Tag Archives: michael heiser

The Unseen Realm: Rediscovering the Supernatural World with Michael Heiser

Why did I wait so long to read this book?

Every now and then a book comes along that just revolutionizes your thinking. After having this book on my “to-be-read” list for at least five years, I finally got around to reading Dr. Michael S. Heiser’s The Unseen Realm.  Talk about a revolution. I will never read my Bible the same way again. I am not sure that Michael Heiser has EVERYTHING right, but he pretty much nails a lot of things smack dab on the head.

If have not heard of Dr. Michael Heiser before, might I suggest that you look him up on YouTube, as he is big in the world of Christian YouTube apologetics. If you are concerned about reaching the next generation for Christ, you should pay attention to what is going on with the newer, younger generation of thoughtful Christian apologists, in an Internet age. Michael Heiser heads the list of influential Bible scholars, who are leaned on by these young Christian apologists, who make a defense for the Gospel.

Michael Heiser got on my radar a few years ago with the Naked Bible Podcast, where this Old Testament and Semitic languages scholar goes through books of the Bible, mostly passage by passage, and focuses on a lot of the “weird” stuff in the Bible that is simply left untaught in most evangelical churches from the pulpit these days.

Heiser is a great Bible teacher, unafraid to challenge traditional denominational categories. Furthermore, a lot of what you find in popular media regarding the Old Testament is downright skeptical of Scriptural revelation, ranging from your typical college introductions to the Old Testament to televised programs on the History Channel. But Michael Heiser knows his stuff, tackling such skepticism of the Bible head on. Yet he introduces you to a paradigm of understanding Bible that affirms the full trustworthiness of the Scriptures, while maintaining a solid footing in the best of contemporary scholarship. Along with Wheaton College’s John Walton (see here and here), Michael Heiser is pretty much the “go-to” scholar when it comes to all things Old Testament, and relating that world to the New Testament, in the fiery world of Christian apologetics.

Michael Heiser’s Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible, will revolutionize the way you read Scripture, making sense out of many puzzling passages, and refuting materialistic skepticism that rejects the Bible.

How Contemporary Evangelical Avoidance of the Supernatural in Holy Scripture Has Obfuscated the Meaning of Many Difficult Texts in the Bible

In 2020, I decided to read one of Heiser’s more recent in-depth books first, Angels, and it was great, but I became aware that a lot of what you find in Angels assumes you understand the basic ideas presented in The Unseen RealmThe Unseen Realm seemed a bit daunting to me at the time, as it is somewhat academic (but not too academic), and I was not ready to dig that deep into the topic. But my goal of reading (errr… listening via Audible) The Unseen Realm on my bike rides this year left me stopping on the bike path, several times, to rewind the last paragraph or two, to fully digest the topic.

Before diving in, let me say that most readers at Veracity will probably get more out of Heiser’s other book, Supernatural: What the Bible Teaches About the Unseen World – and Why It Matters, as it is less academic and does not have footnotes, while still covering the same material. But I like footnotes, so The Unseen Realm was my thing.

So, what is the main idea behind The Unseen Realm?

If you had to pick one passage of the Bible that is totally weird, I bet that I can tell you what might rise to the top of the list, or pretty close to it. Would it be the story of Elisha and the She-bears in 2 Kings 2? Possibly. That one is weird. How about the thing about women wearing head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11? That’s weird, is it not? Some might even toss out the entire Book of Revelation as a good candidate. Yes, there is some weird stuff in that book, too.

But let us look at something right near the beginning of the whole Bible. Before you get a few chapters into Genesis, most every Christian I know gets stumped on this one: How about the story in Genesis 6, where the “sons of God” took the “daughters of men” as wives, and the offspring produced were called the Nephilim?

Pretty weird, huh?

In fact, I have always thought that this passage was SO weird, that I wrote a blog post almost 6 years ago explaining that most Christians have no clear idea as to what this passage is talking about, and urging humility when studying it. I still think we need humility, but I am pretty well convinced that Dr. Heiser’s approach is correct (I will leave the old blog post up anyway, just so that you can compare and see where my mind has changed). The amount of explanatory power behind Heiser’s thesis is simply breathtaking.

So, who are the “sons of God” in Genesis 6? A tradition going back to Saint Augustine suggests that these were descendants of Seth, the other son of Adam and Eve, aside from the well known Cain and Abel. In a nutshell, these “sons of God” were godly descendants of Seth, who had sexual relations with women descended from Cain; that is, “daughters of men,” such that God’s anger against humankind was stirred enough to trigger Noah’s flood, as a sign of divine judgment against the world.

Saint Augustine is surely one of the greatest teachers of Scripture of the Christian faith. The entire Protestant movement, for example, finds its backing squarely in the thought of Augustine’s view of justification by faith. Augustine was no slouch! However, Augustine was not proficient in his understanding of Greek, knew close to nothing about the Hebrew language, and lacked the cultural background of Second Temple Judaism, that was pretty well assumed by the original Jewish audience, living in the time of Jesus. Instead, according to Dr. Michael Heiser, a much older tradition, predating Augustine’s views, going back to the Book of Enoch, and other writings in the inter-testamental period, between the Old Testament and New Testament suggests that the “sons of Gods” were actually divine beings that rebelled against Yahweh, the name for God in the New Testament.

Genesis does not give us that many further details concerning these “sons of God,” but Heiser’s overview of the Jewish literature written within a few hundred years prior to the earthly ministry of Jesus reveals that Jesus’ listeners were thinking a lot about the “sons of God.” Are there other “sons of God,” other than the Genesis 6 rebels?

If you take a glance at just about any modern Bible translation, for the most popular verse in the Bible, John 3:16, you might see a clue here. For years, older translations of this verse spoke about Jesus this way, like in the KJV: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Most newer translations have removed the word “begotten“, an older archaic word, typically having something to do with “birth” or “generation.” But it is not because “begotten” is archaic that this word has been removed. Though still a topic of some debate, recent scholarship indicates the original Greek word, monogenes, actually has a meaning closer to “unique” or “one of a kind,” close to what the NIV 2011 translation has as “one and only Son“.  Michael Heiser probably prefers a translation along these lines: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his one of a kind Son“.  In other words, Jesus is the unique, one of a kind, Son of God. Unlike any other divine being, Jesus has a unique relation to God the Father that no other divine being has ever had.

So, what is the big deal about that? Well, have you ever wondered why the Gospels talk so much about demons and demon possession? Today, Christians normally fall into two camps when they think about demons. Either they see demons everywhere around us, even to an extreme, under your bed, in your neighbor’s mini-van, etc., a belief that is particularly strong among certain hyper-charismatic Christians. At the other extreme, other Christians (along with many non-believers) are embarrassed about such talk of demons, as demonic possession is typically thought of today as being an out-dated relic of unscientific, pre-modernistic cultures. Is there another alternative?

In The Unseen Realm, Michael Heiser makes the strong case that the dead Nephilim that were wiped out during the Great Flood of Noah are actually the source of demons. So, when Jesus comes on the scene in 1st century Palestine, he came to do battle against the demonic powers, which is why demons are out in full force in the Gospels. When Jesus makes his appearance as the unique, one of kind “Son of God,” he not only came to resolve the problem of human sin. He also came to conquer and destroy the demonic powers that seek to enslave humanity in that sin.

Furthermore, Heiser argues that this understanding of demons explains the perplexing passage in 1 Peter 3:19-20, where Jesus is said have preached to the “spirits in prison.” This passage is most probably the basis for the (in)famous descensus clause from the Apostles Creed, whereby Jesus descends into Hades (“hell“), between his crucifixion and resurrection. Who are these “spirits in prison?” For Heiser, and according to a large body of contemporary scholarship, these are the dead Nephilim that Jesus preaches to, condemning the demonic powers to their eternal demise and judgment. While not ruling out other possible explanations, that could run side by side with this one, the idea that Jesus was sent to preach a message of condemnation to the demons is a pretty awesome thing to consider.

That is some powerful stuff to think about!

Yes, it does sound quite weird. But then, that is partly why the message of the Bible still has a striking message for our fallen world today, that secularizes just about everything, and robs our day to day life of mystery and deeper meaning.

How an Old Testament Approach to the “Divine Council” Makes Better Sense of the New Testament

Behind Dr. Heiser’s approach to the Bible is the notion of a “Divine Council” being expressed in the pages of the Old Testament, whereby we understand Yahweh, the God of Israel, to have a court of other divine beings, that Yahweh himself created (see the Bible Project). These divine beings, whom we encounter in the Bible, including angels, cherubim, seraphim, and even the rebellious ones, like Satan and the demons, were created originally to serve Yahweh, as most clearly articulated in Psalm 82.

Traditionally, the “gods” of Psalm 82 have been primarily understood to be Jewish elders. On the other hand, Heiser makes the case that these “gods” are not human creatures, but rather they are divine creatures, that bring their supernatural influence to bear among the nations, as members of God’s “Divine Council.”  Heiser makes the bolder case that this “Divine Council” interpretation predates the “traditional” interpretation of Psalm 82, as it is thoroughly rooted in the worldview of Second Temple Judaism, a perspective that many of the great Gentile patristic teachers of the early church never fully grasped.

Once one understands the workings of the Divine Council in the Old Testament, this then unlocks a lot of the mystery behind dozens of passages in the New Testament, that typically confuse the vast majority of Christians. Heiser gives multiple examples of how a Divine Council framework of thinking helps to make more sense out of the New Testament.

Are you ever confused about Paul’s statement that we are to “judge angels” (1 Corinthians 6:3 ESV)? What about the rebellious angels that Jude highlights in his short letter (Jude 6)? Have you ever wondered why the tribe of Dan is omitted from the list of the 144,000 in Revelation 7? Had you ever considered that the plain of Meggido, in northern Israel, may not be the proper location of the battle of Armaggedon? And to top all of that off, what about that strange passage mentioned above in 1 Corinthians 11, requiring that women wear head coverings while praying/prophesying in church, because “of the angels” (verse 10)?

Sure, other competent scholars might suggest other interpretations. But Heiser’s work is most impressive for the broad explanatory power his thesis has in bringing together so many loose ends in Scripture, that continues to puzzle many students of the Bible.

Solving Old Testament Mysteries, Too

Of particular interest to those who are concerned about faith/science issues, as they relate to the Bible, is Dr. Heiser’s understanding that at least some of the Nephilim survived Noah’s flood. The Nephilim, products of the angelic/human procreation rebellion in Genesis 6, were considered to be giants. Heiser links these to the giants that the Israelite spies saw, when they identified the land as being filled with milk and honey. When the Israelites were commanded to wipe out the Anakim, when entering the Promised Land, Dr. Heiser suggests that these Anakim, as giants, were descendants of the Nephilim who survived the flood. Goliath, the great giant that David faced, is also identified as a descendant of the Anakim.

These observations helps to resolve two persistent apologetic quandaries, that have stumped believers and supposedly justified skeptics in their critique of the Bible. First, this would help to rule out a global flood, in favor of a large local flood, to fit within the Noahic narrative. For if the flood was global in nature, that would rule out survivors of the flood, apart from Noah and his family. However, if the flood was local in nature, this easily explains why some of the Nephilim survived into the period of Israel’s journey towards the Promised Land, prior to Joshua’s conquest.

This view of the Nephilim also dampens claims that the Bible advocates genocide of humans, as the wiping out of the Anakim would be for destroying these giant angelic/human hybrid offspring, instead of normal humans. Sure, it is some weird stuff to think about, like something out of a science-fiction movie. But it makes more sense than some of the peculiar ideas put forward by some Young Earth Creationists, regarding a global flood, and answers at least some concerns that skeptics have about the conquest of Canaan by Joshua.

What makes Dr. Heiser’s work in The Unseen Realm so compelling is that none of this research that he brings to bear on the Bible is unique or new to him. Everything you read about in The Unseen Realm is a result of peer-reviewed Biblical scholarship, researched and studied over the past few decades, that often remains locked up in the halls of academia. Instead, Michael Heiser takes this vast treasure of Biblical insight and makes it available to common, everyday Christian believers, putting it lower down towards the bottom shelf, so that everyone can benefit. The Unseen Realm is jam-packed with details that frame the Biblical story in a whole new way.

The main caution I would again point out is that The Unseen Realm assumes that the reader has some advanced understanding of the Bible. The Unseen Realm is therefore loaded with footnotes, which might be off-putting to the casual or uninitiated reader, but that will really help more knowledgeable students of the Bible put all of the pieces together. As an added bonus, Dr. Heiser has a website that gives even more extended notes for Bible students to dig deeper into the meaning of the text.

Fortunately, Michael Heiser’s more accessible version Supernatural will really help newer believers and other Bible novices comprehend his paradigm shifting argument. In other words, if you are fairly new to the Bible, get Supernatural instead, and leave the The Unseen Realm to the Bible nerds. If even that sounds too intimidating, Michael Heiser has also written a short introduction to what the story of the Bible is all about, What Does God Want?, that introduces the Gospel within the framework of his research.

Michael Heiser’s Supernatural is a “beginner’s guide” to Heiser’s thesis about the supernatural worldview of the Bible, otherwise known as the less academic version of his groundbreaking The Unseen Realm.

Seeing the Bible in a New Way Can Unsettle Older Ways of Thinking

Like any paradigm shifting work of theology published today, there are bound to be critics who will emerge to pushback on Heiser’s work. A Google search easily brings up a number of Heiser’s critics. I will just cover a few of the interesting one’s I found recently:

In a gracious response, Kenneth Berding at the Talbot School of Theology believes that while Heiser’s works has much to commend itself, Heiser misunderstands how the identification of the “adversary” in the Book of Job, as tied to the Christian concept of Satan, actually works (video link to Heiser’s response). Andrew Moody, the Australian editorial director of The Gospel Coalition’s website in Australia, is grateful for The Unseen Realm, but not convinced that the New Testament term “saints” in the Apostle Paul’s letters should better be translated as “holy ones,” that would include members of the Divine Council, along with human believers, as Dr. Heiser suggests. The Scholarly Dishwasher’s Blog contends that Heiser leaves the Triune nature of God out of the Genesis Creation account. James White, of Alpha Omega Ministries, one of the sharpest Christian apologists out there today, appeals to his staunchly Reformed theological position to dismiss Heiser’s reading of a “Divine Council” being taught in the Old Testament as spurious, if not downright heretical. Then there is a King James Only-ist advocate who admits that,  “Although [Heiser] is probably a saved man and he has decent goals, he is a typical member of the Alexandrian cult who wouldn’t know good Bible doctrine if it hit him on the head with a sledge hammer,all with plentiful exasperations expressed throughout in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS, meant to emphatically decry how anyone might benefit one iota from contemporary evangelical scholarship. *SIGH*

To varying degrees, some much more than others, each one of these critiques suffers from the same fundamental flaw. Each critique is at least somewhat nervous, or perhaps even scandalized, that Dr. Heiser seeks to ground his interpretation of these weird Scripture texts within the context of both the Ancient Near East and Second Temple Judaism. Yet this is precisely Dr. Heiser’s point, that we should best interpret the Bible within its ancient context, as opposed to depending on later traditions of thought, centuries removed from the original context, with little contact with ancient culture. The majority of Michael Heiser’s most severe critics therefore fail to appreciate the process of progressive revelation that took place among the Jewish writers and readers of Scripture, stemming hundreds of years back to the era of Moses, and on through the eve of Jesus’ public ministry (including the inter-testamental period, the so-called “Silent Years”).

Dr. Heiser is pretty adamant that we need to have the ancient Israelite “living in our head” if we ever expect to understand and interpret the Bible responsibly. Otherwise, we are simply reading “someone else’s mail,” thus imposing our own 21st century ideas on the text of Scripture, at the expense of neglecting the mindset that the ancient writers of Scripture held.

My teachers back during my years in seminary constantly hounded me for irresponsibly reading things back into the ancient texts of the Bible, and now I understand why. The original readers of the ancient Scriptural text were not able to consciously understand their Old Testament, in its fullness. Prior to the coming of Jesus, they got bits and pieces, but they lacked the full picture. It is a whole lot easier to skip that fact and try to read things back into the Old Testament, than it is to appreciate how God worked in the minds and hearts of His people over hundreds of years, to eventually disclose the mystery of the faith to Jesus’ earliest disciples in 1st century Palestine, and those like the Apostle Paul.

Am I convinced by every reading of controversial texts, cited by Michael Heiser? No, probably not. At times, Dr. Heiser dismisses too easily some of the more significant insights of certain early church fathers, like Augustine, as well as Reformation leaders, like Calvin and Luther. In other words, most of my Reformed friends think he is not “Reformed” enough. But traditional Roman Catholics might be unsettled by the implications of Heiser’s thesis, as he has a very different take on the Matthew 16:18 prooftext used to justify the primacy of Peter.

In other ways, Heiser likes to stand aloof from various controversies that plague the church today. For example, Dr. Heiser often states in his Naked Bible Podcast, that he “does not care” about the various eschatological systems that give us conflicting interpretations about the nature, timing and events associated with the Second Coming of Jesus. He also takes no position on the complementarian/egalitarian discussion regarding “women in ministry” dividing churches today, for pretty much the same reason. Some might find that to be a relief, whereas others might think that he is just dodging controversy. Presumably, I think that Dr. Heiser simply has no interest in trying to resolve any of the “hot-button” issues that trigger many Christians today, in the church, preferring instead to focus on his research into the Divine Council, which in my view, is a whole lot more intriguing and substantial anyway. Finally, some of the “science-fiction-like” interpretations that Heiser offers can sound a little crazy. People who get into fascinations regarding UFOs and paranormal experiences likely will be totally spellbound by Dr. Heiser’s research, whereas skeptics of those type of things might tend to be dismissive of Heiser’s ideas.

However, getting a glimpse as to how so many previously confusing passages of the Bible fit together in a coherent whole is really mind-blowing. More than any other contemporary Bible scholar, who writes for a popular audience, Michael Heiser’s detailed work in the supernatural character of the Bible, and love for verse-by-verse exposition of the Scripture, has created in me a deeper love and interest in the study of the Scriptures. The broad explanatory power of Heiser’s work that simultaneously undermines secularist skepticism about the Bible, and takes Jewish readings of the Bible more seriously, while illuminating the meaning of once difficult passages, makes an appreciation of Michael Heiser’s work both theologically stimulating and exciting. For Christians tired of shallow, thematic-based sermons in church, that dodge the more tricky parts of the Bible, and non-believers who struggle with making sense of the Bible, The Unseen Realm does an excellent job of opening up a whole new way of reading the Bible.

I have not been able to read my Bible the same way ever since.

 

 

Over the past few months, as I was writing the first draft of this book review, I learned that Dr. Heiser has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. An August, 2021, update showed that Dr. Heiser’s medical status was uncertain, and that he has been having trouble eating for the last few months.  But as of early September, 2021, we have some good news, that the cancer growth has not spread beyond the pancreas, which means that the cancer might be treatable. Please pray for healing for Dr. Heiser. His teaching work has been a real gift for the church, for the past decade or so, helping many thousands across the world grow in their deep love for God and His Word. For a quick 5-minute introduction to the book(s), from when Dr. Michael Heiser worked at Logos Bible Software and FaithLife, the following video sums up everything well (But for a deeper dive, check out the following videos, too):

 

Dr. Michael Heiser currently teaches at Celebration Church in Jacksonville, Florida. Here are three introductory sessions to his teachings, summarizing the basic contour of his book Supernatural, which is essentially his The Unseen Realm, without all of the footnotes.

 

 

 


The Crucible of Faith, by Philip Jenkins. A Review.

The so-called “inter-testamental” period, that 400-year period between completion of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament, is nothing but a black-box to the majority of evangelical Christians. As the story goes, Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament, was the last of the great Jewish prophets, before John the Baptist appears at the dawn of the New Testament period. Israel was without an inspired prophetic voice during this 400-year void.

The problem with this narrative is that it suggests that nothing of any substantive theological value was happening during that time. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It was during the era of Second-Temple Judaism, after the Temple was rebuilt following the Babylonian exile, when the subsequent invasions by the Greeks, the Seleucids, and the Romans, completely reshaped the world inhabited by the people of the Hebrew Scriptures. Respected Baylor historian, Philip Jenkins, has written a popular-level, sweeping history of the time, Crucible of Faith: The Ancient Revolution That Made Our Modern Religious World, that necessarily fills in the gap. Crucible of Faith makes for a fascinating read, but it can be unsettling at certain points. Jenkins’ work both strikingly illuminates the radical, Judeo-centric and often neglected developments of thought that created the theological culture that Jesus of Nazareth lived in, while inadvertently at times casting a shadow of doubt over the inner workings of progressive revelation in the Bible (if one is not careful).

Jenkins has written widely on topics related to Christian history, including a book that I highly recommend and that I read a few years ago, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died. Lost History is a fascinating survey of the much ignored churches of the Christian East, extending from the Middle East to Africa and Asia, during the first millennium of Christianity, that once dominated the Christian world, only to be crushed underneath the rise of Islam, and other Christian-opposing elements in Asia.

Jenkins’ more recent book from 2017, on the era just prior to the birth of Jesus, Crucible of Faith, was one of the last books I finished reading in 2020, and it has left me thinking more and more about it. Aside from my review of Tom Holland’s Dominion, this is my most in-depth book review of the year, … and the most challenging to write.

 

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Angels, by Michael Heiser, a Review

Do angels really have wings? Who are the cherubim and seraphim? What is an “angel,” anyway? More important than that, why would anyone really care?

I have been a follower of Dr. Michael Heiser’s Naked Bible Podcast for several years now, and I have read a number of his blog articles. Some of his blog entries made their way into his excellent 60-Second Scholar Series. What is so cool about the 60-Second Scholar Series is that each article only takes a minute to read, but the rewards are for a lifetime.

Then there is his FringePop321 YouTube channel, geared towards ministry with people fascinated by all things fringe and bizarre (I will post a few of the better episodes to Veracity in due time).

Despite all of this, I never committed the time to read any of his in-depth books. So this summer, I finally made the plunge and started with Angels: What the Bible Really Says About the Heavenly Host (via Audible audiobook). For those who are unfamiliar, Dr. Michael Heiser is an Old Testament scholar, who is gifted in making serious Bible study content accessible to believers who want to dive really deep into Scripture.

My quick take on Angels:    Whoa. This changes the way I look at the supernatural. Why do we not hear more about this kind of stuff in church?

Michael Heiser’s book on Angels: What the Bible Really Says About the Heavenly Host. plunges the reader into a deeper understanding of the supernatural, as taught in the Bible.

My background is such that I never really paid much attention to the topic of angels before. Sure, I read Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness, when it was all the rage. But there was a certain cheesy-ness factor to Peretti that kept me from taking it too seriously. But with Dr. Michael Heiser, formerly a Bible scholar with Logos Bible Software, and his book of Angels: What the Bible Really Says About the Heavenly Host, I have changed my tune.

Heiser is an Old Testament scholar who makes a bold and provocative claim, but he has some real meat behind it. For Heiser, a lot of traditions that have floated around, about the supernatural realm, are merely that…. they are man-made traditions…. like the idea that angels have wings (they do not).

Different denominational traditions have come up with interesting ideas about angels. But Heiser contends that if we look back at the development of Second Temple Judaism, and the Ancient Near East context that preceded it, they provide the cognitive background for much of our New Testament. As a result, as scholars discover more about how ancient Israelites viewed the world, we gain valuable insight into understanding a lot of the “weird” passages of the Bible.

Looking for the Trinity in Genesis…. But Missing the Bigger Story

Take, for example, Genesis 1:26, where God says, “Let us make man in our image.” Who is the “us” that God is speaking to? About 99% (give or take) of evangelical Christians would say that this is a reference to the doctrine of the Trinity, embedded right there in the Old Testament.

Not so, as Dr. Heiser demonstrates. Heiser makes the case that the “us” is really a reference to a “divine council;” that is, the heavenly host, including angels, that were created by God in the non-material realm. We see other examples of this “divine council” at work, in several other texts of the Old Testament, including Isaiah 6 and 1 Kings 22:19-22, with no reference to the Triune nature of God.

Not only is the “Trinity” explanation rather ad hoc, a way for Christians to make the Old Testament fit into pre-conceived Christian ideas, it does not even make sense. For if all of the persons of the Godhead are already in cognitive union with one another, God does not need to tell himself what he is going to do. It makes better sense if God is addressing his heavenly host, whom he has already created, to speak about the creation of humanity.1

But why might this even be important? For several centuries now, skeptical scholars have taken this reference to “us” in Genesis 1:26 as evidence supporting a polytheistic conception of God, in early Old Testament history. According to this narrative, popularized in university religion classes and the History Channel, ancient Israelite religion evolved from a polytheistic view of “gods” towards a single, monotheistic conception of God. To put it bluntly, this would mean that Judaic religion, with its emphasis on what would become one “god”, is essentially a theological hack, using a manufactured monotheism to replace its original polytheism.

If you believe that, then it really cuts down the idea of the inspiration of Scripture a major notch.

However, if Heiser’s explanation is correct, and he has plenty of evidence to support his overall thesis, the concept of an angelic heavenly host does two things at once: It knocks out a well-intentioned, yet not altogether convincing apologetic for the Trinity. Plus, it silences at least a two-centuries long critique of Biblical faith, as a type of polytheism that clumsily morphs into monotheism.

This polytheism-evolving-into-monotheism story is completely wrong, as Michael Heiser contends. The concept of a monotheistic God, surrounded by his angelic heavenly host, is a theme that runs throughout the whole of Scripture, starting even there in Genesis 1. We do not need to read the Trinity into the Biblical text, when there is a better solution, that has greater explanatory power.

And that is a big deal.2

Getting Solid Scholarship into the Hands of the Everyday Christian Believer

What makes Heiser’s work so surprising is that none of his research is original. Angels is well-documented with footnotes that carefully relies on decades of peer-reviewed scholarship. Essentially, Heiser, though skilled in semitic languages and the Old Testament, is a popularizer of prevailing scholarship, that somehow never makes its way out of the academy, and into the hands of your typical church-going Christian.

Some well-intentioned conservative evangelical writers tend to promote a narrative that denigrates the bulk of evangelical scholarship, as somehow a backhanded slap against biblical inerrancy. But Heiser is not buying that story. Rather, the type of research he is making accessible to the average Christian is meant to support and encourage the evangelically minded believer. That scholarship, far from being an enemy of the faith, actually helps to ground our faith in evidenced-based reality.

One need not be convinced of everything Michael Heiser argues in order to benefit from his thesis. I am still mulling a few things over myself. Yet it is the careful attention to the text of Scripture, buttressed by responsible scholarship, that I find to be the most persuasive about Heiser’s work.

The only main drawback about Angels is that it does make for difficult listening as an audiobook. Angels does lean towards being an academic book. But it is primarily targeted towards someone who wants to do serious Bible study.  You do not need to know the Biblical languages, or understand heavy theological concepts here. But you do need have an interest in wanting to dig deep and learn. I found myself having to stop what I was doing, when listening to the book, to go look up the Bible passage under discussion. I would strongly suggest getting the Kindle or paper edition of Angels, to supplement the audio version, to be used as future reference.

Dr. Heiser’s primary work is The Unseen Realm, which expounds his underlying thesis about the supernatural world. After reading Angels, I now want to dig into The Unseen Realm, to get the rest of the background material that permeates Angels. I have heard, that like Angels, there is a lot for the average reader to absorb in The Unseen Realm. To accommodate those who do not need lots of footnotes, a less academic version of the book, entitled Supernatural, is aimed to help those readers, in a more popular audience.

The newest book in Heiser’s literary output, along the same theme, is Demons, basically the “bad-guys” version of Angels, though it is not available in audiobook form… (at least not yet). A lot of Christians talk a lot about “spiritual warfare.” But Dr. Heiser takes a much different approach to the popular view of “spiritual warfare,” that I want to learn more about.3

If you want to try to understand some of the weirder parts of the Bible, or you want to sift through some of the more erroneous popular understandings of angelic beings in Scripture, then Dr. Heiser’s Angels is the best place to dive into, as a start…. Oh, yeah, Dr. Heiser has a great explanation of that weird-weird passage that talks about head coverings for women in 1 Corinthians 11. Fascinating.

Seriously. Go read Angels and it will all start to make sense.

 

For an 8-minute explanation about why we do not need to read the Trinity directly back into Genesis 1:

I am not familiar with the “Sharpening Report,” so I am not in the position to make any endorsement, but the following interview with Dr. Heiser summarizes the content of the book.

Notes:

1. That being said, we should be clear in saying that Genesis 1 does not rule out the Trinity. It is sufficient to say that the Trinue nature of God is consistent with what is being taught in Genesis 1, and that God uses the process of progressive revelation to introduce the concept of the Trinity. Nowhere in the New Testament do we find any explicit statement saying “one God, three persons.” Rather, even in the New Testament we see the building blocks for the doctrine of the Trinity, that eventually gets fleshed out, in the early centuries of the Christian movement. Therefore, it is perfectly fine, and even necessary to say, that we as humans, male and female, are created in the image of God, reflecting the Triune nature of God, even if there is no explicit mention of the Trinity in Genesis. As Dr. Heiser teaches in the first video above, God addresses the heavenly host in Genesis 1:26, but when God creates humanity in Genesis 1:27, it is God alone who acts. This is consistent with a theology of the Triune God. We do not need to read something from the New Testament, or Nicene theology, back into Genesis. 

2. In the world of academia, this critique undermines a view of scholarship, which has been the consensus since the later 19th century. Even well-regarded Christian scholars have uncritically swallowed the polytheism-evolving-into-monotheism story into their work. For example, the thoughtful and always illuminating Baylor University historian Philip Jenkins, has been celebrated several times before here at Veracity (#1, #2, #3, #4, #5), and is the author of one of my most well-regarded works of Christian history, his 2008 The Lost History of Christianity. With regret however, Jenkins relies on this polytheism-evolving-into-monotheism story in the 2017 Crucible of Faith, his history of the time between the Old and New Testaments, thus marring his otherwise excellent scholarship, according to WORLD Magazine editor Marvin Olasky.  As a biblical scholar, Dr. Michael Heiser adds an exceedingly helpful corrective. 

3. New Testament scholar Ben Witherington interviews Michael Heiser about his Demons book.  Intro,  Interview blog entries in reverse order , and here, and here, and here.  


Does the Bible Really Support Slavery on the Basis of Skin-Color?

Noah curses his son Ham, a 19th-century painting by Ivan Stepanovitch Ksenofontov. Ham looks pretty white to me here, but for thousands of Christians in the American South, from at least the 19th century to recent times, they thought Ham (or his son Canaan) had black skin.

One of the persistent criticisms made against the Christian faith is the claim that the Bible supports slavery. The “New Atheists” argue that the Bible’s support for slavery demonstrates that the Bible is an immoral book, an ancient text better left to the Bronze age, from which it came. Overly-enthusiastic defenders of the faith, eager to answer such critics, can sometimes overreact in the opposite direction, ignoring some of the more difficult statements found in Scripture.

The answer is, as is the case with all “social justice” issues, is a bit more complicated. For the critics, they have a point in that Leviticus 25:44-46 looks to be, on a surface reading, to be condoning chattel slavery, treating persons as property, that can be bought or sold. However, Tyndale House linguistics scholar Peter J. Williams makes the case that passages like these require a more thoughtful reading, paying closer attention to the historical context in which they were made (see video below).

Many people today find the Bible’s comments on slavery disturbing, because they often confuse the Bible’s discussion of slavery, with how Americans in the antebellum South practiced slavery, with dark-skinned Africans. Many Americans, particularly in the antebellum Old South (and even perhaps some even today!!), based the enslavement of dark-skinned Africans on a rather crude reading of Noah’s “Curse on Ham”, as found in Genesis 9:20-27, when Ham’s son, Canaan, was cursed by Noah, after Ham uncovered “the nakedness of his father.” What is striking right away is that the curse was actually made against Canaan, Ham’s son, and not Ham himself. The “African slavery” interpretation is all the more alarming, when one considers that Canaan is the ancestor of the Canaanites who populated the Promised Land, that Joshua and the Israelites settled. There is no evidence in Scripture that Canaan had any African descendants.

By the 15th century, an interpretive tradition became popular, identifying the practice of enslaving Africans, as a result of this so-called “Curse on Ham.” But according to semitic and Old Testament scholar Michael Heiser, in an episode of FringePop321, this particular Bible interpretation is woefully flawed, in multiple ways, failing to take into account, the critical presence of metaphor in Genesis, that can be seen by a more broad reading of Scripture, following the practice of interpreting Scripture with Scripture (see second video below).

So, what was the whole “nakedness of [Noah’s] father” all about? Dr. Heiser makes the compelling case that it had EVERYTHING to do with Ham seeking to usurp his father’s clan leadership, and absolutely NOTHING to do with skin color.

The bottom line? Whatever criticisms can be levied against the Bible regarding the practice of slavery, such slavery can NOT be equated with the kind of racial-based slavery practiced in the antebellum American South.

Bible interpretation matters, folks. Bible interpretation matters.

For a helpful summary of the Bible’s teaching on slavery in general, please read this excellent article over at Alisa Childers’ apologetics blog. For a critical interaction with the idea that the Bible only endorses indentured servitude, and not chattel slavery, consult this YouTube video by Digital Hammurabi (also this additional video by Digital Hammurabi: scholars appear to be divided on this issue concerning chattel slavery). For a summary of scholarly views on the Genesis 9 text, with an extensive interaction with Dr. Heiser’s exegesis, read this article by Kathleen Kasper at YourBibleBlog. Dr. Heiser’s work largely depends on research done by Roman Catholic scholars John Sietze Bergsma and Scott Hahn. Peter Leithart summarizes Bergsma and Hahn. This current blog article updates the research I did regarding the “Curse of Ham,”  for a previous blog article I wrote in 2015.

 


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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