My Most Reliable Ministry Tool: Keeping My Mouth Shut

In a world of noise, people need us to listen with God’s ears.

My Most Reliable Ministry Tool: Keeping My Mouth Shut

I was only 21 years old when a family asked if they could meet with me to discuss how their marital difficulties were affecting their teenage daughter and son. At the time, I had “pastor” in my title, but I wasn’t yet married and certainly didn’t have any children.

As I read the email, I wondered why they contacted me. I was part of a large staff that included people with titles such as “care pastor.” Surely others were more suited for a job like this. Yet they had emailed me. What wisdom could I possibly bring to such a situation? What would I say? How could I help?

Lending an Ear

When I feel like I have nothing to bring to these moments, I remember my ears. They are, without question, the most valuable asset in pastoral ministry. I cannot tell you how many times I walk away from counseling sessions or visiting someone without having said much at all, yet feeling like I have given them the attention their problem deserves. So often what people need is to be heard with great effort.

This is what I decided to do when that couple finally came to the church to meet with me. As they explained their situation, all I had were my ears. I gave them my full attention, I asked them questions to clarify, and I sought to truly understand their situation.

A moment from the meeting sticks with me to this day. As the husband was sharing their situation, he said, “I guess now that I’m talking about it, I’m realizing how much I’m at fault.” He looked at his wife with tears in his eyes. “I’m so sorry,” he said. I hadn’t said a word.

When I meet with people, I sometimes wonder if I’ll be able to give them my mind by providing a great, theological answer. Or I worry I won’t be able to give them my heart by articulating deep empathy. These can be difficult parts of me to bring to the table. But my ears are always available, even though I often forget how valuable they are.

Pastoral counseling is dynamic, and each meeting is unique. Many meetings require me to speak with great conviction. Some meetings require me to speak a lot. But I’ve never regretted listening and I often regret speaking.

Our world is crowded with attention-grabbers. Everything in your phone is working to monopolize your eyes and ears. Our work demands our attention. Our families seem to never get enough of it. In a world of noise, listening—true, active, humble listening—is the powerful ministry of the Father in which we get to participate.

God’s Focused Attention

We know that God hears our prayers—at least, we say we know this—but have you ever considered what it means that he listens? Think about your friends who you would describe as particularly good listeners. People hear you all day long, but there’s a kind of presence a good friend gives you that cannot be replicated easily.

They sit with their eyes focused on you, their posture is active, and they’re not checking their phone or darting their eyes across the room as you speak. To assure you they are picking up everything you say, they nod and sometimes repeat your phrasing or mimic your emotions. Their face changes, their head tilts, and they laugh before you can. They’re right there with you. As you think through these traits, you might be thinking about how rare it is to find a good listener.

In a world of noise, listening—true, active, humble listening—is the powerful ministry of the Father in which we get to participate.

God, the almighty creator, is a tremendous listener: “I love the Lord, because he has heard my voice and my pleas for mercy. Because he inclined his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live” (Ps. 116:1–2, ESV, emphases mine).

“We are surrounded by noise,” wrote Eugene Peterson in Reversed Thunder. “The world is a mob in which everyone is talking at once and no one is willing or able to listen. But God listens. He not only speaks to us, he listens to us. His listening to us is an even greater marvel than his speaking to us. … Our feelings are taken seriously. … We acquire dignity. We never know how well we think or speak until we find someone who listens to us.”

Unsure of what we want from God, our prayers are often more rambling than refined. We stumble to put together words. We murmur in the dark and try to thread together the scattered thoughts from our day. Meanwhile, God is listening. He is attentive. He reacts.

Upon the first sin in the garden, God did not blast heavenly rage at the human beings. Rather, as a good listener, he asked questions: “Where are you? … What have you done?” (Gen. 3:9, 13). God is the one who, when the people of Israel “groaned because of their slavery” and “cried out for help,” took the time to listen: “God heard their groaning” (Ex. 2:23–25). After God inquired in the garden, Adam and Eve were exiled; after hearing Israel’s groans in captivity, the Lord began his rescue. Both the acts of banishment and redemption started with God’s posture of listening.

How does it change your prayer life to know that God not only hears your prayer but listens to you? How might it change your ministry?

You might have the same response as the psalmist: “Because he inclined his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live” (Ps. 116:2, ESV). This word inclined can also be translated “bent down.” It brings to mind a mother getting eye-to-eye with a child or a father bending on one knee. God is directing his gaze toward us, inclining his ear. He is not preoccupied nor is he busy. God has never found himself without time. He will never be distracted. God’s great power is often expressed in his rich attentiveness to the entirety of creation. When we know God is not simply tolerating our prayers but engaging with them and responding at his discretion, our attention will focus. We will, in turn, say with confidence, “The Lord has heard my plea” (Ps. 6:9, ESV).

Remarkably, pastors and spiritual leaders have the opportunity to image the listening God to people: We get to “incline” our ear to them and “hear their cry.” We get to show them the full attention God is already giving them, which just may bring them healing.

A Unique Kind of Ear

Sometimes it’s healthy for us pastors to think of ourselves as just like other people. But in other situations, it’s equally important to remember how people see us differently than they see everyone else. I loved the innocence of young students I would pastor when I worked in youth ministry: One student called me “the Jesus guy.” People often place us in a unique category.

Because of this, we have the potential for great good and great evil. Pastors can be dangerous; as a mentor told me a long ago, “In ministry, we are messing with peoples’ lives.”

Nevertheless, through our strange and unique position, we have a rare opportunity. If we listen before we speak and give people our undistracted attention, we give them something other listeners cannot. As much as I’d like to think, I’m just a friend listening, that’s not the way many people see me. When someone’s pastor listens to them, they feel God listening in too. When a pastor does not listen, talks over them, or over-explains their feelings, they sense God might do the same.

I’ve been a non-denominational pastor for over a decade. Because I do not wear vestments and people rarely call me “Pastor Chris,” I can forget the power I hold: the power for tremendous grace and tremendous harm. If pastors can use this power like God does by inclining our ears, we can participate in a radical ministry of healing.

Our dignity is often restored by a mere human listening to us; how much more so if we have God’s heavenly ear bent toward us? As a pastor, I get to see firsthand the healing work of listening, and moreover, I can join in that work with the Spirit’s help and power.

Chris Nye is a pastor, writer, and sometimes professor living in Silicon Valley with his wife, Allison. His latest book is Less of More: Pursuing Spiritual Abundance in a World of Never Enough.


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Why ‘Let Go and Let God’ Is My Lifeline

Trusting in the Lord has made my life both easier and harder.

Why ‘Let Go and Let God’ Is My Lifeline

Not long before his death, Henri Nouwen wrote in Sabbatical Journeys about some friends who were trapeze artists. They shared with Nouwen about the special relationship between flyer and catcher on the trapeze. The flyer lets go, and the catcher catches. As the flyer swings high above the crowd on the trapeze, the moment comes when she must let go. She arcs out into the air, where her sole job is to remain as still as possible as she opens her hands and waits for the strong hands of the catcher to pluck her to safety. One of the trapeze artists told Nouwen, “The flyer must never try to catch the catcher.” The catcher will catch the flyer, but she must wait in absolute trust.

The gospel calls us to a similar spirit of open-handed living. Over several decades of following Jesus, I’ve learned that the essence of surrender is found in the posture of our hearts. In this place of yielding, we give the Holy Spirit free rein to direct and sustain our journey, and we also realize that our lives are part of a much greater narrative: God’s story of hope and restoration in the lives of individuals, families, communities, and local churches.

My first big surrender came shortly after beginning a relationship with Jesus in high school. My dad went through a midlife crisis—which included a fancy sports car followed by a perm (another story, another time)—and then he shared the news that we would be moving from Colorado to Hong Kong right before my senior year. Angry and confused, I unleashed my frustration and let God know exactly how I felt about the situation. But at the end of my tirade, I added a sincere prayer: “In my heart of hearts, I really want to know you and do your will.”

This prayer has led me through other life disruptions, as well. After I graduated from college, I came to another crossroads. Should I attend law school? Or pursue vocational Christian ministry? I wasn’t afraid to minister overseas, but I did wrestle with what I considered my worst-case scenario: driving an ugly, outdated car and living in complete isolation and obscurity doing boring, mundane work day in and day out. Nevertheless, I remember praying a tearful but sincere prayer of surrender: “God, I will go wherever you want me to go—even if you ask me to work and live all alone and drive one of those old station wagons with fake wood paneling on the outside. Even then I will choose to follow you.”

When faced with my own cancer diagnosis a few years ago, I prayed another surrender prayer. Every morning I awakened in the dark with my mind racing, wondering if the diagnosis was a bad dream. As my mind cleared and the heavy reality set in, I would make my way upstairs to an overstuffed chair tucked away in a little nook, where I would pour out my fears to God. I wrestled with what seemed like reasonable, honorable desires of living long enough to witness the major milestones in my three kids’ lives. I wanted a front-row seat. The willingness to yield my plans and open my hands—even to let go of my very life—became a moment-by-moment choice.

Each time that I’ve placed my heart into the hands of my loving, good, and all-knowing God, my life has simultaneously been easier and harder. Sometimes I find myself trying to control the outcome of my circumstances. I pray with directives: “This is how you need to answer, God, and this is how you need to fix this situation.” But when I read Scripture, I am reminded of how God is the one who determines our boundaries and the exact places we should live (Acts 17:26).

We are born into this world without control over our family of origin; we have no say in who our parents are, the number of siblings we grow up with, or our birth order. We have no control over our gender, ethnic makeup, cultural heritage, family history, socioeconomic class at birth, or gifts and wiring. But God has his reasons for forming us as he has. “We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10, ESV).

In the end, we may not have the opportunity to see the direct outcome of our choices or live the life we always dreamed of, but God maps out for us a way to walk in freedom—even when our circumstances don’t make sense to us. In this place of surrender, he simply asks us to let go and trust that he will catch us.

Vivian Mabuni has spent 30 years serving on staff with Cru and is the author of Warrior In Pink and Open Hands, Willing Heart. Connect with her on Instagram/Twitter @vivmabuni or on her website This piece was adapted from Open Hands Willing Heart: Discover the Joy of Saying Yes to God (releasing July 9).Copyright © 2019 by Vivian Mabuni. Published with permission by WaterBrook, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.


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Faith Like an Olive Tree

What Israel’s most famous plants taught me about spiritual growth.

Faith Like an Olive Tree

A few summers ago, I traveled to Israel at the generous invitation of friends. One memorable afternoon on our trip, we walked down the hillside of the Mount of Olives and passed through the Garden of Gethsemane. The smells and sounds of the landscape from that day have stayed strong in my memory.

I was wearing sandals and we had taken a bus up to the top of the hill, so I hadn’t realized how steep it was. But walking back down, the hot asphalt beneath my feet was like the surface you’d find at a theme park somewhere in middle-America. I thought of Jesus walking this same hill. I could barely keep my feet in my shoes for the angle of the path, so I took them off.

As we came to the bottom of the hill, we stood among the ancient olive trees in the garden where Jesus spent hours in prayer. The trees framing the outdoor sanctuary are some of the oldest living things around. Their sorrowful, faithful presence is unmoved there in the middle of this changing world. They bear witness.

Our guide told us that olive trees have some special characteristics. Most trees report their growth by adding a ring each year, but you cannot tell an olive tree’s age or experience by counting its rings. As an olive tree ages, instead of growing rings, the trunk expands inside and becomes more spacious. The older the olive tree, the wider and more hollow the trunk.

Back home in Tennessee, we read the story of the trees by their rings. Our trees hold their memory in layers, each storm and drought recorded in organic detail. But the olive trees hold memory more densely, compressed and magnificently refined. They make space as they mature.

In my own growth, I would like to be more like the olive tree, remembering the good stuff, the faithfulness of God that strengthens who I am. I want to stretch my branches out wide (Isa. 54:2) and let the rough details of each passing trial slough off. I want to make space in the center of my life, to welcome the Holy Spirit right in the middle—reviving, refreshing, renewing.

But when I am under stress, I am inclined to harbor my frustrations and keep a record of my complaints. Left to my own sinful nature, I document my hardships and vent my frustrations, carving rings of memory. But the grace of the olive tree tells a better story.

When I look back, I can see God’s good providence and provision as opportunities for growth, even in the times of great discomfort. The wood of the olive tree grows more smooth and compressed over time, demonstrating to me that I don’t have to harbor every relational injury. “Love keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Cor. 13:5).

And I am humbled when I focus on the substance of God’s provision for me. “‘He himself bore our sins’ in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; ‘by his wounds you have been healed’” (1 Pet. 2:24). When we suffer, we can entrust ourselves to the one who keeps the record straight. To entrust ourselves to God is to actively give over to him our grievances and our circumstances beyond our control. In this, the core of our life is strengthened, hollowed, and made more fruitful. Despite its hollow core, the olive tree is a historic symbol of strength, intelligence, and productivity. One mature olive tree can provide as much as 20 gallons of oil.

As I remember the trees from the Garden of Gethsemane, I think of Jesus’ tears poured out on the ground, like oil poured out for healing and blessing. I remember the sensation of my bare feet on the Mount of Olives that afternoon on the asphalt, like the hot pavement in the summertime at Six Flags in Missouri when I was a kid. God’s presence is real then and now. He shapes our stories into smooth beauty, like a master gardener. “I am like an olive tree flourishing in the house of God. I will trust in God’s unfailing love for ever and ever” (Ps. 52:8). He visits us in the garden and breathes his renewing Presence through the sacred center of our lives, making space for what was, what is, and what is yet to be.

Sandra McCracken is a singer-songwriter who lives in Nashville. Follow her on Twitter @Sandramccracken.

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Designers refuse to be at conference if Christian is there

Organizers cave to ultimatum to disinvite speaker



The Dallas-Fort Worth chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Arts makes a big deal about inclusion, with a pages-long statement concerning its “passionate conversations” about ethnicity, gender, race, ability, disability and age.

But its policy of inclusion apparently goes only so far.

That became clear after AIGA declared it would not participate in a design conference unless a Christian speaker was excluded.

Fox News reported the Dallas-Fort Worth chapter of AIGA refused to partner with the Circles Conference, a three-day event for graphics and user experience designers, if David Roark was on the speakers roster.

Roark is the communications director for The Village Church, a Texas megachurch.

He was disinvited from the conference by Circles because of the demand from AIGA, the report said.

AIGA claimed the church has “discriminatory policies and practices towards (sic) women and the LGBTQ+ community.”

AIGA said in a statement it would not tolerate The Village Church because of its beliefs.

AIGA claimed it would be a “misallocation of our membership resources” to participate in any event that included the church.

Roark responded on Twitter that he has no hard feelings.

“The last thing that I would want to do is cause a problem or be a distraction.”

He said that “to end division and pursue unity in our world, we must be willing to listen well, enter into dialogue and understand that we can show love, honor and dignity to one another while still disagreeing.”

“I want the creative community to be a place where individuals of all backgrounds, beliefs and lifestyle can learn from one another, regardless of differences, not a place where we shut each other out,” Roark said.

Commenters on the site pointed out that LGBT activists now are discriminating against Christians and their beliefs even when the subject at hand isn’t faith or issues such as homosexuality and marriage.

“Sounds to me as if the conference is inclusive of everyone except Bible believing Christians,” said one.

Added another: “So the ‘inclusive’ company wants to EXCLUDE Mr. Roark … Got it.”

Devil’s Lane

June 28, 2019 by jccast

The east boundary of the place where we live has two fences side-by-side about twenty feet apart, running the length of the property. When I asked about it, I found there was an error in the original survey that was corrected when the place was bought. This is quite common since a more accurate way of surveying is now used, but the appearance of a narrow strip of land between neighbor’s fences has been a historical evidence of a problem, called in some areas, the Devil’s Lane.

My dad, just in recent years, told me of such a lane he knew about in his community when he was a boy. The neighbors could not agree on the line for their fence, so each man stepped back and built his own fence. This Devil’s Lane was a testimony to everyone that they couldn’t agree and public knowledge of this gave credit to the origin of the conflict to the devil. Each man refusing to give an inch for a life time made a sad commentary of disagreement, discord, and division.

We would like to say that we do not have this fault today, where a relationship problem has become public, but it has been a human problem from the beginning, and still is. Paul addressed the issue in letters to Corinth, Rome, and Galatia. In the letter to the Philippians he pleaded with two women by name to deal with the problem of disharmony. “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to live in harmony in the Lord” (Phil. 4:1-2). He told them to “stand firm in the Lord.” They were to put aside their personal position and determine where the Lord stood. “Now stand firm.” We need to apply this, not stand firm on Baptist tradition, or stand firm with my group, or stand firm for what I want. It’s amazing how the Lord’s name tends to bring a different way of looking at things when He is the main subject of the issue. Then Paul addressed them separately, “I urge Euodia, and I urge Syntyche.” He was probably saying that there was fault on both sides and that they were to find common ground and learn to live in harmony. To harmonize means two people singing different notes, but the notes must be agreeably related. Each person is to consider his own position in relation to the Lord and in relation to each other. In our study of Experiencing God, Blackaby states, “You cannot be in fellowship with God and His Son, Jesus, and not walk in godly fellowship with one another.” There is no doubt about this being the teaching of the Scripture. Even though we believe this, it sometimes becomes necessary to get a mediator to see how it could possibly work for us. Paul called on a brother in the church, “a loyal yoke fellow” to “help these women.”

These women were important to the church and had shared in the gospel with Paul. They were important as testimonies of God’s grace, but now their conflict was hurting the testimony of the church. It needed resolution. Their dispute was public knowledge.

Something must be done for everyone could see that they had each staked their fence line and had built a Devil’s Lane.


[Retired pastor, Allen Elston, has graciously given me permission to reprint a collection of inspiring newsletter articles he authored from 1994-1996 (like this one). I thank him for his generosity.]


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July 5, 2019

Proverbs 28:1- The wicked flee though no one pursues, but the righteous are as bold as a lion

What does it mean to be bold in our faith? Boldness might be viewed as aggressive, speaking out about Jesus everywhere and to anyone, calling out people’s sin or speaking truth without love.

Boldness is a theme throughout the people of God in the Bible and takes various forms across different situations. Take a look at a few examples:

• Nehemiah who was a cupbearer and went before his king to ask for favor in rebuilding Jerusalem
• Moses went before Pharaoh to ask for the release of an entire people group who were the backbone of construction and labor of Egypt
• Daniel opposed the law of the land stating that he could not pray to his God, knowing full well the punishment of being thrown in a den of lions (which God rescued him from)
• Stephen was bold in the face of his aggressors, he did not back down but gave them a wonderful synopsis of the Torah and history of God’s people leading up to Jesus. The result was his stoning.
• Elijah, facing death, went before 450 prophets of Baal to test whose God was real. The result was fire coming from heaven and the execution of all the false prophets.
• David went ill-equipped before a giant, and won, because the giant cursed David’s God.

These are just a few of the many examples in the Bible of men and women who exhibited boldness and faced overwhelming odds, some certain death, but why? Proverbs 28:1 talks about how the righteous are as bold as lions. The Hebrew word for bold here is batach meaning “confidence, trusting, i.e., pertaining to placing reliance or belief in a person or object.”

Boldness, as we are called to as Christians, is placing our reliance and trust in Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). Any consequences that “man” can do to us are irrelevant because we have an eternal life awaiting us in heaven. The same word for boldness in Proverbs is used to portray this trust in Psalm 112:7-8:

“Surely the righteous will never be shaken; they will be remembered forever. They will have no fear of bad news; their hearts are steadfast, trusting (batach) in the Lord.”

Boldness is also used interchangeably with confidence. Hebrews 10:35-36 says:

“So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised.”

Confidence, like boldness, is not about being confident in who we are, but in WHOM we serve. We can only have confidence in God if we know who God is and have a relationship with Him. This relationship can only be established if we read the Word of God and commune with Him. This is the same way we can understand the “will of God”. We cannot have perfect confidence in our own plans or abilities, they will fail us. God will never fail us. The boldness we have once we understand God’s plans for our lives comes in knowing God is on our side. When we walk in His will, He will be with us every step of the way. This is very different from making our plans and asking God to bless them!

If we don’t have a clear direction for our life, we can still have confidence in the God we serve. We are called to walk in obedience to the Bible even if we are confused on the specific direction we need to take. The greatest commandment we are given is when Jesus says

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:37

Everything we do stems from living out these two commandments, if we love the Lord, we will see his heart in all we do and we will trust him with boldness. If love those around us, it shows others the boldness and confidence we have in Jesus, planting the seeds for their salvation.

Our boldness is also displayed in how we approach God, thanks to the work done for us on the cross (Hebrews 10:19-22). We can come before the throne of grace and ask for forgiveness without needing a sacrifice.

Boldness can also be misplaced if we trust in the wrong thing. 2 Peter 2:10 discusses sinners who are “bold and arrogant”, their trust is in themselves, there is not a foundation built of who they are trusting in. When people are bold for themselves and their selfish pursuits, they leave behind a wake of destruction.

Discerning Reflection: In what ways have I not trusted in God or been confident in Him? How can grow in my knowledge and relationship with Jesus? In what ways do I or do I not portray the greatest commandment?

Prayer: Lord help me come boldly before your throne so that I can grow in my relationship and confidence in you. Help me see your will for my life and be a light to others who see that I trust you with everything. Amen.

Tim Ferrara
Discerning Dad

Note: This was written in collaboration with Authorytees based on their mission statement of “Bold Faith”

Check out the shirt “Bold as Lions” available on and Discerning Dad’s store


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AUDIO Here’s What Makes the ‘First-Century Mark’ Saga Complicated

The complex world of ancient biblical manuscripts


Here’s What Makes the ‘First-Century Mark’ Saga Complicated

Last week, CT published a piece about the “First Century Mark Saga.” It’s a complicated, nearly decade-old situation that reveals much about the world of ancient biblical manuscripts.

Many Christians may be inclined to primarily connect biblical manuscripts with apologetics or Bible translations, but the ecosystem they inhabit is far more complex, says Christian Askeland, a former Museum of the Bible employee and professor of Christian origins.

“With the Gospel of Mark controversy, there’s a lot of stuff going on there,” said Askeland. “There is the paleography issue—the New Testament was written in the first century, so just the basic idea that we could have a first century manuscript, that one of those would survive and we would have it. Then there’s the issue of acquiring the artifact—what museums have the right to buy this kind of ancient material culture. And then there’s the scholarly issue—how do professionals, specifically Christian scholars look when they are trying to buy this manuscript.”

Askeland joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and editor in chief Mark Galli this week on Quick to Listen to discuss what’s at stake in the ‘First-Century Mark’ saga and illuminate the larger world of ancient biblical manuscripts.

This episode of Quick to Listen is brought to you in part by Promise Keepers. The Christian men’s ministry that filled stadiums across America is, once again, calling on men to stand up and be counted. For more information, go to

Highlights from Quick To Listen: Episode 168

Last year the Egypt Exploration Society published a Greek papyrus. According to their judgment, this fragment of the Gospel of Mark could be dated between A.D. 150 and 250. But while this document was extremely old, this timestamp disappointed a number of people, many of whom had hoped that it could be traced to the 1st century. Last week Christianity Today published a piece about this First-Century Mark saga, a story that has now played out for about eight years and running. One of the key figures in this saga is Jerry Pattengale, a professor at Indiana Wesleyan and until recently the Director of Religious Education at Museum of the Bible. He was deeply involved and wrote about his experience for CT, saying:

“Over the last eight years, we learned that much was not as it seemed. There seemed to be a manuscript fragment of a gospel dating to the first decades of the church. Not quite. The manuscript seemed to be for sale. It wasn’t, really. Now the world knows there were four early gospel fragments “for sale,” and at the helm was an esteemed professor, transitioning these days into a sort of Sir Leigh Teabing of Da Vinci Code lore.”

So today on Quick To Listen, we wanted to give a summary of what’s at stake in this First-Century Mark saga, and also illuminate the larger world of ancient biblical manuscripts. Our guest today is Christian Askeland, assistant research professor of Christian origins at Indiana Wesleyan University. He has also held many positions with the Museum of the Bible. His research concerns the origins and diversity of early Christianity, principally the movements from which they’re relevant texts and manuscripts arose.

Can you describe the work that goes into studying ancient Biblical manuscripts and determining their authenticity?

Christian Askeland: Let’s start with paleography, which is an extremely controversial subject in academic societies and scholars get really angry arguing over these things. it’s complicated because there are different kinds of manuscripts. Cursive manuscripts from later on in the medieval period will often have a scribe who has identified themselves and will state when and where they’ve written the manuscript. In those cases people were using a minuscule manuscript, which is usually written on parchment In a certain cursive handwriting that looks a bit like what we think of the lowercase Greek characters that modern texts are transcribed into and printing presses use. If you’re using those type of manuscripts, it’s a pretty reliable science because we have so many manuscripts with a secure date that you can date undated manuscripts with the secure manuscripts.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have manuscripts that are written with capital letters that tend to be earlier. They tend to be from either the Roman period or shortly after the Roman period. Often those don’t have the same notations to identify the scribe or the date and you have a very, very small number of securely dated examples—maybe only four or five examples—that you can really rely on, and they tend to look exactly the same for centuries. So when you assign a date range to those, it very likely may be a four-century date range or more.

Now when we get to papyri, which tend to be your earliest manuscripts we have, we have very, very few securely dated manuscripts. And actually when people are dating papyri, what they’re usually doing is they’re using other manuscripts that have been basically dated on a cycle of non-securely dated manuscripts. So the science here isn’t really much of a science at all, it’s just a small group of paleographers telling you what their stomach feels like. They may be listing other manuscripts—as in the case of this Mark manuscript—they’re listing manuscripts that have no secure date themselves. This is true for both Biblical papyri and other literary papyri.

Some of this is based on a presupposition of manuscript style and the way the handwriting looks. Handwriting that is quite simple and less complicated is usually considered to come from earlier stages in history, while more formalized, more decadent handwriting is considered to come from later stages. But there’s nothing scientific about that. There are days when anyone’s handwriting might be poor, but we wouldn’t necessarily date that to an early period of your life. It could be because you’re stressed, or you had too much coffee. So when we do this with manuscripts, we’re doing it based on the way ancient empires were thought of and what we expect from them, but it’s not an exact science.

How does the issue of cultural heritage relate to manuscript controversies? And do museums help provide some legitimacy?

Christian Askeland: For a lot of people, I think we think about biblical manuscripts and connect it to apologetics or faith and how secure our own Bible translation is. Is this really what Jesus or the Apostle Paul or the author of whatever text actually said? But we’re in an interesting period of time where several cultural institutions and cultural sites—especially in the Middle East but in other places in the world—are under attack. They’re literally being destroyed sometimes simply because groups like ISIS want to erase non-Muslim portions of the cultural history of the site. In other cases, they’re actually taking things from the site or stealing things from museums, and then selling them for profit to fund their activities. So anything that shows up in the antiquities market and gets sold, you can’t prove what site or source it came from, so it immediately comes under suspicion. People are also paranoid that things have not come from a good place, and that purchasing them is funding people who aren’t good people and who aren’t actually protecting cultural heritage.

With museums, there’s the controversy around who actual owns the artifacts. There are different international conventions and laws, but if you think about manuscripts we have in America or Europe, one might argue that it was stolen from the Middle East. Especially if you don’t consider cultural heritage as something you can own. So if you have parts of the Parthenon sitting in the British Museum, the Greeks can say, “Hey, you may have bought this from somebody and have certificates, but it’s is a key part of the cultural heritage of Greece and doesn’t belong in London.” Or say you’re a Christian institution that comes into the possession of a Torah scroll used in the Jewish worship. Well, then you have the issue of sacred heritage, which is a bit different from cultural heritage. You’re a Christian institution with the Jewish sacred object. What are the ethical ramifications of you having that?

Are these complications part of why there’s so much controversy with this alleged fragment of the Gospel of Mark? And if not, what’s driving the controversy?

Christian Askeland: Different scholarly societies have adopted standards on cultural heritage and what would even be permitted within the scholarly society. And this has become a huge issue the last 10 years. It’s typical for museums not to purchase items on their own, a lot of times they’ll have a donor purchase the item and then the donor will donate it and there can be tax benefits to that.

With the Gospel of Mark controversy, there’s a lot of stuff going on there. There is the paleography issue—the New Testament was written in the first century, so just the basic idea that we could have a first century manuscript, that one of those would survive and we would have it. Then there’s the issue of acquiring the artifact—what museums have the right to buy this kind of ancient material culture. And then there’s the scholarly issue—how do professionals, specifically Christian scholars look when they are trying to buy this manuscript.

If you think about how many people were living in the Roman Empire during Bible times, there were maybe 65 million people. And in the first century BC, you didn’t have any Christians because there’s like no Jesus. And then Jesus comes, but you still don’t have any Christians because they’re not called Christians till Antioch. But you have this movement that starts, and it’s a very small segment of those 65 million people. By the end of the fourth Century, you have a Christian Empire and Christianity grows in between those two points. So you would expect to have more manuscripts when you have more Christians, right? Our total count for papyri manuscripts right now is around 139—and not just from the 4th Century when Christianity was at its highest peak, but as a total count. So, the statistical odds of finding a first-century papyrus is so unlikely that anyone who claims to have found one would be assumed crazy. Simply because statistically we would expect to find more manuscripts when we have more Christians, we have a limited amount of papyri, and we would expect to start finding them from the third or fourth Century onward. So, the news was explosive for apologetic reasons, but also for scholarly reasons.

Where are these ancient biblical manuscripts coming from? And what happens after they are found?

Christian Askeland: Most of our papyri come from Egypt. Partially because papyri grow in Egypt, but also the conditions in Egypt or so favorable for conserving things. People tended to bury things and as long as the Nile didn’t flood, they were kept intact. So in Egypt, we have a few small caches that show up with essentially perfectly preserved papyrus manuscripts with every page intact. What we’re talking about today though are things that have been dug up after, they come from the “rubbish heap.” They are discarded papyri or papyri that maybe wadded up in the bowl. But they are still important because they’ve led to new discoveries.

Before these discoveries, we had Wycliffe who was translating the Bible from Latin because that’s all he had. And then during Martin Luther’s time, there was access to Greek manuscripts, and you get a whole new era of translations that are from the original languages. And now we’re starting to get these papyri, and it’s like moving back a thousand years. And then you have other manuscripts that are coming in from ancient monasteries like Mount Sinai, and various other monasteries in Egypt, that bring in all different kinds of translations as well as Greek manuscripts from the first millennium.

The Egyptian Excavation Society, for instance, has a massive trove of about half a million papyri that have been excavated from Egypt around the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century. And their stuff is housed at the University of Oxford for scholars and researchers to go and study.

So with First-Century Mark, who made this claim? And where do they fit into the antiquity world?

Christian Askeland: With the First-Century Mark, there were a lot of people saying this is insane and personally myself, I’ve always just said that it’s not a real possibility that we would have this. The fact that somebody would say this without putting forward the evidence shows there probably is no evidence. It wouldn’t just not a reasonable thing to do.

There’s nobody’s really wanting to take responsibility for making that claim. There was a Twitter mention that goes back to December 2011 and another scholar mentioned it in a debate a while later. At one point, before people knew it was Mark, someone marked it and written a note that said 1st/2nd Century. So there was an argument from someone who didn’t realize they were dating a Biblical manuscript dating it to that period of time. Now that’s not a crazy time period of date something to for the Greco-Roman period because this is what we call the Pax Romana, it was the period of greatest prosperity in the Roman Empire, so statistically we get more from this period than from any other period in papyrology in Egypt. And then in 2016, the Egyptian Excavation Society indicate that they realized that they had First-Century Mark and wanted to publish it at that point.

What questions should a typical viewer of manuscripts at a museum or through a special exhibit have as they enter into that experience?

Christian Askeland: Speaking to a Christian audience, I would want to say that if something is done, well, it should help you understand that the world is a more complicated place than you previously thought it would be in. This is part of what we that we’re never going to understand everything, We’re going to see we’re going to see things dimly. And so going to one of these institutions shouldn’t necessarily answer all your questions, but you should come to a place where you understand that the things related to your faith—but even just things related to the broader world—are very complicated and that’s okay. There are no easy answers.

You should always allow yourself to be surprised, to be challenged, to be fascinated with how complicated the world is and not see that as a threat. Use it as a reminder that our own culture isn’t the only one that exists, and that a lot of the reasons that we have things from other countries is because we took them, or we paid for them from people who are just desperate for even a small amount of money.


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