Monthly Archives: April 2015

Can the Bible be trusted?

Last week my column discussed the 2015 State of the Bible study released by the Barna organization and the American Bible Society. When topics such as this are presented, inevitably atheists and denouncers come out challenging the Bible as a collection of myths and fairy tales. Unfortunately, these attempts are meant to cast doubt on the Bible and those who find value in it. Today’s column describes several methods scholars use to build confidence in the Bible.

Worldwide, some 2.2 billion people in the world (32 percent) are classified as Christian according to a recent Pew Forum report. (In the U.S., Christians rise to 77 percent, according to Gallup data.) According to the Pew report, other major religions worldwide rank as follows: 1.6 billion Muslims (23 percent), 1 billion Hindus (15 percent), 500 million Buddhists (7 percent), and 400 million people (6 percent) practicing various other religions, including African traditional religions, Chinese folk religions, American Indian religions and Australian aboriginal religions. Most of these religions depend heavily upon written documents, such as the Bible.

Manuscripts attest New Testament’s authenticity

One method of testing the authenticity of New Testament texts is to compare the number of New Testament manuscripts with ancient ones like the “Iliad” of Homer. In 1986, Norman Geisler, co-author of “A General Introduction to the Bible,” noted there were about 5,000 Greek New Testament manuscripts. In 2013, Geisler updated this total; it had swelled to about 5,800 manuscripts. Geisler, quoting manuscript expert Dan Wallace, wrote, “If you placed the manuscript copies of the average ancient author it would form a pile four feet high. However the NT manuscripts and translations would reach a mile high!” Other than the Bible, the ‘Iliad’ has the most manuscripts of any ancient world book, currently about 1,800.

Gaps in time from original to first copy

The gap between the original “Iliad” and its first copy is reckoned to be 350-400 years by Geisler, who noted the time gap for most ancient authors is more than a thousand years. He declares that many scholars believe the New Testament was essentially complete by 100 A.D. Earlier this year, the Washington Post published a story of a fascinating discovery of a fragment of the Gospel of Mark which may possibly date to 60 AD, approximately 27 years after the death of Jesus. (See Early translations of the New Testament in Syriac, Arabic, Latin, Coptic, and others, number about 18,000. When added to the 5,800 Greek manuscripts, they swell the number of manuscripts to 24,000.

Early church fathers quoted manuscripts extensively

Geisler notes that just a handful of early church fathers account for 36,000 citations. Quoting Frederick Kenyon, author of “Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts,” Geisler continues “The number of mss. of the New Testament, of early translations from it, and of quotations from it by the oldest writers of the Church, is so large that it is practically certain that the true reading of every doubtful passage is preserved in some one or the other of these ancient authorities. This can be said of no other book in the world.”

Variants exist, but do they matter?

Many biblical scholars agree that New Testament manuscripts represent source texts with a high degree of accuracy — between 98.33 to 99.9 percent. Typical of these is Phillip Schaff, who writes that no variant affected “an article of faith.” Kenyon, in another work, “The Bible and Archaeology” wrote, “The interval between the dates of original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.”

Science and the Bible

Hugh Ross, internationally noted astronomer, astrophysicist, and Christian apologist was recently asked, during a large seminar, if the Bible had been corrupted. Ross replied he strongly believed in oral transmission from God up to Moses. Going forward, he noted, scripture was written by men who were inspired by God. He went on to say this can be put to the test. Does the Bible predict future events? Yes, Ross says, with precision, as opposed to some thinking they may have been added later. Ross asserts the Dead Sea Scrolls, especially the Daniel scroll, predicted the rise of the Roman Empire long before it happened. (See

Why people don’t know more about the origin of the Bible

I’ve been an Alaska resident for over 15 years, and have not heard a sermon dealing with the various origins of the Bible, its transition from oral to written form, how it has been preserved, its interpretation and how it’s being translated. Some pastors say this is taught in small groups or Sunday school classes, but in the public square, this element is sorely lacking. The same is true of sermons about creation, prophecy, biblical hospitality and healthful living. I have, however, heard more than enough hellfire and damnation sermons.

The spade confirms the book

Rarely does a day goes by without new archeological confirmation of the historic events related in scripture. I’m thankful to be living at a time where so much information about the Bible, its background and authenticity is available.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, emailcommentary(at)

Bible falls far short of being available worldwide

Last week a study released by the Barna Group and the American Bible Society, “Is the Bible Available to All People?,” revealed a huge misperception among Americans about the availability of the Bible in the world’s 6,900-plus languages. Almost three-fourths of Americans believe the Bible is available in all languages, but in fact, the report said, less than half of worldwide languages have complete translations of the Bible, or even a completed portion. Some other numbers worth noting: Barely 21 percent of Americans think all languages are not covered by Bible translations; 98 percent of Americans believe people should have access to the Bible in their own language; 31 percent of world languages have no Scripture translation started; and 26 percent have Scripture translations in process. In the U.S., 60 percent of Americans express wanting to study the Bible more, despite the average household having more than four Bibles.

This latest study, released as part of the American Bible Society’s 2015 State of the Bible report, shows just how much more needs doing to make the Bible more accessible worldwide. Last year I commented on the 2014 State of the Bible report. The focus of that report was biblical illiteracy among Christians. People do not have the advantage of reading the Bible if it’s not available in their native tongue.

The role of Bible translation in Christianity’s history

Lamin Sanneh, D. Willis James Professor of Missions and World Christianity, professor of history and professor of international and area studies at Yale University, writes in his book “Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West”: ”Being the original scripture of the Christian movement, the New Testament Gospels are a translated version of the message of Jesus, and that means Christianity is a translated religion without a revealed language. The issue is not whether Christians translated their scripture well or willingly, but that without translation there would be no Christianity or Christians. … Since Jesus did not write or dictate the gospels, his followers had little choice but to adopt a translated form of his message. The missionary environment of the early church made translation and the accompanying interpretation natural and necessary. … Christianity seems unique in being the only world religion that is transmitted without the language or originating culture of its founder.”

I heard Dr. Sanneh, in a Maryland conference I attended about eight years ago, posit that the spread of Christianity in Africa was successful so quickly because Scripture was translated into vernacular languages — in contrast with Islam, which was rooted in its original Arabic text. He further recounted the story of a church organization in the British Isles sending many English Bibles to Ethiopia to “help” them. Humorously, he noted that the Ethiopian churchmen sent the Bibles back to Britain saying, “No, thank you,” but that they’d already translated the Bible into their own language.

Scripture in Alaska Native languages

In Alaska, some portions of the Bible are available in Yupik, Haida and Inupiaq. The only complete Bible portion I’m aware of is a New Testament translation into North Slope Iñupiaq. Culturally, English is dominant in much of Alaska, though recent court rulings that voter materials be made available in Alaska Native languages reinforced those languages’ cultural importance

Could Bible translation replace costly short-term missions?

Many Alaska church members of all ages take short-term missionary trips to various areas of the world for one to three weeks to help locals with projects, support and money. These trips cost millions of dollars for uncertain returns. Often missiologists note these trips could be more productive if one or two highly skilled people in specialized areas go on these trips to do technology transfer, training the locals to acquire specialized skills to help themselves. Most often, local natives in these countries are amazed the trippers make no attempt to speak or even learn their language, are focused on giving things, and do work that natives would love to do if only they could be financially rewarded for doing so. A common example used is where short-term missionaries will paint or rehabilitate a church, providing materials or labor to make it happen. This translates into a lost opportunity for locals and a truly productive venture in helping out needy people.

As we approach summer, we find the same things happen in Alaska. Churches across the U.S. send teams of people to Alaska to repaint, repair and rehabilitate churches or church buildings. Where this happens, local members do not have the necessary buy-in to appreciate what they are receiving.

I suggest that Bible translation is a worthy goal that could pay bigger dividends in the long run than short-term missionary ventures. Paul, in his missionary journey to Athens, took advantage of language and culture to inject new meaning using their own terms; “… as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you …” (Acts 17:23).

Of course there is much more to translation than I convey here. But certainly a worthy goal could be the translation of key scriptural passages into the languages of regions where no Scripture exists. This study offers new insights and challenges for Christians believing the Bible has gone out to most of the world.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits.

Seder in Anchorage’s Lubavitcher community

Last week was a perfect storm of faith community gatherings, celebrations and commemoration. I attended two Seders — Protestant and Jewish — and an Easter service. The previous Sunday, I attended a Ganesh Puja at the Sri Ganesha Temple of Alaska, the northernmost Hindu temple in the world. I hope to write about that in a future column, but suffice to say, I enjoy meeting people of faith wherever they gather. Expressions of deep faith, regardless of my personal beliefs and no matter where I find them, are wonderful to see and experience, expanding my knowledge of our community’s customs.

Lubavitcher Seder

The Jewish tradition of celebrating Seder has fascinated me, partly due to this marvelous story of Jewish liberation from slavery as recorded in the Torah in the Book of Exodus, and partly because of its contemporary parallel in today’s culture. Seder is a Passover celebration in the Jewish tradition rooted in its scriptural centrism. Some Jews celebrate Seder in their homes during Passover with friends and guests. I’ve been told some of these celebrations can last many hours. Community Seders are offered at Jewish synagogues for members and the community. (For explanation of Lubavitcher, see

I attended the Jewish community Seder at the Lubavitch Jewish Center of Alaska on April 3, the first night of Passover. (Last year, I celebrated Seder with Congregation Beth Sholom, reviewing that experience in a previous column.)

I was warmly welcomed when I entered Lubavitch Jewish Center and made my way to the synagogue. In the hallway outside, I was repeatedly welcomed by various members of the Jewish community, making me feel as welcome as if it was my home. Assistant Rabbi Levi Glitsenstein warmly greeted me. Soon Rabbi Yosef Greenberg came, ensuring I was seated with a congenial group of people. My table included a newly met couple from Anchor Point, the curator of the Alaska Jewish Museum, and a recent member from South Africa. I soaked up the conversation as the evening progressed, learning much about Jewish practices.

Rabbi Greenberg’s wife, Esther, was responsible for the Seder, its presentation, serving, and beautifully decorated tables. Greenberg’s daughter Mushky, and wife of Rabbi Glitsenstein, organized the marvelous participation of the youth and younger ones in the festivities of the evening. The synagogue was full with tables set for six to eight people.

The Seder follows key readings from the Haggada, contained in approximately 150 pages, including the history, prayers, blessings, and key elements of the Seder and their significance. Throughout the evening those assembled were encouraged to participate verbally during these readings, partaking of the various elements literally and symbolically. Both rabbis led out in these communal readings.

Seder follows these key elements: Kaddish: blessings and first cup of wine; Ur’chatz: hand washing for vegetables, Karpas: appetizer dipped in saltwater, Yachatz: middle matzo breaking, Magid: the Passover story, Rohtzah: ritual hand washing, Motzi Matzo: matzo blessing, Maror: eating of the bitter herbs, Koreich: making a matzo sandwich with bitter herbs, Shulchan Orech: the meal, Tzafun: afikoman eating, Bareich: after meal prayer, Hallel: praise songs, Nirtzah: say “Next year in Jerusalem.” In all, four cups of wine are drunk during this celebratory meal.

As Greenberg introduced each of these sections of the Seder, he would either ask those gathered a question, or relate a brief anecdote regarding the significance the particular item. I found it an exciting learning experience, because he phrased his questions in such a way that all would have to stretch their knowledge and imagination to follow him. During countless visits in the faith community, I’ve found it extremely rare that a spiritual leader follows this question-and-answer approach to elicit responses. It was a true learning experience.

It also extended to the children and youth. A key part of the service is devoted to the “four questions,” posed to the younger ones and prefaced by a general question — “What makes this night different from all [other] nights?” — that is answered in 4 parts: 1. On all nights we need not dip even once, on this night we do so twice; 2. On all nights we eat chametz or matzo, and on this night only matzo; 3. On all nights we eat any kind of vegetables, and on this night maror; 4. On all nights we eat sitting upright or reclining, and on this night we all recline.

The children responded beautifully. After the meal there was traditional dancing by groups of men and women, separately, to “Hava Nagila” in long hand-clasped lines circling around two or three tables. It was breathtaking to look and listen. The words mean “let us rejoice, let us sing, awaken brethren.” Another song sung was “Dayenu,” which means “it would have been sufficient.” A lengthy song, a typical verse is “If He had brought us out from Egypt, and had not carried out judgments against them Dayenu, it would have sufficed us!”

Concluding impressions

My first impression of the Lubavitcher community is one of warmth; to each other, and to strangers. Rarely do I experience this kind of hospitality in any faith community. Next, I loved how this group showed they lived their history through this celebration where every element is designed with meaning. I was thrilled seeing the training and support they give to their younger generations. So many faith congregations just plow the surface. This one plows lasting and deep. My visit was not without some minor learning experiences. Going back thousands of years, these people have developed a unique set of traditions that serve them well. Although I committed a few faux pas, I learned from them and have nothing but admiration for this wonderful faith community.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits.

Holy Week: The End Approaches

The Anchorage area is well into Holy Week, the culmination of Lent, which leads up to Easter Sunday. Many churches, Protestant and Catholic tradition alike, celebrate the various ritual days of Holy Week. The most important observed days, are today and ahead. In Anchorage Daily News’ Thursday paper, a double center section highlighted all the various services available, noted below, with their times.

Thursday, today, is known as Maundy Thursday. It commemorates the last supper and the institution of the Eucharist or Communion.

Friday, tomorrow, is known as Good Friday and commemorates the day of Christ’s death. A mournful day, it is a time of reflection on the mysterious nature of Christ’s sacrifice for humanity.

Saturday, known as Holy Saturday, commemorates Christ’s time in the tomb. Generally, it is observed with silence, prayer and vigils.

Sunday, known as Easter Sunday, often starts with sunrise services to commemorate Christ’s morning resurrection. In many churches, Easter Sunday services are the most attended services of the year. These services are joyful and filled with praises to God and much hope.

However, some churches do not recognize Easter by special observances. In these churches, they attempt to emphasize all aspects of Easter throughout the year as they are so integral to Christian belief. Wikipedia has a thorough discussion of Holy Week observances here. Our Christian traditions are full of meaning and hope. Please take an opportunity to learn of a new tradition of which you may be unfamiliar.

Easter is here — let’s celebrate

By the time most read this, Lent will be over, capping a period of self-examination, possibly prayer and fasting, and maybe taking up something new or giving up something truly harmful. This weekend Western Christianity celebrates Easter, while Orthodox Christians will celebrate Easter (Pascha) a bit later due to differences between Julian and Gregorian calendars.

Does Easter need to be connected with spending?

One of the first things that came to my mind as I wrote this column is that Easter, despite its strong religious overtones, has become a major spending holiday for many Americans, with narcissistic displays of self-gratification. Easter is really not about us, is it? But according to the National Retail Federation, Easter spending places it in the middle of major American holidays. NRF notes shoppers are expected to spend more than $16.4 billion this year — or about $141 per person — with food, clothing, candy, and gifts heading the list. Easter spending positions it immediately after Valentine’s and Mother’s Day. That is a huge amount of money ostensibly honoring an event of religious significance, but really honoring oneself. In reality Easter is a celebration of the heart. Clearly Christmas and the other related winter holidays, which also have religious significance, score first place, topping $600 billion. Together, Easter and Christmas spending in the U.S. represents an amount larger than the national budgets of all but the nine wealthiest nations. Neither event really needs to be more than heartfelt commemorations expressing gratitude to the Godhead for dealing with the problem of sin.

What is Easter about?

For Christians, the resurrection of Jesus is the event distinguishing Christianity from all other faiths. In the events of Holy Week, culminating in Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, the very last events of Jesus’ life are noted and commemorated. Easter is the capstone following the last week of Lent. The prophecies and the predictions of Jesus are fulfilled in the empty tomb. For Christians, Easter represents the ransom paid for sin, and believers in the promise can live without the burden of sin and guilt. Therefore on Easter, we celebrate this wonderful event with music, song, rejoicing and sharing the good news of a risen Lord. Some celebrate with Easter sunrise services patterned after Scripture references to the resurrection being early, and some celebrate in their churches at regular worship times. An excellent volume about the resurrection is theologian N.T. Wright’s weighty and exhaustively researched volume “The Resurrection of the Son of God.” If you are a doubter, this is book may well contain your answers. Wright notes in this book that “resurrection is never a redescription of death, but always its overthrow and reversal.”

Should Easter be only a one-day celebration?

Some faiths do not observe Easter, claiming their faith daily observes the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. A few other faiths note Easter’s pagan origin, or development over time that may have incorporated other non-Christian practices, as a reason they do not observe Easter.

Again, Wright —  in his wonderful volume “Surprised by Hope” — writes, “Easter ought to be an eight-day festival, with Champagne served after Morning Prayer or even before, with lots of alleluias, extra hymns and spectacular anthems. Is it any wonder people find it hard to believe in the resurrection of Jesus if we don’t throw our hats in the air? Is it any wonder we find it hard to live the resurrection if we don’t do it exuberantly in our liturgies? Is it any wonder the world doesn’t take much notice if Easter is celebrated as simply the one-day happy ending tacked on to forty days of fasting and gloom? It’s long overdue that we took a hard look at how we keep Easter in church, at home, in our personal lives, right through the system.” In this book, Wright devotes many paragraphs to the ways we could be celebrating Easter. Few faiths maintain such enthusiasm for the celebration beyond the day itself, but it’s a worthy goal.

Easter celebrations of note

The Thursday, April 2 edition of Alaska Dispatch News features a two-page ad of various Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter celebrations being held in our community. I’ve found it a reliable source of information about the many service options being offered locally.

I discovered that ChangePoint and ChangePoint NE were holding Easter services at UAA’s Alaska Airlines Center with services at 9:30 a.m. and noon. Five services between the two congregations can be collapsed into two at this new and spacious event facility at UAA. Reaching out to Adam Legg, ChangePoint’s creative arts and communications pastor, I asked why they chose this venue for Easter services.

“First, we wanted to make it as easy as possible for our church family to invite their friends, neighbors, co-workers and family to join them on Easter Sunday,” Legg said. “Our vision at ChangePoint is ‘Life in Christ for every Alaskan and the world beyond,’ and we absolutely believe that every person who calls ChangePoint ‘home’ is involved in that vision. Second, this amazing facility allows us the space to welcome the community to join us. Last Easter we were at max capacity at two of our four Easter services. Third, we have already found that a neutral location may cause people who are typically averse to attending a church, to reconsider. For us to step out of our building, and go to a prominent location in our city, makes it easier for people to check us out. We absolutely cannot wait to join thousands of people at the Alaska Airlines Center next Sunday as we celebrate the risen Jesus!”

I plan on attending one of ChangePoint’s services, and also a sunrise service. If you recognize me, please come over and introduce yourself.

Theologian Walter Brueggemann, in his startling poem “Easter in the Very Belly of Nothingness,” concludes with, “O Friday God — Easter the failed city, Sunday the killing fields. And we, we shall dance and sing, thank and praise, into the night that holds no more darkness.”

That’s what Easter’s about. Happy Easter!

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog, Church Visits.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)