Church Splits & Petty Divisions: How Jesus’ Love for The Samaritans Confronts Us

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They are the “others” of the New Testament; the outcasts, the untouchables. They appear here and there in the Gospels and Acts as the people the Jews wanted nothing to do with. So naturally Jesus went out of his way to spend time with them. They are the Samaritans.

Some of the most famous, and most intriguing, episodes in the New Testament revolve around the Samaritans. There is the famous parable of the “Good Samaritan”; the Woman at the Well, James and John asking to call fire down from heaven on a Samaritan town that refused them hospitality, and Simon Magnus trying to buy the Holy Spirit from Peter. In all of these stories, the Samaritans are characterized as being viewed as second-class citizens by all the Jews except Jesus, who clearly played by his own rules. But who were the Samaritans? Why did they and the Jews not get along?

Nestled between the Galilee and Judea, the region of Samaria was in the heartland of the former northern kingdom of Israel, gone for over 700 years by the time Jesus came on the scene. Indeed, Samaritans and Samaria get their names from the city of Samaria, the old capital of Israel founded by Omri, the father of Ahab and by whose name the Assyrian kings would refer to Israel (Bīt Ḫumria, House of Omri). It is from disposed northerners that the Samaritans descend.

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when the break between the Samaritans and the Jews occurred. The northern tribes and Judah were always a bit out of sync; often in Joshua and Judges you will see the phrase “Israel and Judah” as if they aren’t quite one entity. Things came to a head during the reign of Rehoboam, Solomon’s successor, when he not only refused to lighten the tax load but threatened to make it heavier. The northern tribes rebelled, following Jeroboam and became Israel while Judah stayed with Rehoboam. The two sides never really gotten along after that. Indeed it was King Ahaz of Judah buying off Tiglath-Pileser III of Assyria that led to Israel’s ultimate demise.

For the Samaritans, the schism took place even before there was ever a king. According to them, it began when the High Priest Eli, whom they do not like, going so far as to call him “the insidious one,” moved the Tabernacle from its rightful place on Mount Gerizim to Shiloh. For the Jews, the split happened on the other end of history’s spectrum. After the destruction of Samaria and the end of Israel 722/720 BC, the Assyrians initiated a massive and complex deportation program: a majority Israelites were mostly moved to Harhar and Kiššesim (western Iran), whose people were then moved to Assur (northern Ira            q/Kurdistan), whose people were moved to Hamath (Syria), whose people were moved to Samaria. Get all that? (In truth, none of that is really necessary; I just really wanted to write that so humor me).

The point is the people living in Samaria were a mixture of Israelites and foreigners and they began mixing, both racially and religiously. Thus the Jews viewed these people as half-breeds, which led to tensions after the Babylonian Exiles had returned (see Ezra and Nehemiah).

It should be noted, however, that none of these people are called or identify themselves as Samaritans. This simply provides the backdrop for the blood feud, showing that tensions between the north (Samaria) and the south (Judea) had existed for quite some time.

Religiously, the main (and virtually only) point of contention between the two was where the temple ought to be. The Samaritans believed it was supposed to be on Mount Gerizim, hearkening back to the Pentateuch’s command to read the Blessings and Curses from Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, sister hills that sandwich Shechem in between. Meanwhile the Jews held the temple ought to be in Jerusalem, pointing out their Davidic tradition (see Jesus discussion with the Woman at the Well in John 4). For several centuries after the return of the Exiles, the two lived in an uneasy peace with a temple on Gerizim (the remains of which can be seen today) and a temple at Jerusalem. However, in 110 BC during the Hasmonean period (started by the Maccabees), John Hyrcanus launched a campaign against the Samaritans which ended up destroying the Gerizim temple. Needless to say, the Samaritans never forgave the Jews for that and the Jews continued to look on the Samaritans as second-class, half-breeds.

One would think from reading the New Testament, the Samaritans and Jews were totally different. In reality, however, they were virtually identical. The Samaritan religion is, for all intents and purposes, a sect of Judaism although neither side will admit it. The Samaritans have their own Pentateuch which is remarkably similar to the Jewish version, with the differences mainly orienting the place of worship to Gerizim over Jerusalem. The Samaritans do not accept the Prophet and Writings, nor do they accept any rabbinic literature. They do have their own synagogues which are identical in layout to the Jewish version, except they orient towards Gerizim, instead of Jerusalem. Fundamentally, the only real difference between the two is over where one ought to worship, something Jesus pointed out as being rather silly since God’s believers worship him in spirit anyway.

It is odd how such simple differences can drive massive wedges between people so similar. Blood feuds are the nastiest and the Samaritans and Jews are no exception, disdaining each other to the point of refusing to interact if at all possible. Petty and pathetic; thank God Jesus doesn’t care about the petty stuff.

But are we so different today? Churches split over the silliest of things, like worship style, ordination, or carpet color. As one who has seen the fallout from these splits, it seems the pettier the reason, the greater the animosity between the two sides. Somehow we seem to forget the Spirit of Christ is to rise above such differences. After all, if Jesus doesn’t care, why should we?

The Samaritans still exist today, about 500 or so in number, centered around Nablus where the woman went to the well and Holon, which is a suburb of Tel Aviv. And so the blood feud lives on.

References

Pummer, Reinhard. 1997. Samaritans. Vol. IV, in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Ancient Near East, edited by Eric M. Meyers, 469-472. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Uncultured Swine!: The Philistines

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There are two Bible stories every kid learns growing up in Sabbath School: Daniel and the Lions’ Den and David against Goliath. The story of David and Goliath is arguably the most iconic story in the entire Bible, one that is told and retold in a million different ways. We even use the saying “a David and Goliath story” to describe an underdog beating all the odds to come out victorious.

The antagonist of this epic is the Philistine Goliath, who is emblematic of his people. The Philistines are viewed as the Bible’s primary villains and their struggles with the “good guy” Israelites are depicted in remarkable detail throughout the Bible’s pages. Although not nearly a powerhouse nation such as Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, or Rome, they interact (almost always antagonistically) with the Israelites more than anyone else. They are portrayed as the bad guys and we tend to view them as such. Often our image of the Philistines is colored by the Bible’s attitude toward them. We see them as rough, beer-drinking, pig-eating, uncultured thugs. In fact we even call people a “Philistine” if they are behaving in a rude way.

But who were the Philistines really? Were they truly these rough and tumble barbarians? Or is the reality a bit more nuanced than our perception?

The Philistines were not native to Canaan, or as archaeologist prefer, the southern Levant (referring to the region that predominantly comprises modern Israel). The Bible in both Amos 9:7 and Jeremiah 47:4 refers to them as having hailed from “Caphtor,” which Hebrew scholars equate with the island of Crete. Essentially, they were Greek in origin, specifically a culture known as Mycenaean, coming from the Aegean Sea and migrating to the southern Levant in the early part of the 12th century BC.

This requires a little further background. At the end of what archaeologists call the Late Bronze Age (roughly 1550-1200 BC), the entire Mediterranean world suffered a massive cultural collapse. During the Late Bronze, the Egyptian New Kingdom (of Thutmose III and Rameses II fame) controlled lands as far north as modern northern Lebanon and Syria. In Mesopotamia, the Mitanni Empire was thriving; the Hittite Empire controlled most of Turkey and south, coming into conflict with Egypt.

In Greece, the Mycenaean culture was booming. Crete and its palace at Knossos formed one of the nexuses for Mycenaean power as a loose confederation of city states expanded their sea trade and military power. If anyone has read the Iliad or knows the story of Achilles, Agamemnon, Odysseus, Hector, Priam, Paris, Helen, or the famed wooden horse, these were the Mycenaeans. Their pottery, examples of their trading network are found in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Canaan, Mesopotamia, and Egypt.

Then, around 1200 BC, everything fell apart. Why this happened is not entirely clear. Various reason have been offered ranging from climate change, to overexpansion, to warfare. But whatever the reason, unilaterally the great powers of the Mediterranean world collapsed. Egypt began losing control over conquered territories as the nation became fractured. The Hittite Empire’s leadership fell apart. The Mitanni Empire simply ceases to be. The Mycenaeans faced invasion from a group of barbarian tribes called the Dorics. As a result, many of them fled east and among them were the Philistines.

Around this time, records begin to show a group of marauding pirates labelled the “Sea Peoples” that were ransacking cities up and down the eastern Mediterranean coast. They were the Tjeker (or Sikils), Shekelesh, Denye, Weshesh, and Peleset, or Philistines, according to Egyptian records. They started in the north along Turkey, sacking the city of Tarsus (where Paul would later hail), and began moving steadily south. The great city of Ugarit was destroyed by the Sea Peoples. The island of Cyprus was conquered. The city of Dor fell as well. Ashdod, Ashkelon, and Gaza were taken over by the Sea Peoples as well. Eventually they made it as far as the Nile Delta itself where Ramses III repelled them (according to him) in an epic sea battle.

It seems this battle more or less stopped the Sea Peoples’ rampage as they had run out of places to attack. The Denye (or Danaoi for Homer fans), took over Cyprus. The Tjeker settled in Dor as well as sailing west to Sicily (which derives its name from the Sikils). The Sherden took over Acco. And the Peleset, or Philistines, settled along the southern coast of Canaan and established their famed pentapolis of Ashdod, Ashkelon, Ekron, Gath, and Gaza.

These cities formed the political and economic centers of Philistia and ought to be viewed as their own, independent entities. Unlike other nations, the Philistines did not have a king, although English translations of both the Bible and Assyrian records use that title. Instead, each city was ruled by a “seren” in Hebrew, which seems to be a loan word from an Aegean language and has no known cognate in any Semitic language. These five serens formed a right enough alliance with each other that they are viewed as a single entity. They shared a culture and heritage and as such traded together, fought together, and lived in harmony with each other. Yet as far as we can tell, they were viewed as equals

Exactly how one became a seren is unclear. The Bible never explains it and the Philistines were not exactly known for their record keeping. Not that it would matter; almost all the inscriptions from the first two hundred years or so from Philistine sites are in the cryptic Linear A Aegean language and these are rare enough. It is possible serens were elected officials like the leaders of Athens some 700 years later, although most likely it was a hereditary position. Still, the Philistine pentapolis is the closest we get to democracy in the southern Levant, particularly in a major military and political force. It should be also noted while large houses have been found, no palaces have been uncovered.

Upon settling down, the Philistines took advantage of their location and began building up a trade based economy. Ashdod, Ashkelon, and Gaza are all cities built on the coast were major trading hubs during the Bronze and Iron Ages, Ashkelon in particular. Since they had begun this migration with Sea Peoples settled in major ports across the Mediterranean, they had a ready-made trading network which they exploited. While most of the world declined economically during the 12th and 11th centuries, Cyprus, Dor, Acco, and Ashkelon thrived, as indicated by the prolific amounts of foreign pottery found at these sites.

The land the Philistines took over was the best in all of the southern Levant. Rainfall in the Shephelah (foothills to the Judean hill country) washed rich soil down to the Philistine plain. Being on the coast, they rarely, if ever, lacked for adequate rainfall. The region was particularly good for growing grapes and wine was the chief export of the region. Industrial wineries have been found at Ekron and Ashkelon, indicating they mass produce the drink and Philistine wine jars have been found all over the Mediterranean.

In addition to wine, the Philistine territory was great for growing wheat and olives. By the 7th century, Ekron had become the oil capital of the southern Levant. More than a hundred oil facilities supplied the demands of enormous markets such as Egypt who could not grow olives. Regarding wheat, the Philistines grew enough of it to make Dagan, the Canaanite god of wheat, their primary deity.

Like the Israelites and Canaanites, the Philistines raised sheep and goats. However, uniquely they raised pigs as well. In fact, during the Philistine settlement, there is a sharp spike in pig bones found while definitively Canaanite and Israelite sites have few to none. The contrast is so sharp, the presence of pig bones is one of the diagnostic markers in determining whether or not a site was Philistine or Israelite/Canaanite.

Not only were the Philistines in prime sea trade real estate, but the international coastal highway, the primary trading route from Egypt to Mesopotamia, ran right through the middle of Philistia. They controlled the land and sea trade through the southern Levant.

As a result of this, Philistine cities were tremendously cosmopolitan. Cypriot, Greek, Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and even the occasional Italian item have been found in their cities. The Philistines stood at one of the nexuses of international exchange. At first, they made efforts to preserve their Aegean heritage. Their temples were built in Aegean style. They had unique hearths in the middle of their rooms, similar to hearths found in Greece and Crete. Their pottery, in particular the bichrome (two-colored), preserved Mycenaean motifs such as birds and deer. Even their language, the aforementioned Linear A which still has not been cracked, is Aegean.

But as time went on, the Philistines grew to absorb the various cultural elements of the myriad of people they came in contact with. Eventually they adopted the Canaanite/Hebrew language with their own variation. Their pottery was Greek in style, with elements of everyone else thrown in. Toward the beginning of their occupation, they adopted Egyptian style coffins with their own unique twist. They were as diverse a people as one can find in the ancient world as they had a little bit of everyone. Not only were they not uncultured, but their massive cities served as the cultural capitals of the Levant. They introduced art to the Levant, as well as new pottery forms such as the krater and a bell-shaped bowl used as for serving wine and drinking cups. If you wanted to hear a new idea or find out what the latest fashion trends were, you went to the Philistines.

As their trading network increased, so did their population, doubling with in a century. Tapping into their warrior roots, the Philistines began pushing into the highlands, bringing them into conflict with the Israelites. Militarily, the Philistines were vastly superior to the Israelites. They brought new weapons, such as the Aegean long sword (referred to as a spear in the Goliath account) and powerful iron chariots who were complimented by an elite infantry.

Initially, the Israelites were overwhelmed by the Philistine onslaught, culminating in the disastrous defeat at the Battle of Ebenezer where Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phineas were killed and the Ark was captured. Although not recorded in the Bible, shortly after this, Shiloh, where the Tabernacle was located, was sacked by the Philistines.

This threat was something entirely new to the Israelites. The Philistine confederacy coupled with their control of trade, new technology, and strange political organization was different than the petty Canaanite, Ammonite, and Moabite kings the Israelites had fought before. It is most likely this threat that prompted the Israelite leaders to come to the aging Samuel and request a king to truly unite and lead them.

Saul had some success in slowing the Philistine advance on the highlands, who had entrenched themselves as far east as Michmash (located in the modern-day West Bank, on the east side of the highlands). Saul and Jonathan managed to expel the Philistines for a time back down to the Shephelah but all of this was reversed at the catastrophe on Mount Gilboah. After this battle, the Philistines controlled the entire Jezreel Valley, which connected the coast with the Transjordan and Mesopotamia and cut Israel in two.

This was the high point for Philistia. David and Joab’s rise to power in the power vacuum left by Saul lead to a series of crushing defeats for the Philistines, resulting in the destruction of Philistine cities such as Tell Qasile (on the Yarkon River near modern Tel Aviv), Timnah in the Shephelah, Dor, and even Ekron itself. Militarily and politically, the Philistines never quite recovered and spent the rest of their history as Israel and Judah’s little brother to the point Hezekiah forced Ekron and Ashkelon to go along with his ill-fated revolt against Sennacherib, likely against their will.

While politically and militarily weakened, the Philistines continued to flourish economically. Their ports continued to be major hubs of trade for the region and their exports of oil and wine were sought after all over the world. Eventually they, like everyone else in the Levant, fell under Assyria’s control but they continued to thrive, with the exception of Sennacherib’s campaign.

But with Assyria’s demise at the end of the 7th century, so too died the Philistines. Nebuchadnezzar did not give the Philistines a chance to side with him against the Assyrians and utterly destroyed their cities in his rampage of 604 BC. Ashkelon, Gaza, Ashdod, and Ekron all met fiery ends at the hands of the Babylonian king (Gath had been destroyed some two hundred years earlier at the hands of Hadadezer, king of Aram). After that, the Philistines vanished from history.

So who were the Philistines? They were pirates, conquerors, traders, farmers, and connoisseurs of culture. Far from being uncultured thugs, they operated the cultural capital of the southern Levant. They brought new art and technology to the region and were the agents of change in Israel. Without the Philistines, there might never have been a David.

There was a lot here and so if anyone has any questions, feel free to ask away. That’s what I’m here for, after all. Next up will be the Samaritans, unless anyone has a specific request, in which case let me know.

Stager, Lawrence E. “Forging an identity: the emergence of Ancient Israel.”The Oxford History of the Biblical World (1998): 123-75.

Stager, Lawrence E. “The impact of the Sea Peoples in Canaan (1185-1050 BCE).” The Archaeology of society in the Holy Land (1995): 332-48.
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My Father’s House

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“In my Father’s house are many rooms.”

Jesus statement in John 14 is one of the most treasured verses in all of the Bible and for good reason. The picture of Heaven and the future he has in store for us is held close to our hearts, providing us hope and strength to carry on in the toughest of times. But more than that, Jesus is tapping into perhaps the most integral concept in ancient Israelite society: the Beth Ab or “Father’s House.”

The Beth Ab was the most basic social unit of Israelite society. For us, the most basic unit is the individual and thus we think in individualistic terms. Not so for the ancient Israelite. He or she thought of him/herself in terms of his/her Beth Ab. It formed the lens through which they viewed the world. When the Israelites formed a kingdom, they viewed him as the head of national Beth Ab. Hence King Mesha of Moab didn’t refer to Israel as “Israel” but rather as the “House of Omri.” In the famous Tel Dan Stele, Hadadezer, King of Aram, calls Judah the “House of David.”  The kingdom was just a huge Beth Ab.

On a spiritual level, the Israelites and their neighbors viewed the cosmos as Beth Ab. Canaanite pantheons were structured as a Beth Ab. The Israelites looked to Yahweh as the head of their Beth Ab, even above the king. The Beth Ab provided the paradigm for the Israelites’ world view and therefore it is imperative for us to understand the Beth Ab to understand the Bible.

In essence, the Beth Ab was the family. This family was usually composed of a grandfather and grandmother, their sons and sons’ wives with their children, unmarried daughters, and servants or retainers, if any. Each nuclear family had its own house in the compound around a central courtyard with the whole compound enclosed in a low wall. This was a person’s Beth Ab and it provided them with everything: food, shelter, clothing, physical and legal protection, occupation, religion, value, and identity.

At the top of the Beth Ab was the patriarch, typically the oldest living male. In a three-generation Beth Ab, this would be the grandfather; in a two-generation home, it would be the father. The patriarch wielded virtually absolute authority over those in the house. In some cases, he could order the execution of members of his household.

Jacob and his family provide an example to how this worked. By the time they moved to Egypt, his sons all were married with children; some of them even had grandkids. Yet Jacob retained the ultimate authority and his sons, although adults bowed to his authority like a kid does today. Have you ever wondered why Benjamin, an adult in his own right, didn’t go down to Egypt on his own and get grain? Jacob was the patriarch and his word was law and he said Benjamin was not to go down to Egypt. That was the end of the discussion.

In a three-generation Beth Ab, the old Beth Ab was typically dissolved upon the death of the patriarch. Each of the sons would then branch off and form their own Beth Ab’s. Sometimes the inheritance would be divided up; most often it would go to the bekor or firstborn and the others would have to establish their own inheritance. Each son would then become his own patriarch. Esau and Jacob provide an excellent example of this. Jacob subverted the rights of the firstborn and therefore inherited Isaac’s Beth Ab; Esau went off to Edom (southern Jordan) and created his own.

But these new Beth Ab’s would still be connected; family still mattered. Now they formed a clan. Whole towns would spring up from a single Beth Ab, as cousins were often married to each other to preserve and strengthen these family ties. To us today, this seems revolting but the practice of endogamy (marriage within the family) was the norm and exogamy (marriage to non-relatives) was rare and often reserved to kings for political purposes.

The Beth Ab provided a person with everything necessary for survival: food, shelter, clothing, and protection. At the same time, the Beth Ab required everyone to take an active role in maintaining the health of the Beth Ab. Laziness was not allowed, as the law regarding the rebellious son in Deuteronomy 21:18-21 indicates. Dead weight could be the death of the whole Beth Ab and so everyone had a role and purpose.

Gender lines was the most common division of roles. Men and women each had specific yet equally integral roles. In the ancient world, gender roles were for survival, not necessarily for the oppression of one gender and the Bible reflects this particular reality. Unfortunately many have used the Bible to oppress women while ignoring the realities of the biblical world that shaped the writing of the Bible.

Even so, the ancient Near East was certainly patriarchal in nature and women were viewed below men. That is the reality of the biblical world and whether it was right or wrong, it shaped how the Bible was written. This is why studying archaeology and biblical cultural backgrounds is so important. The Bible was written in real time and space and in real cultures that of necessity had an effect on its composition. This does not mean the Bible is flawed; simply that to truly understand it and its message for us, we must make the effort to understand its world.

At any rate, the role of men was outside the family compound. They were quite literally the breadwinners of the family, as it was their responsibility to tend the fields and raise the flocks. This was a full time job as fields every year had to be cleared of stone, plowed, seeded, weeded, watered, guarded against thieves and wild animals, harvested and threshed. Flocks were just as demanding, requiring around the clock attention to protect against outside threats, as well as to protect the sheep and goats from themselves.

Additionally, men defended the Beth Ab against attacks from wild animals, thieves, bands of ‘Apiru (displaced raiders), other clans, and larger tribes and kingdoms. These raids and small wars were commonplace as it was easy to supplement one’s own stores by taking from another. The Bible reflects this with the statement “In the spring when the kings went out to war.” Spring was the time of threshing, when the harvest was ripe for stealing. As such, the men of the Beth Ab had to be competent warriors if the Beth Ab was to survive.

The household was the woman’s domain. Women of the Beth Ab were responsible for feeding and clothing the entire family, which is not nearly as easy as it might sound. Keep in mind, they couldn’t just hop down to Wal-Mart for all their needs. The women had to grind the grain into flour, a laborious process to say the least, dry fruit, haul their own water from the well or cistern, and churn their own butter and cheese, also highly laborious. After all that is when they actually go down to cooking, which was done in clay ovens or over open fires that didn’t have a temperature dial. Preparing the evening meal could legitimately take all day.

Clothing people was even worse. After the men sheared the sheep or goats, the women took the raw wool had to then clean it, spin it into yard by hand, dye it if they were wealthy enough, weave it through a loom into fabric, and then sew it into clothes. Alternatively, they could take flax and work it into linen threads and then go through the weaving process.

Finally, women functioned as the accountants of the family. It was their responsibility to ensure the Beth Ab had enough food for everyone to last the whole year with enough left over for planting. They had to make sure no one was eating too much. Gluttony could be a death sentence.

It should be noted these gender lines were not rigid, depending on the Beth Ab’s needs. Jacob is recorded as being someone who stayed close to home, perhaps helping out more with the woman’s side of things. Several women, Rebekah and Zipporah for example, were shepherds.

Children were key to the Beth Ab’s operation as well. Having children was of prime importance and was perhaps the most important task of a woman. Again, to us this is insulting, but producing children was seen as a gift from God. Motherhood was placed on a significantly higher pedestal than it is today.

The first thing children did was provide cheap labor. Harsh but true; the more kids on, the more could be done. It was actually economically advantageous to have more children as when they grew, one could have bigger flocks and more fields without expending more effort.

Initial education was in the hands of the women as the toddlers obviously stayed close to the family compound. As the kids got older, they were educated more along the gender lines. Boys learned farming, hunting, husbandry, and warfare from their fathers while girls learned cooking and weaving from their mothers so they could assume their roles when they got their own Beth Abs.

Children also provided a continuation of legacy, which meant everything to an ancient Israelite. Passing on one’s land and inheritance to the next generation was akin to achieving immortality. Think of how closely Naboth guarded his vineyard from King Ahab in 1st Kings 21.

The patriarch had a particular function in the Beth Ab as well and that was to provide legal protection for the family. Repeatedly the Bible refers to the city or town elders who sat in the gates. These were the heads of the various Beth Ab’s in the town.

When we read this, we often get a picture of a bunch of old guys sitting around drinking tea but in truth, the elders served in a crucial function. We must keep in mind, there was no official legal system until the time of the kings and even then, it wasn’t ubiquitous. Most towns were responsible for maintaining their own order and that task fell to the elders.

Therefore a Beth Ab provided legal protection, as well as physical protection. If there was a dispute of stolen sheep or boundary lines, your patriarch would go to the elders and plead your case. That was his responsibility and a huge one it was. If you weren’t part of a Beth Ab, especially if you were a woman or a child, there was no one to get you justice and thus you were at the mercy of everyone else.

Given that there was no police force, it was the responsibility of the Beth Ab to ensure justice was carried out. If someone in your Beth Ab was murdered, it was the responsibility of your Beth Ab to find the killer, track him/her down, and execute them. This is the “avenger of blood” talked about in Numbers 35. No one else would do it for you. Same thing with thieves and rapists, which makes Levi and Simeon’s massacre of Shechem make more sense.

The Beth Ab provided social protection. When a woman married, she joined her husband’s Beth Ab. If her husband died before she had a son, the Beth Ab would require a brother to give her a son so that the dead husband’s legacy carry on and the widow would have someone to care for her. To us this is strange, but sooner or later, the widow would find herself outside a Beth Ab otherwise. This is why Tamar went to such lengths to get a son from Judah in Genesis 38.

If you had a bad run in the fields, leaving you destitute your Beth Ab or your clan was to purchase your field and keep it until you could get your feet back underneath you. Then, once you were in better financial straits, they were to return it to you.

Clearly a Beth Ab was essential for life. Just in comparing men’s and women’s roles, it’s pretty clear no one person could do it all alone. This is why marriage and children were so important. Additionally, being part of a Beth Ab accorded you social standing and protection.

So what if you weren’t part of a Beth Ab? In short, you were probably toast. You had to do it all yourself, which was essentially impossible. You also had no one to represent you before the elders, which means you could be robbed blind and murdered with no repercussions. It was not a pleasant place to be.

Three groups of people are repeatedly seen as being outside the system: widows, orphans, and foreigners. It was almost impossible to survive as one of these. Given the high value placed on a woman’s virginity, widows were viewed as damaged goods and thus often considered ineligible for marriage. If she had no son, she could live in her husband’s Beth Ab until the patriarch died. But what then? The Beth Ab is disbanded and the other families go their separate ways. Where does that leave her? Out in the streets, where she can be raped or enslaved or molested or anything else with impunity because there is no one to defend her.

Quick side note: this view of virginity is why the rape laws we often find so abhorrent actually make sense. Regardless of how a woman’s virginity is lost (in the Bible’s view, rape does take away a woman’s virginity), she is now undesirable. She can live with her parents as long as they are alive but when they are gone, she’s in trouble. In the case of Absalom and Tamar, Absalom took his raped sister in and provided for her after Amnon refused to marry her. But he was a prince and could afford to do so; most siblings couldn’t. Therefore by forcing the rapist to marry his victim and not allowing him to divorce her, God was ensuring she was taken care of and wouldn’t end up in the streets. She was guaranteed of having a Beth Ab. Not ideal I’ll grant, but the best possible solution given the cultural context.

Children in general were seen as not really being people yet; orphans who had no land or wealth even more so. They were often too weak to provide for themselves and so often resorted to thieving and begging and prostitution for the girls. Like the widow, they were vulnerable to being taken advantage of because there was no legal protection for them. A kid could not take an adult before the elders. With no inheritance, there was nothing to look forward to.

A male foreigner might make it if he could claim some land to farm. Of course given the preference for endogamy, his chances of getting married were slim at best. Thus he was sentenced to toiling away at his little field while simultaneously trying to grind his grain, weave his own clothes, and all the other household chores of the woman. An impossible task really. Above all, even if he could go before the elders, he was alone. They were all related and had generations of family connections; the deck was decidedly stacked against him. If you were a woman, don’t even bother trying.

Granted, there are certainly cases of widows, orphans, and foreigners (sometimes all three at once) making it in the Bible but these are rare. Most often, they would starve to death or be murdered or something else horrible happened to them. Liminal women almost always became prostitutes; liminal men ended up as thieves and bandits.

God was keenly aware of this. While the Beth Ab system provided a great deal for those in it, it was death to those outside of it. With this culture in mind, the social laws of the Torah are astounding. Law after law after law is targeted at protecting those outside the Beth Ab system. Indeed, either exhortations to protect or condemnations for taking advantage of the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner occur 62 times in the Old Testament. God looks out for those who society tramples on.

But perhaps the most astonishing is the story of Ruth. With this culture in your mind, try to grasp what she did in leaving Moab with Naomi. She virtually became all three at once. Ruth knew she was going to a place where she would be at the absolute bottom of the social ladder, just a tick above pigs. She would have absolutely zero social standing or rights. Anyone could do literally anything they wanted to her with absolute impunity. Who would protect Ruth, the widowed Moabite? There is a reason Boaz repeats three times the command that no one harm her. And yet, knowing all of this, Ruth chose to take that risk to look after a despondent Naomi. It is arguably the greatest act of courage in the entire Bible next to Jesus and the cross.

The beauty of Jesus’ statement in John 14 is that we are a part of his Beth Ab with him as our head. He is providing us with all we need and one day, we are going go home to our Beth Ab. There is a place waiting for us in our Father’s house.

As always, if you have a question on this post or a topic on Biblical archaeology, Bible history, or backgrounds, please ask away in the comments section below. Also, I owe a great deal of this post to Life in Biblical Israel by Phillip King and Larry Stager.

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Why Bible Reading Can Be Difficult and What You Can Do About It.

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“ It’s too boring…”

“It’s too hard…”

“It’s not relevant…”

“I don’t get it…”

“It’s too old…”

And they go on. I’ve heard them, you’ve heard them.

Let’s face it: Reading the Bible can sometimes be a slow death experience. Maybe it hasn’t for you. But it surely has been for me.

Pastors, teachers, and well-intentioned Christians have portrayed reading the Bible as a joyous search for Mickey Mouse in Disneyland. But for me, more often than not, it has instead been a painfully cruel game of “Where’s Waldo” in Jurassic Park.

It’s been a journey, but I’ve learnt to appreciate the Bible quite a bit. It’s actually been a joyful experience! But why has reading the Bible been, and, can be, such a difficult experience for many?

My dude Peter has something to say about that:

Therefore, putting aside all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander, like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation, if you have tasted the kindness of the Lord.
(1 Peter 2:1-3).

The word that had me pause is “if” in v.3.

In the Greek, this word is used as a conditional clause. This means that the facts of verse 1 and 2 are assumed to be true IF the condition for it to be true in verse 3 is valid. In other words, my dude Peter is saying that you’ll grow through the word of God IF you have experienced who God is for yourself.

This makes more sense when you see how Peter introduces the letter in chapter 1. The disciple spends a significant portion of the chapter explaining to his hearers who God is and what He has done on for, and, behalf of them. He then goes on to make a brief appeal to the read the word of God and introduces the next thought cluster with the verse above.

Let me put into Kevinese what Peter was maybe trying to say few centuries ago:

Reading the Bible can be so difficult for many people because they are trying to figure out WHAT God is trying to tell them before trying to figure out WHO God is to them.

The Bible is a love letter from a Father revealing His heart to His kids. Inspired by my buddy Richard Martin who shared this thought with me, if I can add something to Scripture (which I can if I want to get stoned), I would add just two words before Genesis 1:1:

Dear Kevin..”

Because that’s what the Bible is! From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible is a beautifully syncopated symphony of a Master Conductor leading the instrumentalists to compose this single line of melody that has been reverberating through the chambers of human history since the beginning of time:

“God…is…love.”

But some tend to focus on the melody at the expense of forgetting the heart behind it – much like a student who is at an orchestra to write a report for credit rather than to listen to the music for enjoyment.

I can’t begin to tell you the number of times I’ve heard the muted groans of many well-intentioned people when it comes to reading the Bible. For many, it’s been a textbook rather than a love-letter. For some, it’s been a cutlass to cut others rather than a scalpel to surgically restore their own hearts. For the longest time, The Bible has been a manual for my spiritual growth. Nothing more. Nothing less. Because of this perspective, reading the Bible became more of a chore rather than a joy for me. I may have trusted His words, but I didn’t trust the Author.

The Bible is the only book in the world where the key to unlocking it’s meaning lies in the heart of its Author. 

It took some time for me to realize that Bible reading was excruciating when done in the absence of a loving and trusting relationship with God. That started to change when I prioritized learning about the God of the word before comprehending the words of God.

That being said, if you’re struggling to read the Bible as I used to, here are a few things you can start doing right away:

1) Don’t be too hard on yourself 

Sin has jacked up all of us since the fall. Our first parents’ innate orientation towards God and his laws has been completely and irreparably reversed by sin. While Adam and Eve enjoyed floating on the streams of God’s love prior to the Fall, we have been swimming upstream. So the reason why things of God tend to be difficult and amorphous is because our sinful human nature defies Him at every.single.level. It’s not your fault. There is an enemy. And you better give credit where credit’s due.

2) Change your perspective

The good news is that even though we have been wrecked by sin, by grace through faith, we have already moved from death into life. Christ has begun his good work in us, creating in us the desire to both will and to act according to His good pleasure. Since His work in you is conditional upon your choice to permit Him, you can now choose to change your perspective about Scripture.

How?

Start looking for Him before looking for what He’s trying to tell you.
Search for the Planner before seeking His plans.
Look at Him in the face of Jesus, before hearing what he’s trying to tell you.

And the more you do this, the more you begin to see Him. The more you see him, the more you want to see him. The more you want to see Him, the more you want to spend more time with Him in Scripture.

You’ll then begin to realize that information about God will lead you to intimacy with God, and your intimacy with God will then lead you to learn more information about God.

Who’s with me?

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Priest vs Pastor

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In the long discussion concerning women’s ordination, I heard something which pricked my attention: a comparison between this debate and Korah’s Rebellion in Numbers 16. What intrigued me about this idea, aside from the disturbing ideas and logical fallacies, was the correlation drawn between priests and the modern pastor. The question that must be asked is whether or not this correlation is justified. Are pastors essentially modern day priests?

Let’s be honest: when we read something in the Bible, for the most part we all interpret it through a modern lens. Thus when we come across a particular item we don’t have today, like a temple, our natural instinct is to correlate it with something we know, like a church. Therefore we think of temples like churches, even if that might paint a highly inaccurate picture (hint: it does).

Ideally of course we would like to interpret the Bible on its own terms and in its own culture. Unfortunately there is little to be done about this; we can only interpret based on what we know and frankly we know very little about the world of the Bible. Even archaeologists such as myself who have made it our life’s work to understand the world of the Bible will freely admit we don’t know much. So we view the Bible through the modern lens; it’s not a bad thing necessarily, more of a reality. Often these misinterpretations are harmless but they can also lead to very dangerous and inaccurate theologies.

In case I haven’t tipped my hand enough already, priests and pastors aren’t the same thing. Frankly, they’re not really even close. This is a problem when it comes to attempting to use priests as an argument against women’s ordination.

First, what was a priest? In short, the priest was the mediator between the worshipper and the deity. This mediation worked both ways. On the one hand, the priest took the concerns and requests of the worshipper before the god; on the other, they communicated the will of their particular god to the people. In a way, priests acted like divine cell phones between normal people and the deities who ruled the cosmos.

This communication was done via specific cultic rituals for which the priests were responsible. It should be noted priests were different than prophets, who in theory received special visions and messages from the gods. Priests instead received their information from the gods through meticulously studied omens and signs. Perhaps the most common way to discern the thoughts of the gods was through casting lots, essentially like tossing dice or flipping a coin. The Greek Iliad and the Ugaritic Aqhatu Epic both mention priests reading birds for signs. Some of the earliest “scientific” texts were essentially omen guidebooks for reading the will of the gods. From Mesopotamia, a clay liver model was found with notes written on it telling what certain parts mean. In case you were wondering, the art of reading body parts for omens is called extispicy and was widely practiced all over the ancient world.

Perhaps my favorite form of omen-reading is something called teratology or monstrous births. Essentially if some kind of deformed animal was born, it had some kind of special meaning. Things like, “If its (lamb) nose is like the ‘nose’ of a bird, the gods will destroy this land” or “If it has no spleen, the king will not obtain offspring” and stuff like that. I mean, exactly that; those are direct quotes from an Ugaritic teratology text. There are about fifty of those things in the text, covering everything from no left ears to no nostrils to no “middle part of the right leg.” There are all kinds of prediction from these, good things like the king beating his enemies (predicted by a missing left ear) or bad things like, well, the gods destroying the land.

For the most part, Yahweh seemed to prefer to communicate his will through either prophets or his law. Think of Deuteronomy 6 where Yahweh commands his people to repeat the law until they see it in their sleep. For most answers of what Yahweh wanted, people simply needed to know the law. In other cases, when Yahweh had a specific message for his people, he would send a prophet.

However, when the people needed specific guidance, usually a yes or no answer, they went to the priests to consult Yahweh. The priests didn’t practice extispicy or teratology but they did do a form of casting lots: the Urim and Thummim. The Urim and Thummim were two stones the high priest had on his priestly garments. Exactly how they worked is unclear, whether it was like flipping a coin or spinning a bottle or a light shining on one or the other. Regardless, the priests used this to consult Yahweh for yes (Urim) or no answers (Thummim). Most often when the Bible talks about Yahweh telling someone whether or not to do something, this is what is meant. See the story of David rescuing Keilah for example.

Another odd sort of divination the Israelite priests performed was the test of an unfaithful wife in Numbers 5. It’s one of the weirder laws in the Old Testament but the basic principle is if you think your wife is cheating on you but can’t prove it, take her to the priest and he’ll administer a test to see if she is or isn’t. The test depends on Yahweh’s will being revealed in the test.

More often however, priests worked human to god instead of the other way around. Just like divining the mind of the gods, appropriately expressing your requests required specific rituals. Do the wrong thing and instead of a rain storm one could end up with locusts. At least, that’s how the theory went. Getting the god to do what you want wasn’t as simple as yelling, “Hey Baal, can you do me a solid?” You needed to perform the proper rituals.

From Ugarit, for example, there are tablets describing sacrificial rituals and incantations. For example, there are sacrifices for national unity, Viagra-esque incantations, and wards against snakes and scorpion, amongst other things. Keep in mind, in the ancient world, everything had to do with the gods. So if you were going on a voyage, you sought the good will of the sea god. If you needed rain, you sought the good will of the storm god. If you needed a kid, you sought the good will of the fertility god or goddess. In Judah, hundreds of female pillar figurines have been found thought to be votive offerings for fertility; kind of like fertility voodoo.

These rituals were fairly complicated. One of my professors suggested the dozens of ritual texts found were essentially priestly cheat sheets. One even listed a bunch of gods which was initially thought to be a pantheon list until someone noticed a series of tick marks next to the divine names. It was actually a checklist.

As a result of the complexity, the priests were the only ones who possessed the knowledge of how to perform the proper rituals in order to keep the gods happy and correctly present your request to the deity. Thus you had to go through the priest to get what you wanted from the god. This was their job, to present your needs before the god and hopefully get them to do what you want.

In many ways, this was quite similar to what the Israelite priests did. They performed the cultic rituals of the tabernacle and temple, connecting the people with Yahweh. The priests officiated the festivals, performed the sacrifices, and collected the offerings to Yahweh. If someone needed forgiveness for sin, needed to make a thank offering, needed to make a festival sacrifice, or anything else to do with Yahweh, an Israelite had to go to the priests.

There were two main differences between Israelite priests and other priests. First, the Israelite priests were chosen from a specific family from a specific tribe whereas other priests were chosen by kings or older priests and could come from anyone, everywhere. Secondly, the Israelite law was focused on atonement for sin, not appeasing the gods, at least in theory.

But other than that, Israelite priests were no different than any other priest. While the idea of what the sacrifices were was different, the practical effects were the same. If you needed to connect with Yahweh, you had to go through the priests. Otherwise, you were out of luck.

Obviously this granted priests a lot of power. They controlled people’s access to the god. More than once, priests ended up gaining more power than kings. Once, an Egyptian pharaoh banned all gods but one, Aten, in order to curb the priests’ power. It only kind of worked as the pharaoh’s dynasty soon faded. Although it seemed to generally work well in Israel, the story of Eli’s sons is another cautionary tale of what happens when priests begin to abuse their power.

To summarize, priests were fundamentally facilitators of cultic rights and rituals. They were not necessarily educators or counselors for the people. Sometimes they were of course, but that wasn’t part of the job description either in Israel or anywhere else. The Israelite priests were facilitators of the Yahweh Cult (note: cult is an anthropological term, not a reference to validity; a cult can be true religion too) and not much more.

This is very different than modern day pastors (side note: there is no Biblical parallel to our pastor). First, we don’t really have cultic rituals unless you’re Catholic. We do have rituals, like baptism, communion, and marriage; but unlike the Israelites, these are not necessary for salvation and neither do they facilitate it. They aren’t cultic.

Secondly, as believers we can now approach God at any time and in anyway. We don’t need a priest to forgive us our sins or anything else like that. Instead we go through our High Priest Jesus Christ, not a pastor.

Pastors are caretakers, teachers, and guides, like shepherds. In fact the term “pastor” is related to the term “shepherd.” Nomadic people groups who rely on shepherding are called “pastoralists.” Priests are rarely called shepherds; interestingly enough, that epitaph is often applied to kings.

Priests and pastors have completely different roles. Pastors don’t do what priests did in the Old Testament and vice versa. Therefore trying to compare the two is faulty and can lead to dangerous theological ideas. Priests and pastors are nothing alike; we’re not Catholic.

Hopefully this sheds some light on the Bible and will help you read it differently. My purpose here is to shed light on the strange cultural and historical oddities in the Bible. If anyone out there has any questions about the Bible and its history, feel free to ask. I’d love to answer your questions if I can.
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Is Phony Theology the Result of “New” Bible Translations?

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“Do you think that all of the false doctrines floating around today are because of all the different Bible versions we have?”

A friend of mine recently asked me this question. It’s a good question. I mean, unless you are a theological pluralist, all of us agree that there are some pretty wild and totally off the wall teachings out there that claim biblical support. So where do all these lies come from? Are all the different versions of the Bible responsible for them? Here are three reasons why I would say no.

  1. False teachings have been around since the first century of the Christian church where there were no “other” Bible versions. In fact, most of the false teachings around today are simply a repackaging of old lies. A lot of these lies were born during the early years of the church when the NIV, ESV, KJV, or any other translation did not exist. As a matter of fact, many people in these days had the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts and they knew how to read them without a Lexicon. Regardless of all of this, dissident groups like the Judaizers and the Gnostics gained a foot-hold in the church. Over the next few centuries there were countless theological controversies like Pelagianism, Arianism, Adoptionism, Docetism, Monarchianism, Sabellianism, and plenty of other “isms.” All of these were born without the help of Zondervan and Thomas Nelson (both publishers of modern translations).
  1. This kind of question comes with a presupposition behind it. While my friend may or may not have had a presupposition, the question itself carries it. The presupposition is this:Modern heresies are the result of new translations, therefore all new translations must be rejected and only the old translations maintained.By “old translations” what is most often meant is the King James Version. At this point we enter into the KJV-only debate. Once again, the positions defending this are weak. The KJV, while a great translation, is not the only reliable one and other Bibles such as the NIV translate other passages more accurately than the KJV. Since I have already written on this topic I won’t go into detail here. To read more about my views on the KJV-only theory click here.
  1. Suppose we entertained the KJV-only mentality. Allow me to ask, how many false doctrines have been taught using the KJV? Do those who use the KJV inherently teach sound Bible truth or are there lots of lies taught from using that very same Bible? The answer is yes. A perfect example is Marshall Applewhite, the leader of the Heavens Gate cult that was responsible for a mass suicide of its members in the 90’s. Applewhite studied using a KJV Bible. Dave Koresh, the cult leader of the Branch Davidians was an ardent defender of the KJV-only theory. It is, in my estimation, pretty evident that a KJV-only world would not be a heresy free one. Thus, the idea that false doctrines are the result of new translations is without foundation.

In conclusion, I would like to point out that the answer to my friend’s question “Do you think that all of the false doctrines floating around today are because of all the different Bible versions we have?” Is no. While it may be true that not all versions are reliable for doctrinal study, and that some versions are terrible translations that can lend support to the spread of false teachings it is not true that false teachings are the result of modern Bibles. Neither is it true that the KJV is the only reliable translation and is itself, due to mistranslated texts, responsible for phony theology. The best rule of thumb is to get some good reliable translations and study them together, comparing scripture with scripture, and if necessary studying the original languages all under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. There is no such thing as the “perfect” translation but Gods word has definitely been preserved and if we study with His help we will be ready to respond when we hear the lies.

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Why God Did Not Make the Bible “Dummy-Proof”

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I have a hunch. OK, maybe its more than a hunch – a conviction. This conviction is so profound it challenges me on every level of my spiritual comfort. And its this. If God wanted to he could have made every truth of scripture super duper clear. He could have made them as dummy proof as the safety instructions on an airline card. And while there are things in scripture that are certainly crystal clear, there are other things that are not.

A perfect example is the issue of Women’s Ordination (WO). In a few months the Seventh-day Adventist church will be voting on whether or not to allow women to be ordained into the gospel ministry. The debate has been long and emotional. A committee was put together to study the topic and arrive at a consensus. No consensus was reached. Instead the committee arrived at 3 separate conclusions. And try as we may no one can demonstrate their position clearly from scripture. Regardless of whether you support or reject WO there is no clear “this is what God says” anywhere in scripture. The same goes true for many other topics in scripture that Christians disagree on. Historically these disagreements have resulted in intolerant behavior. Catholics have excommunicated Catholics. Catholics have persecuted Protestants. Protestants have persecuted Catholics. And Protestants have ostracized, ridiculed, and persecuted Protestants. The history of Christianity is bathed in divisions, coercion, and acts of violence toward those whose views differ from the majority. And now, as the WO vote approaches we see this same spirit of coercion at play. Name calling is common. Insults are the law of conversation. And demonization is promulgated in the guise of “exposing error.” In the midst of all this I have wondered, Why didn’t God make this issue perfectly clear so that we wouldn’t bash each other in the process of figuring it out? And then it hit me. He did it on purpose.

God could have made a dummy proof Bible verse for every single issue we face in this world, but he didn’t, and the conviction I now have is that God is more interested in love than he is in facts. God wants us to learn that in the midst of our disagreements we can love. He wants us to get to the place where we learn to treat each other with self-sacrificing passion even when we do not see eye to eye. The greatest revelation of love in the Bible is Christ giving himself fully for a humanity that did not love him in return. And this is the love that we must have for those we disagree with. So I have to wonder, as a supporter of WO, would I be willing to give my life for those who oppose WO? Would I willingly lay myself down for them? The answer is no. Of course not. Its hard enough to love those you agree with and consider your friends. Let alone those whose views make you angry. But this is what God is calling me to. To love – sacrificial, other-centered, self-abandoning love – those with whom I disagree.

And maybe this is the reason why the Bible isn’t always clear. Because if it was we would never go through the journey that confronts us with our most painful reality – our pride, arrogance, and love-bereft souls. But through the journey we can learn to love those whom we disagree with. Through it we can come to the place where we are no longer willing to be intolerant and hateful toward those “conservatives” or those “liberals” because our hearts are filled with an overflow of the love of God that pours out unto those we consider our worst enemies.

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The Missing Books of the Bible

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Below is a conversation I had with a friend who asked me about the missing books of the Bible. I have changed the names of those mentioned (except my own) to protect and respect their privacy.

Hey Maria!

Marcos here. I wanted to take the time to answer your question from Tuesday’s Bible study and also to give you some resources. Everything I mention here comes from my own studies of Church history, Old and New Testament history, Biblical Languages, and Theology. Although I am not an expert at any of these what I share with you is what I have learned from the experts. Before you read on though I will warn you this is kinda long :/

You mentioned that you believe there is some truth in the Bible but not all because the Catholic Church has books that they have hidden and don’t want people to see. This is actually a really common question and I’m glad you asked it. I think ever since Dan BrownsThe Da Vinci Code more and more people have been asking that question. Let me start by telling you some things you may already know, then some things you may not know, and finally some resources so you can research it for yourself.

Some Things You May Already Know

The Bible is split into two parts. The Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament is the history of Israel and the New Testament is the history of the life of Jesus and the church. Both the Old and New Testaments are interlocked with each other and you can’t have one without the other. The Old Testament was written in ancient Hebrew and the New Testament was written in ancient Greek (both languages are dead today). Although the original writings are gone we have thousands of copies of both the New and Old Testaments in the original Greek and Hebrew. The Bible study that I did with Tom shares some good proof on the reliability of the Bible we have today.

The Old Testament (OT)

We get the OT from the Jews. As far as the OT is concerned there really isn’t much controversy. Not many people argue about missing books in the OT because the Catholic church had nothing to do with the OT. The OT was actually already completed by the time Jesus was alive. The Catholic church didn’t show up till like 3-400 years later so they had nothing to do with it.

As a matter of fact, when it comes to the OT the Catholic church has books that regular Christians don’t accept as part of the Bible. So rather than hiding books they actually add books. These books are actually available for anyone to read. The reason why Christians don’t use them as part of the Bible is because they are not part of the original OT and because they don’t really add anything to the rest of the OT (and sometimes contradict it). As a matter of fact, according to historians, some of them aren’t even historically reliable.

Here’s a list of a few of them:

  • Ecclesiasticus
  • Wisdom of Solomon
  • Tobit
  • I and II Maccabees
  • II Esdras
  • And there’s a bunch more.

The New Testament (NT)

The NT was written shortly after the death of Jesus. It is a compilation of eye witness accounts of the life of Jesus, (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) the early church, (Acts) and personal letters written by the apostles themselves (Romans was a letter Paul wrote to the church in Rome, Philippians was a letter Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, Philemon was a letter Paul wrote to a guy named Philemon, Revelation was a letter John wrote to all the churches in Asia-minor etc.). All of the books in the NT were written in the first century A.D.

Some Things You May Not Know

Like I said, nobody argues much about the OT. If it really bothers someone that those books aren’t included in the Bible you can go ahead and read them in a library, buy them in a books store, read them online, or just get a Catholic bible. They are known as the Apocryphal books.

The real question that you asked though is based on the NT. Like I said, all of the NT books were completed in the first century A.D. which was the century Jesus lived in. Jesus died around 31 -33 A.D. (can’t remember the exact date). However, after the first century there are a bunch of other books that were written which weren’t included in the Bible. The ones that are usually in question are known as the Gnostic Gospels. These include:

  • The Gospel of Thomas
  • The Gospel of Mary
  • The Gospel of Truth
  • The Gospel of Judas
  • And there are a few others.

Now the question is, why didn’t these books make it into the Bible? Is the church trying to hide something? The answer is no. Now let me explain.

The Council of Nicaea took place in around 450 A.D. Books like The Da Vinci Code suggest that at that time a group of church leaders got together and decided what books to include in the Bible and what books to reject. However, Dan Brown got his history wrong. There isn’t a single reputable, serious historian who would agree with that. The Council of Nicaea didn’t decide what books to include in the Bible, it simply confirmed the books that the people had already accepted for the last 300 years and rejected the books that the people had already rejected. The Catholic Church doesn’t have a vault with hidden books they don’t want anyone to see. All of those gospels not included in the NT can be found in books stores, libraries, and even online.

Now the question is, why didn’t the people accept these books? It’s actually pretty simple. Because they were Gnostic. What does Gnostic mean? Gnosticism was a Greek philosophy that taught that the natural world was evil. That included material things and physical things. Even sex was evil. In order to be saved you had to escape the physical world by escaping the desires of the body including sex and food. They also believed heaven was gained by knowledge, so the more you knew the better your chances. They taught that the God of the OT (the creator) was evil, and that Jesus was good. But since Jesus was good then he couldn’t have come in a real body because real bodies were evil, therefore Jesus wasn’t a real person, he just looked like he was. And on and on. The Gnostic gospels have a lot of this philosophy in them which is actually totally contradictory to what the Bible teaches. When people want to know why these books were left out of the Bible my answer is this: “Just go read them and you’ll find out why”

In the Gospel of Thomas, for example, Jesus is quoted saying, “I myself shall lead her, in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit, resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” In other words Maria, according to the Gospel of Thomas, you won’t be allowed to go to heaven unless you become a man. However, the Bible teaches that God created man and woman and that one is not better than the other but that they both reflect Him and will both be saved not by gender but by His grace.

Hidden Books?

But with that said, some may insist that there are indeed hidden books. So what then? Honestly, the argument of hidden books is a difficult one to deal with because it is non-falsifiable. As you know, a non-falsifiable argument is often impossible to get around, not because it is air tight, but because it places itself outside of the realm of being proven wrong. Be careful with non-falsifiable arguments. They present a logical fallacy in the sense that they can never be investigated and proven to be either false or true. So that leaves you in a bit of a quandary. I cant prove to you its false, but neither can you prove to me its true. We end up in a logical stalemate because the argument is non-falsifiable.

In addition, allow me to repeat that according to the church historian Dennis Pettibone, there is not a single reputable historian that he knows of that believes the Vatican has hidden books locked away in a vault. This view is shared by many reputable historians, including historians who are as opposed to the papacy as you can get. There are different kinds of history and historians so we need to be careful which ones we are reading. There is reputable history, propaganda history, pseudo history, and also history that is reinterpreted to fit an authors bias (among others). So I can find a history book about the holocaust that is reputable. Another that claims the Jews brought it on themselves which would be propaganda. Another that claims it never happened which would be pseudo. And another that claims it was the catholic church that caused it which would be biased. Propaganda, pseudo, and biased history are not peer reviewed for accuracy so anyone can write whatever they want and publish it. We need to stick to the reputable sources because they are reviewed by many other historians of different persuasions before publication and given an approval. If there is not a single reputable history book that claims the theory of hidden books we need to hold it in suspicion.

But what if there were one? Would it matter? I dont think so. If anything, the Catholic church has extra books in their Bible not less. In addition, there is nothing in the whole Bible that can’t already be found in the first five books of the Bible known as the Torah which are Jewish books. So if the Catholic church wanted to make people live a certain way they would have to add books that taught things not already taught in the Torah. This they did do and you can see it in the Catholic bible which adds books that are not accepted by protestants because they contradict the Torah and the rest of the bible also. So in short, did the Catholic church manipulate the Bible books to control people? Yes. But they did it by adding books not hiding books. When the protestant reformation began they got rid of those extra books and went back to the Bible as it was intended to be and that is the Bible we use in protestant churches today.

As far as Bibles being destroyed it is nothing to worry about. For example, the Old Testament was perfectly preserved so none of those books are missing. This can be proved by the discovery of the dead sea scrolls several decades ago. The scrolls were found in a cave by a shepherd and were a copy of the OT and contain every single OT book except for Esther. And as far as the NT is concerned we have thousands of copies of ancient manuscripts that predate Constantine and the other emperors. So whatever they destroyed is inconsequential because all we have to do is go back to the greek manuscripts and translate them again. As far as history being destroyed it has certainly happened but we cant do anything about that. So why worry about it? There is enough in what we do know to know what God requires of us.

As far as your last point you are one hundred percent correct. For every source I give you, you can give me counter sources and we can play that game for the next 40 years. The reality is this Maria, there will always (and allow me to stress always) be a hook to hang your doubt on. God never has nor will he ever remove every possibility of doubt. But he will give you enough evidence for your faith to be intelligent. Every worldview has to be accepted by faith. Whether you are an atheist, an agnostic, a Budhist, or a nothingist the reality is that any evidence you cite will only get you so far. In the end it is a leap of faith that glues your evidence to your belief.

 

Some Resources

Now how do you know that all I have told you is true? Like I said, there isn’t a single reputable historian that would tell you the Catholic Church chose what books go in the Bible. It simply isn’t true. Here are some reliable historical books that confirm this:

  • History of Christian Thought. by Justo L. Gozalez
  • Breaking The Da Vinci Code. by Darrel L. Bock
  • The Missing Gospels. by Darrel L. Bock
  • Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code: A Historian Reveals What We Really Know about Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Constantine. by Bart Ehrman

You can get any of these on Amazon.

Also, here is a good video that goes over what I just explained by scholar Bart Ehrman (He is the guy that wrote book number four above. This video basically covers what’s in the book):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0JFh_XoXbTY

My Conclusion

None of this proves that the Bible is Gods book but it does prove that there is nothing missing from the Bible. Everything that’s there is exactly what needs to be there.

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Is the KJV the Only Good Bible?

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“Among conservative Christians, a grassroots backlash against contemporary English-language Bibles has triggered a renewed interest in the famed King James Version with its word-for-word translation and its long-standing authority” (Maxwell 1). The arguments range from personal preference to more audacious attacks that label all other Bibles beside the King James Version (KJV) as heretical. Proponents of the KJV-only mentality have all sorts of arguments to justify their position. Among them are the positions that the Textus Receptus (TR) is the most reliable Greek manuscript and that modern translations are not faithful to orthodox doctrine.

The “Textus Receptus, [is] the edition of the Greek New Testament that reflects the largest number of the NT Greek manuscripts… lying behind the KJV” (“Modern Versions and the King James Version”). To put it simple, the TR is the Greek text that is translated into the KJV. Though there are other Greek manuscripts besides the TR, for KJV-only advocates the TR is the most reliable. Evangelist Samuel Gipp presented this view saying “I don’t call it [the 1611 KJV] the inspired Word of God. I call it the preserved Word of God” (Maxwell 2). Gipp speaks for all KJV-only proponents by claiming that the only Bible that has accurately preserved the word of God is the KJV, hence making it the most reliable version available to English speaking Christians. However, the differences between the TR and other Greek manuscripts are minor and do not distort the truth either way. The reality is that “only about one- eighth of the variants have any significance. This means that over 98 percent of the text of the NT is pure whether a person reads the TR or another edition of the Greek NT” (“Modern Versions and the King James Version”). Another interesting point to note is that KJV-only advocates don’t take their position because of the TR but because of tradition. This is reflected by the fact that “the New Testament of the NKJV [New King James Version] is based on the Textus Receptus just as the KJV is. Yet, KJV-only advocates label the NKJV just as heretical as they do the NIV, NAS etc” (“KJV Only Movement?”).

A stronger and more common argument that KJV-only proponents use is that all modern translations are not faithful to orthodox doctrine. While it may be true that some modern translations are not dependable for doctrinal study, this is not true of all modern translations. In defense of this position KJV-only supporters quote verses from the KJV and then compare them to other versions. In doing this they attempt to demonstrate the superiority of the KJV to modern translations.

One doctrine that is often shown as being better represented in the KJV is the doctrine of the divinity of Christ. A verse that is used to demonstrate this position is John 6.47 which reads “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me hath everlasting life” (“King James Version”). Other versions omit “on me” in this passage which prompts KJV-only advocates to denounce these other versions. One proponent of this view stated that the omission of “on me” “presents ‘ANOTHER GOSPEL’ because a person is free to believe in anything he chooses and have everlasting life-‘in Santa Claus, in the Easter Bunny, in the Tooth Fairy, in Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. . . .’ ” (“Modern Versions and the King James Version”). This view represents the irrational and extreme thinking that often accompanies such narrow positions. For example, did the author of this assessment consider that the same modern versions that omit “on me” in John 6:47 present the same idea elsewhere? For example, the American Standard Version (ASV) omits “on me” in John 6:47, however, in verse 35 of the same chapter the ASV says, “…he that believeth on me shall never thirst” (“American Standard Version,” emphasis added). Verse 40 also presents the doctrine of belief in Christ alone. If the translators of the ASV wanted to omit the divinity of Christ then they would have done so consistently. As Johannes Kovar, author of “The Textus Receptus and Modern Bible Translations” points out, “There are not textual differences that could be used as a real argument in favor of theology. Always, when the scientific text is a little shorter than the Textus Receptus, the omitted phrases can be found relatively easily in other biblical passages” (4).

In conclusion, proponents of the KJV-only theory stand on shaky ground. Though there are many other arguments relevant to this discussion not addressed here, it is clear that two of the most common arguments used in support of this theory are less than reliable. The TR is not the only trustworthy Greek manuscript and the idea that all modern versions of the Bible are not true to orthodox doctrine is without foundation. God has preserved His word, not in the KJV alone, but in other reliable modern translations as well.

Works Cited:

“American Standard Version.” Meyers, Rick. e-Sword: The Sword of the Lord with an Electronic Edge (Version 9.9.1) [Software]. Available from http://www.e-sword.net

“King James Version.” Meyers, Rick. e-Sword: The Sword of the Lord with an Electronic Edge (Version 9.9.1) [Software]. Available from http://www.e-sword.net

“KJV Only Movement?” Is The King James Version The Only Bible We Should Use? Got Questions Ministries, 2011. Web. 14 November 2011.

Kovar, Johannes. “The Textus Receptus and Modern Bible Translations.”Adventistbiblicalresearch.org. Biblical Research Institute, 2011. Web. 14 November 2011.

Maxwell, Joe. “King-James-Only Advocates Experience a Renaissance.” Christianity Today,23 Oct. 1995: 86+. Religion & Philosophy Collection. Web. 14 November 2011.

“Modern Versions and the King James Version” Adventistbiblicalresearch.org. Biblical Research Institute, 1997. Web. 14 November 2011.

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More than Bereans

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Sometime ago, I had the pleasure of listening to the audio recording of a court session. The session consisted of several prosecutors questioning Seventh-day Adventists on their beliefs. They challenged the Adventists on various doctrines such as the Sabbath, the state of the dead, and even an allegation that Ellen Whites full name, when viewed under the Roman numerical system, produces the number 666. What I found fascinating was that none of those who stood to answer the prosecutors were able to give satisfactory answers. A few were indeed able to answer well on one issue, but when probed with a more difficult question they could not defend their beliefs. However, it was more fascinating to realize that I myself would not have been able to satisfyingly defend what I proclaim to be the truth. Now thankfully the court session was not real, the prosecutors where all Seventh-day Adventist pastors, and those in question where the attendees at a recent ARME Bible camp, but the day will come when this same scenario will indeed be real. Due to this eye opening experience, I am certain that those present walked away with the sensation that it was time to be more like the Bereans.

So who are these Bereans? Acts 17:11 introduces us to them saying, “Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” The key phrase here is that they “examined the scriptures every day.” And why did they do it? Because they wanted to see “if what Paul said was true.”

How would they search the scriptures to determine truth if they had no Bible?

Seventh-day Adventists have been known as “the people of the book” ever since the movement began. The attitude of the Bereans is one that we admire because as Adventists we strive to be just like they were. If it was not for the ardent Bible study of William Miller, Joseph Bates, and many others one could say that the Seventh-day Adventist church would not have been born let alone progressed. However, the recent tide of feeling driven, entertainment focused church is partly to blame for a generation of Christians who “feel good” at church but are biblically illiterate.[i] To this many would say, “we need to get back to the Bible” or “we need to be more like the Bereans.” And while I totally agree with both sentiments, today I would like to point a little concept I like to call more than Bereans.

So what do I mean by more than Bereans? The text tells us that they “searched the scriptures.” However, in order to search them they first had to have them. So what would have happened if they found themselves without their Bibles? How would they search the scriptures to determine truth if they had no Bible?

A time of crisis is coming in which we will undoubtedly find ourselves without a Bible in hand at one point or another.[ii] When that time arrives, we will not have the luxury of searching the scriptures, but will instead have to rely upon the Holy Spirit bringing to our memory the things that we have learned when we did have the Bible. In light of this, I believe it is safe to say that many of us (including myself) are not ready. Nine times out of ten when my faith is challenged, I turn to the concordance, or I do a word search on my computer, or I log onto gotquestions.org and get the answers from there. Clearly I am not ready to defend my faith before a courtroom.

How about you? Does your Bible knowledge go only as far as Google can take you? Or is it built upon a personal experience with the word of God? Are you able to find Bible verses only because you have an app on your iPhone that lets you do a word search? Or are you aiming to memorize scripture? And what of those who, when faced with a Bible question, immediately go to the SDA Bible Commentary or to the writings of Matthew Henry,  C.S. Lewis or – most commonly within Adventism – Ellen G. White to find the answer instead of wrestling with God in prayer and study? If the time of crisis finds us without a Bible in hand, I promise you, we won’t have seven volumes of the SDA Bible commentary or 40 volumes of the Spirit of Prophecy to lug around either. With this in mind, I wonder if its time for us to become more than Bereans.

Any thoughts?

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[i] Do not interpret this statement to say that I am a “traditionalist” who agrees with everything the church of the 50’s did and condemns everything our modern church does. Nothing can be further from the truth. I enjoy contemporary church services including the music, environment, and worship service. What I am pointing out here is a “feeling driven” (as in feelings alone) and “entertainment focused” (as in entertainment alone) type of Christianity.

[ii] I used to believe (because I was taught growing up as an Adventist) that in the time of trouble all our Bibles would be confiscated. I really don’t buy this concept anymore but regardless of whether its true or not (largely irrelevant really) we can all agree that the chances of being found without a Bible in hand during this time is pretty high.

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