Nimrod and Other Legendary City Founders

In the middle of a genealogy about the descendants of Noah in Genesis 10, the author inserts a brief and obviously incomplete narrative about a great king named Nimrod who founds and rules several of the great cities of Babylonia and Assyria. The story cannot be described as historical, of course. No ruler named Nimrod can be found in the archaeological record, and the cities in question — to the extent that they can be identified — were established at different times over the span of several millennia.

It might seem strange that ancient authors would invent or tell stories about fictitious founders of great cities, but this was, in fact, common practice. Ancient Greek authors were particularly interested in the founding stories of Nineveh and Babylon, even though they possessed very little reliable knowledge about those cities and their histories.

Continue reading “Nimrod and Other Legendary City Founders”

Babel: History, Mythology, and Meaning (Video)

Episode 2 is now up. This time, it’s about the Tower of Babel story and how it fits into both the biblical narrative and the typical patterns of Near Eastern mythology. It’s broadly based on this article about Babel that I wrote several years ago, but I have some new material and a new approach to the topic that I think many of my readers will find interesting. The YouTube description also links to a transcript if you prefer to read that instead.

Continue reading “Babel: History, Mythology, and Meaning (Video)”

The Timeline of Noah’s Flood (Video)

In case you saw this post briefly disappear, I apologize for the confusion. I inadvertently uploaded an older version of the video and quickly took the post down so I could rectify the error.

When I first wrote about Noah’s flood some years ago, I offered an interpretation of the flood timeline based primarily on a 1980 paper by Niels Peter Lemche. Later, I discovered a more recent paper by Lloyd M. Barré that solved some of the difficulties that remained in the reconstructions attempted by Lemche and others.

Anyone can read the paper for themselves of course, but I thought it would be nice to demonstrate the flood chronology visually as a follow-up video to Episode 1, which I posted two weeks ago. Shorter videos like this will be treated as supplementary instead of getting their own episode number.

Continue reading “The Timeline of Noah’s Flood (Video)”

Another Synoptic Puzzle: Luke’s Great Omission

It’s been a while since I wrote anything about the Synoptic Problem, so I thought I would take a closer look at a well-known issue: Luke’s Great Omission.

It is almost universally recognized that Luke’s Gospel copies closely from Mark, rewriting (with various modifications) the great majority of Mark’s pericopes and keeping them generally in the same order. However, a disruption occurs after Mark’s story of the feeding of the five thousand, as Luke seemingly skips everything from Mark 6:45 to 8:26. Then, from 8:27 onward, Luke resumes his faithful copying of Mark. Scholars cheekily call this jump Luke’s “Great Omission” as a play on the words “Great Commission”.

Continue reading “Another Synoptic Puzzle: Luke’s Great Omission”

Noah’s Flood: Competing Visions of a Mesopotamian Tradition

December of 1872 marked a watershed in biblical studies. At a highly publicized lecture for the Society for Biblical Archaeology, with British Prime Minister William Gladstone in attendance, an Assyriologist named George Smith revealed the startling contents of a tablet he had recently discovered. The tablet, one of 25,000 or so that had been excavated from the ruins of ancient Nineveh and sent back to the British Museum in London, told the story of a universal flood that sounded very much like the tale of Noah’s Ark that every churchgoer is familiar with. The tablet turned out to be one of twelve that made up the now-famous Gilgamesh Epic.

Continue reading “Noah’s Flood: Competing Visions of a Mesopotamian Tradition”

From Robes to Riches: The Fairytale of Joseph

Adrien Guignet, Joseph explains Pharaoh's dream, 19th century

The story of Joseph stands out in the book of Genesis as a self-contained story with a beginning, middle, and conclusion. Its position in the Pentateuch also makes it a bridge between the stories of the patriarchs in Canaan and the sojourn of the Israelites in Egypt. Differences of style, narrative contradictions, details that don’t line up with the surrounding narrative, and other issues call into question the authorship and original purpose of the story, however. What can we learn from taking a closer look? Continue reading “From Robes to Riches: The Fairytale of Joseph”

The Structure of Heaven and Earth: How Ancient Cosmology Shaped Everyone’s Theology

The Bible is often difficult to make sense of without the proper conceptual framework. Why is Paul concerned about mysterious angels, principles, powers, forces, and archons in his epistles? Why are interactions with demons at the forefront of Jesus’ ministry in Mark? Why is heaven sometimes described as having different levels? Why does Paul describe people under the law as being enslaved to the elements? What motivated early Christians to worship a heavenly saviour? It’s hard to answer these questions without a detailed understanding of ancient Jewish and Greek cosmology, so I’ve spent a great deal of time reading the best books I can find on the subject. Much of what I learned surprised me; perhaps it will surprise you too.

This article might seem to ramble at first. There are dozens of different threads that need to be explored before we can see the tapestry they produce in Christianity. Continue reading “The Structure of Heaven and Earth: How Ancient Cosmology Shaped Everyone’s Theology”

Shamgar Son of Anat and Israel’s Age of Heroes

Few biblical characters are as obscure as Shamgar ben Anat. To be sure, there are many names that appear just once or twice in the genealogies, but Shamgar is a character whose actions distinguish him within the biblical narrative, and not just a forgotten name on a list. Although he is mentioned in only two verses, he is supposedly one of the judges of Israel who was remembered for a mighty feat in battle. However, I knew practically nothing about him beside the name before I set about writing this article, and I chose him as an experiment to find out how much biblical studies could tell me about such a marginal character.  Continue reading “Shamgar Son of Anat and Israel’s Age of Heroes”

Biblical Tongues and Modern Glossolalia: From Pentecost to Pentecostalism

Speaking in tongues is one of the strangest behaviours that is regularly practiced in modern Christianity. Is it the initial evidence of a believer’s salvation? A futile charade? A demonic manifestation? A tool for missionary work? All these views and more can be found in the official and unofficial doctrines taught by various churches. For better or worse, tongues and other gifts practiced by charismatics have radically reshaped the religious landscape over the last century. Both defenders and detractors cite the Bible to support their views of the nature and purpose of tongues without coming to agreement. The most extreme views on either side are held by Protestants, while Catholics tend to fall somewhere in the middle. Not surprisingly, the debate is often driven by theological agenda rather than a sober analysis of the Bible or — Heaven forbid — the considerable scientific literature on tongue-speaking.  Continue reading “Biblical Tongues and Modern Glossolalia: From Pentecost to Pentecostalism”

On the Plausibility and Purpose of Paul’s Sea Voyage in Acts 27

Like the climax of a novel, Paul’s sea voyage and subsequent shipwreck as a prisoner of the Roman centurion bring an exciting conclusion to Acts of the Apostles — a book that purports to tell a sweeping story of the church’s beginnings. To be sure, not a few Bible scholars past and present have regarded much of Acts as a fictionalized (or at least heavily embellished) account of the early church, and the final report of the Acts Seminar — a group of Bible scholars and historians that met regularly for ten years to share research on Acts — supports that conclusion.

The sea voyage and shipwreck story of Acts 27, however, has long impressed readers with its attention to geographic and nautical detail. Even leading Acts scholar Richard Pervo, who devotes two chapters specifically to historical problems in his book The Mystery of Acts, describes the sea voyage as “vivid and apparently accurate” (p. 137). That is not to say he regards it as a historical event, since he elsewhere categorizes it as a “miracle story” (p. 110), but rather, that no obvious inaccuracies stand out.

Leaving aside the issue of Acts’s overall historicity, I thought I would take a closer look at this particular story and see how plausible the shipwreck tale is. Despite the limitations of my meager nautical knowledge and the historical resources available, it’s been an interesting study. Furthermore, it has shown me (yet again) that historical concerns often lead us astray from what the text is actually trying to say. Continue reading “On the Plausibility and Purpose of Paul’s Sea Voyage in Acts 27”