When the Kingdom of God Encounters Legal Trouble

In the New Testament, we read about something that isn’t present in the Old Testament—the Sanhedrin. This council became the governing body of the Jews after the Babylonians destroyed the monarchy and subsequent exile. Though Israel had a king in the New Testament, he did the bidding of Rome, and it’s clear that Israel didn’t respect his authority given that entanglement. The Sanhedrin grew during the Hasmonean dynasty when they revolted against the Greeks to preserve their religion and identity as God’s people in a period often referred to as Intertestamental. This dynasty of priests recruited legal experts and priests—the former usually being Pharisees and the latter Sadducees. The Sanhedrin consisted of seventy men who were religious and civil authorities. They oversaw the temple and carried out religious duties. They also were a policing force as well as a court of law. Peter and John drew legal trouble for preaching Jesus as Christ (Acts 4:1–3). When they addressed the Sanhedrin, they boldly proclaimed Jesus (Acts 4:8–12). The body attempted to stop them, but they appealed to God as the standard of what they would do (Acts 4:18–21). 

This is how power works. Power corners the market on authority. The authority they had was a responsibility to a nation, and anyone who dared threaten that stability was an enemy. Because they ordered them not to speak in Jesus’ name, they set the stage to punish them if they broke that command. Power issues edicts followed by threats. Why? Because they’re authoritarian and demand to be obeyed. Jesus and the Kingdom’s manner is a threat to how they operate (Acts 4:23–30) because His ways threaten to upset the order by robbing authorities of their power. This was why He was crucified. The Jews offered up Jesus to maintain their standing with the Romans (cf. John 11:49–52), and the Romans crucified Jesus to keep the peace among the Jews. None of what Jewish leaders did stopped the movement Jesus began. However, the attention the Way received was of concern to many (cf. Acts 5:13). Peter and John were arrested a second time and, subsequently, beaten (Acts 5:40). Yet, the Sanhedrin knew that the tide was turning against them (cf. Acts 5:26).  

Notice the players: two former fishermen against highly educated holy men. Luke even points this much out (Acts 4:13). The leaders were astonished because they were “uneducated” and “untrained” (idiotes). The Kingdom of God doesn’t rely on credentials. Nor does it depend on someone having civil power. When a person has that kind of power, it doesn’t necessarily mean serving God. They can, but God doesn’t rely on that. If He did, we wouldn’t see His power but think it’s in our hands. So instead, He worked through them despite not having religious or civil authority. That’s the Kingdom of God. No seeking of esteem or grandeur. Just simple people allowing God to use them.

This Native American Heritage Day

My Choctaw grandmother’s maiden name was “Tubby.” I always wondered what kind of Indian name that was, until I researched it. “Tubby” derived from “Tubbee”–which was my great-great-grandfather, Simpson’s surname as spelled out on the Dawes Rolls.

“Tubbee” was the ending of our ancestor’s name, Mushulatubbee. The records of this name were written by white men, and they likely wrote it how it was pronounced. There are variations in the spelling of his name, however, but it goes to show how up until my grandmother’s time, some of our people’s identity was erased. When we think of “tubby” today, we think about a chubby person. Then, we think, “What an odd Indian name.”

A monument to Mushulatubbee in Oklahoma gives his name as originally being “Amosholi T Vbi.” It can be translated based on its compounds: “vbi” means “to kill.” The “t” in the middle joins two words when one ends and the other begins with vowels. The “v” is pronounced as “ah” as in “father.”

So, the maiden name of my grandmother, “Tubby,” is originally pronounced as “tahbee,” meaning “to kill.” The first part of Mushulatubbee’s name, “amosholi,” can be translated as “resolute,” or “determined.” Hence, his name given to him as a war chief when he led raids against the Osage is “Determined to Kill” in English.

From the time of Indian Removal, when indigenous peoples were forced to assimilate, they were taken to boarding schools and their names changed. The Choctaw Academy in Kentucky shows evidence of this. Meashpulah’s name was changed to John Allen; Elahtahbee’s name was changed to Samuel Cornelius; Annutona’s name was changed to C. A. Harris; Okelumbee’s name was changed to Samuel Worcester.

A Choctaw lady just a few years younger than my late grandmother, in the 1950s, was relocated to Henning, TN. Government officials came to her home and told her parents that if they didn’t send her and her siblings to school, then the government would take them. She and her siblings stayed at a white families home through the week to ride the bus to school and they’d go home on weekends. They were forbidden to speak their native language.

Tubbee was the suffix to Choctaw names of the warrior class. Mushulatubbee was a warrior and Chief. His descendants, as with many others, were forced to assimilate. They had no say and choices were made for them regarding certain things.

As a way to honor my ancestors and demonstrate my own indigenousness, I petitioned to have my name amended. I’m now Steven Chad Hunter Oklatubbee. “Okla” means “people,” so I’m from the Tubbee people. Literally, “killer people.” While I’m no killer, I can choose to honor those who couldn’t choose for themselves by making a choice.

From the time I was a child, I was told that because I was more white than Choctaw, my indigenous blood didn’t matter. Yet, my father is obviously not white. Nor was my grandmother. I was nearly convinced that this part of me didn’t matter. When my grandmother died in 2018, I realized that my link with my Choctaw people was severed. I’m taking it upon myself to make sure my children know and are proud.

The Divine Pattern

Decades ago, Goebel Music wrote a voluminous book, Behold the Pattern. While much of the information is helpful, he may have been capable of putting things more succinctly. Nevertheless, those of us in churches of Christ are patternists when it comes to the life of the church. As God gave the divine pattern of the tabernacle to Moses atop Mount Sinai, so Jesus endowed the apostles with the Holy Spirit to reveal to us a pattern for being Christians. Furthermore, that pattern extends to the organization and worship of the church.

The earliest account of worship appears in 1 Corinthians 11-16. While it isn’t written as a word-for-word instruction manual on how to worship, we can deduce enough from this passage to know how the early Christians worshipped and what not to do. Some disagree over whether the beginning of chapter 11 or the demarcation of 11:17-18 is the point at which Paul addresses the assembly. If we hold to the latter, which I may be more prone to, the focal point of worship begins with the Lord’s Supper. A reading through chapters 12-14 discloses that prayer and song was a part of that gathering. Prophecy or revelations of knowledge may have been akin to our modern sermon. In chapter 15, Paul invokes the Scriptures regarding Jesus’ death and arise from the grave, which may suggest that Scripture reading had a place in the worship (cf. 1 Tim. 4:13). When we arrive at 16:1-2, a contribution was given weekly, and if we take the weekly to apply to everything preceding the offering, then the Lord’s Supper, singing, praying, preaching, Scripture reading, and offering were what the early Christians did in worship. Not only should we do what they did, but we should embody the heart of Jesus too. It isn’t enough to simply do it absent the mind and heart of Christ.

As it relates to the organization of the church, 1 Timothy 3 discloses that elders and deacons were overseers and servants of the church. Timothy himself was referred to as a deacon, but the term is translated in English as “minister” (1 Tim. 4:6), which may denote a separate function. Elder, bishop, overseer, and pastor were one-in-the-same and not different offices (cf. Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Peter 5:1-5). Today, however, many fellowships follow more the Ignatian separation of pastor, elders, and deacons, or some version thereof.

Eden, Sinai, Tabernacle, and Temple

In trying to show a cohesive unit throughout Scripture, I’ve often referred back to creation and Eden. I’d like to show you nine ways that Eden was a Temple and that the later Mount Sinai and tabernacle/temple were built upon Eden.

  1. The Temple was where God’s presence dwelt, and He made Himself known to Israel. His walking with Adam and Eve is prototypical of this reality (Gen. 3:8).
  2. When placed in the Garden, Adam is to “cultivate” and “keep” it (Gen. 2:15), which were words used elsewhere regarding priestly service in maintaining sacred space (Num. 3:7–8; 8:25–26).
  3. The tree of life was the model for the lampstand in the Temple.
  4. The Temple was made with wood carvings of landscapes reminiscent of Eden (e.g., pomegranates, palm trees).
  5. The entrance to the Temple was to the east (Ezek. 40:2, 6), as was the entrance to the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:24).
  6. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the Ark of the Covenant were touched on pain of death—both being the source of wisdom (e.g., Ten Commandments).
  7. A river flowed from Eden (Gen. 2:10) and the Temple (Ezek. 47:1–2).
  8. There’s a tripartite structure to the Temple (outer court, Holy Place, and Holy of Holies), the mountain at Sinai (base, middle, and summit) and Eden (Eden as Holy of Holies, the Garden as the Holy Place, and the outer world as the outer court).
  9. Eden, Sinai, and the Temple are all associated with a mountain (cf. Ezek. 28:13–14).

I would hope it would be safe to say that a unified cohesion exists concerning the significant theme of Scripture. Now, however, we turn to the pattern God gave Moses. God, in these instructions, spoke to Moses six times, the seventh being the Sabbath law. When God created the heavens and earth, he spoke six times and on the seventh rested. The tabernacle is, therefore, a microcosm, a new creation.

Patternistic Religion

Scripture marks three times that God reminds Moses to build the tabernacle according to the pattern he received. The first time entails the Ark of the Covenant pattern and the lampstand (Exod. 25:40). The second time appears after constructing the sanctuary, something into which the former two shall be housed (Exod. 26: 30). The final admonition appears after instructions on the veil between the Holy of Holies and the Holy Place (Exod. 27:8). As Christians, we are collectively (1 Cor. 3:16) and individually (1 Cor. 6:19) the holy of holies because God’s Spirit dwells in us.

The Ark of the Covenant has over it the mercy seat where two cherubim face one another to guard it, just as they were placed to protect the entrance to Eden. Moses received the law from the summit of Sinai. Since they were deposited in the Ark, the mercy seat now functions as the summit of Sinai, thus making this place a portable Sinai. The mercy seat is vital because the High Priest could only enter the Holy of Holies once a year on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:1–3, 29–34). He was to sprinkle the blood of a bull and goat on the mercy seat to remove the people’s uncleanness, transgressions, and sins (Lev. 16:14–16).

Later, the author of Hebrews informs us that the blood of bulls and goats cannot take away sins because these annual sacrifices would have only been one-time and not yearly (Heb. 10:1–4). What are we to do? Interestingly enough, when the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek in the fourth century BCE, a word was used for “mercy seat” that appears as another word in the New Testament. Rather than translating the word as “mercy seat” in the New Testament, it’s translated as “propitiation” (Rom. 3:23–25). On that mercy seat, the footstool of God, the summit of Sinai, was the conduit between humanity and God. Jesus Himself is that mercy seat—the place where sacrifice and atonement meet. The place where the righteousness of God is revealed and the wrath of God abated.

If we want to understand the end, we must, first, understand the beginning. Jesus promises that those who overcome shall eat of the tree of life in the Paradise of God (Rev. 2:7). Interestingly enough, when the Old Testament was translated into Greek, the word that replaced “garden” in Genesis is the word paradise. The original audience of Revelation would have understood that the tree of life was in Eden, the holy of holies. They would have understood Paradise as the garden. When Jesus promised the overcomers that they would eat of the tree of life in paradise, they envisioned Eden. The end takes them back to the beginning, the very initial design that God had in mind.

How the Papacy Was Born

Ask anyone who attends a church what the leadership structure is, and you’ll get various answers. Some people have a pastorate, presbytery (elders), and a diaconate (deacons). Others have the pastorate and diaconate (e.g., Baptists). We have presbytery and diaconate with the ministers acting in a role akin to the monarchy of England—we really have no power but yield influence. It’s become common to refer to the preacher as “pastor” in nearly every tradition except the high church traditions where they’re notably called “priest” or “father.” Among us, such preachers are the minister unless also an elder. He can be called pastor then but is usually not.

The person standing in the pulpit is usually esteemed differently than what he would have been in the early church. Church leaders in the New Testament were well thought of but not venerated. They would have been respected for their station and looked to for concrete leadership since the Gospel Way was usually oral more than literary. The Hebrew Scriptures were indeed used in the early church, as they were in the synagogue. Still, the first-century church lacked a complete New Testament as we have today. Instead, they had the leaders of the church (1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11) and in the congregations (Acts 14:23) to guide them. Additionally, the early church liturgy included robustly doctrinal hymns instead of modern praise and worship one witnesses in most churches. The ancient hymns were statements of belief, and when chanted repetitiously, even the simplest of Christians was capable of repeating them to explain Christianity (Phil. 2:5–11; Col. 1:15–20; 1 Tim. 3:16; Heb. 1:1–3; 1 Peter 2:21–25).

By the end of the second century, Ignatius’ tripartite polity was common throughout the church. After all, his urging Christians to submit to their bishops in all things would have ensured that the one bishop was regarded as the protector of truth. He was a local bishop of a city at the time, but later the position would grow to a territory. By the end of the second century, Hegesippus and Irenaeus had produced lists of bishops throughout various cities. The latter would draw up a list of bishops and strengthen such by arguing their succession from apostles.

The blessed apostles, then, having founded and built up the [Roman] Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy. To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric. This man, as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes.

Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 3.3.3

Gnostic teachers first claimed an apostolic succession of their teachers, so Irenaeus’ list became a hallmark of the orthodox faith taught in churches. The Roman church rose to prominence for numerous reasons, the least of which entailed Peter and Paul having ministered there for several years. 

The Rise of Roman Primacy

The church at Rome had emerged as a leader of Christianity by the end of the second century. “For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this [Roman] Church, on account of its preeminent authority” (Iren., Ag. Her. 3.3.2). Being the capital of the empire also had its perks. The Roman church grew immensely during the second and third centuries. Despite being as large as they were, they maintained fidelity in preserving apostolic traditions. Their wealth allowed them to be noticed for their charity, often sending aid to the churches throughout the known world when needed. Some of the members held political positions of influence in the empire as well. This congregation was known to have had direct contact with Peter and Paul, who were put to death in the city.[1] These factors elevated this church throughout the universal assembly of Christians. In time, this notoriety would vest significant authority in the church’s bishop.

Though Peter is often touted as the first pope and founder of the Roman church, history and Scripture would dictate otherwise. When Pentecost came in either the late twenties or early thirties CE, “visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes” (Acts 2:10), were among those who heard the good news. Jews had lived in Rome as far back as the second century BCE, with many more becoming slaves due to Pompey’s triumph in the first century BCE. Among the Jews who came for Pentecost were also proselytes—Gentiles who’d fully converted to Judaism.[2] That both existed in Rome indicates that a converted Gentile population already identified as Jewish, so the mix of Jew/Gentile in Rome existed before even the church’s first Pentecost.

When Paul wrote his letter to the church, he made no mention of Peter. Paul’s close familiars, Aquila and Prisca, met him in Corinth when Jews were exiled from Rome, suggesting that the church was already in existence (Acts 18:1–2). Peter went to Rome in 42 CE after having been a bishop of Antioch.[3] As an elder in Rome (1 Peter 5:1, 13), Peter may have aided the church in becoming better structured and ordered, but he didn’t establish the congregation. Paul wouldn’t arrive in Rome until 60 CE and would live there and minister for at least two years (Acts 28:30). After that, we don’t entirely know where he went until the traditional date of his and Peter’s martyrdom in 67 CE. Given the time they spent in Rome, they would have been able to make headways and solidify Christian orthodoxy that would have been the envy of the church.

Ignatius, Clement, and Hermas wrote to the Roman church in the late first and early second centuries. In their writings, the Roman church had a plurality of presbyters-bishops and not a pope. Near the end of the second century, an ongoing debate on the proper date of Easter persisted. Until this time, peaceful tolerance over this difference had prevailed, but the discussion flared up again. Bishops from all over called meetings to discuss this. Some in Asia reaffirmed the practice of observing Easter on the 14th day of Nisan regardless of which day of the week it fell.

In contrast, the others insisted that it should always be celebrated on a Sunday. Victor of Rome grew frustrated by this ongoing controversy and attempted to excommunicate the Asian churches for their view (Hist. Eccl. 5.24.9). This was likely the first time a Roman bishop exercised power over the church universal. Still, this attempt at ex-communication failed despite Sunday being the day that prevailed. Nearly fifty years later, however, Cyprian of Carthage and Stephen of Rome disputed over baptism. Stephen of Rome invoked Matthew 16:18 for the first time to assert Roman privilege. By 382 CE, that text was solidified as a passage of Roman primacy since the see of Rome was then taught to have succeeded Peter. Then, the occupier of Peter’s see became regarded as holding priority over others but was not then necessarily head of the church universal.[4]  

The Papacy as We Know It

As time went on and Christianity grew, the bishop over a capital city or province became known as a metropolitan. Among the metropolitans, those in a city with a more extraordinary claim to apostolic succession were given the title of patriarch. This form of church polity was extant at the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. An enormous issue arose when Constantine, in 330 CE, relocated the empire’s capital from Rome to Constantinople (Istanbul, Turkey). This city, so named after the emperor, was referred to as “New Rome.” Some believed that the relocation of the imperial capital meant a change for the church, but Rome did not take well to this belief. If the seat of imperial power now rested in Constantinople, fine. However, the Roman church was still to be esteemed as first among equals because both Peter and Paul had pastored there, thus giving them the purest form of Christianity. The first three patriarchates were Rome, Antioch, and Alexandria. Later added to them were Constantinople and Jerusalem. The Nicene Council gave more tremendous honor to Rome and Constantinople, but not authority.

At the Council of Chalcedon (c. 451), equal privileges were given to Constantinople as Rome wielded. These two sees were constantly battling over power and prestige. The Patriarch of Constantinople in 595 assumed the title of “Ecumenical Patriarch.” John the Faster, who’d taken that title, provoked Gregory the Great (Pope Gregory I) to petition the emperor, requesting that he not acknowledge such. By this time, the Western Roman Empire had fallen, and people in the West looked to Gregory for a sense of continuity. Being from a senatorial family, one might think that Emperor Maurice would have weighed this. Still, instead, he acknowledged John the Faster as Ecumenical Patriarch. Maurice was slain by a usurper a few years later, and Gregory sent letters praising the new emperor. Emperor Phocas would, in 606, transfer the title “Universal Bishop” to Boniface III, thus establishing the Roman supremacy of the pope. As you might imagine, the Eastern church didn’t accept this.

[1] Everett Ferguson, Church History: From Christ to Pre-Reformation, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 138.

[2] Horace portrayed the Jews as forceful in their proselytizing (Sat. 1.4.142–3; cf. Matt. 23:15). Many were Jews by conversion rather than by birth (Acts 13:43. Cf. Juvenal, Sat. 14.102–03). A Gentile could become Jewish by circumcision, immersion, and a sacrifice (Keritot 9a; cf. Pesahim 8.8; Exod. 24:8).However, Gentile conversion was not always welcomed and in some cases was even rejected.

[3] Jerome, On Illustrious Men 1.

[4] Henry Chadwick, The Early Church, rev. ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), 237–38.

The New Testament Canon

The twenty-seven books that make up the New Testament appear in the 39th Festal Letter of Athanasius (c. 367)—a prominent bishop—and this is the typical starting point for many as to their history of the canon. Because of such a detailed letter regarding the New Testament, some have concluded that the canon was a late invention considering the letter’s dating. Still, as our last lesson demonstrated, the canon was emerging in the first century itself and is evident in the writings of the early church fathers as functional before the fourth century. Athanasius wrote this letter to end the disputes about other orthodox letters believed to be equal to apostolic writings—Shepherd of Hermas and Epistle of Barnabas. It also detailed Peter’s epistles and Revelation’s authenticity, something that was questionable to some.

Earlier than his festal letter, a catalog from North Africa listed twenty-four books, named the Mommsen Catalog (c. 359). Cyril of Jerusalem had earlier listed all the books except Revelation (c. 350), but the Council of Nicea is often the canon’s accepted settling point (c. 325). However, the council’s entirety wasn’t about the canon, but the divinity of Jesus, hence the Nicean creed. Because they affirmed the canon doesn’t mean that they “created” it. Similarly, regional church councils also acknowledged the canon, but they also didn’t determine it. As Michael Kruger puts it, “These councils were declaring the way things had been, not the way they wanted them to be.” 

Around 250 CE, the early church theologian, Origen produced a list of the New Testament in his commentary on Joshua.

Matthew … Mark also; Luke and John each … Even Peter … in two of his epistles; also James and Jude. In addition, John … through his epistles, and Luke, as he describes the Acts of the Apostles … in fourteen of [Paul’s] epistles.

Hom. Josh. 7.1; cf. Hom. Gen. 13.2

This list would have included Revelation in John’s epistles and Hebrews would have counted as a letter of Paul because many in the early church believed that Paul wrote Hebrews. 

What, however, precipitated the list and the official declaration of the canon? It all began around 144 CE because of an early church heretic named Marcion. He only listed the gospel of Luke and ten of Paul’s epistles, omitting the pastorals and Hebrews. A harmony of the four gospels appear in 170 CE by Tatian and entitled Diatessaron. About the same time, Melito of Sardis identified the Old Testament canon used by the Jews. The earliest response to Marcion’s list with a list is what’s called the Muratorian Canon (c. 180), so named after its discoverer. It contains twenty-two of our twenty-seven books, omitting James, 1 & 2 Peter, 3 John, and Hebrews. Interestingly enough, around the same time as the Muratorian Canon, Irenaeus was the first to refer to a New Testament (Adv. Haer. 4.15.2).  

This leads to the truth that some books we now acknowledge as inspired weren’t always regarded as such by everyone in the early church. Athanasius explained the reasoning for excluding two well-regarded writings, but a few were disputed earlier such as 2 Peter, 2–3 John, Jude and James. Other writings were outright rejected: Acts of Paul, Apocalypse of Peter, Gospels of Peter, Thomas, and Matthias (Eus. Eccl. Hist. 3.25). 

The Emergence of a New Testament

One can easily make the case that a New Testament, or a canon of the new covenant Scriptures, was expected. When we examine the Mosaic covenant, we notice in Hebrews 9:18–21 the facets making up the first covenant that appears in Exodus 24:3–8, and among them is the book (Heb. 9:19). Unlike the first covenant, no tabernacle or vessels in the New Covenant are cleansed because the church and individual Christians are God’s temple (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19). Nevertheless, we who comprise the church and are of the Way are sprinkled with the lamb’s blood in our baptisms, and in due course, a book would necessarily emerge. Now, this perspective isn’t accepted by everyone. Some scholars contend that the New Testament could not have been foreseen and wasn’t expected. Others contend that the canon wasn’t created until the end of the second century CE, but I tend to disagree with both of those propositions. 

The earliest hint of an emerging canon appears in 2 Peter 3:16. Peter recognizes Paul’s writings as on par with Scripture. What he has in mind when referring to Paul’s letters isn’t altogether clear, because Paul wrote some letters that were widely accepted while others were questionable. Peter assumes that his audience knows what he’s talking about, and he likely expects that they receive his own letter similarly given that he addressed himself as an apostle (2 Peter 1:1; cf. 2 Peter 3:2). Another hint at recognizing authoritative writings in the first century is 1 Timothy 5:18, which is a quotation from Luke 10:7 and Deut. 25:4. The opening phrase, “For the Scripture says,” recognizes both passages as being Scripture. This initial phrase comes from Deut while the rest is identical to Luke’s wording. Thus far, Paul’s writings and Luke’s gospel account are considered Scripture on the basis of internal evidence from the letters. 

Another aspect worthy of considering is the nature of public readings in the assembly. In several New Testament letters, we observe the command to have them read publicly which indicates that they carried authority (Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 5:27; 2 Cor. 10:9; Rev. 1:3). We’re able to base this conclusion, in part, on how portions of the Old Testament were read in synagogue meetings (Luke 4:17–20; Acts 13:15; 15:21). Other scholars have additionally pointed out that the Greek structure of Matthew and Mark lent itself to a liturgical structure—which means that they would have been used for year-round public readings. The fact that such letters were urged to be read publicly along with Paul’s command to “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture” (1 Tim. 4:13) may in fact suggest that he already believed his writings to have been such (cf. 2 Peter 3:2). 

The earliest historical source about a Christian assembly details the authority of the apostolic writings. 

And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.

Justin Martyr, 1 Apol. 67.3

What’s clear from history is that Scripture were not exclusively read in early church assemblies. Some popular writings that were often read in the church, but that were not placed among the acknowledged books, was The Shepherd of Hermas (Eus., Eccl. Hist. 3.3.6; cf. Rom. 16:14) and 1 Clement (Eus., Eccl. Hist. 4.23.11). Serapion, the Antiochian bishop (190–211 CE) wrote to dispel the Gospel of Peter that had been read in Rhossus because it had led some astray (Eus., Eccl. Hist. 6.12.2). Certain epistles were well esteemed because of the author, while others were forgeries.  

Some might find the notion of reading non-canonical letters in the assembly challenging. However, the reason these writings weren’t ultimately included in the canon was because they were not universally accepted. There were three criteria for canonicity: 1) universality, 2) apostolicity, and 3) orthodoxy. If a writing fit into all three, it was accepted into the canon. However, there’s debate over another point: did the church create the canon? If so, authority primarily rests with the church—which is what Catholics and Orthodox believe, their definition of “church” here meaning the priesthood. However, while it’s true that prelates assembled to formalize the canon, they didn’t “determine” so much as “acknowledge” what had, up to that time, been regarded as Scripture. From the latter point of view, Scripture is more authoritative. This is the great divide between Protestants and Catholics/Orthodox. 

God Confuses Languages

The story about the Tower of Babel is sandwiched between genealogies.[1] Still, these are more than portions of Scripture we’d want to skip. It’s what’s often referred to as the Table of Nations. It comes between two toledoth (10:1; 11:10), the second of which is followed by yet another (11:27). The sections become more extended from here out, so while we have ten in total and six already used, their frequency becomes less. What’s interesting to note, first, is that all of these nations have their own language (Gen. 10:5, 20, 31). Still, when we arrive at Babel’s story, it begins with everyone having the same language (Gen. 11:1). Some might see this as a contradiction, but it’s actually a literary device that beckons the reader to pay attention.

We could detail the various people and the nations from them, but I want to focus on the point leading up to the story about the Tower of Babel. Cush (Ethiopia) is the father of Nimrod, a name often used to insult someone else in our time. Nimrod built Babel and Nineveh, who would later be two of Israel’s greatest enemies (Gen. 10:8–11). Jonah would preach to Nineveh, which later became the Capitol city of Assyria—who conquered the northern ten tribes of Israel. They led them into captivity while importing foreigners to intermingle with them, thus diluting the bloodline in 721 BCE. Years later, Babylon would subdue Judah and Benjamin, the Southern Kingdom, and lead them into captivity in 586 BCE.  

Centuries before, however, these two enemies of Israel can be traced to one person, Nimrod, who we eventually trace back to the degraded son of Noah, Ham. When we look at Ham’s sons, all of them are later enemies of Israel (Gen. 10:6). Cush, whom we’ve already looked at, birthed enemy kingdoms of Israel. Ham’s son, Canaan, well, we know about him. Mizraim was the Aramaic name of the Egyptians, who were often hostile to Israel. Put (Libya) was further west than Egypt and often supported the Egyptians and other Israel enemies (cf. Nahum 3:9; Ezek. 27:10; 30:5; 38:5).

Let’s say you’re an ancient Israelite who lives either before, during, or after Jerusalem’s siege by the Babylonians. This story and the Table of Nations are especially intriguing to you. The part about the Tower of Babel appears mid-genealogy in explaining your own lineage, so you sit up straight and take note. These post-flood people come together in the plain of Shinar (11:1; cf. 10:10), which is Iraq today. Iraq was, long ago, Babylon, and before then, it was the land of the Chaldeans. That’s important because it’s where Abraham came from, Ur of the Chaldeans.

Nevertheless, these people come together to build a city and a tower. This ancient tower is what’s known as a ziggurat. This sort of structure was common in ancient Mesopotamia. They weren’t built for people to go up despite it looking like a pyramid with stairs around it and the top having an altar. Ancient people often sought high places to worship the gods because they were “up there,” so the higher you could get, the closer to the gods. In this case, the ziggurat was for the gods to come down more than for the people to go up. In Genesis 3, humanity lost the presence of God by being cast from Eden, so they build this structure with the hope that God would come to them. They were often made next to temples, and the thinking was that God would come down and enter His temple to occupy it and so that they could have His presence among them once more.  

The two indicators of what might have been wrong here are that they 1) wanted to make a name for themselves, and 2) didn’t want to be scattered (11:4). I’m going to get to what I believe was wrong here, keeping in mind the story of Genesis up to this point. Still, God’s solution is to balal (“confuse”) their language. Literally, God is going to balal babel. It’s sort of punny. Ok, so what’s the problem? Humanity is at it again. From the beginning, humanity has crossed the boundaries of being creatures. We, time and again, want to be gods. Our initial fall was aspiring to have God’s wisdom (Gen. 3:4). Sons of God come down once again, transgressing the earthy and heavenly boundaries (Gen. 6:1–4). Humanity, or a portion of humanity, wants to break through those exact boundaries, not by going up (Gen. 11:4), but by making a name for God rather than self. That was their sin. That was what displeased God. There were several ways they could have made a name for themselves, but when it came to sacred space, that was to be done for God and not for oneself.

God is the one who creates and orders. Still, in building this tower and city, these people were making their own order and unity around themselves and not God, so He confuses and disperses them. Yet, God undid His work at Babel on Pentecost (Acts 2:1–7). The Holy Spirit gave the apostles the ability to speak in languages for which they were untrained, but what’s even more marvelous is how everyone present heard in their own language. They listened to the good news about Jesus, who came to rectify humanity’s errors plagued upon the earth. He did this by dying on the cross, and those who have faith in Him will be saved. They exalted the name of Jesus rather than themselves.

[1] Archaeologists have uncovered a relief detailing the building of a ziggurat during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II. The archaeological evidence, including bricks from the ziggurat in question, plus the story in Genesis has caused scholars to date the account here to the exilic period that began in 586 BCE. A redactor is believed to have inserted it as a fictional story with a very real meaning.

What the Flood in Genesis is Really About

Did you know that some of the fairy tales we grew up learning as children were actually sanitized horror stories, some of which were very salacious? For example, Little Red Riding Hood was originally about the werewolf fornicating with the girl, who herself was equated with a prostitute, and killing her after, first, seducing her. In the sixteenth century, the story was written during Europe’s werewolf epidemic. Men who committed horrific murders were said to have been werewolves since it would have taken such a beast to have achieved such horrible things. This was actually a legal charge of which some people were convicted in those days.

Sleeping Beauty, originally from the seventeenth century, was about a woman being assaulted in her sleep by a sex-starved king. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was initially about child labor in coal mines. Snow White was based on a beautiful woman whose father employed children in the mines since they were so small that only children could work in them. Disney went along and sanitized these stories to make them more child-friendly. Don’t even get me started on Pocahontas! Nevertheless, Sunday schools throughout the world have done the same with Noah and the Ark. We’ve caricatured this story by focusing only on Noah, the ark, and the animals going two-by-two, but this is actually very sad when read with ancient lenses.

In reading the flood story, we have to understand how ancient people told stories. We tend to read this as literal history with our Western minds. Still, ancient Easterners told stories using hyperbole—like some of the fishing stories our dads and uncles tell. We know the fish wasn’t that big and didn’t almost drown you with its strength, but we get your point. The flood was clearly a historical event, but the details surrounding this may, in fact, just be hyperbole. Take a comparison of Genesis 6:5–7 and Genesis 6:9. If we read this as literal, these passages are in contradiction of one another. Was not Noah a man, and would he not have been as guilty as the others? But the point is that amid such depravity on the earth, one man from whom the Israelites descended found grace in God’s eyes.

We see in Genesis a narrowing of their lineage. We’ve gone from Adam and Eve to Seth, and through him Noah, and from him Shem—from whom the Semitic people descend. As the story goes on and on, the focus becomes narrower and narrower until we arrive at Jacob and his descendants. The genealogy of Genesis 5 followed Seth and his son, Enosh, at the point when they began to call on the name of Yahweh (Gen. 4:25–26), which was another way to say that they worshipped God. Noah’s story derives from there and explains why he was a righteous man in a corrupt time, which will lead us closer to Israel and the Promised Land. Remember, Genesis is about Israel’s national story, its beginning, and focuses on land (that of Canaan) and people (Israel).

The Deluge

There is, however, something that should be noted: Israel wasn’t the only ancient civilization with a flood story. The oldest of these stories is the Epic of Gilgamesh (2150–1400 BCE). Other Mesopotamian civilizations had flood stories, as well as even the Greeks and Aztecs. Some archaeologists estimate that there was a catastrophic flood in the ancient Near East around 2900 BCE.[1] The telling of the story here should emphasize why more so than how. We should focus on why God did what He did rather than recreate a historical event with the details we have supplied. Sorry, Ken Ham. The point is human corruption precipitated the flood (Gen. 6:5, 11–13), and we may conclude that murder and the eating of live animals were a part of the issue (Gen. 9:1–7). There’s also the intro to this where divine figures are leaving their first estate (Jude 1:6; cf. 2 Peter 2:45; Eph. 6:12) to consort with humans, and the comingling of the earthly and divine figures are antithetical to God’s design making it, therefore, sinful to do so. This precipitates what follows. God, however, is not concerned with just being mean to humans, but out of all those who are on the face of the earth, none are good like Noah. God is going to hit the reset button. The flood will ultimately result in wiping off those humans who’ve placed themselves against God and His design. The one who honors Him will survive and go on to perpetuate people who, hopefully like himself, will continue in a good way.

This isn’t destruction so much as recreation. At least, this would be how Peter would explain it centuries later (2 Peter 3:5–6). There are some striking similarities between this recreation and creation itself. On the first day of creation, an empty void exists as a water mass (Gen. 1:2). God divided the waters above and below, and he partitioned the waters above with a dome or firmament (Gen. 1:6). We, next, read about this dome having windows in Genesis 7:11, so the flood-doors were opened and even the waters elevated from the deep below. God had divided creation, but now He’s undoing what He had done. Where chaos had existed, and God ordered it, He removes His order for the disorder to reign on inhabited earth. “If God’s creation behaves in a ‘disorderly’ and chaotic way, God will unleash the forces of chaos upon it.”[2] However, for Noah and his family, God has provided salvation.

After the flood is over, Noah builds the first-ever altar to Yahweh (Gen. 8:20). The animals on the ark are for offering to God. Remember Cain and Abel and offerings. Noah is now the new creation, the new Adam, who teaches worship via an altar. Then, we witness another first: God makes a covenant (Gen. 9:9–11). Rather than humanity living in constant fear of God’s judgment, God promises society to never allow chaos to have control, and the sign of this is the bow in the sky (Gen. 9:12–17). As God makes later covenants, we see Him give indications of the covenant. To Abraham, He gave the sign of circumcision (Gen. 17:9–14), and to Moses, He gave the Sabbath (Exod. 31:12–18). To we who are Christians, the covenant sign is the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:20). “These signs are like brands. They serve as a reminder to the covenant partners of the relationship established between them.”[3]

[1] Enns and Byas, Genesis for Normal People, 74.

[2] Ibid., 82.

[3] Temper Longman III and John H. Walton, The Lost World of the Flood: Mythology, Theology, and the Deluge Debate (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018), 106.

To Include or Exclude the Apocrypha (Deutero-Canon)?

When we speak about the Old and New Testaments’ collected books, we use the word “canon.” This term is in Galatians 6:16 and appears as “rule.” When we speak about the canon of the Bible, we’re typically referring to the 66 books we have, but others have more books in their Old Testaments in other traditions. These extra books are the apocryphal books of the Old Testament (deutero-canonical to the Orthodox Church). They are considered canonical in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.

The Apocrypha is a group of writings that date from 300 BCE to 100 CE. They consist of history (1 Esdras, 1 & 2 Maccabees), fiction (Tobit, Judith, and additions to Esther/Daniel), wisdom literature (Ecclesiasticus, Wisdom of Solomon, Baruch, The Prayer of Manasseh), and apocalyptic literature (2 Esdras). While they appear with Scripture, Jews didn’t consider them to be canonical. Some people argue for accepting the apocryphal books as Scripture based on their inclusion in the Greek Old Testament’s earliest codices (Septuagint, or LXX) that date to the 4th–5th centuries CE. However, they were omitted when the LXX was initially translated in the 3rd–2nd centuries BCE and Jerome refused to include them when he composed the Latin Bible in 383 CE.  

They are, however, included in the oldest manuscripts of the Bible, among which is the Codex Vaticanus. A codex is a way of saying “ancient book,” and the plural is “codices.” This book was found in the Vatican library and has almost all Old and New Testaments, plus other books therein. It dated to the middle of the fourth century and was used by Erasmus in the Renaissance to complete his Textus Receptus. In addition to the Old Testament books they have, 3 Esdras, Wisdom, Prologue to Ecclesiasticus, Ecclesiasticus, additions to Esther Judith, Tobit, Baruch, Epistle of Jeremiah, and additions to Daniel are included. 

The Codex Sinaiticus was found in 1859 by Count Tischendorf at the Monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai. It dates to the later fourth century and has the entire New Testament with half of the Old Testament in Greek. It adds 1 & 4 Maccabees, Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, and Ecclesiasticus to the Old Testament. A fifth-century codex, Alexandrinus contains the Old Testament in Greek as well as the entire New Testament, but the New Testament adds the first epistle of Clement of Rome and 2 & 3 Maccabees. These three oldest codices agree on the inclusion of Judith, Tobit, Wisdom, and Ecclesiasticus (a.k.a. Ben Sira). Many have equated codices with canon, but it’s not the same.     

Josephus did not include the Apocrypha in his list of books:

For we have not an innumerable multitude of books among us, disagreeing from and contradicting one another [as the Greeks have], but only twenty-two books, which contain the records of all the past times; which are justly believed to be divine; and of them five belong to Moses, which contain his laws and the traditions of the origin of mankind till his death …. but as to the time from the death of Moses till the reign of Artaxerxes, king of Persia, who reigned after Xerxes, the prophets, who were after Moses, wrote down what was done in their times in thirteen books. The remaining four books contain hymns to God, and precepts for the conduct of human life. It is true, our history has been written since Artaxerxes [d. 425 BCE] very particularly, but has not been esteemed of like authority with the former by our forefathers, because there has not been an exact succession of prophets since that time.

Against Apion 1.8

First, Josephus only identifies twenty-two books. What you have to keep in mind is that some of the books were one volume. For example, the minor prophets, which are twelve, were all one book then. Ezra-Nehemiah was one book, so some of these historical factoids explain why the Jews had fewer Old Testament books than what we have in our Bibles.

What does Josephus mean by, “has not been esteemed of like authority?” Jews didn’t believe a prophet lived among them during the Intertestamental Period. After the Gentiles defiled the altar, they tore it down and “stored the stones in a convenient place … until a prophet should come to tell what to do with them” (1 Macc. 4:46). They later made someone their leader and high priest forever “until a trustworthy prophet should arise” (1 Macc. 14:41). Between these two events, history even recorded that the distress arose in Israel so great since the prophets ceased appearing among them (1 Macc. 9:27). 

Melito of Sardis, a second-century elder, also failed to include them in his Old Testament list.

Accordingly when I went to the East and reached the place where these things were preached and done, I learned accurately the books of the Old Testament, and I send them to you as written below. These are their names: Of Moses five, Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, Deuteronomy; Joshua the son of Nun, Judges, Ruth, four of Kingdoms [1 & 2 Samuel and Kings], two of Chronicles, the Psalms of David, Solomon’s Proverbs or Wisdom, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Job; of the Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, the Twelve [minor prophets] in one book, Daniel, Ezekiel, Esdras [Ezra-Nehemiah].

Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 4.26.14

The Council of Trent (Session IV, 1546) is historically the first point at which the Catholic Church formally recognized these books as “Divine Scripture.” They were not included in the original Hebrew Scriptures but were declared “genuine parts of Scripture” by the Councils of Jassy (1642) and Jerusalem (1672). When you consider how active the Reformation was at this time, it necessitated an answer from both the Catholic and Orthodox churches regarding the Old Testament canon. Even in our own time, Orthodox bishop and theologian, Kallistos Ware, recognizes that these books weren’t present in the Hebrew text.

The Septuagint contains in addition ten further books, not present in the Hebrew, which are known in the Orthodox Church as the “Deutero-Canonical Books.” … most Orthodox scholars at present day, however, following the opinion of Athanasius and Jerome, consider that the Detero-Canonical Books, although a part of the Bible, stand on a lower footing than the rest of the Old Testament.

Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church, new ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), 200.

These books, however, do have value for understanding first-century Judaism. When the voice of prophecy had ceased, these books voiced what happened between the Testaments religiously, literarily, and historically. The two books of the Maccabees detail the struggle of the Jews for religious and political freedom, and they record a heroic period of Hebrew history. These books also help us understand the spiritual, philosophical, and intellectual life of the Jews before Christ’s birth.

How Humanity Chooses Death

Imagine we’re in heaven with God. No decay, no futility, and nothing of the world we know that contributes to human woes. Now, if I were to ask how many of you would rather die than live, we’d all look suspiciously at anyone who raised their hand. Yet, the first humans had heaven on earth, and they chose death. After God created the human (Gen. 2:7),[1] He planted a garden in the heavens and earth. In the Greek Old Testament, He planted paradise. Whenever you read about paradise in the New Testament, think heaven, or Eden. When Jesus said to the thief, “Today, you’ll be with Me in paradise,” He had Eden (lavish) in mind. When John told the Ephesians that if they overcame, it would be given to them to eat of the tree of life in the paradise of God, he had in mind Eden. We often call it heaven, but that’s where the tree of life exists.

Next to the tree of life is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This is the tree from which humans are forbidden to eat (Gen. 2:16–17), but before this prohibition is given, they are placed in paradise to “tend” and “keep” it (Gen. 2:15). God had given humanity a royal function in Gen. 1:28–29, but He now gives them a priestly function in Gen 2:15 (cf. Exod. 3:12; Num. 3:7–10). We often read the “tend” and “keep” as agricultural, but that isn’t the case though it can be. The work they would have done would be what we call worship, yet, not in the sense that we think of it. Rather, their jobs in the garden would have been to maintain the sacred space. If you’ve ever seen Buddhist monks tending the compound of their monastery, that’s what we have in mind here. That’s the tending that would have gone on. They were meant to maintain the area as sacred, and to protect it from the profane, which was why the command was given to not eat from the particular tree.

God gives the human a companion, an ‘ezer kenegdo. The second term means “besides,” so she’s to be by his side. “Helper” may give us the impression that she’s to aid him, but that also suggests that he takes the primary role. That isn’t what’s conveyed here. Rather, she’s to be actively intervening on his behalf. At least, that’s how the term was used in a military context.[2] Imagine two soldiers who are privates: they’re equal, they look out for one another, and they step up for the other in mutual service. This is what’s in mind. Man isn’t in control of woman, and she’s not subordinate to him. That doesn’t appear until God curses them. They’re two soldiers equal to one another and equally subordinate to God.

Remember how God ordered creation out of chaos? The serpent that shows up in the Garden is a chaos creature. In Christian theology we learn that this specific being was Satan, but ancient Israelites did not have such a view here. God created this creature (Gen. 1:21), and in the ancient east, they were mischievous and destructive.[3] Were Adam (human) and Eve (life) to do their royal and priestly function as image-bearers of God, they would have preserved the sacred space and ordered the creature gone when he clearly led them astray with lies. Yet, they bore with his nonsense and it cost them greatly.

A Repeat

The story that follows is Cain’s murder of Abel. God accepted both produce and meat as an offering, but one thing that differentiated the sacrifices was that Abel brought the firstlings of his flock while it appears that Cain brought just anything (Gen. 4:4–5). We later see reflected in Moses’ Law the importance of returning the first fruits to God (Exod. 13:12; Lev. 23:10), so when ancient Israelites heard this story read, they would make the connection. Because Cain grew jealous and killed his brother, he too would suffer a punishment akin to his parents. They were expelled from the sacred space of Eden, so Cain too would be exiled from the presence of God. When we recall that the earth was God’s temple, we can easily conclude that Eden corresponded to the holy of holies. God’s original plan was for all humanity to occupy the holy of holies, to be with Him and in His presence. Sin forces us out, away from God, but the blood of Christ brings us back.

Did Adam and Eve die on the day they ate the fruit? Yes! Centuries later when Israel was exiled, a connection was drawn between exile and death. Ezekiel envisions a valley of dry bones that represents Israel, but Israel is not literally dead. They were exiled, in Babylon. God’s promise to Abraham to give them land, and that a descendant of David would sit on the throne forever was all lost when they were exiled. Exile was death. The vision of Ezekiel was that the bones were brought back to life which represented Israel returning from captivity (Ezek. 37:11–14). When they are reconnected to their ancestral homeland with God, they are brought back to life.[4]

Abel is dead, and Cain is exiled and settles in Nod (“Drifting”). In exile, Cain builds a city—which was what the gods did, build cities. Cain invariably behaves as a god and in an irreverent manner, and one of his descendents follows in his footsteps and kills and even believes he’ll be protected more so than his father (Gen. 4:23–24). Adam and Eve wouldn’t ever claim Cain and his descendants, and Abel didn’t have offspring, so they had another son, Seth (“Granted”). Seth and his son Enosh began calling upon the name of Yahweh, which meant that they began worshipping Him (Gen. 4:26). Next is a long genealogy, and we’re prone to skip right over that part, but it bears some significance to the reading of this section. The genealogy reads from Adam to Seth, overlooking Cain and not able to claim Abel since he bore no offspring. The entirety of the genealogy of Genesis 5 is to set us up for the next section, and it does that by taking us from a righteous Seth to a righteous Noah. He was actually born to reverse the curse of Adam (Gen. 5:29).

[1] Adam is the Hebrew term for “human,” and adamah is the word for “ground.” It’s a play on words that’s used here.

[2] Alter, Books of Moses, 22.

[3] John H. Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2–3 and the Human Origins Debate (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 132–33.

[4] Peter Enns and Jared Byas, Genesis for Normal People: A Guide to the Most Controversial, Misunderstood, and Abused Book of the Bible (n. p.: The Bible for Normal People, 2019), 49–51.

The Law in the Intertestamental Period

Thus far, we’ve established that with Moses living around 1500 BCE, the books attributed to him date between 1450–00 BCE. These books were vested with authority  by the command that they are read every seven years (Deut. 31:10–13), and they were read by Joshua in the 13th century BCE (Josh. 8:34–35).[1] The 8th century BCE prophet Isaiah urged the reading of prophetic books (Is. 34:16). By the 7th century BCE, King Josiah’s court had discovered a copy of the law, likely the book of Deuteronomy (2 Kings 22:3–20), and read from it and inquiring of Huldah what such things meant. Jeremiah (6th cent. BCE) urged something to read of his scroll as authoritative (Jer. 36:6–26). During Jeremiah’s tenure, Judah was exiled to Babylon.

When the exiles returned Maccabean Revolt’s time to their land after decades of absence, they did so under one journey where the scribe Ezra led them. Ezra was one who “set his heart to study the Law of the LORD, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel” (Ez. 7:10; cf. 7:6, 25; Deut. 16:12). Ezra’s knowledge of the Law enabled him to advocate for the Law in the reestablishment of Israel, so when the people assembled for a reading of the law, their response was remorse and weeping. The return from exile and covenant renewal did not prohibit a lukewarm response to the Law. By the prophet Malachi, the priests had turned from the Law (Mal 4:4). Their neglect of the Law, perhaps a response to unfulfilled prophetic expectations, led them to apathy towards religious observance. They were neglecting their duties manifested in the lack of reverence towards God so that instead of teaching the Law, they turned from it (Mal. 2:1–9).

The Law taking center stage is assumed to have been ongoing by the time of the Maccabean Revolt when the books of the Law were seized from the temple and any who possessed copies. The seizure was followed by a subsequent destruction of the law documents, which gave rise to Jewish zeal for the customs of their ancestors (1 Macc. 1:56–57). The Jews had formed the habit of searching the Law’s book when faced with national threats (1 Macc. 3:48), and they’d read from their holy books even before going into battle (2 Macc. 8:23). Following Ezra and Nehemiah’s example, they became stringent in their observance of studying the Law and turning to it. This was a dramatic shift from their pre-exilic mindset.

The Essenes dwelt around the Dead Sea while some lived in cities.[2] The Qumran community mandated a third of every night for reading the book and studying the law as a community.[3] Their study and reading of the law were likely oral rather than silent because of the Maccabees’ customs. 

For just as it is harmful to drink wine alone, or, again, to drink water alone, while wine mixed with water is sweet and delicious and enhances one’s enjoyment, so also the style of the story delights the ears of those who read the work. And here will be the end. (2 Macc. 15:39)

In the time of my maturity I remained with my husband, and when these sons had grown up their father died. A happy man was he, who lived out his life with good children, and did not have the grief of bereavement. While he was still with you, he taught you the law and the prophets. He read to you about Abel slain by Cain, and Isaac who was offered as a burnt offering, and about Joseph in prison. (4 Macc. 18:9–11)

Baruch read the words of this book to Jeconiah son of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, and to all the people who came to hear the book…. And you shall read aloud this scroll that we are sending you, to make your confession in the house of the Lord on the days of the festivals and at appointed seasons. (Baruch 1:3, 14)

The Essene’s method of interpretation was to not depart from the commandments and not add anything to them. The preservation of God’s commands in their most accurate form was a significant concern for this community.[4] Hence, they believed that their interpretation of the law was the last.[5] Their proper, communal study of the Law was thought to atone for the land, whereas earlier generations had ignored the Law’s reading and hearing.[6] Since the community also had priests and Levites as members, and these clerics read the text aloud in the assemblies that required a minimal number of ten.[7]

By the time of Philo, the Jews were regularly meeting in synagogues where they would read the scriptures and, after that, explain whatever was unclear.[8] However, scripture reading was not restricted to the synagogue or scribal community.[9] Among the Therapeutae, Philo recorded that scripture readings and the sermons that followed were common at banquets.[10]

While the origin of the synagogue is widely debated as originating with Moses or sometime during or after the exile, the literary value of its activity as it is observed in the New Testament would give greater weight to sometime after the removal. Nevertheless, the synagogue rose during the Intertestamental Period. The earliest New Testament reference to a synagogue meeting came in Luke’s Gospel when Jesus read from the prophets and gave a sermon. The synagogue meetings were not for worship per se but religious instruction. Synagogues were institutions of religious education;[11] to speak of synagogue worship negates the temple’s place in the life of the ancient Jew. The temple was where worship was rendered, as well as Scripture read at times too.[12]

There were at least two readings in a synagogue meeting—one from the Law and the other from the prophets.[13] The latter was followed by the synagogue ruler asking if anyone had a message after the reading.[14] The Law was read on a liturgical calendar and in its entirety every three years.[15] Had a priest or Levite been present, and they would have been given preference over an educated Israelite reading, [16] so Jesus’ reading infers the absence of both.[17] The reading of the prophets formed the conclusion of the synagogue service known as the Haftarah. Since this portion of the reading was not preselected, the reader, at their discretion, could select the passage to read.[18]

When the church was born, it was not considered distinct from Judaism, so synagogue and temple meetings continued until apostolic preaching went to the Gentiles. Upon conversion of the Gentiles and before their conversion, the early Christians primarily met in houses.[19] Within, the worship of the early church became defined as separate from the temple or synagogue. Still, the early church’s house meetings shared many organization and style practices with those of the synagogue.

[1] What’s unclear is if all Deuteronomy, or Exod. 21–23, or some other portion of the law was intended by this command. We call Torah Gen–Deut., but that may not have been what Moses meant.

[2] Josephus seemed to posit that some might have lived in cities (Wars 2.8.4), but Philo posited that they lived in isolated villages (Quod Omn. Prob. xii [76]) and cities (Hyp. [11.1]).

[3] 1QS vi, 7–10; cf. Wars 2.8.6, 12; Quod Omn. Prob. xii (75).

[4] 1QS I, 13–15.

[5] 4Q266 fr. 11; 270 fr. 7 ii.

[6] 1QS viii, 6.

[7] Quod Omn. Prob. xii (82, 84); 1QS vi, 7–10; cf. Wars 2.8.5.

[8] Philo Som. 2.18; cf. Contra Apion 2.18. The Theodotus Inscription on a first-century Judean synagogue read that the synagogue was “for the reading of the Torah and studying the commandments.”

[9] Cf. Bab. Tal. Taan. 4.2–3; 4 Macc. 18:10–11.

[10] Philo Vit. Cont. 9–10; Cf. Eccl. Hist. 2.18.

[11] Contra Apion 2.7; Mosis 3.27

[12] Bab. Tal. Sot. 7.7, 8; Bab. Tal. Yoma 7.1–3.

[13] Bab. Tal. Megillah 4.1–5; cf. 3.4–6; Acts 13:15; 2 Cor. 3:14.

[14] Acts 13:15; 15:21

[15] Megillah 29b

[16] Bab. Tal. Gittin 5.8

[17] Cf. John 7:14–15. On the literacy of Jesus see Tor Vegge, “The Literacy of Jesus the Carpenter’s Son: On the Literary Study in the Words of Jesus,” Studia Theologica 59, no. 1 (2005): 19–37.

[18] Megillah 4.4

[19] Acts 12:12; 17:5; 1 Cor. 16:19; et. al.

Reading Genesis 1 with Ancient Eyes

Imagine opening a puzzle box, only to dump out all the pieces. It’s a 1,000 piece puzzle. Your table looks like pure chaos, so you begin arranging the pieces, turning them face up. You arrange your outer perimeter. Then, you begin filling in the middle. It takes you time, but by the time you’ve finished, you’ve recreated the beautiful painting—da Vinci’s masterpiece, The Last Supper. You affix it to a backboard, then you frame it and hang it on the wall. You’re finished, and you can admire your labor. This is something like what God did with creation. He had pure chaos, arranged it in order, put it together, and once it was complete, He stopped to appreciate it. 

Isaac Newton gave us the scientific method, which was a way of evaluating data to arrive at a conclusion of facts. One begins with a hypothesis, tests the hypothesis through experiments, and modifies it based on the tests and experiments’ outcomes. This method was then carried from science into various other disciplines—law, history, and sacred history (theology). In some sense, our manner of biblical interpretation, known as “hermeneutics,” borrows from this method. However, at times this is to our peril. 

Allow me to unequivocally say that Genesis is not a scientific textbook by which we determine the age of the earth, the viability of a worldwide flood or the ark which bore creatures in pairs, and other such things. Our understanding of the cosmos differs from theirs. We have made advances in knowledge that they didn’t have then. They know what they know, and we know what we know. Genesis is a very sophisticated book, but we shouldn’t try to make it say something based on what we know when it wasn’t an issue for them. Now, someone might ask, “So you don’t believe God created the earth in seven literal days?” I believe God can do that, but that’s not the point of Genesis 1. To draw that conclusion is to focus on a few details of an entire story whose aim wasn’t to answer that question in particular, and I doubt Moses and the ancient Israelites could have envisioned our time and technology. This is a sacred book, not a scientific methodology, so we must read it as if we were ancient easterners living in the first millennium BCE. 

Genesis is a story. It’s the telling of a nation’s history about the land where they were situated and the God who had brought them to that land. This book must be read literarily and then theologically. We must understand the type of literature this is before we can properly understand the book as a whole. When we recall that Moses is recording this as Israel’s national epic, we can conclude that some of the information will have to do with rebutting competing nations and their narratives. Remember, these folks just came from polytheistic Egypt, so Moses will have to deconstruct some of their beliefs in order to fully turn them to their God. 

A Genesis of Genesis

At some point during his last eighty years of life, Moses, maybe on Sinai, recorded the beginning of Israel’s national history as angels mediated the law to him (Acts 7:53; Gal. 3:19; Heb. 2:2), or he received the revelation at some other time. Moses’ life is sectioned off into three blocks of forty years: the first being his life as in Egypt, the second with him as a shepherd, and the third as Israel’s leader. We may soon forget that we’re reading about a man who’s over 80. However, whenever he received the information on Genesis, we know that it was to tell Israel’s national story about the relationship they had with God and the land. He wasn’t an eyewitness. No one in that time was, but they likely had oral traditions and stories about the things he’d record. 

The entirety of the story centers on land and people: Canaan and the people of Israel. They had long been immersed in slavery, so they had little to no personal identity. Their entire identity had been as slaves, and breaking the mindset of being a slave was what Moses aimed to do. You can only go from being a slave to a free person when you have your own national story, and not your master’s. When you have your own God, and not the gods of your master. Rather than the plethora of temples, you want to know about Yahweh’s temple, and this is the story Moses tells. 

Sacred Space

We’re taken back to the beginning where God creates. To the original audience, everything was made for functionality and not merely as material, so we have to think about function over the material. For example, were I to hold up a pencil and ask you to describe it, you’d likely say that it was made of wood, give its color, and describe it based on its appearance. The ancient easterners would have described it as something they write with rather than how it appeared. The function was at the forefront of their mind more so than appearance or material, so this will shift us in our thinking. 

Elohim, so God is called, is creating order out of the formless, void earth. He’s arranging space for what’s to come by putting things in order on days 1–3, but beginning day 4, He fills it: the earth with light, the water with creatures, and the skies with birds. The world is filled with animals as well, and then God creates a human. At first, one human is made, but then two, a male and female, appear (Gen. 1:27). His crowning achievement is these humans. 

Unlike other creation accounts, or myths, Israel’s God creates everything to function a particular way. He’s Lord over it all. Also unlike other creation stories, when He creates humans, it’s not as His playthings or to entertain Himself, but to rule over His creation. Humanity bears His image and likeness. Whenever ancient deities faced a dilemma, they began arranging things to sort out the dilemma. Upon fixing everything, they rested in their temples. That’s why temples were built—not for humans to go to for worship and sacrifice, necessarily, but for the deity to occupy after a catastrophic issue that they resolved.

Given the literature and language of this passage, God built a temple for Himself. Let’s note some of the architectural language in the creation account. First, the “firmament” could also be translated as a “vault” (raki‘a) in verses, 6–8 and so on. Second, everything enclosed by this vault, the seas and earth, would have been akin to the floors of a temple and the lights for day and night may have been natural light for the day and candles or oil lamps for nights. Many temples contained elements of creation in them. The ceilings would have had sun, moon, and starts, though to many cultures those were gods in and of themselves, but here they are created by Elohim for a function, and not to be worshipped. Trees of some sort might have adorned the walls. In Solomon’s temple pomegranate and fig trees adorned the golden walls to remind the priests of the Garden. Within temples were images of the god, but in this case, the image of God resides in living beings, humans.  

Upon finishing His work of bringing order out of chaos, He stops and takes up residence in this new temple He formed. Once the existence of disorder, He’s ordered it, and now that His work was done, He inhabits it. This would have been how ancient audiences understood this story. We think merely in terms of the world, but they would have understood that a deity rested in a temple after some troubling event had been settled and peace reigned. The humans He created bore His image and likeness. Hence, their job is to embody God’s qualities and do His work, much akin to how the Vice-Regent in India was regarded as the King-Emperor himself in the early twentieth century. This is what we do: we tend the earth and its various parts while representing God. 

The heavens and earth were created as a sacred space where God dwelt with his creation, among whom were humans. While more time will be given to this in the next lesson, we should keep in mind the sacred space theme. A lot of Scripture is about sacred space and God being with His creation—humanity. This is how the Bible begins and, for all intents and purposes, ends. Everything in between shows us the love God has for creation. He continually pursues humanity who violates sacred space, pushing God away. Yet God, in His infinite power and mercy, cannot be kept from us. He does everything possible to draw near us, culminating with Him coming to the earth in the flesh, a doctrine known as the incarnation. God willingly sacrifices Himself in our stead, so He can have us with Himself. We must decide whether we shall keep pushing Him away or be drawn in by His warm embrace and love. 

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