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

NEXT: If Jesus is “only-begotten,” how is he eternal God? (John 3:16)

Visit my other website: Confidence in Christ.

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Was Jesus “a god”? Answering Jehovah’s Witnesses: John 1:1

NWT

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1)… And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14) (English Standard Version)

Now not so fast! These astonishing statements in John’s Gospel are traditionally understood to tell us two key, unique aspects of Christian belief: Jesus (“the Word” in John 1) is God, and God is at least two Persons, bringing into view the Trinity. But our friends at the local Jehovah’s Witnesses Kingdom Hall (and the Watch Tower Society headquarters in Brooklyn) say we’ve gotten it all wrong.

Before moving on, let me give you some basics: Jehovah’s Witnesses believe the Bible is the Word of God, but they don’t believe in the Trinity; they don’t believe Jesus is God, nor do they believe the Holy Spirit is God. In order to interact with Jehovah’s Witnesses, you therefore need to understand why the Bible does, in fact, witness to both Jesus and the Holy Spirit being God, and you need to have your theology of the Trinity tight.

That being said, we’re going to look at (in this blog and future blogs) some specific things Jehovah’s Witness may throw at you to challenge the traditional (biblical) Christian views.

The Jehovah’s Witness version of the Bible, the New World Translation, has John 1:1 as follows: 

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god.” 

Adding one teeny, tiny one-letter word to the sentence makes quite “a” difference!

JESUS: GOD OR “A GOD”?

Alright, which translation of John 1:1 is right?

The Greek word for “God” or “god” is theos. Ancient Greek didn’t use capitalization like we do today with English, so looking at the original Greek to see if “theos” is capitalized won’t help us here. So, forget capitalization. Let’s focus on “the Word was a god” because there’s “a” big problem with this. Actually, more than one. 

First, no scholar of New Testament era Greek – whether a traditional Christian or otherwise – has ever translated John 1:1 in this way. That says a lot.

Secondly, the Jehovah’s Witnesses justify this translation by pointing out that the original Greek literally reads, “the Word was with the [ton] theos, and the Word was theos.” This is accurate. But their argument is that since the second use of theos doesn’t have “the” (the definite article, for you grammar nerds), then the first use of theos is speaking of the one and only God (“the God”) and Jesus, the Word, is something like God but lesser; he’s “a god.” 

This idea of there being “a god” has its own problems, but first let me emphasize again that this isn’t how Greek grammar works and no Greek scholar would translate John 1:1 in this way. For one, the definite article (“the”) is used differently in Greek than in English, so it’s often not even translated into English. As we see, the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New World Translation doesn’t translate the “the” either, but where do they get the idea that lack of “the” means adding an “a”?

BREAKING THEIR OWN RULE

Most of us aren’t Greek scholars to know one way or another, but this next reason why the Jehovah’s Witness translation fails is very telling: The Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t even follow their own unorthodox grammar rule! To be consistent, every time theos (“God” or “god”) appears without the definite article (“the”) in the original Greek of the New Testament, they should translate it as “a god.” Again, this is according to their own reasoning. 

Theos appears many, many times in the New Testament without “the,” yet their New World Translation doesn’t insert “a” or interpret theos as a lower-case “god” anywhere else! Their own New World Translation breaks their own odd grammar rule again and again. 

In fact, we don’t even have to leave John 1 to see this! None of the following include “the” with theos in the original Greek:

               John 1:6: There came a man who was sent as a representative of God. (New World Translation)

Why didn’t they translate it “representative of a god”?

               John 1:12-13: he gave authority to become God’s children, because they were exercising faith in his name. And they were born, not from blood or from a fleshly will or from man’s will, but from God. (New World Translation)

Why didn’t they translate this “become a god’s children” and “from a god”?

                John 1:18: No man has seen God at any time; the only-begotten god who is at the Father’s side is the one who has explained Him. (New World Translation)

Why didn’t they translate this, “No man has seen a god” and “a only-begotten god”?

And there are many more examples of this throughout the New Testament. If the “translators” of the Jehovah’s Witness Bible are going to make up a grammar rule to wiggle around a clear teaching about Jesus, they could at least follow their own made-up grammar rule consistently.

DIGGING THE HOLE DEEPER

Thirdly, John 1:1 isn’t the only passage in the New Testament to declare Jesus as God. I’ve never met a mean Jehovah’s Witness, so when they come to my door sometimes I get my Bible and give them some friendly push-back. This led to me meeting up for coffee several times with a local Jehovah’s Witness elder to discuss Jesus. Of course, John 1:1 came up in our discussion, and despite me pointing out the above to him, we weren’t getting anywhere. So, I said, “Neither of us are Greek scholars, so let’s put John 1:1 aside for now and look at other reasons I believe the Bible teaches that Jesus is God.”

The whole of the Christian belief that Jesus is God isn’t based on only a single verse! I can’t say how the Jehovah’s Witnesses get around every one of them (nor would I take the time to address every one here), but the biblical evidence is substantial. 

Fourthly and finally, even if we accept “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god” as a legitimate alternative translation, this would make Jehovah’s Witnesses polytheists. The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New World Translation avoids the Trinity in John 1:1 but declares two gods! 

Jehovah’s Witnesses, of course, will deny this. Their own literature explains the wording in John 1:1 as “because of his high position among Jehovah’s creatures, the Word is referred to as ‘a god.’ Here the term ‘god’ means ‘mighty one.’” [1] Well, that seems unquestionably arbitrary! Why does this instance of theos (compared to the many, many other times theos is used throughout the New Testament) mean only “mighty one” instead of the one, true God? 

John and almost all of the writers of the New Testament were first century Jews. This Jehovah’s Witness idea of Jesus being a lower-case “god” would be totally alien to them. To a first century Jew, you were either God or you were not. There’s no third option. Ironically, Jehovah’s Witnesses claim the idea of Jesus as God was added later to Christianity by the formerly-pagan Romans, yet the Jehovah’s Witness idea of Jesus being a near-god is certainly more Roman than Jewish. For the Jews, there were no partial gods, no near-gods, no lower-case “gods.”

By the Jehovah’s Witnesses mistranslating John 1:1 to avoid something that contradicts their beliefs, they’ve made matters worse for themselves. For the record, I don’t truly think Jehovah’s Witnesses believe in more than one God. My point is that by them trying to avoid the plain grammar of John 1:1, they’ve dug themselves into a deeper hole!

*This is an excerpt from my upcoming, vastly revised and expanded edition of Who Jesus Ain’t.

[1] What Does the Bible Really Teach? Watch Tower Society P.202

NEXT: If Jesus is the “firstborn” of creation how is he eternal God? (Colossians 1:15-19)

Visit my other website: Confidence in Christ.

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