The church’s new trinitarian crisis

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The greatest theological battles in the early church were fought over the nature of the Holy Trinity. There were a great many heterodox views of the Trinity propounded in the first Christian centuries, most of them stemming from Greek philosophy. Many heresies denied the perfect union of God and man in the person of Christ; some denied Christ’s divinity, while others denied His humanity. Some heresies denied that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three distinct Persons; others denied that the three Persons of the Trinity are united in a single, shared divine essence. The orthodox Christian understanding of the Trinity was formally codified at the Councils of Nicea (325), Constantinople (381), and Chalcedon (451). Those who disagreed with the orthodox position were declared to be heretics (unbelievers) and were excommunicated from the church.

History has a tendency to repeat itself, and today the evangelical church is being overrun by heterodox views of the Trinity. However, this theological development has largely happened under the radar because it has occurred in the amorphous realm of popular theology, and not (largely) as a formal denial of orthodox trinitarianism by prominent church leaders, pastors, or theologians. Popular theology holds that the Father = Jesus = the Holy Spirit. This view is known theologically as “modalism” or “Sabellianism,” and was condemned as heretical by the early church. In conversations with my friends from seminary, as well as in my own experience, we find that people in churches all over the United States commonly say in their prayers that the Father died on the cross for their sins and rose from the dead. Some will even say “Father Jesus” in their prayers and pray to the Father “in your name.” Others will pray something like “Lord, thank you for dying on the cross for us, in Jesus’ name, Amen”—a very confusing prayer which seems to imply that “Lord” is the Father and that He, not Jesus, died on the cross. Prayers like these are seldom, if ever, corrected by pastors, even if prayed in front of the congregation—an indication that pastors think this sort of doctrinal error is a big deal.

The evidence for evangelical confusion about the Trinity is not merely anecdotal: a 2016 survey found that fifty-six percent of American evangelicals believe that the Holy Spirit is a force, not a person. While that is a modalistic view, seventy percent of evangelical respondents actually affirmed that Jesus is a created being, which is the Arian heresy (not modalism). See also this 2018 survey. It is easy to see how these views arise among people who have virtually no theological or Scriptural grounding and give little or no thought to the doctrine of the Trinity. If you ask evangelical Christians “Is Jesus God?” most would say “Yes.” Then if you ask them “Is Jesus a created being?” most would say “Yes” again, because they know Jesus was born to Mary. If you ask evangelicals “Is Jesus the Father?” most would say “Yes,” because they think Jesus = God = the Father. The majority think of the Holy Spirit as a force rather than as a personal being, even if they pray to the Holy Spirit, because they never see the Holy Spirit pictured in human form. Jesus, the One pictured in human form and sung about in church, is “God” to most people, while the Father is just another word for “God,” and the Holy Spirit is God’s power or force.

Very basic teaching in the Bible and theology is all that is needed to understand that God is three Persons in one essence. (For an excellent detailed exposition of the Trinity, see this book by Dr. Imad Shehadeh.) Yet many evangelical laymen appear to have a modalistic understanding of the Trinity. Their lead pastors may be orthodox trinitarians, but do not stress this or correct false ideas. There are several reasons for the development of heterodox views of the Trinity in evangelical churches.

  1. Many pastors think theology is impractical, and prefer to preach on topics that their congregants will see as relevant to their day-to-day lives. Sermons and small groups at most evangelical churches are primarily applicational in their orientation, not didactic. However, since the Christian faith is defined by theological formulations of doctrine, theology is actually at the core of what the church is and of what it means to be a Christian. Most people will never learn basic Christian theology if it is not taught in church services. Some pastors openly propound the view that theology is boring and largely irrelevant. But when pastors emphasize the importance of theology and exalt knowledge of the Scriptures, their congregations also become interested in theology and begin to see its importance. Some evangelicals have gravitated toward Reformed churches in recent years because traditional Reformed churches actually teach theology (even if their theology tends to get separated from exegesis).
  2. Many pastors are poorly trained in theology and the Bible. Many evangelical churches do not require a seminary or Bible college degree for their pastors, nor do many ordination councils. The seminaries themselves are increasingly emphasizing counseling and “practical ministry,” with ever-decreasing requirements in theology, Bible, and biblical languages. Preaching is taught as an exercise in application. Many new pastors are primarily interested in relationships, outreach, and counseling, and do not like to read theology books, church history books, Bible commentaries, or Greek and Hebrew grammars. While there was a time when most evangelical pastors and many laymen had a keen interest in theological study, few do today.
  3. Some pastors teach that the Trinity is a mystery which defies description or understanding. Some pastors simply teach that the Trinity cannot be understood or described, without ever giving the orthodox formulation of trinitarian doctrine. While there are some things about the nature of God and the holy Trinity that are beyond our understanding, God is knowable, and it is possible to communicate from Scripture the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity in a clear and understandable manner. Failure to do this will result in many people developing false ideas about God.
  4. Strong cultural forces are opposed to a trinitarian view of God. It is well known that politically correct chaplains and pastors refuse to pray in Jesus’ name in ecumenical settings, since Jews, Muslims, and others are offended by the assertion that Jesus is the divine Son of God. Politicians are careful to mention “God” but not “Jesus” so as to avoid offending those who do not believe in the trinitarian God revealed in Scripture. Within the church are anti-trinitarian influences from Oneness Pentecostalism, which comes partly through popular preachers associated with the Word of Faith movement. These and other cultural pressures have made many Christians hesitant to make strong statements about the Trinity. However, the points where the Christian faith is being attacked most strongly are the points which ought to be emphasized most strongly in order to prevent heresies from growing.
  5. Formal liturgy has been removed from most evangelical churches. There was a time when people recited and affirmed a formulation of orthodox Christian theology every time they went to church. Usually this was the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed, although some denominational creeds have also been used. In every service, prayers were read which clearly expressed a trinitarian view of God. The strongly trinitarian Doxology or Gloria Patri was sung in every service. Trinity Sunday was celebrated once a year on the church calendar, giving the pastor an opportunity for focused teaching on the nature of the Holy Trinity. These are traditions which date back to the early centuries of church history, and they reflect the stress which the early church placed on correct understanding of the Trinity as absolutely essential to the Christian faith. The wholesale removal of these traditions has resulted in many churchgoers neither knowing nor believing fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith. While modern evangelical churches may wish to make small adjustments to traditional creeds in response to problems that theologians have long pointed out (such as the statement that Christ descended into hell), it is important for theology to be taught in weekly church services, and it is important to give people in the church the opportunity to make a verbal affirmation of their faith. If prayers are made spontaneously instead of read, then those who lead in prayer must be instructed in how to pray (pray to the Father in Jesus’ name), and should be encouraged to include a trinitarian doxology in their prayers.
  6. God the Father has been neglected. For decades, evangelical churches have increasingly neglected God the Father. Songs and preaching alike are mainly about Jesus, with a secondary focus on the Holy Spirit in worship. The Father has been forgotten. Thus, most Christians have no concept of who the Father is or what His relationship is to Jesus and the Holy Spirit. They have the idea that because Jesus is God and God is One, the Father is somehow the same as Jesus. This is not just due to a failure to teach basic theology but also to a failure to teach the Bible, since the Bible cannot be understood without distinguishing the Father from Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Contemporary Christians would be shocked to learn that Jesus was not the primary focus of the early church’s worship and prayers—God the Father was. They would be surprised to know that many or most uses of “God” in the New Testament refer specifically to God the Father. And they might become angry and argumentative if told that the Person on the throne in the book of Revelation is not Jesus, but the Father.
  7. Popular church music is not robustly trinitarian. Lester Ruth has noted that neither the most popular traditional hymns nor the most popular modern worship songs are robustly trinitarian. There are in fact many old hymns which clearly teach trinitarianism, and which worship God as triune. However, a list of the 70 most commonly published hymns in evangelical hymnals, as well as the 99 most popular songs on top-25 lists from CCLI shows that they both are lacking in the area of trinitarian theology. These popular hymns and songs are overwhelmingly about Jesus, with few or no references to God as triune, or to worship of God as triune. They seldom mention more than one Person of the Godhead, and usually use generic references such as “God,” “Lord,” and “King” which could be interpreted in non-trinitarian ways. Often the emphasis is on Jesus = God, an equation which is often misunderstood when there is no balance. Some modern songs even seem to express a sort of unitarianism, identifying Jesus as completely indistinct from the Father/God.

If many or most American evangelicals today hold a modalistic view of the Trinity, this gives rise to a troubling question: can someone believe in modalism and still be saved? The early church was unequivocal in affirming that modalists were not Christians. When Paul was combating anti-resurrection teaching in the Corinthian church, he wrote that “some have no knowledge of God” (1 Cor 15:34). When John was combating a teaching that denied the divine-human nature of Jesus Christ, he called those who hold this view deceivers and antichrists (2 John 7), and warned the church that to hold a false view of Jesus is to worship an idol (1 John 5:21). Today’s popular theology is amorphous and not formally defined; sometimes it is hard to tell exactly what people believe. Perhaps some people are just confused about terminology, but the reality is that many have a false view of God. The main reason why we see so many people walking away from the church in our day is that they were never saved to begin with. The preaching of the gospel must start with right theology, including and especially a right view of who God is.

Trinity

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Resources for Biblical Aramaic

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I have previously published a post on Aramaic that provides historical background to the language and describes its relevance for biblical studies. My aim in the present post is to give an overview of resources available for the study of Biblical Aramaic, and to provide an evaluation of these resources. Prices quoted are current at the time of posting.

Grammars

Hebrew and Aramaic are closely related, something like Spanish and Italian. Thus, Biblical Aramaic (BA) beginning grammars are designed for students who already have a working knowledge of Biblical Hebrew (BH). Because these grammars build on a student’s Hebrew knowledge, they are intended to teach Aramaic grammar in only one semester, rather than the usual full year. The four key Aramaic grammars that I recommend are Johns, Jumper, Schuele, and Rosenthal. One nice thing about these four books is that they are all small, thin volumes that are easily portable.

Johns, Alger F. A Short Grammar of Biblical Aramaic. Rev. ed. Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 1972.

Jumper, James N. An Annotated Answer Key to Alger Johns’s A Short Grammar of Biblical Aramaic. Rev. ed. Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 2003.

  • Amazon price: $14.99 (Johns); $14.99 (Jumper); Logos price: $23.99 (both Johns and Jumper)
  • Number of Lessons: 20
  • Johns is my favorite introductory grammar for Biblical Aramaic. Johns is Adventist, but he doesn’t have any specifically Adventist theology in his grammar. What is important for me is that Johns has a conservative view of Daniel and Ezra, and this view comes through in both Johns’ grammar and in Jumper’s answer key.
  • I also like the fact that Johns and Jumper were both trained in Semitics. Johns studied Semitics under William Foxwell Albright, and he studied Aramaic under Joseph Fitzmyer. He is not just an OT Hebrew professor who also teaches Aramaic, but is someone whose knowledge of Aramaic is much broader and deeper than Biblical Aramaic alone.
  • If you know Biblical Hebrew well, you can teach yourself Biblical Aramaic in a summer, doing a chapter of Johns a week and checking your work with the answer key. Many of the early exercises in Johns are made-up, but the later exercises will lead you through a translation of all of Aramaic Ezra. Translating the biblical text and reading the annotations in Jumper’s answer key was something that I found very helpful.

Schuele, Andreas. An Introduction to Biblical Aramaic. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012.

  • Amazon price: $22.16 (paperback); $12.99 (Kindle)
  • Schuele is arranged as a reference grammar, but is written at an introductory level. It can be used by itself to learn biblical Aramaic, but it is best used as a complement to Johns. Since it is more technical than Johns, students will find it helpful for providing fuller explanations for things that Johns may only explain briefly.
  • Schuele’s comparative word list on pp. 93-94 is helpful.
  • Includes an answer key for exercises.
  • For a review of Schuele, see Brian Davidson, Bulletin for Biblical Research, vol. 23, no. 2 (2013), 249-50, available here.

Rosenthal, Franz. A Grammar of Biblical Aramaic. 7th, expanded ed. Porta Linguarum Orientalium. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2006.

  • Amazon price: $31.19
  • Rosenthal is the best intermediate/advanced reference grammar of Biblical Aramaic.
  • After working through an introductory grammar, you can continue your Aramaic study by translating all the Aramaic portions of the OT. As part of this exercise, I would recommend looking up the references in Rosenthal for each verse. This well help greatly to solidify your understanding of Aramaic grammar.
  • I would recommend having Rosenthal at your side whenever you are translating biblical Aramaic, and looking up his references to each verse.
  • Rosenthal is also an excellent tool to consult when doing exegetical work in biblical Aramaic.

Greenspahn, Frederick E. An Introduction to Aramaic. 2nd ed. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003.

  • Amazon price: $47.95 (softcover); Logos price: $43.99 (English); $11.99 (Spanish)
  • Number of Chapters: 32; answer key in back
  • Greenspahn differs from the other grammars in this list in that it is designed to be a general introduction to Aramaic, not just an introduction to Biblical Aramaic, though its focus is on Biblical Aramaic. Compared to Johns, it is a much longer introductory grammar that is designed to be part of a year-long Introduction to Aramaic course in a Semitics program, rather than a one-semester Biblical Aramaic course in a seminary program. Greenspahn’s method is, unfortunately, based on the view that the Bible is not any more special than other works of literature. He says, “With only some 200 verses of the Bible in Aramaic, there would be little reason to learn the dialect for that reason alone” (p. 1).
  • Greenspahn’s grammar is liked by many Aramaicists. However, as the SBL grammar, it is heavily colored by higher criticism, and for me this ruins the book. The commentaries that he recommends for Ezra and Daniel are all critical commentaries. On p. 5, he says, “scholars are not certain about the historical reliability of biblical statements about the patriarchs.” His comments on Daniel 7 are in line with the critical interpretation of that key prophetic chapter.
  • One thing that bothered me when using Greenspahn was the way he cavalierly edits the biblical text in the homework exercises. In theory, the homework exercises require the translation of the entire corpus of Biblical Aramaic, but nearly all of the biblical texts are “simplified” and “abridged” and “normalized” in order to fit the plan of Greenspahn’s grammar. To Greenspahn, the biblical text is not sacred, so there is nothing bothersome about changing it to suit his purposes. Only Daniel 7 is presented without modification.
  • Greenspahn uses a different system of nomenclature for the Aramaic verbal system than any other grammar of Biblical Aramaic, which can be confusing. The system Greenspahn uses has its merits, but it is designed for comparative Semitics scholars and linguists, not for clergymen who want to learn Biblical Aramaic. It would be helpful if Greenspahn at least used the nomenclature of both systems, so that students would be able to understand other grammars, lexicons, and commentaries.
  • Many of the homework exercises are too challenging for most students. Asking students to translate unpointed extrabiblical Aramaic texts and write in the correct vowels is okay for an advanced Semitics program, but not for a seminary class in Biblical Aramaic. The same could be said for the exercises which ask students to translate English sentences into Aramaic.
  • In summary, this grammar has an arrogant tone, which is evident in (1) Greenspahn’s glib handling of the biblical text; (2) Greenspahn’s strident dismissal of the authenticity of Daniel, without so much as mentioning that there are many competent scholars who believe the book is authentic; (3) Greenspahn’s replacement of standard BA verbal nomenclature with the labels used by Semiticists; (4) Greenspahn’s presentation of homework exercises that are too challenging for anyone but gifted Semitics students.
  • Greenspahn’s comments on Aramaic grammar are generally reliable, where they are not colored by his theology. But Johns is easier to understand and better organized.
  • Greenspahn is apparently the only Biblical Aramaic grammar available in Spanish.

Van Pelt, Miles V. Basics of Biblical Aramaic. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.

  • Amazon price: $30.54 (softcover), $92.09 (softcover + DVD lectures); Logos price: $37.99
  • Number of Lessons: 22; answer key available online here
  • Van Pelt’s approach is the polar opposite of Greenspahn’s. He says, “This book was not written for Aramaic scholars or for students interested in comparative Semitic grammar” (p. x). Van Pelt makes no attempt whatsoever to explain the place of Aramaic in the Semitic language family or the history of the Aramaic language. He calls Biblical Aramaic “Jewish Literary Aramaic,” which to me sounds too much like “Holy Ghost Greek,” as the language of the New Testament was once conceived. In reality, Biblical Aramaic belongs to the Imperial Aramaic dialect.
  • Van Pelt’s grammar is popular because of the Zondervan marketing machine, but it is oversimplified for language purists. Van Pelt has a Ph.D. in Old Testament from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, but was not trained as an Aramaicist or a Semiticist. Thus, his explanations are not as precise as those in other grammars, and are too dumbed-down at times. Van Pelt mentions in the preface that he received some assistance from his colleague Peter Lee, who has a Ph.D. in Semitics and Egyptian languages, but the fact that he needed help hardly gives me confidence in this grammar, and I don’t trust its technical accuracy. The Basics of Biblical Hebrew grammar coauthored by Pratico and Van Pelt has also been criticized for technical inaccuracy, such as referring to wāw-consecutives as “the converted Perfect” and “the converted Imperfect.”
  • Example #1: Van Pelt unhelpfully refers to the Aramaic infinitive as the “infinitive construct,” on the assumption that this will help students who know Biblical Hebrew understand the function of the Aramaic infinitive. However, this terminology is unique to Van Pelt. Aramaic only has one infinitive, and so Aramaicists do not use the term “infinitive construct,” which is strictly a Hebrew grammar term.
  • Example #2: Van Pelt does not use any diacritics or guttural markers in his transliterations, on the assumption that these will make the grammar too difficult. Many Semiticists would say that Van Pelt misrepresents the sounds of Aramaic by omitting these diacritics.
  • Example #3: Van Pelt seems to treat Aramaic as a dialect of Hebrew in order to “help” students learn the language, but from a linguistic standpoint this is incorrect (p. 3).
  • I would not use or recommend Van Pelt’s grammar out of concerns about its linguistic accuracy.

Lexicons

  • HALOT is the primary lexicon I recommend for Biblical Aramaic (Amazon; Accordance; Logos). In Hebrew, I often prefer BDB to HALOT (more conjectural, interpretive), although I use both. But in Aramaic, HALOT is much better than BDB due to advances in Aramaic studies and the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. I generally don’t even look at BDB in Aramaic.
  • An excellent supplement to HALOT is Vogt, Ernst. A Lexicon of Biblical Aramaic: Clarified by Ancient Documents. Translated and revised by J. A. Fitzmyer. Subsidia Biblica 42. Rome: Gregorian & Biblical Press, 2011. (was $37.50 on Amazon)
  • Another good resource for Biblical Aramaic is the Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains in Logos.
  • There are also Biblical Aramaic vocabulary lists in Johns (A Short Grammar of Biblical Aramaic) and Mitchel (A Student’s Vocabulary for Biblical Hebrew and Aramaic—Amazon price: $11.58 for 2nd ed.; Logos price: $12.99 for 1st ed.).
  • The Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon (CAL = “Targum Lexicon” in Logos) is the best all-around Aramaic lexicon. CAL can be accessed online for free. The online version is more complete than the version in Logos. Be aware that CAL covers all periods of Aramaic, and not just Biblical Aramaic. For Biblical Aramaic definitions, look for the abbreviations BAEzra and BADan (example). In Logos, the abbreviation is “BibAr” (also “BibArEzra” or “BibArDan”).
  • Less useful is Cook, Edward. Dictionary of Qumran Aramaic. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2015. (Amazon price: $54.50; Accordance price: $49.90). This dictionary is designed for use with Aramaic texts from Qumran; Biblical Aramaic is from an earlier period.
  • Jastrow’s Dictionary of the Targumim (available free here and here; for purchase in Logos here) and Smith’s Syriac Dictionary (available free here and here; for purchase in Logos here) can be used with CAL for diachronic word studies, but should not be used for translating Biblical Aramaic.

Other resources

  • Bible software – (1) Both Accordance and Logos offer two different syntax trees for the entire Old Testament, including the Aramaic sections. These syntax trees will be very helpful for understanding the grammar of the text if you are weak in Aramaic. Of course, it is ideal if your knowledge of Aramaic advances to the point where you can evaluate these syntax trees critically, but for the most part the grammar is straightforward. (2) Accordance and Logos both have tagged Targumic texts. Accordance has the most complete tagging, but doesn’t provide information from CAL, like BibleWorks and Logos do. (3) Accordance and Logos also offer Syriac resources.
  • Online platforms – Various online platforms are available for the study of Biblical Aramaic, most notably Jesus Spoke Aramaic.
  • Biblical Aramaic: A Reader and Handbook. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2016. (Amazon price: $22.50; CBD price: $19.99) – This volume is small enough to be easily portable, and provides a handy way to keep your biblical Aramaic fresh by reading through it periodically. The lists in the back are also handy. You can read through Biblical Aramaic using this volume for review quite quickly. You can get similar information in your Bible software or apps, but the reader is probably better for language proficiency.
  • Kline, Jonathan G. Keep Up Your Biblical Aramaic in Two Minutes a Day: 365 Selections for Easy Review. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2017. (Amazon price, hardcover: $36.49; CBD price, imitation leather: $17.99)
  • Audio recordings – Biblical Aramaic is a small enough corpus so that you listen to all of it in an hour or two. (1) One way to hear the Aramaic portions of the Bible read with modern Hebrew/Sephardic pronunciation is to listen to the recording of Abraham Schmueloff, which is available in various places online, such as here. (2) The best free online recordings are at http://www.929.org.il/. Here are direct links: Ezra 4, 5, 6, 7; Jeremiah 10; Daniel 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. Click the icon at the bottom right that looks like a speaking symbol, then click the play button.
  • Flashcards – The small size of the Biblical Aramaic corpus makes memorizing the entire vocabulary of Biblical Aramaic an achievable goal. With the vocabulary memorized, you will be able to sight read all the Biblical Aramaic texts. Various flashcard apps can be used to help with this.
  • Comparative Semitics – (1) See my chart of Semitic phonological equivalences. A chart like this one is important for recognizing Aramaic cognates of Hebrew words. An Aramaic word and a Hebrew word that are from the same Semitic root may be spelled differently due to differences in the development of Hebrew and Aramaic phonology from Proto-Semitic (example: דְהַב in Aramaic = זָהָב in Hebrew). (2) See my chart of the Semitic verbal system. This chart will help you remember the function of Aramaic verbal stems by showing their Hebrew equivalent.

Going beyond

It is possible to gain a working knowledge of Aramaic solely by studying Biblical Aramaic. However, the biblical corpus is too small to develop expertise in the Aramaic language simply by reading and rereading Biblical Aramaic. For example, doing a word study in Aramaic usually requires researching extrabiblical usage. This the opposite of the situation for Classical Hebrew, which has a large biblical corpus and a very small extrabiblical corpus. In Aramaic, the biblical corpus is generally too small for lexical studies, but there is a huge corpus of extrabiblical Aramaic, so that our knowledge of ancient Aramaic is actually much greater than our knowledge of ancient Hebrew. There are various ways to “go beyond” Biblical Aramaic in order to become an Aramaic expert. This usually entails study in a Semitics program, although there are some things you can do on your own.

  1. Judaic Aramaic – Studying extrabiblical Jewish texts written in various Aramaic dialects will give one the sort of exposure to a large corpus of literature that is needed to develop skill in a language. The Targumim and Midrashic literature are very helpful in this regard. For texts closer to the biblical period, one can study the Elephantine Papyri, the Aramaic texts from Qumran, and Jewish inscriptions from the Second Temple Period.
  2. Syriac – Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic with a vast corpus of literature and many connections to biblical studies. Syriac is useful for textual criticism in both the OT and the NT. It is also useful for Comparative Semitics and Patristics. Syriac is still used in the liturgy of some Eastern churches.
  3. Imperial Aramaic – For those who wish to focus on Biblical Aramaic, the study of extrabiblical Imperial Aramaic literature (including inscriptions) is recommended.
  4. Neo-Aramaic – For those who wish to learn Aramaic as a spoken language, there are various dialects of Neo-Aramaic in existence, such as Assyrian and Chaldean. But be aware that there are significant differences between Neo-Aramaic and Biblical Aramaic. For more information, see the articles on Neo-Aramaic here and here.
  5. Comparative Semitics – Learning other Semitic languages besides Hebrew will also increase one’s grasp of Aramaic. The Semitic languages are closely related, so if one learns Arabic, Akkadian, Ethiopic, Ugaritic, et al. he will be able to understand how the specific grammar and vocabulary of Biblical Aramaic fits within the overall pattern of Semitic grammar and vocabulary.

Asking the wrong questions

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What did this text mean to the original recipients? What was the intended meaning of the human author? These questions are commonly presented in contemporary biblical scholarship as the main questions an interpreter should ask when approaching a biblical text. Scholars say that the Bible must be interpreted in its historical and cultural setting, and that means asking these two hermeneutical/interpretive questions. However, these two questions are often merely smokescreens designed to conceal/justify an antichristian theological agenda that has nothing to do with interpreting the Bible in its historical and cultural setting. This theological agenda is the a priori denial of all predictive prophecy on the basis of the belief that (1) the Bible is a purely human product, not revelation from God because (2) there is no (overt) divine activity in the world because (3) “God” is either impersonal, or removed from the world, or does not have any real existence at all.

There is no doubt that understanding the historical, cultural, and linguistic setting of the biblical world is important for interpreting the Bible accurately. When the Bible speaks of “trumpets,” for example, we need to do archaeological research to understand what those instruments were like and how they were used, rather than thinking of them in terms of the trumpets that are used in modern orchestras. We also need to study the ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek languages in which the Bible was originally written in order to understand the grammar and idioms of those languages. But when scholars ask the question “What did this text mean to the original recipients?” what they mean is, “How was this text relevant to the original recipients?” They further claim that the primary, objective meaning of the text is limited to its relevance to the original recipients, even if it has a secondary, subjective meaning or application that is relevant to others.

There are four key, usually unstated, assumptions made by scholars who equate the meaning of a text with its relevance to its original recipients. Each of these assumptions is demonstrably false.

  1. The Bible was written solely or primarily to the writer’s contemporaries, and not to future generations. Response: The assumption that everything in the Bible had to be written specifically for and understood by the original recipients contradicts such verses as Daniel 8:27, Daniel 12:8-9, and 1 Peter 1:10-12. These verses state directly that some prophecies could not be understood by the original recipients, and were not directed primarily to them. First Corinthians 10:11 states that even some or all historical passages in the Bible were written primarily to later generations of believers, rather than to the original readers/hearers. Usually when a writer records events and messages of his own time, it is not for the benefit of his contemporaries who lived through the events and heard the messages, and therefore knew all about them. It is for the benefit of future generations, who would not otherwise have knowledge of these things. While this is true in general, it is especially true of the Bible, as the special revelation of God to man. The Bible was written as a testimony to all believers of all times and places until the second coming of Christ.
  2. The original recipients of Scripture did not understand any of the Bible as direct prophecies of events in the distant future. Response: Both Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity interpreted much of biblical prophecy eschatologically. For example, the the earliest known Christian interpretations of Revelation follow the futurist approach (e.g., Papias, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus). By contrast, the first systematically preterist interpretation of Revelation is found in the writings of the Jesuit Alcasar circa 1614, making preterism the last of the four major interpretive approaches to Revelation to be developed. The assumption that the original recipients of Scripture followed the preterist approach to prophecy is disproved by history.
  3. People only find a discussion of contemporary events relevant, not future events. Response: It is assumed that prophecies of the distant future have no practical significance and would have held no interest to the original recipients of Scripture—prophecy is essentially worthless. In fact, however, people have always great interest in future events, and they have always seen eschatological prophecy as relevant to them. The New Testament presents the second coming of Christ, the resurrection of the saints, and the establishment of Christ’s kingdom on the earth as the central hope of the Christian faith. Eschatological prophecy had great significance to the original readers/hearers of Scripture, and it still does for us today.
  4. The primary meaning of the text is the intended meaning of the human author, who had no awareness of future events and did not intend to write about future events. Response: (a) The idea that the Holy Spirit is the author of Scripture is excluded (by unbelievers) or made of secondary importance (by evangelicals, who say that the Holy Spirit gave a secondary meaning to the human author’s intended meaning). However, the New Testament asserts that the Holy Spirit was the primary author of Scripture in 2 Timothy 3:16 and 2 Peter 1:19-21 (cf. 2 Sam 23:2; Acts 1:16; 28:25; Heb 3:7). (b) While many contemporary scholars assume that the human author was focused completely on his own time and place, and did not know and was not interested in events in the distant future, we know from our own experience that future events hold great interest and relevance to people in the present. (c) The intended meaning of the human author is a matter of speculation or psychology. If we want to understand what the text means, then we need to focus on the meaning of the words in the text, interpreting them according to the literal hermeneutic. (d) There are indications in the New Testament, especially in 2 Peter 3:15-16, that the writings of the New Testament were misinterpreted by false teachers and claimed to support false doctrine while the writers were still alive. This is because the writings were recognized in the churches to carry an authority which transcended that of a human author and whatever he said he had in mind as he wrote.

When we read the Bible, we need to seek the literal (i.e., non-allegorical) meaning of the text, rather than speculating about the mind of the human author or making assumptions that exclude the possibility of predictive prophecy. Doing so results in a dispensational, premillennial, pretribulational understanding of the Bible. The denial of eschatological prophecy is based on an allegorical reading of the text that views the literal meaning as a sort of code for the “real meaning.” Every scholar who denies predictive prophecy and/or the classic dispensational reading of eschatological prophecy also strongly opposes the literal hermeneutic. The mainstream view today is nothing more than a theological construct that is imposed on the Scriptures, and as such it has no validity.

Asking how the original recipients of Scripture would have understood the text or what the human author meant can be helpful when studying certain passages, if the right assumptions are made when asking these questions and they are not presented as the sole goal of interpretation. But more often than not, these questions are merely designed to render palatable the old antichristian theological agenda of unbelieving Bible scholars. This agenda contains an a priori refusal to recognize any genuine predictive prophecy in the Bible, based on the basic premise of higher criticism—that the Bible is a human product—and the common theological assumption which underlies it—that there is no (overt) divine activity in the world.

While there was a time when higher criticism was recognized as anti-evangelical, in the past fifty years there has been a big push by evangelical scholars seeking respectability among their unbelieving peers to “evangelicalize” higher criticism—the terms and methods used by critical scholars are slightly modified and redefined by evangelical scholars, who then use them. Many evangelical scholars have adopted the critical approach to prophetic passages throughout the Bible, while still trying to put an evangelical “spin” on them. This includes not just eschatological prophecies, but also OT messianic prophecies. The “spin” is that while the intended meaning of the human author was always directed solely with the affairs of his own day, and this is the primary meaning of the texts as understood by the original recipients, in some cases the Holy Spirit, at a much later point, gave these texts a messianic application/meaning to Christians. The validity of this later application, however, can always be called into question. Some leading evangelical scholars claim that there are no direct messianic prophecies in the OT (or perhaps no more than one or two). Jewish messianism is said to have developed in the Second Temple Period through a hermeneutically dubious reading of the OT. If this is true, then it would seem that Jesus came to fulfill a misinterpretation of prophecy, and Christianity has no validity. Without prophecy, the revelatory nature of Scripture itself could be called into question as well, since the Bible presents predictive prophecy as proof of the Bible’s divine origin (Deut 18:21-22; Isa 40–48).

Making concessions to higher criticism begins a causal chain whose logical conclusion is always the outright rejection of the Bible as revelation from God. This is perhaps seen most clearly in the progressive dispensationalist denial that Psalm 110—the most-quoted psalm in the NT—is a direct messianic prophecy. This denial requires a denial of the Davidic authorship of Psalm 110, even though every Hebrew (and non-Hebrew) manuscript attributes Psalm 110 to David, and Davidic authorship is the linchpin of Jesus’ use of this text to prove that the Messiah is divine (Matt 22:41-46; Mark 12:35-37; Luke 20:41-44; cf. Acts 2:34-35). A denial of Davidic authorship of Psalm 110 is a denial of the inerrancy of the Bible.

Another striking example of the lengths to which scholars must go to deny the existence of predictive prophecy is their translation in the New Testament of βασιλεία—a common Greek word that always refers to both a territory and a people ruled by a king—as “reign” rather than “kingdom.” This term actually has to be redefined on the basis of theology, without lexical evidence, in order to deny the truth that the NT predicts a future earthly kingdom of God on the earth, ruled by King Jesus. The translation of βασιλεία as “reign” in many modern English Bible versions is extremely poor scholarship, which is an expression of extremely poor theology.

Many evangelical scholars have been deceived by the antichristian agenda of unbelieving scholars who deny the existence of most or all direct predictive prophecy in the Bible. But the root of the problem is spiritual, not intellectual. When scholars acknowledge that simply taking the words of the Bible at face value will result in understanding many passages as direct predictive prophecies, the denial of these prophecies is a spiritual problem. The error of their views is manifested by the way in which they must advocate for them, writing whole books of full of confusing arguments—such as the already/not yet, both/and, postmodern hermeneutic of progressive dispensationalism—solely to avoid understanding the Bible to mean what it actually says. Simply asking what the text means—instead of what it hypothetically meant to specific people—will result in understanding much of the Bible as prophetic, and will strengthen one’s faith by giving assurance that just as many prophecies have already been fulfilled precisely, the rest also will be fulfilled precisely in due time.

Psalm 23: A Photo Commentary

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Psalm 23 is the most familiar and best loved of all the psalms. It is a source of comfort and encouragement for Christians throughout the vicissitudes of life, and its reassuring words are often read at funeral services. There is truly a spiritual bond between the writer of this psalm—King David of Israel—and modern Christians. Yet there is also a profound gap of time and culture that forms a barrier to our understanding of the psalm’s meaning. David lived 3,000 years ago in a cultural world that was vastly different from the United States of America. Many helpful studies on Psalm 23 have been written, often focused on the theme of shepherding. But there has never been a study published which uses photographs to elucidate the historical and cultural setting of this ancient psalm. This gap is now filled with a new book I have coauthored with my friend and fellow Bible scholar, Todd Bolen. Psalm 23: A Photo Commentary illustrates Psalm 23 with more than 60 high-quality photographs. The photographs include traditional cultural scenes, modern landscapes, and museum artifacts. The accompanying text explains the visual information in the photographs and relates it to Psalm 23 through a verse-by-verse commentary. The book is available from Amazon in both print and Kindle editions. The Kindle (Matchbook) price will be lowered to $0.00 after purchase of the print book. The photographs are also available in PowerPoint format from BiblePlaces.com.

As would be expected, many of the photographs in our book show shepherds and sheep. We have taken care to use photos from the land of Israel that match the cultural and historical setting of Psalm 23 as closely as possible. For example, the “still waters” where sheep found refreshment (Psalm 23:2) are illustrated by photos of pools and streams in the areas of Judah where David may have traveled with his flock of sheep, like this one:

Ein Perat, tb020804282

Still waters of Ein Farah in the Judean wilderness

The book also includes many historic photographs from the late 19th century through the first half of the 20th century in order to show Palestinian shepherds in traditional garb, like the scene we chose for the front cover:

Psalm_23_A_Photo_Co_Cover_for_Kindle

The valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23:4) is a concept that may seem foreign to modern readers. The Judean wilderness, which is largely barren, contains many deep valleys with seasonal streams and vegetation that would be needed to sustain a flock of sheep. However, the steep walls of these valleys cast dark shadows throughout the day, and predatory animals often lurked behind the rocks and thickets. Our book provides a number of examples of these valleys, such as this one:

Nahal Zin, tb010512847

Dark shadow in Nahal Zin

The shepherd-sheep metaphor ends after verse 4, and in the last two verses of Psalm 23 David speaks of his relationship with the Lord under the metaphor of a host and guest. One of the things David affirms in this section is that the Lord prepares a table before him in the presence of his enemies (Psalm 23:5). Our photos give visual proof that the territory of Israel’s enemy Moab can be seen from either Jerusalem or Bethlehem on a clear day. The Lord literally built up David’s kingdom in full view of his enemies.

Bethlehem Shepherds Fields and Mts of Moab, db6601060303

View of the mountains of Moab across the Dead Sea from Bethlehem

As these examples demonstrate, our goal is connect modern readers with the historical and cultural world of King David in order to better understand Psalm 23. A picture is truly worth a thousand words; photos can communicate concepts that would be difficult to understand through a written description. Our personal understanding of Psalm 23 was deepened through the research we did to write this book, and our hope is that our readers also will literally see this beloved psalm more clearly through this unique photo commentary.

Israel, the Bible, and current events

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It is impossible to read the Bible without being struck by the centrality of the nation of Israel and the Jewish people in the plan of God. Beginning with the call of Abraham in Genesis 12, virtually the entire Old Testament is about God’s dealings with the nation of Israel. The hope of future salvation and blessing for believers is channeled through God’s covenants with Israel. Nearly all of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, the national language of the Jewish people. Nearly every book of the Old Testament was written by Israelites.

References to Israel abound in the New Testament, as well. Christianity began in the Jewish world, and all but two books of the New Testament (Luke and Acts) were written by Jews. The early Christians identified themselves as the sect of true Judaism, which recognized Jesus as the Messiah promised in the Old Testament. Jesus and the twelve apostles were observant Jews who lived in Israel’s land (Galilee and Judea), and Jesus came specifically to offer the promised kingdom to Israel. When Peter preached the gospel in Acts 3, he proclaimed that Jesus would return and restore the kingdom to Israel whenever the Jewish nation repented and accepted Him as their Messiah (cf. Acts 1:6; 3:19-21). The New Testament epistles are filled with references to Israel, as early Christians struggled with the relation of Jews to Gentiles in the church. Jesus and the apostles taught that all the promises to Israel are still valid and will be fulfilled to the Jewish people at the end of the age, but that there is an interim period in which the church exists as a non-national (primarily Gentile) entity.

Although many early church fathers interpreted prophecy literally, the allegorical interpretation of prophecy came to dominate Christian theology by late antiquity. The church was asserted to have replaced Israel in God’s program, and the Jewish people were considered no longer to be special in any way. The hatred of Christians by Jews which dates back to the crucifixion of Jesus was matched at times by the persecution of Jews on the part of professing Christians. The church’s hostility toward Jews began gradually to change after the Protestant Reformation, when Christians sought to return to Scripture as the source of their beliefs. In 18th century England and America, the study of Hebrew and renewed scholarly interest in the Old Testament led to the recovery of premillennial theology and the literal interpretation of prophecy among some Protestant groups. Prophecy scholars in the 19th century often spoke at length about God’s miraculous preservation of the Jewish people through the ages and asserted that God would yet bring the Jews back to their land and fulfill the promises made to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David. At about the same time, biblical faith on the European continent was being swept away by a wave of liberal theology, higher criticism, and rationalism. The Bible’s teachings were not merely disbelieved, but were vigorously opposed. Since those who hate God also hate His chosen people, higher criticism led to a marked rise in anti-Semitism and violent acts against the Jews across Europe. This persecution forged a new nationalist spirit among the Jews, leading to the adoption of the shield (star) of David as the symbol of Judaism, and to the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language. It also gave rise to the modern Zionist movement, which sought to establish a homeland for the Jews where they would be protected from persecution. Paradoxically, higher criticism and rationalism made great inroads into Judaism as well as Christianity in the 19th century, leading to the abandonment of Orthodox Judaism by the majority of Jews and the rise of Reform and Conservative Judaism. While in Christianity higher criticism had the effect of undermining the gospel, in Judaism it removed longstanding theological barriers to the acceptance of the gospel.

While there have always been small numbers of Jews who have converted to Christianity, the 20th century saw a dramatic increase in Christian missionary efforts to the Jews. The number of Jews who became Christians also increased greatly. However, because Christianity remained stigmatized among the general population of Jews, a “Messianic” Jewish movement arose in which Jews professed faith in Jesus as their Messiah but did not call themselves Christians or join churches. Instead, they formed separate “messianic synagogues” which met on Saturday and were led by rabbis, not pastors. Many aspects of Jewish tradition and the Mosaic Law continued to be observed by these groups, in blatant contradiction of the book of Hebrews and other New Testament writings. These movements continue in great strength to the present day.

Since the late 1800s, Jews began returning in increasing numbers to their historic homeland (then known by the name “Palestine,” which the Roman emperor Hadrian gave to it), and the modern state of Israel was finally founded in 1948, following the Nazi Holocaust. Although the majority of modern Israelis are secular (non-observant) Jews, they have maintained a strong Jewish identity through their national struggle for survival. Since the 1960s, Israel’s greatest foreign supporter has been the United States of America. For decades, the base of support for Israel in the United States was a bipartisan coalition of American Jews and evangelical Christians. In recent years, however, the American left has taken a radical stance against the values of biblical Christianity, and this has resulted in increasing hostility toward Israel, even among many liberal American Jews. Mainline Christian denominations have also consistently opposed Israel. The main base of support for Israel in the United States is now a large segment of evangelical Christians, who believe that those who bless Abraham are still blessed, and those who curse Abraham are still cursed (Gen 12:1-3). Recognizing this fact, the current Israeli government has very directly courted American evangelicals, tossing aside the traditional Jewish hostility toward Christians for preaching Jesus as the Messiah.

The new friendliness of Jews with evangelical Christians is a great sign. Israeli Jews are now beginning to understand that evangelical, dispensational Christians love them and are their most reliable friends, in contrast to nominal Christians. More importantly, Jews at the highest levels of leadership in Israel now realize that there is nothing inherently anti-Semitic about Christianity or the Christian gospel. This is significant because the Bible is clear that Israel will accept Jesus as the promised Messiah before He returns (and as a condition for His return). A shift in Jewish attitudes toward Christians is a sign that Israel’s partial hardening (Rom 11:25) is finally beginning to lift.

The Bible clearly describes a regathering of the Jewish people to their historic homeland at the end of history. It describes how they overcome their ancient adversaries, repossess their ancient homeland, and become incredibly prosperous once again. By the time of the tribulation period, they are living in great peace with their neighbors, to the point of having no walls or army. Yet this physical restoration of the Jewish people is merely a precursor to their spiritual restoration, as Israel’s acceptance of Jesus as their Messiah is the main event which must occur prior to the second coming of Jesus. (For more details on this, see the comments on Ezekiel 34–39 in vol. 4 of my Interpretive Guide to the Bible.)

Satan seeks three things with regard to Israel in order to prevent the fulfillment of God’s promises: (1) The genocide of the Jewish people. (2) Driving the Jewish people out of the land of Israel. (3) Preventing the spiritual conversion of the Jewish people. While Satan has always sought these things, his efforts have greatly intensified in the last 250 years, as God’s program for Israel draws closer to its final consummation. Yet God’s program continues to move forward in the face of Satan’s opposition, resulting in a great conflict.

When events happen in the Middle East, and especially in the land of Israel, a common question Christians ask is whether that event was prophesied. While some specific events are indeed prophesied, such as the end-time regathering of Israel and the rebuilding of the Jewish temple, most events in the news today are not specifically mentioned in biblical prophecy. The recent opening of the new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem is an example of this type of event. Of course there is nothing in the Bible specifically about the U.S. embassy. But everything that happens in Israel has its part in God’s plan, and the embassy move was a significant event. It could fairly be said that the U.S. embassy move occurred as part of a prophesied process of Israel’s increasing rootedness in their land. We must avoid the extreme of allegorizing Scripture to make it appear as if specific events in the news were prophesied, but we must also avoid the much more common extreme of allegorizing Scripture in order to claim that biblical prophecy has nothing to say at all about the modern state of Israel. The history of nation of Israel holds a central place in redemptive history, because God is unfolding His plan of redemption through His covenants with Israel. The various stages through which the history of the Jews has passed are coterminous with the central events in the development of God’s plan of redemption, which are the events of real significance in the history of the entire human race. Seen in this light, the present regathering of the Jewish people to the Promised Land is of great significance in the plan of God and in the history of the world—God is in the process of winding up human history.

Some people say that Christians should only focus on the gospel and should avoid discussing Israel because it is divisive. But the apostles preached the second coming of Jesus to establish His kingdom as the main hope of Christians, and the kingdom which Jesus will establish is the kingdom of Israel on the earth, fulfilling God’s promises to David and Abraham. Christians who oppose Israel not only fail to understand the plan of God as revealed in the Bible, but are actually opposing the work of God in our day.

Some insights from the 2018 Midwest Regional ETS conference

This post is a report on the 2018 Midwest Regional Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. This year’s regional meeting was hosted by Grace Bible College, which is the flagship school of a small group of “dry” (i.e., anti-baptism), hyper-dispensational (a.k.a. mid-Acts dipsensational) churches. The college itself seemed to be doing well enough in terms of enrollment and finances. It has more of an ecumenical feel than might be expected, since most of the students are not from hyper-dispensational backgrounds. In fact, the college seemed like a typical contemporary small Christian college (about 300 on-campus students and 600 online students).

One of the things that struck me most about this conference, as well as with other recent ETS meetings, was the complete absence of a sense of battle, or of an “us” vs. “them” mentality. In the early days of the Evangelical Theological Society, much of its focus was on the struggle against theologically liberal Bible scholars and theologians. Papers stressed responses to critical attacks on the Bible and critical denials of biblical truth in archaeology, science, and theology. In today’s ETS, liberal Bible scholars are often referred to as if they are friends, though the reality is that they are enemies of the cross of Christ. This is both a result and a symptom of evangelical scholars adopting critical views of the Bible, and it includes both mainstream evangelical institutions and many traditionally fundamentalist institutions. To me, this is a great tragedy. First Corinthians 2:14 makes plain that unbelievers cannot understand the Bible correctly, because the Holy Spirit is needed to reveal spiritual truth. Furthermore, liberal-critical scholars are anti-Bible, anti-Christian, and anti-God. Commentaries, theology texts, and even lexicons and grammars that are written by the critics should be viewed with suspicion and used with caution; they should not be placed on the same level as books written by Bible-believers. There is also a general failure of fundamentalists to recognize and warn against the use of higher criticism in recent evangelical commentaries. I also find it disturbing when faculty from seminaries which do not allow women to teach the Bible to men on the basis of 1 Timothy 2:9-15 nevertheless use and recommend Bible commentaries written by women. The ETS is part of a general trend in evangelicalism to promote female seminary students, speakers, authors, and pastors; homosexuals will follow next. It appears to me that much of evangelical academia is sliding toward liberalism once again.

The main plenary speaker at the conference, Amos Yong of Fuller Theological Seminary, is an ordained minister in the Assemblies of God denomination. His topic was understanding the future of Pentecostal and evangelical theology, given the ongoing pentecostalization and charismatization of world Christianity. The number of charismatic Christians worldwide is higher than many may realize, since charismatics are not defined by a denominational label. For example, one-third of Roman Catholics consider themselves charismatics, or are practicing charismatics. It should be noted that “Pentecostal” and “charismatic” are labels which include both evangelical and non-evangelical groups.

Yong began by giving a brief overview of the origins and history of the Pentecostal and charismatic movements. Pentecostalism is comprised of three main historic streams:

  1. Classic Pentecostalism originated in the early twentieth century, drawing on nineteenth century holiness movements, revival movements, prophecy conferences, and other streams of influence. Yet it was not a continuation of those movements, but was something different, and was rejected by all established churches. The denominations of Classic Pentecostalism trace their roots to the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles (1906-1915), although the origins of modern Pentecostalism go back to 1901. Classic Pentecostalism is largely a sociological category, as it includes both trinitarian and Oneness (unitarian) Pentecostals.
  2. The period from about 1960 to the early 1970s saw the rise of large Neo-Pentecostal and charismatic movements. These movements were different from Classic Pentecostalism in that they occurred within denominations that were not historically Pentecostal. The “charismatic renewal” movement encompassed churches that were Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, and so forth. This movement was especially strong in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. But more conservative denominations rejected the charismatic movement.
  3. The “third wave” of the Pentecostal movement arose in the mid-to-late 1970s, gained steam in the 1980s, and has continued to the present day. This was the rise of independent or non-aligned Pentecostal churches, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and South Asia. These churches were developed indigenously, not by missionaries, and they developed outside of denominational structures. They exhibit Pentecostal expressions, but often do not describe themselves as Pentecostal or charismatic. As independent churches, they vary widely, with many incorporating very aberrant doctrines and practices. The larger independent churches usually form a sort of denominational structure as they grow.

As for what the future holds, Yong thinks “Pent-evangelicalism” (the fusion of Pentecostalism with evangelicalism) is post-denominational and is heading toward a more individualistic spirituality, which is less institutionalized or label-based. Pentecostalism emphasizes an emotional “vibrancy” over “dead” orthodoxy. Pentecostalism has also had historic anti-intellectual tendencies, with its emphasis on mystical, spiritual encounter. However, the problem with Pentecostalism is that these are not merely different emphases, but are in fact different theologies which have developed in contradiction to biblical Christian belief. The detachment of Pentecostal practice from biblical orthodoxy can be expected to continue and even to go further in the future. Confessions and doctrinal statements have traditionally played less of a role in defining Pentecostal groups, which are mainly defined by relational associations and “apostolic” networks.

While I agree with Yong that the professing Christian church worldwide is dominated by Pentecostalizing and charismatizing influences, I am not sure the same is true among those who are actually saved. I expect a clearer distinction to develop in the future between left wing or mainstream evangelicalism and the right wing of evangelicalism. A more individualistic spirituality, disconnected from church tradition, will generally mean a departure from the gospel and from biblical truth—every man doing that which is right in his own eyes. Pentecostalism’s emphasis on the physical (e.g., healing) has led and will continue to lead to doctrinal perversions which view the church’s mission as bringing people health and wealth and happiness in this life, rather than bringing a message that will save men’s souls and guarantee them a future resurrection but does not promise physical comfort in this life.

Well-known theologian Millard Erickson presented a lecture on the future of evangelical theology. On the positive side, Erickson hopes that evangelicalism will develop a more robust theology of the ascension. Specifically, he is interested in the idea that the resurrection occurred in two stages—first, with Jesus’ body being resuscitated in some way for forty days, and then with this body being perfected and glorified (nail prints gone, overwhelming brightness) at the ascension.

On the negative side (from my perspective), there is a continuing weakening of the biblical doctrine of hell in evangelicalism (see the book I have written on this subject). Inclusivism is on the rise, as it has been since the 1990s; advocates include Clark Pinnock, John Sanders, J. I. Packer, and Billy Graham; and, from the nineteenth century, Augustus Hopkins Strong. Inclusivism is distinguished from universalism (the idea that everyone goes to heaven) and pluralism (the idea that all religions are valid), but it is close. This is the view that there are “moral pagans” who will go to heaven without ever believing the gospel (in contradiction of verses such as John 14:6; Acts 4:12; 10:42-43; Rom 10:9-15; 1 John 4:15). Inclusivism is not a new idea; many medieval theologians believed that Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle went to heaven, although they clearly did not worship the true God. Inclusivism gets pushed closer to universalism by theologians who are teaching the unbiblical doctrine of postmortem evangelism (see Heb 9:27). Other evangelical theologians are teaching annihilationism—the idea that unbelievers simply cease to exist when they die, rather than going to hell (in contradiction of passages which describe a judgment by works, degrees of punishment, and eternal torment). Some who do not follow inclusivism per se nevertheless argue that one has to believe very little about the gospel in order to be saved—thereby making virtually all professing Christians and many non-Christians saved, in contradiction of Jesus’ teaching about the way being narrow and few finding it (Matt 7:14). Among those who still believe that the Bible teaches eternal damnation in the lake of fire, many say that the pain of the lake of fire is merely or mainly emotional, not sensory. A denial of sensory torment contradicts every biblical description of the lake of fire and undermines the gospel, for then there would have been no need for Jesus to shed His blood to pay the price for sin—if the second death is merely emotional pain, Jesus did not have to die physically. Indeed, the reality of hell is a doctrine that goes to the heart of the Christian gospel, since the whole reason for the crucifixion was so that Christ would die for our sins in our place (1 Cor 15:3; 1 Pet 2:24). The gospel message is a call to accept Christ’s substitutionary death in order to be saved from God’s coming wrath (Rom 5:9; 1 Thess 1:10). If there is no literal, eternal hell, then the gospel message is false and Christianity makes no sense.

Timothy Miller of Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary gave a presentation which compared three series of guides to the Greek New Testament. For my purposes, the SIL Exegetical Summaries are the most useful.

  1. The SIL Exegetical Summary Series is a reference tool designed for Bible translators. The NT volumes of this series are nearly complete, and two OT volumes have also been produced. This series is very helpful for summarizing information found in various standard lexicons, grammars, and commentaries. The authors make no evaluation of the different viewpoints, but merely present them. This series is best used in Accordance or Logos, which will link to the resources cited.
  2. The B&H Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament (EGGNT) is designed mainly for pastors and Greek students. In some ways it is like a commentary that is focused on an analysis of the Greek text. This series is now available in Accordance.
  3. The Baylor Handbooks on the Greek New Testament (BHGNT) are designed for Greek students and scholars, as a “prequel” to writing a commentary. The BHGNT authors are committed to a specific “new” and controversial approach to Greek grammar which is opposed to the category of deponency, and also to some of the traditional categories of the aorist. Each volume is strictly a presentation of the author’s own views, often without citing any other views. Thus, the BHGNT is significantly more strident in tone than the other series, although it often gives helpful grammatical information. Logos is currently the only Bible software program that sells the BHGNT, although only half of the print volumes are available electronically.

Kyle Dunham of Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary offered an analysis of the structure of Proverbs and suggested that the book was meant as an educational program for novice leaders in ancient Israel. Dunham’s paper was well-researched and insightful, although I think it relied too heavily on critical scholarship and became too technical at times for a book that was written more as art than science. For example, I objected to understanding the book as having seven divisions based on the seven pillars of wisdom, when chs. 25–29 were added by Hezekiah’s men well after the original composition of the book by Solomon.

Benjamin Espinoza presented the case that we need to start thinking about how evangelical theology will change as a result of the church becoming less white and less North American. This is indeed something that we should be thinking about, although many are not. From my view: (1) In some cases, new perspectives can be good, and may fix existing problems; in other cases, new perspectives represent an abandonment of truth. (2) Different cultural situations will call for different theological emphases, which is okay so long as the emphases do not become excesses. (3) It is overstating the case to assume that old-school white theologians will go extinct, or that the men they have trained in other cultures will abandon the foundation they were given.

Finally, Richard McLaughlin argued from both church history and biblical history that Christian spiritual renewal can still occur today. Over and over again, there have been great spiritual revivals which have seen many people saved and the church purified. The main precondition for revival is the awareness of God’s greatness and our sinfulness. Without this awareness, we do not see any need for revival. Revival is indeed sorely needed today, and I look forward to seeing how God will work in various places in future years to save and sanctify many.

The tiqqunê sopherim: emendations or glosses?

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Note: This is the second article in a series on Old Testament textual criticism.

Occasionally the reader of BHS will come across a note which reads “Tiq soph, lect orig . . . .” These abbreviations mean “Tiqqunê sopherim, original reading. . . .” The equivalent note in BHQ simply shows a variant reading followed by the symbol ✣, which directs the reader to the textual commentary. Tiqqunê sopherim is a Hebrew term which means “emendations of the scribes.” According to rabbinic sources and the Masoretes, these are places where scribes of an earlier Jewish tradition had altered the original text of the OT out of theological sensitivities. Normally this involved a statement that was disrespectful to God and therefore, in their judgment, could not be said aloud when reading. The disrespectful term was replaced with a term that could be acceptably read. The Masoretes noted what they believed was the original reading, but their extremely conservative copying practices forbade them from altering the main text of their manuscripts. Many of the tiqqunê sopherim seem strange to Christian students of the Bible, since the things in the text which were theologically troublesome for Jews are very different from those things which might seem problematic to Christian scribes. The tiqqunê sopherim have more to do with matters of reverence than with matters of systematic theology.

Although rabbinic lists vary, the main lists have eighteen verses with alleged emendations, as shown below, with McCarthy’s evaluation of the authenticity of each tradition (in Carmel McCarthy, The Tiqqune Sopherim and Other Theological Emendations in the Masoretic Text of the Old Testament, Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis 36 [Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1981], 61-129).

  1. Genesis 18:22—”Yahweh was still standing before Abraham” (וְיהוה עוֹדֶנּוּ עֹמֵד לִפְנֵי אַבְרָהָם) was changed to “Abraham was still standing before Yahweh” (‎וְאַבְרָהָם עוֹדֶנּוּ עֹמֵד לִפְנֵי יהוה), because to “stand before” someone usually means to minister to an authority who is sitting. McCarthy: unauthentic emendation
  2. Numbers 11:15—”Your wretchedness” (בְּרָעָתְךָ) was changed to “my wretchedness” (בְּרָעָתִי), so as to avoid a disrespectful expression toward God. McCarthy: unauthentic emendation
  3. Numbers 12:12—”our mother’s womb” (אִמֵּנוּ) and “our flesh” (בְשָׂרֵנוּ) were changed to “its mother’s womb” (מֵרֶחֶם אִמּוֹ) and “its flesh” (בְשָׂרוֹ), in order to avoid an expression of disrespect regarding the origins of Moses. McCarthy: unauthentic emendation
  4. 1 Samuel 3:13—”his sons were cursing God” (‎כִּי־מְקַלְלִים אֱלֹהִים בָּנָיו) was changed to “his sons were cursing themselves” (‎כִּי־מְקַלְלִים לָהֶם בָּנָיו), so that the reader of the Scriptures would not have to speak aloud of cursing God. McCarthy: authentic emendation
  5. 2 Samuel 16:12—”Yahweh will look with His eye” (יִרְאֶה יְהוָה בְּעֵינוֹ) was changed to “Yahweh will look on my eye” (Qere: יִרְאֶה יְהוָה בְּעֵינִי), in order to avoid an anthropomorphism. McCarthy: unauthentic emendation
  6. 2 Samuel 20:1—”to his gods” (‎לֵאלֹהָיו) was changed to “to his tents” (‎לְאֹהָלָיו), in order to avoid reading aloud a call to apostasy. McCarthy: unauthentic emendation
  7. 1 Kings 12:16—”to your gods” (‎לֵאלֹהֵיךָ) was changed to “to your tents” (‎לְאֹהָלֶיךָ), in order to avoid reading aloud a call to apostasy. McCarthy: unauthentic emendation
  8. Jeremiah 2:11—”My glory” (‎כְּבוֹדִי) was changed to “their glory” (‎כְּבֹדוֹ), so as to soften the force of an expression of disrespect toward God. McCarthy: unauthentic emendation
  9. Ezekiel 8:17—”My nose” (‎אַפִּי) was changed to “their nose” (‎אַפָּם), to avoid expressing the blasphemous idea of putting a branch to Yahweh’s nose. McCarthy: unauthentic emendation
  10. Hosea 4:7—”My glory” (‎כְּבוֹדִי) was changed to “their glory” (‎כְּבוֹדָם), so as to soften the force of an expression of disrespect toward God. McCarthy: unauthentic emendation
  11. Habakkuk 1:12—”You will not die” (‎לֹא תָּמוּת) was changed to “we will not die” (‎לֹא נָמוּת), to avoid the unseemly concept of God’s death. McCarthy: unauthentic emendation
  12. Zechariah 2:12 (2:8 Eng.)—”My eye” (‎עֵינִי) was changed to “His eye” (‎עֵינוֹ), so as to refer to the divine eye euphemistically (in the third person). McCarthy: authentic emendation
  13. Malachi 1:13—”you have snuffed at Me” (‎וְהִפַּחְתֶּם אוֹתִי) was changed to “you have snuffed at it” (‎וְהִפַּחְתֶּם אוֹתוֹ), in order to avoid an expression of offense toward Yahweh. Some lists include Malachi 1:12 instead of or in addition to Malachi 1:13, claiming that “you profane Me” (‎וְאַתֶּם מְחַלְּלִים אוֹתִי) was changed to “you profane it” (‎וְאַתֶּם מְחַלְּלִים אוֹתוֹ). McCarthy: unauthentic emendation
  14. Psalm 106:20—”My glory” (‎כְּבוֹדִי) was changed to “their glory” (‎כְּבוֹדָם), so as to soften the force of an expression of disrespect toward God. McCarthy: unauthentic emendation
  15. Job 7:20—”I am a burden to You” (‎וָאֶהְיֶה עָלֶיךָ לְמַשָּׂא) was changed to “I am a burden to myself” (‎וָאֶהְיֶה עָלַי לְמַשָּׂא), because of the unseemliness of speaking of becoming a burden to God. McCarthy: authentic emendation
  16. Job 32:3—”yet they had condemned God” (וַיַּרְשִׁיעוּ אֶת־אֱלֹהִים or ‎וַיַּרְשִׁיעוּ אֶת־יהוה) was changed to “yet they had condemned Job” (וַיַּרְשִׁיעוּ אֶת־אִיּוֹב), in order to avoid reading an expression of blasphemy. McCarthy: unauthentic emendation
  17. Lamentations 3:20—”Your soul is bent down within You” (וְתָשִׁיחַ עָלֶיךָ נַפְשֶׁךָ with some variations in the tradition) was changed to “my soul is bent down within me” (וְתָשִׁיחַ עָלַי נַפְשִׁי), in order to avoid a strong anthropopathism. McCarthy: unauthentic emendation
  18. 2 Chronicles 10:16—”to your gods” (‎לֵאלֹהֵיךָ) was changed to “to your tents” (‎לְאֹהָלֶיךָ), in order to avoid reading aloud a call to apostasy. McCarthy: unauthentic emendation

McCarthy’s thorough evaluation of the tiqqunê sopherim shows that they were mostly traditions which developed from midrashic exegesis; he finds only three of the eighteen in the main list to be genuine scribal emendations.

There are a number of other places in the OT, outside of this list, in which it is suggested (either by ancient rabbinic sources or by modern scholars) that words were substituted for theological reasons. However, in many cases it is debated whether the substitutions are true tiqqunê sopherim (i.e., emendations by copyists), or whether they were a euphemism supplied by the original writers. Some of these include the following, with McCarthy’s evaluation:

  1. The substitution of “bless” for “curse” in 1 Kings 21:10, 13; Job 1:5, 11; 2:5, 9. McCarthy: original euphemism
  2. The substitution of “these men” for “our” in Numbers 16:14 and 1 Samuel 29:4. McCarthy: original euphemism (or not a substitution at all)
  3. Insertion of “the enemies of” before a name in 1 Samuel 20:16; 25:22; 2 Samuel 12:14. McCarthy: emendation
  4. Changing “Yahweh” to “the word of Yahweh” in 2 Samuel 12:9. McCarthy: emendation
  5. Addition of “the men” in 1 Samuel 2:17. McCarthy: probable emendation
  6. Names in which “Bosheth” (shame) or the name of the true God is substituted for “Baal” or the name of a false god: Jerubbaal/Jerubbesheth, Ishbaal/Eshbaal/Ishbosheth, Mephibaal/Mephibosheth, Eliada/Beeliada/Baaliada, Joram/Hadoram. These substitutions are complex to judge; in each case, there are three possibilities: (a) Some individuals were known by two or more names. (b) The original writers of Scripture altered these names for theological reasons. (c) A scribe or copyist emended these names. McCarthy’s evaluation is different in the case of different names and verses.
  7. The substitution of “Manasseh” for “Moses” in Judges 18:30. McCarthy: emendation
  8. Changing “who hate David’s soul” to “who are hated by David’s soul” in 2 Samuel 5:8. McCarthy: emendation
  9. Changing “your wives” to “your men” in 1 Kings 10:8 and 2 Chronicles 9:7. McCarthy: 1 Kgs 10:8 is an emendation; 2 Chr 9:7 is an original euphemism. (Note: McCarthy’s split evaluation is based on liberal theological presuppositions.)
  10. Changing “he was afraid” to “he saw” in 1 Kings 19:3. McCarthy: emendation (Note: This is not a true emendation, since it is only a difference in vocalization.)
  11. Changing “he prospered” or “he was victorious” (יוֹשִׁיעַ) to “he acted wickedly” or “he put them to the worse” (יַרְשִׁיעַ) in 1 Samuel 14:47. McCarthy: emendation
  12. Changing “this house will become lofty” (עֶלְיוֹן) to “this house will become a ruin” (לְעִיִּין) in 1 Kings 9:8 and 2 Chr 7:21. McCarthy: 1 Kgs 9:8 is an emendation; 2 Chr 7:21 is an original euphemism. (Note: McCarthy’s split evaluation is based on liberal theological presuppositions.)
  13. Changing “The City of the Sun” (עִיר הַחֶרֶס) to “the City of Destruction” (עִיר הַהֶרֶס) in Isaiah 19:18. McCarthy: emendation

It is noteworthy that in every instance in the above two lists where, in McCarthy’s judgment, an emendation was made, there is textual evidence for the original reading. In other words, we do not need to speculate about places where the Hebrew text might have been emended, because some manuscripts or ancient versions always preserve the original reading.

There was a time when many OT scholars assumed that the traditional list of eighteen tiqqunê sopherim was merely a representative sample out of a huge number of theological emendations that Jewish scribes systematically conducted throughout the OT. More recently, scholars such as McCarthy, Ellis Brotzman, and Emanuel Tov have called into question this assumption. In fact, most of the traditions about the tiqqunê sopherim were developed after the text form had already been fixed by means of strict copying practices which forbade any alteration of the sacred consonantal text. The tradition about emendations is mainly a record of midrashic interpretation, rather than text criticism. Tov writes the following in Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible (2nd ed.; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), p. 66:

Another common characteristic of the corrections of the scribes is that most of them correct merely one or two letters, principally the pronomial suffix. If the corrections had represented changes in the text, it is hard to believe that the correctors would have limited themselves to such small details. Moreover, for some corrections it is improbable that the original text would indeed have read as the Masorah claims.

This agrees with McCarthy’s conclusion (The Tiqqune Sopherim, p. 250):

The actual extent of emendatory initiative undertaken by the ‘scribes’ was considerably restrained, and one must continually marvel at the overall fidelity and care taken by those to whom we are indebted for the transmission of the biblical text.

The reality is that the MT is an extremely conservative text. It is in the LXX (and, to a much lesser extent, the SamP) where we see evidence of frequent and large-scale emendations for theological reasons. Further, many of these emendations are directly concerned with systematic theology, rather than merely the formal expression of reverence. An example in the SamP is changing “Mount Ebal” to “Mount Gerizim” in Deuteronomy 27:4. Examples in the LXX include: (a) Changing “a little lower than God” to “a little lower than the angels” in Psalm 8:5. (b) Changing “seventh” to “sixth” in Genesis 2:2a. (c) Changing “pillars” to “stones” in Exodus 24:4. (d) Moving the oracles against the nations from Jeremiah 46–51 to Jeremiah 25 in order to match the statement about “this book” in Jeremiah 25:13. (e) Editing the prophecy of Daniel 9:24-27 in order to change the referents of the prophecy to events in the time of Antiochus IV and the Maccabees.

To summarize, the following principles should be applied to an analysis of the tiqqunê sopherim when doing textual criticism:

  1. It is very likely that some of the tiqqunê sopherim are genuine scribal emendations, but not all are. It should not be assumed that every such tradition represents a place where the text was emended.
  2. Some, probably most, of the tiqqunê sopherim are false traditions developed by midrashic exegesis.
  3. Tiqqunê sopherim that are not supported by manuscript evidence or readings of the ancient versions are far less likely to represent authentic emendations.
  4. The rabbinic tradition about tiqqunê sopherim is simply another witness to the text that should be considered alongside other textual witnesses; it is not authoritative.
  5. There are a few unrecorded places where the Proto-Masoretic Text was altered for theological reasons, but not many. Widespread emendatory activity should not be postulated.

The value of Benjamin Kennicott’s Vetus Testamentum Hebraicum

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In the eighteenth century, Benjamin Kennicott led a project to catalog all the variants in the consonantal text of Masoretic Hebrew manuscripts that were accessible throughout Europe, including only those manuscripts copied before the invention of the printing press. In the end, more than 600 Hebrew manuscripts were collated. The resulting two-volume work published in 1776–1780, Vetus Testamentum Hebraicum, included a printed Hebrew text (the van der Hooght edition) with a critical apparatus below. In the Pentateuch, Kennicott also prints the Masoretic text (MT) and Samaritan Pentateuch (SamP) in parallel columns, with differences noted.  Only textual variants within the Masoretic or Samaritan manuscripts were recorded; Kennicott’s edition does not note variants from the LXX, the Vulgate, or other ancient translations. While many more Hebrew manuscripts have been discovered or become accessible since the time of Kennicott, no other complete catalog of Hebrew textual variants has ever been produced. Thus, someone who wants to see a complete apparatus for (consonantal) textual variants in the Masoretic Text will have to consult Kennicott. Even the editors of BHQ and BHS still rely on Kennicott when noting textual variants within the Masoretic tradition; they do not have their own catalog of textual variants in the MT.

I first learned of Kennicott after I was already accustomed to using BHS. BHS and BHQ print only a small fraction of the total number of variants within the MT; when they do note a variant, they give comparatively little information about the manuscript evidence and usually present only a negative apparatus. The thing that immediately struck me about Kennicott’s work was that there are as many or more textual variants among Hebrew manuscripts in the Old Testament as the Nestle-Aland editions show for Greek manuscripts in the New Testament. Scholars who claim that Kennicott’s work is of little value because the Masoretic manuscripts are “practically uniform” are simply wrong. It is true that most of the variants are very small (one word or one letter), but changing one letter of a Hebrew word often changes it to a completely different word, making a significant difference for the translation and meaning of the Hebrew text. Even spelling (orthographical) variations within the manuscript tradition can offer insights into the original inspired text. I soon realized that if I wanted to do serious study of a passage in the Old Testament, I would have to check Kennicott for textual variants that might affect my translation or exegesis.

A scholar who uses Kennicott will quickly develop a sense of patterns of textual variation within the Masoretic tradition, accruing invaluable insights. He will gain an understanding of which letters are commonly confused, which spellings are commonly changed, and which words or letters are commonly omitted or duplicated by mistake. In short, he will gain a sense of the nature of textual variants within the MT, which will help him greatly in deciding which readings are original. One will find that commentators often speculate about textual variants and propose emendations without having a solid evidential basis for their hypotheses.

When I first discovered Kennicott, I bought a reprint edition. Now Kennicott’s work is conveniently available online: vol. 1, vol. 2, and both volumes. These volumes can be saved as PDF files on your computer as a backup. Unfortunately, Kennicott has not been incorporated into any Bible software program, and probably will not be due to the lack of interest in it by contemporary OT scholars (though see this thread on the BibleWorks user forum; also, the Hebrew Bible Manuscript Explorer in Logos has a listing of Kennicott’s manuscripts, though without much information given).

Kennicott’s work is entirely in Latin and Hebrew/Aramaic, as Latin was the standard language of scholarly writing in the eighteenth century. The good thing is that one does not have to translate any Latin sentences to use Kennicott; one only needs a key to Latin terms used in the apparatus, as with BHS. Here is my understanding of the sigla in Kennicott’s apparatus:

  • ‸ = “omits”
  • * = “omitted” (in the parallel MT/SamP text)
  • 1º = “first occurrence”
  • 2º = “second occurrence”
  • bis = “twice”
  • forte = “accidentally,” referring to a copyist’s mistake
  • marg. habet = “margin has”
  • nunc = “now,” referring to a corrector
  • primo = “at first,” referring to the original reading of a manuscript
  • spat. post = spatium post = “a space after the . . .”
  • sup. ras. = supra rasura = “erasure above”; there is a sign above a word or letter indicating that it should be deleted
  • videtur = “it appears”

Kennicott’s edition has been criticized for not including variant readings of the Masoretic pointing. In my view, this criticism is unfair; there are so many consonantal variants, that attempting to collate all the variants in vowel points would have made the apparatus too large and the project too time-consuming. More importantly, the vowel points were not part of the original inspired text; thus, if one only wants to get back to the original text, the vowel points are of secondary importance. To see some variants in the vowel points, one can consult Giovanni de Rossi’s 1784–1788 work Variae lectiones Veteris Testamenti (vol. 1, vol. 2, vol. 3, vol. 4). Compared with Kennicott, de Rossi is more comprehensive for the variants he describes, but he only treats a fraction of the variants that are in Kennicott, and his work is much more difficult to understand for scholars who do not read Latin because it is not arranged as a formal apparatus. De Rossi includes a more expansive catalog of manuscripts, variants in vowel points, variants in ancient versions, and a written analysis or explanation of the variants.  De Rossi is also helpful for his list of Kennicott’s manuscripts and his descriptions of them (in vol. 1). Don’t forget to check de Rossi’s supplement at the end of vol. 4, as well as his Appendix.

Benjamin Kennicott was a strong Christian, and it was his Christian faith that motivated him to collate Hebrew manuscripts in order to determine what was the original inspired text of the Old Testament. Today, Kennicott’s work is basically ignored by Old Testament scholars. The reason for this is directly related to higher criticism, which seeks to destroy biblical faith by treating the Bible as a purely human product. The critical view of the formation of Old Testament books is that each book was composed by many different authors/editors, in many different editions, over a long period of time. There is no direct evidence for the critical hypotheses, but they are considered dogma in contemporary OT scholarship, given that the alternative is accepting biblical faith. A component of redaction criticism and other forms of higher criticism is the hypothesis that the Masoretic text is corrupt, and in order to get past the hypothetical layers of editing to a hypothetical “initial” text, scholars must make substantial emendations to the received Hebrew text. Since the ancient versions, particularly the LXX, are often substantially different from the MT, they are a major source for the large editing changes contemporary critics wish to make to the Old Testament text. But some scholars want to essentially rewrite the whole OT to make it fit with their view of what the text should mean and how it was formed, so they add many of their own conjectural emendations even to what is in the LXX, often going so far as to propose entirely new Hebrew words on the basis of words in cognate languages. The textual variants in Kennicott are ignored by critical scholars because they are the sort of small variants one would expect to arise by mistake when copying manuscripts, rather than the large variants that would be created by someone who is editing the biblical text.

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls tempered some of the most extreme assertions of critical scholars about the MT, at least for a while. Most of the Dead Sea Scrolls contain a text that is virtually identical to the medieval Masoretic manuscripts, with only small textual variants. This proved that Hebrew manuscripts were faithfully copied for at least 1,500 years. Thus, the fact that many of Kennicott’s manuscripts date to the late medieval period does not mean that they do not preserve readings of manuscripts that were copied in antiquity. The main reason why older Hebrew manuscripts are not abundant is because the Jews “retire” old manuscripts when they begin to wear out. However, the readings of medieval manuscripts are valuable because they are part of a manuscript tradition that was very carefully copied. By way of analogy, in NT textual criticism medieval manuscripts which have a text that is very similar to the earliest extant manuscripts are given significant weight. I would personally argue that the Masoretic text is a faithful representation of the original inspired text, and I would only propose emendations of the MT or follow readings of the LXX on rare occasions.

For scholars who hold a high view of the fidelity of the MT, Kennicott is a much more valuable tool for textual criticism than the Greek Septuagint, the Latin Vulgate, the Syriac Peshitta, the Aramaic Targums, BHS, or even BHQ. I still consult other critical editions, ancient versions, and commentaries, but Kennicott contains most of the variants that I would consider important for recovering the original inspired text. The 600+ manuscripts collated by Kennicott are a large enough sample so that the inclusion of more manuscripts likely would not change the balance of evidence significantly. Yet I hope that someday all extant Hebrew manuscripts will be collated in a digital critical apparatus that will make the variant readings they contain more accessible to scholars. As it is, Kennicott’s work remains the most comprehensive and authoritative textual apparatus of Hebrew manuscripts ever produced. I hope that along with a new collation of Hebrew manuscripts, there will also be a return in evangelical seminaries to doing textual criticism primarily from an apparatus of Hebrew textual variants, without telling students that they can only analyze OT textual variants if they do extensive work in Latin, Aramaic, Syriac, Ugaritic, and so forth.

I will close this post with an extended quotation from Benjamin Kennicott, The State of the Printed Hebrew Text of the Old Testament Considered (Oxford: Oxford, 1759), 2:295, 298-300. Kennicott’s rational faith is clearly evident here, and is refreshing in comparison with the unreasonable skepticism of modern scholars:

The Original of the Pentateuch, in the hand-writing of Moses, was preserv’d with great care, being deposited in the side of the ark [Deut 31:26]; and with the ark was probably introduc’d into the temple at Jerusalem. . . . That this MS, wrote by the hand of Moses, was not stolen by the Philistines, but safely deposited in the temple; and that (after being conceal’d in the dangerous days of the idolatrous kings of Judah) it was found in the days of Josiah—-this seems clearly pointed out in the account given in 2 Chron, 34, 14. For there the copy of the law thus found by Hilkiah the priest is call’d ספר תורת יהוה ביד משה liber legis Jehovæ in manu (or per manum) Mosis. ’Tis scarce possible for words more naturally to describe a book written by Moses himself; or to vouch more fully, that the MS of the law then found was in the hand-writing of Moses. And perhaps all doubt will be remov’d, when ’tis consider’d farther—that, tho’ there are 15 places in the old Testament, which mention the words law of Moses and book of Moses, yet this one place only mentions the book of the law in the hand (or by the hand) of Moses: the reason of which seems to be that the other places speak of that law in general; but this place speaks of one particular MS, namely the original. . . . As to the point of age, this MS certainly might be the original; distance of time leaving it very possible. For the most extended chronology does not make the interval from the death of Moses to the death of Josiah 950 years; an age exceeded by that of several MSS preserv’d at this day.

Insights from the 2017 ETS conference

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This past week I attended the 69th annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Providence, Rhode Island. This is the major academic conference which brings together evangelical scholars from a cross-section of disciplines relating to biblical studies, theology (systematic, biblical, & practical), church history, and philosophy. Recordings of all the sessions are available from Wordmp3, and the plenary lectures will be published in JETS. What follows is a summary of highlights from the sessions I attended.

David Rohl was a special invited guest of ETS, and he presented two lectures on Egyptian history and the Bible. Although Rohl is not a Christian, he has a high view of the historical reliability of the Bible. Rohl has shown that the picture of consecutive Egyptian dynasties that is often presented is much too oversimplified. Dynasties often overlapped; at times Egypt was divided in multiple parts, with four or even up to twelve kings reigning at the same time. The result is a far shorter Egyptian chronology—one which comports with the biblical timescale. Further, since Greek, Cypriot, and Hittite dates are dependent on Egyptian chronology, a compression of the conventional Egyptian chronology also results in a downward revision of the other chronologies. Reactions to Rohl’s chronological proposals usually include the adverb “strongly.” I strongly support Rohl’s adjustments to the conventional chronology as correct in view of the biblical chronology, although I do not necessarily agree with every particular in his scheme.

For those who accept the validity of the biblical chronology (cf. Judg 11:26; 1 Kgs 6:1), the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is calculated as having occurred in 1446 or 1445 BC. According to the conventional chronology of ancient Egypt, this was during the reign of Thutmose III. However, the reigns of Thutmose III and his son Amenhotep II marked the pinnacle of Egyptian power and grandeur. There was no economic or political collapse in Egypt, as the Bible indicates was triggered by the ten plagues and the destruction of the Egyptian army (cf. Deut 11:4). Thus, it seems that the conventional chronology of Egypt does not line up with biblical history. Rohl identifies the Pharaoh of the exodus with Dudimose, who reigned near the end of the 13th dynasty. In support of this, Rohl cites Manetho (quoted by Josephus), who calls the Pharaoh of the exodus “Tutimaeus” (= Dudimose). The 13th dynasty ended with the invasion of the Hyksos, whom Rohl identifies with the biblical Amalekites (cf. Num 24:20). Rohl identifies the pre-Hyksos Asiatics who lived at Avaris as the Israelites. Rohl’s theory has much to commend itself, although he advocates the “short” Egyptian sojourn (215 years), in apparent contradiction of Exodus 12:40-41.

Rohl also presented considerable, and convincing, evidence against the traditional identification of Shoshenk I with the biblical “Shishak” who was king of Egypt near the end of Solomon’s reign (1 Kgs 11:40), and who successfully invaded Judah in the fifth year of Rehoboam (1 Kgs 14:25; 2 Chr 12:2-9). While Shoshenk I does record an invasion of the area around Judah, Aijalon is the only Judean city in his lengthy list of toponyms on the Bubastite Portal. His campaign annals indicate that he did not invade Judah, but rather campaigned heavily in the Jezreel Valley and in other areas around the borders of Samaria. Rohl identifies Shoshenk I as the unnamed “deliverer” of 2 Kings 13:5 who saved Israel from the Aramean oppression around 805 BC and allowed them to reoccupy sites which had been colonized by the Arameans. Rohl interprets Shoshenk I’s campaign as a campaign against the Arameans on behalf of Israel. Rohl identifies the biblical Shishak with the great Egyptian Pharaoh Ramesses II. According to Rohl’s chronology, the reign of Ramesses II began around 979 BC, late in the period of David’s reign. Based on a Hittite cuneiform tablet which records a treaty made with Ramesses II, Rohl suggests that Ramesses II was known as “Shysha” in the ancient Near East, which becomes “Shishak” in the Bible. According to Rohl, a relief at Karnak temple depicts a battle which Ramesses II fought with Israelites/Judeans, in which the Israelites are depicted in chariots. Since the Israelites did not acquire chariots until the reign of David or Solomon, Rohl argues that this battle cannot predate the united monarchy period.

Also on the subject of archaeology, Randall Price presented a paper on his excavation of a new cave near the site of Qumran, in the general area where many of the caves with Dead Sea Scrolls were found. This cave is called Cave 53, but maybe will be called Cave 12 (12Q or Q12) as a result of discoveries made during its excavation. The entrances to this cave and parts of the interior of the cave were blocked by fallen stones prior to excavation. Many jars were found of the type used to store scrolls in the other caves, with linen to wrap scrolls and a string to tie around the scrolls. Most of the artifacts found were dated to the Second Temple period, including a couple of bronze tools used for cutting niches into the cave walls. A jar in the lower cave contained a leather scroll fragment—but unfortunately no writing is visible on the scroll, though it still needs to be analyzed using the most advanced techniques. Price’s excavations have convinced the Israel Antiquities Authority to excavate systematically all known caves and thoroughly re-excavate ones that have already been excavated in order to look for new scrolls. They are so convinced there are still new scrolls to be found that the Shrine of the Book museum in Israel is planning to build a new wing with the intention of housing new discoveries.

Stephen Meyer of the Discovery Institute and well-known philosopher J. P. Moreland presented on objections to theistic evolution. These scholars are part of the Intelligent Design (ID) movement. ID has been criticized by both secular evolutionists and biblical creationists for being an incomplete theory, as it simply asserts that life was designed without explaining who designed life, or when and how the universe came into existence. Many ID proponents are opposed to evolutionary biology but still accept the view of evolutionary geology and cosmology that the earth is billions of years old. While many in the ID movement are Christians, some are not. Nevertheless, ID proponents have advanced many arguments that are helpful to biblical creationists. The ID scholars who presented at ETS were contributors to the book Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique.

Stephen Meyer (author of Darwin’s Doubt) presented on scientific problems with biological evolution. The goal of his talk was to proclaim a liberation to theology and Bible professors, informing them that it is not necessary to accept evolution as a framework for understanding Scripture. Meyer said that there is no scientific consensus today on how evolutionary mechanisms work; evolution is a theory in crisis because it has “no theory of the generative,” according to evolutionary biologists themselves. Yet at the same time as evolutionary biologists (e.g., the Altenberg 16) are acknowledging serious problems with evolution, many theologians are pushing the church to accept theistic evolution as dogma. They are supported by highly public figures such as Richard Dawkins and science columnists and commentators in the media who strongly assert the validity of evolution for anti-Christian theological reasons; however, these television personalities and journalists present a very one-sided picture of the issue which does not acknowledge the issues being raised in current peer-reviewed scientific literature. Evolutionary biologists are increasingly recognizing problems with the explanatory power of natural selection and random mutations. Here are some of the dilemmas Meyer noted:

  1. If you want to build a new form of life, you need to have new code in DNA, which functions in a very similar manner to computer code. The problem is that if you start with a highly specific code, then randomly change the 0’s and 1’s, you will degrade the code and end up with a program that doesn’t work, rather than having a functional outcome. Since natural selection can only select what random mutations generate, if it is mathematically impossible for random mutations to produce the functional code in DNA even over a timescale of billions of years, then life lacks a mechanism to evolve.
  2. It is not just DNA that codes for the specific proteins needed for an organism to function. Recent discoveries have revealed that genes interact with each other in integrated circuits to produce proteins. If this “developmental gene regulatory network” is perturbed, it stops producing necessary proteins and the organism dies. Thus, evolutionary biologists are on the horns of a dilemma: a new developmental gene regulatory network is needed in order to produce new forms of life, but the network cannot be disturbed without the organism dying.
  3. In order for an organism with a new body plan to be produced, mutations must occur very early in the development of an organism, almost at conception (so that all the organism’s cells have the same genetic code). But new research by geneticists has found that mutations which occur early in the development of an organism are always deleterious, and cause the organism to die.
  4. Evolutionary biologists have traditionally focused on genetic mutations as the source of evolutionary change. But we now know that the development of some structures in the body are not controlled by DNA; scientists do not know at present what controls their development. Thus, DNA only provides the lowest-level assembly instructions; organisms have both genetic and epigenetic information which would both need to be reprogrammed for a new form of life to be generated.

J. P. Moreland argued that many of the questions addressed by evolution are primarily philosophical or theological questions, not scientific ones. Evolutionary science assumes a philosophical basis, which is often obviously faulty when analyzed from a philosophical point of view. One example is Stephen Hawking’s assertion that the universe could have originated from “nothing.” From a philosophical viewpoint, “nothing” means a total privation, whereas Stephen Hawking’s “nothing” included a “quantum vacuum.” Naturally, Hawking did not explain how the quantum vacuum came to exist.[1] One of the things which biological evolution seeks to describe is the origin of information. Yet when biologists are asked to describe what information is, they describe it as a non-physical entity—something which can exist in many different places at the same time. Thus, evolution attempts to explain the origin of a non-physical entity through a physical process, which is impossible. Some other philosophical questions which science cannot properly address include the origin of consciousness, free will, intrinsic value, and moral values.

Moreland noted that in spite of the fact that many theologians push the adoption of theistic evolution as a way to make Christianity acceptable, in fact studies have noted that theistic evolution has a negative effect on the Christian church and on people who are considering Christianity. People know in their gut that theistic evolution is a revisionist reading of the early chapters of Genesis, and this results in revisionist readings of other parts of Scripture, until the whole of biblical faith is undermined. The church needs to provide real answers to scientific questions; George Barna’s research showed that 1 in 6 people are leaving the church because it does not.

Moreland also addressed the question of whether it is rational to reject the theory of evolution when ninety-nine percent of biologists hold that it is true. He argued that (1) If you can show that the homogeneity of the majority is due to non-rational (sociological) factors, then their agreement does not lend intellectual support to their theory. In the case of evolution, there are institutional punishments for those who break with the standard scientific theory—it is a sociologically forced homogeneity. Also, Darwin was able to get God and theology out of science, which means that many scientists have strong religious motivations for supporting evolution. (2) If there is a minority of highly intellectually trained, well-credentialed “rebels” who do not accept the standard paradigm, then it is rational to deny the standard view—there is a rational alternative. This is also the case with regard to evolution, as there are many highly credentialed scientists in both the intelligent design and biblical creationist movements. Biblical creationists would add a third point: (3) If the belief of the majority is not based on the Bible, and is clearly in contradiction of the Bible, then it ought to be rejected.

Francis Gumerlock gave an interesting presentation on the development of the pretribulational rapture in medieval Christianity. I have heard the assertion many times by anti-dispensationalists that John Nelson Darby invented the idea of a pretribulational rapture in the nineteenth century, and that no one else in all of church history before him ever held to such an idea. Recent research by Gumerlock and others has challenged this historical reconstruction. Gumerlock published an article in 2002 in which he described a reference to the rapture in a fourteenth century sectarian text, The History of Brother Dolcino. In his presentation at ETS this year, Gumerlock showed how the description of believers being transferred to Paradise to be protected from the antichrist in Brother Dolcino appears to be a natural development of medieval thought. A common theme in medieval texts, based on biblical references, is that believers will flee to caves, deserts, and mountains to be protected from the antichrist. One text, the 14th century Apocalypse of Pseudo-Shenoute, describes the caves and deserts becoming an Edenic garden after believers flee there for protection from the antichrist. Another text, a 12th century Sermon on Antichrist, describes believers fleeing to the caves of a large river which flowed out of Paradise. Finally, various medieval versions of the Voyage of Saint Brendan describe how God will reveal the location of Paradise to His people when the antichrist comes, and how God will somehow bring His people to this Paradise. Thus, there is a progression from believers fleeing to a place which becomes Paradise, to believers fleeing to a place very close to Paradise, to believers fleeing (or being translated) to Paradise itself. For further reading on references to the rapture and to pretribulationalism or dispensationalism before the nineteenth century, see Gumerlock’s 2013 article and William Watson’s book Dispensationalism before Darby.

Besides attending sessions, I met a lot of friends, both new and old. The Exhibit Hall is always a highlight, with opportunities to buy both hard copy and electronic resources at deep discounts, to interact with top representatives from publishing houses, and to peruse the latest releases. I escaped from the conference a couple of times and went sightseeing. Providence has some nice attractions near the convention center, including the Rhode Island State House, the Old State House, the Roger Williams National Memorial, and the First Baptist Church in America. A short drive away are Battleship Cove and the Victorian mansions of Newport. The featured image at the top of this post shows a motto on the exterior of the Rhode Island State House, which comes from the colony’s Royal Charter of 1663. Hope to see everyone at next year’s ETS meeting in Denver!


[1] Because nothing comes from nothing, yet things do exist, it is obvious that something has always existed. It is further obvious that (1) Whatever has always existed must have the power to self-exist and self-sustain. (2) Whatever has always existed is non-physical, since everything that is physical exists in time, and everything which exists in time must have a beginning point. (3) The non-physical (spiritual) entity which has always existed has the power to create the physical world. (4) The Creator of the physical world also created the nonmaterial properties associated with it, such as information, design, moral values, and consciousness. (5) Only an omniscient being could have created the incredible complexity of the physical universe and biological life, with the whole system working properly. (6) Only an omnipotent being could have brought the universe and life into existence. (7) The things we observe in the physical world and especially in human history point specifically to the triune God who is revealed in the Bible as the eternal, all-knowing, all-powerful, yet personal and loving, Creator.

The task of Bible translation

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Jesus commanded His church to make disciples from all the nations (Matt 28:19), and to be witnesses for Him in the remotest parts of the earth (Acts 1:8). The book of Revelation affirms that Jesus died for those of every tribe, language, people group, and nation (Rev 5:9), and it describes saints from every tribe, people group, and language worshiping before the throne of God in heaven (Rev 7:9). While the church has made tremendous progress in the 500 years since the Protestant Reformation in fulfilling its mission of taking the gospel to the whole world, the major impediment that remains is the lack of Bible translations in the languages spoken by many people groups. The Word of God is necessary to present the gospel and bring about spiritual regeneration (Rom 10:17; Eph 5:26; 1 Pet 1:23-26). The Word of God is also necessary to bring about spiritual growth in new believers (1 Pet 2:2). Bible translation is therefore a task of core-critical importance to fulfilling the mission of the church in the present age.

Earlier this month I attended the Bible Translation 2017 (BT2017) conference in Duncanville, Texas. This conference gathered together representatives of more than thirty Bible translation organizations, including many top-level experts, to present on translation strategies and challenges in light of the latest developments in the field. This was largely a conference for language “geeks,” with presentations that would be difficult for those who lack technical linguistic expertise or familiarity with the field of Bible translation to understand. I was at the BT2017 conference partly to market the product I have been developing, the Photo Companion to the Bible, and partly out of personal interest and involvement in the field of Bible translation (including projects I have done, and continue to do, with/for Bibles International).

Steven Anderson, BT2017 BiblePlaces exhibit, adr1710176700-1a

The BiblePlaces.com booth at the BT2017 conference

Wycliffe, SIL, The Seed Company, and other Bible translation organizations are currently working toward the realization of Vision 2025, which has as its goal the initiation of a Bible translation project by 2025 for every people group in the world that still needs a Bible in their own language. With 7,099 known living languages (as of Oct. 2017), and approximately 1,700 languages that have no portion of the Bible translated, Vision 2025 is not an easy goal to achieve. Producing a quality translation of just the New Testament in one new language is a task that usually takes a team of specialists decades to accomplish and costs more than a million dollars. Many of the languages which remain to be translated are spoken only by small people groups in remote areas—yet these are still people for whom Christ died, and the church must reach them in order to fulfill the Great Commission.

Although it remains to be seen whether the ambitious Vision 2025 will be achieved, it is possible that God will work through His people eventually to complete at least a partial Bible translation for every language that needs one. (If not—an angel preaches the gospel in every language in Revelation 14:6-7.) Yet the task of Bible translation will not end until the return of Jesus Christ to the earth. There are several reasons for this.

  1. In the twentieth century, many translation projects were considered “completed” when the New Testament was finished. Now Bible translation organizations are realizing the need to translate at least portions (initially) of the Old Testament, and eventually to translate the whole Bible. One of the major barriers to achieving this goal is the lack of personnel and funding; lack of Hebrew (and Aramaic) knowledge among translation consultants is the other major barrier. All told, a complete Bible does not exist in the languages spoken by more than a billion people in the world today.
  2. Some people groups are very difficult for Bible translators and missionaries to access. They may live in countries where Christianity is illegal, and there may be no known Christians in the entire language group.
  3. Many existing translations are of inadequate quality, either because of lack of skill on the part of the translators, or because of a poor translation philosophy.
  4. Languages are always changing, and periodic revisions are necessary to keep up with language change. Also, as Bible translations are used and studied, small problems often become evident that can be corrected through a revision or update. (Think of the number of revisions that English Bibles have gone through.)
  5. Sometimes the churches of a language group request a revision of their translation, usually because they want a more literal (formal equivalence) translation.
  6. Studies have shown that it is usually necessary to continue to engage people groups for whom Bible translations have been produced in order for them to keep using those translations. (Think about the number of American Christians who don’t read the Bible, in spite of its availability.) It helps if discipleship material can be translated in addition to the Bible.
  7. Since Bibles are now commonly distributed and read on smartphones and computers, there is an ongoing need to integrate existing translations with the latest technological advances. This includes not only making the biblical text available on the newest platforms, but also linking it to glossaries, concordances, photos, and other study aids. There is also a periodic need for new printed editions.

Bible translation is tedious, technical work that requires commitment and sacrifice. Years of training and graduate school are required, followed by raising missionary support. Time is then needed to be trained through hands-on experience with a mentor or translation team. Many translators have spent all or most of their careers working on a single project, often just completing the New Testament in their lifetimes. Translation consultants, who do painstakingly detailed editing of translation drafts for many different projects, are typically overworked and spend much of the year traveling to remote areas, often in separation from their families. These people are unsung heroes of the modern church. I would encourage you to pray about the task of Bible translation and consider whether God may want you to have a role in this critical endeavor.