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.