There is a mysterious set of words that appears in graffiti, inscriptions, amulets, and other forms all across the ancient Roman world. Commonly known as the Sator Square, it is a Latin palindrome — a phrase that reads the same forward and backward — arranged as a square of five rows and columns, and comprised of five words that are each five letters long. Because it reads the same regardless of which corner and which direction (horizontally or vertically) one reads it in, it is also a two-dimensional palindrome. There’s no consensus regarding its exact meaning and purpose, so that’s what we’ll be looking at in a moment. Here’s what it looks like:
This ancient enigma, normally little more than a footnote in history books, has been thrust into the popular spotlight by the entertainment press¹ due to the upcoming (we hope) July release of a new film by writer-director Christopher Nolan, whose previous body of work includes Memento, Inception, Interstellar, and the Dark Knight trilogy. Nolan’s films often use unconventional, nonlinear storytelling techniques, including nested stories (Inception) and even narratives that proceed backwards (Memento), to explore the elusive nature of reality. We can probably expect another unique perspective on reality in his next movie — called Tenet — which apparently involves espionage and time travel. Continue reading “Magic Squares, Cryptocrosses, and the Upcoming Movie ‘Tenet’”
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”
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”
Few literary sources about the early religion of Israel are available to us. There is the Old Testament of course, and although many of its stories and traditions are old, the text itself comes to us through redacted manuscripts produced by Judean scribes at a fairly late date. From archaeological evidence and careful analysis of some of the Bible’s earliest passages, scholars have developed a view of early Israel that was much more polytheistic right from its origins than the traditional story would have us believe.
In the early 20th century, a collection of Aramaic papyri discovered in Egypt opened a new window on Israelite religion. They consist of letters, legal documents, and literature written by and for a colony of Israelites and Arameans who were apparently recruited as mercenaries to guard the southern frontier of Egypt at what is now Aswan. Dated to the fifth century BCE, these papyri are far older than any biblical manuscripts we possess, and unlike the Bible, they are original documents with no opportunity for editing and revision over the centuries. Although Yahweh is frequently mentioned in the form “Yaho” (YHW or occasionally YHH), the letters also mention the god Bethel and the goddesses Anat-Bethel (i.e. Anat consort of Bethel), Anat-Yaho, and the Queen of Heaven in association with people who are clearly Israelites. There seems to be a clear implication that these were other deities venerated by at least some Jews and Israelites. Can we find other evidence that such was the case? For this article, I am particularly interested in Bethel, but others may occasionally come into the picture. Continue reading “Bethel, the Forgotten God of Israel”
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”
This article is a bit of a departure from what I usually write. It’s less about biblical studies, and more of a brief history lesson. I’ve always found the various references to “king Herod” and other Judaean rulers in the Gospels and Acts to be somewhat confusing — and, truth be told, the scheming Herodian royal family makes for a fascinating historical study. So read on if you’re interested in the Herodian dynasty and their place in history and scripture. (And if that doesn’t interest you, maybe the section on historical deaths by worms will.) For the purposes of this article, I will limit myself to individuals mentioned directly in the Bible.
In the process of doing this research, I also made a Herodian family tree for my own use. I share it below with the caveat that it is somewhat incomplete, especially where source references are concerned.
The Herodian Family Tree
Continue reading “Know Your Herods: A Guide to the Rulers of Palestine in the New Testament”
Like many children raised in an Evangelical, charismatic church environment in the 80s, I was surrounded by a simmering fervour regarding the End Times and the Rapture, which we were constantly reminded could happen at any time. And like so many Christian households of that era, our bookshelf held a copy of Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth¹, which warned of a looming world war that had been foretold in the Bible. When we visited certain friends of my parents, the grown-up conversation would inevitably turn to current events and biblical prophecy, and my curious ears always perked up. I also remember my first encounter with the extremely lucrative End Times media industry — an episode of Jack Van Impe Presents — which left a lasting impression on me. Host Jack Van Impe would quote snippets from Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation in rapid fire, showing how they all described the coming apocalyptic war against Israel. Even the identities of the participants were helpfully provided by the Bible, Jack assured his viewers; Russia would be the main aggressor, leading a coalition of such diverse nations as Iran, Germany, Egypt, and Ethiopia against Israel and her Western allies. To reach this undeniable conclusion, one simply needed to convert the names provided by Ezekiel — Magog, Meshech, Tubal, Gomer, etc. — into their modern equivalents. Welcome to modern dispensationalism. Continue reading “Gog and Magog: Israel’s Mysterious Northern Foes”
Tucked away amidst the genealogies of Chronicles almost no one reads, the tale of two cattle-rustling brothers from Ephraim might just be the most obscure story in the Bible. Like many such tales in the Old Testament, this one is brief and contains only the most essential details:
The sons of Ephraim…Ezer and Elead. Now the men of Gath, who were born in the land, killed them, because they came down to raid their cattle. And their father Ephraim mourned many days, and his brothers came to comfort him. He went in to his wife, and she conceived and bore a son; and he named him Beriah, because evil (beraah) had befallen his house. His daughter was Sheerah, who built both Lower and Upper Beth-horon, and Uzzen-sheerah. (1 Chr. 7:20-24) Continue reading “The Story of Ezer and Elead (and What It Means for the Exodus)”
A few weeks ago, Stewart Felker wrote an article about what he suggests may be “the true most embarrassing verses in the Bible” — quoting a remark famously made by C.S. Lewis regarding Mark 13:30 (“This generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place”). What Felker has in mind, though, is a statement by Jesus about marriage and the afterlife found in Luke. In fact, when I first saw him mention it in an online discussion, I almost didn’t believe it was actually in the Bible.
The remark occurs in a well-known Synoptic pericope. To understand it, we should look at Mark’s version first. The context, chapter 12, is a loosely-connected series of sermons and other opportunities for Jesus to dispense wisdom. In vv. 18–27, some Sadducees, “who say there is no resurrection,” pose a trick question to Jesus, perhaps in the hopes of discrediting him and the Pharisaic belief in a resurrection.
The scenario they pose is one in which a widow ends up marrying seven brothers in succession due to the Mosaic law on levirate marriage. Since polyandry is not allowed in Judaism, these Sadducees demand to know which of the brothers would be married to her in the resurrection (afterlife). Continue reading “Luke’s Surprising and Oft-Ignored Views on Marriage and Resurrection”
In 1967, inscriptions written on a crumbled plaster wall were discovered during the excavation of Tell Deir ‘Alla in Jordan. Dated to the early 8th century BCE and written in a local Canaanite dialect, the inscriptions drew great attention when their title, written in red ink, was translated and found to say “Text of Balaam son of Beor, seer of the gods.” This remarkable find provided independent attestation of local tradition about a seer named Balaam who was already well-known to us from the Bible, and deciphering the fragmentary texts has been an ongoing task of archaeologists and linguistic experts since then.
The biblical Balaam passages are not without their own difficulties. The main story of Balaam in Numbers 22–24 is contradicted by other brief references in Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua, as well as three mentions of him in the New Testament. The importance of Balaam to the development of Christian theology is also remarkable, as we shall see once we untangle the development of the Balaam legend. Continue reading “The Story of Balaam: How Biblical Tradition Turned a Prophet of God into an Arch-Heretic”