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Who Was Mary Magdalene?

9th in a series.

I am going down a bit of a rabbit hole in this post, so hang on, as it is going somewhere… When many Christians read the Gospels, they will often smash different elements of the stories together, creating a type of “super-narrative,” neglecting the subtle and not-so subtle nuances employed by the four, individual Gospel writers. The question of, “who was Mary Magdelene?,” is a case in point.

In 591, Pope Gregory the Great popularized the idea that Mary Magdalene was “the repentant prostitute.” You see this idea conveyed in a famous scene in Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ, when Jesus intervenes to save the woman caught in adultery. Gibson has her dressed as a prostitute, none other than Mary Magdalene.

What Pope Gregory did, that inspired folks like Mel Gibson, was to take Mary of Bethany, a woman who poured ointment on Jesus’ feet, and wiped his feet with her hair (John 11:1-2), another unnamed sinner, who poured alabaster oil on Jesus’ feet, and wiped his feet with her hair (Luke 7:36-50), and this woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11), and then combine all three women figures into yet still another, single composite character, Mary Magdalene, named in Luke 8:1-2.

In 1517, Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples, a French Bible scholar during the early years of the Protestant Reformation, wrote a treatise arguing that the three “Mary’s”; Mary of Bethany, the unnamed “Mary the sinner” who anointed Jesus’ feet, and Mary Magadelene, were actually different people. Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples was reviled by the church establishment for his views, challenging church tradition, and he had to flee France, to save his life.

Some beloved church traditions can be hard to break.

However, it is important to note that among the Eastern Orthodox, this tradition established by Pope Gregory never took root. In the Christian East, Mary Magdalene is instead often known as “an apostle to the Apostles.” She was the one who announced to the male disciples that Jesus was Risen from the dead (John 20:11-18).

This one little piece of information is significant in the debate over women in church leadership today. For example, some contend that women should not teach a man, unless a man in present. After all, when Priscilla sought to instruct Apollos in “the way of God more accurately,” her husband Aquila, was right there with her, and joining in the teaching effort (Acts 18:26 ESV).

But here, when Mary Magdalene goes off to inform the male disciples, as to what the Risen Lord Jesus had said to her, she was acting solo. But those who reject the practice of having women as teachers over men, without qualification, should note this important story of Mary Magdalene. While no men accompanied her when she presented her case for the resurrection to the male disciples, she was still acting under the spiritual authority of Jesus Himself, who as we should remind ourselves, was male.

So, was Mary Magdalene “teaching?” If so, in what way was she “teaching?”

Recovering the Historical Mary Magdalene

Though some Roman Catholic scholars have tried to re-piece together Pope Gregory’s composite Mary Magdalene, the majority of scholars today agree with Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples that such a composite association of Mary Magdalene is highly unlikely. For one thing, “Mary of Bethany,” came from the town of Bethany. “Mary Magdalene,” or “Mary the Magdalene,” is another way of saying “Mary of Magdala.” In other words, she was from Magdala, which is a different town, nowhere near Bethany. Magdala is near Galilee, in the north of Israel. Bethany, is in the south, near Jerusalem.

The unnamed “Mary the sinner” of Luke 7 shows up right before Mary Magdalene, in Luke 8, but there is no obvious link between the two women. Though it is possible to link the unnamed “Mary the sinner” with Mary of Bethany, because of their similar treatment of Jesus’ feet, nothing else in these two episodes links these two women together.

Furthermore, nowhere in the Gospels is the woman caught in adultery ever identified as being Mary Magdalene!

Modern scholarship confirms that the name “Mary” was a very popular name among Jewish women, in the first century, so the confusion is understandable, which partly explains why the Gospels specifically identify “Mary of Magdala” apart from “Mary of Bethany.”

Aside from the risk to d’Étaples’ life, you could say that little harm has been done here by this confusion of the Mary’s. No critical theological doctrine is at stake. Gregory probably meant well by trying to simplify the story of these Mary’s.

But the biggest problem with Pope Gregory’s composite Mary Magdalene approach, is that it has generated endless speculation into the notion of Mary Magdalene as “the repentant prostitute,” particularly among those who love the thought of scandal:

Was she really that repentant? The Gospels’ presentation of Mary Magdalene does identify her as being in Jesus’ immediate circle. Perhaps she and Jesus had some type of … you know…. (hush, hush, whisper, whisper)…  thing going on?

There is no end to this type of craziness. Novelist Dan Brown made a mint off of his blockbuster book, The DaVinci Code, that propagated the conspiracy theory that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married, and had children, the existence of whom the Vatican has been suppressing for centuries, somewhere in France. This is right up there with NASA faking the moon landing on a Hollywood-type set, off in a desert out in Arizona. But a biblically illiterate public today still somehow manages to eat this type of stuff up, just like the Albigensian heresy group did back in the 12th and 13th centuries!

Mary Magdalene continues to fascinate people, though the Gospels only give us a limited amount of information about her. Her biggest role in the Gospels remains that she is explicitly named in the New Testament, as among the women after the crucifixion, the first to be witnesses to the Resurrection of Jesus (Matthew 28:1-10).

Jesus clearly gives Mary certain instructions to pass onto the other male disciples (see also John 20:1-18). But does this necessarily make her the first woman pastor or elder?

Appearance of Jesus Christ to Maria Magdalena (1835) by Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov.

New Developments in Our Understanding of Mary Magdalene?

Controversially, some have recently tried to place her as a prominent leader in Jesus’ band, alongside the twelve male disciples, giving her a type of spiritual authority role, thus raising another round of discussion, regarding the roles of women in the leadership of the church today. But we should be very cautious with such speculation.

A case in point is the 2018 film released in the United Kingdom, Mary Magdalene, giving British audiences a new look at who Mary Magdalene might have been. Mary Magdalene wins support from scholars for steering away from the image of Mary Magdalene as a “the repentant prostitute.” But in other respects, the reports are very mixed, and not altogether exciting. Some critics say that Mary Magdalene leans too heavily on the Gnostic Gospel of Mary. Gnosticism is a heresy that has been condemned by the church in every age. The likelihood of the film’s release in the United States remains in doubt.

The esteemed New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado has seen the movie. Though he was not overly impressed by the film, in his informed review, Hurtado carefully summarizes the early speculative traditions about Mary Magdalene, for the serious Bible geek. Even a prominent Australian egalitarian blogger, Marg Mowczko, panned the film. The trailer for the movie that might never make it to the United States is below.

If you want a good, in-depth scholarly explanation for who Mary Magdalene really was, dispelling conspiracy theories, take about 17 minutes for Dr. Michael Heiser’s FringePop321 video (Dr. Heiser is a Bible scholar with Logos Bible Software, and author of The Unseen Realm). The renewed interest in “Mary of Magdala,” through books and movies that speculate a lot, may actually spur thoughtful study of the more reliable, biblical framework behind this most mysterious and attractive of Jesus’ early followers.

In the next few blog posts in this series, we will discuss 1 Timothy 2:12, and the nearby verses, one of the most hotly debated passages in all of the New Testament, that divides complementarians and egalitarians. Stay tuned, and learn what the fuss is all about…..

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Elisha, She-Bears, and the Cursing of Children?

This is up there near the top of “Weird Stories of the Bible,” when the prophet Elisha curses a group of young boys, who taunt him. But does this image really correspond to the message that the Scriptural writer is intending to convey?

I was totally dumbstruck, a moment I will never forget. I was doing youth ministry, when a high school student asked me about the weird incident of Elisha and the She-Bears, found in 2 Kings 2:23-25. What is that all about?

I had never seen the passage before, and it left me speechless:

23 He [Elisha] went up from there to Bethel, and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!”24 And he turned around, and when he saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys. 25 From there he went on to Mount Carmel, and from there he returned to Samaria.

What is going on in this passage? I will be honest: Having never read that before, I had no clue how to respond. Over seven years in Bible-teaching churches had never prepared me for that question (Why do most churches skip over these difficult passages????).

Skeptics use these verses to mock the morality of the Bible. It is hard not to blame them, from a quick, surface reading of the text. It sounds like God is sanctioning, even inflicting, violent child abuse.

But this high school student who quizzed me about this passage was not at all trying to ridicule the Bible. It was a honest question. This teenager was sincerely confused… and I was stumped.

I could have simply said, “Well, that is in the Old Testament. No need to worry.” But I knew better.

So, what is the Bible really talking about here? Could there be more going on, than what a plain-text, isolated reading of the text indicates?

A theologian who writes frequently for First Things magazine, Peter Leithart, highlights the work of Keith Bodner, that gives a more nuanced, and greatly more compelling answer as to how to interpret this difficult text in the Bible. In short, the story of Elisha and She-Bears is really an event with satirical theological-political commentary, criticizing the apostatizing of Israel’s leadership, by their sanctioning of idolatry at Bethel. A careful reading of other biblical texts gives us the clues needed to fully unpack this story (see 1 Kings 12:1-15, 2 Kings 1:8, 1 Kings 14:21, 1 Kings 13:24, 2 Kings 8:12, for additional context).

In this interpretation, the “small boys” in this passage, really are not children at all. Instead, they are a band of idolatrous priests that threaten Elisha, and the true worship of God the prophet represents. The author uses the language of “small boys,” not to historically chronicle their age, but rather to criticize the immaturity of these rebellious priests.

The critique of Elisha’s “baldness?” Well, this is not really about a loss of hair, but rather the loss of losing his mentor Elijah, as a spiritual covering.

This explanation may not completely remove for you the scandal that this passage raises. Understood, but the shock value maybe the point. Passages in the Bible that sound just plain weird, might be clues that more is going on than what can be picked up by a surface reading. As I wrote about in my review of Andy Stanley’s book, Irresistible, perhaps the problem with the Old Testament, is not with the Old Testament itself, but in how we interpret it.

Additional Resources:

Gospel Coalition blogger, Derek Rishmawy has an older post highlighting Peter Leithart’s own commentary on this passage, from Leithart’s 1 & 2 Kings commentary. For some other, informed takes on the same story, I would recommend either the following segment of Dr. Michael Heiser’s Naked Bible Podcast (Heiser is an Old Testament scholar, for Logos Bible Software, who wrote many of the notes for the FaithLife Study Bible, and author of the groundbreaking book, The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible), or a sermon by Dr. Peter Williams (Williams is a textual critical scholar at the University of Cambridge, and Tyndale House, in England, and a translator for the English Standard Version of the Bible), or the detailed analysis from the “uber-intellectual” Alastair Roberts, MereFidelity podcaster and blogger. Dr. Heiser’s treatment is just audio, with no video. But one of Dr. Heiser’s key themes is that if it is weird, it is probably important. This passage surely qualifies. The Dr. Williams’ video is from a talk he gave at, what I think is, Park Street Church in Boston (Williams takes a more traditional view of the “young boys”, summarized in a series of Tweets). Alastair Roberts’ video is from his YouTube Question & Answer channel. All three scholars offer great resources on other topics, I might add!:

 

 

 


September 23 End Times Nonsense

The constellation Virgo. Foreboding a fulfillment of the Book of Revelation? I think not.

The nonsense about the supposed “End Times” event happening September 23, 2017, just keeps getting worse.

Some “bible prophecy expert” had predicted the end of the world tomorrow (Sept 23), but now is backing off (sort of) from his claim, according to the Washington Post. If you have missed the whole media splash about this, read this previous Veracity post, published last month, the day of the solar eclipse, for details. 

Basically, a somewhat uncommon astronomical event, tied to a rather creative interpretation of Revelation 12, is “supposed” to be prophetically fulfilled in the skies tomorrow. The first couple of verses describe what star gazers “might” see tomorrow night, in the constellation Virgo:

A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth….

Frankly, this type of “bible prophecy” handling is an embarrassment. As Logos Software Bible scholar, Michael S. Heiser, whom I greatly respect, says in his very helpful, bible study blog, this is “living testimony to biblical illiteracy” in the church today.

We could chock this up as being meaningless media hype. But sadly, many Christians fall for this type of stuff, and the reputation of the Gospel suffers.

Admittedly, the Book of Revelation is difficult to interpret. But the main reason why it is so difficult to understand is because most Christians are not aware of the original literary context, of which it was written in, during the 1st century of the Christian era. Ian Paul is a British evangelical bible scholar, with another helpful bible study blog, that explains why Revelation gets so mangled up by 21st century readers. You may never think about “little red riding hood” the same way again:

“Revelation is absolutely saturated with allusions to the OT, and our lack of knowledge often means we miss these. The woman in labour is an image of the people of God awaiting deliverance from exile in Is 66 and Micah 4 and 6. The dragon (Revelation 12:3-4) is a composite of the four beasts that emerge from the sea in the visions of Daniel 7, where they signify four human empires, and it is overlaid with a range of imagery denoting the primeval opponent of God and his people (the serpent in Gen 3, the Satan from Job) as well as intertestamental ideas. The male child ‘who is to rule the nations with a rod of iron’ (Revelation 12:5) is indeed Jesus as the fulfilment of the messianic Ps(alm) 2. If we struggle a little with these allusions to the characters, we will struggle even more with the strange plot into which they have been inserted. But John and his readers will have struggled no more than we would if we heard someone describing a girl wearing a red hooded cloak taking apples to her granny in the woods, or a girl coming across three bowls of porridge in a cottage. (If you don’t know what these are, then again it makes the point: we easily spot allusions to story we know in our own culture, but the moment we look at another, unfamiliar culture we can become very disoriented.).”

The rest of Ian Paul’s blog entry can be found at his Psephizo website. It just goes to show you that context matters when you study the Bible.


Canaanite DNA and Biblically-Illiterate Journalism

An ancient Canaanite skeleton gives us clues to the DNA history behind a people group in the Middle East. (Credit: Dr. Claude Doumet-Serhal)

A recent study indicates that much of the DNA record of modern day Lebanese can be traced back to the Canaanite people described in the Bible. Sadly however, a number of mainstream journalists got the story wrong.

Archaeological studies over the years have raised a number of interesting questions about how the Biblical record is tied to history. But when the genome of 4,000-year-old Canaanite skeletons were sequenced, the discovery supports a significant aspect of the Bible’s historical claims.

However, you would never grasp that idea from a New York Times article reporting the discovery. Deuteronomy 20:16-17 does show that the Israelites were to completely wipe out the Canaanite peoples, when they take hold of the Promised Land.

“You shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the Lord your God has commanded” (v.17)

Yet the Times article goes on to miss the target, “But a genetic analysis published on Thursday has found that the ancient population survived that divine call for their extinction, and their descendants live in modern Lebanon.” The implication is that the Bible got it wrong.

Other media outlets did pretty much the same thing, with scathing headlines, such as “Study disproves the Bible’s suggestion that the ancient Canaanites were wiped out” (The Telegraph), and “New DNA study casts doubt on Bible claim” (Mother Nature Network)

However, if these journalists had kept on reading the Bible, they might have realized a problem. While Israel achieved notable victories at Jericho and Ai, the destruction of the Canaanites was far from complete.  Judges 1:27-28 specifically tells us that the Canaanites were not all wiped out by Joshua’s conquest of the land:

“…the Canaanites persisted in dwelling in that land…” (v.27)

Many of the Israelites tried to splice belief in the God of the Bible with beliefs in the Canaanite gods. More than a few Israelites intermarried with the Canaanites, adopting a syncretic form of religion. All of this behavior brought God’s judgment on the Israelite people, when God condemned their idolatrous actions. To miss this part of the story is to fail to understand the narrative within the Bible itself.

So, far from disproving the Bible, the survival of the Canaanites down to the present day actually confirms what the Bible claims. If we would but only read the text.

Thankfully, some of the news organizations have realized their error and made the appropriate corrections. The Telegraph made a note in their article, acknowledging the correction, and changed the headline more appropriately, as did Mother Nature Network. Science magazine did the same with their news story.

The irony behind the whole thing is that skeptics will often reject the Bible, on moral grounds, because of the supposed claim that the Israelites committed mass genocide against a large Canaanite population. But then they ding the Bible again, on historical grounds, when they discover that the supposed, full-blown, genocidal annihilation of the Canaanites never took place. Does anyone see something wrong with this picture?

There is a twist to all of this, too. True, Joshua’s conquest of the Promised Land, no matter how you envision the scale, and there is evidence to show that the traditional view is greatly oversized , did result in a lot of violent death. But were the Canaanites, properly speaking, the target of God’s wrath? Dr. Michael S. Heiser, an expert in Semitic languages, writes that the Anakim giants were actually the target for elimination, and not the Canaanites. His book, The Unseen Realm, is on my “to-be-read” list, but he gives an overview of his contrarian argument here. I am not sure what to make of Heiser’s argument yet, but he knows his Bible. The point is: there is more to the Bible than what most people realize.

Biblical illiteracy is at an all-time high, despite the ease of access to reading and studying the Bible, in a digital age. So, it does not help when mainstream journalism propagates errors, largely out of Bible-reading ignorance. As the proliferation of news sources abounds in the digital age, perhaps part of the problem is due to cuts among copy editor staff, at major newspapers, as Old Testament professor, Claude Mariottini, reports in another “fake news” story about archaeology in the land of the Bible (… a “BOO” for Fox News).

The best way people can correct such mistakes is pretty simple, and it does not take a Bible scholar to figure this out:

READ AND STUDY THE BIBLE.

HT:  Breaking Israel News.


Idols and Images: Ten Commandments, Yes, But How Do You List Them?

Moses and Aaron, with the Ten Commandments: Aron de Chaves (1674)

I received a little pushback offline on a previous post about dream catchers. I kind of expected that.

Christians have long struggled with the relationship between idols and visual images. Much of the controversy stems back to how Christians read the Ten Commandments, or more to the point, how various Christians read the Ten Commandments differently. An often ignored consequence of the 16th century Protestant Reformation illustrates the difficulty.

The Ten Commandments are derived from two passages from the Bible, Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:4-21, texts that are very close to one another in content. But careful study demonstrates that not every Christian identifies all of the commandments in the exact same manner. However, contrary to some misguided assertions, there are no mainstream Christian traditions that have “changed” the Ten Commandments. Rather, the problem is in how different traditions have grouped the various commandments together.

An obvious question to start off with would be, so why “Ten” commandments? Well, we have three passages in the Bible that directly tell us of “ten words” given to Moses at Sinai (Exodus 34:28, Deuteronomy 4:13, and Deuteronomy 10:4).

However, the Bible was not divided up into a verse numbering scheme until the Protestant Reformation, in the 16th century. Therefore, in the early church, there was no intuitively clear way to group the Ten Commandments together. Even the Jews have had their own unique pattern of grouping the “commandments,” and it has not matched 100% with any Christian version. Continue reading


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