Christian Education, Scripture, The Church, The Gospel, The Lord's Supper, Theology

Declaration: The Covenant Recipients

Who are the recipients of the new covenant? While not wanting to get into the baptism question (because Jeremiah isn’t talking about baptism in the slightest), without question this is one of those very disputed questions in Reformed circles. Let’s look at what the text says, rather than go to this or that system for an answer.

It is clear from history that the unfolding of the three parts of this passage (see Part 2) take place chronologically. The new covenant has been established because the Jews were brought back to their land. Our passage continues, “I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah” (Jer 31:31; Heb 8:8). It might seem evident who this is talking about. Some think it is literal biological Jews only. Others think it is Christians and their infants. Other think it is “the elect” (some taking that to mean even the elect before they are born). What is it talking about?

First, we have to see that Hebrews isn’t applying this to the nation of Israel, but to the Church. Somehow, Hebrews has interpreted “house of Israel” and “house of Judah” as the Church. There is no other explanation for how he could apply the new covenant to the church unless this is what he was doing. So how can that be?

Judah and Israel: Jesus as Covenant Recipient

Here, we have to remember that covenants are always mediated by covenant heads. When God made a covenant with the world, he made it with Adam and then Noah who both represented the world. When God made a covenant with Israel, he made it with Abram who represented his people, and so on. We have seen that Jesus is the one making the new covenant with his bride. In Part 2, we saw that he did this with his blood. But to have blood means that you are a human being. Gods don’t bleed! But the God-man bled. It is this humanity of Jesus that becomes so important in a new way.

Jesus’ death is the climax of three plus years of priestly ministry acted out to perfection (indeed, his entire life was one of perfect obedience). Matthew is a good example of how Jesus’ life is set up to emulate Israel’s life. Born from the stock of Jewish kings (Matt 1), he is a Hebrew of Hebrews. When he is two, a king tries to kill him, so he goes down to Egypt (Matt 2). He returns from Egypt and goes through the waters of baptism, as Israel was led through the Red Sea out of Egypt (Matt 3). He goes into the wilderness and is tempted for a period of “forty,” but he obeys and does not fall into temptation (Matt 4). He goes up to a mountain where he gives the law, just as Moses went up the mountain and received the law (Matt 5-7). He comes back down and never disobeys his God, not even to the point of death on a cross (Matt 8ff).

The point Matthew is making is that Jesus is True Israel. If Jesus is True Israel, then he is the True Recipient of the new covenant. Among several reasons, this is a significant one that led early Reformed Baptists to see the new covenant as the historical manifestation of that eternal covenant made before time (sometimes called the Covenant of Redemption). Jesus is being given “the covenant of grace” (a theological, not biblical phrase) because of his perfect obedience and fulfillment of all the old covenants. If you want to know what “Israel” or “Judah” means, look no further. Until we come to accept that Jesus Christ is true Israel, we will never be able to understand what he actually did for the whole world. The new covenant won’t make any sense.

Judah and Israel: The Church as Covenant Recipient “in Christ”

Now, remember that in the OT, the house of Israel is called the vine (Isa 5:1-7). But in the NT, Jesus is called The Vine (John 15:1-5). Why? Because Jesus is True Israel. But then Jesus says something amazing. Any who are branches in the Vine have abundant life. The idea is that to be in the Vine is to be part of the Vine. Christians have their life “in Christ.” To put that another way, they have their life “in True Israel.” Thus, the Church is actually what is being predicted by Jeremiah. Let’s look a little more carefully to see how.

Using a different metaphor, listen to what Jeremiah said earlier in his book. The prophet lumps the two houses in with all of the nations. They are no different in this respect: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will punish all those who are circumcised merely in the flesh–Egypt, Judah, Edom, the sons of Ammon, Moab, and all who dwell in the desert who cut the corners of their hair, for all these nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in heart” (Jer 9:25-26). Circumcision is obviously hugely important for the covenant God made with Israel through Abraham. But if you do not have a circumcised heart, then to God, you are as good as a pagan. And this is found in the OT!

Just here, I want us to move ahead for a moment to Jer 33:33/Heb 8:10, and one of the promises found regarding the new covenant. “I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts.” “On their hearts” language is closely related to being circumcised in heart, and other new covenant prophecies confirm this. This idea of being circumcised in heart is found in Jeremiah 4:4, “Circumcise yourselves to the LORD; remove the foreskin of your hearts, O men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem; lest my wrath go forth like fire, and burn with none to quench it, because of the evil of your deeds.” This is in turn found in Deuteronomy. “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn” (Deut 10:15).

But of course, it isn’t possible for a man to circumcise his own heart. Moses told the people that it was in God’s power to do so, but as of the end of Deuteronomy, he hadn’t done it yet. “But to this day the LORD has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear” (Deut 29:4). God refused to do that in those days in order that the new covenant promises might come to us today. Moses foresaw this and prophesied, “The LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live” (Deut 30:6). This is a new covenant prophecy.

Now let’s think about Ezekiel. This prophet talks about the same new covenant, only he calls it a “covenant of peace” (Ezek 37:26-28).[1]I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezek 36:25-26).

Take all of this and come to the NT and suddenly you start seeing the fulfillment in the church. Listen to the language of being a Jew from this passage in Romans, “No one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God” (Rom 2:28-29). This is what Jeremiah was driving at, and in the first part actually said. This is what Ezekiel was looking forward to as well.

But Paul is talking about the Gentiles being True Jews. This was in accordance with many prophecies. Isaiah puts it this way, “In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and Assyria will come into Egypt, and Egypt into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians. In that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the LORD of hosts has blessed, saying, ‘Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my inheritance” (Isa 19:23-25). This goes all the way back to the covenant promise to Abraham that he would be the father of many nations.

We have only looked at the prophecy of a new heart and circumcision, but this one idea can help us see why the NT uses all sorts of “Israel” language to talk about the Church. It calls us “true Jews” (Rom 2:29), “the circumcision” (Php 3:3);[2]the Israel of God” (Gal 6:16),[3]the temple of God” (1 Cor 3:16),[4]Abraham’s children” (Rom 4:16);[5]the new Jerusalem” (Rev 21:2),[6]the bride” (Eph 5:25),[7]a kingdom of priests” (Rev 5:10; cf. Ex 19:6),[8] and even the term Ekklesia (Church) are straight out of the OT language used of “Israel.”[9]

Thus, when Jeremiah says that God is going to make a new covenant with the house of Judah and Israel, we have to understand the organic relationship between the nation of Israel and the church. The church is Israel “in Christ.” The first stage of the prophecy was with the nation of Israel—they were brought back to the Land. The second stage comes once the Gentiles are grafted into the vine, which is not the nation of Israel, but Jesus Christ who is True Israel. The nation is a type of Christ. This is why Hebrews can take a prophecy that seems to be for the nation only, and apply it to the church of Jesus. The NT everywhere sees the church as the eschatological fulfillment of national Israel. That doesn’t mean the biological people called Jews cease to be Jews anymore than Italians or Chinese cease to be those. It does mean that in Christ, all are one nation—there is no Jew or Greek (Gal 3:28).

We have now taken the first of two important steps in identifying the recipients of the new covenant. We have seen that it is Christ who receives this covenant and who then cuts it in his own blood for his bride. Next time, we will look at what this means regarding the oldness and the newness of the new covenant and how this helps us further identify the covenant recipients.

— — — — — —

[1]I will make a covenant of peace with them. It shall be an everlasting covenant with them. And I will set them in their land and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary in their midst forevermore. My dwelling place shall be with them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Then the nations will know that I am the LORD who sanctifies Israel, when my sanctuary is in their midst forevermore.” (Ezek 37:26-28). “Covenant of peace” is the language of the Phinehas priestly covenant. Ezekiel’s language here is completely temple focused, as is the ritual of sprinkling. See last week’s sermon for more on the priestly covenant and its relation to the new covenant.

[2]We are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.

[3]And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.

[4]Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?

[5]… not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all.”

[6]And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”

[7] See n. 14.

[8]You have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (Rev 5:10); “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod 19:6).

[9] See Deut 4:10; 9:10; 18:16; 23:2-4; 31:10; etc.

(by: Doug Van Dorn)

Non-Biblical Literature and the Bible: Ancient World Literature (Tenth Post, Part II)

Books, Christian Education, Christian Living, The Church, Theology


Structure and Common Grace

While the Bible is unlike anything else that has ever been written because of its authorship, inerrancy, and infallibility, the fact that it was written in a specific context both culturally and historically cannot be ignored. The very structure of the Bible itself can be understood in the framework of classical literary genres, thus displaying God’s common grace. This is our second thought for thinking about world literature.

While not necessarily able to identify them, most people are probably familiar with Greek epics, lyrics, tragedies, and comedies. The Bible is structured as an epic, made up of both tragedy and comedy. In very general terms, a tragedy can be understood as a story that begins high and ends low (e.g. Shakespeare’s Macbeth), while a comedy begins low and ends high (e.g. Roman-Masks_1Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice), most often with a wedding. Comedies also usually pick up in the middle of a story. An epic is typically broader in scope than both tragedy and comedy, and includes a journey (e.g. Homer’s Odyssey).

Perhaps you’re able to piece together where this is headed. The Old Testament is structured in the form of a tragedy. It begins high (creation) and ends low (rampant idolatry amongst the Israelites). The New Testament is structured in the form of a comedy. It begins low, in the middle of the story (450 years of silence from God), and ends high with a wedding (The great wedding of Christ and His people in the new heavens and new earth). Together, the Old and the New Testament are structured as an epic, as the Lord takes us through the journey that unfolds from creation, through his covenantal arrangements, the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, the establishment of the Church, and the fulfillment of all things in the new heavens and new earth. Any literature that follows these patterns serve in their very genres as copies of God’s Great Story.

There’s also much insight to be gained from a reading of individual classic works when compared to the Bible. Is it possible that God used the influence of men like Plato in his writing—as a pagan philosopher—to prepare the Hellenized world for the coming of the Christ and the announcement of the gospel? Consider the following dialogue and how it relates to Scripture:

 “Then is that city best governed which is most like a single human being? For example, when one of us wounds a finger, presumably the entire community—that community tying the body together with the soul in a single arrangement under the ruler within it—is aware of the fact, and all of it is in pain as a whole along with the afflicted part; and it is in this sense we say that this human being has a pain in his finger. And does the same argument hold for any other part of a human being, both when it is afflicted by pain and when eased by pleasure?

Yes, it does,” he said. “And, as to what you ask, the city with the best regime is most like such a human being.

I suppose, then, that when one of its citizens suffers anything at all, either good or bad, such a city will most of all say that the affected part is its own, and all will share in the joy or the pain.

Sound familiar? This is from Plato’s Republic, written nearly 400 years prior to the New Testament. But, how about 1 Corinthians 12:14-26?

For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. 

Is it possible that the Apostle Paul used the language and ideas of Plato that were familiar to the people of his culture to describe the church? Could it be that Paul’s letter to the Romans was not only a theological treatise of positive Christian doctrine, but also a response to Plato’s Republic and the commonly accepted ideas about justice and redemption, based upon Greek philosophy?

A journey through the classics will expand a Christian’s horizons to help us have an even greater understanding of the context in which the Bible was written and the foundations of our faith were forged. By the common grace of God, He even used pagan philosophers to support His ends of introducing the greatest story ever told—the true myth of a great Savior who has come to rescue his people.

Stance (Attitude) and the Image of God

Another use can be reevaluating our stance and attitude towards unbelievers. Sometimes, I fear that too many Reformed Christians have as their root anthropological principle the fall and sin rather than the imago dei (image of God) in all humanity which is both logically and historically prior to sin. While helping us keep a good perspective on evil, doing this can also have certain detrimental, almost Fundamentalist ramifications which can cause us to retreat into our own castles rather than live in the world Jesus refused to take us out of. This is anything but a Reformed stance towards the world, at least historically speaking. Also, if sin and not the image is the most basic principle, then I have nothing to learn from an unbeliever except evil, and once I’m saved, the problem is only magnified. This in turn can cause me to take a personal stance towards them both in how I treat and in how I think about them as people and their contributions to society. By reading secular literature, I can more directly involve myself in the common humanity and echoes of truth that I share with them.

This gives me enough ability to read just about any ancient religious text–be it a Buddhist tract on ethics or law (demonstrating that we all have the law written on our hearts), or a Hindu text (that reflects the biblical worldview of the supernatural in a perverted way), or a piece of philosophical utopianism like the Communist Manifesto or Critique of Pure Reason—both to learn and to evaluate biblically the good and the bad. Our Faith is not diminished by challenges to it, but only increases in wonder in the face of them.

The wonder is really threefold. First, image bearers are still able to see truth—although they suppress it in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18ff). The image is not destroyed. They know the law and use reason and cannot help but talk about and use both in an almost infinite variety of ways. Second, the Gospel was revealed to a specific group of people in time giving those people the only news that can actually save it from itself. Only Scripture reveals the Good News that saves. Third, this Gospel is news that is to be proclaimed to all humanity, because Jesus came to be the Savior of the world. In reading their works, we can easily see points of contact and the many needs in which salvation is so important for us all. This in turn can help us in our attitudes towards others, knowing that we and they are alike in sin, in the image, and in our need for salvation.

Reading their writings and understanding their thought can then be used to soften our hearts against them as well as being used as points of contact in much the same way that Don Richardson used the story of the Peace Child as a point of contact to bring the gospel to an otherwise radically blinded group of pagans in Western New Guinea. We do not need to be afraid of other religions or philosophies or outlooks on life. Nor does reading and learning about them need to lead us into skepticism and unbelief. Frankly, those are stances that people bring to the literature, rather than conclude after starting with some kind of neutral stance. Using pagan literature to justify unbelief rather than seeing that the unbelief was there prior is just a way to mask the real problem.

Soul Cultivation

A final application of reading classical world literature is the cultivation of our own souls. Gene Veith, speaking about Classical Education writes, “The word ‘liberal’ [as in Liberal Arts] derives from the Latin libera, meaning freedom. For the ancient Greeks and Romans, a liberal education was necessary for a man to be free. Slaves would receive vocational training, but free citizens required an education that enlarged the mind and cultivated the soul. Classical education aimed at the apprehension of the true, the good, and the beautiful. The ancientsClassical-Ed_zpsa5f60996 believed that cultivation of virtue, knowledge of the world and of human nature, active citizenship, and practical action required an education with this purpose.[1]

Sure, Classical Education was created by Greeks, but these people also believed in the cultivation of moral virtues. As with our own Founding Fathers, they cultivated these virtues not by indoctrinating –isms into people’s minds through public education, but by giving citizens the objective tools to think for themselves. The –isms that are dominating our education today are, in our opinion, creating more vices than virtues. We as a society and as the Church are increasingly held in captivity to philosophies that we don’t even know how to communicate, let alone combat. So we need to begin with our minds, learning to think critically (not being critical, but evaluating the good, the bad, and the ugly).

As one example, especially in light of the irony from the ancient world, education today has become almost wholly pragmatic (i.e. you go to school to get a job), meaning that they Greeks would have viewed us as people who willingly put themselves under slavery. If this is so, then we need to be willing to read the great Pragmatists such as Dewey and James as well as their critiques so that we can get out from under that slavery and into the freedom that the Liberal Arts can bring us (I speak in a human, not a spiritually way, as slavery to the devil only stops when a person believes the gospel).

After the mind, it is our very souls that need cultivation as well. Once our stance towards unbelievers is oriented properly (i.e. image bearers who possess truth, but who suppress it in unrighteousness), then we will find ourselves able to learn about truth (“all truth is God’s truth”) that we ourselves may not be thinking about. Thus, we can read the classics and come to see the beauty that is a Robert Frost poem, the brilliance that is Mark Twain’s critique of slavery in Huckleberry Finn, the truth that resides in Dante’s vision of the Roman Church, or the humor that is portrayed in Wuthering Heights (I can’t believe I just said that last one). In doing this, we find ourselves better people, freer citizens, more open and honest and willing to deal in the world, without having to be “of” it.

I hope you have enjoyed this series, and look in the coming week or so for a lengthy bibliography that we are working on that we hope will help you in your journey into the world of non-biblical literature as you now have the tools to think about it biblically.

(by: Doug Van Dorn, Nick Kennicott)

[1] Gene Edward Veith, Jr. and Andrew Kern, Classical Education: The Movement Sweeping America (Washington D.C.: Capital Research Center, 2001), 11.

Non-Biblical Literature and the Bible: Ancient World Literature (Tenth Post, Part I)

Books, Christian Education, Christian Living, Theology

This post will be a two-parter and the last in our series on non-biblical literature and the Bible (other than a bibliography we are developing to supplement the material). In it, we want to look at how a Christian can read and think about literature that is found all over the world, in both ancient and more recent times. We will tackle this from several different perspectives, though this doesn’t come close to exhausting the possibilities.

Similarities and Apologetics

Indulge me for a moment and check this out. I think you will find it fascinating:

THIS IS THE ACCOUNT of when all is still silent and placid. All is silent and calm. Hushed and empty is the womb of the sky.

THESE, then, are the first words, the first speech. There is not yet one person, one animal, bird, fish, crab, tree, rock, hollow, canyon, meadow, or forest. All alone the sky exists. The face of the earth has not yet appeared. Alone lies the expanse of the sea, along with the womb of the sky. There is not yet anything gathered together. All is at rest. Nothing stirs. All is languid, at rest in the sky. There is not yet anything standing erect. Only the expanse of the water, only the tranquil sea lies alone. There is not yet anything that might exist. All lies placid and silent in the darkness, in the night.

All alone are the Framer and the Shaper, Sovereign and Quetzal Serpent, They Who Have Borne Children and They Who Have Begotten Sons. Luminous they are in the water, wrapped in quetzal feathers and cotinga feathers. Thus they are called Quetzal Serpent. In their essence, they are great sages, great possessors of knowledge. Thus surely there is the sky. There is also Heart of Sky, which is said to be the name of the god.

THEN came his word. Heart of Sky arrived here with Sovereign and Quetzal Serpent in the darkness, in the night. He spoke with Sovereign and Quetzal Serpent. They talked together then. They thought and they pondered. They reached an accord, bringing together their words and their thoughts. Then they gave birth, heartening one another. Beneath the light, they gave birth to humanity. Then they arranged for the germination and creation of the trees and the bushes, the germination of all life and creation, in the darkness and in the night, by Heart of Sky, who is called Huracan.

First is Thunderbolt Huracan, second is Youngest Thunderbolt, and third is Sudden Thunderbolt. These three together are Heart of Sky. Then they came together with Sovereign and Quetzal Serpent. Together they conceived light and life: “How shall it be sown? When shall there be a dawn for anyone? Who shall be provider? Who shall be a sustainer?”

“Then be it so. You are conceived. May the water be taken away, emptied out, so that the plate of the earth may be created—may it be gathered and become level. Then may it be sown; then

Mayan Creation Story

Mayan Creation Story

may dawn the sky and the earth. There can be no worship, no reverence given by what we have framed and what we have shaped, until humanity has been created, until people have been made,” they said.

Then the earth was created by them. Merely their word brought about the creation of it. In order to create the earth, they said, “Earth,” and immediately it was created. Just like a cloud, like a midst, was the creation and formation of it.

Then they called forth the mountains from the water. Straightaway the great mountains came to be. It was merely their spirit essence, their miraculous power, that brought about the conception of the mountains and the valleys. Straightaway were created cypress groves and pine forests to cover the face of the earth.

Thus Quetzal Serpent rejoiced: “It is good that you have come, Heart of Sky—you, Huracan, and you as well, Youngest Thunderbolt and Sudden Thunderbolt. That which we have framed and shaped shall turn out well,” they said.[1]

From here, the story explains how animals were created after the land. The animals were given homes and were treated well by the gods. So the gods expected something in return. They expected worship, but the animals were only able to squawk and chatter and roar, because they were animals. And “this was not good.” After destroying these animals, the gods created men out of mud, “But this was not good” either. For, the mud-men came undone and crumbled. This “mistake” caused the gods to topple the mud-men. Next, they tried making men out of wood, but they forgot to make them with souls and minds, and thus they could not worship either, so the gods beat and disfigured them and destroyed them in a great flood. The final attempt (so far) was to make men out of sacred corn. As of today, the gods have not yet destroyed them.

The similarities (and differences) between this story and the one told in Genesis are stunning, especially considering that it comes from a place that is over 7,000 miles, two continents, and an ocean away from Jerusalem. This is from the Popol Vuh codex, one of only a few Mayan (yes, I said Mayan) writings to escape burning at the torches of the Roman Church.



From the Popol Vuh to perhaps the opposite end of the historical spectrum in something like the apocalyptic battle of Ragnarök–the end of all things in the Norse sagas called the Eddas (poetic and prose)–people otherwise completely unassociated with the world of the Bible (except remotely through Noah) have remarkably parallel stories that tell of origins and endings of the world. This is something altogether different from what we saw in the post on ANE literature, which the biblical authors sometimes incorporated into their own polemics.

While some use these similarities to discount the Scripture, this is anything but a necessary conclusion. Curiously, it was these similarities combined with the fact that the Bible purports to tell the demonstrable history of a God-man rising from the dead that was the final nail in C. S. Lewis’ atheistic coffin.[2] He says we should expect the similarities, while also expecting to see the fullness or finality come to pass in reality, which is exactly what Scripture tells us. In this way, read and understood in the context of Scripture illuminating the truth, This type of literature can actually be used as a kind of apologetic to help people understand the truth, much like Paul does when quoting Greek poets to the Athenians.[3] You have heard of the unknown God. Now, let me tell you about him…

In Part 2 of this post, Nick will add some thoughts as together we give a few more ideas on reading world literature and wrap up the series.

(by: Doug Van Dorn)

[1] Allen J. Christenson, Popol Vuh: Sacred Book of the Quiché Maya People (Mesoweb Publications, 2003), 58-62.  Available online:

[2] See the important and fascinating essay by C. S. Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?” republished by Samizdat University Press, 2014., last accessed 3-23-2015.

[3] Thanks to Kathy in my church for sending me this timely link. Daniel Foucachon, “Plundering the Egyptians,” Classical Conversations: Classical Christian Community,, last accessed 2-24-2015.

Non-Biblical Literature and the Bible: Ancient Near Eastern Literature (Ninth Post)

Books, Christ in the Old Testament, Christian Education, Church History, Culture, Scripture, Theology, Worship

My last two posts are increasingly so vast in scope that it is in some ways pointless to even attempt what I’m going to do here. Nevertheless, I want to try.

For as long as biblical studies have been done (dating back to at least Philo in the first century), Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) literature has been used to illumine the Bible. Indeed, it is beyond question that the OT authors themselves read and employed ANE literature for their own polemical purposes (usually to prove that Yahweh, rather than some usurping deity, is God). For example, Daniel 7 has so many parallels with the Baal Cycle that it is impossible that it is coincidental. What Daniel is doing is simultaneously mocking Baal while glorifying the True God and his only begotten son (see chart). Understanding this backdrop adds multiple rich layers to our understanding of the passage, layers that profoundly enrich our knowledge of Jesus Christ (in the chart, note how the “son of man” parallels “Baal” in the polemic), who is the focus and point of all the Scripture.

Daniel 7 and Baal

Chart by Douglas Van Dorn

In modern times, the 19th and 20th centuries saw several amazing discoveries of ANE literature that brought to the table texts not available to the Fathers, the Medievals, or the Reformers (we have already seen the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi library). Two other incredible discoveries of the last 200 years must be included in this post. The first discovery was made late in 1849 in ancient Nineveh in the Royal Palace of king Sennacherib (705–681 BC), with whom Hezekiah had dealings (cf. Isa 36:1ff). Three years later, a vast collection–thousands of clay tablets and fragments—were unearthed just a few yards away. This became known as the now famous Library of Ashurbanipal (he is called “the great and honorable Osnappar” or “Asenappar” in Ezra 4:10). The find contained myriads of texts and genres collected by the great king in the 7th century B.C., but telling about history for more than a thousand years before that. The find included the Babylonian creation story the Enuma Elish and their Flood story the Epic of Gilgamesh, both of which share much in common with the biblical stories (as well as much that is not in common).

Mt Aqraa (ancient Mt. Saphon) towering over the ruins of Ugarit.

Mt Aqraa (ancient Mt. Saphon) towering over the ruins of Ugarit.

The other discovery took place in 1929 in a dig in the beautiful Syrian port city on the Mediterranean call Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit), some 26 miles south of the astounding Mt. Zaphon (Isa 14:13 NRS), which rises over a mile straight out of the Great Sea. Zaphon was Baal’s mountain, and the tablets at Ugarit provided for the first time in over 3,000 years ancient stories of Baal, El, and other religious deities that are so intimately tied to the OT. In fact, the Scripture calls God “El” many times. As cited in the first post of this series, Dr. Michael Heiser has written an excellent article showing why Ugarit is so important to biblical studies.

ANE Literature is basically divided into five geographical categories:

Ugarit (see above).

Hittite. The Hittites empire was established in Anatolia around 1600 BC. It reached its height during the mid-14th century B.C., when it included most of Asia Minor as well as parts of the northern Levant (today’s western Syria, Jordan, and Israel). These people are mentioned often in the early parts of the Old Testament.

Akkadian (see above). The Akkadian Empire reached father east and much longer back in time than the Hittites, reaching its peak in the 24th and 22nd centuries B.C.

Sumerian. Sumer is one of the most ancient civilizations known, reaching much of modern-day southern Iraq, as far as 3,500, 4,000, perhaps even 5,000 B.C. The Dynastic period begins c. 2900 B.C. and includes such legendary figures as Gilgamesh—who is supposed to have reigned shortly before the historic record opens c. 2700 BCE.

Egyptian. Egypt is well known to most people. Its empire is world famous, especially because of its colossus pyramids and sphinx that still stand to this day.

The kinds of literature we have from these places include Canonical Texts (including myths, prayers, rituals, incantations, epics, historiography, biography, oracles, proverbs, wisdom, and instructions), Monumental Inscriptions (royal inscriptions, mortuary inscriptions, building and dedication inscriptions, temple hymns), and Archival Documents (letters, contracts, accounts, court cases, wills). As you can see from this list, the literature is vast. There is much here to learn for the eager person that is interested.

Again, because there is a certain hostility that conservative Christians have towards ANE literature, a final word should be said. If the reader keeps in mind that Scripture is God’s word, then it is quite easy to read the other writings of the ANE without feeling like you are compromising something essential. Daniel, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and even Moses didn’t feel like they were. So why should I? Rather, they understood that the nations’ beliefs about anything from the gods to morality were rooted in truth, but had become badly distorted to the point of spiritual darkness and enslavment. Holy Scripture sometimes uses their own material against the nations, subverting their narratives, and replacing them with truth that reveals the glory and goodness of the God of gods and his only begotten Son.

(by: Doug Van Dorn)

Non-Biblical Literature and the Bible: Gnostic Texts (Eighth Post)

Books, Christian Education, Christian Living, Church History, The Church

On my Facebook feed the other day, someone wrote, “CNN’s series on Jesus showed their virulent, anti-Christian agenda. Last night the second episode on this series aired. The title says it all, ‘The Judas Gospel.’ This sole ‘discovery’ paints Judas as a misunderstood disciple, the closest disciple to Christ, the sole recipient of ‘mysterious, secret knowledge’ from Jesus, and part of Christ’s plan in the crucifixion … The Bible was rarely mentioned and left what the Bible Georgiosaid about Judas and Christ nearly mute or denied by this ‘new’ gospel. That wasn’t enough, this work of Satan also depicted all the disciples (except Judas) as drunkards, degenerates and guilty of the most degenerate, evil actions.

What CNN, The History Channel (History should be in quotes) and most of their scholars, The Da Vinci Code and most who are into the Alternative History movement, Oprah (Gnostic-Lite), and a host of others are doing is not actually new. Neither are the sources they are shouting from the rooftops are “True Christianity.” The Gospel of Thomas? The Gospel of Judas? Ancient heretical Gnosticism. In fact, all of this is old, tired stuff that the Church Fathers like Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement, Hippolytus, and Origen were refuting in the 2nd – 3rd centuries (which makes a good contemporary and practical reason to delve into the Fathers). In this post I want to focus on ancient Gnostic literature.

A good definition of Gnosticism is, “A diverse religious and theosophical movement of the first three centuries A.D. The name derives from the means of salvation: the Gnostic is saved through possessing a special knowledge (Gk.. gnṓsis). Gnosticism best refers to the organized expressions of the second and third centuries. Although scholars sometimes apply the term to Gnostic tendencies of the first century, evidence for a pre-Christian Gnostic movement isnag-hammadi inconclusive.[1] Most people think Gnosticism owes its origins purely to Greek (Platonic) philosophy. In actuality, it was an eclectic mix of that plus Persian religion (especially Zoroastrianism) and, perhaps especially, Judaism.

There were many Gnostic books floating around in the early centuries of Christianity. A whole pile of them were discovered in Egypt in a place called Nag Hammadi, 280 miles south of Cairo. In December of 1945, several local farmers found a sealed jar containing thirteen different codices containing 52 texts, most of which were Gnostic. These date back to the second and third centurys A.D. These tractates include (among many others):

  • The Prayer of the Apostle Paul
  • The Gospel of Truth
  • The Treatise on the Resurrection
  • The Hypostasis of the Archons
  • On the Origin of the World
  • Exegesis of the Soul
  • Plato’s Republic
  • The Testimony of Truth
  • The Gospel of Mary
  • The Teachings of Silvanus
  • and the now infamous Gospel of Thomas

As you can tell just from the names alone, the Gnostics were fascinated with philosophy, the New Testament, and speculating about just about anything, so long as it gets ratings (which never means orthodox theology). Sounds pretty much like a History Channel TV show to me!

So why include post like this here? Obviously, it isn’t to promote them as orthodox Christianity. Far from it. But as Peter Jones points out in The Gnostic Empire Strikes Back (a great book title if ever there was one), the American religion is increasingly and rapidly returning to the ancient heresies of Gnosticism. There is a concerted effort on many levels to promote Gnosticism as if it were Christianity. Parts of this theology have gone mainstream and most people today don’t know the difference. Why, just yesterday I was in a conversation with someone wanting me to do a radio show on Giants. I found out his program was Gnostic, and when I asked him about it he replied, “I promote Gnosticism and cover many subjects. But I’m also a Christian of the Catholic faith.” How people can live with such contradiction is beyond me. Can you? Do you?

Know your Scripture well. Then read the Nag Hammadi Library and find out just how completely different from Christianity it actually is, despite what Dan Brown and others try to sell you. A good place to start might be the Gospel of Thomas (which isn’t a Gospel at all, but is actually a series of 114 proverbial sayings) which ends with Peter saying, “‘Mary should leave us, for females are not worthy of life.’ Jesus said: ‘Look, I will lead her that I may make her male, in order that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who makes herself male will enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Saying 114). Then consider such a saying in light of contemporary culture and sexuality and the “progressive” thought it thinks it has. That which is progressive is actually regressive and profoundly enslaving of true freedom which only comes in the real Christ of actual history.[2]

(by: Doug Van Dorn)

[1] Allen C. Myers, The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 421.

[2] One of the best introductory lecture series I’ve ever heard on Gnosticism was done by Dr. Michael Heiser here: This is the full multi-hour presentation, but the classes (there are five or six of them here) can also be watched individually as well. Just search “Heiser” and “Gnosticism” under videos on Google.