Have a scriptural question? Write to our columnist at witheringtonb@staff.beliefnet.com.

In this column, Ben Witherington answers Beliefnet members' questions about:

  • When were the Gospels written?
  • What are Gnostic gospels?
  • Catholic vs. Protestant canon
  • Many Marys
  • "Today you will be with me in Paradise"
  • Jesus descending to hell
  • The meaning of the word "Yeshua"
  • Blaspheming the Holy Spirit
  • The mark of the Beast
  • Levels of hell?
  • How did Cain and Abel procreate?
  • Is the Bible complete for all?
  • Baptizing in the name of the Trinity
  • "Thou shalt not kill" hypocrisy
  • Holding seances

    Why did the disciples wait so long to write down the Gospels?

    Actually, the canonical Gospels were written down during the lifetime of one or more of the eyewitnesses. It was precisely the dying off of various of the original apostles and eyewitnesses that prompted the writing of the Gospels, beginning about 35 or so years after Jesus' death. We need to remember that very few people were literate in antiquity, and the oral or living word was considered the chief proper means of conveying some important truth. Writing things down was seen as a support for the oral testimony. This also explains why things weren't written down for a while.

    Why are some Gospels accepted as truth, while others--such as the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mathias--are considered Gnostic heresy? -- Randy R.

    First of all, the historical study of the Gospels requires that we apply critical judgment to all such documents with regard to their historical authenticity. The church, which already existed in the first century A.D., began to critically evaluate such sources early on; Luke 1.1-4 makes this perfectly evident.

    The church evaluated all such documents carefully, and by the second century A.D. there was a collection of the four canonical Gospels circulating as holy writ. The Gospel of Thomas has a very different character compared to the canonical Gospels. It is basically a collection of sayings, and it has a Gnostic flavor that really is different from what we find in the canonical Gospels. There is also no good historical evidence that this gospel was written by Thomas, the member of the Twelve.

    Most scholars believe it arose during the 2nd-century Gnostic crisis in the church. The church was quite concerned that the Gospels included in the canon be either written by an apostle, or be written by those who, like Luke, had close ties with eyewitnesses and the apostles. Obviously gospels produced in the second or third centuries A.D. would fail to meet these criteria.

    Being a Catholic Christian I've often wondered why the various versions of Holy Writ are different from the Catholic Bible. If the Bible is an inspired document, then how could Martin Luther re-edit it without violating that sanctity? --Ray C.

    The Catholic Bible does not differ from the Protestant Bible with regard to the New Testament, nor does it disagree about which books should be included as part of the Old Testament. There are, however, several books that are considered deuterocanonical in the Catholic tradition which are included between the Old Testament and New Testament. About the inspiration and authority of these books there has been debate, not merely since the Protestant Reformation, but long before it. For example, the Orthodox churches also have some issues regarding which deuterocanonical books should be included in the canon.


    How many 'Marys' were there in the Bible?

    Properly speaking, there are no Marys in the Bible. By this I mean that the name 'Mary' is a modern form of the Jewish name 'Miriam.' There are, however, plenty of Miriams in the Bible, such as the sister of Moses who was a judge and a prophetess. The mother of Jesus, Miriam from Magdala, and other Miriams in the New Testament era were named after this Old Testament Miriam.

    Why does Jesus tell the two men being crucified next to him that they will be in Paradise with him today? I thought Jesus went to hell after that with the sins of the world.


    Are you saying that Jesus never went into hell? If so, how do you explain the verse that says he who ascended must also of descended first?

    Yes, that is what I am saying. The verse in John you are referring to is speaking about the pre-existing Christ descending to earth, and then later reascending to heaven from earth. It has nothing to do with his visiting hell.

    Why do people call him Jesus if his name is really Yeshua or something?

    This is a fair question. In Greek, the Aramaic name 'Yeshua' ('Joshua' as we would render it) is rendered 'Iesous,' from which we get the anglicized name 'Jesus.'

    What does it mean to blaspheme the Holy Spirit?

    As Jesus indicates in Mark 3, it means to call the work of God-performed by means of the Holy Spirit--the work of the devil, and vice versa. Jesus is complaining that the work of God, which he was doing by the power of the Spirit, was being attacked by his critics as being done by the power of the devil.

    What is the Mark of the Beast? --Steven

    In the Book of Revelation, the mark of the beast refers to those who worship the emperor, and so are guilty of idolatry. In the minds of early Jews and Christians, the worship of false Gods was bad enough, but the worship of a mere human who was only the emperor was the worst form of idolatry. The beast in Revelation is the Roman Empire, and the mark of the beast refers to the impression left by the emperor's propaganda on those who came to see him as a God upon the earth. Actually, Luke 23.42-43 does not say that Jesus promised Paradise to the bandit who did not repent, but only to the one who did. The notion that Jesus went to hell is based on a misunderstanding of 1 Peter 3.18-21. This text refers to Jesus proclaiming his victory over the fallen angels who had sinned with the daughters of human beings during the era of Noah. It has nothing to do with Jesus visiting hell.

    I have heard 3 separate Pentecostal people state that there are different depths of Hell. I don't see were they are getting this from.

    In early Jewish thinking about heaven, there were levels of heaven (notice how Paul refers to the third level in 2 Cor. 12.2). It is thus possible that there was a belief then in multiple levels in hell, but I see no biblical evidence for it. We need to recognize that the reference to Hades in Rev. 20.14 is not a reference to what we call hell. It is a reference to the land of the dead, which Greco-Roman people called Hades. John is saying that death and the land of the dead will be destroyed at the end, which is also what Paul says in 1 Cor. 15--the last enemy to be destroyed is death.

    My husband keeps asking me how Cain and Abel could procreate if God only made Adam and Eve. Were there others created in his image? Or did Adam and Eve have female children and they procreated with their male siblings? --Melissa

    In my view, the story of Adam and Eve is the story of the origin of God's chosen people. God also began other parts of the human race elsewhere at about the same time, so there were wives available from elsewhere for Cain and Abel.

    In your response to Jim M.'s question about the validity of the Book of Mormon, you said "the Bible is quite specific that the revelation given 2,000 years ago is for all peoples in all lands in all times, and needs no supplement." Will you be more specific to where this is?

    If you read Acts 2 carefully, you will see that the message of the Gospel is intended for all the nations, and for all the descendents of those people who represented these various nations at the Pentecost event. Throughout Paul's letters he stresses that the Gospel he preaches is for both Jews and all non-Jews. The term 'gentile'--'ethnos,' from which we get the term 'ethnic'--is actually the term Jews used to refer to all other nations on the earth. Sometimes they would distinguish between Greeks and barbarians (the latter simply meant those who could not speak Greek), but they took seriously the promise to Abraham that all nations of the earth would be blessed through his descendents and through God's message to them.

    I would like to know the book, chapter, and verse in the King James Bible where anyone was actually baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. I can't find one example, yet all preachers baptize this way. If it was a commandment from Christ, why was it not so through the rest of the Bible and even today? There is no power in any other name except the Lord Jesus Christ. --Bobby C.

    This is what Jesus commanded his disciples to do in Matthew 28.19. It is simply not true that only the name of Jesus has power. Jesus himself ascribes power to the Holy Spirit when he says "if I by the spirit of God cast out demons, then you will know that the kingdom has broken into your midst."

    If God gave Moses the ten commandments and one of them said, "Thou shall not kill," then why did the children of Israel have to take the Promised Land by killing? Were they obeying God or being disobedient?

    This is an excellent question. In fact, that commandment refers to a particular form of killing. The Hebrew word used there refers to some kind of premeditated murder. Apparently, what is being prohibited is taking revenge on others by killing them.

    What verse explains that a single man is more equipped to minister than one that is married? My friend is giving a talk to a singles group and she would like this verse. --Jeff D.

    You are thinking of Paul's discussions about singleness and marriage in 1 Corinthians 7.

    What does the Bible say about holding séances? When my brother died several years ago, one of my cousins suggested we get someone to hold a séance to contact him. I remember the Bible saying something against conjuring up the spirits of the dead.

    Yes, this was already specifically prohibited as far back as the time of Samuel the prophet, which is to say, before 1000 B.C. See 1 Sam. 28, which tells the tale of how far King Saul had sunk in sin. The king--who had previously banished mediums from the land--in desperation consulted one to get in touch with Samuel. The context of this story makes it very clear that the biblical author condemns this action.

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