December 2, 2020

Testing Scripture: A Scientist Explores the Bible- by John Polkinghorne, Chapter 9- Other New Testament Writings

Testing Scripture: A Scientist Explores the Bible– by John Polkinghorne

Chapter 9- Other New Testament Writings

Polkinghorne notes there are ten other books in the New Testament, but he is only going to highlight a few of them.  The first is Acts.  Its opening verses addresses someone called Theophilus.  Since the name means “lover of God”, Polkinghorne notes the common theory that it is addressed to the figure of a typical enquirer, rather than the name of a specific person.  Luke’s Gospel (1:3) is similarly addressed and almost all scholars agree that the two books are by the same author.  Polkinghorne thinks it is significant that he felt the story had to be told in two parts.  The first being the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the second the account of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the life of the early Church.  There is much less scholarly agreement about when Acts was written with some favoring the early 60s and others the 80s.  The book ends when Paul arrives in Rome, but give no account of his subsequent trial and execution.  Therefore, Polkinghorne favors an early date.  The dating is relevant to the question of the detailed historical reliability of the story Acts tells.  There is considerable variety of scholarly opinion about that issue also (what a surprise).

Polkinghorne feels that the account of Pentecost has the ring of truth to it.  When Peter addresses the crowd, he says, “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified” (2:36).  The way Peter puts it sounds like adoptionism, the theological idea that Jesus was made God’s son at his resurrection because he had been faithful even to the point of accepting death on the cross.  However, it was very soon realized in the Christian community that this theory was inadequate, since surely God must have been at work in Jesus in a special way throughout his life, and not just opportunistically at the end.  Hence there soon developed the stronger theory of the sending of the Son, that we find in Paul.  This adoptionist tone in Acts 2 suggests to Polkinghorne that the chapter derives from a very early source, near to the events themselves.  He says:

It is certainly the case that Luke shows an accurate knowledge of the first-century world, giving precise details of the titles of important people and of judicial procedures which can be confirmed from independent secular sources.  Acts is very much rooted in the period it purports to be describing and it does not seem to me to have the air of a later imaginative writing.

The next New Testament book Polkinghorne talks about is the Epistle to the Hebrews.  Its author is unknown although older English versions assigned the book to Paul.  It seems certain, from considerations of style and theological stance, that this is not correct.  He had an almost platonic concern with the contrast between the appearance of things, which for him included the Mosaic Law and Jewish worship, and ultimate reality, which is the heavenly status of Jesus.

But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. Hebrews 9:11-12

The tabernacle or tent is the temple of the wilderness wandering.  The writer always refers to the tent rather than the Jerusalem Temple.  Jesus is said to be a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek (5:10, 6:20-7:3), a reference to Psalm 110:4 and set out in contrast to the Levitical priesthood that served the Temple.

The writer has a very high Christology, “Hebrews 1:2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. 3 The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.”  Nevertheless, the writer is far from seeing Jesus just as a spiritual being who appeared to be human.  A good deal of the first chapter refutes the notion that Jesus was an angel in disguise.  His full humanity is asserted.  We are told: “it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered” (2:10) and “Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” (2:18). Hebrews 7:7-9 contains the only clear reference to Gethsemane outside of the Gospels.

Scholarly opinion is divided about the dating of Hebrews, although Polkinghorne believes that without any reference to the destruction of the Temple means it is prior to 70.  I agree with Polkinghorne, it is unthinkable as much of the writing that is devoted to the tabernacle, he would have left out reference to such a major event.

The Epistle of James, quite possibly written by the brother of Jesus, is a very Jewish piece, concerned with issues of right conduct.  The author declares, famously, that “faith without works is dead” (2:18-26), leading Martin Luther to call it “an epistle of straw”, continuing in that great tradition of ignoring Scripture passages that don’t comport to your particular theological hobby-horse.  Of course, any good Southern Baptist knows that true faith must be manifested in deeds as well as words, or you didn’t say the magic words with enough sincerity you didn’t really get saved.  Better walk the aisle again, you backslider, and get it right this time, because once saved, always saved!!!  I know, I know why am I opening that C.O.W?

Polkinghorne says that 1 Peter is obviously an early letter but the sophisticated nature of the Greek style makes it unlikely to have been penned directly by Peter.  Although I don’t know why an amanuensis wouldn’t account for the writing style while Peter just reminisced.  Consider this quote from Justin Martyr:

 And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. Justin Martyr: First Apology Chapter 67 (ca 150 AD)

The the memoirs of the apostles; gee, I wonder what those could have been, (cough) gospels (cough).  Look, to me personally, and I acknowledge I’m not a scholar, the idea that the resurrection and divinity of Jesus were late legendary accretions does not pass the smell test.  It is well known that Polycarp was a disciple of John the apostle, and that Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp; that’s a pretty short chain.  So it seems likely to me that John passed on what he knew to Polycarp, who passed it to Irenaeus (whose writings we indisputably have).  And what was passed on was what Jesus Himself had said, “Game of telephone” notwithstanding.  In fact 1 John 1:1, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life”, even though the writing of that phrase down may well have occurred later, is just the type of thing that John would have said, and would be a phrase likely to have been passed down just like it was said from the disciple who laid his head on Jesus’ breast.  And even though 2 Peter is almost universally recognized as one of the latest of all New Testament writing, 2 Peter 1:16, “For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty”, is a quote from Peter the eyewitness as passed down from those who knew him.

Finally, Polkinghorne mentions Revelation, noting that John of Patmos probably is not the author of the fourth gospel.  He notes:

…noting its strange character of the alternation of passages of heavenly worship with passages of sadistic punishment.  The latter have the crude and repetitive style that makes one think of an animated cartoon.

As Wikipedia says: Revelation was the last book accepted into the Christian biblical canon, and to the present day some “Nestorian” churches such as the Church of the East reject it.  Eusebius, in his Church History (c. 330 AD) mentioned that the Apocalypse of John was accepted as a Canonical book and rejected at the same time:

  1. … it is proper to sum up the writings of the New Testament which have been already mentioned… After them is to be placed, if it really seem proper, the Apocalypse of John, concerning which we shall give the different opinions at the proper time. These then belong among the accepted writings [Homologoumena]. 4. Among the rejected [Kirsopp. Lake translation: “not genuine”] writings must be reckoned, as I said, the Apocalypse of John, if it seem proper, which some, as I said, reject, but which others class with the accepted books.

The Council of Laodicea (363) omits it as a canonical book.  The Synod of Hippo (in 393), followed by the Council of Carthage (397) and the Council of Carthage (419), classified it as a canonical book.  The Apostolic Canons, approved by the Eastern Orthodox Council in Trullo in 692, omit it.

Doubts resurfaced during the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther called it “neither apostolic nor prophetic” in the 1522 preface to his translation of the New Testament (he revised his position with a much more favorable assessment in 1530), and it was the only New Testament book on which John Calvin did not write a commentary.  As of 2015 it remains the only New Testament work not read in the Divine Liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox Church, though Catholic and Protestant liturgies include it.

As for me, I could care less.  Back in the day, when I had just converted from atheism, and was an over-zealous evangelical, I bought into the whole Hal Lindsey thing.  Now, I never read it, read anything about it or its interpretation, and my eyes glaze over when I encounter anyone who starts waxing eloquent about its meaning.  The last time somebody was trying to tell me that Revelation just has to have some meaning for us today, I said fine, before I listen to your meaning for today you have to tell me what it meant to the people to whom it was first directed.  The first rule of biblical exegesis is that you have to understand what the original author meant when he was writing to his original audience.  If you can’t tell me that then fugedaboutit.

I have lately begun to suspect that maybe John was turning the whole apocalyptic genre on its head.  The picture of the conquering warrior covered in the blood of his enemies was pervasive in his day (and maybe still is).  Instead the conqueror is covered in blood BEFORE he goes into battle.  Whose blood?  His own maybe.  And it’s a lamb that conquers.  How does a lamb conquer anything, except by its own sacrifice?  The sword that slays the nations is a two-edged sword coming out of Jesus’ mouth (Hebrews 4:12).  Could that be the words of the gospel of reconciliation that slays the violence of this world’s systems?  Well, YMMV, and like I said, I really just don’t care anymore.  I’m a pan-millenialist—it’ll all pan out in God’s own time and way.


  1. Mike the G Man, another great recap of another great chapter. I like your train of thought and insight as I think my train might have decoupled or perhaps derailed.
    I especially like how you avoided expanding on the open can of worms. I bored in on the metaphor and went right to the core of the problem. Nothing is worse than finding a worm n an apple you are eating except finding half a worm.
    You baited me and hooked me with the worm analogy which is what a good author does. I am waiting to see if the worm turns or if you try to wiggle out of opening the can. I wait with baited breath to see if worms in a can would be considered a diet of worms for overweight fish leaving their schools of life knowledge.
    When I think of little worms fondly a strange glow comes over me and I realize all that glitters while it might shimmer is not gold. I cannot afford any shirts produced by the silk worm but I have many produced by the rayon worm.
    I will now close the can . I cannot add anything intellectually to the discussion so here I stand. Thanks again.

    • Wow, this left me squirming.

    • The early bird gets the worm! (And in your case you were the earliest to respond)

      • Maybe for us Christians it should be, “The early worm gets the bird.” You know, like how the worm’s sacrifice sustains the bird.

        (Strange thinking, I know. But I’m still pondering Tuesday’s Lenten post, and these words/thoughts:
        “Lent is not so much about giving up something as a spiritual discipline, though there is a place for that. It’s more about giving up. It’s about learning to die. Daily.”)

  2. Adam Tauno Williams says

    Great post.

    “I’m a pan-millenialist—it’ll all pan out” … Beautiful. I also glaze over if someone starts talking about Revelation; or one can Scripture-Block them: “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:34) These days got troubles aplenty.

    • Ronald Avra says

      Those obsessed with Revelation don’t seemed to be inclined to follow Jesus’s instruction to ask the Father, “give us this day, our daily bread.” Their perceived need is for total control of the situation, not a faith that will carry them through uncertainty and darkness.

  3. Great review Mike. Thanks!

  4. C.O.W.


    For those of you attending the [ dying ] mainline churches, “backsliding” is now mentioned with the same frequency as “demon rum” in most SBC churches; mostly never.

    SERIOUSLY, that’s pretty much last century talk.

    BTW, even the independent fundamentalist Baptist have changed. It’s is very difficult to find a fundamentalist church that preaches AGAINST women in pants – the SBC? Never.

    Times have changed in Baptist churches; but the trajectory of the mainline has not – still headed south.

  5. Ronald Avra says

    Great post. Personally, I find it very difficult to grasp the difficulty with which the New Testament was assembled. The author of Hebrews does mention an ongoing ritual of sacrifice contemporary with himself: 8:4-5, 10:11. My conviction is that first century Christians made their best efforts with the means available to them to pass their experiences to those who followed them.

    • “My conviction is that first century Christians made their best efforts with the means available to them to pass their experiences to those who followed them.”

      I have thought that they seemed to find their way forward with some supernatural help from God. Hard to imagine those times, the lack of ‘resources’, the difficulties communicating . . . . it is hard to imagine this young Church surviving without God’s grace to help it, like keeping a little flame going in the midst of a great storm, but still that is what happened.

      It is said that long before the NT Scriptures were written down, they were prayed in community as a part of the ‘Service of the Word’ and that one test of the validity of a Scripture was IF it had been used for the liturgy of the young Church over time and widely, then it had a gravitas that pointed to its origin being ‘inspired’.
      There must have been a great oral tradition in the early Church . . . . not much written at first BECAUSE they all thought Christ would return to them quickly.

      There is a miraculous quality about the survival of the early Church.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > first century Christians made their best efforts

      If only they had had Twitter!

      • senecagriggs says

        Awesome – laughing

      • Mike the Geologist says

        #thepharisees The Disciples stole the body- he didn’t rise from the dead- fake news

        • At H.Clinton’s behest, the FBI traveled back through time (using their secret time travel technology bestowed on them by extraterrestrials), paid crisis actors to play the part of Jesus and his disciples (who themselves were disappeared to someplace inside the Pizzagate multilevel subterranean headquarters in DC [you know, the one that is connected by underground passageways to Capitol Hill]), who faked the Passion, Crucifixion and Resurrection, just so they could start the first historically known communist community, as related in the Acts of the Apostles: “And all that believed were together, and had all things in common…” — Acts 2:44. The Deep State’s and Leftist’s handiwork!

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            DON’T GIVE THEM IDEAS!

            Considering some of the Conspiracy TRUTH!s floating around today (and not just on Coast to Coast AM), that’s actually pretty tame.

            • I couldn’t compete with the conspiracy theorist wackos, bots and trolls (thanks, V. Putin) that are out there on Youtube and Twitter if I wanted to. Sad thing is that about a third of Americans believe their fabrications.

              • Headless Unicorn Guy says

                Just this morning I was watching the live feed of the Space X launch from Vandenberg. The YouTube streaming page had an accompanying chat log scrolling like crazy; about a third of the chat comments were Flat Earth Truthers.

          • Robert F. & Unicorn Guy, I was going to get into time travels though wormholes in my worm comments above but wanted to stick to facts. Worm holes do not exist and if they do some doubters (Hawking) do not think they would lead to time travel. Based on my 2 years studying business math
            and f bending numbers to attain a low C average , I believe anything is possible with numbers.
            I would send Herbert Philbrick back into the early Christian era and he could have stopped the communist influence. As Herbert Philbrick Led 3 Lives to expose communism , he might have confused the early Christians. Of course he was with the FBI when they were effective in stopping the Russians pre 2014. I have studied Marx and Engels. unfortunately it was of course, Groucho and Marty I studied but still I have an opinion.

            I do not think the early Christians were communist like those exposed by Herbert Philbrick and portrayed so well by the great actor Rickard Carlson but they were sincere true believers who made individual decisions to follow Jesus and share , it was informal and a moral dictate. In essence they were not free to not share any more than they were free to worship pagan idols. As Hebrew National Franks says in their hot dog ad, they answered to a higher authority,. Herbert Philbrick would not oppose them , he opposed the state imposed and mandated by force communism. Ananias and Saphira were not true believers and looked what happened.
            I do not think the early Christians were thinking of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Fidel and Bernie when they shared but Bernie they lost the primary . Also I do not think people listed above were thinking of the early Christians as they took over.

            • According to Merriam-Webster: communism — 1 a: a system in which goods are owned in common and are available to all as needed

              They were communists; it’s incontrovertible.

  6. Brian Zahnd in his book “Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God” has a most excellent (IMO) chapter on understanding Revelations. None of this “what it means today, Left Behind” stuff there.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      This Frodo had to bear the Hal Lindsay/Jack Chick End Time Prophecy Ring.
      After that ringbearing, there is no healing this side of the Undying Lands.

  7. Good post, Mike the G. I was right there with you on Revelation even before I found EO. The only thing we reference in it is its vision of Jesus in the first few chapters, a bit from the end, and, even more, the descriptions of worship. The rest of it? The vast majority of the Greek Fathers didn’t touch it, because they knew that they didn’t know what all the figurative language was about.


  8. Calling yourself a pan-millennialist is just as good as calling yourself a pantheist to plenty of End Times fundamentalists.

  9. “The first rule of biblical exegesis is that you have to understand what the original author meant when he was writing to his original audience. If you can’t tell me that then fugedaboutit.”

    Brilliant! This can apply to so many issues in the evangelical church, but would totally ruin a proof texter’s day.

  10. I really appreciate what you mean when you say that you basically ignore Revelation right now. Like many of us here, I was a teen in the 1980’s when there was only one book of the Bible, and that was Revelation. I remember when I was 17 and told the Campus Crusade lady (shoot, now I see she was a girl) that I thought you could be a good Christian and not believe that the world was going to end anytime soon. The look on her face! Then…I told her I believe that women could be ministers! I thought she was going to do a Presbyterian exorcism on me right then and there.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Like many of us here, I was a teen in the 1980’s when there was only one book of the Bible, and that was Revelation.

      When I was in-country in the Seventies, there were only 3 1/2 books in the Bible: Daniel, Revelation, the “Nuclear War Chapter” of Ezekiel (the 1/2), and most important, Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsay which superseded the other 2 1/2.

      All Pin-the-Tail-on-The-Antichrist and Christians For Nuclear War, all the time.

      • I forgot! Late Great was the real last book of the Bible (followed later by Left Behind). Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Antichrist. LOL! I’m glad Miss Campus Crusade had not heard of that one or we’d have played it.