Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Historical Background of the New Testament (Part 4): Significant Developments

Absent from the Old Testament but prolific in the New Testament are various Jewish traditions, synagogues, sects, political leaders, and the Romans. Why was the New Testament originally written in Greek, and why did Jesus speak Aramaic? Was Herod a Jew or a Roman, how did he become so politically powerful, and why does his name appear in different historical periods? Why was there so much hostility in Jesus’ day? Why were scribes so prominent, and who were they? How is it that the Romans had so much control? Without a basic understanding of historical context, much of the New Testament is obscure if not virtually inexplicable.

Aramaic. The Aramaic language was the lingua franca of the East. While Hebrew was the traditional language of the Hebrew people, during and after the Babylonian exile Aramaic was adopted as their everyday vernacular. Jesus spoke Aramaic (cf. Mark 5:41; 7:34; 15:34). The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John employ Aramaic expressions (Matt. 5:22; 6:24; 16:17; 27:33, 46; Mark 3:17; 5:41; 7:34; 14:36; 15:22, 34; John 1:42; 20:16). The apostle Paul was fluent in Aramaic (Acts 21:40; 22:2; cf. 26:14), and in his extant writings Aramaic expressions are occasionally employed (Rom. 8:15; 1 Cor. 16:22; Gal. 4:6).1

Hellenism. The Greek language and culture increased in significance from the conquests of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC. Koinē Greek developed and spread throughout most of the Mediterranean world, recognized as the lingua franca of the Roman Empire. It was the language of post-classical Greek literature, the Septuagint version of the Old Testament,the New Testament, and most early ecclesiastical writers. The world of Christ and the early church was markedly Hellenized.3

The Diaspora. Jewish dispersion began in 722 BC with the deportation of northern-kingdom Jews by the Assyrians, and further in 597 BC when the Jewish state was destroyed by the Babylonians. While multitudes of captives were taken to Babylon, many took refuge in Egypt (2 Kings 25:26; Jer. 41:17; 44:1). After the Babylonian exile, only a minority of Jews returned to Palestine. When Alexander the Great founded the city of Alexandria in Egypt, there was a sizeable population of Jews there (Josephus, Ant. 19.5; Ag. Ap. 2.4). Ptolemy I (322-285 BC) reportedly transferred 120,000 Jews from Judea to Egypt, with other Jewish immigrants later settling particularly around Alexandria (cf. Acts 6:9; 18:24). By the early 1st century AD, Jews were scattered throughout the Roman Empire, as far east as Parthia and as far west as Rome (cf. Acts 2:5, 9-11; 6:9).J. H. Kane observes: “The dispersion of the Jewish people was the greatest single factor in preparing the world for the coming of the Messiah and the preaching of the gospel” (A Concise History of the Christian World Mission 6). 

Synagogues. In exile the Jewish people were separated from their temple and its rituals and sacrifices, so their religion had to be maintained through prayer and the study of their sacred writings. The synagogues provided meeting places for praying, scripture reading, and worship (cf. Acts 15:21), also functioning as courts, community centers, and schools. In Nazareth, where Jesus was raised, it was customary [eíōtha] for him to attend the local synagogue (Luke 4:16). He made frequent use of these gatherings in his earthly ministry.Paul’s customary evangelistic approach was to first target the synagogues of the Jews.6

Oral Tradition. The Jews in exile desired to make practical application of the Torah (Law) in their less-than-ideal circumstances, so “a body of oral tradition—interpretation and application—began to develop around the written Law of Moses to explain how to implement its commandments in new times and places” (C. L. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels 10-11). While the written law was conveyed through copyists, according to some the oral law was transmitted by word of mouth all the way back to Moses (F. F. Bruce, NT History 73). During the Lord’s earthly ministry he clashed with certain ones elevating these traditions to the stature of divine precept (Matt. 15:2-6; Mark 7:3-13; cf. Gal. 1:14; Col. 2:8). 

The Sanhedrin. The Old Testament prescribed courts of judges to rule in the affairs of the people (Ex. 18:21-22; Deut. 1:15-18; 17:9-12). When Judea was a temple-state under Hellenistic rule, the high priest had an advisory council for making judgments. During the Hasmonean era, John Hyrcanus’ son Alexander Jannaeus, king of Judea from 103 to 76 BC, presided over the Hasmonean court called “Sanhedrin.” Although Herod the Great deprived this council of most of its authority, when Judea became a Roman province in AD 6 the Sanhedrin regained control of Jewish internal affairs. The Greek sunédrion (“council”) can refer to a judicial assembly of 23 leading Jews (Matt. 5:22; 10:17; Mark 13:9) but is mostly used in the New Testament with reference to the Jewish Supreme Court in Jerusalem comprised of 71 members, including the high priest, representatives of Sadducean priestly families, learned Pharisees (scribes), and elders (Acts 4:5-6, 15; 22:30–23:7).

--Kevin L. Moore

Endnotes:
     See Aramaic. When Hebraistí (the “Hebrew” language) is mentioned in the NT, it most likely refers to Aramaic as the spoken language of the Hebrew people at this time (John 5:2; 19:13, 17, 20; Acts 21:40; 22:2; 26:14; Rev. 9:11; 16:16). Sections of Ezra (4:8–6:18; 7:12-26) and Daniel (2:4b–7:28) were penned in Aramaic.
     Produced in Alexandria, Egypt in the 3rd–2nd centuries BC, this would have been the scriptures of most early Christians. E. Ferguson notes, “The Septuagint was the most important literary event, perhaps the most important single development of any kind in the Hellenistic period, for the background of early Christianity” (Backgrounds of Early Christianity [3rd ed.] 436). Technically, the LXX was the Greek Pentateuch, with other documents translated and added later, although the label “Septuagint” is typically applied to the entire Greek OT (see K. H. Jobes and M. Silva, Invitation to the Septuagint [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000]).
     See Did Jesus Speak Greek? 
     Aquila was a Jew born in Pontus, who lived in Rome and then in Achaia (Acts 18:2); later he and his wife moved to Asia (Acts 18:18-19; 1 Cor. 16:19), then back to Rome (Rom. 16:3).
     Matt. 4:23; 9:35; 12:9; 13:54; Mark 1:21, 39; 3:1; 6:2; Luke 4:15-44; 6:6; 13:10; John 6:59; 18:20.
     Acts 9:20; 13:5, 14; 14:1; 17:1-2, 10, 17; 18:4, 19; 19:8.
     Matt. 26:57-59; Mark 14:53-55; 15:1; Luke 22:66; John 11:47; Acts 4:5-6, 15; 5:21, 27-41; 6:12-15; 22:30–23:10; 23:14-15, 20, 28; 24:20.


Image credit: https://southviewchurch.com/event/adult-christian-education-repeat/2017-09-17/

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Michael the Archangel

The Hebrew name Mîkhā'ēlmeaning “Who is like God,” was not uncommon among the ancient Jews (Num. 13:13; 1 Chron. 5:13, 14; 6:40; 7:3; 8:16; 12:20; 27:18; 2 Chron. 21:2; Ezra 8:8). The name appears three times in the OT book of Daniel, and once each in the NT books of Jude and Revelation, with reference to a mighty angelic figure historically known as Michael the archangel.

Extra-biblical Conceptions

The intertestamental Jews recognized Michael as one of seven archangels, regarded as the advocate of their nation.He was identified as the messenger who informed Abram of Lot’s capture (Gen. 14:13), one of the three “men” who visited Abraham and rescued Lot from Sodom (Gen. 18:2; 19:1), and the angel who stopped Abraham from killing Isaac (Gen. 22:11-12), who wrestled with Jacob (Gen. 32:24), and who led the Israelites in the wilderness (Ex. 23:20). Michael was also believed to be the instructor of Moses, defender of Israel, caregiver of righteous souls, equated with Melchizedek, and regarded as high priest.2

In post-apostolic tradition Michael was venerated as a healer and as a warrior saint. A number of feasts, sanctuaries, and monasteries were dedicated to him. He is called “Saint Michael” in Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran traditions. Prayers are even offered to him. Michael is viewed as the leader of God’s army and guardian of the Church, who weighs the souls of the departed and carries them to their eternal reward.3

Some early Protestants, the Seventh-Day Adventists, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses equate Michael with the pre-incarnate and post-resurrection Christ.Mormons believe Michael to be “Adam, the father of all, the prince of all, the ancient of days” (D&C 27:11). Michael is named once in the Muslim Quran as an angel of God (Sura 2.98).

Irrespective of endless speculation and folklore, what the Bible says is the focus of our present study. Although much of the information is couched in symbolism and is rather obscure, our aim is to develop a clearer understanding of this intriguing Bible character. 

According to Daniel

The prophet Daniel lived through the entire 70-year-period of the Babylonian exile (6th century BC), and his prophetic writings disclose the superiority of God’s wisdom and power over that of the pagan world. According to the 10th chapter of Daniel’s book, the prophet is visited in a vision by a “man” who appears to be a heavenly messenger (vv. 5-6), delayed by “the commander of the kingdom of Persia” but assisted by “Michael, a chief of the commanders” (v. 13).Michael is then described as “your [plural] commander” (v. 21), i.e., the commander of Israel, who would defend them against Persian and Greek enemies.The only other reference to Michael in the OT is Dan. 12:1, where he is described as “the great commander who stands [watch] over the sons of your people …”

The Hebrew sar, translated “prince” in most English versions, can refer to either nobility (“ruler,” “prince”) or a military leader (“captain,” “commander”). In Joshua 5:13-15 the word is applied to “the commander [sar] of Yahweh’s army.” In the LXX Michael is designated árchōn (“leader,” “ruler,” “chief”).  

Admittedly these visionary passages in Daniel are somewhat enigmatic, and the question of whether Michael’s foes are physical, spiritual, or both has been debated for centuries.Nevertheless, it is clear that Michael is a formidable leader and intercessor, defending and protecting the people of God. 

According to Jude 

While the initial intent of Jude’s letter was to convey a positive message about “our common salvation” (v. 3a), the focus abruptly switches to the urgency of his readers to “earnestly contend for the once-for-all-having-been-delivered-to-the-saints faith” in view of the intrusion of ungodly men (vv. 3b-4). Jude describes these intruders as void of spiritual substance (“dreamers”), who corrupt the flesh, reject authority, and slander those in prominent positions (v. 8). To reinforce and illustrate the indictment, he writes, “But Michael the archangel, disputing with the devil concerning the body of Moses, did not dare bring against [him] an abusive judgment, but said, ‘[The] Lord rebuke you!’” (v. 9). Michael speaks with moderation and restraint, respectfully leaving the judgment to the Lord (cf. Zech. 3:1-2; 2 Pet. 2:11).8 

Jude’s reference to “Michael the archangel” is one of only two NT passages that employ the term archággelos (see further below). It is a compound word, joining árchōn [“leader,” “ruler,” “chief”] + ággelos [“angel”], meaning “chief among angels,” or “leader of angels.”

According to Paul? 

In 1 Thess. 4:16 Paul and his coworkers offer a brief description of the Lord’s future return, which, among other things, is to be accompanied by “an archangel’s voice.”As noted above, Jude alludes to “Michael the archangel,” and in a later first-century apocalyptic text (discussed below), we read of “Michael and his angels” (Rev. 12:7). Seeing that “at the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven” Christ will be accompanied by “angels of his power” (2 Thess. 1:7b-9; cf. Matt. 13:39; 25:31; Mark 8:38; Jude 14-15), it would appear that Michael, whose “voice” directs the charge, is the leader of the angelic forces. Even so, the expression in 1 Thess. 4:16 is noticeably indefinite (“a voice of an archangel”), perhaps to keep the main focus on the event’s principal character, “the Lord himself.”

According to John

Near the end of the first century John pens a prophetic, apocalyptic document addressed to the seven churches of the Roman province of Asia.10 These Christians were suffering severe and widespread oppression that would eventually worsen, pressured to worship the secular ruling authority that was inspired and empowered by Satan, God’s archenemy.

Satan is depicted in the 12th chapter of Revelation as a great, powerful, fiery-red, seven-headed dragon, attempting to destroy Christ and the followers of Christ through brutal persecution. Behind the scenes, Michael and his angels fight against the satanic forces, gaining victory for the people of God (vv. 7-9). While many limit the application of this dramatic scene to the end of time, John’s first-century readers are given assurance that the devil is not invincible and his apparent success would not last thanks to “the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ” (v. 10). Real victory is achieved “through the blood of the Lamb and through the word of their testimony” (vv. 11-12).11

Conclusion

Having examined every biblical reference to Michael the archangel, our nagging curiosity may still not be completely satisfied. Rather than trying to fill in the gaps with conjecture and whimsical imagination, let’s be content with what we can know.

In Hebrews 1:13-14 angels are described as “ministering spirits, being sent forth for service for the sake of the ones who will inherit salvation.” The present participle apostellómena (“being sent forth”) signifies an action that is currently and continually being carried out. This is consistent with how God has operated in the past (Psa. 91:11-12; 103:20-21; Matt. 4:11; 24:31; Luke 22:43), and there is no reason to suppose that angels are no longer active as God’s providential agents. The Lord providentially works in the lives of the faithful (Rom. 8:28; 1 Cor. 10:13; 2 Cor. 2:12; 1 Thess. 3:11), and his angels appear to be the instruments through which he operates.

The struggles we face as God’s children on earth are constant reminders of how much we need God in our lives. Seeing that our greatest challenge is spiritual in nature, the Lord has not left us defenseless (Eph. 6:10-18). We have added reassurance knowing that behind the scenes, Michael and his angelic armies are at the forefront of the war against the devil and his evil forces. 

From Michael we learn: 
·      Duty and faithfulness in service to God and God’s people. 
·      Moderation and restraint, yielding to the judgment to God.
·      Conviction and courage to fight the forces of evil. 
·      The Lord has our backs. 
·      Divine power is greater than Satan’s. 
·      Even in the midst of the severest trials, victory is assured.

--Kevin L. Moore

Endnotes:
     Tobias 12.15-22; Testament of Isaac 2.1; Sybilline Oracle 2.215; I Enoch 9.1; 10.15; 20:5, “one of the holy angels, who, presiding over human virtue, commands the nations”; 24.4; 40.8, “the merciful, the patient, the holy Michael”; 53.6; 58.3; 66.14; 68.20; 70.16.
     2 J. Jacobs, M. Seligshon, M. W. Montgomery, “Michael,” Jewish Encyclopedia <Link>.
     Frederick Holweck, “St. Michael the Archangel,” Catholic Encyclopedia <Link>.
     Seventh-day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine <Link>; and The Watchtower’s Aid to Bible Understanding 1152.
     Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are the author’s own translation.
     The LXX rendering of Deut. 32:8 reads, “according to [the] number of God’s angels”; cp. Heb. 2:5.
     See G. Clay Leonard, “Do Nations Have Guardian Angels?” in Identity in Crisis (ed. Doug Y. Burleson): 329-34.
     This is the only biblical passage that speaks of the dispute over Moses’ body. On the assertion that Jude’s account is based on the pseudepigraphical Assumption of Moses, see Jude's Alleged Use of Pseudonymous SourcesOn the nature of the dispute between Michael and the devil, see Why Argue Over the Body of Moses?.
     11 Compare John 12:31; Eph. 2:6; 6:10-12; Col. 2:15; Heb. 9:11-24; Jude 6. Homer Hailey reminds us that this visionary war, like many other symbolic elements of the book, is “intended to teach some great spiritual truth” (Revelation 273). Bruce M. Metzger describes this passage as “a flashback,” as the words of the triumph song “remind us that the vision of Michael fighting the dragon is symbolic, representing the real victory won by the atoning death of Christ and the preaching of the gospel” (Breaking the Code 74); cf. also J. E. Waldron, The Lamb/The Lion 127-28; contra Robert H. Mounce, Revelation 240.


Image credit: https://fineartamerica.com/featured/michael-defeats-satan-guido-reni.html

The 1635 painting by Guido Reni is entitled, “Saint Michael the Archangel tramples on Satan,” and is displayed in Rome’s Capuchin Church of Santa Maria della Concezione. Satan’s depiction is likened to Pope Innocent X.

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

Religion Explained?

British comedian and avowed atheist Ricky Gervais offers a concise albeit cynical explanation of religion.He argues that early childhood conditioning accounts for widespread faith in God and is comparable to believing in Santa Claus and fairies. “I think there would be more atheists and less faithful,” Gervais opines, “if you weren’t allowed to teach anything, you weren’t allowed to mention any gods or any beliefs or atheism until they were 20.” He reasons, as the myth of God is ingrained in impressionable minds, “if you’re born in India you’re probably a Hindu, if you’re born in America you’re probably a Christian, if you’re born in Pakistan you’re probably a Muslim. That’s a coincidence, isn’t itthat you’re always born into the right god … into the right religion?” He thinks it strange that people still hold onto the medieval belief that God made the universe, so he asks, “Who made God?” If the assumption is that God has always been, then Gervais responds, “Let’s just say the universe has then. Let’s just cut out the middle-man; it saves time.”

An Eternal Universe?

This overly simplistic scenario generates more questions than answers. Gervais is merely repeating what astronomer Carl Sagan said back in the 1970s about a timeless universe,2 one of the most unscientific assertions that can be made! The very year Sagan died, renowned cosmologist Stephen Hawking affirmed: All the evidence seems to indicate, that the universe has not existed forever, but that it had a beginning …. probably the most remarkable discovery of modern cosmology.”3

If the ultimate cause of the universe is God, where did God come from? The question assumes our limited naturalistic environment can adequately explain an unlimited supernatural creative force, even though the evidence points to a source of the natural world beyond nature itself.It was at the beginning of the cosmos that time, space, matter, and finite energy all came into being. The ultimate cause of the physical world is thus outside of time (eternal), outside of space (omnipresent), outside of matter (immaterial), and outside of finite energy (omnipotent). The God of the Bible is the infinite, independent, supernatural primal cause of the finite, dependent, natural world (Genesis 1:1; Hebrews 3:4).

Childhood Conditioning?

Where one is born and the environment in which one is raised may account for nominal faith (including atheism), but this ignores so many factors inexplicable from a purely naturalistic worldview. Childhood conditioning does not explain why adult atheists become believers, like William J. Murray, son of militant atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair, or Oxford professor C. S. Lewis, biochemist Alister McGrath, geneticists Francis Collins and George R. Price, astrophysicist Hugh Ross, astronomer Allan Sandage, philosopher Nina Karin Monsen, Nobel Prize winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, journalist Lee Strobel, MIT professor Rosalind Picard, et al.Apparently how the evidence is interpreted and the conclusions drawn therefrom are not simply a matter of the mind but of the will.

Christianity originated in the Middle East, yet there are followers of Christ not only in America, but in Pakistan, India, and all around the globe. The Christian movement emerged in a hostile Jewish environment and spread throughout a resistant polytheistic world. These early believers did not choose their religion because it was familiar and popular. They embraced the Christian faith as true, irrespective of cultural conditioning and geographic location.

The sarcastic characterization of one conveniently “born into the right god … into the right religion” is a straw-man argument that miserably fails. Former atheist turned Christian apologist, Forest Antemesaris, reasons that if 1,000 people stole his identity and claimed to be Forest Antemesaris, this would surely not prove his nonexistence. “If the God of Christianity exists, the claim of other gods existing does not affect His existence.”6

J. Warner Wallace, the son of a devout atheist, was not raised in a Christian home. In his mid-30s, having examined a wide range of philosophical and religious worldviews, he began an investigation of God’s existence and the claims of Christianity. He writes, “Like so many others, I came to believe Christianity is true, not because of my surrounding influences, but on the strength of the case itself.”Wallace notes further that Christians continue to be the most persecuted religious movement worldwide, especially in Islamic and communist nations. “These suffering believers did not become Christians because Christianity was the default religion of their region or culture.”

Wissam Al-Aethawi, a former Iraqi soldier and engineer who grew up in Baghdad, was disillusioned by a religion that taught hate. He purchased a Bible, was convicted by its message, and obeyed the gospel. He now works with Arab immigrants in the USA, using the New Testament to teach them English, large numbers of whom are experiencing religious freedom for the first time and coming to faith in Christ. You can read Wissam’s story here: <Link>.

Conclusion

Michael Patton observes, “Christianity is the only viable worldview that is historically defensible. The central claims of the Bible demand historic inquiry, as they are based on public events that can be historically verified. In contrast, the central claims of all other religions cannot be historically tested and, therefore, are beyond falsifiability or inquiry. They just have to be believed with blind faith.”The Christian movement began and flourished, not in a vacuum, but among real people in the first century world who could readily test its claims (cf. Acts 26:26; 1 Cor. 15:6). The credibility and tenacity of the Christian faith, void of violent threats and coercion, better explains why it continues to thrive worldwide.

The geographical location of one’s birth and cultural environment of one’s upbringing is a weak rationale for religion in general and Christianity in particular. Since the creation of the world the evidence of God has not been hidden, and to stubbornly ignore it is inexcusable (Romans 1:18-22). May the entire human creation hear the words of God's revelatory vessel: “He who rejects Me, and does not receive My words, has that which judges himthe word that I have spoken will judge him in the last day” (John 12:48).

--Kevin L. Moore

Endnotes:
     Ricky Gervais, “Religion Explained in 2 Minutes,” YouTube video clip posted by Mike Panagopoulos (25 March 2018), <Link>.
     Carl Sagan, “On God and Creation,” YouTube video clip posted by angryatheistdotnet (13 Dec. 2009), <Link>. For a good response to this question, see Kent Hovind’s reply to Reinhold Schlieter, <Link>.
     Stephen Hawking, “The Beginning of Time,” 1996 lecture, <Link>.
     See K. L. Moore, Are You Sure About God? Part 1 and appended links. 
     This extensive list would also include Emory professor Mark Bauerlein, biologist Alexis Carrel, physicist Russell Humphreys, Harvard law professor Simon Greenleaf, et al. Though certainly not exhaustive, for the names of other prominent figures, see “List of former atheists and agnostics” <Link>.
     Forest Antemesaris, “Five Bad Reasons to Reject Christianity,” Apologia Institute (21 May 2018), <Link>.
     J. Warner Wallace, “Am I a Christian Simply Because I Was Raised in a Christian Culture?” Cold Case Christianity (31 Jan. 2018), <Link>.
     Michael Patton, “Christianity, the World’s Most Falsifiable Religion,” credohouse.org (07-08-2013), <Link>.


Image credit: https://www.on-magazine.co.uk/arts/comedy/live-review/ricky-gervais-sheffield-city-hall-humanity/