November 2007

I’ve often heard Christians appeal to Paul’s Damascus road experience in support of the deity of Christ. We read: “As he was going along, approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” 5 So he said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ He replied, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting!” (Acts 9:3-5)

It’s said that as a monotheistic Jew, Paul’s acknowledgement of Jesus as “Lord” is an explicit attribution of deity. I find this interpretation unlikely. First, the Greek word kurios simply means “master,” and is used of both human persons as well as God. The term applies to anyone who is in a position of authority over someone else. For example, we read that Sarah called Abraham “lord.” If anyone knew Abraham was not a god, it was Sarah! We have no reason to believe Paul used the term because He thought He was speaking to the one true God. He recognized that any voice speaking to him from heaven must be coming from someone who had authority over him, and thus addressed the as-of-yet unknown person with a term that acknowledged his authority.


Reinventing Jesus: How Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Real Jesus and Mislead Popular Culture, by Daniel Wallace, M. James Sawyer, and J. Ed Komoszewski

I have not enjoyed reading a book this much since I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist. Reinventing Jesus was released as a response to some of the claims made in The DaVinci Code (TDC), but unlike most of the other books released debunking TDC, this one deals with some of the more substantive issues raised by TDC with very little reference to the book itself.

Reinventing Jesus is divided into five sections:

1. Oral transmission of the Jesus story prior to the Gospels
2. The transmission and preservation of the NT text
3. How the NT canon was formed
4. What the early church thought about Jesu
5. Christianity is not an eclectic form of Greek mystery religions

Sections 2-3 are worth the price of the book. Daniel Wallace wrote the section on the NT text. He is one of the few NT textual critics in the world, so his personal insights are invaluable. James Sawyer wrote on the formation of the canon, a subject he has written about elsewhere.

The book is meant to be an introductory look at the issues. Often that means an intellectually watered down manuscript. Not this one. It is not lacking in intellectual vigor. No matter what your level of understanding, you will learn something from this book. The material is informative, and presented in a logical, clear manner. I give it five stars! Do yourself a favor and read it.

Ramesh Ponnuru points out how Newsweek’s science correspondent, Sharon Begley, has changed her tune. When Bush vetoed legislation that would have expanded federal funding for destructive embryonic stem cell research, Begley wrote how this might be “a cruel blow to millions of patients for whom embryonic stem cells might offer the last chance for health and life.” Never a mention of the practical drawbacks and deficiencies of ESCR.

Now that an ethical and more practical alternative to ESCR has been discovered, Begley is downplaying the significance of pluripotent stem cell research in general:

While the research was once hailed as leading directly to cures—by turning stem cells into neuronal cells that could be implanted in patients with Parkinson’s
disease, say—it now looks like something much more mundane: another laboratory tool to study different diseases, yielding insights that would launch the slow, years-long search for new therapies. … [H]aving the new method for creating stem cells is unlikely to lead to treatments and cures any sooner than having only the old one.

[I]t will be years before scientists understand reprogrammed stem cells—how to get them to mature into different tissues, for instance.

To a public for whom stem cells equal cure, the real blow will be the realization that the simplistic picture—take a patient’s genes, slip them into an egg, let the egg grow and divide into stem cells that are perfect genetic matches for the patient and transplant those cells to treat diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s—is more fiction than fact. … Instead of yielding cures directly, stem cells— reprogrammed and embryonic alike—will take their place alongside other lab systems for studying disease. They will reveal hitherto-unknown causes and pathways of illness, even pointing the way to new drugs. The typical time between such a discovery and a new drug is at least 15 years.

Talk about going from “Yankee Doodle” to “The Death March”!! Why the change in tune? Many commentators have suggested (and I tend to agree) that the change in tune is political. The reason the Left promoted ESCR was because it put a further hedge around abortion rights (you can’t object to killing the unborn when they are your source of cures, but on the other hand, if ESCR is objectionable on moral grounds, then so is abortion by extension), and it allowed the Left to stick it to the President and conservative Christians (portray them as anti-science, lack of compassion). Now that an undeniably superior method for obtaining what they say they wanted all along has come along, and that due largely to the political policies of President Bush, the tune has to change. Now they have to downplay the significance of stem cell research, and admit that cures from pluripotent stem cells are years away. Oh the irony!

HT: Ramesh Ponnuru

From an MSNBC article regarding the new iPS cell breakthrough:

[James] Thomson said he never believed that cloning itself would produce new therapies – and not just because of the moral and ethical qualms about human cloning. ‘Mainly, it’s just hugely inefficient and terribly expensive,’ he said. Rather, Dolly the sheep – and the pluripotency of embryonic stem cells – pointed to potential treatments that could go beyond cloning, and beyond those precious embryonic cells.” According to Thomson, “My feeling is that somatic cell nuclear transfer was an experimental technique, and it could have led to a mechanistic understanding of how reprogramming could occur. But I was skeptical that it could ever enter the clinic because of practical reasons.”

What a revelation this is. I may be wrong, but I don’t recall Thomson saying any such thing previously. Why didn’t he speak up when CA was asking its citizens to fork over $6,000,000,000 dollars to pay for cloning and ESCR, on the promise that cures were right around the corner, and that the research would bring a windfall of profits to CA? It’s real convenient to play mum until after better research comes along.

Ron Reagan Jr. campaigned for embryonic stem cell research during the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Aware of the fact that many opposed ESCR on moral grounds, Reagan quipped, “The theology of the few should not be allowed to forestall the health and well-being of the many.” From then on, the pro-ESCR strategy was to make this an issue of a war between theology and science; those who want cures, and those who don’t. Commenting on the logic of this, Rich Lowry writes: “Democrats loved this narrative: theology versus science, with its echo of the Inquisition repressing Galileo. It drove the charge that the Bush administration was waging ‘a war on science.’ As if placing ethical bounds on science is a denial of the scientific method and the value of research itself. By this logic, speed limits are ‘anti-driving,’ guardrails are ‘anti-highway,’ and meat inspections ‘anti-food.’”[1]

Exactly! Those with moral objections to certain scientific ventures such as cloning or ESCR are not anti-science or anti-cures. They are people who recognize that the ends do not always justify the means, and that science must be guided by morality lest science become a tool of tyranny.

[1]Rich Lowry, “Science Trumps Politics”; available from; Internet; accessed 27 November 2007.

This may be old news for some of you, but I was on vacation all last week and could not post anything about it until now. Two teams of scientists, one American and one Japanese, have independently discovered a way to revert adult cells into pluripotent form (functional equivalent to embryonic stem cells). This discovery will likely solve the moral dilemma posed by embryonic stem cell research. This is BIG news! See EurekAlert 1, EurekAlert 2, EurekAlert 3, EurekAlert 4, National Geographic News,, BBC News 1, BBC News 2, MSNBC and and PhysOrg for sample media reports.

Scientists claim embryonic stem cells hold the greatest potential for cures because they are pluripotent (meaning they are able to turn into any one of the body’s 220 cells). The ethical problem with embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) is that to obtain ESCs, the embryo has to be killed. For this, and other practical reasons, alternative methods of obtaining embryonic stem cells have been sought.

What the two teams of scientists just discovered was a means of obtaining stem cells that possess all the characteristics of ESCs (such as pluripotency, indefinite self-renewal, etc.), without having to kill embryos to get them. In fact, this new method does not even involve the use of embryos.

To obtain the pluripotent cells scientists inserted a recipe of four genes (Oct3/4, Sox2, c-Myc and Klf4 in the Japanese study, and OCT4, SOX2, NANOG, and LIN28 in the American study) into adult skin cells (fibroblasts). These genes have the effect of reprogramming the skin cell so that it regresses back to its pluripotent state, becoming the functional (and nearly biological) equivalent of an embryonic stem cell. It de-differentiates the differentiated skin cells just as in cloning, but unlike cloning, the “product” is a pluripotent stem cell, not an embryo. This process is being called somatic cell reprogramming, or cell regression. The altered cells are being called “Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells,” or iPS.

Robert Lanza noted the significance of this breakthrough when he said, “It’s the holy grail. It’s like turning lead into gold.”

Not only is this method morally advantageous to ESCR, but it is practically advantageous as well. There are not enough surplus IVF embryos available for ESCR, and there is a lack of eggs for use in cloning new embryos (not to mention the fact that cloning is an additional moral concern, and has proved unfruitful to date). In contrast, somatic cell reprogramming is an easy process that is not dependent on embryos or donor eggs. We can reprogram as many skin stem cells as there are people with skin! Somatic cell reprogramming has the potential to give us an unlimited supply of pluripotent stem cells. Furthermore, unlike stem cells from surplus embryos, iPS cells are genetically identical to their donor, and thus pose no risk of rejection when inserted into their body.

There are still kinks to be worked out, namely, how to remove the copies of the four genes from the stem cell once they have done their job. The crucial next step is to find a way to switch on the genes that cause the skin cells to regress into stem cells rather than relying on the retrovirus to insert the genes.”[1] And of course, many of the same practical difficulties involved with the use of embryonic stem cells apply to iPS cells as well, such as their tendency to form tumors, and our lack of ability to control their differentiation. So this breakthrough brings us no closer to developing treatments and cures using pluripotent stem cells. The only stem cell treatments to date come from multipotent stem cells, more commonly referred to as adult stem cells.

Somatic cell reprogramming is so promising that even Ian Wilmut, creator of the somatic cell nucler transfer method of cloning, announced that he is abandoning therapeutic cloning in favor of cell regression. He said, “I am anticipating that before too long we will be able to use the Yamanaka approach to achieve the same, without making human embryos. I have no doubt that in the long term, direct reprogramming will be more productive, though we can’t be sure exactly when, next year or five years into the future.”[2]

Now, the only reason to continue the pursuit of cloning embryos is if we want to birth them, or involve ourselves in genetic engineering of humans. Since those pressing for cloning were so adamant to denounce this “form” of cloning, it will be hard to make a case for it now. I’m sure some will continue to do so, however, because they want to genetically engineer humans, and birth clones. Others have financial interests in ESCR and cloning that are not easily disentangled. A lot of money was bet on ESCR and cloning, so a lot of people have a lot to lose. They will not let go of their money and their interests easily. We’ll have to wait and see how it all pans out.

[1] [2]

I would highly recommend you read a couple of blog posts (1 and 2) from Daniel Wallace at Parchment and Pen on the topic of textual criticism. Few are better equipped to address the issue than Wallace. He is very involved in the study of the Greek manuscripts, and very knowledgeable in the field of textual criticism.

Wallace notes that many Christians falsely define what a textual variant is, and misunderstand how textual critics have arrived at the conclusion that the NT text contains 300-400K variants. It is commonly believed that this number is so large because any given textual variant, when it appears in multiple manuscripts, is counted multiple times. So if a single variant in Romans 5:1 appears in 10 different manuscripts, it is counted as 10 variants. Not so. Read Wallace’s posts to uncover the truth about how textual variants are counted.

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