Ancient letters and False Assumptions

Ancient letters and False Assumptions

This image of Paul the letter writer is full of incorrect assumptions.
This image of Paul, the writer of ancient letters, is full of incorrect assumptions.

Stop for a moment and imagine the composition of one of Paul’s letters. How did Paul write a letter? We might imagine a scene like the picture on the right. Paul is alone in a room, sitting at a table with pen in hand. He writes on sheets of parchment or papyrus. In a matter of a few hours, he rises from the table having produced another one of his theological masterpieces. This would be a logical modern scenario of letter writing. The problem is that, according to E. Randolph Richards, everything in this imaginary scenario is wrong. In his book, Paul and First-Century Letter Writing, Richards debunks modern myths regarding the process of composing ancient letters. The purpose of Richard’s book is to look at “the actual mechanics of the letter-writing process” (p. 19). He believes, “the image we hold of Paul as a letter writer carries with it certain assumptions which do affect how we interpret Paul’s letters” (p. 23).

Exactly What’s Wrong with Our Assumptions?

Richards' book is available at Amazon USA / UK
Richards’ book is available at Amazon USA / UK

Our first wrong assumption is thinking that Paul would be alone when writing. Richard notes, “Recent sociological studies suggest that modern Western values such as privacy and individualism not only color our reconstructions but also have no real equivalent in Paul’s world” (p. 26). He continues, “Not only is there no privacy in most of the East; they cannot imagine why one would want it” (p. 27). The importance of a group mentality, rather than an individual mentality is essential in understanding the ancient East. Richard points out that Paul was the leader of a team. Although the team did not consist of equal collaborators, still their input “further defined the group’s thought” (p. 27). According to Richards, “Paul’s letter was the expression of the group’s consensus reached by dialogue” (p. 27). Richards notes that many of Paul’s letters list a co-author (1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, Colossians, 1&2 Thessalonians, and Philemon). While we cannot know how much a co-author contributed to these letters, Richards argues convincingly that they had a role.

A second wrong assumption is that Paul physically wrote each letter himself. The evidence shows that Paul always (or almost always) used a secretary. Richards makes the interesting point that literacy in the ancient world primarily meant the ability to read. Being able to read did not necessarily mean that one had the ability to write, especially to write well. We know that Paul had the ability to write.  A number of his letters mention him writing certain things in his own hand (e.g., Gal. 6:11; Phil. 19). But this doesn’t mean that his writing ability was up to the standards necessary to pen one of his letters. A secretary  wrote with a trained hand. Richards notes other aspects that we as moderns would not think of when it comes to ancient letters. I quote him here at length. “. . . secretaries required skills with the writing materials beyond what the ordinary individual possessed. Papyrus was sold by the individual sheet or by the standard roll. Paul’s letters did not fit either size. Additional sheets needed to be glued on to lengthen a roll (or trimmed off to shorten it). A secretary needed to mix his own ink and to cut his own pens. A secretary also needed to draw lines on the paper. Small holes were often pricked down each side and then a straight edge and a lead disk were used to lightly draw evenly-spaced lines across the sheet. A secretary also needed a sharpening stone to keep his pen sharp and a knife to cut new tips as necessary” (p. 29).

This picture represents the Apostle John dictating a letter to his secretary Prochorus. Note that the customary position for writing was to use one's lap for writing (not a desk).
This picture represents the Apostle John dictating a letter to his secretary Prochorus. Note that the customary position for writing was to use one’s lap for writing (not a desk).

The use of a secretary (amanuensis is the Greek term), presents other important insights (and questions). Secretaries could take word for word dictation (which was agonizingly slow unless they were proficient in shorthand). If they knew their employer well enough and it was a form-letter, they could compose the letter entirely themselves. Of course, the employer checked it before he sent it. Now, no one is suggesting that Paul turned his letters over completely to a secretary to compose, but the point is that secretaries had a range of freedom. It is possible that Paul allowed a secretary to make grammatical improvements. Secretaries would also be familiar with rhetoric and form and, thus, could influence the style and flow of a letter (if asked). Using a secretary usually meant the making of a rough draft. The rough draft was checked and edited if necessary. Next, several copies were produced. The sender kept one copy, and sent one or more copies to the recipients. Many mistakingly think there was only one copy of a Pauline letter (called the “autograph”). But ancient practice suggests that at least two copies (and sometimes more) were made. This was the better part of wisdom. If an original was damaged or lost “in the mail,” it could be recopied from the sender’s original copy. Given the expense of ancient letters (see below), having only one copy of an important letter would be careless. This entire process also suggests that a letter of any length would require days or weeks to complete. This is different than thinking Paul dashed off a letter to the Romans within the space of a few hours. Richards states, “Paul’s writings show clear evidence of careful composition. They were not dashed off one evening in the flurry of mission activity” (p. 31). (For an excellent article on secretaries–although I do not agree with all of his conclusions–see “The Secretaries of Peter, Paul and John,” by Taylor Marshall).

The Cost of Paul’s Letters

The cost of producing ancient letters the size of Paul's epistles is sobering, to say the least.
The cost of producing ancient letters the size of Paul’s epistles is sobering, to say the least.

How much did a letter cost in Paul’s day? We might falsely assume that there was no great expense. It is also important to remember that Paul’s letters were unusually long. Although there is great difficulty in transferring ancient costs into current costs, Richards takes an admirable shot at it. Even if the figures are not quite accurate, the impact on a modern reader like myself is worth the effort. Richards breaks the cost down into the following categories (listing ancient costs for each): 1) Number of lines of text; 2) Percentage of a “standard” papyrus roll needed per copy; 3) Cost of papyrus per copy; 4) Cost of secretarial labor per copy; 5)Total cost for finished letter; and 6) Cost in today’s dollars. To mention a few results, the letter to Philemon (Paul’s shortest letter) would cost approximately $101. (This amount is based on the value of the dollar in 2004, the publishing date of Richards’ book). An letter of intermediate length such as Ephesians would cost $770. Paul’s longest letter (Romans) would cost a whopping $2,275! The figures may not be exact, and perhaps Paul and his team did not pay market prices on everything. However, these estimates demonstrate the incredible expense potentially involved for the letters included in our New Testament. If nothing else, this should give us an appreciation for the value of the works that make up our Bibles.

The Writing of Ancient Letters: Implications and Conclusion

Richards’ book is full of interesting and provocative details like the ones mentioned above. It is not possible for me to do it justice in this short post. I would encourage those interested to obtain a copy. It will not only fill in the details above, but allow the reader to gain many other valuable insights. My purpose here is simply to cause us to reflect on our modern assumptions regarding New Testament letters. I have enumerated some of the implications of Richards’ research below.

  1. According to Richards, New Testament letters were a collaborative effort. This does not mean that we should stop calling Paul’s letters “Pauline”. Paul is the obvious leader of his team. He is clearly also the main author. The contents of any letter going out bearing his name would have to meet with his approval. It simply means that we should not force modern Western 21st century understandings on the composition of ancient letters. It also means we should take seriously the mention of a co-author as a contributor to the letter. Furthermore, we should be aware that the way a secretary wrote had an impact on the letter. Examples include, rhetorical style, and grammatical influence, among other possibilities. This is significant in explaining why certain Pauline letters, or sections of certain Pauline letters, may not “sound” Pauline. Some scholars designate certain letters as “deutero-Pauline“. This suggests that Paul did not write them. Instead, later disciples wrote in his name. The Pastoral Epistles (1&2 Timothy, & Titus), among a few others are so designated. However, if we recognize that co-authors and secretaries can influence style and content, it becomes much more difficult to say that something is not from Paul (and his team).
  2. The suggestion that Paul edited his letters has implications for the meaning of inspiration. Richards briefly addresses this subject in his final chapter, but more thought and work is needed on this point.
  3. Paul’s use of a secretary and the production of multiple copies of a given letter is important. The discovery of ancient libraries demonstrates that copies of manuscripts can last hundreds of years. (On this topic, see my post HERE). Multiple copies and their preservation suggests that the reliability of New Testament manuscripts is greater than some skeptics allow. The production cost of these copies is another reason the early church valued and protected them. Put another way: if you had a copy of a book (i.e., letter) that cost hundreds or thousands of dollars, written by a well-known, authoritative leader of your movement, don’t you suppose you would take good care of it?
  4. Besides the cost, the time investment necessary to produce one of Paul’s letters should give each of us a greater respect for their contents. Of course, those who believe in inspiration will already approach these letters with reverence. However, knowledge of the above facts demonstrates that inspiration can involve an investment of time and resources.

The writing of ancient letters is one example (among others) of how we can take things from the ancient world and impose our own cultural meanings on them. Of course this is not done intentionally, but it is a mistake made all too frequently.  Reading the writings of Scripture, it is imperative that we do not ask, “What does it mean to me?,” but “What did it mean to them?”

Temple Mount Sifting Project Discoveries

Temple Mount Sifting Project Discoveries

Brief History of Temple Mount Sifting Project Beginnings


The Temple Mount Sifting Project was a direct result of the illegal bulldozing of the Temple Mount by the Islamic Waqf in 1999.
The Temple Mount Sifting Project was a direct result of the illegal bulldozing of the Temple Mount by the Islamic Waqf in 1999.

Want to go to jail or start WWIII? Try doing an archeological excavation on the Temple Mount! Although such an excavation is currently impossible, there is a project that has been going on for the past 12 years that is bringing to light objects from the Temple Mount that date to the 1st and 2nd Temple periods. This project, known as the Temple Mount Sifting Project (TMSP), was originally inspired by a young archaeology student named Zachi Dvira. The story begins in 1999 when the Islamic Waqf (the trust that manages the Islamic structures on the Temple Mount), decided to illegally bulldoze a section in the southeast corner of the Temple Mount to create a stairway that would provide access to the Al-Marwani Mosque. This project was performed without archaeological supervision, a clear violation of the law. The dirt from the project (over 9000 tons) was then unceremoniously dumped into the Kidron Valley. Inspite of the careless and illegal operation by the Waqf, the dirt from the Temple Mount has turned out to be an archaeologist’s dream. Through the foresight and effort of Zachi Dvira, and his former professor at Bar-Ilan University Gabriel Barkay, a new archaeological enterprise known as the Temple Mount Sifting Project was birthed in 2004. The  Temple Mount dirt is hauled to a nearby site inside the Tzurim Valley National Park on the southern slopes of Mount Scopus. There, volunteers sift the dirt in a process developed by Dvira and Barkay known as wet sifting. Since the project began, over 500,000 artifacts have been discovered by nearly 200,000 volunteers! Below I look at some of the most fascinating discoveries.

Discoveries at the Temple Mount Sifting Project


This seal was recently discovered at the Temple Mount Sifting Project. Photo taken from
This seal was recently discovered at the Temple Mount Sifting Project. Photo taken from

Among the most recent discoveries is a 3,000 year old seal dating to the time of Kings David and Solomon (10th century B.C.). The seal was discovered by 10-year-old Matvei Tcepliaev (a young volunteer from Russia). Although small in size (see photo on the left), the seal has significant implications. It was most likely used to seal letters. According to the co-directors, this provides evidence that, “administrative activity … took place upon the Temple Mount during those times.” This is important because some scholars/archaeologists in the 90s suggested that the biblical portrayal of Jerusalem from the time of David and Solomon was inaccurate. Their view, known as the “minimalist” view, maintains that Jerusalem was only a small village in the 10th century B.C. and that it did not extend up to the Temple Mount area. The seal, along with other discoveries in the Temple Mount area, is providing evidence “that the descriptions found within the Biblical text relating to [the] expansion of Jerusalem may, in fact, be authentic” ( The seal itself depicts two animals, one on top of the other (perhaps suggesting its prey). Similar seals, dating to the same time period, have been discovered at other archaeological sites in Israel including, Tel Beit Shemesh, Tel Gezer, and Tel Rehov. Because none of the items in the Sifting Project are found “in situ” (in their original archeological context), dating is established by similar objects from other sites and by experienced archaeologists familiar with such ancient objects. Other artifacts recovered from the time of King Solomon include, a bronze arrowhead (a rare find according to the co-directors) and pottery shards (see the photos below).


Bronze arrowhead from the 10th century B.C.
Pottery shards dating to the 10th-9th centuries B.C. (All photos from Temple Mount Sifting Project)
Pottery shards dating to the 10th-9th centuries B.C. (All photos from the
Clay impression bearing the name of a member of the priestly family of Immer.
Clay impression bearing the name of a member of the priestly family of Immer.

Speaking of seals, one of the most significant finds from the Temple Mount Sifting Project, discovered in 2006, is a seal impression dated to the 6th century B.C. It is believed the clay impression was used to seal a fabric sack (one side of the impression has fabric lines on it). The seal impression bears a name, but it is only partially visible. It reads: “(Belonging to) […]lyahu (son of) Immer,” The Immer family was a priestly family, and one of its members, “Pashhur son of Immer” is known to us from Jeremiah 20:1 which states that Pashhur was “chief governor in the house of the Lord.” Pashhur was an opponent of Jeremiah’s who had the prophet locked in stocks. Jeremiah predicted the severe judgment that would befall him (Jer. 20:3-6). The seal impression does not belong to Pashhur, but it does belong to a family member. Barkay suggests it may be a brother.

Reassembled stone floor tiles from the Herodian Temple.
Reassembled stone floor tiles from the Herodian Temple.

Another significant discovery (this one relating to Herod’s temple) are hundreds of fragments of colorful stone floor tiles. Recently, some of these fragments were pieced together forming an impressive display of what some of the flooring on the Temple Mount looked like during the 1st century B.C. – A.D. According to Josephus, “Those entire courts that were exposed to the sky were laid with stones of all sorts” (Jewish War 5:2). By using geometrical principles and comparing floor designs in some of Herod’s other buildings, the floor tiles were able to be reassembled. For further information, see the related articles below at the bottom of the page.

Besides the discoveries detailed above, the Temple Mount Sifting Project has recovered over 6,000 coins and numerous pieces of jewelry. According to Bible History Daily, “The finds range in chronology from the Middle Bronze Age II (1950–1550 B.C.E.) to the present day, but most date from the 10th century B.C.E. onward.” See the photos below. According to Dvira and Barkay, about 70% of the debris has been sifted. If you’re planning a trip to Jerusalem and have 2 hours to spare, you may want to volunteer to do some wet sifting at the Temple Mount Sifting Project. For information on how to sign up click HERE. Who knows, you may make the next significant discovery. Thanks to the efforts of Dvira and Barkay (and thousands of volunteers), what once looked like an archaeological nightmare, has become a treasure-trove of information about the first and second Temple period. We look forward to when all of the artifacts have been examined and Dvira and Barkay publish their findings.

Photos from
Photos from

If you’d like to watch a short video (under 8 minutes) click HERE. Dvira and Barkay explain the past, present, and future of the Temple Mount Sifting Project.

Related articles across the web

Evangelical Exegetical Commentary: 1&2 Samuel

Evangelical Exegetical Commentary: 1&2 Samuel

The Evangelical Exegetical Commentary on 1&2 Samuel is available through
The Evangelical Exegetical Commentary on 1&2 Samuel is available through

The 1&2 Samuel Evangelical Exegetical Commentary (EEC) is the final work of beloved and renowned scholar Harry A. Hoffner Jr. Hoffner, before his recent death in March 2015, was John A. Wilson Professor of Hittitology Emeritus at the University of Chicago. He was an expert on the ancient Near East and, as the above title suggests, specialized in the language, history and civilization of the Hittite empire. One of his greatest achievements was co-editing The Hittite Dictionary of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. Hoffner’s ancient Near Eastern expertise is one of the great strengths of the Evangelical Exegetical Commenatry on 1&2 Samuel. Nearly every page offers some parallel or insight from his extensive knowledge of Hittite, and ancient Mesopotamian literature. Such a statement might frighten off those less experienced in the study of the Old Testament, and indeed, it is not a commentary for beginners. However, the pastor, the graduate student, the professor, and the more advanced learner will benefit greatly from Hoffner’s exposition. Knowledge of Hebrew is presupposed as the commentary utilizes Hebrew in both its normal alphabetic and transliterated forms.

Before commenting further on Hoffner’s commentary on 1&2 Samuel, let me share the purpose behind the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary series in the words of its creators. “The Evangelical Exegetical Commentary is a brand new, 44-volume commentary series which incorporates the latest critical biblical scholarship and is written from a distinctly evangelical perspective. Published by Lexham Press, the EEC is the next standard commentary on the entire Bible for evangelicals. . . .The publication of the EEC by Lexham Press marks the first time a major Bible commentary series has been published in digital form before its print counterpart—and the first time it has been published with a digital format in mind.” The purpose behind the creation of a digital commentary, in the words of one of the editors of the series H. Wayne House, is so that a commentary can be easily updated. If a new understanding of a word is discovered or some new archaeological information comes to light, it can be added immediately. This is indeed an extremely attractive feature of the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary series! (For a short video explaining the nature and purpose of the series click HERE).

The Introduction to the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary on 1&2 Samuel

Author of the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary on 1&2 Samuel, Harry A. Hoffner, Jr.
Author of the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary on 1&2 Samuel, Harry A. Hoffner, Jr.

The editors of the ECC have apparently put no restrictions on commentary length (another plus of a digital edition!) and Hoffner takes advantage of this by producing a voluminous commentary. Logos has yet to add page numbers to this particular volume (which makes citation challenging!) and so I can only hazard a guess on its size. It is certainly well over 1,000 pages, but how far over I can not tell. With no space limitations, Hoffner begins the commentary by launching into a thorough and lengthy Introduction. The Introduction includes the usual topics of title, authorship, date, historical context and scope, and structure, but it includes much more. Some of the other areas addressed (and there are too many to name them all) include genre, theme, sources, literary analysis (including a lengthy section that summarizes and evaluates many of the characters of 1&2 Samuel), and extrabiblical parallels (which, given Hoffner’s expertise, comes as no surprise).

There are two things that I would like to note from this introductory material that bear on a commentator’s interpretation of 1&2 Samuel. First, Hoffner is not a fan of using the term “Deuteronomistic History,” to describe the books of Joshua-Kings, noting that such language overlooks the many parallels and allusions to the other books of the Torah (Genesis-Numbers) found throughout Joshua-Kings. While he believes that much of the material regarding David and Saul could have been written and preserved in the palace archives, he has no difficulty in seeing a final author or editor putting 1&2 Samuel in its final form during the exilic period. Rather than state firm conclusions on this matter, Hoffner is content to make general observations. Second, Hoffner is not a fan of “the hermeneutic of suspicion.” In his comments on the characterization of Abner and how scholars frequently conclude that David was responsible for Abner’s death, Hoffner remarks, “Typical of this “Damned if you do—damned if you don’t” hermeneutic of suspicion is Paul Ash’s statement: “Although the text does not implicate David in Abner’s murder, some scholars believe that he may have ordered it since 2 Samuel tries so hard to say otherwise.” Obviously, the narrator denies David’s complicity in order to dispel rumors to the contrary—rumors spread by David’s Saulide opponents. Should not the text record this?” (Hoffner, H. A., Jr., 2015. 1 & 2 Samuel. H. W. House & W. Barrick, Eds. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press). Later on in his exposition of 2 Samuel 12:22-23, he takes another stab at the skeptics when he writes, “In the end, as is often the case, the scenarios of skeptics require more leaps of faith than belief in the tooth fairy. If one is permitted to simply ignore large chunks of the tradition and make up others, one can “prove” anything! . . . .We are wise not to second-guess the text.” Any who have read my reviews on 1&2 Samuel commentaries are aware of my own disdain for the hermeneutic of suspicion. I couldn’t be more pleased with these comments by Hoffner because they demonstrate that he takes the text seriously.

The Layout of the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary on 1&2 Samuel

Sample page from the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary on 1&2 Samuel
Sample page from the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary on 1&2 Samuel

Hoffner breaks the commentary down into literary sections. Each section begins with an overall summary and introduction. This is followed by a more detailed outline of the section which provides the basis for the verse-by-verse commentary. A bibliography accompanies the detailed outline and is then followed by the Hebrew text itself with Hoffner’s accompanying notes on the text. Since the Hebrew text is noticeably absent from the Esther volume in this series (although there are notes on the text), it appears that it is up to the authors to determine the format of their commentary, at least to some extent. Hoffner’s english translation follows the textual notes which then leads to the verse-by-verse exposition. There is always a short summary of the portion of the text under examination followed by a discussion of the verses themselves. The commentary is frequently punctuated with other features such as sections entitled: “Exegetical note,” or charts comparing features of the text, gray panels that set apart a special discussion (e.g., one on siege warfare at the beginning of 1 Sam. 11), and from time to time a concluding section entitled, “Application and Devotional Implications.” Following each smaller section of exposition is yet another bibliography. One of the strengths of this commentary is its prolific bibliography, which of course can be updated as new works appear. The screen shot above shows a sample page of the commentary in which you can see the selected bibliography, Hebrew text, and textual notes features.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Lexham Press is the publisher of the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary Series
Lexham Press is the publisher of the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary Series

Among the many strengths of this commentary, I have already noted Hoffner’s knowledge of the ancient Near East (besides the many parallels he introduces, I would also include his fresh translation of the Hebrew text), the bibliographic resources, the comprehensive nature of the commentary, and its update-ability. Although the commentary may not suit a novice, I am also impressed with the attention that Hoffner pays to character development in 1&2 Samuel and his attempts at sharing application and devotional thoughts. Some examples of his devotional application include his comment on 1 Samuel 24:7-8 (David’s men are encouraging him to kill Saul), where he notes that we should not interpret things in our favor when they violate God’s law. Another timely example (considering the upcoming US election) are Hoffner’s introductory comments on 2 Samuel 13:39-14:33. He states, “As readers, we are invited to consider the full weight of sin, to see the social and public consequences of David’s personal adultery and murder.” This dimension is often lost sight of when media arguments are made against considering the personal sins of leaders in political debates. It is unwise to keep the personal and the public lives of leaders separate” (Hoffner, H. A., Jr., 1 & 2 Samuel, 2 Sa 13:39–14:33). These types of applicational interpretation will certainly be welcome material for a pastor or Bible-study leader. The fact that this commentary series is published by Lexham Press and is available on Logos is yet another bonus. The ability to quickly read Scripture references, or footnotes by simply hovering over them with the mouse, or to pull up other commentaries or Bible Dictionary articles referred to by the author which are automatically linked to the resources in your Logos library, are just some of the wonderful benefits available to Logos users. As with any book, you can highlight important comments, take notes, or paste quotes into a folder for future use. Logos users will be familiar with all of these advantages, and many others, which make study easier and more profitable.

The entire series of the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary will consist of 44 volumes including both Old and New Testament.

As with any commentary, there are going to be questions over particular interpretations. Some of my disagreements include the significance of Eli’s chair, which Hoffner sees as a sign of Eli’s old age, rather than (what I would interpret as) a clear allusion to royalty.  At times I quibble with his estimation of a character. For example, like many scholars Hoffner is aware of Joab’s brutality, but insists on his complete loyalty to David. I have written extensively elsewhere on my disagreement with this assessment of Joab (see Family Portraits, pp. 258-300). One shortcoming I note is that Hoffner sometimes seems reluctant to let the reader know where he stands on ambiguous or difficult passages. For example, he states that the longer text of 1 Samuel 11 (found in the Dead Sea Scrolls and LXX) suggests “a long period of brutal oppression.” But his only comment is “if we accept the longer text.” There is no further discussion as to whether he accepts or rejects the longer text or what his reasons might be. The story of David and Goliath (1 Sam. 17) introduces an even more thorny textual issue (the LXX version is much shorter than MT) which Hoffner dismisses by stating that Chisholm has convinced him that the MT makes sense as it stands and is not hopelessly contradictory. Granted, not every textual issue can be discussed ad nauseam, but given the length of this commentary, and Hoffner’s expertise, it is surprising how frequently he opts for no discussion. Furthermore, he does not offer anything new on the interpretive difficulties of 1 Samuel 17:51-53, 55-58 and, in fact, dismisses these difficulties by simply stating, “There is no lack of competing explanations for what appears to be a jarring contradiction between this present passage and what has preceded” (Hoffner, H. A., Jr., 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 Sa 17:55–58). Finally, once in awhile, Hoffner appears to contradict himself. For example, in 1 Samuel 13:3-4 Hoffner states that it is unlikely that Saul is stealing the glory from Jonathan by claiming victory over the Philistines. Yet in 1 Samuel 17:38 he states, “Previously, Saul had claimed some of the glory due to his son Jonathan’s courageous attack on the Philistine outpost.” Another example may be found in the commentary on 1 Samuel 25. In his introductory comments Hoffner disagrees with the theory of some that the Abigail mentioned here may be his sister by the same name. However, later (in the commentary on 25:3) he notes others who hold this view and quotes Youngblood at length. By not restating his disagreement with this view, one could get the impression he is agreeing.

The above may seem like quite a laundry list of “weaknesses” and yet, given the size of this volume, they are not serious threats to the value of this commentary. In fact, I have to admit I am being quite picky. For those desiring an in-depth look at the books of Samuel, Hoffner’s commentary offers plenty to chew on. The Evangelical Exegetical Commentary on 1&2 Samuel will be an indispensable resource for years to come for those who desire to delve deeply into the message of these books. I heartily recommend it for your library.

Purchase the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary on 1&2 Samuel at Logos/FaithLife

(Thanks to Logos for supplying a copy of this commentary in exchange for an unbiased review)

Tel Lachish in the Toilet

Tel Lachish in the Toilet

Ancient toilet found at Tel Lachish, Sept. 2016. Photo by:Igor Kreimerman
Ancient toilet found at Tel Lachish, Sept. 2016. Photo by:Igor Kreimerman

Actually, our title is slightly misleading. Tel Lachish is not literally “in the toilet,” but there is a toilet in Tel Lachish! Recent discoveries at Tel Lachish, including a temple and (of all things!) a toilet,  provide further confirmation of the religious reform of King Hezekiah of Judah mentioned in 2 Kings 18:4-6 and 2 Chronicles chapters 29-31. It also provides interesting confirmation of 2 Kings 10:27 which mentions the destruction of the temple of Baal and how it was defiled by being turned into a “latrine” or “refuse dump.” There are a number of ways of desecrating a temple, but certainly turning it into a lavatory is one of the most humiliating. I know what you’re all thinking: “Was the toilet ever used for it’s natural purpose?” Laboratory tests return a disappointing “no.” It appears the toilet was more symbolic than functional.

The Monumental Gate at Tel Lachish

The large 6-chambered gate at Tel Lachish can be clearly seen in this arial photo.
The large 6-chambered gate at Tel Lachish  with the main street of the city running between 3 chambers on each side can be clearly seen in this arial photo. Photo by Guy Pitossi IAA.

Our “bathroom curiosity” actually gets us ahead of the story however, and so we need to backtrack in order to understand how this discovery came about. Tel Lachish, a city of Judah about 30 miles southwest of Jerusalem in the area known as the Shephelah, is mentioned 24 times in the Old Testament. The Tel is one of the largest in Israel measuring about 31 acres. It was one of the fortified cities of Judah and considered to be second in importance, only to Jerusalem. Tel Lachish (also known as Tel ed-Duweir) has frequently seen teams of excavators since the 1930s. The site was first excavated by a British team from 1932-1938. This was followed in 1966 and 1968 with a small scale expedition by the famous Israeli archaeologist Yohanan Aharoni. Another famous Israeli archaeologist, David Ussishkin of Tel Aviv University, excavated at Tel Lachish from 1973-1994. Recently, a team under Yosef Garfinkel (formerly the lead archaeologist of the dig at Khirbet Qeiyafa, see my post HERE), as well as the IAA (Israeli Antiquities Authority) have been digging at Tel Lachish. Although the gate was discovered decades ago, it was only fully uncovered this year by the IAA.  According to an article in, “The gate, now exposed and preserved to a height of four meters (around 13 feet), consists of six chambers, measuring some 80 by 80 feet in total. Three chambers are located on each side, with the ancient city’s main street running in between them.” It is the largest gate ever uncovered in Israel that dates to the First Temple Period (the time of Solomon to the exile).

A young lady sits on the bench in the gate at Tel Lachish, leaning on the armrest. Photo by Sa'ar Ganor IAA
A young lady sits on the bench in the gate at Tel Lachish, leaning on the armrest. Photo by Sa’ar Ganor IAA

The first chamber in the gate revealed benches with armrests, a vivid reminder of the  Bible’s description of the judges and elders of a city sitting in the gate (e.g., Gen. 19:1; Prov. 31:23). Gates of ancient cities were also known to have temples or shrines to their god contained in them. An example of this is recorded in 2 Kings 23:8 which tells us that King Josiah of Judah, “broke down the high places at the gates.” The rest of the verse goes on to describe one of these high places being at “the entrance to the gate.” So we should not be surprised to hear that the IAA discovered one of these “temples” within the city gate of Tel Lachish. Here is a description of the discovery by Sa’ar Ganor, the director of the IAA excavation: “Steps to the gate-shrine in the form of a staircase ascended to a large room where there was a bench upon which offerings were placed. An opening was exposed in the corner of the room that led to the holy of holies; to our great excitement, we found two four-horned altars and scores of ceramic finds consisting of lamps, bowls and stands in this room” (read more: The altars had the horns broken off; another sign of temple desecration. Watch Sa’ar Ganor’s explanation of the discovery at the following youtube link HERE. Other items discovered included jar handles labelled “lmlk” (belonging to the king) with a depiction of a four-winged beetle (scarab). Both of these markings are commonly associated with the reign of Hezekiah, being found in other excavations of this time period.

Other Notable Facts About Tel Lachish

One of the wall panels depicting the conquest of Lachish by Senacherib. The entire panel is on display in the British Museum.
One of the wall panels depicting the conquest of Lachish by Sennacherib. The entire panel is on display in the British Museum.

Tel Lachish has long been famous since the discovery of a wall panel in the palace of Sennacherib, the Assyrian king, depicting its conquest in 701 BC. For a 3D depiction of the entire panel watch the short youtube video HERE. The Assyrians built a very impressive ramp in order to scale the walls of the city which can still be seen today at Tel Lachish. Numerous pieces of armor, arrowheads, and stones (from slings) have also been recovered, a reminder of the ferocity of the battle. It would be expected that the excavation of the large gate complex by the IAA would also yield evidence of the battle and indeed it has with the discovery of more arrowheads and sling stones.

A replica of one of the Lachish letters.
A replica of one of the Lachish letters.

Lachish was rebuilt after the destruction by the Assyrians only to be laid waste a second time by the Babylonians. One of the most famous discoveries at Tel Lachish dates to this period. A cache of letters written on broken pieces of pottery known as ostraca were discovered in a guardhouse inside one of the city gates in 1935 and 1938. The letters, known as the Lachish Letters (or ostraca), include correspondence between a subordinate and the commander of Lachish as the siege with the Babylonians nears. One of the more famous letters reads as follows:

Salutation (lines 1)
May Yahweh give you good news at this time.

General Statement (lines 2–4)
And now, your servant has done everything my lord sent (me word to do). I have written downj everything you sent me (word to do).

Report on Bet-HRPD (lines 4–6)
As regards what my lord said about Bet-HRPD, there is no one there.

The Semakyahu Situation (lines 6–12)
As for Semakyahu, Shemayahu has seized him and taken him upk to the city. Your servant cannot send the witness there [today]; rather, it is during the morning tour that [he will come (to you)]. Then it will be known that we are watching the (fire)-signals of Lachish according to the code which my lord gave us, for we cannot see Azeqah. (Hallo, W. W., & Younger, K. L., 2003. Context of Scripture (p. 80). Leiden; Boston: Brill.)

The last few words of the letter state that the fires of Azekah can no longer be seen, which many interpret to mean that the Babylonians had destroyed Azekah, and thus would be marching on to attack Lachish. This statement recalls a passage in Jeremiah 34:7 which reads as follows: “When the king of Babylon’s army fought against Jerusalem, and all the cities of Judah that were left, against Lachish and Azekah; for only these fortified cities remained of the cities of Judah” (emphasis mine). A comparison of this text with the Lachish letter above sends a chill up the spine as the reader realizes that contrary to Jeremiah 34:7, this letter asserts that only Lachish is now left!

With a large portion of the Tel yet to excavate, we await further findings of this fascinating city. Meanwhile work is being done at Tel Lachish to make it more tourist friendly by turning it into a National Park. For more on Tel Lachish, check out the following links. For an aerial view of the Tel click HERE. For another short video of the recent discoveries (without commentary) click HERE. For more about past work at Tel Lachish you can see the website at Tel Aviv University. Finally, my cyber buddy Luke Chandler is currently working with the excavation at Tel Lachish and shares an article about the recent discoveries HERE.

Biblical Studies Carnival September 2016

Biblical Studies Carnival September 2016

dog-dayssWelcome to the September issue of the Biblical Studies Carnival! With the dog days of summer behind us (well at least for those of us who live in cooler climates), the Fall Carnival schedule is ready to kick into high gear. For the upcoming months the Carnival will travel to the following locations:

October 2016 (November 1) – Bob MacDonald, @drmacdonald, Dust,

November 2016 (December 1) – Jim West, @drjewest, Zwinglius Redivivus,

December 2016 (January 1) – Jennifer Guo, @jenniferguo,

Cassandra Farrin at Ethics and Early Christianity has also got January covered. The rest of the year is wide open however. So if you’d like to host a Biblical Studies Carnival in 2017 please contact Phil Long at @plong42 or This month’s Carnival comes to you from the ancient city of York (England). Yes (all you Church History lovers), the very city where Constantine himself was proclaimed Emperor. So without further delay, let’s begin!

Statue of the young Constantine the Great in front of York Minster
Statue of the young Constantine the Great in front of York Minster

Old Testament

To get this party started check out Michael J. Kok’sGeneral Survey of the Hebrew Bible,” and also his post entitled, “The Christian Appropriation of the Old Testament,” at jesusmemoirs. Lindsay Kennedy has an interesting article on “Psalm 2:6 and the transformation of Zion.” George Athas asks, “Genesis 19: Has Lot Lost the Plot?” Continuing with the Genesis theme, I have written a post entitled, “Are the Seven Days of Creation Literal?” I also concluded a series on Biblical Numerology entitled, “Symbolic Numbers in the Old Testament,” (although I  must confess I actually look at the Bible as a whole).

Language Studies and Textual Criticism

In his most recent post, Bob MacDonald offers his translation of Esther 1. In other September posts Bob shares translations from Job, Jeremiah and Zechariah (click HERE and scroll down). Mike Aubrey announces that the new book “The Greek Verb Revisited: A Fresh Approach for Biblical Exegesis,” will not only be available at Logos Bible Software, but you can also purchase a hard copy at Amazon. Brian Davidson notes than even modern “scribes” can make errors in his “Ancient Errors, Modern Scribes,” post. He also emphasizes the significance of word order in “The Word Order Hurdle.” Looking at the Didache, David Corder examines Aaron Milavec’s preference for the most difficult reading. Peter Gurry asks a challenging and provocative question in his post, “Does Scripture’s Self-Attestation Apply to Textual Criticism?” Although we could put “Jens Schröter, Galatians 1.6-7 and the Greek Scholars,” by Wayne Coppins in the New Testament category, it seems best suited here. Finally, for all you Hebrew lovers, Todd Scacewater at exegeticaltools has posted a humorous video on learning Hebrew based on Abbot and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” routine. You’ll love it!

New Testament

Todd Scacewater has produced another interesting title sure to draw readers in. Check out his, “Think You Understand Crucifixion? Think Again,” post which compares and contrasts 3 new books on crucifixion. Phil Long is working his way through Romans and has a whole host of articles. His latest as of this writing is “God Shows No Partiality.” Check out his blog at readingacts to see other posts on Romans. Marg Mowczko asks, “Did Jesus Address Only Men in Luke 14:25-27?”  Julia Blom at jewishstudies.eteacherbiblical continues a series on Luke 24. The latest is entitled, “Key Number Five: And Their Eyes Were Opened.” Michael J. Kok has an article on Hebrews and Subsequent Christian Supersessionism.


Michael Patton has written his observations in a provocatively entitled article, “Why Arminianism Won’t Preach (and Calvinism Won’t Sell).” Continuing with the theme of Calvinism, Bobby Grow offers, “A Different Way: A Calvinism Where God is Love Rather than Law.” For the philosophical theologians among us, Grow also writes about “Hypostatic Grace: A Response of Sorts to Tom McCall and Substance Metaphysics.” Marg Mowczko looks at “Tertullian on Equality and Mutuality in Marriage.Andy Goodliff has an interview with Tim Carter regarding his latest book, “The Forgiveness of Sins.” Cassandra Farrin, in her “Understanding Religion Series,” examines “Testimony.” Finally, Dr. Mariottini offers some sage counsel in “Do Women Really Want to Go Back to Patriarchy?


At theoutwardquest David Corder has a host of articles dealing with various topics  including a series on Amihai Mazar’s book, “The Case of the United Monarchy.” Click HERE for the latest in that series. Dr. Claude Mariottini reports on the discovery of the “Scale Weights of the High Priest, and, in case you haven’t seen it before, Dr. Mariottini has a number of free ebooks available on his site including Israel Finkelstein’s, “The Forgotten Kingdom: The Archaeology and History of Northern Israel.”

Church History

In her latest post, Cassandra Farrin draws our attention to the upcoming 500th anniversary of the Reformation (coming in 2017) and seeks to demonstrate how some of its themes can speak to the modern situation in America. At Zwingliusredivivus Jim West shares two short posts. The first is a quote from Calvin regarding his “Explanation of the Nones,” and the second is regarding the legitimization of the worship of images by the 7th Ecumenical Council.


OK, I confess. I stole this from google!
OK, I confess. I stole this from google!

Normally, posts about plagiarism would not merit a separate heading, but it’s definitely a topic that’s been “trending” this month and so this separate category seems justified. Scot McKnight has some very good thoughts on “Plagiarizing Sermons.” Warning: this is not a “How To…” article! At Crux SolaChristopher Skinner questions Stan Porter’s defense of Peter O’Brien’s plagiarism in 3 of his NT commentaries in the Pillar series by Eerdman’s. For an opposite view one can read “Plagiarism Hunters,” by Fred Butler. Although I’m in danger of violating Carnival protocol, (this next post actually appeared in August), Brian Renshaw offers some very constructive “Thoughts on Research and Note Taking After O’Brien and Eerdmans.”

Book Reviews

booksAt the Dustin Martyr Blog the book review series on “A Man Attested By God,” by Daniel Kirk continues. At corinthianmatters you’ll find a review by David Pettegrew of “People Under Power: Early Christian and Jewish Responses,” by Lebahn and Lehtipuu. Lindsay Kennedy balances Old and New Testaments with a review on “Psalms By the Day” (Alec Motyer) and a review of “A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the New Testament,” (ed. Michael J. Kruger). Both reviews are available at mydigitalseminary. For Bible backgrounds lovers, Spencer Robinson looks at the new “NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible.” Over at hipandthigh you can read Fred Butler‘s review of ” Truth Or Territory: A Biblical Approach to Spiritual Warfare” by Jim Osman. Jennifer Guo reviews Eugene Merrill’s commentary on 1&2 Chronicles in the Kregel Exegetical Library, as well as “The Acts of the Apostles: Interpretation, History, and Theology,” by Osvaldo Padilla. Her most recent post reviews Frank J. Matera’s “New Testament Theology.

If you get tired of reading book reviews you may want to get some cotton candy, put your feet up, and check out the youtube interviews with Larry Hurtado on his new book, “Destroyer of the gods,” at the christianorigins blog. Now that you’ve recovered with a good sugar rush you can check out Nijay Gupta’s post on “Do We Need More Commentaries?,” or his review of “Kingdom Ethics” by Gushee and Stassen. While you’re there, check out what Gupta’s website partner Christopher Skinner has to say about Estes’s and Sheridan’s book entitled, “How John Works: Storytelling in the Fourth Gospel.J.K. (a.k.a. Kevin Turner) reviews Kent Hughes’s “Disciplines of a Godly Man,” and offers advice on Bible reading plans. Finally, Andy Goodliff lists “11 Books Every Christian Should Read Before They Turn 25.” It’s a good looking list but the problem for me is none of these books were around when I was 25! I’ll bet Andy would encourage me to read them anyway. 🙂

That’s it for this month.  The Biblical Studies Carnival has packed up and is moving on to it’s next destination. Once again, remember if you’d like to host a Carnival, contact Phil Long at at @plong42 or Happy Reading and Blogging until next month!

Are the Seven Days of Creation Literal?

Are the Seven Days of Creation Literal?

maxresdefaultThe more I study Genesis, the more I am convinced that we often come to the Creation story (and other biblical texts) with the wrong questions. How one answers the question, “Are the seven days of Creation literal?”, can determine in some people’s minds whether a person is orthodox or not. To some it is a question of believing or not believing in the authority of the Bible. Perhaps “wrong” is too strong a word in my above statement. Given our 21st century mindset, and the Creation-Science debate, the question of whether Creation took place in seven days seems to be perfectly logical. My point is that we often fail to examine the presuppositions that lie behind some of the questions we ask. If we fail to examine the presuppositions behind our questions, we are in danger of bringing our own agenda to the biblical text and expecting answers that the text may not be addressing. In other words, since the age of Enlightenment we are predisposed to ask questions about the material origins of things. Where did this come from and how did it happen? These are perfectly good questions but we mustn’t assume that they are the same questions people in the ancient world would ask. I am of the mindset that we should first seek to understand what the Bible means in its ancient context. I have written elsewhere on the importance of biblical backgrounds and understanding the culture of the ancient world (see here. You can also click on “Bible backgrounds” for other articles). Just as most people need the ancient Hebrew translated into a modern language they can understand, so it is important to translate (as much as is possible based on our current state of knowledge) an understanding of ancient Near Eastern culture (the culture in which the Bible was birthed). Once we can determine the ancient context and what a story would have meant to the original audience, it becomes an easier task to see what it is saying to us today. After all, if we come with our own agenda and seek to place an artificial grid over the text through which it must be interpreted, we can make the Bible say anything we like. My purpose in this article is to first examine what Genesis 1 meant in its ancient Israelite (Near Eastern) context, and then to return to the question of whether Genesis is teaching that Creation took place in a literal 7-day period.

The Connection Between Creation Stories and Building Temples

Walton's book explores the connection between Creation and the Cosmos with Temples and their importance. His book is available at Amazon USA / UK and Logos/Faithlife.
Walton’s book explores the connection between Creation and the Cosmos with Temples and their importance. His book is available at Amazon USA / UK and Logos/Faithlife.

Ancient Mesopotamian, Canaanite, and Egyptian literature all share the common trait of viewing the temples of their various gods as being the hub of the cosmos (the world as they knew it). John Walton states, “Throughout the ancient world, the temple was a significant part of the cosmic landscape. It was considered to be at the center of the cosmos, the place from which the cosmos was controlled, and a small model of the cosmos—a microcosm” (Walton, J. H. (2011). Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology (p. 100). Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns). The building of ancient temples are described in cosmic terms with their tops in the heavens and their roots in the world below (the netherworld). Temples were viewed as the foundation of the cosmos and the bond that held everything together. Temples were pictured as sources of life-giving water and thus were providers of the fertility of the land. From the temple the god controlled the fertility of the land. Most importantly for our purposes here Walton notes that, “The interrelationship between cosmos and temple is also evidenced by the fact that accounts of origins often include accounts of temple building, with temple building at times being at the climax of the origin account or even serving as the purpose for creation” (Walton, J. H., Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology p. 107). Walton not only makes these observations, but gives plenty of evidence by quoting from ancient sources. Check out his book if you’re interested in reading the actual sources. Another way of summing up the importance of the connection between creation and temple building is the quote cited by Walton from Coote and Ord which states,  “The temple is the focal point of creation in nearly every account available to us“(p. 107, emphasis mine).

Temples, Resting, and 7 Days

Stories about Creation have connections with stories about building temples. This not only includes pagan temples, but the tabernacle and the temple of Solomon as well.
Stories about Creation have connections with stories about building temples. This not only includes pagan temples, but the tabernacle and the temple of Solomon as well.

Two other features are significant regarding the temples in the ancient world. First a temple is the resting place of the god. Although rest can imply different things since ancient gods had many human qualities, most importantly rest communicates the concept of rule. As when a god rests on his throne in the temple. This is not for the purpose of taking a nap, but for ruling. The other significant feature is that several accounts of ancient temple building relate it to a seven day inauguration period at the end of which the god comes to dwell in the temple.

To this point we have noted connections between Creation and temple building and the concepts of rest (meaning rule) and seven days. However, all of this has been in reference to literature of the ancient Near East. The evidence referred to is not to say that the Bible has borrowed from the Creation myths or temple building stories of the nations around them, as much as it is to note that these things are part of the culture of the times. These ideas are in the “atmosphere” of the ancient world and as such Israel partakes of similar ideas (though distinct in other ways). This is where some, especially those who think of themselves as Bible fundamentalists, become uncomfortable. Before moving to the biblical evidence (which will hopefully satisfy those who are skeptical), I think it’s important to take a short rabbit trail and talk about the importance of understanding another culture.

Although people today have different beliefs about various things, they share certain cultural language and understandings. If I say I have taken a flight from Paris to Atlanta, everyone knows that I booked a flight on an airline and flew in a plane to Atlanta. I don’t have to explain myself in detail. I don’t have to mention that I had to go through a security check. Everyone knows that is part of the procedure. If I talk about my laptop or texting someone, or say I have taken a “selfie,” everyone knows what I mean without further explanation. However, if someone from the past could come and visit our 21st century culture (even from as short a time as 150 years ago), they would have no idea what I meant by any of these things. Our culture, our history, our language, would all need explaining. If I told someone from the past that I flew from Paris to Atlanta they might think I’m lying or claiming to be a god (because who can fly?), and they may not have any idea what Paris and Atlanta are. The same is true of the ancient world as we try and understand their culture and language. There are many concepts taken for granted because they were understood and didn’t need further explanation. Ancients understood the connection between Creation accounts and building temples. It was as much a part of their culture as selfies and laptops are a part of ours…no additional explanations were needed. This is why when we read Genesis 1:1-2:3 we do not automatically see that the Creation story is talking about God taking up residence in His temple. And if we preoccupy ourselves with questions from our own cultural standpoint (Are the seven days of Creation literal?), we will never hear the original message. We need “ears to hear” and it begins with understanding the culture and the signals that are in the language of the text that communicates its meaning.

The Ain Dara temple in Syria has many features similar to Solomon's temple.
The Ain Dara temple in Syria has many features similar to Solomon’s temple.

Before presenting the biblical side of this argument I’d like to illustrate what I have just stated above. God authorized Moses to build a tabernacle, a dwelling place that would symbolize His presence with His people (Exod. 25-27). We are told that the plans were given to Moses on the mount and he was to see that everything was made according to that pattern (Exod. 25:40; Heb. 8:5). Therefore the plan of the tabernacle came from God. When Solomon’s temple was constructed, it was built by following the plan of the tabernacle, except that it was twice as large. However, we know from Scripture that Solomon was aided by Hiram, King of Phoenecia, and his craftsmen (1 Kgs. 5:18; 1 Chron. 2:7). We also have evidence of temples built before the time of Solomon that resemble the plan of Solomon’s temple (see the picture at the left from Ain Dara). An article from Bible History Daily entitled “Searching for the Temple of King Solomon,” states, “the closest known parallel to the Temple of King Solomon is the ’Ain Dara temple in northern Syria. Nearly every aspect of the ’Ain Dara temple—its age, its size, its plan, its decoration—parallels the vivid description of the Temple of King Solomon in the Bible. In fact, Monson identified more than 30 architectural and decorative elements shared by the ’Ain Dara structure and the Jerusalem Temple described by the Biblical writers.” My point is that in some important ways, the Temple of Solomon was unique. However, in many other ways it resembled other temples that were part of the cultural heritage of the ancient Near East.  Similarly, the Creation story in Genesis 1:1-2:3 is unique (and it certainly proclaims a very unique theology), however, it also shares commonalities with the culture of its time in the way the story is told.

The Bible and Creation, Temple Building, 7 Days, and Rest

Although this is a humorous picture, it is an excellent illustration of how modern ideas can confuse the biblical message. God's rest does not indicate He was tired, but that He began to rule!
Although this is a humorous picture, it is an excellent illustration of how modern ideas can confuse the biblical message. God’s rest does not indicate He was tired, but that He began to rule!

Although I admittedly went on a bit of a rabbit trail above, I hope I have demonstrated that it is important to consider evidence presented to us from the ancient Near East when seeking to understand the culture in which the Bible was written. What I would now like to demonstrate is that the Bible makes the same equation between Creation, temple building, seven days and rest. Isaiah 66:1 connects several of these ideas. In this verse, Heaven is said to be God’s throne, while the earth is His footstool. The next question concerns building God a temple: “Where is the house that you will build for Me?” In other words, if the heavens and the earth are God’s temple, how can He be contained in a building? The final question in this verse connects the idea of rest with a temple when God asks: “And where is the place of My rest?” The image of throne mentioned earlier in this verse helps us to understand that God’s rest involves his rule over Creation (the heavens and the earth). Psalm 132:7-8 speaks about God’s tabernacle, which is referred to as His “footstool” (just as the earth was called God’s footstool in Isa. 66:1). The psalm goes on to picture the ark of the covenant being taken up to be put in the tabernacle with the words, “Arise O Lord, to Your resting place.” Later in the psalm we learn that “The Lord has chosen Zion.” Zion is His dwelling place and God declares, “This is my resting place forever” (Ps. 132:13-14). These passages from Isaiah and Psalms clearly connect the ideas of God’s temple being His creation (heaven and earth), along with the tabernacle and temple which are only copies of the reality. These passages also assert that God rules from his Temple (that’s where His throne is) and it is His resting place.

We have still not mentioned how the idea of seven days fits in. Above, we noted that in other ancient Near Eastern accounts of temple building the time period of 7 days was significant for the inauguration of the temple and its occupation by deity. The same understanding can be found in the account of the building and consecrating of Solomon’s Temple in 1 Kings 6-8. In 1 Kings 6:38 were are told that it took Solomon seven years to build the Temple. In chapter 8, the Temple is inaugurated during the Feast of Booths which occurs in the seventh month. This feast, according to Deuteronomy 16:13-15 lasts seven days. Solomon actually extends the seven day feast for an additional seven days (1 Kgs. 8:65). Note the emphasis on temple building and the number seven in this passage: 7 years, the 7th month, a 7 day feast, followed by another 7 days.

When Genesis 1:1-2:3 relates that God created the world in seven days and then rested, what it is seeking to communicate is that God created the earth as His Temple. God’s desire is to dwell with human beings. That’s what a temple or tabernacle is all about. God’s rest on the seventh day means that He has taken up the task of ruling over what He has created. This truth is communicated very effectively by John Walton and N.T. Wright in a couple of short videos. Here are the links: John Walton: Interpreting the Creation Story; and NT Wright and Peter Enns: What Do You Mean By Literal?

Conclusion: So Are the Seven Days of Creation Literal?

After looking at the above argument and watching the video by NT Wright and Peter Enns, my hope is that we might rethink our question. My question would be, “Why does the inspired author structure the Creation story according to seven days?” One answer could be, “Because it really happened in seven days.” But based on the evidence presented here, we might say that a more important observation is what those seven days communicate. If the Creation story is seeking to tell us something about God’s desire to dwell and rule among his creation, that seems like a far more important truth than simply saying seven days means He created the world in seven days. The modern question and answer doesn’t leave us much to chew on. But the intent of the story in its original context gives us a lot to think about! The debate about whether the days of Creation in Genesis 1 are 24 hour days has good arguments both for and against. For example, the sun, moon, and stars are not created until Day 4 (Gen. 1:14-19). Since we are told they were created “for signs and seasons, and for days and years,” we might conclude that it is impossible to tell how long the first three days were. We measure days, months, and years by the sun and moon, so how do we know that days 1-3 were literal 24 hour days if there was no sun or moon? Another unusual feature of the Creation story is that every day ends with the statement, “And there was evening and there was morning.” Every day, that is, except day 7 which has no ending whatsoever. Now that’s a long day! This clearly suggests that the focus is not on a 24 hour period. However, the 24-hour-side might come back and point out that Israel is commanded to keep the Sabbath because, “In six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth…and rested on the seventh” (Exod. 20:11). This now sounds like literal 24 hour days. More arguments can be mounted in favor of both positions. To me the sad point in all of this is while we argue which position is the correct one, or the most orthodox one, we are missing the true beauty of the Creation narrative and the real significance behind the meaning of the seven days! In the end, it doesn’t really matter to me whether God created the world in 7 literal 24 hour days or in a longer (or even shorter!) span of time. I want to know why He created this world,  and what Genesis 1:1-2:3 has to say to my life.

Symbolic Numbers in the Old Testament

Symbolic Numbers in the Bible

Is 7 and other numbers like 3, 10, or 40 purposely used as symbolic numbers by Old Testament writers?
Is 7 and other numbers like 3, 10, or 40 purposely used as symbolic numbers by Old Testament writers?

Does the number 3 represent the Trinity whenever it is found in Scripture? How about the number 40? Does it represent judgment because it conjures up images of the Flood (40 days and nights) or the Wilderness Wanderings (40 years)? Where do we get the notion that the number 7 represents completeness or perfection? These are important questions because we sometimes hear Bible teachers and preachers speak about biblical numbers with the assumption that particular numbers carry certain inherent ideas or meanings in them. In this article we will look at the question of whether the Bible contains symbolic numbers, and if so, how we determine their symbolic meaning. This post is the third in a series on biblical numerology (for the other two posts click here and here) and is mostly based on the insights of John J. Davis’s book of the same title.

Where Did Symbolic Numbers Originate From?

Biblical Numerology is available at Amazon USA / UK
Biblical Numerology is available at Amazon USA / UK

As Davis notes, “. . . nowhere in Scripture is any number given any specific theological or mystical meaning” (p. 119). Since we cannot turn to a passage in Scripture which states, “the number 3, or 10, means such and such,” it’s important to ask, “Where do these assigned meanings for numbers come from? Although there is some evidence of numerical symbolism among the ancient Mesopotamians, a true systematic treatment of numbers begins with the sixth century B.C. Greek philosopher Pythagoras.  Pythagoras developed this numerical mysticism in Greece and Italy and it then spread to Palestine (pp. 108-109). Thus Davis concludes that, “. . . the development of number symbolism and mysticism with regard to theological precepts must be traced to Pythagoras and not to the writers of the Old Testament” (p. 109). If Davis is correct, then we should not look for any numerical symbolism in the Old Testament. The one exception to this is the use of the number 7. Literature from Mesopotamia, as well as Ugarit, provide abundant evidence that the number 7 was used in a symbolic way to represent totality or completeness. The use of the number 7 and its multiples (e.g., 70) in the Old Testament seem to substantiate that this number did (at times) carry symbolic value in the Scripture. To cite two examples, the number 70 in relation to the Map of Nations in Genesis 10 and the descendants of Jacob in Genesis 46:26-27 is clearly not an exact literal number but seems to carry symbolic meaning (see any modern commentary on Genesis for a discussion of this matter).

Symbolic Numbers in the New Testament?

According to Davis, biblical numerology does not solve the mystery of the symbolic number 666.
According to Davis, biblical numerology does not solve the mystery of the symbolic number 666.

Davis notes that during the intertestamental period there was “a significant period in the development of symbolic numbers” (p. 109). He also notes evidence for this among various books of this period, as well as literature from Qumran. This being the case, it certainly opens the door to the question of whether symbolic numbers might be found in the New Testament. Davis remains conservative in his assessment, however, assigning only the use of the number 7 as symbolic. Although the number 666 in Revelation 13:18 is said to stand for the name of the Anti-christ, and thus many see this as evidence of Gematria, Davis remains cautious here noting the many unsuccessful attempts at identifying the Anti-christ. He is also skeptical about coming up with a meaning for the 153 fish in John 21:11, noting that there are at least eighteen different interpretations that have been offered for the meaning of this number (p. 147).

Although I am in large agreement with Davis regarding symbolic numbers, his conclusions seem overly conservative. The number 12 being an example that he overlooks.
Although I am in large agreement with Davis regarding symbolic numbers, his conclusions seem overly conservative. The number 12 being an example that he overlooks.

Davis’s study has gone a long way in convincing me of the arbitrariness of much of what is passed off as biblical numerology (see more on this below). Still, I wonder if his assessment is overly cautious. For example, he makes no mention of the number 12 and its possible symbolic significance. Are the number of elders around the throne mentioned in various passages in Revelation (Rev. 4:4, 6, 10; 19:4) an accidental combination of 12 + 12? One also wonders about the 144,000 mentioned in Revelation 14:1ff. Although some interpret this number literally, the fact that this number includes a factor of 12 x 12 (x 1000) at least opens up the possibility that it is more than literal. There would also seem to be good biblical precedent for a symbolic meaning of the number 12 (the tribes of Israel, the apostles). Davis seems most comfortable with symbolic numbers being present in Apocalyptic literature, while he is much more cautious with other types of biblical literature. Again, the use of multiples of the number 12 in Revelation seem more than coincidental.

Where Does the Use of Numerical Symbolism in the Church Originate?

The influential theologian Augustine developed a system of meaning for certain numbers.
The influential theologian Augustine developed a system of meaning for certain numbers.

Finally we must ask, “Where do the interpretations of symbolic numbers, often considered infallible in the Church today, come from?” The short answer is, the Jews received it from the Greeks (the Hellenizing influence which was so prevalent from the 3rd century B.C. onwards). It was later adopted by Gnostic groups, and while the early church rejected gnostic teaching, many of the early Church Fathers were impressed with the value of numerology as an apologetic tool (p. 129). According to Davis, “It was Augustine who gave the final stamp of approval to number symbolism” (p. 113). On the Jewish side of things, the use of symbolic numbers became an important aspect to Medieval Kabbalistic literature (a feature inherited from the Talmudic and Midrashic literature–p. 115). Thus many of the interpretive schemes utilized today have their origins, not from Scripture, but from the Greeks, gnostics, and early Church Fathers. One could argue that the number 7 also takes its symbolic interpretation from Ancient Near Eastern literature,  not from Scripture. The difference is that the number 7 had this meaning within the cultural milieu in which the Bible was composed, whereas the New Testament writings were completed before the gnostic and early Church Fathers’ use of symbolic numbers. In other words, a common cultural understanding of the number 7 could have influenced the biblical writers of both Old and New Testaments, but such would not be the case with today’s symbolic interpretations that come from either gnostic, Church Fathers, or Kabbalistic interpretation.

How Reliable Are the Symbolic Interpretations of Numbers Today?

Books, such as this popular one by E.W. Bullinger, set forth interpretations of biblical numbers that are arbitrary.
Books, such as this popular one by E.W. Bullinger, set forth interpretations of biblical numbers that are arbitrary.

The first problem with the symbolic interpretations of biblical numbers is that no one seems to agree on their meaning. Davis gives the following example regarding the number 3. “J. Edwin Hartill, for example, says that three is the number of . . . union, approval, approbation, co-ordination, completeness, and perfection. He provides only thirty to forty proofs for this conclusion which is interesting in the [sic] light of the fact that the number three occurs over 450 times in the Bible. Terry, on the other hand, feels that the number means ‘Divine fulness in unity, the number of God.’ Lange, after study of the number, concludes that it signifies ‘Life, spirit, new life, resurrection, unclean spirits, etc.'” (p. 121). Not only does each author come up with their own understanding of the number 3 which differs from others, but even their own definitions include many different ideas. How is one to choose between all of the choices? (For further examples of this confused interpretation, see Davis’s charts on pp. 122-123).

A second problem, well illustrated by Davis, is the arbitrariness of the “facts” selected in “proving” various truths about the Bible. One example cited by Davis is the supposition that people who are really important, or ideas that are significant, occur in the Bible as multiples of the number 7. For example, the name Moses occurs 847 times in the Bible (7 x 121). To show the arbitrariness of this observation, Davis notes some other facts. Aaron’s name occurs 351 times in the Bible, since this is not a multiple of 7 does this mean Aaron is unimportant? The Canaanite god Baal occurs 63 times in the Bible (7 x 9) does this make him more important than others whose names are not mentioned as a multiple of 7? For example, Elijah’s name occurs 69 times, only 6 more than Baal and not a multiple of 7! (p. 138). Davis provides other examples demonstrating that it is the selectivity of the evidence that often provides the “stunning” results. He rightly concludes, “There is no objective basis for controlling this methodology. The interpreter selects his words, and the combinations of numbers that he wishes” (pp. 148-149). If one observation doesn’t reveal the hoped for result, it is ignored or the data is slightly adjusted, as for example, if the numbers don’t add up, but the “neighboring numbers” do, then this is considered further proof for the interpretation being set forth. As Davis notes, anything can be proven with such subjectivity. One humorous example points out that the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776. This must be Divine happenstance because, after all, there are two 7s in this number, plus the other numbers 6+1 add up to a third 7!

Conclusion: Symbolic Numbers in the Bible

There is much to learn from Davis’s book Biblical Numerology. He presents important information concerning where our current interpretations of biblical numbers derive from. He also demonstrates the contradictory nature of many so-called numerical systems. Rather than unlocking some secret key to biblical interpretation, they are built on suppositions, selected “facts,” and outright misinterpretations.

However, this is not to say that there is no use of symbolic numbers in the Bible. Davis presents clear evidence for the use of the number 7 as symbolic. I would add that Davis is a little over cautious and suggest that the number 12 is also (at times) used symbolically in the Scripture. The same may be true of other numbers, but it is important to substantiate any symbolic use by both cultural and biblical context. There should be clear evidence within the cultural world of the biblical author that a number was used in a symbolic way, and there should be evidence within the context of the biblical passage itself that a symbolic usage is being employed.

Philistine Cemetery Discovered!

Philistine Cemetery Discovered!

One of the skeletons excavated from the Philistine cemetery at Ashkelon.
One of the skeletons excavated from the Philistine cemetery at Ashkelon.

The 30 year excavation of ancient Ashkelon, (one of the five major Philistine cities–e.g., Judg. 14:19), is coming to a dramatic conclusion this year with the discovery of the first, and only, Philistine cemetery ever uncovered. Ashkelon was an important Mediterranean port for the Philistines and boasted a thriving marketplace. I had the opportunity of visiting this impressive site during the summer of 2009. The Leon Levy expedition, led by Lawrence E. Stager (Dorot Professor of the Archaeology of Israel, Emeritus, at Harvard University), and Daniel M. Master, (Professor of Archaeology at Wheaton College), has been conducting large-scale excavations on the tell of ancient Ashkelon since 1985. The cemetery was first discovered in 2013 and excavation began on it in 2014, but it was only in this final season of digging that an announcement was made regarding its discovery and significance. Findings from the Philistine cemetery date from the 11th to 8th centuries B.C. That is, from the biblical period of the Judges (think Samson!) to the time of the divided monarchies of Israel and Judah. Over 210 individuals have been excavated from the Philistine cemetery.

Why Is the Discovery of the Philistine Cemetery Important?

Excavating the Philistine cemetery at Ashkelon.
Excavating the Philistine cemetery at Ashkelon.

One way to summarize the importance of this discovery is in the following statement by Lawrence E. Stager: “Ninety-nine percent of the chapters and articles written about Philistine burial customs should be revised or ignored now that we have the first and only Philistine cemetery found just outside the city walls of Tel Ashkelon” (quoted in BAR, First-Ever Philistine Cemetery Unearthed at Ashkelon). Admittedly, some may not be overly concerned with ancient Philistine burial practices, but there are other significant insights that should interest all those interested in the history of Israel and the Bible. Among them are:

  1. It is thought that the Philistines came from the island of Crete. Amos 9:7 states that the Philistines came from Caphtor (which many identify with Crete). Now DNA samples should help to resolve that question. DNA results will also help us understand how the people in the cemetery are related to each other, as well as their interconnectedness with other cultures.
  2. The skeletons will yield other interesting information such as, the average height of the people who lived here, what kinds of diseases they died from, and what the average life span was.
  3. Personal items buried with various individuals provide more data for understanding ancient Philistine culture. Although a majority of Philistines were not buried with personal items, nonetheless, the list of items found is impressive. Items include, bracelets, earrings, necklaces, rings, decorated juglets, storage jars, perfumed oil, small bowls and weapons.

Philistine Burial Practices

The Philistine cemetery in Ashkelon exhibits a unique burial process that differs from other cultures in ancient Canaan.
The Philistine cemetery in Ashkelon exhibits a unique burial process that differs from other cultures in ancient Canaan.

One of the significances of the discovery of the Philistine cemetery is how distinctive it is in comparison to the burial practices of the Canaanites and the ancient Israelites. The Canaanites and Israelites buried their dead by laying them on a bench inside a tomb. About a year later when the flesh had dissolved, loved ones would return to the tomb, gather up the bones and add them to the bones of previous ancestors. The Philistines burial practices are more similar to modern burial practices in the West. People were buried in pits dug in the earth. At times the pits were dug up and other individuals were buried on top without disturbing the remains buried a little deeper. The Philistine cemetery also shows evidence of cremation, however, one interesting aspect of the burials is that there are very few children or babies. The question remains, “Where did the Philistines bury most of their infants?” The cemetery continues to testify to the the distinctiveness of Philistine culture.

For more information addressing the discovery of the Philistine cemetery in Ashkelon see the following links: the Jerusalem Post, National Geographic, and, if you have a subscription to BAR, you can click here for an informative article.

Joab and the sons of Zeruiah

Joab and the sons of Zeruiah

Artistic rendering of Joab, son of Zeruiah, King David's military commander
Artistic rendering of Joab, son of Zeruiah, King David’s military commander

Joab, the “Mama’s Boy”?

However one evaluates Joab, there can be no doubt that 2 Samuel characterizes him as one of the toughest men in David’s court. Given this “tough-guy” image, it might seem surprising to describe Joab as a “mama’s boy”; yet the author frequently refers to him and his brothers as the “son(s) of Zeruiah.” Of course, the modern expression “mama’s boy” and Joab’s actual demeanor are worlds apart: Joab is no “sissy”! Still, the author’s repeated use of this label (fifteen times in 1 and 2 Samuel) deserves consideration. (The passages are 1 Sam. 26:6; 2 Sam. 2:13, 18; 3:39; 8:16; 14:1; 16:9, 10; 17:25–here Zeruiah is described as the mother of Joab– 2 Sam. 18:2; 19:21, 22; 21:17; 23:18, and 37.)

David’s Sister Zeruiah

1 Chronicles 2:16 reveals that Zeruiah is a sister of David, thus making Joab and her other sons David’s nephews. If “son(s) of Zeruiah” was used by the author to establish a family connection with David, surely once, or at most a few times, would have been sufficient. Like the designation “son of Ner” that frequently accompanies Abner (see my article The Importance of Biblical Names: Abner), one wonders whether the phrase “son(s) of Zeruiah” has another function in the narrative. While Joab’s father might have died prematurely (2 Sam. 2:32), or perhaps “the ancient custom of tracing descent by the female line [has] been preserved in this case,” (see note 1 below) it does not explain the frequency of this description. David’s use of this expression suggests a deeper meaning. For example, he uses it several times in a derogatory manner (2 Sam. 3:39; 16:10; 19:22). Presumably, David is not reminding himself of a family connection in all these contexts. His disparaging remarks suggest there is more to this designation than meets the eye.

The Meaning of Zeruiah

In a painting by Tissot, Joab & Abner oversee a contest in Gibeon between the soldiers of Israel and Judah in which 24 die.
In a painting by Tissot, Joab & Abner oversee a contest in Gibeon between the soldiers of Israel and Judah in which 24 die.

The meaning of “Zeruiah” has not received much attention from scholars; thus, I am treading on virgin territory here. Part of the difficulty is that there are several possible Hebrew roots from which the name could be derived. It is thought that the basic meaning is “balm.” (see note 2 below) If this is accurate, then “Zeruiah” would refer to a balm often used for medicinal purposes (cf. Jer. 8:22). This would associate her name with the positive qualities of healing. David’s use of the name could be considered ironic, since he uses it in contexts where the “sons of Zeruiah” have either murdered, or desire to kill, someone. These men want no “balm” for healing others; their spirit is quite the opposite!

Another feature of Hebrew names is that they often play off the meaning of other words with similar sounds. This is true of such names as Peninnah, Hophni, Phinehas, and Samuel (see my article Peninnah: The Other Woman). The consonants in the name Zeruiah are similar to two words that can mean: “showing hostility,” “distress,” “adversary,” “foe,” “hard,” and “rock” (see note 3 below). These meanings are apropos to the actions and demeanor of Joab and his brothers. In fact, several contexts in 2 Samuel link words with these meanings to the expression “sons of Zeruiah.”

In 2 Samuel 2:14, as the armies of Israel and Judah meet, Abner proposes to Joab a combat involving twelve men from each side. After all are killed in the combat, the field is named “Field of Flints.” The word “flint” comes from a word that means “rock” or “hard.” It is sometimes used to describe a knife or sword (Exod. 4:25; Josh. 5:2, 3). The reference to the “Field of Flints” is surrounded by references to the “son(s) of Zeruiah” (vv. 13, 18). The words “flint” and “Zeruiah” sound similar, and this would catch the ear of someone reading in Hebrew. Furthermore, there is a conceptual link between these words, as the sons of Zeruiah are well known for their use of the sword.

Another passage which associates the sons of Zeruiah with “hardness” is 2 Samuel 3:39. Following the murder of Abner, David declares, “and these men, the sons of Zeruiah, are harder than me” (my translation). A different Hebrew word is used here to describe the “hardness” of Joab and Abishai. The important point here is that David connects the expression “sons of Zeruiah” with the quality of hardness.

Finally, in 2 Samuel 19:22 David rebukes Abishai by referring to him as an “adversary” or “accuser” (satan). In this context, satan is parallel to the expression “sons of Zeruiah.” Although 2 Samuel 3:39 and 19:22 express David’s point of view, this phrase suggests a certain “hardness” or “adversarial” role that characterizes Joab and his brother, in contrast to David.

In summary, the description “son(s) of Zeruiah” may originally have had a connotation of “healing,” but its relationship to similar-sounding words, as well as the actions and demeanor of the brothers themselves, suggests the meaning of “hard” or “adversary” in some contexts. Joab’s characterization throughout 2 Samuel shows him to be a ruthless individual, thus “hard” is an appropriate description of him. Furthermore, he is constantly pictured in an adversarial role to David. Therefore, the use of “son(s) of Zeruiah” throughout the narrative of 2 Samuel seems to lend itself to these meanings.

(The above article is an excerpt [with minor editorial changes] from my book Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel.)

 Family Portraits photoFamily Portraits is available through Amazon USA / UK and WestBow Press, as well as


1. D. Harvey, “Zeruiah,” IDB, vol. 4, p. 956. F. H. Cryer, “David’s Rise to Power and the Death of Abner: and Analysis of 1 Samuel 26:14–16 and Its Redaction-Critical Implications,” VT 35, (1985), pp. 388-389, n. 9, supposes the probable death of Zeruiah’s husband and states, “It is thus likely that Zeruiah then returned to live in her father’s house (cf. Gen. xxxviii 11), and her children will then have assumed her name in acknowledgement of their special status. It may further be pointed out, with R. R. Wilson, Genealogy and History in the Biblical World (New Haven, Conn., 1977), that Semitic genealogies have a habit of shifting in order to align their members towards the centres of political power, so it is possible that the ‘Zeruiah connexion’ was an effort in this direction.”

2. Harvey, “Zeruiah,” and Brown Driver Briggs Hebrew Lexicon (BDB), p. 863.

3. The words are tsur and tsrr. See BDB, pp. 849 and pp. 864-866, respectively.

Evidence for the Cross and Resurrection

Evidence for the Cross and Resurrection

The message of the cross and resurrection of Jesus is so counter-cultural that it could not have been fabricated by the early church.
The message of the cross and resurrection of Jesus is so counter-cultural that it could not have been fabricated by the early church.

For anyone who desires to investigate the cross and resurrection of Christ, there are a number of solid evidences for its reality. In this article I will seek to demonstrate that there are several facts inherent in the preaching of the early Christians that, based on the society in which they lived, could not and would not have been fabricated. These facts include items that are so counter-cultural that it is not only unlikely that they would be made up, but impossible to believe that such a proclamation would be accepted by the Jewish, and Graeco-Roman society of the first century, unless there was demonstrable truth behind them. As Bible scholar Ben  Witherington III remarks, “When you know the context of the New Testament texts—the world and cultures in and to which these stories were written—you quickly realize that sometimes the incongruities and unusual aspects in the story testify to their historical veracity and authenticity” (Biblical Views: Making Sense of the Unlikely Easter Story, BAR Mar/Apr 2011).

Honor & Shame and the Cross

This graffito, found in the pagan catacombs of Rome (1st-3rd century AD) illustrates how a majority reacted to the idea of a crucified savior. It reads, "Alexamenos worshipping his god."
This graffito, found in the pagan catacombs of Rome (1st-3rd century AD) illustrates how a majority reacted to the idea of a crucified savior. It reads, “Alexamenos worshipping his god.”

The number one reason why the message of the cross could not be fabricated is because of the basic foundational values of honor and shame that pervaded all first century Mediterranean culture. I have written about the significance of this briefly elsewhere (Cross Examination: The Cross of Christ in the Roman World), and so I will only note a few important points here. Being connected with honorable people was important on every level of ancient Mediterranean culture. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that maintaining one’s honor was critical for any kind of quality of life (see the recent podcast on honor and shame by myself and Lindsay Kennedy at Beyond Reading the Bible). The cross was not only intended to torture its victim, but to shame them so that no one would want to be affiliated with them. This is why a person was crucified naked, was beaten, mocked, and spit upon and exposed publicly (e.g., Matt. 27:29-30). The shame of the cross is the backdrop for all of the passion narratives in the gospels and for passages such as 1 Corinthians 1:18 and Hebrews 12:2. Witherington states, “It was not seen as a noble martyrdom of any sort. People in that world believed that the manner of your death most revealed your character. On that basis, Jesus was a scoundrel, a man who committed treason against the state, a man who deserved the punishment used for slave revolts. The Romans called it ‘the extreme punishment,’ and no Roman citizen would be subjected to it” (Making Sense, cited above). The fact is, Roman crucifixion was so effective that it quelled every rebellion in the ancient world. Whether we are talking about the slave rebellion under Spartacus, which saw the crucifixion of 6000 men, or the uprisings of would-be deliverers and messiahs, every movement was put down and silenced by the use of the cross. Every movement that is…except for one! The fact that the early disciples went about preaching “Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2) is an astonishing fact, given the cultural dynamics of honor and shame. No one in this society would think, “I believe I’ll start a new religion and base it on a man who was crucified.”  Again Witherington states, “It wouldn’t make sense to create a story about a crucified and risen man being the savior of the world—unless you really believe it is historically true.” Teaching about the cross offered a life of rejection and persecution for those who proclaimed it, and the New Testament bears eloquent witness to this fact. Why would anyone make this teaching a part of their new religion unless it was true? To summarize: In a society of honor and shame, with crucifixion expressing the deepest kind of shame possible, the message of the cross and the resurrection was counter-cultural to the utmost and would never have been considered viable, and would never have been preached, if it were not true.

The Resurrection On the Third Day

Dr. Bock's mobile ed course from Logos goes into various details regarding the cross and resurrection.
Dr. Bock’s mobile ed course from Logos goes into various details regarding the cross and resurrection.

The rest of the information in this article is taken from Dr. Darrell Bock’s Mobile Ed Course entitled: “Introducing the Gospels and Acts: Their Background, Nature, and Purpose,” from Logos/Faithlife Corporation. The quotations which follow will come from this source (unless otherwise noted). Dr. Bock points out that while the Jews (or at least some of them) believed in a physical resurrection at the end of time, the idea that some would be resurrected in the midst of history was a novelty. He states, “So what causes the mutation in the normal Jewish view? One could have defended Jesus and His future and His identity by simply saying, “Well, when the resurrection comes at the end of history, Jesus will run the judgment. He will be raised and exalted and run the judgment.” That would be how to do it on the basis of Jewish precedent and expectation. You wouldn’t need a resurrection in the midst of history. And yet, what we get is the resurrection in the midst of history. Something has put pressure on creating that mutation in Jewish expectation and Jewish thought.” In other words, the disciples of Jesus must have had a reason for changing normal Jewish understanding and expectation. It is much easier to accept a new religion if it falls in line with old beliefs. Why change this expectation of resurrection? Answer: Because it must have happened that way.

Graeco-Roman Philosophy and Resurrection

One of the challenges presented by taking the gospel to the Graeco-Roman world, was not only that the cross was considered a shameful way to die, but also that the Greeks and Romans did not believe in a physical resurrection. To them it was nonsense (e.g., Acts 17:32). Regarding this Dr. Bock states, “the bulk of the Graeco-Roman hope has no resurrection in it. You either died and your body decomposed and there was no hope whatsoever, or there was a belief in some type of immortality of the soul—a spiritual form of resurrection but no physical dimensions to it whatsoever. And so Graeco-Romans either had immortality of the soul or you died at death, so the resurrection would be a completely new concept . . . . a problematic concept for a lot of the Graeco-Romans. Once again we see that the gospel message of the cross and resurrection faced an uphill battle. Anyone seeking to appeal to both the Jews and Gentiles of the time would not have incorporated so many controversial ideas into a religion that they wanted to promote, unless there was some basis for them.

Women As Witnesses

Mary tells the apostles she has seen Jesus.
Mary tells the apostles she has seen Jesus.

With all deference to any women reading this post, the testimony of women in the ancient world was considered unreliable. Here is what Bock says on this subject: “It’s very important to appreciate how crucial this idea is, because in the culture of the time, women could not be witnesses and weren’t viewed as credible witnesses. The only time a woman could testify in a court case and be involved as a witness are in some cases of sexual abuse. But otherwise, she didn’t count as a witness, and we have numerous texts both in the Mishnah and in the Talmud that make the statement that a woman’s testimony is not to be taken or trusted.” How is this significant for the preaching of the resurrection? Each of the gospels testifies that it was women who first saw and proclaimed the resurrection to Jesus’ disciples (Matt. 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-7; Luke 24:1-10; John 20:1-2, 11-18). This is not the way anyone in the ancient world would seek to establish credibility for their teaching or new religion. Bock sums it up this way: “So you’re in a PR meeting, and this is going to be the case you’re going to make: ‘I’ll tell you how we keep hope alive. Let’s talk about a resurrection because Judaism expects a physical resurrection. Let’s talk about a resurrection in the midst of history. That’s a new idea. And let’s sell that idea, which is an unpopular idea. Graeco-Romans don’t have it. Let’s sell that idea by having our first witnesses be people who culturally don’t count as witnesses.’ You would never make up the story this way if it were made up. You would figure out a different way to do it. In other words, the women are in the resurrection story because the women were in the original resurrection story.”

Criterion of Embarrassment

Courtesy of
Courtesy of

The criterion of embarrassment is one of the standards used to determine whether something is historical or not. In other words, if you are making something up (i.e., a new religion) you want to put all the leaders and their actions in the best light. You do not want to tell stories that might discredit them. Yet this is exactly what the gospels do! For example, when the women return to declare to the disciples that Jesus has risen, they refuse to believe, according to Luke 24:11: “And their words seemed to them like idle tales, and they did not believe them.” You mean Peter’s initial reaction, along with the other apostles, was unbelief? We can understand this response. It actually has the ring of authenticity because you and I would react the same way. However, when you are trying to promote a new religion would you really want to put all of the leaders of the new movement in such a bad light? The gospels not only do it here, but in many other places! In fact, one of the statements that causes even skeptical scholars to accept that Jesus predicted his own death and resurrection is the account that immediately follows his prediction. After Jesus tells his disciples about his death, Peter takes him aside and rebukes him which causes Jesus to respond, “Get behind me Satan! For you are not mindful of the things of God but the things of men” (Mark 8:33; also Matt. 16:23). Having the leader called “Satan” is certainly an embarrassing fact and would certainly never have been recorded unless it had really happened. Imagine the disciples making up Christianity and in this made up story they have Peter as the leader of the apostles preaching the first sermon on that Pentecost Sunday (Acts 2). The same Peter who denied Jesus and who Jesus also called Satan! This is not the way to begin a new religion if you want your leaders to have credibility! Therefore, the criterion of embarrassment has a ring of authenticity about it. Why would such stories be made up? Although the following quote refers to the historical nature of the Old Testament, it is applicable to our discussion here. In comparing the accounts of other ancient peoples, Hoffner states, “Part of what makes Israel’s historical records so distinctive when compared with those of Egypt, Babylon, Ugarit, and the Hittites is that the kings’ mistakes and sins are so clearly and openly described and rebuked by the prophets” (Hoffner, H. A., Jr., 1 & 2 Samuel, Evangelical Exegetical Commentary, Lexham Press, 2015). In other words, it is the nature of biblical writing to be honest about its leaders and this is contrary to the written records of other peoples in the Ancient Near East.

Conclusion: The Validity of the Cross and Resurrection

When one considers the birth of the Christian message which centered around the cross and resurrection of Jesus, the deck was certainly stacked against the possibility of its success, given the social conditions of the Graeco-Roman world. The early Christians proclaimed that their Savior and God was a man who died on a Roman cross (“the emblem of suffering and shame” as one wonderful hymn puts it). This is strike one in a culture based on honor and shame–in fact, it’s really a knock-out punch all on its own. After being crucified, Christians proclaimed that this Jesus had risen from the dead, something that no Gentile in the Roman world believed in, and something that Jews only thought would happen at the end of time (for those who believed there was such a thing as resurrection!). This is strike two. “We can prove it,” say the early Christians, “because there were some women who told us it was true!” Strike number three. Your religion doesn’t have a prayer of being accepted by anyone with testimony like that. But after being down and out with three strikes, the Christians persist by saying that you should listen to Jesus’ disciples even though they all originally denied him, did not believe that he rose from the dead, and that their ring-leader was even called Satan by Jesus himself. Somebody surely needs to give these early Christians some suggestions on how to start a new religion because, clearly, they haven’t got a clue!

And yet history tells a very different story. In spite of the hundreds and thousands of other gods and religions that existed in the first century Roman empire, Christianity outlasted them all. In fact, people came to believe the message of the  cross and resurrection so fervently that they stopped worshipping other gods and all of those religions, so much more palatable to the tastes of people at the time,  disappeared. The cross, a symbol of shame and reproach, was even transformed into a symbol of victory and honor. Look at all of human history and understand that such things do not happen. The reason Christianity not only survived but thrived, was because it was true and was backed up by the power of God.