The Importance of Definitions

People don’t like to be labeled.  But some labels are good.  I once bought a can of generic peas.  They were inexpensive and I figured that a pea was a pea.  Right?  Well they weren’t the small crisp tasty peas that mother used to cook.  No, these were big, wrinkled and tough.  They may have been peas, technically, but I never bought generic peas again.

So labels can be good.  This is especially true with religion.  For example, if someone believes that Muhammed is a prophet, prays five times a day, believes the Quran (Koran) to be scripture, believes that he should make a pilgrimage to Mecca once in his lifetime (etc.), it seems fair to say that this person is a Muslim and not a Christian.  If a person centers his spiritual life around the teachings of of Buddha, he is likely a Buddhist.  If, on the other hand, a person believes that Jesus is God, that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three distinct Persons who are one essence/substance (one God), that Jesus died for the sins of the world and he is our source of salvation and heaven, it should be clear that we are speaking of a Christian.  Authentic Christianity involves believing at least the most essential truths about who God is and how we get to heaven, according to the Bible.

The problem is that Muslims believe that everybody really ought to be a Muslim and Christians believe that everybody really ought to be a Christian.  Muslims believe that Muhammed is the last and greatest prophet.  Though they believe that Jesus was a prophet, they don’t believe everything that the New Testament says about him.  Especially, they don’t believe that Jesus is God or that he is one of three Persons in the godhead.  As the Quran says it, they don’t believe that God has a son or that God is three.  Instead, according to Muslims such beliefs are blasphemy and result in going to hell.  We can look this up in the Quran, if you’d like.  In the same way, Christians don’t believe that Muhammed is a prophet or that the Quran is scripture.

You see, part of the function of a religious definition, is that it tells us what a person believes and it also tells us what a person doesn’t believe.  Being a member of one religion necessitates not being a member of another religion.  There is nothing wrong with having strong convictions about what things we believe or don’t believe.  What is wrong, is deciding that it is ok to hate someone because of what they believe.  It’s not ok to hate anybody.  Jesus said that we even ought to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.  This is simply a matter of tolerance.  Tolerance doesn’t mean that we don’t stand for anything.  It means that even though we should take our beliefs seriously, we shouldn’t hate anybody who believes differently.  We should love everybody.  And if there can be an atmosphere of mutual love and respect, we can talk about our differences and grow in our understanding of what we agree on and what we disagree on.

Muslims and Christians agree that there is one and only one God.  (Christians don’t believe that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three Gods.  If someone says that they are a Christian and they believe in more than one God, then they are attempting to change the definition of what Christians have believed according to the Bible and throughout history.)  Christians and Muslims also agree that God is merciful.  The Quran says that many times, as does the BIble.  We differ on how we receive that mercy.  I recall, many years ago, a Sufi from Pakistan told me “God does not need a reason to be merciful.  He has oceans of mercy.”  I then asked him if he knew for sure that he would go to heaven.  He said, “No, you can never know if you have done enough.”  A Christian can know that he or she will go to heaven, because we believe that getting to heaven isn’t a matter of what we do, but a matter of what Jesus Christ has already done for us and all people on the cross.  On this, Muslims and Christians disagree.  May those of the various world religions be able to disagree without being disagreeable.

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Ancient New Testament Manuscripts

You may have noticed that recently I posted a picture of a page from an ancient New Testament manuscript.  It’s called “Codex Sinaiticus.”  “Codex” is another word for “book” (as distinct from scroll).  The name “Sinaiticus” reminds us that it was discovered at St. Catherine’s monastery on Mt. Sinai.  This is the oldest complete New Testament manuscript.  It also contains a large portion of the Old Testament in Greek.  The page that I posted includes John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him would not perish but have everlasting life.” Good news.

Last night I finished reading another book that questions Christian teachings.  The book was “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” by Reza Aslan.  Born in Iran, his family moved to the USA and he came to faith in Christ as a teen.  He later returned to the religion of his homeland and now looks at Christianity as misunderstanding who Jesus is and why he came.  He actually finds little support for his current perspective from the New Testament.  It is all really very sad.  To believe and have hope in Christ, and then to later lose that hope for no good reason.

Manuscripts like Sinaiticus remind us that our faith in Christ is built on the firm foundation of Scripture, and that contrary to people who claim that the Bible has been tampered with, we have many early manuscripts that provide the same message as the Bibles we have today.  As of 350-375 A.D. (only 25-50 years after the Council of Nicaea), when Sinaitius was made, we have all of the New Testament.  Prior to that, we have many ancient manuscripts and fragments from before the Nicaea council.  The number catalogued is now approaching 6,000, though most are rather fragmentary.  In fact, prior to Nicaea, only about 58% of New Testament verses are represented.  That may not sound like a lot, but it is really quite reassuring.  Where portions are missing from these manuscripts, we can compare what is missing with is present in other Greek manuscripts using stichometry.  “Stichometry” (standardized numbers of characters and lines that were printed on a page) lets us estimate whether these gaps in some manuscripts “fit” what we have in other manuscripts.  Not even one Christian doctrine is in doubt because of differences between ancient manuscripts.

We can also compare various ancient translations of the New Testament.  Long ago, a monk traveling through Spain and visiting monastery libraries estimated that we have over 30,000 ancient copies of the Latin Vulgate (translated by St. Jerome in about 400 A.D.).  Nearly two thousand years after Jesus died for our sins and rose again, we can still confidently affirm that  because of Christ, we are forgiven and bound for heaven.  We know this, but that’s what God wrote in the Bible.