Scholarship: Dr. Michael Heiser (RIP)

We lost a great one yesterday.

After about a year and a half battle with cancer, Dr. Michael S. Heiser has died. If I had to pick one evangelical biblical scholar who has impacted me the most over the past twenty years, it would be Michael Heiser.

Michael Heiser. Semitic languages and Old Testament scholar.

I first heard of Dr. Michael Heiser through a podcast that was recommended to me some eight or nine years ago, where Heiser went chapter-by-chapter through a book of the Bible, not quite verse-by-verse, but close enough, bringing his scholarly acumen to bear on the passage under discussion. This was before I ever sat down and read his mind-changing book, The Unseen Realm, that I finally got around to read just a few years ago.  The Unseen Realm, along with the shortened, less academic version of the same, Supernatural, are books that have forever changed the way that many Christians have read their Bibles for the better. I am one of them.

In The Unseen Realm (read my review), Dr. Heiser tells the story of how as a graduate student in ancient history, Semitic languages, and the Hebrew Bible, while earning advanced degrees at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he stumbled on a different way of reading Psalm 82, that changed the way he read the whole of the Bible. To his amazement, after spending years in academic study, he had previously missed the Bible’s teaching about the “Divine Council” of God.  This teaching was known among the ancient Israelites and Second Temple Jews of the Old Testament, but it had somehow become obscured or even lost among many Christian thinkers. As Christianity spread in the Gentile world within the first few centuries of the church, fewer and fewer believers adequately understood the uniquely Jewish context behind the Second Temple and early Ancient Near East cultural world of the Hebrew Scriptures.

As Mike, as he liked to be called, often said about the Old Testament: “Our contexts are foreign. They derive from church tradition that is thousands of years removed from the people who wrote Scripture and the audience to whom those people wrote.”

This supernatural world of the Bible explored by Dr. Heiser opened the door for me to understand a number of confusing Bible passages, that remained nothing more than mysteries to me. To summarize one of Dr. Heiser’s main ideas behind doing Bible study: “If it is weird, it is important.” Everything from the Nephilim of Genesis 6 to the head coverings passage of 1 Corinthians 11, Dr. Heiser was able take a lot of the best evangelical scholarly research on the Bible, and put it on the lower shelf, to help explain some of the stranger parts of God’s Word.

Furthermore, Michael Heiser has probably been one of the best apologists for the Old Testament, combining evangelical faith with academic rigor. Unlike many other scholars like him, Dr. Heiser was not raised in an evangelical church home. He was pretty much as unchurched as they can be when he finally gave his life to Jesus as a teenager. Yet unlike many other young teenagers who became believers, he nerded out quickly. He would take biblical commentaries with him to high school, in order to squeeze every minute he could to try to gain a better understanding of the text of Scripture. He never settled for accepting everything that was said from a church pulpit. Instead, he plowed deep into scholarship, avoiding pat answers to difficult questions, in an effort to fact check what he was being taught in various church settings. This nerdy love for the Bible would serve him well as a first rate Bible scholar later in life.

After several years working as a resident scholar with Logos Bible Software (now Faithlife), putting together a really helpful blog site, publishing a number of books both fiction and non-fiction (several of which I have reviewed at Veracity), Michael Heiser joined up with Celebration Church in Jacksonville, Florida to help start the Awakening School of Theology. Mike’s work included Angels (see my review), the 60-Second Scholar Series (see my review), and he wrote many of the study notes for the NIV FaithLife Study Bible (see my review). Dozens of YouTube channels carry snippets of interviews and talks given by Dr. Heiser, in addition to the authorized Dr. Michael S. Heiser channel. I have one of his last books, Demons: What the Bible Really Says About the Powers of Darkness, queued up on my Audible app (see these reviews at The Gospel Coalition and Christianity Today).

Like almost any scholar, I have not always agreed with Dr. Heiser on every point he was trying to make, or else he simply was not able to convince me. His primary interest in the biblical theology of the Divine Council often led him to ignore or sidestep other important issues in the interpretation of Scripture. At times, Dr. Heiser tended to shortchange or be overly dismissive of the tradition of the early church and certain elements in Reformation theology, and he even promoted a kind of despair that we can know anything about eschatology with any level of confidence: that is, regarding how believers should think about the specifics of the Second Coming of Christ (my basic answer can be found here).

But such criticisms should not take away from the valuable contribution he has made to reinvigorate my love for Scripture, as well as encourage others to dive deeper into God’s Word. Dr. Heiser’s insights into the “Unseen Realm” excited him more about the deep truths taught within Scripture, and in his passion and confidence in that teaching he was adamant not to get bogged down in other never-ending debates among believers that might distract from the core principles of Bible study he was trying to instill within his readers and podcast listeners. I really can not fault him for that.

His death will leave a big hole in the world of taking the best of evangelical scholarship and putting it down on the bottom shelf, making it accessible to mere mortals. Yet thankfully, Dr. Heiser has given the church a great gift through his teaching ministry, and his influence will continue, and hopefully encouraging other gifted scholars to serve God’s people with exceptionally powerfully and helpful content. If you are new to Dr. Heiser, check out his YouTube channel, the website (geared primarily towards newer Christians and non-believers), or the “Live in Context” video curriculum, the first video which begins below:

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

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