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”
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”
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)”
In 1996, Old Testament scholar David Carr published the results of his study into the history of Genesis’s formation. This book, Reading the Fractures of Genesis, made significant progress in unravelling the mystery of how the Pentateuch was composed. I’d like to write a few articles about Carr’s model and how it applies to various passages, beginning with the flood.
It has been recognized by scholars since the 18th century that Genesis and the Pentateuch were composed from multiple sources. The dominant model that most are familiar with today is Wellhausen’s Documentary Hypothesis (DH) from the late 19th century, which proposed four independent sources (J, E, D, and P) whose texts had been combined to form the Torah. Today, the original DH has been largely abandoned in favour of newer models, although many of its fundamental principles are still widely accepted.
Carr’s book gets back to basics and focuses solely on Genesis for developing his source theory. He draws attention to the presence of “fractures” or fault lines in the text of Genesis that cause problems for interpretation. According to another scholar — G.H. Hartman, whom Carr quotes — these fractures indicate “the tension that results between producing one authoritative account and respecting traditions characterized by a certain heterogeneity” (p. 11). In other words, Genesis attempts to create a unified story out of traditions that aren’t always in agreement, as demonstrated by clues throughout the text. Continue reading “Reading the Fractures of Genesis: Noah’s Flood”
Most of Mark’s Gospel prior to the passion narrative revolves around a body of water the author calls the Sea of Galilee. It is the geographical focal point where Jesus calls his disciples, preaches to the crowds, travels (by boat), and performs his miracles — including many that involve the sea itself. It is a dangerous body of water whose raging waves must be quelled by Jesus on one occasion to save his shipmates.
There is, in fact, no “sea” in the Galilee region of Palestine. There is a lake in the right location that matches the geographical description of Mark’s sea in many (thought not all) respects. But no ancient writer prior to Mark ever mentions a body of water called the Sea of Galilee, and some of the reasons Mark gives the sea such a prominent role are often overlooked. Continue reading “Did Mark Invent the Sea of Galilee?”
The nativity of Jesus is such a beloved tale, it’s hard to read it critically without feeling a twinge of guilt, as though I am betraying something sacred and magical in my desire to see where the story comes from and how it’s put together. And yet, it’s not the text itself I defy by scrutinizing the Bible, so much as the myth our culture has created in place of what the text actually says.
When I wrote about Matthew’s nativity story a year ago, I tried to emphasize that, despite its reverence for the Bible, Christianity shows remarkable disregard for the actual details as written. Whether we admit it or not, it is clear from our actions that we understand the Christmas story as a malleable, adaptable legend and not as a fixed historical event.
Purely by coincidence, the nearby preschool my two boys attend here in Japan is a Christian institution, and their annual Christmas recital always includes a nativity play, acted out by the oldest class. This year’s performance was a blend of the stories found in Matthew and Luke, with elements freely modified or omitted as the director saw fit. King Herod — played by my six-year-old, who wore a golden crown obviously modeled after the British crown jewels, Anglican cross included (what a wonderful anachronism!) — heard about the messiah’s birth before the magi ever arrived. No slaughter of innocents was shown, and the family of Jesus had no need to flee to Egypt. The angels sang, and everyone lived happily ever after.
Of course, the Bible tells no story resembling this or any other church nativity play I’ve ever seen. Matthew’s story of the star, the magi, and the flight to Egypt is entirely different from Luke’s tale, which I’m looking at in detail today. Once again, I am indebted to the writings of David Friedrich Strauss — one of the first Protestant theologians to read the Gospels critically — and the renowned Catholic scholar Raymond E. Brown. Continue reading “Luke’s Nativity Story, Critically Examined”
Joshua 10 has one of the most remarkable miracle stories in the whole of the Old Testament outside the opening chapters of Genesis. Fresh off of victories at Jericho and Ai, Joshua’s Israelite army faces down a coalition of five Amorite kings; victory is swift, and with the enemy on the run, Joshua commands the sun and moon to stop moving, apparently in order to give the Israelites more time to pursue and slaughter the Amorites. So great is this feat that the narrator exuberantly declares, “there has been no day like it before or since!” and the chapter eventually ends with Israel in firm control of the Judahite heartland.
This passage, sometimes referred to as Joshua’s Long Day, is a puzzler. Exactly what kind of miracle is supposed to have occurred here? What traditions is the author working with? Answering these questions has proven quite difficult, since voluminous books and papers have been written on Joshua 10, and there is a remarkable diversity of opinions on every facet of the story among biblical scholars.
The passage is also interesting for its role in the debate between science and religion that has embroiled theologians, church authorities, and other interested parties since the time of Galileo and Copernicus. Even today, the interpretations given by those with a more conservative perspective reveal much about the thinking of modern biblical literalists. Continue reading “The Day the Sun Stood Still: Interpreting the Miracle of Joshua 10”
The Tower of Babel is another biblical story that will be familiar to anyone with a typical Western religious upbringing. Like many of the narrative snippets found in the first eleven chapters of Genesis (the Primeval History), its brevity and ambiguous wording have led interpreters to fill in the gaps in all sorts of ways in order to squeeze meaning out of it.
As we read the text, there are a number of interesting questions we can ask. Was the Tower of Babel based on a real building? What message is the text trying to convey, both on its own and in context?
I’m also interested in the story’s application to the modern creationist movement. How much attention does the Tower of Babel get in the science-religion debate compared to the Genesis stories of creation and Noah’s flood? Continue reading “The Tower of Babel: Did It Exist, and What Does the Story Mean?”
A few months ago, I wrote about some interesting allusions to the priest-poet Epimenides in the New Testament. I’d like to continue exploring non-scriptural literary influences and connections in the Bible with a look at a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Continue reading “Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the Gospel According to Hermes”