Category Archives: Bible Backgrounds

Revolutionary Revelation in a Cultural Package

Revolutionary Revelation in a Cultural Package

OT scholar John Walton refers to divine revelation as “revolutionary revelation” in his OT Theology

The Old Testament (OT) is a strange and foreign world to many, including many Christians. The reason for this is simple: The writings which compose the OT ( or Hebrew Bible) were written in a cultural milieu much different from ours. Yet in spite of its many similarities with the culture of the ancient Near East (ANE), the OT has many unique features and beliefs not found in any other neighboring country or region of that era. OT scholar John Walton refers to this phenomenon as, “revolutionary revelation in a cultural package” (Old Testament Theology for Christians: From Ancient Context to Enduring Belief, p. 12–see link below).

This post is about some of the unique features of the OT. Such uniqueness causes one to ask, “How did writers in ancient Israel, come up with beliefs and ideas that were so counter-cultural?” Were they a race of geniuses? Or could it be that their claim of Divine Revelation is actually true? The context in which Walton uses the expression, “revolutionary revelation in a cultural package,” explains his answer to this question and is worth quoting at length. (The bold type and italics in the quote below are Walton’s and serve as one of the subheadings in his introductory chapter):

revolutionary revelation--John Walton
OT scholar and author John Walton

“Theology is to be understood within the framework of the ancient world, yet as the result of revelation that draws the people out of those ways of thinking. The Israelites were thoroughly immersed in the world and cultural framework of the ancient Near East, just as all of us are immersed in our own native cultures. However, God’s revelation of himself, though grounded in a specific culture, is capable of transcending culture. As a result, we can be transformed by that revelation, regardless of the time and space that separate us from the original revelation. The situation with ancient Israel was no different—God’s revelation called them away from the ways in which their culture inclined them to think and to be transformed in their minds. We have, then, a revolutionary revelation in a cultural package. But it is important to note that the Old Testament’s theology is situated against the backdrop of the ancient world’s customary ways of thinking.” (Walton, OT Theology, p. 12).

John Walton is not only an OT scholar, but is a scholar of the ancient Near East. As such, he is eminently qualified to address this topic. His writings include other works on the ancient Near East such as, “Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament,” and “Ancient Israelite Literature in its Cultural Context.” The rest of this article will focus on 9 aspects of this “revolutionary revelation” in the OT as revealed in Walton’s Old Testament Theology. These are not the only unique features of Israel’s religion, there are others. These are enough, however, to substantiate that Israel’s outlook  and practices were qualitatively different in many aspects, in spite of sharing a common culture with its ancient Near Eastern neighbors.

Revolutionary Revelation in the Old Testament

  1. One Supreme God–this is probably the most obvious difference between Israel and its neighbors. It’s difficult to underscore just how revolutionary this belief is. All the nations of the ANE believed in a pantheon of gods. While one god might be considered the head of the pantheon, this could change. For example, the Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elish recounts how the god Marduk is elevated to the head of the pantheon. The OT reveals that God has a council of divine beings (e.g., Ps. 82:1, 1 Kgs 22:19-22). However, none of these beings are equal to God. In fact, all were created by God. God allows these beings to participate with Him, just as God allows humans to participate in His plans. Walton explains how foreign this concept was to the other peoples of the ANE. He points out that people functioned and found their identity within community. They believed the gods did likewise. Walton then states, “With this brief discussion as a backdrop, we can understand the challenge of the theology revealed to the Israelites. How could one God do it all? Why would one God do it all? It would have been difficult for them to think of Yahweh as a cosmic deity, a phenomenon deity, a national deity, and a clan deity all at the same time. It just would not have made sense” (OT Theology, p. 38). The fact is, many Israelites had a hard time accepting this belief themselves. The OT is full of examples of Israel worshipping other gods. Given the mindset of the ANE, the idea of one supreme God overall only makes sense if it was received by divine revelation. No one in that culture would come up with such an idea!

    Moses and the burning bush
    Revolutionary revelation: A God who reveals Himself! Courtesy of pininterest
  2. A God who communicates and reveals Himself–I was honestly shocked to learn this one.  In the ANE although gods did, at times, reveal answers to oracular questions through divination (Should we go to war?, Will this famine end soon?), they didn’t offer an account of their plans or their attributes the way we are accustomed to seeing the God of Israel do in the OT. Walton states, “In the ancient Near East it was more common for the gods to manifest themselves rather than to reveal themselves. Gods “manifested” themselves in objects, images, names, celestial bodies, or other things that comprised the divine constellation” (OT Theology, pp. 43-44). Revelation of the kind we are used to speaking of, simply was not a thought that occurred to an ancient person. The gods were about having their needs met (see below), not about revealing themselves.
  3. A God of relationship–Of course, one of the reasons for self-revelation is for the purpose of relationship. It appears the gods of the ANE were little concerned with developing a relationship with their worshippers. One of the aspects of the God of Israel is his desire to dwell in their midst (e.g., the tabernacle and temple). Walton states, “Other gods dwelled among people, but they were not prone to claim a people group as their own” (OT Theology, p. 65). No other ANE deity ever said anything like, “I will be your God and you will be My people” (Exod. 6:7; Lev. 26:12; Jer. 7:23; etc.). While the OT is full of expressions of God’s love for His people, and people’s love for God (Deut. 6:4; 7:7-8; 23:5; etc.), such an expression from the ANE gods is rare. Walton writes, “The gods in general are considered to love (e.g., in Akkadian râmu) people, and people likewise love the gods, though it has been demonstrated that terms such as these in the ancient world are sometimes used to express the presence of political relationships rather than emotions. But such expressions from the gods are rare and are more often directed to the king than to the people at large. Even considering the myriads of royal inscriptions wherein the kings speak at length about the relationship between themselves and a god, clear expressions of emotion in either direction are little attested” (OT Theology, p. 57).
  4. Exclusive worship–If God is the one true God then it makes sense that He would require exclusive worship. While other nations had patron deities, for example, the Moabites’ god Chemosh, or the Babylonians’ god Marduk, no one expected them to be worshipped exclusively. After all, exclusive worship would offend the other gods! When one ancient Pharaoh by the name of Akhenaten attempted to force the worship of only one god (the sun god Aten), he was considered a heretic (see wikipedia article here).  Walton says that Israel’s practice was, “an idea unmatched in its particularity in the rest of the ancient world” (OT Theology, p. 66). Even today the insistence on worshipping only one God as the true God causes offense to many. Why would Israel go against the grain of ancient society, unless, as they claim, such action had been revealed to them?

    Atrahasis Epic
    The Atrahasis epic contains one version of the Babylonian creation story.
  5. The reason for creation–Perhaps the most revolutionary revelation (besides one supreme God), is in regards to creation. In the accounts of the creation of the world and humanity, there is a significant difference between Israel and the nations of the ANE. Most people who read this blog are probably aware that other nations of the ANE had creation stories (as well as Flood stories!). Scholars have noted some similarities between these accounts with the account in Genesis 1-3. One similarity relates to the creation of humanity. Genesis states that Adam was created from the dust of the ground. The Atrahasis epic states that 7 male and 7 female embryos were fashioned from clay. However, the major difference between the ancient creation accounts and Genesis is why God/the gods created human beings. Walton refers to the ANE ideas contained in the various creation accounts as “The Great Symbiosis.” Several quotes from Walton flesh out what is meant by the Great Symbiosis, and how this contrasts with the biblical account. “According to the theology of the Old Testament, God created the world for humans. This theology, however, stands in contrast to the ancient Near Eastern idea that the gods created the cosmos for themselves. In this view, humans, as afterthoughts, were to function as slaves of the gods to ensure the cosmos would continue to serve the deities’ needs” (OT Theology, p. 71). A few pages later, Walton writes, “The other gods order the cosmos to function for themselves, and people merely function as cogs in the machinery…. But in the Old Testament, Yahweh orders the cosmos to serve people, not himself, and it is ordered to be sacred space (by virtue of his presence there) (OT Theology, pp. 83-84). One final quote from Walton emphasizes the ANE perspective on the creation of humanity: “Conventional wisdom was that the gods wanted to be pampered, and if the people succeeded in meeting their every whim, the gods might just treat them well. After all, if the gods desired all of this pampering, they had to protect and provide for those who were diligent and conscientious in their ministrations. Experience, as the people interpreted it, had taught them that the gods were fickle, demanding, capricious, and disinterested in the cares of humans; the gods were interested only in their own comforts and were concerned primarily with their own needs” (OT Theology, p. 112). I have spent extra space on this point and provided extra quotes from Walton because it is such a significant difference. The idea that humans were created as the slaves for the gods to do the work they didn’t want to do was ubiquitous throughout the ANE. The biblical depiction is clearly superior and certainly more attractive. The question once again arises, “How did Israel come up with such a radically different concept?” As a side note, I find it interesting that many people today have a more ANE view of God than they do a biblical view. The picture of a god who only wants to use people for his own purposes aligns perfectly with the ANE, but is diametrically opposed to the God of the Hebrew Bible.

    Enuma Elish
    The Babylonian tablets containing Enuma Elish, one of the ANE accounts of creation.
  6. Cosmic Conflict vs. No Conflict in Creation–We can keep this one short. The Babylonian creation story Enuma Elish speaks of conflict between the gods resulting in the creation of the world. Genesis evidences no such conflict. The Creator God is in complete control and all of the cosmos is created by his sovereign word.
  7. The image of God–The biblical creation story states that all human beings (male and female) are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-28). The image is not a characteristic or quality; it is a status. Humans are to rule the earth as God’s representatives. We have already noted that, in the ANE, humans were created to be slaves to the gods. The only one mentioned as being in the gods’ image is the king. Only the king is granted the status of rulership. Walton states, “…in the Old Testament, the image of God provides the primary description of human purpose and meaning. Human dignity in the Old Testament is found in the status and function people have as God’s image” (OT Theology, p. 97). Because humanity is created in God’s image, this also means that Israel was not to permit any other likeness or image of God. This, of course, is stated clearly in the 10 commandments (Exod. 20:4). Walton writes, “Aniconism is observable in various ways in other times and places in the ancient Near East….However, total aniconism in the ancient Near East outside Israel is unknown. The significance of this is far-reaching and cannot be overstated” (OT Theology, p. 150).
  8. Sin and separation from God’s presence–Walton writes, “There is nothing like the fall in ancient Near Eastern literature because there is no idealized primeval scenario (OT Theology, p. 102). Furthermore, “Even the discussion of sin is problematic in an ancient Near Eastern context” (OT Theology, p. 102). People in the ANE certainly knew what it was like to offend a deity and to suffer for it, but the concept of sacrificing for atonement to restore a relationship was foreign to them (Remember, the gods were not interested in a relationship as such. Their interest was in how they could benefit from human existence). In the biblical understanding, sin separates a person from God. An unrepentant sinner can be driven from the presence of God (Gen. 4:14), or God can remove his presence from a sinful nation (Ezek. 11:22-23). The gods of the ANE would be considered foolish for removing humanity from their presence–they needed them! Humans were created to do the work and to offer the sacrifices that fed the gods. To remove humanity would be devastating! In the Atrahasis epic the gods actually find this out when they attempt to destroy humanity with a flood. They soon realize their mistake as there is no one left to offer them sacrifices to feed them or to do their work. Fortunately, one of the gods, Enki, has saved Atrahasis in a boat (sound familiar?). When Atrahasis leaves the boat, he offers sacrifices to the gods. The story humorously states that the gods gathered around the sacrifice like flies! Although one can see a few similarities with the Genesis story of the Flood, the qualitative differences in the biblical story are undeniable.

    God makes a covenant with Abram
    The God of the OT (and NT) is a covenant-making God.
  9. A God who makes covenants with people–We have already noted that one of the distinctive features of the Bible is that God is a God of relationship, while the gods of the ANE are not much interested in partnering with people. One of the ways this is expressed in Scripture is the making of covenants between God and people. Once again we have a unique feature that is not found in the ANE. Walton states, “In the ancient Near East, the idea of a god who made a covenant with a group of people was unique to Israel—a circumstance for which we have little precedent. Gods did, however, make covenants with kings… (OT Theology, p. 105). We noted above that the image of God can apply to kings in the ANE, but not with the general public. The same is true of making covenants. But we have no record of gods making a covenant with a group of people. In the OT we read of God making a covenant with Noah and the whole earth, promising not to flood it again (Gen. 9:8-17). Beginning with Abram, God makes a covenant with an individual who will grow into a family, which will, in turn, grow into a nation. Along these lines Walton writes, “The transition from an agreement with a family to an agreement with an ethnic group/nation is paralleled by the transition of Yahweh from a family God (“personal god”) to a national God. No other examples exist in the ancient world of such a relational transition by a god” (OT Theology, p. 120). In other words, once a family god, always a family god. Once a national deity, always a national deity, etc. In the ANE, there was no need for one god to fill many roles, after all, there were plenty of gods to go around. Not so in biblical teaching. Only one God was supreme (see #1 above), and he fulfilled all necessary roles.

Conclusions Regarding Revolutionary Revelation

Very few people go against the values and beliefs that are prevalent in their culture. To do so leads to ridicule, rejection, and in severe cases, persecution and death. In fact, most of us assimilate our cultural values and beliefs without giving it much thought. Throughout this post we have noticed that Ancient Israel, while having many similarities with its neighbors, differed in significant ways. These beliefs and practices were enough to make them “stand out in the crowd.” According to Scripture, this was the purpose. Israel was to be a nation of priests to draw others to the true God (Gen. 12:3; Exod. 19:5-6; 1 Kgs. 8:43, 60). These differences, however, did come with a price (e.g., Daniel 3:8-18).

revolutionary revelation--3 men in the fiery furnace
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, refused to bend to the cultural practices and beliefs of Babylon.

The OT testifies to the fact that not all Israelites were willing to swim against the current of ANE culture. We read of much compromise in its pages. This leads to the question of why a group within Israel proclaimed and clung to these radically different beliefs and practices–a question I have noted a few times above. Again, we must ask, “Where did these beliefs and practices come from?” Why Israel and no other nation? How is it that every other nation of the ANE had similar beliefs and practices, but Israel was unique? Not only that, but Israel also produced a unique literature we call the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible. This characteristic is not only true of Israel in the Old Testament era, the same can be said for a group of Jewish believers in the New Testament era. Many of the beliefs and practices of early Christianity were also counter-cultural. I have noted some of these counter-cultural beliefs in an article entitled, “Evidences for the Cross and Resurrection.” Did Israelites just have a thing about being counter-cultural? Did they enjoy the ridicule and persecution of others? Why not another nation or group of people? Why always Israel? I believe Walton’s explanation is the best and most logical. Israel was gifted by God with a revolutionary revelation.

Walton’s Old Testament Theology is available at  Amazon USA / UK. A digital version is also available at Logos/Faithlife.

Revolutionary revelation


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?”

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.

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.

Goliath’s Height: How Tall Was He?

Goliath’s Height: How Tall Was He?

There are two different biblical traditions on Goliath's height. Exactly how tall was he?
There are two different biblical traditions on Goliath’s height. Exactly how tall was he?

Did you know that there are two different biblical traditions for Goliath’s height? The Hebrew text (MT) of 1 Samuel 17:4 lists Goliath’s height at “six cubits and a span,” while a copy of the book of Samuel from the Dead Sea Scrolls (4QSam[a]) along with copies of the Septuagint (LXX), list Goliath’s height at “4 cubits and a span.” For all you mathematicians that may be reading this, that is a two cubit difference. “Great,” you might say, “what exactly is a cubit?” A cubit is the distance between the elbow and the tip of the middle finger, or roughly, 18 inches. We have to add the word “roughly” because, quite obviously, the length from one person’s elbow to the tip of their middle finger may be shorter or longer than that of someone else. To add to the confusion, in the ancient Near East, some countries had what was known as the “royal cubit,” as well as the “common cubit,” which would be a bit shorter. Royal cubits varied from country to country. For example, the royal cubit in Egypt was 20.65 inches, while in Babylonia it was 19.8 inches (Clyde E. Billington, “GOLIATH AND THE EXODUS GIANTS: HOW TALL WERE THEY?,” JETS, 50/3, 2007, pp. 489-508). Depending on the size of an individual, the common cubit would be even less than the royal cubit. Given that the common height of an ancient Israelite was somewhere between 5 feet and 5 feet 3 inches, this could make the common cubit somewhere between 16-17 inches. Billington notes that an 18 inch cubit would mean the person was about 5 feet 8 inches (taller than most Israelites of this period).

Goliath's height was either 4 or 6 cubits and a span. A span is the length between the thumb and the little finer with the hand spread as far apart as possible.
Goliath’s height was either 4 or 6 cubits and a span. A span is the length between the thumb and the little finger with the hand spread as far apart as possible.

These various measurements of the cubit are only the beginning of the uncertainty regarding Goliath’s height, because we also must consider how long a “span” is. In the ancient world, a span was the distance between the tip of the thumb and the little finger when the hand was spread apart. Billington estimates that a person who is 5 feet tall would have a span of about 7 1/2 inches. At 6 feet tall, my own span measures 8 3/10 inches. Like a cubit, the length of a span depends on the size of the person. Two spans are usually considered to make a cubit, although they are in fact a little short of a cubit. By using the conventional 18 inch cubit and 9 inch span (both of which seem too large for an ancient Israelite), Goliath’s height either comes to 9 feet 9 inches (MT), or 6 feet 9 inches (4QSam[a] and LXX). These are the heights we frequently hear referenced by pastors and teachers when commenting on 1 Samuel 17:4. However, if we adjust the size of the cubit and span to what would be more likely for an ancient Israelite, then, according to Billing, 16.5 inches would be a reasonable cubit and 7.5 inches would equal a span. Some quick calculations make Goliath’s height, according to the MT, to be about 8 feet 9 inches (8.875), and according to 4QSam(a) and the LXX to be about 6 feet 1 inch (6.125). This second figure seems impossibly low for a “giant” like Goliath and we might be tempted to automatically throw it out as a possibility. However, two considerations should be borne in mind. First, we should not judge Goliath’s height based on modern standards, but rather on ancient Near Eastern standards. Today someone who is 6 feet or taller is a common occurrence, but remember, most people in the ancient world were nearly 9 inches to 1 foot smaller. Second, it is important to examine the textual evidence for each reading. In other words, which reading, “4 cubits and a span,” or “6 cubits and a span,” seems to have the most solid evidence for being the original reading?

Illustration of David Killing Goliath by Anton Robert Leinweber --- Image by © Lebrecht Authors/Lebrecht Music & Arts/Corbis
Illustration of David Killing Goliath by Anton Robert Leinweber — Image by © Lebrecht Authors/Lebrecht Music & Arts/Corbis

To summarize, we have seen that Goliath’s height depends on the size of both the cubit and the span, and which reading of the text is the most reliable. This means that Goliath’s actual height could have been anywhere between 6 feet 1 inch and 9 feet 9 inches. Before continuing, when seeking the truth about Goliath’s height, we should caution ourselves concerning our own prejudices. For some, a person 9’9″ is out of the realm of reality, and they would therefore be inclined to the “more reasonable” reading of 6′ 9″ – 6’1″. Others, however, raised on the traditional story of David defeating the giant Goliath, would almost consider it a sacrilege to suggest that Goliath might be in the 6 foot range, as opposed to the 9 foot range. Whichever way our prejudices run, they do not help us get at the truth of Goliath’s height. Only by examining the evidence, which includes the height of people in the ancient world, the relative lengths of a cubit and span, and the textual evidence for the most reliable reading, will we be be able to come to a conclusion that seems plausible.

Which Reading of 1 Samuel 17:4 is the Most Reliable?

The Masoretic text is the traditional Hebrew text copied by scribes known as the Masoretes.
The Masoretic text is the traditional Hebrew text copied by scribes known as the Masoretes.

Our English Bibles traditionally follow the reading of the Hebrew manuscripts known as the Masoretic text (MT). As a result, I find myself partial to the MT. Anytime there is a suggested reading that is different, I want to hang on to the reading of the MT. Why? It is no doubt a very reliable tradition of the text so that’s one reason. But I must admit that the other is, because I’m used to the readings found in the MT (which admittedly is not a good reason). On this particular passage, however, bible scholar, J. Daniel Hays argues in a very convincing way for the reading found in one of the Dead Sea Scrolls (4QSam[a]) and the Septuagint (LXX). In other words, he argues that the text should read “4 cubits and a span” (you can find one of his articles, a response to Billington, here). His reasons are summarized below.

  1. The earliest Hebrew manuscript, 4QSam(a), which dates to the middle of the first century BC, reads “4 cubits and a span.” Hays points out that this particular manuscript is 1,000 years older than our earliest copy of the MT (935 AD), although he admits that the reading “6 cubits and a span” found in the MT goes back to at least 200 AD.
  2. “The major early Septuagint texts all have this reading.” Hays also notes that Josephus refers to Goliath’s height as “4 cubits and a span.”
  3. Hays points out the well-known fact that the MT of 1&2 Samuel has a number of scribal errors. Furthermore, although 1 Chronicles does not include the story of David and Goliath, he notes that where 1 Chronicles is parallel with 1&2 Samuel, Chronicles always agrees with the reading of 4QSam(a) and the LXX when it differs from the MT. Hays also argues that it is much easier to explain how “4 cubits” was changed to “6 cubits” rather than the other way around. The word for “cubit” in verse 4 and “hundred”in verse 7 look very similar in Hebrew. Hays says that a scribe copying the manuscript accidentally looked down at verse 7 and saw the number “6” (as in six hundred) and copied it into verse 4. This is a well-known copying mistake called “parablepsis” (“a looking by the side”).
  4. The story never refers to Goliath as a giant. This is an interesting observation frequently overlooked. Although the story clearly does reference Goliath’s size, which would be intimidating whether 4 or 6 cubits is the correct reading, it does not focus on it. I will have more to say about this below.
  5. Some argue that the weight of Goliath’s weaponry and armor better fits someone who is 6 cubits rather than 4. However, Hays goes to great lengths to demonstrate that regular-sized people (e.g., in the military) often carry this kind of weight.
  6. Saul’s answer to David as to why he cannot fight him references Goliath’s skill as a warrior, not his height.
  7. Some argue against the “4 cubits and a span” reading by saying if Saul was “head and shoulders” taller than anyone else in Israel, and the average Israelite was 5 feet to 5‘3″, then Saul would be nearly as tall as Goliath. Hays says that this is precisely the point! Tall Saul should have been the one to face tall Goliath. The interest of the story is to demonstrate Saul’s fear and lack of faith, as he was the most likely candidate to confront Goliath.

Conclusion: Goliath’s Height

Photos such as these found on the internet are bogus. No archaeologists in the Middle East have ever uncovered a human of this size. Goliath was a descendant of the Nephilim but his height was not the exaggerated height shown here.
Photos such as these found on the internet are bogus. No archaeologists in the Middle East have ever uncovered a human of this size. Goliath may have been a descendant of the Nephilim  (he is called a “rapha” in 2 Sam. 21), but his height did not consist of the exaggerated height shown here.

Although I have always been inclined toward the reading of the MT, as noted above, I must admit that Hays presents some strong arguments. The most convincing to me include what he calls “the external evidence.” This concerns the textual evidence. The fact that 4QSam(a) is earlier than the MT and that it, and Chronicles, and the LXX, always agree with each other whenever there is a variant is compelling. The well-known problems of scribal errors in the MT of Samuel also contributes to this, as does the fact that parablepsis is a plausible argument for how the reading got changed. Furthermore, Josephus, living in the first century AD is also a witness to the reading “4 cubits and a span.”

Hay’s “internal evidence” includes examining the text which involves a discussion of Goliath’s armor and the fact that he is never mentioned as a giant. This was interesting and I agree with Hays to a point on this. However, while 1 Samuel 17 does not call Goliath a giant, there are two other passages that infer he was a descendant of the Nephilim. Joshua 11:22 speaks about the conquest of the land, especially focusing on the Anakim (descendants of the Nephilim, see my other related posts here and here). This passage states that the Anakim only remained in Gaza, Gath, and Ashdod (all Philistine cities!). It should be recalled that Goliath is from Gath. The description of his tall stature certainly suggests a connection with the descendants of the Nephilim. Furthermore, 2 Samuel 21:15-22 relates four stories of Philistines who are killed by David’s men. Each one is said to be related to the “giant” (the word is “rapha” which is the singular of Rephaim). This reference is to Goliath and here he is associated with the Rephaim, who were also considered to be descendants of the Nephilim. Therefore, although the story in 1 Samuel 17 may not refer to Goliath as a “giant,” it seems certain that other passages indicate he was a descendant of the Nephilim. However, I still believe the “external evidence” that Hays produces argues for the “4 cubits and a span” reading. Goliath could be a descendant of the Nephilim without being over 9 feet tall. Considering the average height of an Israelite at this time, someone who is roughly 6 1/2 feet would certainly be an intimidating presence.

Finally, in spite of all of the fantastic (trick) photography on the internet, no remains of people who were 9-10 feet tall have ever been found in the Middle East. These pictures of so-called Nephilim are dubious (see photo above on left). Since the average height in the ancient Near East was between 5 feet and 5’3,” and since archaeology seems to confirm this (at least to this point), and since the textual evidence leans toward the reading of “4 cubits and a span,” I conclude that Goliath was most probably on the taller side of the 6-foot range, as opposed to the 9-foot range of the MT.

Caesarea Philippi and the Nephilim?

Caesarea Philippi and the Nephilim?

The Nephilim are first mentioned in Genesis 6:4.
The Nephilim are first mentioned in Genesis 6:4.

My title for this article is actually greatly abbreviated. If I were to have written out the entire title it would have been something like, “What do Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ at Caesarea Phillippi, the Nephilim, the worship of Baal, and the locations of Mount Hermon and the land of Bashan all have in common? The question sounds crazy and some Bible readers may not even be familiar with places like Mount Hermon or Bashan, and probably know very little about the mysterious Nephilim. So a very natural question is, “Who knows and who cares?” If you’ll bear with me and read through this entire post, I will try to demonstrate the connection between each of these subjects and what we can learn from their connection. Personally, the connection between these subjects has opened my eyes up to things that I had never noticed in Scripture before. As a side-light, it has also increased my conviction that learning biblical geography can help one better understand and appreciate certain stories in the Bible. I will tackle each of these subjects one at a time. As I move from item to item the picture I’m seeking to convey should become more clear. Much of the insight for this post must be credited to Dr. Michael Heiser and his recent book, THE UNSEEN REALM.

Caesarea Philippi

This artistic recreation of the pagan sanctuaries at Caesarea Philippi is on display at the archaeological site.
This artistic recreation of the pagan sanctuaries at Caesarea Philippi is on display at the archaeological site. The buildings from left to right are: 
1. The Temple of Augustus Called the Augusteum (On the Left); 
2. The Grotto or Cave of the God Pan (Behind the Temple of Augustus)
; 3. The Court of Pan and the Nymphs (To the Right of the Temple of Augustus); 
4. The Temple of Zeus (In the Middle)
; 5. The Court of Nemesis (To the Right of the Temple of Zeus); 
6. The Tomb Temple of the Sacred Goats (Upper Right); 
7. The Temple of Pan and the Dancing Goats (Bottom Right)

Caesarea Philippi is famous biblically for being the place where Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?” (Matt. 16:13; cf. Mark 8:27). After the disciples mentioned many well-known biblical people, Jesus asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” To which Peter responded, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). Caesarea Philippi is an interesting place for this confession since, as is usually pointed out by any good commentary, it was a seat of pagan worship in a predominantly Gentile area.

The city known as Caesarea Philippi in Jesus’ time, was originally established by Alexander the Great as a countryside shrine to the Greek god Pan located in a cave that possessed an underground stream so deep, it was considered bottomless. The place was named Paneas and later during the reign of Herod the Great, Herod built a city there. In honor of the emperor, he also built a temple to Augustus. After Herod’s death, his son Philip expanded the size of the city and renamed it Caesarea Philippi in order to honor both Caesar and himself, as well as to distinguish it from the Caesarea built by Herod on the coast. Today the city retains its ancient name, being pronounced Banias (the locals pronounce “p” like “b”). Anyone who checks a good Bible commentary can discover this information, and although it is significant that Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ in this pagan city, it is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding the history of this area.

Mount Hermon, Baal, and the Nephilim

Caesarea Philippi/Banias sits at the foot of Mount Hermon in this photo, a mountain believed to be the dwelling abode of Baal in ancient times.
Caesarea Philippi/Banias sits at the foot of Mount Hermon in this photo, a mountain believed to be the dwelling abode of Baal in ancient times.

As the photo above illustrates, Caesarea Philippi/Banias is located at the foot of Mount Hermon (see center and bottom of photo). Mount Hermon is part of a range that divided the land of Israel from ancient Syria and Phoenicia (modern Lebanon). The Phoenicians, worshippers of Baal (think Jezebel–e.g., 1 Kgs. 18:19), actually considered Mount Hermon to be the mountain of Baal. Long before Alexander the Great instituted the worship of Pan in the area, Baal was the main attraction. In fact, Mount Hermon was also known as Mount Baal-Hermon in biblical times (Judg. 3:3; 1 Chron. 5:23).

As if the worship of Baal doesn’t provide Mount Hermon with enough of a tarnished reputation, there is still a more nefarious incident associated with it. According to the Book of Enoch, and Jewish tradition, Mount Hermon was the gathering place of the rebellious angels who descended from its heights to mate with the daughters of men, resulting in the birth of the Nephilim. I have included a copy of chapter 6:1-6 of the Book of Enoch which relates the incident:

<img class=”size-full wp-image-2399″ src=”” alt=”The Book of Enoch taught that the rebellious angels of Genesis 6 descended from Mount Hermon to mate with the daughters of men and give birth to the Nephilim.” width=”255″ height=”394″ /> The Book of Enoch taught that the rebellious angels of Genesis 6 descended from Mount Hermon to mate with the daughters of men and give birth to the Nephilim.

Book of Enoch
6:1 And it came to pass when the children of men had multiplied that in those days were born unto them beautiful and comely daughters. 2 And the angels, the children of the heaven, saw and lusted after them, and said to one another: ‘Come, let us choose us wives from among the children of men and beget us children.’ 3 And Semjâzâ, who was their leader, said unto them: ‘I fear ye will not indeed agree to do this deed, and I alone shall have to pay the penalty of a great sin.’ 4 And they all answered him and said: ‘Let us all swear an oath, and all bind ourselves by mutual imprecations not to abandon this plan but to do this thing.’ 5 Then sware they all together and bound themselves by mutual imprecations upon it. 6 And they were in all two hundred; who descended ‹in the days› of Jared on the summit of Mount Hermon, and they called it Mount Hermon, because they had sworn and bound themselves by mutual imprecations upon it (Charles, R. H. (Ed.). (1913). Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament (Vol. 2, p. 191). Oxford: Clarendon Press.).

To assert that the Book of Enoch teaches that the Nephilim are a result of the rebellious angels who descended from Mount Hermon, is not to suggest that this is necessarily a historical fact. It is only to assert that it was taught in Jewish tradition to be the place of this event. This tradition further enhances the evil reputation surrounding this area. Jews of the 1st century would certainly have been aware of this tradition, as the Book of Enoch was well-known to them. In fact, Peter, the very one who confesses Jesus to be the Christ at Caesarea Philippi, alludes to the Book of Enoch in 2 Peter 2:4-5.

Before leaving a discussion of Mount Hermon, it’s important to point out that its name also has significance. As Heiser states, “Just the name ‘Hermon’ would have caught the attention of Israelite and Jewish readers” (The Unseen Realm, p. 201). The name Hermon is derived from the Hebrew words ḥerem (a thing devoted to God for destruction) or ḥaram (the verb form which means to devote to destruction because it is set apart to God alone). These are the words used in the Conquest narrative (Deut.-Joshua) to describe the utter destruction of the people of Canaan. Heiser believes that this word is particularly connected with the descendants of the Nephilim (e.g., Num. 13:33). Whether Heiser’s theory–that the utter destruction was aimed at the descendants of the Nephilim–is correct must wait for a future post. My point here is that the use of this word once again seems to associate Mount Hermon with the Nephilim.

Bashan–the Place of the Serpent

This map show the area of Bashan colored in green on the right.
This map shows the area of Bashan colored in green on the right.

Moving out in an ever-widening circle, Bashan is the territory in which Caesarea Philippi and Mount Hermon reside. Although one meaning of Bashan is “fertile, stoneless piece of ground,” another meaning of this root is “Serpent” (Lete, del O. G. (1999). Bashan. In K. van der Toorn, B. Becking, & P. W. van der Horst [Eds.], Dictionary of deities and demons in the Bible [2nd extensively rev. ed., p. 161]). Bashan has associations with the Rephaim, descendants of the Nephilim going way back in antiquity. Bible students should recall that Israel, under the leadership of Moses conquered this territory which belonged to Og king of Bashan. In fact, Joshua 12:4-5 says it this way:

“The other king was Og king of Bashan and his territory, who was of the remnant of the giants [Hebrew = Rephaim], who dwelt at Ashtaroth and at Edrei, and reigned over Mount Hermon, over Salcah, over all Bashan, as far as the border of the Geshurites and the Maachathites, and over half of Gilead to the border of Sihon king of Heshbon.”

Tablet like these discovered at the ancient Canaanite city of Ugarit further confirm that Bashan was known as "the place of the serpent," and the territory of the Rephaim.
Tablets like these discovered at the ancient Canaanite city of Ugarit further confirm that Bashan was known as “the place of the serpent,” and the territory of the Rephaim.

Note the references to Mount Hermon and the Nephilim in this passage. Not only does the Bible state that King Og of Bashan is a descendant of the Nephilim, according to Heiser the designation of Og as an “Amorite” associates him with Babylon. Furthermore, the dimensions of his bed (see Deut. 3:8-11) “are precisely those of the cultic bed in the ziggurat called Entemenanki–which is the ziggurat most archaeologists identify as the Tower of Babel referred to in the Bible” (Heiser, The Unseen Realm, p. 198). All the connections start to become a little mind-blowing, not to mention confusing for some. I’ll leave it to those interested in pursuing this further to read Dr. Heiser’s book. The point here is that Bashan, the territory in which Caesarea Philippi resides, has ancient associations with the Nephilim, as well as carrying the meaning of  “the place of the Serpent” The association of Bashan with “The place of the serpent,” as well as being a dwelling place of the Rephaim ( a word used in the Bible for the descendants of the Nephilim) also finds confirmation in the Canaanite literature discovered at Ugarit (see photo on left).

The Gates of Hades (Hell)

This cave in Caesarea Philippi, known as the Cave of Pan was also called, "The Gates of Hades." The cave is still visible today to anyone visiting Banias.
This cave in Caesarea Philippi, known as the Cave of Pan was also called, “The Gates of Hades.” The cave is still visible today to anyone visiting Banias.

Finally, in returning to Caesarea Philippi, given the associations of this area with Greek gods, Baal, the Nephilim, and the name “place of the serpent,” it should come as no surprise that it was also associated with the realm of the dead. The Canaanites taught that the Rephaim were the dead spirits of ancient kings, thus associating Bashan with the underworld. Interestingly enough, the Cave of Pan in Caesarea Philippi was called, “The Gates of Hades.” This may be related to the idea that the cave was believed to be a bottomless pit (see comments above). Against this background, Jesus’ statement following Peter’s confession that “the gates of Hades [hell] will not prevail against it (i.e., the church),” is very illuminating!

In conclusion, the fact that Peter’s confession occurs in a pagan area is remarkable enough. But when one learns the history of the area and the traditions associated with it, Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ the Son of God takes on greater significance. This confession is declared in “the place of the serpent.” It is declared in an area associated with divine (the Nephilim), as well as human (worship of Baal) rebellion. In the darkest place possible, Jesus asked his disciples who they thought he was, and the light of God shone on Bashan through Peter’s confession.

Patterns of Evidence: Exodus

Patterns of Evidence: Exodus

Patterns of Evidence: Exodus, interviews archaeologists and egyptologists in search of evidence for the biblical Exodus
Patterns of Evidence: Exodus, interviews archaeologists and egyptologists in search of evidence for the biblical Exodus

Did the Exodus happen? Many leading archaeologists and Bible scholars today say, “No.” Others argue that there may have been a small group of slaves that escaped Egypt, but the historical events didn’t happen the way they are described in the Bible. Even among evangelical scholars who accept the biblical account as historical, there is a debate regarding the date of the Exodus (this article from Wikipedia is an example of the skepticism of most regarding the Exodus). All of this confusion surrounding the Exodus led filmmaker Timothy P. Mahoney to begin a 12-year quest to discover if the Exodus really happened as it is told in the Bible, or not. The result of his investigation is a book and film entitled Patterns of Evidence: Exodus. Mahoney explains that his original reason for going to Israel and Egypt was to do a documentary about the route of the Exodus and the location of the real Mount Sinai. However, when he arrived in the Middle East, he was asked why he would want to make a documentary about an event that never happened. You can see his interview with Fox News here where Mahoney explains how this question changed the direction of his project and eventually led to the making of Patterns of Evidence: Exodus.

Patterns of Evidence: The Initial Quest

The ancient city of Avaris which has been excavated over the past 30 years shows evidence for an ancient Semitic/Canaanite people.
The ancient city of Avaris which has been excavated over the past 30 years shows evidence for an ancient Semitic/Canaanite people.

Mahoney’s initial quest led to disappointment. He was introduced to the most popular theory regarding the date of the Exodus, which is the time of Ramesses II (13th century B.C.). As the film points out, one of the bases for this proposal is Exodus 1:11, which mentions that the Israelites built the city of Ramesses. The city has a narrow history of 200 years (1300-1100 B.C.). The problem is, there is no evidence for a settlement of Israelites, or an exodus from Egypt during this period. Mahoney began to wonder if there was a city that showed archaeological evidence for a group of ancient Israelites. He heard about the excavations going on at the ancient city of Avaris, which happens to lay underneath the southern sector of the later city of Ramesses in the Nile Delta. There he was told by the director of excavations, Manfred Bietak, that a large group of ancient Semitic people (25-30,000) had been discovered. According to Bietak, these people were originally a free people who enjoyed a special status and were shepherds. This sounded to Mahoney like the biblical account, but Bietak discouraged that interpretation because he holds to the Ramesses II date for the Exodus and this settlement was much to early to qualify as an early settlement of Israelites.

Searching for Patterns of Evidence

Patterns of Evidence focuses on 6 major events recorded in the Bible visualized by a timeline wall, and proposes that these 6 events can be found in Egyptian history. However, some suggest that the current chronological timeline used by scholars needs to be adjusted.

Although discouraged at first, Mahoney decided that his search should proceed along the scientific lines of searching for patterns of evidence, wherever that evidence might lead. Mahoney chose 6 important events in the biblical chronology: 1) Israelites descent into Egypt; 2) the multiplication of the population; 3) slavery; 4) a judgment on Egyptian society; 5) a massive and sudden exodus; and 6) the conquest of Canaan. Was there a time period in Egyptian history that corresponded to these 6 events? According to Mahoney, and other scholars he interviews, the answer is “Yes.” Mahoney, along with such scholars as David Rohl, Bryant Wood, and John J. Bimson, contend that the period of Ramesses II is the wrong period to look for the Israelite exodus from Egypt (thus it is no surprise that evidence is lacking for this time period). Some of these scholars would contend for an earlier date of around 1450 B.C., which is traditionally the date accepted by some evangelical scholars. This date is based on 1 Kings 6:1 which states that Solomon began building the Temple 480 years after Israel left Egypt. It’s generally agreed that Solomon’s reign began about 970 B.C. and the construction of the Temple began around 966 B.C. Adding 480 years to these dates takes one back to around 1450-1440 B.C. Mahoney introduces a massive amount of evidence to demonstrate that there was a time in Egyptian history that corresponds with the 6 major events mentioned in the biblical account (I’ll leave it to you to watch the video. It is a fascinating and informative investigation whether you agree with the conclusions or not). There is still a problem, however. The problem is that even the early date of 1450 B.C. does not appear to be early enough. The pattens of evidence that Mahoney discusses take one back into the period known in Egypt as the Middle Kingdom, and this is a full 200 years earlier than the 1450 B.C. date!

Is Egyptian Chronology Correct?

This chart is one example of a change in the current Egyptian timeline employed by scholars. For an explanation of this timeline see
This chart is one example of a change in the current Egyptian timeline employed by scholars. For an explanation of this timeline see the following link at

Patterns of Evidence points out that all chronologies of the ancient world are based on Egyptian chronology. Egyptian chronology has been considered established for a long time and many (including many noted evangelical scholars) refuse to consider that there could be major errors in it. However, there is a growing number of scholars looking into a “revised” Egyptian chronology (see the example above and the link for an explanation). The current chronology that is used, not only creates problems for the biblical account, but it also requires gaps of time to be inserted into the chronologies of other ancient nations in order to make them synchronize with Egyptian history. This suggests there may be a problem. David Rohl and John J. Bimson, among others, are convinced that Egypt’s chronology needs an overhaul. Others are convinced that an early date for the Exodus (i.e., 1450 B.C.) is still the best explanation (see Bryant Wood’s arguments against Rohl’s chronology here).

An Evaluation of Patterns of Evidence: Exodus

For more information on Patterns of Evidence: Exodus see the website at
For more information on Patterns of Evidence: Exodus see the website at

Mahoney is up front about coming from a Christian family and growing up believing in the historicity of the Bible. However, he admits that when he began his investigation into the evidence for the Exodus, it created some doubt and concern. But, as he says at the end of the film, he was determined to go wherever the evidence led. Although one could accuse Mahoney of entering this project with a biased point of view, as archaeologist Bryant Wood points out in his interview with Mahoney, “everybody in the field is biased.” Not only is it impossible for a human being to have no bias, but in my small exposure to the world of archaeology I have learned that conclusions are often heavily motivated by theological or political agendas. Therefore I find Wood’s next point even more important when he states, “I can not make up the evidence, I can not plant it in the ground,” and he encourages everyone to look at the evidence and make a decision based upon it. This is what Mahoney seeks to do in the film. The film interviews scholars, archaeologists, and Egyptologists of all persuasions. Some believe the biblical story is reliable and some do not. I find Mahoney’s treatment fair, although he is clearly coming from an evangelical perspective. In the end, he does not firmly endorse one view over another, but the film does indicate, as the title suggests, that there are some strong Patterns of Evidence for believing the biblical story of the Exodus.

The Church in Rome: Jews and Greeks

The Church in Rome: Jews and Greeks

Why did Paul write the Church in Rome? This article helps to answer that by looking at the beginning and makeup of the Church in Rome.
Why did Paul write the Church in Rome? This article helps to answer that by looking at the beginning and makeup of the Church in Rome.

Paul’s letter to the Romans is full of the use of ethnic terms. In fact, no letter in the New Testament uses as many ethnic terms, or duplicates the frequency with which Paul uses such terms as Romans. A tabulation of the following words illustrates my point. The word “gentiles/nations” occurs 29 times in Romans; “circumsion/uncircumcision” occurs 15 times; “Jew” is found 11 times as is “Israel”; “Greek” is used 6 times; while “Israelites” occurs 2 times and “barbarians” once. This comes to a total of 75 ethnic references in Romans. Although Paul uses various ethnic designations, all of the words can be boiled down into two distinct groups of people: Jews and Greeks (or gentiles). This would be similar to an author today using ethnic designations such as “Afro-American,” “black,” “Caucasian,” and “white.” Although 4 different words are being used, only two groups of people are being described. Paul’s frequent usage of these ethnic terms suggests something about the population that made up  the church in Rome in the first century, as well as potential reasons why he was writing to them. The following article seeks to fulfil a promise made last year in a post entitled, “Jews and Greeks in the New Testament.” I recommend reading that article first (or rereading it if it has been awhile) as it provides some necessary background for what I will be discussing here.

The Beginnings of the Church in Rome

peter-preachingAll scholars agree that the beginnings of the Church in Rome are shrouded in obscurity. However, it is noted that “visitors from Rome” were among those who heard Peter’s sermon on that  first Pentecost Sunday that the church began (Acts 2:10). It is usually thought that the gospel may have first reached Jewish synagogues in Rome through some of these witnesses. Even if this was not the case, Jews in Rome were closely in touch with what was happening in Jerusalem, and there were frequent goings and comings between these two important cities in the Roman empire. So it is reasonable to assume that the gospel message reached Jewish ears in Rome not long after that first Pentecost in one way or another, and that some responded by becoming believers in Jesus. This reconstruction suggests that the original makeup of the Church in Rome would have been mostly Jewish in the beginning, with perhaps some proselytes or God-fearers (Gentile attenders of the synagogue) also coming to faith.

We know from Roman records that in 41 A.D. the emperor Claudius restricted the public meeting of the Jews in Rome. The reason seems to relate to trouble within the synagogues in Rome. While the cause of this trouble is not specified, an educated guess would be that it involved disputes over Jesus as the Messiah. We know from the Book of Acts (e.g., Acts 17:1-9; 18:4-8, 12-17) that this was a major cause of, not only disruption in the synagogues, but civil disruption as well. Further evidence may be provided by Claudius’s expulsion of the Jews from Rome in 49 A.D. The Roman writer Suetonius states that Claudius “expelled the Jews from Rome because they kept rioting at the instigation of Chrestus.” Although the correct form for Christ in Greek would be “Christos,” many scholars think that Suetonius simply got the name wrong. This statement, as well as the evidence from Acts, suggests that the synagogues in Rome were experiencing the same kind of conflict going on in synagogues throughout the empire regarding the proclamation of Jesus as the Christ. Indeed, we might ask, what else could cause such violent conflict in Jewish synagogues of this era?

The Church in Rome and the Gentile Majority

This interesting tombstone from Rome shows 2 Jewish menorahs, but the inscription is in Greek. Paul's letter to the Romans makes it clear that the Church in Rome consited of Jews and Greeks.
This interesting tombstone from Rome shows a Greek inscription flanked by 2 Jewish menorahs, as well as other Jewish symbols. Paul’s letter to the Romans makes it clear that the Church in Rome consisted of Jews and Greeks.

With the expulsion of the Jews from the city of Rome in 49 A.D., the Church in Rome would have mostly consisted of gentiles (Many scholars believe only Jewish leaders were actually expelled from Rome. If this was the case, some Jewish believers would have remained in the Church.). After the death of Claudius in 54 A.D., many Jews returned to Rome. Aquila and Priscilla are examples of this. Although they left Rome when Claudius expelled the Jews (Acts 18:1-2), they had returned to Rome by the time Paul wrote his letter to the Church in Rome (Rom. 16:3-5). However, by the time some of these Jewish believers returned, circumstances would have changed. The Church in Rome would now have consisted of gentile leadership and a gentile majority. That the Church in Rome consisted of a majority of gentiles when Paul wrote his epistle, seems clear from a number of references in the letter (e.g., Rom. 1:5-6, 13). As Thomas Schreiner states, “When he [Paul] reflects on the composition of the Roman church, he apparently conceives of it mainly as Gentile. This is confirmed by Rom. 11:13, which specifically addresses the Gentiles, and by 15:15–16, where Paul justifies his boldness in the letter since he has a particular calling as a ‘minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles’” (Schreiner, T. R. (1998). Romans (Vol. 6, p. 14). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books). This historical shift from a church which consisted mainly of Jewish believers and leadership to one that consisted mainly of Gentile believers and leadership, was bound to create some problems when Jewish believers began returning to Rome. Ben Witherington III sizes up the problem this way: “They [the Jews] have been marginalized by the expulsion, and Paul is addressing a largely Christian Gentile audience in Rome which has drawn some erroneous conclusions about Jews and Jewish Christians” (Witherington III, Ben. (2004). Paul’s Letter to the Romans. (p. 12). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).

Historical and Cultural Context and Paul’s Letter to the Church in Rome

The Church in Rome shifted from a Jewish majority to a Gentile majority
The Church in Rome shifted from a Jewish majority to a Gentile majority

Being aware of the historical context described above, as well as the cultural context (i.e., problems between Jews and Greeks, see my previous article cited above), opens a new window of understanding into Paul’s Letter to the Romans. First, the 75 ethnic references in the letter (Jew and Greek, etc.) suggest that ethnic relationships in the Church in Rome are a major concern of Paul’s. Second, a number of the doctrines that Paul writes about in the letter begin to make sense against this background of ethnic tension. For example, Jews and Greeks are all sinners (Rom. 3:9), both Jews and Gentiles are saved in the same way–by faith (Rom. 3:28-30), and Abraham is the father of those who are uncircumcised as well as those who are circumcised (Rom. 4:9-12). Furthermore, as one understands the historical switch from Jewish majority to Gentile majority in the Church in Rome, Paul’s exhortations in Romans 9-11, as well as Romans 14-15 make a lot of sense. For example, Paul argues that God is not finished with Israel (Rom. 11:11-12, 15, 25-26), and that the Gentiles need to recognize their debt to Israel and not be arrogant (Rom. 11:17-23). Paul’s discussion about not being divisive over food and the observation of certain days also highlights some of the struggles between Gentile and Jewish believers (Rom. 14:1-15:6). This understanding of the historical/cultural situation in the Roman Church helps us to better appreciate how significant Paul’s statement in Romans 10:12 is when he says, “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all bestowing his riches on all who call on him” (ESV).

The Church in Rome was Not a Church As We Think of Church

An excellent article in on Roman housings shows an artistic rendering of what ancient tenement houses or insulae would have looked like.
An excellent article in on Roman housing shows an artistic rendering of what ancient tenement houses or insulae would have looked like.

To further appreciate the situation Paul is addressing, one other historical/cultural insight is important. When we talk about the “Church in Rome,” we are not referring to a single congregation which meets in a large public building somewhere in the city. Nor are we speaking about a “megachurch” in the sense that some might think of today. Rather, we are speaking of a number of groups of people meeting throughout the City of Rome, either in houses or apartment (tenement) complexes. Paul’s greetings in Romans 16 are instructive regarding this point. Paul notes that some Christians meet with Priscilla and Aquila “in their house” (Rom. 16:5). Besides this group Paul mentions several other groups meeting in Rome (Rom. 16:10, 11, 14, 15). Along with these groups, Paul mentions a number of individuals but does not cite what group they may be meeting with. Rome was a city of one million people in the first century and Christianity was not a legal religion, therefore, Christians could not meet in a public building. The groups that Paul mentions suggests that the Church in Rome was scattered throughout the city and meeting in houses or apartments. This small-group setting would mean that any tension between believers would be very noticeable and potentially volatile. This makes Paul’s words in Romans 14:1 and 15:7 about “welcoming” one another very significant. People who feel unwelcome in a small-group setting will not stay around for long. Conversely, those who are making them feel unwelcome may not even invite them in! The result would be a horrible fractioning of the body of Christ in Rome, something that the fledgling church certainly did not need.

How History and Culture Help Us Understand the Letter to the Romans

The unity of Jews and Gentiles was a primary concern of Paul's, not only in Romans, but also in other espistles written by the apostle.
The unity of Jews and Gentiles was a primary concern of Paul’s, not only in Romans, but also in other espistles written by the apostle.

Although Paul’s letter to the Romans probably had several purposes (one being his desire to receive their assistance on a trip to Spain–Rom. 15:24), the historical and cultural background we have traced in these two articles relating to “Jews and Greeks,” demonstrates that the unity of the Church in Rome was a significant concern of Paul’s. As Craig Keener points out, “Given this situation, what the Roman Christians needed was what we would call racial reconciliation and crosscultural sensitivity” (Keener, C. S. (1993). The IVP Bible background commentary: New Testament (Ro). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press). This is a message that is easily overlooked without the proper background knowledge. Yet it is arguably one of the most important teachings in the Letter to the Romans. There are many good resources available today for understanding the background to Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. I have noted a few of them in this post. Hopefully, these posts (about Jews and Greeks) will help to encourage those interested in the study of the Bible about the significance of knowing the historical and cultural background in which the Bible was written.

New Testament Bible Background Commentary

New Testament Bible Background Commentary

New Testament Bible Background Commentary from IVP Academic
New Testament Bible Background Commentary from IVP Academic

IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, Second Edition by Craig S. Keener, (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2014), 816 pp. Available from Amazon USA / UK

The New Testament Bible background commentary by Craig Keener has been a standard reference work for many years. The new second edition only makes this commentary more valuable. Keener has done a thorough revision of the original and has expanded his treatment of many passages. The goal has remained the same: “The sole purpose of this commentary (unlike most commentaries) is to make available the most relevant cultural, social and historical background for reading the New Testament the way its first readers would have read it” (p. 14). Thus, Keener is not seeking to offer theological commentary on the New Testament, but rather background material that will aid the reader in coming to theological conclusions. Although it is not his main focus, Keener also makes literary observations from time to time (for example, inclusios or chiastic structures–see his final chart at the end of the book entitled, “A Chiasmus: Acts 2:22-36“)

Keener’s audience remains the same as the first edition. He writes for “busy pastors and other Bible readers who have fewer resources and less time available” (p. 19). As a result, Keener omits most references that scholars and more curious Bible readers would find useful. With this target audience in mind, Keener’s New Testament background commentary begins with a 36-page introduction on how to use the commentary and why there is a need for such a commentary. As in the first edition, Keener has retained an introductory section discussing the significance of the gospels, as well as, New Testament letters. Each New Testament book is also preceded by a brief introduction. The glossary (also included in the first edition) has some new additions, such as “magic” and “Pilate,” while some definitions have been expanded such as “Satan” and “Son of God.” The maps and charts section at the end of the book remains basically unchanged (an additional map of Paul’s missionary journeys has been added rather than having one map for journeys one and two).

New Testament Bible Background Commentary: New Content

Craig S. Keener, author of IVP's New Testament Background Commentary
Craig S. Keener, author of IVP’s New Testament Bible Background Commentary

Besides the changes mentioned above, the commentary itself has been expanded in many places. As an example, I compared Keener’s treatment of Luke and Acts with the first and second editions of his commentary. These additions include anything from a sentence to a whole new paragraph. Sometimes additions are weaved around previous material and in other instances a new paragraph, or more, may be added. Some examples of ample additional material include Keener’s comments on ancient literacy in Luke 4:16, and his comments on hospitality and the woman who anointed his feet in Luke 7:43-46. Keener has greatly expanded his comments about Paul’s sea voyage to Rome (Acts 27), as well as his circumstances in Rome (Acts 28), compared to his earlier treatment of this material. Keener has also added some helpful new tables within the commentary such as Table 1 in the Gospel of Luke (“Early Parallels in Luke’), Table 2 (“Echoes of Hannah’s Song”–comparing the Mary’s Magnificat with 1 Samuel 2:1-10), and Table 7 in 1 Thessalonians (“Parallels Between 1-2 Thessalonians and Jesus’ Teachings”). At times, Keener has also omitted some material. For example, in the story about the widow of Nain in Luke 7:11-17, he omits his previous comment about what philosophers would often say to console the bereaved (compare Luke 7:13 in both editions).

What Can Be Learned From Keener’s New Testament Bible Background Commentary?

What can be learned from this commentary? Much more than there is space to tell! The reader will learn about ancient weights, measurements and money, funeral customs, weddings, geography (including how understanding certain facts about various ancient cities helps one to better understand a particular story), the nature of teachers and their disciples, honor and shame, kinship bonds and relations, education, schooling, and literacy, population estimates of various significant cities, Roman government officials, Roman armies (their makeup, their leaders), and on and on.

Whether you are new to the study of New Testament backgrounds, or a more knowledgeable student, Keener’s New Testament Bible background commentary contains something that everyone can benefit from. Allow me to cite two examples. Keener notes that ancient authors writing either histories (like Acts) or biographies (like the gospels) often drew parallels between people in the narrative. An example of this is the contrast between Zacharias’s response to the birth announcement by the angel with that of Mary’s (see comments on Luke 1:26-38, p. 180). Another helpful insight concerns the way ancient histories were written. Keener notes that ancient authors intentionally varied their vocabulary when talking about an identical event. He states, “This pattern should warn us not to read modern expectations of verbatim quotation into ancient works that no one would read that way” (p. 319, comments on Acts 1:1-5). This observation is helpful for understanding the slightly different versions that Luke gives of Jesus’ words before he ascends (comparing Luke 24 and Acts 1), as well as, Paul’s three slightly different accounts of his conversion.

In conclusion, Keener has made an excellent commentary even better with this newly revised edition. This is definitely a book that should be on everyone’s shelf who is interested in better understanding the New Testament.

Purchase The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament at Amazon USA / UK


  • Hardcover: 816 pages
  • Publisher: IVP Academic; 02 edition (January 3, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0830824782
  • ISBN-13: 978-0830824786
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 2.2 x 9 inches

(Thanks to IVP for providing a copy of this New Testament Bible background commentary in exchange for a fair and unbiased review).

Jews and Greeks in the First Century A.D.

jerusalem templeJews and Greeks in the New Testamentgreek temple

Even a casual reader of the New Testament cannot help but notice the frequent use of the expression “Jew and Greek.” To cite just a few examples, Paul writes that salvation is “for the Jew first and also for the Greek” (Rom. 1:16); or, “Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:22-24); or, “There is neither Jew nor Greek…for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Although we might notice this language, it is easy to read over it without understanding its significance. In a previous post, I promised to demonstrate how Bible background knowledge (history, culture, language, etc.) can help illuminate our study of the Bible (see my article, “Bible Background Knowledge: Why is it Important, How does it Help?“). In this article I will provide some historical and cultural background that will not only demonstrate the importance of the “Jew and Greek” language used by New Testament writers, but will show how revolutionary the Christian message was as it sought to reconcile Jew and Greek into one body (the church).

Identity: Jews and Greeks

greek dress
Style of dress can be a marker of ethnic identity

The most elementary definition of identity might define a Jew as someone from Judea and a Greek as someone from Greece. This definition not only oversimplifies the problem, but it ignores the fact that by the first century A.D. Jews and Greeks were scattered across the Roman empire and beyond. The Assyrian and Babylonian captivities (722 B.C. and 586 B.C., respectively), had uprooted the ancient Israelites from their homeland and scattered them among other nations. Similarly, the conquest of Alexander the Great (333-321 B.C.) not only brought the spread of Greek culture and language, it also facilitated the movement and migration of Greeks throughout his empire. This means that by the first century, Jews and Greeks were living side by side in cities throughout the Roman Empire. How does a person maintain their ethnic identity when they are separated from their homeland over the span of many years and miles? Christopher Stanley (‘Neither Jew Nor Greek’: Ethnic Conflict in Graeco-Roman Society, JSNT, 64, 1996, p. 111), identifies three important factors: 1) a belief in a shared history; 2) common culture (including language and religious beliefs); and 3) some form of physical difference (which could include bodily appearance, hairstyle, clothing, etc.).

For a Jew these 3 factors are easily identifiable. A Jew would, 1) identify with Israel’s history (the Exodus, the kingship, etc.); 2) believe in the one true God (keeping the Law by observing the Sabbath and the distinction between clean and unclean foods) and; 3) would practice circumcision. These distinctions, however, would not only apply to someone born of Israelite blood, but also to any foreigners who became proselytes (converts). Acts 2:10 mentions such proselytes. Similarly, a Greek came to mean more than just someone who was from Greece, but someone who had also adopted Greek (Hellenistic) culture, and spoke Greek. Ironically, it was these ethnic “identity markers” that could potentially attract or repel people in the other group.

Jews and Gentiles, Greeks and Barbarians

The terms “Gentile” and “Greek” are often used synonymously by scholars and sometimes by ancient authors. There is some support for linking these two words in Scripture, but it’s worth pointing out that the terms Gentile and Greek are not necessarily referring to the same people group. The word “Gentile” is from the word for “nations” and was used by Jews as a description of those who were outside of the covenant God had established with Israel. Therefore, in the eyes of a Jew, all Greeks were Gentiles, but, to be accurate, not all Gentiles were Greeks. Therefore, context should determine what is meant by these terms. For the purposes of this article, the words will usually refer to the same people group unless otherwise specified. In some cases Jewish use of the word “Gentile” was not meant derogatorily, but in other cases it was. When used derogatorily it could be shorthand for “sinner” (see Gal. 2:15; mention could also be made of the well-known rabinnic saying that God created the Gentiles in order to stoke the fires of hell). The point is that to speak of “gentiles” is a Jewish way of viewing the world. No other group in the Roman world would refer to themselves or others this way (although they might speak of other “nations” of course).

Famous painting of Alexander the Great's battle with Darius III of Persia. The Greeks viewed even the great Persian empire as barbarians.
Famous painting of Alexander the Great’s battle with Darius III of Persia. The Greeks viewed even the great Persian empire as barbarians.

Like the Jews, the Greeks also divided the world into two distinct populations. There were Greeks, and the rest who weren’t Greek were Barbarians. After all, considering the legacy of language, art, philosophy, politics, and culture, who in their right mind would not want to be Greek? This two-fold way of viewing the world by both Jews and Greeks reveals a deep-seated pride on the part of both groups. Commentaries have made us well-aware that the Jews could be capable of arrogance. In fact, “Phariseeism” in our day is synonymous with legalism and pride (although this is an oversimplification). What is often overlooked (although modern studies have come a long way in correcting this view), was that the Greeks could be just as arrogant concerning their culture and way of life. In other words, when it comes to pride and arrogance, there was plenty of blame to spread around whether one is talking about Jews or Greeks in the first century.

Conflict Between Jews and Greeks

Attitudes of arrogance and the natural human tendency toward viewing those outside our group as inferior, naturally leads to prejudice and conflict. But before discussing the differences between Jews and Greeks that led to conflict in the Roman world, it should be noted that many Jews adopted various facets of Hellenistic culture, including speaking Greek. In fact, following the conquest of Alexander the Great, it would have been impossible to not be affected in some way by Hellenistic culture. Indeed, some Jewish writers such as Josephus and Philo sought to explain Jewish beliefs and practices by appealing to Greeks using Greek terminology and philosophy. There were also Greeks, and other Gentiles, who spoke well of Judaism. This is further evidenced by the fact that some became proselytes, while others regularly attended synagogue being known as “God-fearers” (e.g., Acts 13:26). In spite of the attraction that some from each ethnic group had for the other, prejudice and conflict were a common response.  As noted above, we are well-aware of Jewish prejudice toward Gentiles (including Greeks), therefore, I will focus on Greek/Gentile attitudes toward Jews (this includes the elite of Roman society who had become thoroughly Hellenized).

ancient-greek-gods_120822_1952_54Ancient Greeks are famous for the glorification of the human body, well-evidenced in the statuary they have left behind. Greeks loved athletic competition and this competition took place in the nude. Circumcision was abhorrent to a Greek and considered to be a mutilation of the body. To demonstrate the detrimental effect that this Greek attitude could have on Jews, the writer of 1 Maccabees informs us that in the days preceding the Maccabean revolt some Jewish youths began to attend the gymnasium (a Greek institution) in Jerusalem, and sought to remove “the marks of circumcision” (1 Macc. 1:14-15). When the Greek King Antiochus Epiphanes IV enforced Hellenization of Judea and attempted to terminate Jewish religious practices, war was the inevitable result (168-163 B.C.). When Judea was taken over by the Romans (63 B.C.), Pompey desecrated the Temple by entering it and sent about 100,000 Jewish captives to Rome. Fortunately, the Jews also had some gracious Roman patrons, including Julius Caesar and Augustus, nonetheless, many well known ancient writers derided them for their beliefs and culture. For example, the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca said, “the way of life of this accursed group (the Jews) has gained such influence that it is now received throughout the world; the vanquished have given laws to their victors.” The Roman historian Tacitus wrote, “those who have gone over to their (the Jews) way of life follow the same practice, and the earliest lesson they receive is to despise the gods, to disown their country, and to regard their parents, children, and brothers as of little account” (both quotes are taken from Thomas H. Tobin, “Paul’s Rhetoric in Its Contexts, p. 24). Roman emperors twice expelled the Jews from Rome (once in 19 A.D. by Tiberius, and again in 49 A.D. by Claudius, see Acts 18:2). These examples could be multiplied, but they demonstrate the uneasy tension that existed between Jews and Greeks in the ancient world.

Violent conflict between Jews and Greeks erupted in many of the cities found on this map
Violent conflict between Jews and Greeks erupted in many of the cities found on this map

An investigation of the period between 50 B.C. and 120 A.D. (a 170 year span), produces evidence that there was violent ethnic conflict between Jews and Greeks. This is an historical fact known to scholars, but not as familiar to lay people. Stanley (in the article cited above) categorizes this violence into 4 phases. Phase 1 occurred roughly between the years of 49 B.C. and 11 B.C. and was limited to western Asia minor (modern Turkey). Some of the troubled areas included Sardis (49 B.C.),  Laodicea (46/45 B.C.), Ephesus (43 B.C.), and Cyrene in North Africa (13 B.C.). Phase 2 occurred between the years of 38 – 44 A.D. and centered in the areas of Egypt, Judea, Syria, and Babylonia. Some of the cities included Alexandria, Egypt (38-41 A.D.), Jamnia (39 A.D.), Dora (41 A.D.), and Philadelphia (44 A.D.) which are all areas within the boundaries of ancient Israel (referred to as Palestine by many scholars), and Syrian Antioch (39-40 A.D.). Phase 3 occurred during the years of the Jewish Revolt (66-73 A.D.) and encompassed all of Israel (Palestine), plus Alexandria, Cyrene, Antioch, and Damascus. Phase 4 occurred during the years of the Diaspora Revolt (115-117 A.D.) resulting in violent conflict in Jewish communities in North Africa and Mesopotamia (this info is taken from Stanley’s article, pp. 102-103).

The Significance of the Conflict Between Jews and Greeks

If you’ve stayed with me this long we’ve finally come to the point of this article. First, however, it has been necessary to sketch the historical and cultural background. If you look at the cities mentioned above where ethnic conflict and violence between Jews and Greeks was known to occur you will notice many familiar names found in the New Testament such as Ephesus, Sardis, Antioch, Damascus, Cyrene, etc. It is phenomenal to think that in the midst of this ethnic tension and hatred, often expressed through civic violence, that a group of Jewish believers were commissioned to take the gospel to the Greeks (and the rest of the Gentiles)! In fact, Paul, a former Pharisee, residing in the city of Antioch, which only a few years earlier had been at the center of one of these ethnic uprisings, is called by the Holy Spirit to a mission to the Gentiles (Acts 13:1-2)! That a former Pharisee would become an “apostle to the Gentiles” (Rom. 11:13) and would suffer greatly to see Greeks and others won for the kingdom of God, is a testament to God’s transforming power. That a movement consisting of Jews and Greeks in one body could maintain a bond of unity and peace, in a world where ethnic violence was the norm is a witness to the power of the gospel itself!

Gallio shows no concern for the Greeks who beat the ruler of the synagogue. (picture from
Gallio shows no concern for the Greeks who beat the ruler of the synagogue. (picture from

The violence between Jews and Greeks also sheds light on the narrative accounts of Acts. In every city that Paul travels to he begins in the synagogue. Some Jews believe, some Greeks believe and this volatile combination creates civic unrest for the remainder of the population. In Iconium some Jews and Greeks believe which causes unbelieving Jews to stir up a mob of Gentiles to persecute the fledgling church (Acts 14:1-5). This same scenario is repeated in cities throughout the Roman empire. In Philippi, Paul and Silas are dragged to the market place before the city authorities. The accusation brought against them is, “These men, being Jews, exceedingly trouble our city” (Acts 16:19-20). In Thessalonica when a “great multitude of devout Greeks” are converted, the unbelieving Jews become envious and stir up a mob (Acts 17:4-5). In Corinth another mob is stirred up against the disciples, but when the proconsul Gallio refuses to judge the case we are told, “Then all the Greeks took Sosthenes, the ruler of the synagogue, and beat him before the judgment seat” (Acts 18:17). When one becomes aware of the violence between Jews and Greeks, these accounts recorded by Luke in the Book of Acts take on a sober realism. Relating this knowledge to the Book of Romans, Philip Esler, influenced by Stanley’s research, states, “This mutual hostility between Judeans and Greeks would have formed part of the living memories of most people to whom Paul wrote Romans, and some of them may have experienced it in other cities of the Mediterranean region” (Conflict and Identity in Romans, p. 75).

By becoming sensitive to the ethnic problems that existed between Jew and Greek, the above passages, as well as the ones mentioned at the beginning of this article, take on a richer and deeper meaning. This is just one example of how a study of Bible backgrounds can greatly enhance our understanding and appreciation of Scripture. In the next article, I will take a look at how Bible backgrounds can enhance our knowledge of the Book of Romans. (To read the follow up article, click here).