Greg Thornbury

About Greg Thornbury

Gregory Alan Thornbury serves as dean of the School of Theology and Missions, vice president for spiritual life, and professor of philosophy at Union University in Tennessee. A PhD graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary under R. Albert Mohler, Jr., he is the author and editor of Developing a Christian Worldview and Who Will Be Saved?.

‘Tis the Season for the Taxman

As the nation approaches the fiscal cliff, with President Obama and the Republican Congress haggling over how to—and even whether or not to—avoid said cliff, it’s probably a good time to remind everyone that high taxes are something of a Christmas tradition. For it was in roughly 4 BC that a carpenter from Nazareth named Joseph made the arduous journey from his current residence to his hometown of Bethlehem to register for a new wave of property and household taxes initiated by the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus. Since it was uncertain just how long it would take for the government to get to his case and assess his forthcoming tax burden, he was forced to take his VERY pregnant wife, Mary, along with him—presumably so he wouldn’t miss the birth.

You might be surprised that the New Testament actually talks quite a bit about taxes—death and taxes to be exact—since the Bible writers were keen to speak to these and many other certainties. Besides the backstory behind the nativity scene, the question of state confiscation of income appears numerous times in the text of Scripture. In all cases, the attitude of the biblical characters is that of resignation and acceptance of the reality of one’s responsibility to pay taxes.

The most famous exchange about taxes came when Jesus’ archenemies, the Pharisees and Sadducees, tried to present Him with a seemingly impossible question to answer well: should one pay taxes to Caesar? If He said yes, the conservatives thought He was selling out the right of the Jews to be sovereign over their own state. If He said no, the liberals would charge Him with being an anti-statist revolutionary. Jesus’ genius answer—that if Caesar’s minted the coin, then you better give it back to its owner—contained a really powerful critique of statism: there are more important things than money. There is your soul, family, and self respect, for example.

Elsewhere, when tax collectors asked the disciple Peter if Jesus paid the Temple tax, Peter could reply yes (Matthew 17:24-27). But unlike the rest of us hapless fellows, Jesus had the unfair advantage of being able to pull off a miracle in order to pay it. He told Peter to go fishing and see what he caught. The first fish he brought up had a shekel in its mouth—paying for both Peter’s and Jesus’ contribution to the commonweal. I’ve always thought this episode was a hilarious send-up of the idea that the state is in control of human affairs.

In Romans, St. Paul implores the Christians not to be revolutionaries and pay their taxes. After all, who’s going to keep the peace if the Roman military can’t buy swords for their soldiers? Don’t be an anarchist, Paul warns his readers.

The biblical wisdom on taxes is: be patient. History tells us that the Roman Empire started to collapse when they had taxed the populace of their conquered territories into oblivion. With no new territories to conquer, the Romans essentially created a tax culture rather than a wealth creation culture. Inflation grew to the point that the Roman denarius was virtually worthless. By the third and fourth centuries, totalitarian measures took effect to keep the State stabilized. And all of the sudden, those Christians who followed Jesus’ teaching that there was more to life than money definitely seemed to be having the last laugh.

How Should We Respond to Old Testament Polygamy?

In the middle of ongoing cultural convulsions over the definition of marriage, I have found one question increasingly on the minds of many people: “Didn’t God in the Old Testament allow for polygamy? If that is true, then how can you say that marriage is defined as being only between one man and one woman?”

The truth is that the story of polygamy in the Old Testament is, well, a problem. There is no purchase in hiding the truth. Although monogamy was clearly God’s intent from the beginning, the picture blurs pretty quickly after Adam and Eve’s first sin and expulsion from the Garden. Accommodations were made.  By Genesis 4, you have Cain’s son Lamech taking two wives. The patriarchs Abraham and Jacob themselves had multiple wives and concubines. Technically, the practice was polygyny. In other words, men could have more than one wife, but not the other way around (polyandry).

Moses had two wives as well. The Mosaic Law likewise accommodated the practice of marrying more than one wife, including captured prisoners from foreign conquests (Deut. 21:1-17). It also made provisions for continuing the family line by marrying a brother’s wife if he died without producing heirs (Deut. 25:5-12). And the stories keep keep coming: Gideon, one of Israel’s champions, had many wives; Elkanah, a presumably godly man and the father of Samuel, had two wives.  In sum, during the Old Testament times, polygamy was not only permitted, it was sanctioned.

Other “love stories” in the Bible are similarly plagued. Queen Esther was undoubtedly part of a harem.  And what of Ruth?  Boaz most likely had another wife, but was obligated to marry Ruth out of his legal obligation to his relative’s family.

The picture gets even dicier when one considers the practice of the kings of Israel. King David, the “man after God’s own heart,” had eight wives. God not only seemed to “permit” this activity, but in one instance at least, actually took responsibility for it. In 2 Samuel 12 when the prophet Nathan confronts David over his sin with Bathsheba, we read: “This is what the Lord God of Israel says: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I have given you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your bosom . . . and I gave you the house of Israel and Judah, and as if this wasn’t enough, I would have given you even more.”  David’s son, Solomon, however, went overboard, flouting a stipulation in Deuteronomy 17 that kings not accumulate “too many” wives. For the record, Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines.

How does one respond to this situation? The answer begins by seeing that God always points his creation back to the primacy and perfection of the original design. Next, you have to read every book to the end, and especially in its biblical context. And if you read the stories about the characters referenced above, you’ll quickly find that polygamy was an unmitigated sociological disaster that created heartbreak and sowed familial discord. By the time of the writing of Malachi, God’s desire was clear: covenantal monogamy was to be the norm.

Further, through the ministry of Jesus, we see God “reset the clock” so to speak to the original goodness of monogamous marital union – pointing forward to a new society and a new way. He also enacted new provisions to protect women and raise their standing in society. Jesus showed a world that had distorted the meaning of marriage back to the beauty of “the man being joined to his wife, and two will become one flesh.”  The nouns Jesus used are singular here, folks.  He showed that there is a way to go back to our “origin story” in the Garden – where one husband is join to one wife – a relationship Saint Augustine once called, “the basic bond of society.”

The Great American Bible Challenge? More Than A Game

For more than two decades now, American society has been fixated on our ignorance about things, often to the point of celebration.  In 1991, the very first For Dummies book (it was on DOS) rolled off the presses, and more than 1600 of the series have been published since then.  We’re not afraid to say when we don’t know stuff, and actually to do so is kind of therapeutic.

Sometimes, the dummy culture rises to the level of comedy, and one thing we find hilarious is our collective cluelessness about the Bible.  Years ago, Tonight Show host Jay Leno poked fun every so often at the pandemic ignorance of Holy Writ during his “Jaywalking” segment.

Biblical illiteracy is, however, no laughing matter.  Recent titles such as Timothy Beal’s The Rise and Fall of the Bible and Kenda Creasy Dean’s Almost Christian show that the problem for the Church is pandemic.  Both books demonstrate the appalling state of how little believers know about their own sacred text. How long can any organization survive if its members don’t know its mission, axioms, and core beliefs?  Well, that’s a rhetorical question.

But what if people actually did know their Bibles? Esquire writer A.J. Jacobs took up that challenge and tried to combine humor with astonishing levels of biblical literacy in his irreverent book, The Year of Living Biblically.  In it, Jacobs, an admitted agnostic, seeks to live an entire year by trying to obey the commands of the Bible as literally as he possibly could in modern day Manhattan. He found it rough going for multiple reasons, chief amongst them not being able to gossip at work, lie, or covet the possessions of others.   Rules such as stoning adulterers, slaughtering oxen, wearing clothing not made of mixed fibers, and not shaving one’s beard seemed even harder to apply to modern life.  In the end, Jacobs concludes we can’t read the Bible literally, and that in reality people just pick and choose the commands they like, and ignore the ones that they don’t.

On a more positive note, comedian Jeff Foxworthy (of “You Might Be a Redneck” and “Are You Smarter Than Your Fifth Grader?” fame) hosts a new game show called “The American Bible Challenge,” a Family Feud style format in which groups are called upon to pit their Bible knowledge against each other in purportedly knee slapping fashion.  The show bills itself this way: “Questions will be designed to acknowledge and celebrate the Bible’s continuing importance in contemporary life and culture. The contestants will share their compelling back-stories and each team will be playing for a worthy charity.”

What do all of these books, shows, and analyses have in common?  They reveal that we live in a culture that can’t live with the Bible, but also can’t seem to live without it.

At the bottom line, however, here’s the truth: the Bible is a confusing and even bizarre book.  But it is only that way if it is not read through the lenses of what the 16th century Reformer John Calvin called the “spectacles of faith” – where everything points to the message and mission of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Try to turn the Bible into a disconnected series of facts, and you might have a quiz show.  Try to squeeze the law of Moses into modern society and you get a Kafka-esque nightmare or a funny Jacobs’ book.  Read the Bible without the grace and love of Jesus to explain all that has gone before?  How many ways can you spell disaster?

Q: Is the Book of Jonah Fact or Fiction?  

What are the stakes involved in saying that the book of Jonah is not historically accurate? That conclusion, which has only been suggested in modern times, comes in various forms.  Jonah, some scholars say, is a parable, an allegory, or a midrash (a Jewish form of commentary via storytelling). But make no mistake about it. The reasons certain skeptics offer such alternative suggestions is likely because they take offense at the miracle revealed within the book: Jonah was swallowed by a “great fish.” Because of his disobedience for not being willing to preach God’s message to the city of Nineveh, the LORD judged the prophet, and consequently “he was in the fish three days and three nights,” after which “the LORD commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry ground.” (Jonah 1:17; 2:10)

Some critics consider this biblical claim, and simply conclude “This is the original big fish story! It couldn’t have happened.” But a person would only say this if they had some reservation about supernatural interventions by God into the natural order. In other words, they think it is unlikely that a man could survive in the body of a beast at sea for several days and live to tell the tale.  Other than that, it is hard to see why someone would think the book could not have a historical origin.  As a matter of fact, all of the internal biblical evidence argues in favor of the facticity of book of Jonah.  Consider the following:

  1. If the suggestion that Jonah is an allegory, midrash, or parable is true, why is it that the story does not actually carefully follow the form of any of these ancient literary genres? In other words, when you compare Jonah to other Ancient Near Eastern fictional stories, it still reads more like history than any other type of literature.
  2. The book of 2 Kings 14:25 speaks about Jonah, son of Amittai, as being a prophet of Israel from Gath Hepher, a small community near Nazareth. It also states that previously Jonah had the pleasant task from of delivering the good report from God that Israel would enjoy a season of peace.  That background actually fits with the psychological profile of the prophet we meet in the book of Jonah, the same individual, “the son of Amittai.” Presumably, he was quite happy to be the prophet announcing safety and good times to his countrymen in 2 Kings 14, but rather grumpy and recalcitrant when it came to deliver a message of deliverance to Israel’s then arch enemies: the cruel Assyrians in their capital city of Nineveh.
  3. According to the distinguished archeologist Donald J. Wiseman, a careful analysis of the historical evidence shows that the details related in the book of Jonah “exhibit an intimate and accurate knowledge of Assyria which could stem from an historical event as early as the eighth century BC,” and as such “The story of Jonah need not be considered as a late story or parable…”  Stated simply, the archeological evidence we have today conforms to the details presented in the book of Jonah.  (See Wiseman’s argument in its completeness).
  4. Finally, Jesus himself considered the Jonah story to be historical, and frankly, if it’s good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for you.  In Matthew 12:39-41, Christ pointed to Jonah’s sojourn into the belly of the fish as a precursor and a sign pointing to his own death, burial, and resurrection.  There is absolutely no wiggle room here, for what is often not remembered is that Jesus also points to the revival in Nineveh as a historical fact. He states: “The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at Jonah’s proclamation; and look – something greater than Jonah is here!”  If the men of Nineveh will make an appearance at the judgment, then that means they were REAL men, living in REAL history, who heard a REAL message of repentance from a historical prophet Jonah.

And if you can’t accept the testimony of the biblical authors, archeologists, and the Lord Jesus himself, would Tony Stark do?  In the current Avengers movie, Iron Man is confronted with how to defeat a giant flying whale-like beast.  Referencing the prophet Jonah, the hero decides to take on the creature from the inside out – literally.  As ridiculous as a reference from the comics might be, what Joss Whedon, the writer and director of the Avengers intuitively thinks is true was actually the case: Jonah was really inside the belly of that fish – and God brought him through to the other side.

The Four Gospels: Are Different Accounts of Jesus a Problem?

Sometimes Christians hear a skeptic point to the fact that there are four different accounts of the life of Jesus as some sort of embarrassing evidence that the early Christians couldn’t get their story straight, or worse, that these are the stuff of legend. I’ve known some believers to get very flustered when the issue is brought up.

The oldest surviving panel icon of "Christ Pantocrator", c. 6th Century AD.

Whenever someone raises a question about the truthfulness of the Bible, ask yourself first whether or not the same question would bother any other scholar about any other figure in history. How many biographies are there of George Washington, for example? Is this in itself a concern about the historicity of the life of a pivotal figure during the American Revolution or actual evidence of his greatness and importance?

Second, flip the question around and consider the results. Wouldn’t you be MORE bothered if there was just ONE, tidy historical sketch of Jesus’ life and sayings, like a puff, polished church-propaganda piece put out by the “state run” news agency?  Doesn’t the fact that the four gospels have differences in order, selection of events, and some ragged edges when laid side by side point to the fact that they sound a lot more like the truth? The Jesus of history was such a unique person, mighty in word and miracles, that no one clean summary could do justice to this powerful, dangerous, and inspirational God man.

Thirdly, the truth is that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were written to different audiences. Mark’s audience was skeptical Romans who believed only in state power, so his gospel is lean, compact, and designed to show that Jesus was the Son of God — mighty in power who came to build a new kingdom. Matthew’s version helped the Hebrew people see that Jesus was the promised Jewish Messiah. Variously, Luke’s version functioned more like a travelogue, with emphasis on the Lord’s teachings and parables, and John’s gospel was a more elaborate theological and literary masterpiece.

The point is that the historical Jesus was more than big enough to warrant these various approaches (John 21:25), because he was, in fact, Christ the Lord. And if you’re interest is in the historical reliability of the Gospels, there’s been so much scholarly work done to verify their authenticity, that the information on other figures in history (e.g. Plato, Homer, Julius Caesar) pales in comparison.

 

BibleMesh aims to help people understand the big picture as well as important facts of the Bible. The first BibleMesh resource is “The Biblical Story,” a course that presents Scripture as a cohesive narrative of God’s work in the world from Genesis to Revelation. It utilizes an interactive quizzing tool that helps people remember what they have learned. And finally, it includes a social networking platform which will allow pastors and church leaders to host their own online Bible studies and contribute their own resources. Forthcoming content will include courses in Biblical Greek and Hebrew.

Editor’s Intro to “Q&A On The Bible”

Welcome to the Q&A section of the BibleMesh blog.  During all of my years as a professor and dean, the most interesting questions inevitably come down to the following: “What does the Bible say about ___________?”  I think one of the reasons why this line of inquiry never ceases to fascinate me is that Christian Scripture is inexhaustibly rich and compelling.

During the time of Jesus, every faithful Jew would memorize vast portions of what is called the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible.  Everyday life was filled with Scriptural references and stories told to children about God’s faithfulness to his people through his mighty acts and deeds on behalf of Israel.

Today, most of us have to confess that the Bible is largely an undiscovered continent.  Teaching that a generation ago would have been met with nods of recognition are now met with raised eyebrows of interest and sometimes even incredulity.  It is for this very reason that the BibleMesh Biblical Story Course was produced – in order to give the big picture of the story of the Gospel from Genesis to Revelation.

In that spirit, this section of the BibleMesh blog is devoted to specific questions about the Bible from macro issues to more precise – but no less important – matter.  Questions like these:

“Does the Bible teach that everyone will eventually be saved?”

“Why did the Jewish people worship God in a temple?”

“How was the world created by God?”

“I’m really confused by all the kings in the Old Testament.  Which ones are the most important?

“Why were men in the Old Testament allowed to have so many wives?”

“Peter and Paul fought with each other? What’s up with that?”

“What is the difference between a ‘major’ and a ‘minor’ prophet?”

“Who are the angels?  What do they do?”

“Why did God choose Israel among all the nations of the world to be his people?”

“Where did the people of the Old Testament go when they died?”

“Where do WE go after we die and before Jesus returns?”

You get the idea.  We have lots of thoughts about what we would like to write about, but we’re also really interested in the kinds of questions YOU have.  While we can’t promise that we’ll get to every single item, but if enough people are asking questions on the same topic, we’ll move it up in the batting order. Send us an email. We want to hear from you.

 

BibleMesh aims to help people understand the big picture as well as important facts of the Bible. The first BibleMesh resource is “The Biblical Story,” a course that presents Scripture as a cohesive narrative of God’s work in the world from Genesis to Revelation. It utilizes an interactive quizzing tool that helps people remember what they have learned. And finally, it includes a social networking platform which will allow pastors and church leaders to host their own online Bible studies and contribute their own resources. Forthcoming content will include courses in Biblical Greek and Hebrew.