This past week was the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in San Antonio, Texas. About 2,500 evangelical scholars from around the world attended this year’s conference. The conference is a time for those who don’t see each other for the rest of the year to interact and share their research. In this post, I will summarize some insights from presentations I attended.

The theme of this year’s conference was the trinity. One of the more interesting presentations on that topic was given by Dr. Imad Shehadeh, the president of Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary. Shehadeh argued that Islam did us a great favor by showing us what a system of theology would look like without the trinity. The main difficulty in such a theological system is that a unitarian “God” can have no essential relational or moral attributes. A one-person God could not have been loving before creation, since there was no one to love. A one-person God could not have been good or just before creation, since there was no one to show goodness or justice toward. This is the great theological problem in Islam. Islamic theologians say that all of God’s attributes arise from his will, not from his nature. God is merciful because he decides to be, not because mercy is part of his nature. And no one knows his will. The central attribute of God in Islam is power/will, not holiness. All of his relational attributes, including love and mercy, are subsets of his power. The result is a capricious and arbitrary god whose will is absolute, and can override even any stated promise or law. Muslim theologians will admit that they cannot be certain who will be in paradise and who will be in eternal torment, since making any such declaration would be placing a restriction on the will of Allah. There is even a question of how language could exist before creation in a unitarian system, since language is a means of communication, and a unitarian God would have no one to communicate with. In summary, any belief that God is good, loving, kind, holy, and so forth necessitates a belief in the trinitarian God of the Bible, for only a trinitarian God could have moral and relational attributes within Himself, as part of His essential nature.

David Falk gave an interesting presentation on Abraham’s 318 “trained men” (חָנִיכִים‎, a hapax legomenon), whom he led out to battle against a coalition of kings (Gen 14:14). These men are said to have been Abraham’s household slaves. While it may seem unusual for an individual such as Abraham (Abram) to have his own in-house military force, in Abraham’s historical context it was not so unusual. As a nomadic herdsman who lived in a land which lacked a central government, Abraham was responsible for his own protection and justice system. Abraham had to provide martial arts training for his slaves for his protection and theirs (they were protecting their own families as well as their master’s). Falk’s presentation focused on evidence from ancient Egypt for a martial arts tradition (qm’). Many reliefs and paintings from Dynasty 5 to Dynasty 22 in Egypt depict forms of wrestling and sport-fighting. Some of these depictions look similar to jujitsu. Some include a referee. Tomb 215 in Beni Hasan portrays 212 different types of martial arts techniques, including some using sticks and knives. The portrayal of similar scenes and techniques over such a long period of time (ca. 1,500 years) shows that this was a martial arts tradition, and not a mere fad. Often it is clear from the way the combatants are portrayed that they are foreign slaves. Since most native Egyptians were low-skilled farmers, ironically it was often foreign slaves who were given training for highly skilled jobs. Abraham had in fact spent time in Egypt and had been given slaves by Pharaoh (Gen 12:16), so he could have received a cadre of slaves with martial arts training, or he could have had his own slaves trained in Egypt. Esau may have inherited this group of slaves military training, as he came to meet Jacob with a 400-man security force, which he evidently used to conquer Seir/Edom (Gen 33:1). A second question Falk addressed was whether 318 men would be sufficient to defeat an army led by four kings. While Falk acknowledged that the army led by these kings could have numbered 10,000 or more based on figures reported in contemporary documents, the army would have been depleted after a long campaign of conquest and some major battles. Falk also cited numerous examples from the Amarna letters in which kings requested relatively small numbers of troops from Egypt in order to turn the tide of warfare against an opposing city-state. Often the requests are for 200-400 men, and in several cases they are for less than 100 men. Falk noted that only 300 highly trained Spartan warriors stopped an entire Persian army numbering in the millions at the pass of Thermopylae in 480 BC. The simple fact that Abraham’s men were highly trained in a martial arts tradition would have made them capable of engaging a much larger force. Abraham also employed astute military strategy, launching a surprise attack in the dead of night from two directions (Gen 14:15). Abraham did not completely wipe out the opposing army or kill the opposing kings, but he did force them to leave their captives and booty behind and flee (Gen 14:16). All in all, Falk’s research puts what has been a largely obscure passage in an interesting light.

On Wednesday morning, Crossway hosted a free breakfast with John Piper in order to promote Piper’s book A Peculiar Glory: How the Christian Scriptures Reveal Their Complete Truthfulness. Piper argued that even a child can know for certain that the message of the Christian gospel is true because the Bible is self-authenticating and does not need any external proof of its validity. If the Bible is the Word of God, then the glory of God cannot but shine through its pages—similar to the way the glory of God is seen through the created universe (Ps 19:1). In fact, 2 Corinthians 4:4-6 teaches that we come to know the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ by perceiving the glory of God in our hearts as we hear the Word of God. The whole Bible authenticates itself by the shining of the glory of God in and through it. The glory of God is self-authenticating to all who genuinely perceive it. I purchased Piper’s book at the conference.

I attended a lunch meeting on Wednesday for scholars who believe in a literal six-day creation. One of the points of interest to come out of this meeting was that the identification of God as Creator is central to the biblical theology of who God is. When Jonah was asked which God he worshiped, he replied that he worships the God of heaven, who created the world (Jonah 1:9). When Paul was explaining God to the pagan philosophers in Athens, he identified Him as the Creator of the world and the Lord of heaven and earth (Acts 17:24).

Dan Wallace gave the presidential address at the banquet on Wednesday evening. He noted that while it is unknown who invented the codex (book), Christians were largely responsible for its popularization. In the first 500 years of the Christian era, 90 percent of Christian books were codices, whereas only 14 percent of non-Christian books were. Scrolls were too unwieldy to hold the large collections of texts in the Christian Bible in a single volume, so Christians used codices instead. Wallace noted three landmarks in the history of bookmaking: [1] the invention of the codex (1st century AD); [2] the invention of the moveable type printing press (1454), one year after Constantinople fell to the Muslims and scribes from the east brought their manuscripts to the west (moved a memorizing society to a reading society); [3] the advent of the digital age (moved a reading society to a reference society; we now read only snippets, not books). Wallace also noted in passing the interesting observation that Nikita Khrushchev, who succeeded Joseph Stalin as dictator of the Soviet Union, likely memorized all four Gospels as a child. At the end of his address, Wallace took aim at people who supposedly do not want the Evangelical Theological Society to include the left wing of evangelicalism. In reality, the ETS leadership has been making executive decisions which support the left wing of evangelicalism against the larger right wing (primarily Baptists), especially on the issue of women in Bible teaching and leadership roles. The most conservative members of the ETS have also been given progressively less prominent places at the conferences. This has led to some tension within the ETS in recent years. When leaders were elected at the business meeting on Thursday, the Southern Baptists made nominations from the floor, but none of their preferred candidates won.

At a lunch meeting sponsored by Tuktu Tours, Mark Wilson summarized an article he coauthored with Thomas Davis in the Pharos Journal of Theology. Acts 13:13 does not say why young John Mark left Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey and returned to his home in Jerusalem. Quite possibly Paul and Barnabas were originally intending to sail to Alexandria, and John Mark dropped out after they changed plans and sailed to Perga instead. Ships sailing from Paphos, on the southern coast of Cyprus, typically followed the prevailing winds south to Alexandria; if Paul had originally intended to sail north to Perga, he would have planned to sail from a port on the northern coast of Cyprus. Alexandria had a large Jewish community, and would have been a natural place to go on a missionary journey. Church tradition strongly connects Mark with the church in Alexandria, so he and Barnabas did likely go to Alexandria after parting ways with Paul in Acts 15:39-40. What made Paul change his plans was his providential encounter with the proconsul at Paphos, Sergius Paulus (Acts 13:6-12). Inscriptions discovered in Turkey show that Sergius Paulus had family connections in Antioch of Pisidia. Thus, he probably made a personal plea to Paul and Barnabas to go to Pisidian Antioch and share the gospel with his relatives, which they immediately did (Acts 13:14-50). John Mark was accustomed to living in a large urban center—he had spent his entire life in a mansion in Jerusalem (Acts 12:12)—and he did not feel comfortable traveling through the small towns and rural areas of central Turkey (Acts 15:38). Evidence from the New Testament and church history places Mark’s ministry in four of the largest urban centers in the Roman Empire: Jerusalem, Syrian Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome.

Bryant Wood of Associates for Biblical Research gave a presentation on the location of Bethel. It is often difficult to identify the location of biblical sites (aside from the most prominent ones) because, while the general area of the site may be known, there are usually remains of many ancient towns and villages in that area, with no ancient signposts giving their names. Bethel lies in the vicinity of the modern city of Ramallah in the West Bank. W. F. Albright, Anson Rainey, and Israel Finkelstein are notable proponents of the view that Bethel is to be identified with the Arab village of Beitin. This is currently the consensus view in standard archaeology texts. However, Bryant Wood and his late colleague David Livingstone identify Bethel with the nearby site of El-Bireh. One of their arguments for this identification is that El-Bireh fits with statements made by the fourth century historian Eusebius about the location of Bethel. Eusebius states that Bethel is 12 Roman miles from Jerusalem. Several Roman milestones (mile markers) have been found on the road which leads north from Jerusalem, although a number is only preserved on the marker for Mile 5. Using these milestones and our knowledge of the approximate length of a Roman mile, we know that El-Bireh lies 11.5 miles from Jerusalem, whereas Beitin lies 14 miles from Jerusalem. In addition, Eusebius stated that Gibeon lies 4 Roman miles west of Bethel. While El-Bireh is 4 Roman miles east of Gibeon, Beitin is 6 Roman miles east of Gibeon. Wood also argued that the archaeology of El-Bireh fits much better with Bethel than does the archaeology of Beitin. Bethel became a prominent city during the divided monarchy period in ancient Israel, after Jeroboam made it one of the two main centers of pagan Israelite worship (1 Kgs 12:28-29). He built a great high place of sacrifice in Bethel, complete with a golden calf and a large altar (1 Kgs 12:32-33). The other high place of sacrifice built by Jeroboam was located in Dan; this site has been well-excavated, and its high place is very impressive. The site of Beitin has been well-excavated over a period of decades, but what was found there does not match what one would expect for Bethel. No cultic objects (i.e., idolatrous figurines and other objects used for pagan worship) have been found at Beitin, in comparison to 89 cultic objects from Tel Dan. Even Albright acknowledged that there was no evidence of Jeroboam’s sanctuary at Beitin; and there were few remains from the Iron IIA period, when Bethel reached its greatest prominence. Beitin is a very unimpressive site in comparison to Tel Dan. Wood suggests that the site of Ras et-Tahuna in El-Bireh is the likely location of the high place of Jeroboam. This is a hill with a large platform which lies 12 Roman miles from Jerusalem. While it is unexcavated, much pottery from the Iron IIA period is visible on the surface, including a horse-head cultic figurine which Wood displayed in his presentation. El-Bireh is also an unexcavated site, but surveys have shown that it has many remains from Iron IIA. El-Bireh and Ras et-Tahuna are also more directly east of the site of Khirbet el-Maqatir (biblical Ai) than is Beitin, which fits with the geographical markers given in Genesis 12:8 and Joshua 7:2. While some scholars suggest that the Arabic “Beitin” preserves the ancient name of “Bethel,” Wood argued that it is closer to “Beth-aven” (Josh 7:2). While Wood’s theory is hard to prove in the absence of archaeological excavations at El-Bireh, he certainly was correct when he observed that many conclusions in the field of archaeology are not based on evidence, but rather on the opinions of eminent scholars.

The renowned scholar Edwin Yamauchi, who has studied twenty-two languages, declared that this conference would be his last. He noted that while we often associate worship with music, the Hebrew and Greek words translated “worship” in the Bible actually mean “to bow down,” “to prostrate oneself.” Yamauchi also noted that verses from the Quran are inscribed on the façade of the Dome of the Rock, but they have variations from the current accepted text of the Quran, which leads scholars to conclude that the text of the Quran was still not fixed by the time the Dome of the Rock was constructed (late 7th century). Yamauchi also noted that in New Testament times there were basically no independent farmers in Israel, only tenants for landowners. This is because the tithing requirement in the Mosaic Law was interpreted as essentially a tax on agricultural products, which meant (in the minds of the rabbis) that only farmers had to pay tithes, and profits made through other occupations were exempt. Jews therefore generally avoided the occupation of farming in the first century AD.

Scott Aniol gave a well-researched presentation on the famed hymnwriter Isaac Watts’ views on the trinity. Essentially, Watts always considered himself to be an orthodox trinitarian, and his hymns are replete with sound trinitarian theology. However, Watts walked into a theological minefield later in his career while trying to precisely define biblical trinitarianism against popular forms of unitarianism and Arianism. Some of the things which he wrote in a treatise published in 1724­–25 were controversial, and he retracted them in later works. He still held some idiosyncratic views, but explicitly affirmed the Athanasian Creed. Claims that Watts was unitarian are wholly untrue. In the end, however, Watts’ theological legacy is the theology expressed in his hymns, not the theology expressed in his books. Watts’ hymns have served the church well in teaching correctly about the triune nature of God.

Beyond all the presentations, the ETS meeting was a great opportunity to meet with old friends, as well as to make new ones. The weather in San Antonio was perfect. The conference was held by the beautiful Riverwalk, and the unforgettable Alamo was less than half a mile from the hotel. It is hard to think of a better venue for a conference in November. For those scholars who would like to brave the weather in Rhode Island for next year’s meeting, details should appear on the ETS website within a few months. Hope to see you there!