Psalm 23: A Photo Commentary

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

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

Ein Perat, tb020804282

Still waters of Ein Farah in the Judean wilderness

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

Psalm_23_A_Photo_Co_Cover_for_Kindle

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

Nahal Zin, tb010512847

Dark shadow in Nahal Zin

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

Bethlehem Shepherds Fields and Mts of Moab, db6601060303

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

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

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Israel, the Bible, and current events

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some insights from the 2018 Midwest Regional ETS conference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The tiqqunê sopherim: emendations or glosses?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The value of Benjamin Kennicott’s Vetus Testamentum Hebraicum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Insights from the 2017 ETS conference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The task of Bible translation

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

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

Steven Anderson, BT2017 BiblePlaces exhibit, adr1710176700-1a

The BiblePlaces.com booth at the BT2017 conference

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

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

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

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

The danger of spiritual pride

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Most churches today have the problem of motivating Christians who are lukewarm and apathetic, who don’t seem to care very much about the Bible or spiritual issues. But there is an opposite extreme that can be even worse, as illustrated by Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees in the New Testament (Matt 23). The Pharisees were the forebears of modern Hasidic or Orthodox Jews. Jesus refused to accept the extrabiblical traditions of the Pharisees; he would not submit Himself to their authority and join their group.  As a result, the Pharisees vehemently rejected Jesus, eventually joining with the other Jewish religious leaders to crucify Him (Matt 27:62; John 18:3). Jesus often criticized the Pharisees, pointing out where they went wrong doctrinally and spiritually.  One of these criticisms is given in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18:9-14.

Luke 18:9-14 presents the tragic case of the religious man who is so zealous for spiritual standing within his own group of peers and in his own mind that he creates a “higher standard” for himself that goes way beyond biblical requirements, and he works himself to exhaustion in order to prove his spirituality. Then he compares himself to others who are not doing all the things that he is doing, and despises them for their lack of effort. The problem is, he is arrogant and therefore all his efforts count for nothing before God.

And he spoke also this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and looked down on the rest:Two men went up into the temple to pray—the one a Pharisee, and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed thus: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like the rest of the people—extortioners, unjust, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his chest, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I say to you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

—Luke 18:9-14

The Old Testament commanded Jews to fast once a year, on the Day of Atonement (= Yom Kippur; Lev 16:29-31). This man went way beyond the requirement, fasting two days every week(!). The Old Testament commanded Jews to tithe agricultural revenue. This man went well beyond the requirement, giving a tenth of all of his income from all revenue sources. While his zeal and effort may seem admirable, it was misplaced through a focus on an external standard of righteousness. This Pharisee was harming his health by excessive fasting, and he was likely depriving his family by excessive giving. He was probably spending too much time praying in the temple, and not enough time serving others or taking care of basic necessities like eating, sleeping, earning an income, and spending time with his family. The question is, why was he doing it? This Pharisee must have been in competition with his peer group to earn the reputation as the most spiritual man in the group, which meant that he had to outdo everyone else. Essentially, he was doing what he was doing so he could feel good about himself, so he could feel superior to others. People like this usually insist that everyone else needs to do all the things they are doing, and if they refuse to do so, they are rebellious and unspiritual. This Pharisee would probably have said, “If you’re not fasting twice a week, you’re not very serious about your walk with God. If I can do it, you can do it!” Or, “There’s no reason why you can’t give a tithe from all your revenue.” Thus, he came to despise people who did not meet his standards and his requirements, when in fact the things that he required of himself and of others were not required by God. They were things that simply did not need to be done. By creating his own set of requirements to prove his spiritual mettle, the Pharisee missed what the Bible actually requires, and he ended up investing his energies in unnecessary activities while overlooking what was truly important.

To most people, this Pharisee would have seemed like a very good man. He was doing many good things and avoiding many bad things, to such an extent that few could measure up. He seemed to sincerely want to be a holy man of God, and to have dedicated his whole life to achieve this aim. But he had a heart of pride and self-righteousness, of which he may not even have been consciously aware. The Pharisees were famous for showcasing their good works—ostensibly to set a good example for the people, but in reality to receive praise from others (Matt 6:5, 16; 23:5).

Often people like this have an evangelistic fervor that can be somewhat annoying. If you greeted this Pharisee on the street, he probably would tell you that he is on his way to the temple to pray, and then would ask you whether you have been to the temple yet today. If you invited him to dinner, he would apologetically say that he cannot come because he is fasting. Then he would challenge you about whether you fast and how often. If he bought something from you in the marketplace, he would ask you whether you are going to give ten percent of the purchase price to God, and he would lecture you on tithing if you said you weren’t. Essentially, this Pharisee would put pressure on everyone he met to do the things that he was doing, with the implication that you would be unspiritual if you didn’t do them. Yet he had gone to such extremes that it would be physically impossible for most people to keep up with him—they would have a breakdown trying, and if somehow they could meet the Pharisee’s requirements, he would add more requirements in order to raise the bar. So people like this become simply unbearable and end up destroying those around them through the pressure they create.

Some Christians hold the belief that the way to improve themselves spiritually is to do more and more “good works,” to be busier and busier. The truth is that spiritual growth is a matter of improving the condition of one’s heart, not of doing more things or adding more requirements. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament teach again and again that “I desire goodness, and not sacrifice” (Hos 6:6; cf. 1 Sam 15:22; Pss 40:6-8; 51:16-17; Prov 21:3; Jer 7:22-23; Amos 5:21; Mic 6:6-8; Matt 9:13; 12:7). God rebuked the Jews for fasting and mourning two times a year for seventy years during the Babylonian exile, because their motive for doing it was wrong (Zech 7:5; cf. Isa 58:5-7). God told the Jews of Isaiah’s day that He was tired of all their sacrifices, worship meetings, observance of holy days, and prayers, because they were overlooking the things He really cares about (Isa 1:11-18). God even wished that someone would close the doors of the temple during Malachi’s day in order to stop the Jews from bringing sacrifices (Mal 1:10). One might object, weren’t these sacrifices required by the Bible? The answer is, yes, they were, but presenting acts of worship from an impure heart is worse than not worshiping at all. Thus, Paul said to the Corinthian church with reference to the observance of the Lord’s Supper, “You come together not for the better but for the worse” (1 Cor 11:17). God wants us to take care of the things that really matter—the internals—before performing the external rituals commanded in the Bible.

The Pharisees carefully avoided sins that were outwardly visible and flagrant, yet Jesus told them that “the tax collectors and the prostitutes will go into the kingdom of God before you” (Matt 21:31). In the parable of Luke 18:9-14, the tax collector who begged for God’s mercy was justified, whereas the Pharisee who was proud of his spirituality was not justified. Thus, Jesus told the Jews in Matthew 5:20 that they would not enter the kingdom of heaven unless their righteousness exceeded that of the scribes and Pharisees. In other words, righteousness has to be, first and foremost, something that is in the heart, and only secondarily external actions that stem from one’s inner righteousness. (The works produced by heart righteousness are different than those produced by an external legalism.) The truth is that the pride of the Pharisees was far more deadly and damaging than even the sins of tax collectors (who were extortioners) and prostitutes, some of whom were humble enough to admit their sinfulness and beg for God’s mercy.

The natural human tendency, both in the church and in the world, is to focus on the exterior and to judge character on the basis of an external standard of righteousness. The concept of righteousness as something in one’s heart is difficult to understand, since the heart cannot be visibly seen or physically measured. Yet we have observed many cases of people who were thought to be very spiritual on the basis of their public behavior, who at some point were revealed to be total frauds and charlatans. Such cases are inexplicable to those who measure righteousness by an external standard, but they are easily explained by the principle that righteousness is an internal condition of the heart.

Twentieth century fundamentalism had many positive aspects, but also some tendencies toward Pharisaic legalism. A common example was making attendance at Wednesday evening church obligatory—either an outright requirement for members, or else preaching that it is a sin not to attend Wednesday evening church. Where does the New Testament require attendance at Wednesday evening church? The NT pattern was for the church to meet once a week, on Sunday, although even this is not a rigid ordinance. There may be good reasons to hold additional services, but making these services obligatory is unbiblical and can result in the neglect of more important matters. Certainly it is wrong to view those who attend midweek services as more spiritual than those who do not. Even worse is the idea that attendance at Wednesday evening church is necessary to be “right with God.” It might be necessary to be in good standing with one’s pastor or with one’s church, but Christians are under grace, not law—only faith is required for good standing with God.

Legalism is not a problem limited to twentieth century fundamentalism. It has been a problem throughout throughout church history, and was a problem in rabbinic Judaism before the church began. Legalism was the main issue the apostles dealt with in the first church council (Acts 15), and it was a subject the apostle Paul dealt with extensively in his epistles. The church in the early centuries subsequently developed legalistic tendencies in response to pressures from heretical groups and the imperial government. This legalism was carried much further by monastic orders, whose influence made the church more legalistic in turn. The legalism of the medieval Roman Catholic Church became so extreme that when Martin Luther proclaimed the gospel of salvation by faith alone, he was excommunicated for heresy—yet many of the resulting Protestant churches also had legalistic tendencies, especially in the Reformed wing. Contemporary evangelical churches often have their own external standards of righteousness—a sort of political correctness—but also a tendency toward the opposite extreme of legalism: libertinism, the idea that external actions matter little. Libertinism was also a problem that the early church encountered as the gospel spread from its original Jewish context into the Gentile world. First Corinthians, 1 John, and Revelation 2–3 deal with the problem of libertinism.

It is easy for us to think that our heart is right when it is not, as was probably the case with most Pharisees. It is far more difficult to change our sinful character, attitudes, and ways of thinking than it is to physically do “good works.” Solomon observed that it is easier for a warrior to take a fortified city in battle—perhaps the most difficult of all physical tasks—than it is for a person to control his attitude (Prov 16:32). Really the only way to judge one’s heart and make it the way it ought to be is through diligent study of the Bible, in combination with prayer and a sincere desire to do what is right. One can only bring his heart attitude and worldview into line with God’s by reading and seeking earnestly to understand God’s Word. The Bible will illuminate our shortcomings as the Holy Spirit convicts us, and it will show us in many different ways what true righteousness consists of. But still, since righteousness is a matter of the heart (1 Sam 16:7; Prov 21:2; Jer 17:10; Luke 11:39; Rom 2:28-29; Heb 4:12; 1 Pet 3:3-4; Rev 2:23), the mere outward acts of studying the Bible and praying are not in themselves the true mark of spirituality: the ground on which the seed falls must be fertile.

Let’s not believe that any one of us is immune to the temptation of spiritual pride.

My experience viewing the total solar eclipse

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Two days ago I watched a total solar eclipse for the first time in my life. This was, in fact, the first total solar eclipse visible in any part of the lower 48 states since before I was born. The last total solar eclipse visible in the lower 48 was on February 26, 1979, and it was only visible in parts of the Northwest. This time, the path of the total eclipse cut right through the heart of the United States, with the point of greatest eclipse very close to Hopkinsville, Kentucky—where I viewed the event. A photo of the total eclipse taken from Hopkinsville is featured at the top of this post (credit: NASA).

A solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the earth and the sun, and obscures the sun during the daytime. While partial solar eclipses are a relatively common occurrence, a total eclipse is a rare event for any one place on the earth. While a lunar eclipse is visible to an entire half of the earth, a total solar eclipse is visible only along a narrow path. Solar eclipses are also short-lived events; the maximum duration of the totality portion of this year’s eclipse in any one spot was 2 minutes, 41.6 seconds, although totality—when the moon completely covers the sun—can last as long as seven and a half minutes during an eclipse. The reason why total solar eclipses happen has to do with God’s design in creation: the moon is 400 times smaller in diameter than the sun, but the sun is 400 times more distant from the earth than the moon, which means that the two disks occupy the same visual space in our sky. When the moon passes between the earth and the sun, it can completely cover the sun’s disk and completely block the sun’s light. Although the moon orbits the earth every 28-29 days, and it always casts a shadow, only rarely does this shadow (umbra) pass over the earth’s surface, since the moon’s orbit is tilted about 5 degrees off the plane of the earth’s orbit around the sun. If the moon’s plane of orbit were exactly the same as the earth’s, the moon would block out the sun every month (every new moon), with totality lasting about 7 minutes in the tropics, while other regions would experience a partial eclipse. Also, a lunar eclipse would be seen every full moon. If the moon’s orbital plane were only slightly different from the earth’s, a total solar eclipse would still be seen every new moon, but at higher latitudes. At 5 degrees of difference in the plane of orbit, the earth still experiences total solar eclipses, but only about every 18 months.

Seeing a total solar eclipse is a far different experience than seeing a partial eclipse. A partial eclipse may just seem like an overcast day, perhaps a bit eerie, with the sun not shining as brightly. In a total eclipse, however, twilight suddenly descends during the middle of the day. Bright stars and planets become visible, and birds stop chirping. Animals bed down, thinking it is night. And one can look directly at the sun and see the solar corona (the sun’s atmosphere) streaming out from behind the moon’s black disk.

Hotels within the total eclipse path were fully booked from coast to coast, usually far in advance and at exorbitant prices. If I had to do it over again, I would have booked a hotel room at least a year in advance, or as early as possible. As it was, I booked a hotel two months before the eclipse. I couldn’t find any Midwest hotels in the actual eclipse zone that had rooms available, other than a couple of high-end hotels in Nashville. The closest hotel I could find in Illinois was a La Quinta Inn in Effingham (about 2 hours north of the eclipse) for $259/night, and the drive from back to Effingham from the eclipse zone on the evening of August 21 was horrendous. Even Amtrak did not have round-trip tickets left for the train from Effingham to Carbondale on August 21, although as it turns out Carbondale was partly cloudy. Fortunately, there were hotel rooms available in Evansville, Indiana at their regular rate. Evansville is only 80 miles north of Hopkinsville, Kentucky, where I determined to view the eclipse. All the reservations were prepaid and non-refundable—otherwise many people would cancel their reservations if the weather forecast called for clouds or storms. I booked a two-night hotel stay. If I did it again, I would book a longer stay in order to avoid traffic problems, and I would stay in the town where I plan to view the eclipse.

I began checking the weather forecast for Hopkinsville as soon as it was available, fourteen days in advance. The forecast changed frequently, from thunderstorms to partly cloudy to sunny. The last two days, the forecast was “partly cloudy.” As it turned out, the sky was clear throughout the eclipse, and we had a great view of the sun. Many other locations in the Midwest had clouds. I believe Hopkinsville was the best place in the world to watch this eclipse; certainly it was the place where totality was seen the longest.

You don’t just need a hotel room to view the eclipse—unless you are camping at the spot where you plan to watch, you also need to reserve space at a viewing site, and you need to make these reservations far in advance. Usually you need to bring your own chairs, blankets, umbrellas/canopies, food, eclipse glasses, and a pinhole projector (a colander can be used to create a similar effect against a white background) or a special projecting telescope. Space on a farm within the exact point of greatest eclipse (Orchardale Farm in Cerulean, KY) was sold out when I checked for tickets. We viewed the eclipse at Hopkinsville Community College, which was only a couple of blocks from the exact center of the eclipse path, and very close to the point of greatest eclipse. It turned out to be the perfect spot. We chose to sit just inside the large glass entryway of a building on campus in order to enjoy the air conditioning on a very hot day. Every few minutes during the eclipse we would walk outside to take another look at the sun and shadows, before staying outside for about ten minutes immediately before, during, and after totality. The college also had indoor and outdoor food service, plenty of indoor restrooms, plenty of wide open outdoor spaces, a medical tent, and a series of lectures and events before, during, and after the eclipse.

I set a watch to the exact time, and wrote down the exact start and end times for the eclipse, and the exact start and end times for the total eclipse, from our exact location at the community college. As the eclipse progressed toward totality for an hour and a half, one of the things we noticed was that shadows became very crisp and well-defined. The air turned noticeably cooler (actually, less hot) as the sun’s light decreased. A few minutes before totality, all of us put on our eclipse glasses and watched the sun disappear. The “diamond ring” just before totality was impressive; we did not notice “Bailey’s beads,” however. The eclipse glasses are so dark that nothing but the sun can be seen through them; thus, as soon as totality began we could see nothing at all, and we took off our glasses. People were cheering all around us, especially at the beginning and end of totality. Some people lit off fireworks. Children loved it. No one exhibited adverse reactions or psychological shock. The solar corona was a unique and impressive sight, well worth the trip. I kept checking my watch, and was surprised at how slowly the 2 minutes, 40 seconds of totality passed. About ten seconds before totality was over, we put our eclipse glasses back on and watched the sun reappear, this time with the “diamond ring” and crescent on the opposite side of the moon. The second half of the eclipse was like the first half in reverse, and thus not as exciting. You can watch NASA’s live coverage of the total solar eclipse from Hopkinsville, starting at 2:52:23 on this video.

Some things that impressed me about the eclipse:

  1. The brightness of the sun—I found it difficult to look at the sun through eclipse glasses until most of the sun was covered. I was also impressed by the fact that as soon as the first sliver of the sun reappeared, it immediately became much lighter around us.
  2. The length of totality—2 minutes, 40 seconds seemed like a long time, much longer than I needed to take in the sight of the corona, the 360 degree sunset, and the twilight.
  3. It was not as dark during the total eclipse as I thought it would be—it was like dusk, but not night.
  4. We had the ideal situation for viewing the eclipse, on a campus with open buildings, food, bathrooms, and plenty of space. I felt sorry for all the people who were camped out across the street in the August heat.

Our drive to Evansville on the day before the eclipse was uneventful, with no traffic problems. The next day we left at 4 am and easily beat the traffic going to Hopkinsville. We left the college at 3 pm, soon after the eclipse ended. The traffic was the worst I have ever seen—imagine several big football games all letting out at once. It took us 6 hours to drive the 80 miles from Hopkinsville to our hotel in Evansville. But the next day, driving north from Evansville back to Michigan, there were no traffic problems at all.

The next solar eclipse visible in the mainland U.S. will occur on Monday, April 8, 2024, although unfortunately that is a time of year when clouds are likely and storms are frequent. The point of greatest eclipse on that day will be in Durango, Mexico, where totality will last nearly four and a half minutes. The eclipse path through the U.S. will include Dallas, Little Rock, and Cleveland. For those who don’t want to wait that long, there will be two total solar eclipses in the next three years which will be visible from southern South America—one on July 2, 2019 and one on December 14, 2020. If you want to see those eclipses, start booking your travel arrangements as soon as possible. Also, check one of the interactive maps on this site for details on exactly when and for how long the eclipse will last at your precise location. Besides visiting Chile or Argentina, these eclipses can also be viewed from eclipse cruises or an eclipse flight. A cruise ship has the advantage of being able to adjust its course based on the cloud cover forecast. A plane has the double advantage of going over cloud cover and using the speed of the plane to extend the length of totality. Some people are known as “eclipse travelers,” and go to see every total solar eclipse. For me, personally, now that I have seen a total solar eclipse, I don’t feel like I have to see another one; but perhaps that feeling will change in a few years.

Viewing a total solar eclipse was a unique and possibly once-in-a-lifetime experience. One of the reasons I went was to try to understand why these events were such a big deal to people in ancient times. To see the sun suddenly go dark in the middle of the day could certainly be a frightening experience, as if the world were coming to an end. Also, the appearance of the sun’s corona is a strange and other-worldly sight. This would especially be a big deal to peoples who worshiped the sun, as nearly all pagan cultures did. A total solar eclipse was usually viewed as a bad omen. Both solar and lunar eclipses are frequently mentioned in ancient literature, outside of the Bible. (For biblical studies, eclipses are helpful as chronological markers when they are mentioned in extrabiblical literature—see this article by my friend Roger Young.) Some people may have feared that the world was coming to an end when the sun went dark. Even today, some people consider the viewing of a total solar eclipse to be psychologically shocking, although it did not have any adverse psychological effects on me or on the people around me. Unlike ancient man, we knew the eclipse was coming and we understood why. But there is a sense in which a total solar eclipse is a preview-in-miniature of the end of the world. If the sun dies, then the earth and everything in it will also die, and quickly. Indeed, the Bible tells us that just before Jesus Christ returns to the earth, the sun will be blackened as part of a general disintegration of the universe, causing great panic among men (Matt 24:29; Mark 13:24; Luke 21:25-27; Acts 2:20; Rev 6:12; cf. Isa 24:23; Amos 8:9). In that day, the sun will not reappear after it is darkened, and each of us will have to give an account of ourselves to our Creator.

Legal pressures on American Christians and the church’s response

In my previous post, I discussed a case that will be heard by the Supreme Court this fall regarding the refusal of a Christian to actively support homosexual “marriage.” Given the Court’s current makeup and the rulings of lower courts, it is almost certain that SCOTUS will rule against the Christian in this case, which will have far-reaching legal implications for other Christians in the United States. Now another troubling case seems certain to head to the Supreme Court, following President Trump’s ban on “transgender” individuals from service in the U.S. military. In spite of the fact that this ban was in place without a legal challenge up until October of last year, it seems possible that the Supreme Court will rule that discrimination against people who identify as “transgender” is somehow unconstitutional. Such a ruling would have a wide-ranging effect that would surely put greater legal pressure on churches and other Christian institutions to compromise. Perhaps the only thing that could weaken the Court’s position is the fact that allowing the participation of men in women’s sports as “transgender women” would make it impossible for female athletes to compete.

While there is still some uncertainty regarding these rulings and their effects, it has been apparent for decades that American culture is becoming progressively more anti-Christian, leading to increasing legal and cultural pressures on Christians. It has become increasingly apparent that a large number of people on the American political Left believe that those who hold opposing viewpoints should not be tolerated and should not even have a legal right to exist. These Leftists control much of academia, the media, and the corporate world. Their agenda is increasingly coming into the church, which means that the church does not present unified opposition to the Leftist agenda. A recent poll showed that 47 percent of young white American evangelicals believe that homosexual “marriage” should be legal; the question of whether homosexual acts should be legal does not even get asked because it is assumed that nearly everyone would say they should be. It is evident that at some point Leftists will gain enough power to fully implement their agenda, which is particularly aimed at destroying conservative, biblical Christianity for its moral values and theological dogma. Exactly when and how this will happen is not known, but in general the Left only needs control of a single branch of government to advance its agenda.

Perhaps the crisis will hit this fall, after the Court’s ruling against Masterpiece Cakeshop (if that is indeed what happens). Or perhaps it will come more gradually, given that there is now a Republican president, a Republican Congress, and Republican control of most state governments. Perhaps the crisis will hit at different times for Christians who live in different states or who engage in different occupations. But the fact that only one Christian was imprisoned for refusing to sign marriage licenses for homosexual couples should be of no comfort, since the rest of us who hold the same convictions would also have been imprisoned if we had been in the same situation. It should be remembered that Kim Davis’ imprisonment was actually celebrated by then-President Obama, the mainstream media, technology executives, and large numbers of their supporters on the political Left. They made it clear that they want all who hold opposing views to be forced to recant, or to be removed from society if they refuse to renounce their beliefs. When it comes to the issue of homosexuality, in particular, no opposing viewpoints are tolerated. The fact that this attitude is considered the politically correct attitude should certainly give pause to Christians in the United States.

Given the clear direction of the political and religious situation in the United States, it is completely befuddling that American Christians, their churches, and other Christian institutions have made no plans whatsoever for what to do when the crisis hits. There is no biblical justification for lack of foresight or preparation. Of course Christians should pray and speak out, but the Bible does not promise the church protection from persecution. So far, the church’s response has been (1) to pray that the U.S. would get “turned around”; (2) to be socially and politically active in order to “take the culture back”; or (3) “they’ll just have to put us in jail.” There really has been no forward thinking or facing of the facts. American churches have also done little or nothing to enable persecuted Christians in other countries to migrate to safer places.

In the book of Acts, we find that when Christians were forced to leave their comfort zone in Jerusalem due to persecution, the subsequent scattering of Christians throughout the world turned out to be good for the growth of the church (Acts 8:4). It forced Christians to spread out to the world when they would not go voluntarily to do missionary work. In the American context, ministries which have an overseas arm could potentially transfer their assets to their foreign headquarters before they are seized by the U.S. government or lost in lawsuits. There are ample historical examples of Christians fleeing persecution as a group and establishing new Christian communities in foreign countries. Church historians tell us that all the Christians in Jerusalem fled the city together just before the outbreak of the Jewish War in AD 66; they survived the war by relocating their community to the Gentile city of Pella. Many of the early settlers in the United States itself were fleeing persecution in Europe and were searching for a place where they could worship God freely according to their conscience.

I believe it is time for the American church to start making serious plans to move their institutions, their money, and ultimately their people, overseas in anticipation of the inevitable outlawing of biblical Christianity in the United States. Churches should also prepare to move from one country to another as the world changes. The solution is not political activism, which will not reverse the long-term cultural trend, or revolution, which is both futile and unbiblical. Seeing as we have been given a legal reprieve through the election of a Republican president, Christian organizations and seminaries should start establishing overseas headquarters or campuses, and they should make plans to move all their assets overseas if necessary before they are confiscated. While such projects as new buildings on a seminary or church campus, the Ark Encounter in Kentucky, and the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. are worthy and valuable, it is very questionable how long these institutions will be able to operate before the government institutes requirements with which they cannot comply. Why not invest overseas? Christians should especially look to invest in the Middle East, which the Bible reveals is the focus of end time events. Africa is another place in which the church is under-invested, in spite of containing many Christian-friendly countries. Latin America is an easier and closer place for Americans to go, although the level of religious freedom in Latin American countries varies and has been decreasing.

A parallel could be drawn between the situation of Christians in present-day America and the situation of Jews in Germany in the 1930s. As the Nazi party rose to power, their intentions to persecute and kill Jews became ever clearer, yet only some Jews fled, or were able to flee, and some waited until it was very late in the game. Those who remained suffered terribly. Hitler would have killed every last Jew in Europe had the Allies not liberated his concentration camps (in God’s providence). Overall, one could say that the Jewish community in Germany, and in Europe as a whole, lacked any sort of master plan to enable them all to flee before Hitler’s pogrom began. Nor is it disingenuous to make a comparison to the Holocaust: there have been many times and places from the first century up to the present day in which governments have attempted to exterminate all Bible-believing Christians and churches using the most horrific imaginable means of torture and mass murder. The Bible makes clear that Christians will again be terribly persecuted at the end of the present age (Rev 17:6; 18:24; 19:2).

The problem for the church in the United States is not just legal pressure, but also cultural assimilation. The church has for a long time been losing its young people to the allures of American culture, while those who have stayed in the church have adopted many of the culture’s beliefs and practices in contradiction of biblical teaching. On the other hand, it could be argued that Christians are still having a significant restraining influence in American culture and politics, and that they should largely stay put while they are still able to have this influence. While there is room for debate regarding when it will be appropriate or necessary for Christians to make the uncomfortable decision to migrate from the United States, it should be apparent that that day will come, and it is therefore wise to prepare for it.