Where did Luke get his Bethlehem story from?

Previously on RejectingJesus:

Matthew creates his nativity story, specifically Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, from Micah 5.2, which prophesies that a ‘ruler over Israel’ will be born there. This prophecy is imposed on Jesus who was not a ruler of Israel – though he may have aspired to be – and certainly was not the Messiah envisaged by the creators of such prophecies. I suggest that subsequently, Luke embroidered Matthew’s fairly basic story and contrived to get Jesus born in Bethlehem by inventing a Roman census that required his parents to travel there.

A Christian commenter (let’s call him Don) then challenged this scenario by claiming, without offering any evidence, that Luke did not have access to Matthew’s gospel, so must have known that Jesus was born in Bethlehem from an independent source. (Christians are fond of attributing suspect gospel material to oral traditions and the hypothetical Q. Don is no exception.)

In fact, a number of scholars, including Michael Goulder, Mark Goodacre, Richard Carrier and others, think that Luke did know Matthew’s gospel. This is the so-called Farrer hypothesis, named after Austin Farrer who first proposed the idea in 1955. As well as his plagiarising 55% of Mark, these scholars show that Luke also used material from Matthew, including the Bethlehem story. The structure of Luke’s version and some of his phrasing is identical to Matthew’s. It is unlikely this would be the case if Luke wasn’t lifting directly from Matthew’s account.

Luke goes further and replaces some of the details in Matthew’s story that don’t suit his purpose (e.g. the magi) with his own (the shepherds), which is why the two accounts diverge. Nonetheless, both versions of the story stem from the ‘prophecy’ in Micah 2.5. Luke doesn’t cite it explicitly but then he is non-specific elsewhere in his gospel about events that supposedly fulfil prophecy. Unlike Matthew, Luke was writing for a gentile audience who would not be as familiar with Jewish scripture; he didn’t need to be as explicit about the source for his stories that were based on these scriptures. Nonetheless, the two nativity accounts, Matthew’s and Luke’s, likely had the same basis (the Micah prophecy) with Luke adapting the narrative that Matthew had already created from it. Moreover, the differences in detail between Matthew and Luke’s accounts demonstrate clearly that both authors were inventing their respective stories. As Neil Godfrey puts it,

Luke, attempting to adapt Matthew’s Bethlehem as the place of birth of Jesus to his more universalist theme, feels obliged to concoct a silly story of everyone being required by imperial edict to return to their places of birth for a special tax registration. Not to mention the necessary anachronism of his Quirinius timing, too. It is not hard to see that Luke is struggling to incorporate Matthew’s Bethlehem setting into his own tendentious narrative.

It’s possible, of course, that all of the scholars who think Luke knew Mathew’s gospel are wrong, but even so, this doesn’t rescue Luke’s nativity from its fictional moorings.

First, it could be argued that both Matthew and Luke knew about Jesus’ birth from their respective sources. Our Christian commenter would say, and does say, that the details of Jesus’s birth were well known in the early, pre-gospel cult (he disputes that Jesus was in any way famous beyond this select few) and that these details were preserved in a reliable oral tradition or in Q. If the former was the case, however, the two nativity accounts would not differ to the extent they do, unless the oral traditions weren’t as reliable as our commenter likes to say they were. On the other hand, Q, if it existed at all, was comprised primarily of sayings and certainly did not include any Bethlehem narrative.

Second, Don will no doubt say that all of this is mere atheist grumbling and is therefore entirely fallacious. He believes that God inspired his anonymous agents to use prophecy, foreshadowing and typology to point the way to Jesus and his birth in Bethlehem. Don believes that both Matthew and Luke had independent knowledge of Jesus’ birth there, which means it must’ve been his birthplace. Of course it indicates nothing of the sort. If Matthew and Luke settled on Bethlehem independently, it would demonstrate only that they had independent knowledge of Micah 2.5.

Third, if the circumstances of Jesus birth in Bethlehem were so remarkable – miraculous, even – then why does Mark not mention them? According to Don (though no serious scholar shares his view) Mark’s gospel is comprised of the recollections of Peter, Jesus’ closest, dim-witted pal in the synoptic gospels. Did Jesus never mention his birth to Peter? Did Peter then fail to pass the details on to Mark? Did Jesus’ mother Mary, who treasured memories of the miraculous birth, never allude to them when she and Peter reminisced together over a glass of water wine? (Yes, Don, I know this is in John’s gospel, but they are meant to be the same characters.) Why does the Bethlehem birth only emerge in Matthew, who built much of his gospel around ‘prophecies’ from scripture, and in Luke, who, in all likelihood, copied from him?

We can be fairly certain that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem. Someone somewhere, other than these two, would have mentioned it outside of symbolic stories that owe far more to myth and legend than they do to fact.

51 thoughts on “Where did Luke get his Bethlehem story from?

  1. Forgive me, Neil, for veering a bit from the narrative, but all these proof/no proof essays by biblical scholars (and bloggers) is, IMO, such a total waste of time. As many have questioned before me — WHY didn’t the almighty and wondrous “GOD” make sure “His” supposed words were clear to any and all? After all, is it not recorded in the “Holy Book” that “He” is not the author of confusion? (1 Corinthians 14:33)

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    • Couldn’t agree more. Except, except… those who, like Don, cling to this stuff do so much damage in the world. Maybe not in the same way as Putin but to individual lives, like mine. I wasted so much of mine believing all this nonsense that when I finally escaped it I had to make sense, if that’s possible, of what it was I’d believed. Part of this, for me, has been challenging the likes of Don and those who are far more aggressive in their promotion of Jesus and extremist Christianist politics. I feel the need to push back. I recognise that I’m wasting my time, but I still have to, just to let them see they can’t get away with the rubbish they spout with impunity. Maybe I might prevent someone else from being taken in by their propaganda.

      Perhaps it’s the same for you, Nan, as I know you comment on other sites that discuss similar topics. Maybe you too, RaPaR. It probably is all futile and time, once again, for me to move on from all this Jesus gubbins (I’ve one more post ready, which I will use) and talk about something sensible.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I understand, Neil. I really do. There’s always that whisper of hope that SOMETHING will get through. Not immediately, of course, because the believer MUST defend his/her faith, but hopefully at some point down the road there will be an “ah-ha” moment. Hope springs eternal. 😊

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  2. I appreciate your reference to people I regard as actually qualified, Mark Goodacre being one. I would like to read the other theory Goodacre referred to at the end of his post.

    One thing all this highlights is that everyone has a theory when it comes to the synoptic problem. When I wrote my book Messiah: the Story of Jesus According to Matthew I proposed a theory of my own that explains the data better. You could probably read the part discussing Matthew at the end of the book from Amazon.

    The short of it is that the synoptics all depend on earlier sources which were oral and circulating as the preaching of the Apostles in the period between Pentecost and the time when the Apostles wrote them down. The accounts were similar but also somewhat different in wording and order of the narrative. This is not Q if there ever really was a Q. (Q is usually considered to be an early written source of largely saying. I think Q unlikely.)

    Matthew and Luke share a prior birth narrative which probably was not part of the orally circulated narrative. Each chooses from the one story the pieces that are important for each of the different audiences they are writing for. Here”s an explanation: http://biblicalmusing.blogspot.com/2017/11/the-nativity-story.html?view=timeslide Matthew writing for a Jewish audience includes the prophecies and references to Herod and his brutality, which Jews would be aware of. Luke writing for as non-Jewish audience largely does not. But they both touch down at a number of places, for example, both identify Bethlehem as the birth place. Both include Nazareth. Both include angels. Both include the virgin birth, though Luke does not reference a prophecy.

    In any event, orally circulating stories and sayings of Jesus which share some pieces and differ at some places is by far the better theory IMHO. It accounts for Mark as the brief and probably most contiguous telling of the Jesus story. Certainly it has far more of the marks of an oral piece than the others. It accounts for Matthew as fuller narrative that includes many references to the OT and demonstrates a rabbinical style of argumentation. It also accounts for both Matthew and Luke rearranging so of the narrative to suit their objectives. It accounts for Luke who by his own admission pulled together his account from multiple sources. Luke just sounds like pieces rather a flowing narrative. It also accounts for the differences in the passion narrative, if you are interested.

    No one probably has the whole truth about how the synoptics were related. That is what makes the question an interesting continuing discussion.

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    • Of course you as an amateur are far more knowlegeable about the gospels’ origins than any of the scholars who’ve spent a lifetime studying the synoptic problem. There’s nothing humble about your opinions, Don.

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      • And there is nothing unique about my opinions either. Scholars who are much better able to analyze the scriptures than I agree or at least pretty closely agree. You see, that is the thing about scholars, there are any number of ideas and “proofs.” So, which do you choose, especially if you do not have the ability to critically examine the arguments and evidence? As most do not. The truth is, most choose the argument that supports their prejudice. That is why Carrier is so popular among those who already did not believe in Jesus and so unpopular among those who did. Or why C.S. Lewis is so popular among those who already believed and so unpopular among those who do not. We choose scholars who reinforce our prejudices.

        So, what is the way out? Doubt your prejudices and then doubt your doubts. Think. In the end you are responsible.

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  3. The first red flag should be the fact the gospels are anonymous.

    The second most pertinent fact is that, none of the gospels begin with the phrase: “Once upon a time …”

    However, even though Yahweh’s Literary Holy Works ( sic) lack these crucial omissions, it doesn’t require much research to discover they are nothing but tales of Historical Fiction

    “…. let’s call him Don.”

    In a few of Terry Pratchett’s novels the father of one of the characters is referred to as “Number 1 Suspect”.
    This, I consider is a much better title for your most slippery interlocutor as it is almost criminal what he tries to pass off as evidence!
    😎

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      • I found some of the blogs you pointed me to thought provoking. I agree with one in particular. https://bariweiss.substack.com/p/things-worth-fighting-for?s=r

        Human beings have dignity and nobility and there are some moral absolutes. These are worth living for and dying for. And these are the legacy we have a creatures created by God, bearing his image. If we are no more than blobs of protoplasm with no past and no future there is none of this. Those are things we cannot just assume to ourselves – while others assume other things. They are truths.

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      • Nope. I like evolution. Not only it the best description of how species changed but also the best reminder of the mind-bending degree chance plays in the process – or seems to.

        I have two daughters. They both received the DNA of my wife and myself. They do have a lot of similarity, but they have a lot of dissimilarity as well. Why? Pure chance? There is no known reason why some genes were passed to one and different genes to the other.

        So how often does chance play the leading role in species change? It seems to be the only team on the field.

        But chance is limited. It cannot build a house out of a load of lumber and nails. No ,matter how long the lumber and nails are mixed and remixed. There has to be a mind behind the selection and construction. I don’t think it can build a human out of an ape or an ape out of an amoeba either unless there is someone behind the selection and construction. And that is only the biological world. What of the rest?

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      • Ah, so when your ability to reason hits a brick wall rather than admit you simply don’t know your indoctrination kicks in and you stick Yahweh in the knowledge gap.
        Tell me, why don’t you believe in the version of Christianity touted by Ken Ham and his ilk?

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      • No, it is when my ability to reason kicks in that I realize that materialism is the biggest lottery of all time, and I am wasting my money betting on a winning ticket.

        I am not a Ken Ham Christian because I think science tells the truth and it is not Ken Ham’s truth.

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      • Please, Ark, haven’t we discussed this before? Or haven’t you heard it before? Science is by intent interested in and limits its investigation to the physical. That means God is beyond the scope of science. No scientist looks for God in a test tube.

        But science can tell us things about the natural world that point to a deity beyond. The complexity and organization of the natural world point to an organizer in the same way a painting points to a painter.

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      • The four fundamental forces and preexisting laws that governed the existence and development of the universe into its present configuration. I am particularly impressed by gravity and entropy. Without those, where would we be? 🙂

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      • Sorry,apologetic bullshit does not count as evidence
        Have another go …..
        Try not to be a Nob this time, okay?

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      • Nope Don’t play that game,and especially not with disingenious people like you,who when it comes to their religion tend to be dishonest and lack basic integrity.

        You either have evidence or you don’t.
        Based one every interaction to date that I have ever had with Christians the answer is you don’t.
        However, I am open-minded enough to be proved wrong.
        You are without doubt well versed and well read, so please, be my guest.
        Prove me wrong .
        Present the evidence

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      • What would you accept as evidence? After more than sixty years walking humbly with the Lord, I am satisfied that the evidence is more than adequate. The most significant, however, is evidence you may never have experienced. It is the personal and unavoidable voice of God.

        Have you ever read the poem “The Hound of Heaven” by Francis Thompson?

        I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
        I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
        I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
        Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
        I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
        Up vistaed hopes I sped;
        And shot, precipitated,
        Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,
        From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
        But with unhurrying chase,
        And unperturbèd pace,
        Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
        They beat—and a Voice beat
        More instant than the Feet—
        ‘All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.’

        I knew at his voice that nothing could satisfy my heart but him.

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      • Not in my head, Neil. The voice is heard in the spirit. When you were a Christian, did you never hear people talk of their personal relationships with the Lord? I find that sad.

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      • What would you accept as evidence?

        Evidence that demonstrates the veracity of your god claim, notably that Yahweh/Jesus 0f Nazareth is the creator of the universe.

        So, please present this evidence.
        And, once again, please do not reply with a comment that will result in a circular argument.

        Thanks

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      • Atheism is simply the lack of belief in gods, your god and every other.
        A lack of belief in gods does not require evidence any more than your (likely) lack of belief in fairies, unicorns, Martians.
        I am not asserting there are definitely no gods, merely that the lack of evidence for them strongly suggests they do not exist.

        The onus / responsibility to provide evidence always fall with the one making the positive claim; in this case that would be you, Don.

        Any time you are ready we can examine the evidence you claim you have..

        The proverbial floor is yours’.
        Away you go …..

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      • Still no idea what such evidence might be? You should at least be honest, Ark, not with me, but with yourself. There is no evidence that would convince you. You have already made up your mind.

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      • That is a flat out lie
        This is the same disingenious response every indoctrinated Christian gives when asked to present evidence.
        So please stop being a condescending dick. I’ve been doing this long enough to know a charletan, and you all write the same drivel.

        Now we know where we both stand you can put away your feigned indignation and holier than thou attitude and present the evidence you claim you have.
        You can start by presenting the evidence that convinced you.
        And again,no circular nonsense please, just the evidence.
        Over to you.

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      • An organiser?
        Fascinating!
        Please present the evidence that led you to this conclusion, and especially the evidence that demonstrated to you the god or organizer in question is the bible character Jesus of Nazareth.

        And I would appreciate it if you did not simply make your response circular or refer to some trite verse in the bible.

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      • Without hope?
        Oh, … of course! You believe that I will be going to Hell when I die whereas you, one of Yahweh’s dribbling minions ,believe you will be living in Yahweh’s mansion if many rooms.
        Seriously,Don, you are such a brainwashed Dick
        I don’t know if you have kids but I sincerely hope they were never infected with your delusion.

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      • ‘A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’ How well this sums up Christianity! You say the Bible represents the world you live in, and while I’m surprised you’re communicating with us from the first century, do you really subscribe to the view that evil supernatural principalities and powers control this reality, while a god looks on, satisfied only with a blood sacrifice? That’s the worldview conveyed in the Bible.

        You also caricature non-believers as being without hope and any answers to life’s questions. You are wrong. We find purpose and hope in this one and only life. You dismiss it as something chaotic and unfriendly to be endured for some wonderful though entirely make-believe life to come. Don, it is you who are squandering your life away, on a fairy tale. We are not.

        Liked by 1 person

      • So, you do think Macbeth was right. You simply choose the existentialist option of choosing to believe something that is not true because it is the only way to endure the meaningless. The truth is that according to your worldview, we are specks of dust in a meaningless universe that does not care about us. Our lives are short and often painful. But it will all be over, for us and for the world, shortly. It is a tale told by a fool.

        Neil: You dismiss [life] as something chaotic and unfriendly to be endured for some wonderful though entirely make-believe life to come.

        Don: I wonder if that mischaracterization is not one of the early and fundamental mistakes you made as you transitioned from faith to fiction (atheism).

        [Ironically, you are characterizing my approach to life as just as existentialist as yours. Just different. I wonder why you object. What difference does it make to you?]

        I personally, love and enjoy life. I was raised in a part of the country that was particularly oriented to the natural outdoor world. I early on found great enjoyment in being in the mountains. That was before I came to believe in Jesus. But I still do these many years later. As a Christian, I came to see the world as God’s creation and a gift of great value. I also came to see that I had a God-given purpose in life. That was to live my life for the good. As I have done that, I’ve found that life of giving exceedingly satisfying and meaningful. I’ve also come to see the life many live, a life of running after wealth and pleasure and of jockeying for attention or position, tragic. Especially when it is lived as a desperate attempt to ignore death.

        I do not see life as something to be endured. I think of this life a time to be enjoyed
        and as a preview of forever life.

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      • Your approach to life is worthy. Thing is — many non-believers feel the same. They just leave out the “God” part.

        The problem arises when you, as a Christian, seem to feel that atheists and non-believers are incapable of appreciating life unless they accept that “God” is the creator.
        Our question is why? Why should we accept the words of a several thousand year old book that some unseen supernatural entity is behind everything?

        Further, non-believers and atheists do not ignore death. In actuality, they accept that life has its end … and no amount of of hopin’ and prayin’ is going to change that.

        IMO, you make far too many assumptions.

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      • I don’t think atheists and non-believers are incapable of enjoying life. That would be crazy. I do think many choose something less than the best life.

        Nan: Why should we accept the words of a several thousand year old book that some unseen supernatural entity is behind everything?

        Don: Because it provides the best reason for the dysfunctions of life.

        I suppose we all would agree that giving and kindness are virtues of the highest order and that life lived that way results in deep happiness. Why then Ukraine or the subway shooter. What went wrong? Or more personally, why do I act that way at times?

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      • Because we’re humans. Or, to your way of seeing things … “flawed” humans.

        IMO, even the earliest of early humans (before the “Great Book” came into existence) had disagreements — and no doubt some of them carried it to the “extreme.” Don’t forget, we’re essentially part of the animal kingdom and they don’t know anything about “good and evil.”

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      • 1. Face reality, Don. We do exist in an indifferent universe. Wanting it to be otherwise doesn’t make it so. I don’t regard human beings as ‘specks of dust’, but if that’s how you see us in your little caricature, who am I to argue?

        2. I didn’t mischaracterise you. You used the words ‘chaotic’ and ‘unfriendly’ about the world. I merely quoted your own comments.

        3. I’m happy you enjoy life in your delusional little bubble. As for me, I reject all your theobabble.

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      • I use the word world in several different ways, as the dictionary recognizes. One is the world that is the earth. The other is the world that is the people. It is a kind of metonymy.

        You may reject my theism as I do atheism. That is the freedom we both have.

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      • I am sure you are conversant with the Humanist Manifesto. The most recent iteration is here. https://americanhumanist.org/what-is-humanism/manifesto3/

        What you espouse and the points of contention between our worldviews are almost all addressed in the manifesto. I am thinking that I should provide a Christian Manifesto on my blog just to highlight the issues we have discussed and our differences. There are, of course, other Christian manifestos. One I link here. https://archive.org/details/a-christian-manifesto/mode/2up

        But a manifesto that is a bit more succinct may be helpful.

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      • What has this to do with what we’re discussing? And yes, I know how the term ‘the world’ can be used (especially in the Christian bubble where it usually and disparagingly means unsaved humanity).

        Why is it that whenever anyone asks you to provide evidence for your beliefs, or to confirm what those beliefs actually are, you invariably side-step the issue by providing another, largely unrelated mini-sermon, often about word use or grammar. One of your favourite evasions is to challenge commenters here to approach the Bible as they would fiction. Apart from shooting yourself in the foot with your implicit acknowledgement that the Bible is fiction, it isn’t up to anyone to carry out such an exercise merely because you demand it.

        So, instead, how about answering my question: do you subscribe to Paul’s first century view that ‘the world’ is governed by wicked powers and principalities that hover around us causing all sorts of mayhem that only a blood sacrifice can, in God’s eyes, ameliorate? If you do, where is your evidence that this is reality? Or how about answering Ark’s question about whether you believe Jesus was the creator of the universe and what evidence there is for such a belief? No fudging with guff about ‘it depends what you mean by ‘the world”, appeals to the Bible or lectures about ‘fundamental forces’. Tell us, succinctly please, Don, what you believe and the verifiable evidence for it.

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      • Conflicting Worldviews Cont’d

        Neil: in the Christian bubble where [world] usually and disparangingly means unsaved humanity

        Don: Of which I was one. It really covers us all.

        “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

        Neil: Why is it that whenever anyone asks you to provide evidence for your beliefs, or to confirm what those beliefs actually are, you invariably side-step the issue (emphasis is mine)

        Don That seems to be the procedure here and on most atheist blogs, I might add. I really think that I have answered that question clearly enough to be understood. If not, there is my blog post. But I would ask the same and have of all of you. What do you believe to be true about life and reality? And why or what evidence do you have to support that belief?

        I usually get what, I believe, Ark said when I asked about his evidence for Materialism: Everything we know has natural causes, so to presume that the whole universe has a natural cause reasonably follows. (My paraphrase) That is honest and clear. But that is the very same kind of evidence I’ve provided for my worldview. You, Neil, have not provided even that much. Usually I get something like: Atheism, is about what we don’t believe, and we don’t believe there is evidence for God. The trouble is that is negative that conveniently sidesteps the question.

        Neil: how about answering my question: do you subscribe to Paul’s first century view that ‘the world’ is governed by wicked powers and principalities that hover around us causing all sorts of mayhem

        Don: No and Yes. No, I don’t think that people are governed by those powers, but they are influenced by them. Yes, I believe there are powers that influence people. And I believe that people can so give themselves to that influence that I would say they are governed by them. Now how about answering mine. Do you believe that reality is purely material?

        Neil: that hover around us causing all sorts of mayhem that only a blood sacrifice could, in God’s eyes ameliorate?

        Don: No. Those powers do not cause sin. We do. (And that I believe is really Paul’s view.

        Neil: that only a blood sacrifice could, in God’s eyes ameliorate?

        Don: No. I believe that only forgiveness can ameliorate sin. The sacrifice of the Lord Jesus is the act of forgiveness made visible.

        Neil: where is your evidence that this is reality?

        Don: I am not sure what “this” means. There are too many possible referents. If you replace that with a specific, I’ll answer.

        Neil: Or how about answering Ark’s question about whether you believe Jesus was the creator of the universe and what evidence there is for such a belief?

        Don: I don’t recall that question exactly. But the answer is I believe that God created the universe through the agency of his Son and the earth within it. (And I think that is the crux of our differences.)

        Evidence “succinctly” is, to use a metaphor, his fingerprints are all over it.

        Now, your turn. HOW DO YOU THINK THE UNIVERSE CAME TO BE, AND WHAT EVIDENCE IS THERE FOR SUCH A BELIEF? AND HOW DO YOU ACCOUNT FOR THE DYSFUNCTION OF HUMANITY THAT CAUSES ALL THE CHAOS AND DESTRUCTION MORALLY AND SOCIALLY? AND FINALLY, WHAT IS THE REMEDY?

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