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Utnapishtim vs. Noah: War of the Ships (Part 3)

By Stephen Mitchell

If Noah’s ship was not copied from Utnapishtim’s ship, then we have to ask, from where did these supposed Jewish myth makers get their boat pattern?

Some commentators have looked for significance in the dimensions of the Ark, seeing importance in them as multiples of 60 and 10, like the patriarchal ages, or the length times width being three times the area of the tabernacle courtyard (Wenham, 173). However, Hong, et al, also considered 12 other hull forms of barge-type in their study “by varying principal dimensions while keeping the displaced volume constant.” They considered eight seakeeping behaviors for all thirteen hull forms, concluding that the Ark “had the second best hull design, with the best hull design in this case being hull #1, which had the worst overturning stability” (https://answersingenesis.org/noahs-ark/safety-investigation-of-noahs-ark-in-a-seaway) Thus, believing that the dimensions of the Ark were simply plucked out of the air to match some other significant supposed numerology but accidentally landing on the ideal hull form for a barge-type craft designed to ride out a major flood requires some major credulity on the part of the skeptic.

Could the Jews have simply copied ship dimensions from contemporary sea-going craft? The Ark had a beam to length ratio of 1:6 and a beam to depth ratio of 1:0.667 with three decks and a roof.

The reconstructed "solar barge" of Khufu.

The reconstructed “solar barge” of Khufu.

The oldest fully preserved ship known was discovered in a pit near the Great Pyramid. It is 143′ long by 19.5′ wide giving it a beam ratio of 1:7.33, and is from the time of the Great Pyramid about the middle of the 3rd millennium B.C. Though it is called a “barge,” it did have paddles and was thus not a true barge. However it was most likely towed by another ship in moving on the Nile (Greenhill and Morrison, 131-132). The barge used to transport Hatshepsut’s obelisk had a beam to length ratio of about 1:3. For both barges everything was carried on the deck. These certainly do not resemble the Ark with its three decks and both Egyptian barges were designed with narrow bow and stern to move smoothly through the water, unlike the Ark which merely had to be stable in water with no means or provision for propulsion.

About the time of the Jew’s return from Babylon, roughly 500 B.C., the penteconter, a 50-oared ship-of-the-line, was the predominant warship used. It was also used as a merchantman. Its beam to length ratio was about 1:7 and was designed to cut through the water quickly. Merchantmen were also plying the waters with a single deck and hold below, again with narrowed hulls at the bow and stern. Multiple decked craft were not used at this time nor were barges with multiple decks known.

“The freighters that brought grain to Athens or were the standard carriers for overseas transport of wine and oil were … capable of holding 100 to 150 tons on the average, while vessels capable of hauling 250 or mIllustrerad Verldshistoria band I Ill 117.pngore were not uncommon. (What the dimensions of the last were is anybody’s guess; the smaller American coastal packets of the first half of the nineteenth century, which had a carrying capacity in the neighborhood of 250 tons, ran 80 to 85 feet long, 23 to 25 feet wide, and 11 to 12 feet deep in the hold.) … The ordinary workhorse freighter of the Mediterranean was not so large …: it probably carried about 80 tons or so on average; it tramped leisurely from port to port, picking up and delivering any and every sort of cargo; and it took its chances on wind, weather, and pirates” (Casson, 114).

There were no ships or barges similar in shape, definitely not in size, nor in purpose to the Ark for the Jews to draw upon for a more reasonable alternative to Utnapishtim’s cube. The Ark’s carrying capacity was about 21,000 tonnes, far exceeding anything on the waters of their day (Snelling, 36). All-in-all, there does not seem to be any way for the Jews to have come up with such a craft, unless, of course, they were relating details of an actual craft designed for the purpose for which the Jews recorded it. Certainly the Ark’s beam to length ratio of 1:6 is appropriate for a barge and similar to but different from those ships designed to make their way through the water.

Noah’s ship could not have been copied from Utnapishtim’s, nor from water craft of their era. So the claim that the Jews simply copied from the Babylonian flood account, making a few alterations for their own purposes, is an unreasonable claim. Then from where did their account come?

There is one interesting detail in the Gilgamesh Epic that I mentioned in the first post: that of Utnapishtim building a frame first for his ship and then fastening on the planking. No early ships or boats were made this way. It was not until around 1,000 A.D. that we begin to see this method of shipbuilding. All known ancient shipbuilding was done by fastening planks together up to a certain point and then inserting framing for stiffening. This method of shipbuilding is called ‘shell construction.’ “[T]he vessels of classical Greece and Rome and their Bronze Age predecessors back to the fourteenth century BC at least were smooth skinned edge-joined shell-built structures with inserted frames” (Greenhill and Morrison, 50). However, from modern shipbuilding techniques, we know that ships as large as Noah’s must be built using frame, or ‘skeleton,’ construction. Though Utnapishtim’s ship is untenable as a water craft, yet it would have had to have been built using skeleton construction, as would have Noah’s craft. This detail seems to be an echo from an actual event, the building of a very large ship in antiquity.

It would be more reasonable to accept the account in Genesis as original and the Gilgamesh Epic as a faint echo of Genesis modified through much retelling but with some of the details retaining their accuracy. And we could conclude this, if Genesis were actually much older than the fifth or sixth century B.C.

That will be a discussion for a later post.


Lionel Casson, The Ancient Mariners (Princeton, New jersey: Princeton University Press, 1991)

Basil Greenhill with John Morrison, The Archaeology of Boats and Ships: An Introduction (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1995)

S. W. Hong, et al, Safety Investigation of Noah’s Ark in a Seaway (https://answersingenesis.org/noahs-ark/safety-investigation-of-noahs-ark-in-a-seaway). Accessed 9/22/2015.

Andrew A. Snelling, Earth’s Catastrophic Past, vol. 1 (Dallas, Texas: Institute for Creation Research, 2009)

Gordon J. Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis 1-15 (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1987)




Utnapishtim vs. Noah: War of the Ships (Part 2)

By Stephen Mitchell

Now it is time to consider the ship of Noah, commonly known as Noah’s Ark. We learn this story from the Old Testament, the book of Genesis, chapters 6 and 7. Here is what the text says, using the New American Standard, 1995, translation:

Chapter 6

13 Then God said to Noah, “The end of all flesh has come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence because of them; and behold, I am about to destroy them with the earth.

14 “Make for yourself an ark of gopher wood; you shall make the ark with rooms, and shall cover it inside and out with pitch.

15 “This is how you shall make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, its breadth fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits.

16 “You shall make a window for the ark, and finish it to a cubit from the top; and set the door of the ark in the side of it; you shall make it with lower, second, and third decks.

Chapter 7

13 On the very same day Noah and Shem and Ham and Japheth, the sons of Noah, and Noah’s wife and the three wives of his sons with them, entered the ark,

14 they and every beast after its kind, and all the cattle after their kind, and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth after its kind, and every bird after its kind, all sorts of birds.

15 So they went into the ark to Noah, by twos of all flesh in which was the breath of life.

16 Those that entered, male and female of all flesh, entered as God had commanded him; and the LORD closed it behind him.

17 Then the flood came upon the earth for forty days, and the water increased and lifted up the ark, so that it rose above the earth.

18 The water prevailed and increased greatly upon the earth, and the ark floated on the surface of the water.

19 The water prevailed more and more upon the earth, so that all the high mountains everywhere under the heavens were covered.

20 The water prevailed fifteen cubits higher, and the mountains were covered.

Noah’s boat is 300 cu long, by 50 cu wide, by 30 cu tall. It at least sounds more like a ship than Utnapishtim’s boat. So how big was it? Since Noah’s boat has been the subject of much discussion and research, the following extensive quote will give the necessary details.

Most commentators adopt without question the Hebrews’ common cubit [17.5 inches], which is virtually identical to the Egyptian shorter cubit. This would logically make sense with Moses, a Hebrew with an Egyptian upbringing, writing in the first instance to Hebrews. However, most commentators simplify the calculations by adopting a rounded figure of 18 inches or 45 centimeters for the cubit. When all these considerations are taken into account, a conservative estimate for the dimensions of the Ark would be 450 feet (approximately 135 meters) long, 75 feet (22.5 meters) wide, and 45 feet (13.5 meters) high. Since the Ark had three decks (Genesis 6:16), it had a total deck area of approximately 98,800 square feet (approximately 9,100 square meters), which is equivalent to slightly more than the area of twenty standard basketball courts. The total volume of the Ark would also have been approximately 1.45 million cubic feet (approximately 41,000 cubic meters), which is approximately equal to the volumetric capacity of 540 standard livestock cars used on modern U.S. railroads. The displacement tonnage of the Ark, defined as the weight of seawater displaced by the volume of the ship when submerged to its design draft, assumed to be 15 cubits (half its height) because Genesis 7:20 refers to the Flood waters prevailing higher than 15 cubits over the mountains so that the Ark cleared them, would have been almost 20,700 tons (more than 21,000 tonnes). The gross tonnage of the Ark, which is a measurement of cubic space rather than weight—one ton in this case being equivalent to 100 cubic feet of usable storage space—would have been about 14,500 tons (approximately 14,730 tonnes), which would place it well within the category of large metal oceangoing ships today. (Snelling, 35-36)

If one does not round up the 17.5 inches to 18, the boat would have been 437.5 feet long, 72.92 feet wide, and 43.75 feet tall.


Noah's Ark

With that information, let’s consider its performance under the stated conditions of a flood. Since the only researchers who have taken the Ark seriously are creationists, it is to them that we will have to look for information on the seaworthiness of the Ark.

Note the ratio of length to width of the Ark’s design: 300 cubits to 50 cubits, or approximately 450 feet long to 75 feet wide. This ratio of 6 to 1 is well known in naval design for optimum stability. Many modern naval engineers, when designing cargo ships to battleships, utilize this same basic design ratio.

The Ark’s long, slender shape would have maximized cargo space and kept the vessel pointed into wave trends, thereby minimizing chances of it being broadsided by a wave that could capsize it. If we could take a cross-section of the Ark, we would see a pair of forces consisting of the Ark’s weight acting downward and buoyancy acting upward that form what naval engineers term a “righting couple.” This pair of forces acting in opposite, but parallel, directions tends to force the vessel to “right” itself when tilted. As shown in the figure, for any degree of tilt up to 90 degrees, the couple would right the Ark and return it to an upright orientation. (J. Morris, 13).

The Ark’s seaworthiness was as fully researched as possible and recorded in a paper originally published in the Proceedings of the International Conference on Creation Research by members of the Korean Research Institute of Ships and Engineering. The paper is titled “Safety Investigation of Noah’s Ark in a Seaway” (http://worldwideflood.org/ark/safety_aig/safety_aig.htm). In the introduction it states,

In this study, the safety of the Ark in the severe environments imposed by the waves and winds during the Genesis Flood was investigated.

In general, the safety of a ship in a seaway is related to three major safety parameters — structural safety, overturning stability, and seakeeping quality. Good structural safety ensures the hull against damage caused mainly by wave loads. Enough overturning stability is required to prevent the ship from capsizing due to the heeling moment caused by winds and waves. Good seakeeping quality is essential for the effectiveness and safety of the personnel and cargo on board.

Information about the hull is of course available from the existing references to Noah’s Ark, and from the reasonable (common sense) assumptions of naval engineers. In order to avoid any error due to the lack of complete hull information, we introduced the concept of ’relative safety’, which was defined as the relative superiority in safety compared to other hull forms. For this purpose, 12 different hull forms with the same displacement were generated systemically by varying principal dimensions of the Ark. The concept of relative safety of a ship has been introduced by several researchers, such as Comstock and Keane, Hosoka et al., Bales and Hong et al., to analyze the seakeeping quality. In this paper, we extend the relative safety concept for the seakeeping quality to the concept of total safety, including structural and overturning safety.

They noted:

“Because the maximum stress was smaller than the allowable stress, the Ark could be said to have had safe structural performance” (Section 5.3).

“… it had high structural safety” (Section 5.4).

“… the Ark was 13 times more stable than the standard for safety required by the [American Bureau of Shipping’s] rule” (Section 6.2).

“… flooding of the Ark would not have occurred until the waves became 47.5m [155.84 ft.] high, when the limiting heeling angle was 31o“(Section 7).

“In conclusion, the Ark as a drifting ship, is thus believed to have had a reasonable-beam-draft ratio for the safety of the hull, crew and cargo in the high winds and waves imposed on it by the Genesis Flood” (Section 8).

Henry M. Morris, Ph.D in Hydraulic Engineering, also published a paper on the design of the Ark. In referencing the stability of the Ark he wrote:

… its relatively great length (six times its width) would tend to keep it from being subjected to wave forces of equal magnitude through its whole length, since wave fields tend to occur in broken and varying patterns, rather than in a series of long uniform crest-trough sequences, and this would be particularly true in the chaotic hydrodynamic phenomena of the Flood. The Ark would, in fact, tend to be lined up by the spectrum of hydrodynamic forces and currents in such a direction that its long axis would be parallel to the predominant direction of wave and current movement. Thus it would act as a semi-streamlined body, and the net drag forces would usually be minimal. In every way, therefore, the Ark as designed was highly stable, admirably suited for its purpose of riding out the storms of the year of the great Flood (H. Morris, 142).

So with Utnapishtim’s ship a complete disaster in a flood and Noah’s ship an ideal design for a flood, how could the Jews have copied Noah’s ship from Utnapishtim’s? Obviously, they could not and did not. If they did not copy it, then from where did they get the parameters for such an excellently designed barge? That will be the subject of the third post in this series.


Bible, New American Standard, 1995 Update.

S. W. Hong, et al, Safety Investigation of Noah’s Ark in a Seaway (http://worldwideflood.org/ark/safety_aig/safety_aig.htm). Accessed 9/14/’15.

Henry M. Morris, “The Ark of Noah,” Creation Research Science Quarterly, vol. 8, no. 2 (Sep. 1971)

John Morris, “The Survival of Noah’s Ark,” Acts and Facts, vol. 42, no. 1 (Jan 2013).

Andrew A. Snelling, Earth’s Catastrophic Past, vol. 1 (Dallas, Texas: Institute for Creation Research, 2009)



Utnapishtim vs. Noah: War of the Ships (Part 1)

By Stephen Mitchell

Recently a good friend pointed me to a family member’s blog in which the claim was made that the Genesis account of the Flood was derived from the Babylonian flood account in the Gilgamesh Epic. This claim has been made by liberal scholars since the discovery of the Epic in the nineteenth century. Along with this goes the claim that pretty much the entire Old Testament was a fabrication by the Jews, after returning to Israel from Babylon, to create a history for themselves. In these posts I want to compare the two accounts to consider the likelihood that the Genesis ship was derived from the Gilgamesh Epic ship.

The Gilgamesh Epic is recorded on twelve clay tablets discovered in the palace of Ashurbanipal, the grandson of Sennacherib. This Epic, among many other things, records an account of an ancient flood in which all mankind was killed except for Utnapishtim, his family, and others, who were in the ship with Utnapishtim. This flood account is recorded on tablet eleven, the largest single tablet of the twelve. It can be seen in the British Museum in London.

Flood Tablet

In the account, Utnapishtim tricks the people from the town of Shuruppak to labor in building, provisioning, and filling his ship.

The Gilgamesh ship is rather interesting. Here is how the tablet reads (words in square brackets “[ ]” are added by the translator to complete fragmentary or supply missing words. Words in parentheses “( )” are added for clarity. Italics are used to indicate a questionable translation.):

48   With the first glow of dawn,

49   The land was gathered [about me].

        (Lines 50-53 are too fragmentary to translate)

54   The little ones [carr]ied bitumen,

55   While the grown ones brought [all else] that was needful.

56   On the fifth day I laid her framework.

57   One (whole) acre was its floor space,

              Ten dozen cubits the height of each of her walls,

58   Ten dozen cubits each edge of the square deck.

59   I laid out the contours (and) joined her together.

60   I provided her with six decks,

61   Dividing her (thus) into seven parts.

62   Her floor plan I divided into nine parts.

63   I hammered water plugs into her.

64   I saw to the punting-poles and laid in supplies.

65   Six ‘sar’ (measures) of bitumen I poured into the furnace,

66   Three sar of asphalt [I also] poured inside.

67   Three sar of oil the basket-bearers carried,

68   Aside from the one sar of oil which the calking (sic) consumed,

69   And the two sar of oil [which] the shipman stowed away.

70   Bullocks I slaughtered for the [people],

71   And I killed sheep every day.

72   Must, red wine, oil, and white wine

73   [I gave the] workmen [to drink], as though river water,

74   That they might feast as on New Year’s Day.

75   I op[ened …] ointment, applying (it) to my hand.

76   [On the sev]enth [day] the ship was completed.

77   [The launching] was very difficult,

78   So that they had to shift the floor planks above and below,

79   [Until] two-thirds of [the structure] [had g]one [into the water].

       (Pritchard, 93-94)

“Sar,” in lines 65, 66, 67, and 69, is the Babylonian number 3,600. The measure is not supplied though it has been assumed that it is the Babylonian sutu of “a little over two gallons” (Rehwinkle, 157, note 12). In line 63, the “water plugs” probably refer to wood driven between the planks to make them water-tight (Ibid., note 10). From lines 57 and 58, the cubit was most likely the Babylonian royal cubit of about 19.8 inches (Snelling, 35).

From the text, Utnapishtim’s ship is a perfect cube. At ten dozen, 120, cubits on a side, it would have been 198 feet on each side with decks of about 28 feet 4 inches height and rooms 22 feet square. This does not account for wall thicknesses, etc. Again, from the text, it seems like it took Utnapishtim’s crew three days to build the entire structure.

One fascinating detail is in line 56. If we take “framework” to mean the internal structure of the cube and then “contours” of line 59 to refer to the planking, we have an historical anomaly.

There are, basically, two ways to construct a wooden ship. The one we are familiar with, because it has been standard practice in the Western world for centuries, is to set up a skeleton of keel and ribs—or frames, to give them their technical name—and then fasten to this a skin of planks. The other method, favored in Africa, Asia, and certain parts of northern Europe, is just the reverse: first a shell is erected by pinning each plank to its neighbors, and then a certain amount of framing is inserted to stiffen the shell. In northern Europe planks are set to overlap each other and pinned together by driving rivets through where the thickness is double. Elsewhere planks are set edge to edge and are held together by pegs or staples or nails or are even sewn together with twine made from coconut husks or split bamboo or whatever fiber happens to be available. (Casson, 27-28)

This second method of fastening the planks together first and then adding a framework of some type was used in all known ancient ship-building, not changing to the framework first construction until many centuries A.D. (Casson, 173-175). Therefore, Utnapishtim’s ship-building could be considered an historical anomaly as it is the best known way today to build a large sturdy craft but was never known to be used in ancient times.

Of course, imagining a ship that is a perfect cube shows a complete lack of any practical knowledge of seaworthiness. While it would be quite difficult to tip over if it had enough ballast in the base, it would be most likely fatal in any vigorously rough sea with roll, pitch, and yaw. Nothing in its structure would align it along the line of wave motion. Instead, the waves would spin it like a top and dash it around. As a craft, it would be unstable in the extreme. Also necessary to consider would be the water pressure on the hull. With exactly half the ship below the water line, the pressure on the hull at the lowest point would be slightly over 43 psi (http://www.engineeringtoolbox.com/hydrostatic-pressure-water-d_1632.html) or a little over 3 tons of pressure on each square foot of hull. This would necessitate an extremely large framework at the bottom of the cube.

The fact that it was launched does not mesh well with its intended purpose of surviving a flood. A flood would simply lift it from where it was built. Line 64 mentions punting-poles. These were used to move along a craft in relatively shallow water but would be useless in a flood, especially from 198 plus feet, if one could imagine even holding and manipulating a pole 198 plus feet long.

All-in-all, except for the framework first construction, Utnapishtim’s ship seems like a vessel dreamed up by a city dweller with no concept of seaworthiness or conditions in deep water and only a slight knowledge of small ships punted about in relatively shallow and calm water, something we should not be surprised at in ancient mythology beside the shores of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.


Lionel Casson, The Ancient Mariners (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1991)

James B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Referring to the Old Testament (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1969)

Alfred M. Rehwinkel, The Flood in the Light of the Bible, Geology and Archaeology (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1951)

Andrew A. Snelling, Earth’s Catastrophic Past, vol. 1 (Dallas, Texas: Institute for Creation Research, 2009)




Gratuitous Evil and the Sovereignty of God

By Stephen Mitchell


“Gratuitous Evil” is defined simply as pointless evil, evil that does not accomplish or allow for a greater good. Rowe described the concept, “[t]here exist instances of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse” (Rowe, 336). Rowe’s understanding has become the standard way of describing gratuitous evil. For example, Coley defines it as “any evil that does not in some way lead to a greater good or prevent some worse evil” (Coley, 48). Assuming that God would not allow such brings up the question, if gratuitous evil does exist, does it contradict the doctrine of God’s sovereignty? In other words, as Hume noted of God, “Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is impotent” (Hume, n.p.) This paper will attempt to answer this question.


The nontheist has traditionally regarded evil as proof against the existence of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God. Mackie, for example, in a discussion of the free-will solution to the problem of evil, noted “. . . if men’s wills are really free this must mean that even God cannot control them, that is, that God is no longer omnipotent” (Mackie, 209-210). For the nontheist, “[a]n omniscient, wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of any intense suffering it could, unless it could not do so without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse” (Rowe, 336). But, in the case of most intense suffering, especially among the innocent, can there be shown a subsequent greater good that obtained from the suffering or a greater evil that was prevented? The nontheist says “No!” For the nontheist, the existence of evil and, argued more recently, gratuitous evil, provides a strong argument against the existence of a supreme being who is both wholly good and omnipotent. Rowe put it clearly when he wrote:

“It seems quite unlikely that all the instances of intense suffering occurring daily in our world are intimately related to the occurrence of greater goods or the prevention of evils at least as bad; and even more unlikely, should they somehow all be so related, than an omnipotent, omniscient being could not have achieved at least some of those goods (or prevented some of those evils) without permitting the instances of intense suffering that are supposedly related to them. In the light of our experience and knowledge of the variety and scale of human and animal suffering in our world, the idea that none of this suffering could have been prevented by an omnipotent being without thereby losing a greater good or permitting an evil at least as bad seems an extraordinary absurd idea, quite beyond our belief” (337-338).

And Hume would find himself in agreement with Rowe.

“But there is no view of human life, or of the condition of mankind, from which, without the greatest violence, we can infer the moral attributes, or learn that infinite benevolence, conjoined with infinite power and infinite wisdom, which we must discover by the eyes of faith alone” (Hume, n.p.)

All agree that one cannot see most of the greater good that theists frequently insist upon. To the nontheist, evil in general brings about very little, if any, good in this world. The apparent gratuitousness of evil belies either the omnibenevolence, or the omnipotence, or the very existence of God for the nontheist.


The theist, to some extent, has agreed with the nontheist that gratuitous evil does deny the omnipotence and/or omnibenevolence of God. To overcome the objection, the theist has traditionally held to the position that gratuitous evil does not exist.

“Central to the ‘Greater-Good’ theodicy is the denial of gratuitous evil. It maintains that God is justified in permitting only that evil which will bring about a greater good or prevent an evil equally bad or worse. Such a premise has been accepted by the vast majority of Christian philosophers throughout the history of Christendom and has been used as a means to defend a position of classical theism against the problem of evil” (Brubaker, 65).

Geisler and Bocchino insisted, “[o]ur not knowing all of the good purposes God has for pain and suffering doesn’t mean that there are no good purposes” (239). Groothuis wrote, “[a]ll evils serve some justifiable purpose in God’s economy” (638). Gerstner also accepted that evil is not without a good purpose. “Much that we call evil only appears to be so because our finite judgment lacks perspective. But even real evil may frequently, perhaps always, be of benefit to ourselves and others” (20). Swinburne concluded “that it follows from the Principle of Credulity that bad states for which no greater-good defence (sic) can apparently be provided must count against the existence of God” (29).
So, for the nontheist, the omnipotent, omnibenevolent God is denied based on gratuitous evil and, for most theists, gratuitous evil is denied based on the omnipotent, omnibenevolent God. Both agree that God’s nature is incompatible with gratuitous evil.
But, as Brubaker has suggested:

“Perhaps theists have been defending the existence of God from the wrong angle. Instead of denying gratuitous suffering and postulating the greater good stemming from every evil, the more consistent and logical approach may very well be to accept the reality of gratuitous evil and then to attempt to prove that such evil does not count against the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent, wholly good Being” (71).

His point is well taken.


For the Christian theist, a discussion of the existence of gratuitous evil must begin with the revelation of God. Do the Scriptures present the Christian with any instances of gratuitous evil?
In Jer 7.31 God states, “They have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, and it did not come into My mind.” This last phrase was repeated with the same context in Jer 19.5 and 32.35. In what sense did God say “it did not come into My mind?” It cannot be that He was surprised at it as He warned them against this very practice in Lev 18.21 and warned Israel what He would do to anyone who practiced such evil in Lev 20.2-5. Instead, “God disclaims any connection with this hideous practice” (Feinberg, 77). Now if God is disclaiming any connection with this infant sacrifice, then surely that would be an evil about which God had no plans other than the judgment He described in Jer 7.32-34 and 19.6-13. It would seem to fit the description of a gratuitous evil, one which occurred without preventing a worse evil or bringing about a greater good.
Additional passages one might consider are Genesis 6.5-7 and 11-12. There God said of the earth that it was totally corrupt, filled with violence, and that the wickedness of man was an expression of the evil intention of every thought of his heart. The fact that God was sorry He had made man and grieved, determined to completely annihilate man and animal except for the few in the ark, would lend support to the rampant evil being unable to produce a greater good or prevent a greater evil. All God could do was wipe them out and start over.

“Verse 12 intentionally recalls v. 5, where ‘the LORD saw’ the intensity of human evil (‘every,’ ‘all’), and 1:31, where ‘the LORD saw’ the ‘good’ earth he had made. Here ‘God saw’ that the ‘good’ earth was now corrupt, and the corruption was all-inclusive (‘all people’), excepting Noah. For this reason ‘only Noah was left’ from the earth (7:23). The burden of guilt rests with man, although the earth and all its creatures suffer with him. ‘Their ways’ reiterates that sin is not an isolated event here or there: corruption pervades the lifestyle of the antediluvian population. They are corrupt to the cultural core” (Matthews, 360).

The passages considered appear to show that gratuitous evil is a reality. Now it would also appear to be true that there could be a good brought about from these instances that is beyond our human understanding. As Geisler stated, “God knows a good purpose for all evil, even if we do not. Simply because finite minds cannot conceive of a good purpose for some evil does not mean that there is none” (Geisler, 222). But if this were true it would be reasonable to expect that God would have explained someplace in His revelation that He has a good purpose for every evil since, for almost all evil, man cannot see the good. Yet, God never declared this in Scripture. He does state that He overcomes the evil intent in some circumstances but these are not given to us in such a way as to conclude that He planned the evil to occur in order to bring about the good.


So, if gratuitous evil does exist, what does it imply about the sovereignty of God? Does it mean that God is unable to control His creation? Again, one must answer by looking to the Scriptures.
The Scriptures are emphatic that God’s sovereignty is not in any way curtailed. His power and decisions cannot be thwarted or changed.

Thus says the LORD, your Redeemer, and the one who formed you from the womb, “I, the LORD, am the maker of all things, stretching out the heavens by Myself and spreading out the earth all alone, causing the omens of boasters to fail, making fools out of diviners, causing wise men to draw back and turning their knowledge into foolishness, confirming the word of His servant and performing the purpose of His messengers” (Isa 44.24‑26a).

And again, “I am God. Even from eternity I am He, And there is none who can deliver out of My hand; I act and who can reverse it?” (Isa 43.12b-13). Or, as Nebuchadnezzar stated after God released him from his boanthropy:
All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, But He does according to His will in the host of heaven And among the inhabitants of earth; And no one can ward off His hand Or say to Him, ‘What have You done?‘ (Dan 4.35).

That God’s sovereignty and power is absolute is seen in His destruction of the earth with the flood, the partings of the Red Sea and the Jordan for Israel, the provision of manna and clothes that did not wear out, His calling Cyrus to do His will 150 years before Cyrus’ reign, the fear of obedient Jehoshaphat by the surrounding nations and so many other events in Scripture. But if God is so sovereignly in control of all things, how can gratuitous evil exist?
Understanding the answer to this question must begin with understanding the nature of the actions by God’s created free moral agents. God gave His moral agents free will, freedom of choice in their actions.

“[W]hen we use the term ‘free will’ we mean what is called libertarian freedom: Given choices A and B, one can literally choose to do either one, no circumstances exist that are sufficient to determine one’s choice; a person’s choice is up to him, and if he does one of them, he could have done otherwise, or at least he could have refrained from acting at all” (Moreland and Craig, 240)

God created man as a free moral agent able to make free choices. This freedom meant freedom to choose to do good but also freedom to choose to do evil.

“Now God can create free creatures, but He can’t cause or determine them to do only what is right. For if He does so, then they aren’t significantly free after all; they do not do what is right freely. To create creatures capable of moral good, therefore, He must create creatures capable of moral evil; and He can’t give these creatures the freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so” (Plantinga, 30)

God made man perfect and without fault and placed him in a perfectly good creation without any defect of any kind. But God also gave man freedom of choice with the option of obeying God or disobeying Him. In giving this freedom to man God also gave man a test, a choice to do good or evil. Man chose to do evil. “Because he was over creation, all creation felt the consequences of sin. From this flows (either directly or indirectly) all suffering and pain in this world” (Little, 45). “Because man was lord over creation, when man fell, it affected all of creation and this explains natural evil (Ro. 8:22)” (Ibid., 47).
In order to restrain or limit the amount of evil in this world, God initially provided for man a moral sense of right and wrong, written on his heart (Rom 2.14-15), along with knowledge of God Himself through nature (Rom 1.19-20). Then God later added the written revelation of Himself (Heb 1.1), followed by coming to earth in person to show us His character (Joh 14.8-9). Rather than violating the freedom of choice He gave man, God has labored to persuade man to turn to God and forsake man’s evil. For example, when God spoke to Cain about his hatred of his brother, Abel, God could have simply stopped him, but instead, God worked to persuade him to choose what is right and to warn him of the consequences (Gen 4.3-12). Another example is God’s dealings with Israel. “God’s respect for His unfaithful bride, Israel (seen in Hosea and other prophetic writings), pleading with her to return, is a far more obvious and repeated expression of God’s way of dealing with His sinful creation” (Middelman, 64). Rather than God forcing Israel’s obedience and worship, God pleads for it. So, in one way, God restrains evil by pleading with man for the good.
But what if man does not listen? God has given man himself the responsibility of restraining the evil of those who refuse to listen and obey God. We see this in His institution of human government. As Paul wrote in Rom 13.3‑4:

For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.

God gave man knowledge of right and wrong so man could restrain himself, and God gave human government the responsibility of restraining those who refuse to restrain themselves. The net effect is that man will suffer the effects of evil that man himself allows. This system admits the occurrence of gratuitous evil.

“God has not obligated Himself either by promise or covenantal word to bring ‘good’ out of evil—He has only promised to redeem men from evil (Gen. 3:15). However, at certain points and under certain circumstances God can (and has), when it is consistent with His character and purpose intervened in the affairs of men because of His goodness, in answer to the prayer of His people, or because of His grace. Some evil in this world is without purpose and God is under no obligation to do anything with it except condemn it. God’s commandments are designed to diminish the amount of evil in this world, so it is not so much that man should expect God to bring ‘good’ from evil, but that man should refrain from doing evil. God may, for His own good reasons, bring some good from some evil, but it is not as an explanation for why the evil occurred—the ‘good’ most often is in spite of the evil” (Little, 47).

God’s sovereignty is seen in the times He steps into history to overcome evil with good, to render judgment upon the wicked, to answer the prayers of His people, and in His actions guiding the world to fulfill His ultimate plan for history. God has informed man that judgment is coming (Gen 2.16-17 and Heb 9.27). What man does in response to His warning is on man’s shoulders alone. God is without fault or blame. God will ultimately accomplish His good purposes (2Pet 2.9-10). But, in the meantime:

Let the one who does wrong, still do wrong; and the one who is filthy, still be filthy; and let the one who is righteous, still practice righteousness; and the one who is holy, still keep himself holy. ‘Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.’ Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter by the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and the immoral persons and the murderers and the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices lying” (Rev 22.11-15).

So the answer to the question is: the existence of gratuitous evil does not contradict the sovereignty of God.



Brubaker, Matt. “Gratuitous Evil Revisited: Is the Greater-Good Theodicy the Theist’s Best Defense?” Faith and Mission 21 (2004): 65-73.

Coley, Scott. “The Logical Problem of Evil: A New Approach.” Faith and Mission 24 (2006): 43-56.

Feinberg, Charles L. Jeremiah: A Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982.

Geisler, Norman. Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999.

Geisler, Norman, and Peter Bocchino. Unshakable Foundations: Contemporary Answers to Crucial Questions about the Christian Faith. Bloomington, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2001.

Gerstner, John H. Reasons For Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1967.

Groothuis, Douglas. Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011.

Holy Bible. Updated New American Standard Bible. All scripture quotations are from this translation.

Hume, David. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/4583/pg4583.txt Accessed April 12, 2013.

Little, Bruce. The Problem of Evil. Class notes for lecture series at Luther Rice University, 2011.

Mackie, J. L. “Evil and Omnipotence.” Mind 64 (April, 1955): 200-212.
Matthews, Kenneth A. Genesis 1-11:26, v. 1A, The New American Commentary, E. Ray Clendenen, ed. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996.

Middelmann, Udo. The Innocence of God. Colorado Springs: Paternoster, 2007.

Moreland, J. P. and William Lane Craig. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003.

Plantinga, Alvin. God, Freedom, and Evil. Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977.

Rowe, William L. “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism.” American Philosophical Quarterly 16 (1979): 335-341.

Swinburne, Richard. Providence and the Problem of Evil. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998.



The Synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke

By Stephen Mitchell

The belief in the priority of Mark as the first Gospel written came about as a conservative knee-jerk reaction against a German heretical work by David Friedrich Strauss. In that 1835 work, titled English Life of Jesus, Critically Examined, Strauss’ thesis was that the Gospels contained myths, not history. Since Strauss had used Johann Griesbach’s explanation of the relationship between the synoptic Gospels as a springboard, therefore the attack against Strauss was conceived and carried out as an attack on Griesbach. Griesbach had shown that Mark had the text of both Matthew and Luke before him when he composed his Gospel, following first one, then the other, back and forth throughout, occasionally expanding, contracting, or inserting his own material. Markan priority demanded that Matthew and Luke independently used Mark as their source. Since Matthew and Luke had some material the same that Mark did not contain, therefore there must have been a fourth source from which they both derived this material, namely “Q.” This “Q” is wholly hypothetical since no physical trace of it exists, nor is it ever mentioned in the patristic writings, yet it is accepted as a proven fact among those who hold Markan priority. The purpose of this post is as a preamble to other posts on this subject supporting Griesbach’s original work. Matthew was the first Gospel written, Luke used Matthew, and Mark used both Matthew and Luke.

“The most ancient tradition of the Christian church is that the Fourfold Gospel came into existence in response to the needs experienced in some locality for an authoritative written word in addition to the continuous oral and unwritten preaching of the Gospel by the earliest apostles. The letters of Paul were also occasional writings, supplementary to his preaching and prompted by the particular needs of his converts as he saw those needs at any given moment. According to this same tradition, the twelve apostles were the sole original, authoritative, and inspired eyewitnesses of the words and deeds of Jesus. Furthermore, those few elements of teaching that they actually put into writing for certain particular purposes were also regarded by the churches that received them as having the same authority as their spoken words. Church tradition records that each of the four Gospels came into existence in response to the needs of the church at different moments during the lifetime of the original Twelve. This tradition is enshrined in the writings of the early Fathers of the church and was generally adopted by all the churches, in East and West, down to the eighteenth century.” David Alan Black, “The Historical Origins of the Gospels,” Faith and Mission 18 (Fall, 2000), 22.

Since at first the Church was almost wholly composed of Jewish converts, is there a Gospel that reflects a strong Jewish character? Yes, Matthew does. Since Matthew exhibits the strongest Jewish characteristic of all four Gospels, is there any evidence that it was written first? Again, yes. The unanimous testimony of the early church Fathers is that Matthew was the first of the Gospels written.
For example, Clement of Alexandria (c. A.D. 150-215), wrote that the Gospels with genealogies were written first. Origen (c. A.D. 185-253) also wrote that Matthew was the first written of the Gospels.
Where any church father spoke of the order of composition of the four Gospels, Matthew always was ascribed the position of first written.

Here are Clement of Alexandria’s views on the Synoptics as referred to by the early Church historian, Eusebius:

“Again, in the same books, Clement gives the tradition of the earliest presbyters, as to the order of the Gospels, in the following manner: The Gospels containing the genealogies, he says, were written first. The Gospel according to Mark had this occasion. As Peter had preached the Word publicly at Rome, and declared the Gospel by the Spirit, many who were present requested that Mark, who had followed him for a long time and remembered his sayings, should write them out. And having composed the Gospel he gave it to those who had requested it. When Peter learned of this, he neither directly forbade nor encouraged it. But, last of all, John, perceiving that the external facts had been made plain in the Gospel, being urged by his friends, and inspired by the Spirit, composed a spiritual Gospel. This is the account of Clement.”

Since Clement’s writings from which Eusebius was quoting no longer survive, we have to use Eusebius’ references. One may read this for oneself at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf201 The quote is from History of the Church, Book VI, ch. 14, paragraphs 5-7.

Irenaeus (c. A.D.115-180) also wrote of the origin of the Gospels. From his Against Heresies, Book III, ch. 1, sec. 1, we find these words:

“Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.”

The church father Augustine (A.D. 354-430), writing about A.D. 400, in his still valuable Harmony of the Evangelists, Book I, ch. 2, sec. 3, wrote:

“Now, those four evangelists whose names have gained the most remarkable circulation over the whole world, and whose number has been fixed as four,—it may be for the simple reason that there are four divisions of that world through the universal length of which they, by their number as by a kind of mystical sign, indicated the advancing extension of the Church of Christ,—are believed to have written in the order which follows: first Matthew, then Mark, thirdly Luke, lastly John.”

However, by the time he had worked out his harmony in detail, Augustine had come to a different conclusion based solely on the texts themselves. Here is what he wrote in Book IV, ch. 9, sec. 10:

“Thus, too, it is a clearly admitted position that the first three—namely, Matthew, Mark, and Luke—have occupied themselves chiefly with the humanity of our Lord Jesus Christ, according to which He is both king and priest. And in this way, Mark, who seems to answer to the figure of the man in the well-known mystical symbol of the four living creatures, either appears to be preferentially the companion of Matthew, as he narrates a larger number of matters in unison with him than with the rest, and therein acts in due harmony with the idea of the kingly character whose wont it is, as I have stated in the first book, to be not unaccompanied by attendants; or else, in accordance with the more probable account of the matter, he holds a course in conjunction with both [the other Syn-optists]. For although he is at one with Matthew in the larger number of passages, he is nevertheless at one rather with Luke in some others. And this very fact shows him to stand related at once to the lion and to the steer, that is to say, to the kingly office which Matthew emphasizes, and to the sacerdotal which Luke introduces, wherein also Christ appears distinctively as man, as the figure which Mark sustains stands related to both these.”

In this latter passage Augustine is saying that Mark is a blend of Matthew and Luke, using Matthew mostly but also using Luke where his purposes aligned with Luke. The four living creatures Augustine related to the Gospels are those described in Revelation 4:7. The Royal nature of Christ is given in Matthew and is represented by the lion-faced creature. The priestly/sacerdotal nature of Christ is given in Luke and is represented by the calf-faced creature. The human nature of Christ is given in Mark and is represented by the man-faced creature. The divine nature of Christ is given in John and is represented by the eagle-faced creature. That the synoptic gospels are so similar is because they are giving the same truth from three different nuanced views: His humanity from the royal, priestly, and human aspects.

There have been put forth some seven proposals to explain the fact that these three essentially tell the same story but with some variation in details.
The earliest is the ‘Mutual Dependence’ theory. The three are so similar because they used each other in their composition. This is the view of the early Church Fathers. There is some variation. All who wrote on the subject agreed that, of the four, Matthew was written first and John last. But there is some disagreement on who was second and third. Augustine (A.D. 354 to 430) originally held that Mark copied Matthew and Luke used both Matthew and Mark in composing his Gospel. But towards the close of his life he stated that it was more probable that Luke used Matthew and Mark used both Matthew and Luke in composing his Gospel.
Late in the 18th century came what is called the ‘Common Original’ theory. Matthew wrote his gospel first in Aramaic and all three used Matthew’s Aramaic original, even Matthew, in composing their Greek Gospels. The major problem with this is that, though some of the early Church Fathers did state that Matthew wrote his Gospel in the ‘Hebrew’ language (or style), there has never been an Aramaic Matthew discovered and the Gospel of Matthew shows no evidence of having been translated from any other language.
Early in the 19th century was proposed the ‘Numerous Fragment’ theory. This view asserts that fragments of the life of Jesus were popular and circulating among the followers of Jesus. The three authors of the Synoptics took these fragments and composed their separate Gospels from them. The problem with this is that there have never been discovered any of these supposed fragments and they cannot explain both the similarities and the differences in the Synoptics.
Similar to the ‘Numerous Fragment’ theory is the ‘Oral Tradition’ theory. This explains the Synoptics as arising out of oral tradition rather than written fragments. The fragments were oral stories circulating about Jesus and the Apostles. The major difficulty is the internal evidence of dependence that the Gospels contain within themselves. They do show a dependence on each other thereby indicating that they were composed, at least two of them, on an actual existing written source, or sources.
Also in the 19th century came ‘Form Criticism.’ This is a combination and expansion of the previous two ideas. These ‘fragments’ existed as both written and oral sources. These fragments were of many different types: sayings, miracles, birth stories, myths, legends, and passion/resurrection stories. The insurmountable problem with this view is that there is absolutely no evidence for it.
As the 19th century developed, the ‘Two Document’ theory developed. It had many forms with many proposed sources but eventually settled upon just two: Mark and ‘Q.’ Mark was first and both Matthew and Luke copied and expanded upon Mark. But Matthew and Luke contain some common material that is not found in Mark. Since the assumption was made, and it is simply an assumption, that Matthew and Luke were not aware of each other and so could not have used each other, there had to be another source both used for the common material not found in Mark. This source, though it went through many forms, finally settled on a single document commonly called ‘Q’ for ‘quelle,’ the German word for ‘source’ or ‘spring.’ Though there has never been any evidence for ‘Q’ outside of this theory, the existence of ‘Q’ is strongly held to this day and is, to most Synoptic ‘scholars,’ the best explanation for the common material in Matthew and Luke not found in Mark.
Early in the 20th century, Burnett Hillman Streeter, dissatisfied with the ‘Two Document’ theory, proposed a ‘Four Document’ theory. Since the common material in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark still have some details that are different, there must be two additional sources that Matthew and Luke used. These would be source ‘M’ for Matthew and source ‘L’ for Luke. Since ‘M’ and ‘L’ overlap with ‘Q,’ it is not possible to actually come up with the text of these sources but they must exist to account for the differences within the commonality of accounts.
These are the seven theories that have taken shape to account for the Synoptic Gospels. The ‘Two Document’ hypothesis continues to hold pride-of-place in academia but a form of the ‘Mutual Dependence’ theory has been making a strong showing of late. This theory is the final one held by Augustine: Matthew was first, Luke used Matthew, and Mark used both Matthew and Luke.



Intercessory Prayer and the need for Communication

By Stephen Mitchell

Prayer “is the root, the fountain, the mother of a thousand blessings” [Chrysostom].

Intercessory prayer permeates Scripture from Abraham’s intercession for Sodom to the second-to-the-last verse in Revelation. To pray for someone you must know about that one. The Apostle Paul prayed for those whom his ministry touched as well as for many he knew about but had never met. To aid in his prayer life, Paul was constantly seeking information about those for whom he prayed and valued others’ prayer for himself. In at least one instance, Paul sent Tychicus out to be sure information was gotten to multiple churches about Paul’s circumstances [Ephesians 6:21-22; Philippians 1:12-14; Colossians 4:7-8]. At an earlier time Paul dispatched Timothy to check on a church and bring Paul news [1Thessalonians 3:1-10]. Titus also provided a similar service for Paul in regards to Corinth [2Corinthians 7:5-7]. Paul often used those opportunities to write letters to the churches involved. He also carried news of the condition and needs of churches to other communities of Believers [Acts 14:27; 2Thessalonians 1:3-4; 2Corinthians 7:4; 8:1-5; 9:2]. In many, if not all, of Paul’s prayers for the churches in his letters he is responding to actual information he has received or knows personally about those churches [Colossians 1:3-12; Philemon 4-5].

We get a glimpse of how Believers continued to keep in touch with each other in the early church through the letters of Ignatius and Polycarp. Ignatius was a pastor in the Syrian city of Antioch and a former pupil of the Apostle John. He was sentenced to death for his faith about 117 A.D. and taken to Rome under guard for that purpose. Along the way he wrote seven letters to churches and to a fellow pastor, Polycarp. Polycarp, in his letters, also mentioned Ignatius and his letters. From these letters we get these circumstances outlined for us in this extensive quote by Richard Bauckham [Bauckham, pp. 40-42]:

The letters of Ignatius, written only two or three decades after Matthew, Luke, and John, give us a remarkably detailed picture of Paul beatenan active communication network among the churches of the area from Syrian Antioch to Philippi, as well as between these churches and Rome. They record how, in the period when Ignatius was traveling from Syrian Antioch to Italy, letters, delegates, and even bishops traveled back and forth between these various churches for a variety of purposes. The movements can be reconstructed as follows. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, was being taken to Rome, a prisoner under guard, expecting martyrdom there. The route took him and his guards across Asia Minor. At Smyrna he was visited by emissaries from the churches at Ephesus, Magnesia, and Tralles, each led by its bishop, and he wrote a letter for each delegation to take back to their own community (Eph. 1:3; 2:1; 21:1; Magn. 2:1; 15:1; Trail. 1:1; 13:1). From Smyrna Ignatius also wrote to the church in Rome, apparently responding to news he had already received from the Roman church, and also referring to Syrian Christians who had traveled to Rome ahead of him (Rom. 10:2), presumably to prepare the Roman church for his arrival.

At Troas, waiting to embark on the sea journey to Neapolis, Ignatius wrote to the church at Smyrna, which he had just visited, and to the church at Philadelphia, which two of his companions had recently visited (Philad. 11:1). He also wrote a personal letter to Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna. These letters were conveyed by Burrus, who had been delegated by the churches of Smyrna and Ephesus to accompany Ignatius (Philad. 11:2; Smyrn. 12:1). While at Troas Ignatius had received news from Antioch, to the effect that the church there, which had been troubled either by persecution or by internal disputes (it is not clear which), was now at peace (Philad. 10:1; Pol. 7:1). Ignatius was therefore anxious that all the churches of the area should send messengers with letters to Antioch to congratulate the Antiochene Christians. His letter to the Philadelphian Christians tells them to send a deacon, pointing out that churches nearer to Antioch had already sent bishops or presbyters or deacons (Philad. 10:1-2). His letter to the Smyrnean Christians tells them to send someone to Antioch with a letter (Smyrn. 11:2-3). In his letter to Polycarp, he not only asks him to convene a meeting of the church to appoint someone really suitable for this task (Pol. 7:2), he also explains that he is having to leave Troas before he has had time to write to the other churches this side of Antioch (meaning, probably, those in Asia Minor). So Polycarp is deputed to do this, telling them all to send, if possible, messengers to Antioch, or at least a letter by the hand of the messengers from Smyrna (Pol. 8:1).

Finally, when Ignatius passed through Philippi, he asked the church there also to communicate with Antioch. Since Philippi was a considerable journey from Antioch, the Philippians decided to send their messenger only as far as Smyrna and to entrust their letter to the Smyrnean messenger. Polycarp of Smyrna, writing back to the Philippians, assures them this will be done, and expects himself to be going to Antioch, if only he can get away (Polycarp Phil. 13:1).

Thus, in the period it took Ignatius and his guards to travel from Antioch to Italy, two delegations of Christians had left for Rome (one from Antioch, one from Troas or Ephesus), major delegations had traveled from Ephesus, Magnesia, and Tralles to Smyrna, some Ephesian Christians had traveled on to Troas, messengers had gone from Troas to Philadelphia and to Smyrna, and from Philippi to Smyrna and back, and many of these churches had sent delegations, some including their bishops, to Antioch. Probably delegations and letters would also have reached Antioch for the same purpose from churches to the south and east of Antioch. The communication network is even more vigorous and complex than it had been when Paul and his missionary colleagues traveled the area.

All this to say that churches kept in touch with each other, eagerly seeking information on the condition of their fellow Believers. This, inevitably, aided their intercessory prayer on behalf of their fellow Christians. Ignatius specifically asked for prayer on behalf of his beloved church in Antioch. As Bauckham wrote above, when, sometime between leaving Smyrna and sailing from Troas, he received word that things had settled down in Antioch, he communicated that in each subsequent letter, ascribing credit for that peace to their prayers for the church in Antioch.

Typically, whoever carried letters also communicated fuller information on the writer’s circumstances. Paul indicated that Tychicus would do this for the churches at Ephesus and Colossae and probably Laodicaea [Ephesians 6:21-22; Colossians 4:7-9, 16]. He also told the church at Philippi that he would send Timothy later on with further information on Paul and to gain information from them [Philippians 2:19-24]. These also provided further information for intercessory prayer.

The church has always recognized the importance of intercessory prayer. In order to accomplish that, we have valued reports from other Believers and churches on the blessings they have received and the struggles they face. This is why we have a prayer list, why we publish missionary news in the newsletter, why we post missionary prayer letters, why we put bulletin inserts with information on the church around the world. All of these in order to further our work of intercessory prayer. We need to constantly seek God on behalf of our fellow Christians and their work.

As Polycarp, pastor of the church in Smyrna, wrote to the church at Philippi: “Pray for all the saints” [Polycarp Phil. 12].

Richard Bauckham, “For Whom were Gospel Written?,” The Gospels for All Christians [Grand Rapids, 1998] Richard Bauckham, ed.



Hospitality and the Early Church

By Stephen Mitchell

Hospitality! From the very beginning of the Church, hospitality was an important part of Christian fellowship. The Apostles could not have gone from house to house, breaking bread and fellowshipping together if there had not been a corresponding hospitality from the host families (Acts 2:46). Anyone being considered for a pastorate was required to be of a hospitable nature (1Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:8). A widow could only be considered for church support if she had shown hospitality over the years (1Timothy 5:10). Peter wrote that we should show hospitality to fellow Believers while the writer of Hebrews encouraged us to show hospitality to strangers (1Peter 4:9 and Hebrews 13:2). Paul also instructed those in Rome to practice hospitality (Romans 12:13). This was especially important for them since they lived in the capital city of the empire and there would be many Believers who would have need of traveling there.

Jesus enjoyed the hospitality of many. He stayed in Peter’s home. He enjoyed many hours with Lazarus and his two sisters. He shared a meal with Matthew, the tax collector. He enjoyed a meal and was anointed in the home of Simon, the leper and Pharisee. He invited Himself to stay in the home of another tax collector, Zaccheus. And he even spent a Sabbath meal under hostile eyes in the home of a chief of the Pharisees. Each of these times Jesus had the pleasure of someone’s hospitality, even when the host held enmity towards Jesus.

Hospitality was very necessary because the early church was a church on the move. From the New Testament alone we find the Apostle Paul journeyed many miles. As an enemy of the church, Paul journeyed about 135 miles to Damascus. In his 1st missionary journey he traveled about 1,400 miles. For his 2nd missionary journey Paul traveled around 2,800 miles. For his 3rd he went a little less, somewhere around 2,700 miles. As a prisoner he journeyed 2,250 miles to Rome. For each of these trips he went by a combination of land and sea.

With Paul went many companions: Timothy, Titus, Tychicus, Barnabas, Luke, Sopater, John Mark, Silas, Silvanus, Secundus, Demas, Erastus, Aristarchus, Trophimus, Priscilla and Aquilla, at different times. Titus, Trophimus, Erastus and Timothy were sent off by Paul to travel to other places at different times. Not only Paul and his companions traveled; churches also sent representatives to meet with Paul. Stephanus, Fortunatus, and Achaicus traveled the 430 miles from Corinth to Paul in Ephesus, bringing him a letter and provisions. Epaphroditus traveled the 800 miles from Philippi to Rome, bringing gifts to Paul from the Philippian church. While there Epaphroditus became deathly ill and the church in Philippi heard about it. That means someone had to travel back to Philippi with the news prior to Epaphroditus’ return trip with the letter to the Philippians. Tychicus traveled from Rome to Ephesus and then on to Colossae, accompanied by Onesmius, bearing letters from Paul, a total distance of about 1,400 miles. Apollos traveled to Ephesus and then to Corinth, left there at some point, and planned to travel back to Corinth. After Paul was freed from his imprisonment in Rome, he traveled to Ephesus with Timothy and Titus, left Timothy in Ephesus and traveled to northern Greece. From Philippi he sent someone to Ephesus with a letter for Timothy. He then traveled to Crete, left Titus in Crete and traveled to Nicopolis on the western coast of southern Greece. From there he sent Artemus or Trophimus with a letter for Titus in Crete, asking Titus to come meet him in Nicopolis. From there he sent Titus to Dalmatia, today’s former Yugoslavia. Paul then traveled to Troas where he was rearrested and taken to Rome. Paul asked Timothy to pick up a cloak at Troas and get to him in Rome before winter, a distance of close to 1,000 miles. In all of this, on land, travelers made anywhere from 15-25 miles a day. When Peter traveled from Joppa to Caesarea to meet with Cornelius, a distance of 40 miles, it took him two days to arrive, an average of 20 miles a day.

What does this all have to do with hospitality? Travelers would often take tents with them to camp out beside the road, but this was not always safe (recall that Paul was a tent maker by trade). And every traveler, most often on foot, had to carry their food as well as the means to prepare it, on their backs. Inns in the Roman empire were usually not desirable places to stay. The poet Horace referred to one spot as “full of nasty tavern keepers.”

While there were probably several different accommodations available in towns, outside of the major population centers things were different.

The traveler “most often put up at an inn, and even respectable inns, the ones the Romans generally dignified by the neutral terms hospitium ‘place for hospitality’ or deversorium ‘place for turning aside’, included prostitutes among the services offered, while the kind they called a caupona was distinctly low class: it catered to sailors and carters and slaves; its dining-room had more the atmosphere of a saloon than a restaurant; and the caupo (or copo), as one who ran a caupona was called, was of the same social and moral level as his establishment. Indeed, caupones, along with ships’ captains and owners of livery stables, were the subject of special legislation, since a traveler was completely at their mercy, and the law was aware that, as a group, they were hardly noted for scrupulous honesty.” (Casson, 204)


Often the travelers would spend many hours over their wine, loudly singing hymns to whatever deity/ies they served, in their revelry. As such, the Christian traveler would frequently find their surroundings difficult to endure.

Camping out, in danger from thieves and brigands, was often the only other option, unless local Christians offered their homes in hospitality. Paul listed his difficulties traveling thus: “I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure” (2Corinthians 11:26-27). Imagine how refreshing to a believing traveler, such as Paul, was finding a fellow Believer who opened up his or her home.

And many did. Lydia, Paul’s first convert in Philippi, opened her home for an extended stay. Gaius opened his home to Paul in Corinth and they held regular worship services there. The Philippian jailer immediately opened his house to Paul and Silas upon his conversion. In Thessalonica Paul and his companions probably stayed with Jason. Prisca and Aquila opened their home as a place for the church to gather. Titius Justus opened his home for Paul to lecture from in Corinth. Nympha, in Laodicea, and Philemon, in Colossae, opened their homes to the church for worship. Simon the tanner opened his home for Peter to stay and then gave the servants from Cornelius overnight lodging. Cornelius offered his home as lodging for Peter and his companions. Paul, immediately after his conversion, enjoyed the hospitality of the Believers in Damascus.

Christian hospitality gave believing travelers a place to stay in an environment of safety, Christian companionship, and respite from the darkness of the surrounding culture. It offered a place where Christ is named and glorified and where all can call upon the heavenly Father with one voice. The church practiced it from its beginning and continues to benefit from it today. It also gives a place to discuss the latest news about churches and Believers in other places. Today, we often do this with those we call missionaries, offering a safe place for Christian fellowship and the building up of godly relationships. Christian hospitality offers many strengthening benefits to the Church. This is why God calls the Church to:

“Be devoted to one another in brotherly love, … practicing hospitality.”

Lionel Casson, Travel in the Ancient World (Baltimore and London, 1994)



Easter is upon us again! part 5

By Stephen Mitchell

Drs Gary Habermas and Mike Licona have written a book titled The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. In that book they have listed for us four facts accepted by all reputable scholars, Christian and non-Christian. They added one more fact which almost all reputable scholars accept. These are:

1. Jesus died by crucifixion.

2. Jesus’ disciples believed that he rose and appeared to them.

3. The church persecutor Paul was suddenly changed.

4. The skeptic James, the brother of Jesus, was suddenly changed.

and the fifth:

5. The tomb was empty.

With these five facts one can reasonably defend the historicity of the Resurrection in encountering opposing theories. I will summarize some of their examples listed.

A legend theory: The story just grew and was embellished over time before they were put into writing.

How does one answer this? First, it was the Disciples themselves who told the story of the Resurrection. They showed their total belief in this by suffering and dieing for its truthfulness. Second, the persecutor Paul changed from a persecutor to one who taught, suffered and eventually died for its truthfulness by what, he wrote, was an encounter with the risen Jesus. Third, this can be applied to the skeptic James as well. Fourth, simply asserting that the story changed over time does not make it so. There must be evidence that this happened and there is none.

How about the claim that the Gospel stories of the Resurrection are just moral tales, not meant to be taken as history?

First, this claim cannot account for the empty tomb. Second, a fable or moral story would not have convinced the church persecutor Paul. Third, neither would they have convinced the skeptic James. Fourth, the way opponents responded shows that the early church understood the Resurrection to be an historical event. Fifth, the accounts themselves present the event as historical.

What about the claim of fraud: the Disciples stole the body or the witnesses went to the wrong tomb or maybe someone else stole the body?

First, the Disciples claimed to have seen and interacted with the risen Jesus. For this claim they willingly suffered and died. Second, a  story about the Resurrection did not convince the persecutor Paul. He himself wrote that it took an encounter with the risen Lord to change him. Third, simply an empty tomb was not convincing by itself. Only the Disciple John was convinced by the empty tomb. The rest, according to the early records, were not convinced until they had seen and interacted with the risen Jesus. Fourth, the early records show that the location of the tomb was known and even the enemies of Jesus accepted that it was empty.

Habermas and Licona discuss many more objections, showing how the evidence supports the historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus. I would highly recommend this book for anyone who has questions about its truthfulness or who struggles to defend it against the critics and unbelievers. Just remember that, for anyone to take the final step of belief in Jesus, the witness of the Scriptures themselves need to be implemented by the work of the Holy Spirit in their hearts.

We need, as the apostle Peter wrote, to “sanctify Christ as Lord in [our] hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks [us] to give an account for the hope that is in [us], yet with gentleness and reverence;  and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which [we] are slandered, those who revile [our] good behavior in Christ will be put to shame” (1Peter 3:15-16).

Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2004)



Easter is upon us again! part 4

By Stephen Mitchell

The fifth and final statement (see previous 3 posts) on the resurrection that almost all reputable scholars accept:

5. The empty tomb.

How do we know it was empty? There are three lines of evidence that Habermas and Licona present. These are: The Jerusalem factor, enemy attestation, and the testimony of women.

What is the Jerusalem Factor? It is the simple fact that Jerusalem is not only where Jesus was crucified and buried, it is also where His resurrection was first preached. Anyone could have simply walked outside the city to the tomb and verified it for themselves. Even though the public preaching did not come, as far as we know, until fifty days after His death, He still would have been recognizable. “First, in the arid climate of Jerusalem, a corpse’s hair, stature, and distinctive wounds would have been identifiable, even after fifty days. Second, regardless of the condition of his body, the enemies of Jesus would still have found benefit in producing the corpse. Even a barely recognizable corpse could have dissuaded some believers, possible weakening and ultimately toppling the entire movement. Since that was the goal, Jesus’ enemies had every reason to produce his body, regardless of its condition. It is true that, upon viewing the corpse, many Christians would have claimed that it was a hoax. Nevertheless, there still would have been a huge exodus of believers who would have lost confidence in Christianity upon seeing an occupied tomb and a decaying corpse” (Habermas and Licona, p. 70).

There is also the claim of Him being seen by more than five hundred during the first forty days following His death and resurrection. All any of them would have had to do is walk outside Jerusalem and look into His tomb. Since the persecutor  Paul claimed that most of those were still alive and could be spoken to several years later, anyone could have checked on the story. With the evidence of so many today traveling to see the supposed empty tomb, I would imagine that very many of those during the first forty days did the same. The first century records make the claim that at least two of the men did so: Peter and John. It was a short run for those men to the tomb so anyone who could walk could go see for themselves.

What about the enemy attestation? “The empty tomb is attested not only by Christian sources. Jesus’ enemies admitted it as well, albeit indirectly. Hence, we are not employing an argument from silence. Rather than point to an occupied tomb, early critics accused Jesus’ disciples of stealing the body (Matt. 28:12-13)” (Habermas and Licona, p. 71).

The story was still being circulated more than a hundred years later. The Christian author, Justin Martyr, in his 2nd century writing Dialogue with Trypho, which is his record of a discussion he had with a Jewish man, noted “yet you not only have not repented, after you learned that He rose from the dead, but, as I said before, you have sent chosen and ordained men throughout all the world to proclaim that a godless and lawless heresy had sprung from one Jesus, a Galilæan deceiver, whom we crucified, but his disciples stole him by night from the tomb, where he was laid when unfastened from the cross, and now deceive men by asserting that he has risen from the dead and ascended to heaven” (Book 4, chapter 8, section 15).

The story that the Disciples stole Jesus’ body is an implicit admission that the tomb was empty.

What about the testimony of women? In all four first century Christian accounts of the resurrection, women were the first to the tomb and the first to give testimony that the tomb was empty. Why is this significant? In the first century Jewish culture, women were not considered reliable witnesses. Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, wrote, “But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex, nor let servants be admitted to give testimony on account of the ignobility of their soul.” The Talmud also noted, “Any evidence which a woman [gives] is not valid.” Having women be the primary witness was a huge mistake for that culture, unless, of course, it was true. But women would be going to the tomb since, in that culture, the women prepared the bodies for burial and Jesus was taken down right at sunset so they would not have been able to finish their work on Jesus’ body. They would, in fact, have been the first to the tomb. In other words, the accounts have the mark of historical validity. One does not make up stories and have as their primary witnesses a group of people whose witness would not be accepted. And Luke recorded that the Disciples reacted according to their culture of disdaining the witness of women. “Now they were Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James; also the other women with them were telling these things to the apostles.  But these words appeared to them as nonsense, and they would not believe them” (Luke 24:10-11). Even the Romans had a similar view of women as witnessed by the early second century Roman historian Suetonius in his work, The Twelve Caesars.

So it certainly seems to be a reasonable conclusion that the tomb was empty.

In the last post in this series I will look at the way Habermas and Licona show us how these four facts plus one will work together to defend the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus.

Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2004)

Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews



Easter is upon us again! part 3

By Stephen Mitchell

From Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona’s book, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, in the first post, I listed the four facts about the resurrection of Jesus that all reputable scholars accept plus one fact that most accept. In this post I will discuss the third and fourth facts. These are:

3. The church persecutor Paul was suddenly changed.

4. The skeptic James, brother of Jesus, was suddenly changed.

Saul of Tarsus, later known as the Apostle Paul, was a well-known persecutor of the followers of Jesus. Luke wrote of his persecution in Acts chapters 7, 8, & 9. Paul himself wrote of his former opposition in his letters. To the church in Corinth he wrote: “For I am the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (15:9). To the church at Philippi he wrote that he was “a persecutor of the church” (3:6). To the churches in the region of Galatia he wrote: “For you have heard of my former manner of life in Judaism, how I used to persecute the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it; and I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions” (1:13-14).

So we have to ask, ‘What changed him?’ The event that changed his life was recorded by Luke in Acts 9. Then Paul described it in his defense before the Jews and his trials before the Roman governor and the Jewish king Agrippa, these in Acts 22 and 26.

What makes Paul different than most other conversions is that Paul knew what the Christians were teaching and still vehemently opposed them. According to Paul’s own testimony, it took a visible, personal encounter with the risen Jesus for him to completely change his attitude towards the Christian claim of a risen Jesus. Paul affirmed he had seen the actual risen Lord himself.

He wrote about this in his first letter to the church at Corinth, chapter 15, verses 3-8:

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.” (italics added)

Paul was so convinced of what he had seen that he was willing to suffer greatly and even to die for this person he claimed to have seen alive. He detailed much of what he suffered in his second letter to the church at Corinth in the eleventh chapter.

What is significant about the change in Jesus’ brother, the skeptic James? It is recorded that Jesus had four brothers, more than one sister, and that James was one of his brothers. Josephus, the Jewish historian, wrote of James, “Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned” (Antiquities of the Jews, book 20, chapter 9).

The Gospel writers record that none of Jesus’ brothers believed in him. Mark actually recorded that his family thought Jesus had gone insane. Read what Mark wrote in chapter 3:

“And He came home, and the crowd *gathered again, to such an extent that they could not even eat a meal. When His own people heard of this, they went out to take custody of Him; for they were saying, ‘He has lost His senses.’ … Then His mother and His brothers *arrived, and standing outside they sent word to Him and called Him.”

John also wrote, in chapter 7, that “not even His brothers were believing in Him.”

Yet James, in spite of his early skepticism about his brother, became the leader of the Jerusalem church and had an excellent reputation among the Jews. He was even popularly called James the Just. What changed him.

Paul recorded that for us in the first letter he wrote to the church at Corinth, chapter 15. Go back and reread the quote above of what Paul wrote, “then He appeared to James.” Again, as for Paul so as for James. For both it is recorded that they were transformed from doubters to believers and followers by seeing the risen Jesus. Not from others’ testimony, but from a personal experience of the risen Jesus.

I will look at the fifth and final fact in the next post and then put it all together.

Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2004)

Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews (electronic edition)