Should churches comply with COVID-19 closure orders?

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John MacArthur has been one the best known and most respected pastors in American evangelicalism for many decades. Recently he has been in the news for defying an order by California governor Gavin Newsom that requires churches to temporarily refrain from holding normal services within their buildings in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. At the time of this post’s publication, MacArthur is currently being threatened with arrest and fines, and is garnering support in a polarized political environment from Franklin Graham and leading conservative political activists. Many Christians assume that MacArthur is being persecuted for his Christian faith. While Governor Newsom does have a long track record of hostility towards biblical Christianity, his order mandates a broad but temporary closure of establishments that also includes churches. In any case, Peter commanded Christians to submit to the very worst of all the Roman emperors—Nero (1 Pet 2:13-17)—so we must ask whether Pastor MacArthur has a legitimate biblical basis for defying Governor Newsom’s order.

In an article posted on the website of Grace Community Church, MacArthur argues from the Bible that the government does not have the right to ban churches from meeting for services, or to limit the number of people who can gather at one time, or to ban singing in church services. While some of MacArthur’s supporting arguments are problematic, I don’t know of any pastors who would disagree with the major points listed above, as applied in generic circumstances. However, the main article does not address the issue of the context in which the closure orders have been issued, which is the COVID-19 pandemic. An Addendum by the elders of Grace Community Church states, “It is, of course, legitimate for Christians to abstain from the assembly of saints temporarily in the face of illness or an imminent threat to public health.” However, they go on to assert, “the virus is nowhere near as dangerous as originally feared,” and it is this evaluation of the danger posed by COVID-19 that led the church to reopen. This is a reversal of the church’s earlier policy; in an article published on May 23, the church leadership wrote in response to a court ruling that kept churches in California closed, “the Ninth Circuit decision is sadly the law of the land in California, and we gladly submit to the sovereign purposes of God. . . . the elders of Grace Community Church desire to delay our reopening and leave it in the hands of God.”

First of all, it must be stated that MacArthur and the leadership of Grace Community Church are mistaken in their scientific and political evaluation of the COVID-19 pandemic, and they ought to know better. The overwhelming consensus of medical experts is that COVID-19 is a deadly disease, and wherever there have been outbreaks of COVID-19 the intensive care units of hospitals have quickly filled to capacity with critically ill patients—something that does not happen with influenza outbreaks. Patients who recover often do not recover fully—they can have long-term or even permanent damage from the disease, which affects the body differently than the flu. Further, COVID-19 is so contagious that even asymptomatic carriers who do not wear masks will spread it to virtually everyone who spends time in proximity to them. Contrary to the conspiracy theories, government leaders around the world would not shut down large sectors of their economies unless they were convinced it is absolutely necessary to do so. Further, churches meetings are being prohibited as part of a general ban on indoor gatherings for public health reasons; the government is not targeting churches for their religious beliefs. Very liberal governors have also closed bars, theaters, sports arenas, and gyms—establishments that they surely do not want to drive out of business. These closings are intended to be temporary, not recurring or permanent.

Is compliance with an order for churches to temporarily stop meeting because of a pandemic contrary to Scripture? Before addressing that question, it should be noted that the government order only prohibits large gatherings of people indoors. As Jonathan Leeman notes on the 9Marks blog, some other large churches have chosen to hold outdoor services, or even to split into dozens of house congregations until the pandemic is over. (See also this CT article.) Most churches are using technology to livestream preaching online and to hold interactive Sunday School classes or small group discipleship via a video conference tool such as Zoom or Skype. MacArthur’s presentation of the issue as an either/or choice between holding regular services inside the church building or not meeting at all presents a false dichotomy (“Christ or Caesar”). MacArthur has rejected the other options, not because he believes they are unbiblical as temporary measures to help contain a pandemic, but because he disagrees with the government’s assessment that large indoor gatherings pose a serious public health risk, calling it “lies and deception.” Apparently if MacArthur was convinced that COVID-19 is a deadly disease, he would have complied with the governor’s order to refrain from holding church services. Here MacArthur is usurping the prerogatives of the state, as it is the role of government officials to decide how deadly a disease is, and what measures should be taken to stop its spread; if every man could decide for himself what should be done, the result would be anarchy and a public health disaster. The government of course makes mistakes, but Christians are still called to obey the government as long as the government does not require Christians to act contrary to Scripture. In this case, the government is allowing for alternatives to meeting inside a church building. (It should be remembered that a church is people, not a building.) MacArthur’s congregation is also defying the government’s requirement to wear face masks indoors because, in MacArthur’s view, “they understand the reality” of the risk posed by COVID-19. This is simple rebellion against the government.

MacArthur argues that the state does not have authority over the church or family, but that these are three spheres of separate authority. However, the New Testament teaches that churches and families are to submit to the state (Rom 13:1-7; 1 Pet 2:13-17), except in those rare cases where the government commands believers to disobey God (Acts 5:29)—and even then, Christians are to follow Christ’s example of nonresistance (1 Pet 2:21-25). In reality, churches comply with government regulations and requirements all the time—building codes, occupancy codes, blight ordinances, and so forth. In addition, it is the job of the government to intervene when criminal activity or activity that adversely affects public health and safety is occurring within churches or families; thus, the government has some legitimate oversight of churches and families. I would argue that the government is within its biblical rights to temporarily order church buildings to close during a pandemic, or even to order “non-essential workers” to quarantine at home. Disputes over whether the government is acting within its constitutional rights should be resolved through legal processes, without civil disobedience.

MacArthur has stated that pastors who are keeping their church buildings closed are not “shepherding their people,” and that the pandemic will “reveal the true church,” in spite of the fact that his own church only recently reversed its closure policy. By “shepherding their people,” MacArthur is apparently referring to preaching to thousands of people in a giant auditorium, as he does on Sundays. However, it is hard to understand how people who watch MacArthur preach on live video are being fed any differently than those who are sitting in the auditorium. One could also argue that a small group or Sunday School class that meets via Zoom or Skype and actually interacts on a personal level is being shepherded in a way that a pastor preaching to thousands of people cannot do. Of course the New Testament directs churches to assemble in person, as there was no way to meet via video conferencing in the first century AD. Under normal circumstances, believers should assemble physically in the same place and meet face to face in order to do such things as corporate singing and communion, which are difficult or impossible to do remotely. However, often circumstances are not normal, and when technology is used well it can come close to replicating many aspects of in-person church. In addition, in other countries and cultures where churches face strong government persecution, Christians often gather in small house churches or even meet in secret locations in order to avoid arrest, and this is not unbiblical compromise.

It is ironic that the article on the Grace Community Church website lists one of the reasons for reopening as: “The unity and influence of the church has been threatened.” Yet the article also contains such polarizing affirmations as: “pastors who cede their Christ-delegated authority in the church to a civil ruler have abdicated their responsibility before their Lord” and “our prayer is that every faithful congregation will stand with us in obedience to our Lord.” The truth is that the pressure MacArthur is placing on other pastors and churches to reopen is likely to cause church splits, as congregations divide between those who believe that COVID-19 is a serious threat and those who think it isn’t. Some pastors are preaching that the Bible requires everyone to physically attend church every time there is a service, regardless of the risk, and that merely watching the service online is disobeying God. This sort of legalistic preaching is likely to kill many people physically, as well as causing great spiritual damage to congregations and to the church’s reputation.

Quarantines provide great opportunities for spiritual growth that are being missed by those who insist on business as usual. (See the excellent Quarantine Blessings video by Rick Griffith.) Many Americans ran out of patience after only a few weeks of staying at home and began to resume their normal activities as much as possible, ignoring the risks posed by COVID-19. However, being in quarantine is a great way to learn such virtues as patience and discipline, and to rest from one’s regular business while engaging in quieter activities. Pastors and churches would do well to take advantage of this change in circumstances to grow in new ways, rather than insisting on unbiblical defiance of government orders to temporarily stop meeting indoors.

Darío el medo: una solución a su identidad

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[For English, click here]

El libro bíblico de Daniel describe una figura conocida como Darío el medo, el hijo de Asuero, de quien se dice que fue el que asumió el mando sobre el imperio neobabilónico después de la caída de Babilona ante una fuerza medo-persa (Daniel 5:31). Darío el medo es un personaje principal en Daniel 6, y se dice que la visión de Daniel 9 ocurrió durante su reinado. Sin embargo, surge un problema cuando se intenta identificar a Darío el medo en la literatura extrabíblica antigua. Darío el medo es generalmente considerado un personaje de ficción por la erudición crítica moderna. (Hay unos pocos eruditos críticos que aceptan la historicidad de Darío el medo, pero no muchos). La perspectiva convencional afirma que Ciro el persa conquistó Media alrededor del 553 a. C. y destituyó al último rey medo. Ciro, como rey de Persia, reinó sobre todo el imperio (medo-)persa cuando Babilonia cayó en el 539 a. C. Los eruditos evangélicos de la Biblia han propuesto varias soluciones para armonizar el libro de Daniel con esta versión de la historia, sin embargo, sigue existiendo un cierto grado de insatisfacción con estas soluciones.

Cuando comencé a escribir mi disertación sobre Darío el medo, la discusión académica estaba esencialmente estancada. Ni los eruditos evangélicos ni los críticos tenían alguna idea nueva significativa y ninguna de las partes consideraba convincentes los argumentos de la otra parte. Sin embargo, la mayoría de los eruditos no eran conscientes de que Jenofonte, un historiador griego, describe un rey medo a quien él llama Ciajares (Ciaxares) II, quien se asemeja mucho a Darío el medo de Daniel. La perspectiva de que Ciajares II es Darío el medo fue la interpretación estándar judía y cristiana desde Josefo y Jerónimo hasta Keil en los 1870s, pero fue abandonada después del descubrimiento de inscripciones cuneiformes que parecían respaldar el recuento de Heródoto del ascenso de Ciro, lo cual no permite la existencia del Ciajares II descrito por Jenofonte.

La tesis que yo argumento en mi disertación doctoral del 2014 y libro publicado (ambos titulados Darius the Mede: A Reappraisal [Darío el medo: una revaluación] y disponible en formato pdf aquí y aquí, o como libro impreso aquí) es que Ciro compartía poder con un rey medo hasta aproximadamente dos años después de la caída de Babilonia. Este rey medo es llamado Ciajares (II) por el historiador griego Jenofonte, pero es conocido por su nombre de trono Darío en el libro de Daniel. Ciro no hizo una conquista hostil de Media, no destronó al último rey medo, y no se convirtió en el más alto regente del imperio medo-persa sino hasta después de la caída de Babilonia. Ciro era el corregente de Darío, el rey hereditario del reino de Persia, el príncipe heredero de Media y el comandante del ejército medo-persa, aun así, era Darío quien fue oficialmente reconocido como el máximo poder del reino. Darío murió de muerte natural dentro de los dos años posteriores a la caída de Babilonia, y como él no tenía un heredero masculino y Ciro se había casado con su hija, Ciro heredó su posición luego de su muerte y unió a los reinos de Media y Persia en un solo trono.

Mi reconstrucción del ascenso de Ciro en gran parte está basada en el recuento detallado dado por el historiador griego Jenofonte, el cual concuerda notablemente bien con el libro de Daniel y es respaldado por una sorprendente variedad de otras fuentes antiguas. El recuento del ascenso de Ciro dado por el historiador griego Heródoto, el cual constituye la base para la reconstrucción de estos eventos por historiadores modernos, es una reestructuración legendaria de un mito propagandístico promovido por Ciro como medio de legitimización de su conquista en la mente de una población babilónica hostil. Las referencias en textos cuneiformes a Ciro (y a su hijo Cambises) como “rey” poco después de la caída de Babilonia pueden ser fácilmente explicadas a través de una corregencia que duró hasta la muerte de Darío el medo/Ciajares II.

Los principales argumentos de apoyo hechos en el libro incluyen los siguientes:

  1. Se había descubierto que la confiabilidad histórica de la Ciropedia de Jenofonte es mucho mayor que la que sostiene el consenso erudito actualmente. (Steven W. Hirsch, un erudito de Jenofonte, también argumenta a favor de una perspectiva mucho más alta sobre la confiabilidad histórica de la Ciropedia). Se encontró que Jenofonte era históricamente creíble, y superior a Heródoto, con respecto a sus relatos de la crianza real de Ciro, la existencia de Belsasar, la existencia de Gobrias y el matrimonio de Ciro con la hija de Ciajares.
  2. La inscripción de Behistún de Darío Histaspes (“Darío I”) manifiesta que dos medos, quienes lanzaron rebeliones en contra de Darío en momentos separados, lo hicieron basándose en (presuntas) falsas afirmaciones de ser parte de la familia de Ciajares. El hecho de que ellos afirmaran tener una relación con Ciajares, en vez de con Astiages, es evidencia de que Ciajares II realmente existió y que fue el último rey medo.
  3. La adopción de “Darío” y “Asuero” (= Jerjes) como nombres de trono de los primeros dos reyes persas en la dinastía que siguió a la de Ciro es evidencia de que fueron usados como nombres de trono por reyes de una dinastía anterior. Esto es una evidencia indirecta de que en realidad hubo un rey medo llamado “Darío” y otro llamado “Asuero” como los presenta el libro de Daniel (Daniel 9:1). El uso de nombres de trono por los reyes persas también proporciona plausibilidad a la sugerencia de que el nombre de pila de Darío el medo era “Ciajares”.
  4. Hay fuerte evidencia histórica de que los medos y los persas habían formado un gobierno aliado, y por lo tanto la historia de Heródoto sobre cómo Ciro había subyugado a los medos y depuesto al último rey medo es históricamente imprecisa. Jenofonte y Heródoto están de acuerdo en que el rey medo Astiages entregó a su hija Mandane en matrimonio con Cambises I, quien era el rey de los persas. En el contexto del antiguo Oriente Próximo, matrimonios así representaban la formación de alianzas políticas y parece que Astiages hizo una alianza así con Persia con miras a frenar la hegemonía de Babilonia. Un pasaje en el Persae de Esquilo está anotado en el capítulo 4, el cual presenta a Astiages como fundador de la alianza, aunque sin mencionarlo directamente. El capítulo 3 menciona textos bíblicos que describan a los medos y persas gobernando su imperio en conjunto, y también menciona evidencia arqueológica que representa a los medos como socios principales e iguales, en vez de sus vasallos.
  5. La estela de Harán, la cual es una inscripción de Nabónido, menciona a un cierto “rey de las tierras de los medos” junto a los reyes de Egipto y Arabia como los enemigos principales de Babilonia. Esta inscripción fue producida varios años después de la supuesta conquista de Media por Ciro, y por lo tanto parecía indicar que Ciro no depuso al último rey medo.
  6. El historiador Beroso, cuya historia del imperio neobabilónico es bien respetada pero pobremente preservada, se refiere a las acciones de un “rey Darío” no especificado poco después de la caída de Babilonia. La versión convencional de la historia de este periodo no reconoce a ningún “rey Darío” tan temprano.
  7. Valerio Harpocración, un investigador profesional y lexicógrafo de la biblioteca de Alejandría, afirma en una obra léxica que había un rey del imperio medo-persa llamado “Darío” quien reinó un tiempo antes de Darío Histaspes. Una vez más, la versión convencional de la historia de este periodo no tiene explicación para este “Darío”.
  8. El dramaturgo trágico griego Esquilo, quien escribió antes de Heródoto, describe dos reyes medos quienes precedieron a Ciro como gobernantes del imperio medo-persa. Aunque Esquilo no nombra a estos dos reyes, el presenta al primero como el fundador de la dinastía, al segundo como su hijo y el rey que estaba en el trono cuando Babilonia cayó, y al tercero, Ciro, como el sucesor natural del segundo rey. La historia convencional de este periodo no reconoce a este segundo rey medo.

Los eruditos tienden a ser escépticos cuando se les presentan nuevas teorías, y con justa razón. Mi propio comité de disertación en el Seminario Teológico de Dallas estuvo bastante escéptico cuando propuse este tema. Sin embargo, después de una investigación exhaustiva en los textos de fuentes primarias del periodo, la evidencia que respaldaba la descripción de Jenofonte de un rey medo reinando en paralelo con Ciro, y que correspondía a Darío el medo de Daniel, fue convincente. Hasta ahora, mi trabajo ha sido bien recibido por eruditos evangélicos de la Biblia, varios de los cuales me han comunicado que ahora abogan por mi posición. Algunos otros me han dicho que mi trabajo los ha incitado a comenzar sus propios proyectos de investigación en textos comerciales babilónicos o temas relacionados. Los eruditos evangélicos parecen estar muy contentos de tener una nueva solución al problema de Darío el medo que encaja bien tanto con el libro de Daniel como con la literatura extrabíblica antigua. Es mi esperanza que la evidencia para identificar a Ciajares II con Darío el medo no solamente revitalizará la discusión académica sobre Darío el medo, sino que también esto creará un cambio significativo en la forma en que el ascenso de Ciro al poder es entendido por historiadores del imperio neobabilónico y el imperio medo-persa. Para concluir, presento una lista de referencias a mi libro o disertación en artículos académicos y fuentes en línea, comenzando con unas cuantas obras adicionales mías:

  1. Después de haber publicado mi disertación, hice una presentación sobre Darío el medo en la convención anual de 2015 de la Evangelical Theological Society, “Darius the Mede – The Evidence for Identifying Him with Xenophon’s Cyaxares II”.
  2. Fui coautor de un artículo con Rodger Young, “The Remembrance of Daniel’s Darius the Mede in Berossus and Harpocration”, el cual fue publicado en la edición julio-septiembre 2016 de Bibliotheca Sacra. Este artículo fue brevemente reseñado por Brian Collins en su sitio Exegesis and Theology.
  3. Fui el creador principal del volumen de Daniel de la Photo Companion to the Bible (BiblePlaces.com, 2019). Este volumen puede ser consultado para fotografías que ilustran la arqueología del libro de Daniel. Una fotografía que es relevante para el tema de Darío el medo es la que se muestra en la parte superior de este artículo, la cual es un relieve tallado en Persépolis que representa a los nobles medos y persas como iguales en estatus.
  4. Mi disertación fue revisada favorablemente por Benjamin Noonan en la edición de junio del 2015 de The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (página 386 de reseñas de libros).
  5. Kirk MacGregor sigue mi línea de argumentación en las páginas 51-54 de su artículo en Journal of the International Society of Christian Apologetics de abril del 2016, “A Contemporary Defense of the Authenticity of Daniel”.
  6. Paul Tanner favorece la identificación de Darío el medo con Ciajares II, y él incluye una extensa argumentación en su comentario sobre Daniel en la serie Evangelical Exegetical Commentary; ver también su reseña de mi libro en Amazon.
  7. Christian Varela ha escrito un artículo extenso en español, “Un Análisis De La Identidad De Dario El Medo del Libro De Daniel” (páginas 324-53 en El Pueblo del Pacto: Hechos Destacadas de la Historia de Israel). Varela cita mi libro ampliamente mientras argumenta desde una perspectiva adventista que Darío el Medo debería ser identificado como Ciajares II.
  8. James Bejon tiene una extensa discusión sobre Darío el medo en su comentario en línea sobre Daniel (Apéndice 5, comenzando en la página 9).
  9. Referencias a mi trabajo han aparecido en varios sitios web cristianos, como la página de Thomas Ross sobre mi libro en su sitio web apologético, el artículo del blog de Peter Goeman, el artículo de Kyle Pope en Focus Online, la referencia de John Oakes en su sitio web Evidence for Christianity y el link del sitio web de Daniel Prophecies de Eddie Van Gent.

New resources for biblical studies

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It has been awhile since I have posted here, but that isn’t because I haven’t been writing! It is time now to give a quick update on projects that I and others have been working on. The first two projects in this list are free!

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First, I have written an eight-volume guide to understanding each book of the Bible, Dr. Anderson’s Interpretive Guide to the Bible. These books are available for free download from my website, or for purchase on Amazon. The first two volumes of this series are newly revised and translated into Spanish as Guía interpretativa para la Biblia for use as Bible curriculum for Seminario Teológico Evangélico Gozo Eterno. The Spanish volumes are available for free download on my website, or on the seminary’s website; print volumes are available for purchase on Amazon.

GenesisSecond, I have made playlists on SoundCloud of free recordings of the Old Testament read in the original Hebrew and Aramaic by Omer Frenkel and produced by the 929 Project, an Israeli Jewish (non-Christian) organization (there are 929 chapters in the Hebrew Bible). Omer Frenkel is a native speaker of Hebrew and a well known Israeli narrator. The 929 Project is currently uploading Frenkel’s recordings of the Minor Prophets, after which the entire Old Testament/Hebrew Bible will be complete. While I am not affiliated with the 929 Project, any SoundCloud user can make playlists of their recordings, which are not easily accessible otherwise.

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Third, new volumes of the Photo Companion to the Bible continue to be released. I began this project with Todd Bolen in November 2014 in order to find the best photographs to illustrate the Bible by chapter and verse. The project has since grown significantly, with more than half a dozen other scholars contributing, although I have done most of the first drafts. My favorites among the new releases are the Daniel and Esther volumes, for which I was the primary creator. Since these volumes do not just include photographs but also extensive explanations, anyone who is interested in the relationship of historical and archaeological background information to the Bible will find the Photo Companion to the Bible profitable.

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Fourth, I am happy to promote the new single-volume edition of the Syriac-English New Testament published by Gorgias Press. (This is a sponsored mention.) The Syriac New Testament is important for New Testament textual criticism, and also for the certain parts of historic Eastern Christianity. The English translation provides access to readings of the Syriac Peshitta for those who cannot read Syriac. For students of Syriac, the English translation will provide a handy way to check one’s understanding of the Syriac text as it is read. This is a high-quality academic edition with features that attempt to reproduce the look and feel of historic Syriac Bibles.

There are some other projects I am working on that, Lord willing, will be released one by one over the coming months and years. These include: (1) A commentary on Revelation that I have been writing for the past few years (I am currently on chapter 14). (2) Spanish translations of more volumes of my Interpretive Guide to the Bible. (3) Spanish translations of some of my blog posts, each one linked to an updated English version.

Identifying the Pharaoh of the exodus

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There are three different Pharaohs noted in the book of Exodus: that of 1:8, that of 2:15, and that of 5:1 et al. None of these Pharaohs is named, making their identification disputed. Some suggest that Moses intentionally decided not to name Pharaohs in order to snub these mighty kings who claimed to be gods on earth—although “Pharaoh” almost seems to function as a proper name in the Pentateuchal narratives.

Identifying the Pharaoh of the exodus necessitates following four paths of investigation, and seeing where all the data points line up. These paths of evidence include: (1) the date of the exodus according to the Bible; (2) the historical circumstances of the exodus according to the Bible; (3) the dates of reigning Pharaohs according to the chronology of ancient Egypt; and (4) the historical circumstances of ancient Egypt. Other evidence could also be added, such as for the date of the conquest of Canaan, but this additional evidence will be related to the four points just noted. To find the correct date, one must prioritize the biblical evidence, and allow this to inform one’s understanding of Egyptian history and chronology. Unfortunately, the most common evangelical identifications of the Pharaoh of the exodus make fundamental errors in their methodology, and ultimately place greater confidence in the claims of secular archaeologists than in the claims of Scripture.

The first common error is to suggest the Bible does not give a clear or reliable date for the exodus. A date and a Pharaoh of the exodus is then proposed by forming theories based on certain historical indicators in the biblical text in combination with the narrative of ancient Near Eastern history that is propounded by archaeologists who have an anti-biblical worldview and agenda. Scholars who commit this error hold that the exodus occurred sometime in the thirteenth century BC (ca. 1275 BC), within the conventional dates for the reign of Ramesses II (1290–1224 BC). This is based in part on the mention of the word “Rameses” (with two different spellings) twice in Exodus, which is likely associated with a city where Ramesses II conducted extensive construction work.[1] Perhaps just as important to these scholars are theories about the Israelite conquest and settlement of Canaan, and archaeological dates of occupational levels at sites in Canaan/Israel. However, these theories must dismiss in some way the clear statement in 1 Kings 6:1 that there were 480 years between the exodus and the second month of the fourth year of Solomon’s reign (cf. Judg 11:26). There is wide agreement among scholars that biblical and extrabiblical data can be combined to yield a date of 966 or 965 BC for the second month of the fourth year of Solomon’s reign. Counting backwards 480 years from this date places the exodus in 1446 or 1445 BC, and the thirteenth century BC date can be dismissed as incompatible with Scripture. It is important to note that scholars of this persuasion typically only accept certain historical indicators in the Bible—in this instance, the name “Rameses/Raamses,” while dismissing as “metaphorical” or inaccurate the many other indicators that don’t fit the theory. In essence, the identification of Ramesses II as the Pharaoh of the exodus is rooted in a low view of scriptural authority.[2]

Many evangelical scholars accept the 1446/1445 BC date for the exodus, but commit a second error which again results in a misidentification of the Pharaoh of the exodus. This is the error of accepting the secular (conventional) chronology of ancient Egypt, which either ignores or intentionally contradicts biblical chronological data and is instead based on an assumed evolutionary history of man. Simply matching a Pharaoh from this timeline with the biblical calendar date for the exodus results in the identification of Thutmose III (reigned ca. 1479–1426 BC in the conventional chronology) as the Pharaoh of the exodus. The problem is, the historical circumstances of Thutmose III’s reign in no way fit the biblical data for what happened at the time of the exodus. There is no evidence for a large population of Semitic slaves in Egypt at that time, nor is there any evidence for a collapse of Egyptian civilization due to the plagues and the destruction of Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea (cf. Deut 11:4). In fact, if Thutmose III was the Pharaoh of the exodus, he and his army survived the Red Sea event quite nicely, for Thutmose III undertook vast campaigns of conquest and is considered by many scholars to have been the most powerful of all the Pharaohs (along with his powerful son and successor, Amenhotep II). Because of this incompatibility between the history of Thutmose III and the biblical history of the exodus, it is clear that the view that Thutmose III was the Pharaoh of the exodus, like the view that Ramesses II was the Pharaoh of the exodus, is another capitulation to the authority of secular archaeology over Scripture.

Although proponents of the Thutmose III view often claim faithful adherence to the biblical chronology, this is only the case for the statement in 1 Kings 6:1. These scholars actually argue strenuously against the chronology from the Deluge to Abraham that is presented in Genesis 11. Either major problems with the Hebrew text of that chapter are hypothesized, or else the historicity of its genealogy is dismissed altogether. This is because if Genesis 11 is accepted as literal, accurate history, adding up the numbers results in 2417 BC as the date when the Deluge ended, and approximately 2317 BC for the dispersion of the nations from Babylon (Babel), which means there was less than 900 years of history from the beginning of Egyptian civilization until the exodus from Egypt in 1446 BC. However, the common date given for the first king of the first dynasty of united Egypt is 3100 BC, with rulers of upper and lower Egypt preceding him as part of a prehistory which spans more than 2,000 years. Most Bible scholars assume that it is impossible to compress the events and rulers in the conventional chronology of Egypt into the far shorter biblical chronology, and as a result they assume that the genealogy of Genesis 11 is wrong in some way. Ultimately, they have more confidence in the claims of secular archaeologists than in the reliability of Scripture. Their firm belief in the accuracy of the conventional chronology of ancient Egypt is the reason why they stand by the identification of Thutmose III as the Pharaoh of the exodus in spite of the way in which the history of Egypt during his reign does not seem to allow for the events described in the book of Exodus. This view also runs into problems with finding archaeological evidence for the Israelite conquest of Canaan under Joshua, since archaeological sites in Canaan/Israel are dated in early periods by connecting them with contemporaneous periods of Egyptian history (Middle Bronze Age, Late Bronze Age, etc.).

Thus, in order to identify the Pharaoh of the exodus correctly, it is necessary to calculate the date of the exodus from the Bible (contra the Ramesses II theory), but this is not enough. It is also necessary to calculate Egyptian chronology according to the biblical timescale, and in accordance with biblical history (contra the Thutmose III theory). Specifically, it is necessary to look for evidence of a period in ancient Egypt that matches the biblical description of a large population of Semitic slaves living in the land of Goshen, followed by cataclysmic plagues and the abrupt departure of the Semitic population, followed by a collapse of Egyptian power. If this period is correctly identified, then the date of this period of Egyptian history can be established according to the biblical chronology, and earlier and subsequent Egyptian history can be filled in naturally according to the biblical timescale. The Pharaoh of the exodus will be one who is not succeeded by his firstborn son, and whose death marks a sudden collapse of Egyptian civilization.

The reality is that while dates in Egyptian chronology may be presented very dogmatically by modern scholars, the extrabiblical evidence for these dates is not at all clear-cut, and has been interpreted in many different ways. The proper way to construct a chronology of ancient Egypt is to use the Bible as one’s starting point, rather than Darwinian evolution. Guided by the Bible, scholars can place the rulers and events of Egyptian history into a chronological framework that fits both the biblical data and the extrabiblical archaeological and literary evidence. In fact, an agnostic scholar who views the Bible as largely historical, David Rohl, has done extensive work on a “new chronology” which shows that the most natural way to interpret the archaeology of ancient Egypt is in a way that fits biblical chronology and history. Rohl and others have shown that the picture of consecutive Egyptian dynasties that is often presented is much too oversimplified. Dynasties often overlapped; at times Egypt was divided into multiple parts, with four or even up to twelve kings reigning at the same time. There are also issues with interpreting Egyptian astronomical records in view of Egyptian calendar reforms. The result is a far shorter Egyptian chronology—one which comports with the biblical timescale. Further, since ancient Greek, Cypriot, Hittite, and Canaanite dates are dependent on Egyptian chronology, a compression of the conventional Egyptian chronology also results in a downward revision of the other chronologies. 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?). In Rohl’s reconstruction, the 13th dynasty ended with the invasion of the Hyksos, whom he identifies with the biblical Amalekites (cf. Num 24:20). Rohl identifies the pre-Hyksos Asiatics who lived at Avaris in the land of Goshen as the Israelites. Rohl’s theory has much to commend itself, although he advocates the “short” Egyptian sojourn (215 years), in contradiction of Exodus 12:40-41.

As for Ramesses II, Rohl identifies him 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). 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.

Building largely on the work of David Rohl and John Bimson, evangelical filmmaker Tim Mahoney has done an excellent job of presenting the archaeological evidence for the Israelites in Egypt in the documentary film Patterns of Evidence: Exodus. In this film, Mahony embarks on a personal search for archaeological evidence of Israel’s exodus from Egypt in response to challenges from archaeologists who deny that the exodus event ever happened. Mahoney finds that there is abundant archaeological evidence for the biblical account of the Israelites journeying to Egypt, becoming a great nation there, being enslaved, leaving in a dramatic exodus, and conquering Canaan some 40-45 years later. However, this evidence is not recognized by scholars who are committed to interpreting archaeological data within the conventional chronological framework, since the evidence is not from the right time period. Mahoney shows that it is entirely reasonable to compress the conventional chronology, resulting in the evidence for the Israelites living in Egypt lining up with the biblical chronology.

While there is still considerable work to be done to bring the conventional Egyptian chronology and history fully into conformity with biblical chronology and history, believers can rest assured that when the evidence is correctly understood, the Bible stands as written and does not need to be allegorized or modified to fit with archaeology. The common identifications of the Pharaoh of the exodus with Ramesses II or Thutmose III are not possible from a biblical standpoint, and also do not ultimately fit the archaeological data. It does seem that the Hyksos are the biblical Amalekites, and that they invaded the largely-defenseless Egypt and ruled the Egyptians for 400 years (until the time of Saul) in an act of divine judgment following the departure of the Israelites. As for Rohl’s identification of the last major pre-Hyksos Pharaoh as Dudimose, this seems less certain, and provides a subject for further investigation by Bible-believing Egyptologists.

[1] There are actually five references to Rameses/Raamses in the Pentateuch: “the land of Rameses” (Gen 47:11), the store-city of “Raamses” (different spelling – Exod 1:11), and the site of “Rameses” (Exod 12:37; Num 33:3, 5). Some scholars point to this as evidence that the Pentateuch was written during or after the reign of Ramesses II (a.k.a. “Ramses,” “Rameses”). However, such a supposition is unnecessary, as there are numerous other instances throughout the Pentateuch of original place names being substituted for later names by a later inspired “updater” (possibly Ezra—see the Introduction to the Pentateuch). These updates were made so that later readers could understand the referents of the original place names. While various explanations have been offered, most likely the references to “Rameses” or “Raamses” in the Pentateuch are to the great city of Pi-Ramesses, which was located next to and encompassed Tell el-Dab‘a (Avaris), the center of Israelite civilization in the land of Goshen. Pi-Ramesses was one of the largest cities in the ancient Near East, and therefore is most likely the site named in the biblical text. Since Pi-Ramesses (Pi = “house [of]”) was built or greatly expanded by Ramesses II and his father Seti I, the references to a land of Ramesses or a city of Ramesses in the biblical text can be considered an inspired update to the original text of the Pentateuch, which likely read “Avaris.”

[2] Evangelical scholars who identify Ramesses II as the Pharaoh of the exodus also typically follow many other naturalistic explanations of Old Testament history, such as for the ten plagues, the crossing of the Red Sea, the appearance of God on Mount Sinai, and the crossing of the Jordan River. Dates, census figures, and historical details are routinely explained away as some sort of metaphor or literary device. Although such scholars claim to believe the Bible, their real confidence usually rests in naturalistic theories of science and archaeology.

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

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)
  • Volume 16 of the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (TDOT) covers Biblical Aramaic. This is an excellent, in-depth resource that is well respected in mainstream scholarship. (Logos; 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.

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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 from the 929 Project. I have made playlists of Omer Frenkel’s reading of Ezra and Daniel in Hebrew and Aramaic on SoundCloud.
  • 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:

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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.