Tag Archives: second temple judaism

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.

 

 

 


Judaism Before Jesus: Exploring the History Between the Old and New Testaments

What happened in Israel between the time of the end of the Old Testament, and the coming of John the Baptist in the New Testament?

Many Christians, primarily of an evangelical Protestant conviction, know very little about the so-called “time between the testaments,” the 400-ish-year period after the Book of Malachi and before the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew. Sometimes this period is also called “the silent years,” in that we have no recognized biblical prophet speaking for those roughly 400 years, before John the Baptist.

By the end of our Old Testament, the Jews were back in their homeland, after being sent into exile in Babylon in the 6th century BCE. They were struggling to rebuild their temple in Jerusalem, along with the city itself, as we learn from Ezra and Nehemiah, but things finally came together. The narrative of Jewish history pretty much stops at this point.

Then all of the sudden, we get to the New Testament, and we run into groups like the Pharisees and Sadducees, and King Herod, and an occupation by the Romans. It seems like all of these people just come from out of nowhere!

Author Anthony J. Tomasino, in his Judaism Before Jesus, gives us a helpful analogy: Imagine you are watching a thrilling movie one night. Then you get a phone call, let us say, from your boss, a baby-sitter, or whomever, and you need to deal with a situation right away, so you step out from watching the movie. You get the issue resolved, and then 20-30 minutes later walk back in and watch the rest of the movie.

But you have missed at least 20 minutes from a story told over a 2-hour period! All of these new characters pop up out of nowhere. You struggle with trying to figure out what is going on, as you have lost the continuity of the story line.

That is pretty much what happens to most Christians when they try to study the Bible, and yet completely ignore the story of what happened between the times of the Old and New Testaments, what others call the “intertestamental period.”

Were the 400 years after Malachi and before the New Testament really “silent?” While Protestant Christians recognize that there were no canonical prophetic writings directly associated with this time period, the extraordinary history that God was working through the nation of Israel was anything but “silent.” But what do we know about those years, and does that knowledge help us to read our New Testament better? (credit: excelnetwork.org)

Continue reading


The Bible With and Without Jesus: Jews and Christians Reading Scripture Differently

Jews and Christians read the same stories in the Bible differently: So argues Jewish Bible scholars Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, as the sub-title to their 2020 book, The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently.

So, why would I, as an evangelical Christian, read a book like this from two Jewish scholars titled as “The Bible With and Without Jesus?” Well, both Jews and Christians have at least one thing in common: The Old Testament, or what many Jews prefer to call “the Hebrew Bible,” or “the Hebrew Scriptures.” But one group reads the Old Testament with all eyes focused on finding Jesus in the text (the Christians), whereas the other group finds it difficult to see Jesus at all in the text (the Jews….. at least the non-Messianic Jews).

What do non-Christian Jews find in the Old Testament, if they do not find Jesus there? I was on a mission to find out. Having worked previously with a Jewish colleague of mine for seven years, with many hours of spiritual conversation, this was not just an academic interest. It was personal.

As Levine and Brettler put it, wherever there are two Jews, there you will find three opinions. This is as true now as it was in the time of Jesus, and in the few centuries leading up to Jesus’ birth.

 

How Jews and Christians Read the Bible in Different Ways

Last year, I read a history of the “time between the testaments,” Crucible of Faith: The Ancient Revolution That Made Our Modern Religious World, by Philip Jenkins (see this review on Veracity). Learning about the history covering several hundreds of years before Jesus was born helped me to better understand why sometimes understanding the Old Testament can be so tricky.

By the time Jesus walked the earth, different Jewish groups all held to the Law of Moses, yet came to different conclusions on certain important theological issues. The Pharisees believed in the resurrection, and the Sadducees rejected it. The Pharisees believed in an oral tradition, that had authority side by side with the written Law of Moses. The Sadducees rejected anything that was not in the written Law of Moses; that is, the first five books of the Bible. As for the rest of the books of what most Christians call the “Old Testament,” such as the Prophets (like Isaiah, Ezekiel, etc.), the Sadducees were highly suspicious as to their status as Scripture.

Other complexities abound: The Pharisees believed in a world filled with angels and demons, that interact with humans. The Sadducees rejected such grand diversity of supernatural beings, and present day communication with them, as being a bunch of nonsense, that obscured the reality of there being but one and only one ultimate divine power, that of God and God alone (Acts 23:8). The Sadducees emphasized the centrality of the Temple, whereas the Essenes (think “The Dead Sea Scrolls” people at Qumran, according to at least some scholars) rejected the Temple as a completely corrupt institution. But the Essenes went beyond even the Pharisees, as they considered books like 1st Enoch as part of Scripture…. but they interestingly dismissed Esther as not part of the Bible. This can be all quite confusing.

These type of differences, some of which are recorded in the New Testament, stem back to different ways of interpreting and translating the Hebrew Scriptures. Fast forward beyond the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, in 70 C.E., the Jews eventually settled on a basic body of Scripture, and have since figured out ways of maintaining their tradition, without a central Temple. Nevertheless, Jews still today regularly debate the interpretation of many important aspects of their faith.

So, when I saw that Levine and Brettler had written a book that tries to show how Jews (in general) read the Bible differently than Christians, my curiosity was pricked, to dig into this issue some more. After all, I have long made the assumption that some of the most basic stories we find in the Old Testament are read the same way, by Jews and Christians alike. Apparently, my assumption has been quite embarrassingly wrong.

Levine and Brettler have been intimately involved in two major projects, that serious students of the Bible have found useful, one being The Jewish Study Bible (Brettler), taking an English translation of the Old Testament and providing study notes, written from a Jewish perspective, just like you would find in a Christian Bible. The other project is the Jewish Annotated New Testament (Brettler and Levine), which is geared towards introducing Jews to the thought world of the New Testament, but which has also helped me, as an additional resource to better understand a more Jewish context in reading the New Testament (see this book review at Themelios).

In The Bible With and Without Jesus, Levine and Brettler take some of the major theological themes as found in the New Testament, to compare how Christians view the same themes as found in the Old Testament, and contrast them with how such themes have been typically interpreted by Jews, who just read the Old Testament, by itself.

Jewish vs. Christian Understanding of Biblical Prophecy??

For example, biblical prophecy, especially as Christians have thought of Jesus fulfilling certain prophecies of the Old Testament, is a big issue. Since the Reformation, particularly after the first generation of folks like Luther and Calvin, many Protestant Bible teachers have tended to dismiss allegorical-type interpretations of the Old Testament, that were common in the medieval church, as such allegorical-type readings of the Bible tended to lead to doctrines that were considered to be theologically suspect, such as the perpetual virginity of Mary. As a result, most Protestant Reformed Christians have believed that only an historical-grammatical interpretation (sometimes called a “literal interpretation”) of the Bible is permissible when studying Scripture.

But this strict approach becomes a problem when trying to handle certain elements of biblical prophecy. For example, in Isaiah 7:14, we find the famous Christmas prophecy for the virgin birth of Jesus, as told by the Gospel of Matthew. The immediate historical-grammatical context shows that the prophecy was originally fulfilled in the birth of the prophet Isaiah’s son, in Isaiah 8. But many Jews acknowledge that there is an additional, deeper meaning of the prophecy, that finds its fulfillment in the birth of King Hezekiah. Christian scholars, even Protestant Reformed scholars, typically refer to this interpretive method as typology (or as many Roman Catholic apologists frame it, in terms of a somewhat different hermeneutical method called sensus plenior, or the “fuller sense” of the text). C.S. Lewis called this interpretive characteristic of the Old Testament to be the second meaning of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Levine and Brettler note Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, where the early Christian apologist, Justin Martyr, engages in a debate with Trypho in the 2nd century C.E. As a Jew, unconvinced by the Christian message, Trypho was emphatic in insisting that Isaiah’s prophecy ultimately had King Hezekiah in mind back in the 6th century B.C.E, and not Jesus of Nazareth, centuries later. In other words, Isaiah 7:14 does not prophecy the coming of the Jewish Messiah. Justin Martyr, as a Christian, took a different approach, contending for the Gospel of Matthew’s claim that Jesus was the real reason and ultimate fulfillment for Isaiah’s prophecy.

The ESV translation reads Isaiah 7:14 as follows, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”  For most Jews, the “virgin” is said to be a mistranslation of the ancient Hebrew, since the translation of “virgin” comes from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, favored by Greek-speaking Jews, including the earliest Christians, in the first century. However, the Septuagint’s translation may indicate an older, more authentic Hebrew tradition, that is currently lost. Or it may indicate some special insight that the Septuagint translators had, which was not made clear in the ancient Hebrew tradition, preserved by the Masoretic text. This Masoretic text, that most orthodox Jews believe to be authoritative, translates “virgin” simply as “young maiden.”

When the verse talks about “give you a sign,” Levine and Brettler note that the “you” is plural, which might suggest that the prophecy does, in fact, have a plural meaning, which might allow for one of the “you” to refer to the time of Joseph, the betrothed husband of Mary, in addition to the original reference to the time of Isaiah, through the birth of Isaiah’s son, or even the prophetic prediction of Hezekiah’s birth. Levine and Brettler’s discussion of this controversial passage reveals the complexities that show why Jews and Christians have differed in their interpretation of certain key texts of the Bible.

Psalm 22 provides another famous example of how New Testament writers used this Old Testament psalm to speak of Jesus, according to Levine and Brettler. In Matthew 27:46, we have Jesus’ well-known cry upon the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?,” which is a direct quotation from Psalm 22:1. But certain Jewish traditions extending back to the time just before Christ treat Psalm 22 differently. In the Apocrypha version of the Book of Esther, part of what Roman Catholics call the deuterocanonical writings, we have a Greek commentary to the Hebrew version of the Book of Esther. The Hebrew version of Esther, commonly found in Protestant Bibles, has no reference to God found in the text. So, the Greek version offers a theological interpretation of Esther’s story, running throughout the text. But many Jews have noted that some significant parts of Esther contain direction allusions to Psalm 22, leading many Jews, even today, to say that Psalm 22 is not about Jesus, but rather, is about Esther.

However, it would be a mistake to conclude that the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) can only be appreciated in a postmodern way; that is, by admitting that the original meaning intended by the original author has very little bearing on what the text says to us today. In postmodernism, what really matters is the reception history of the text; that is, how different reading communities over the centuries have articulated the meaning of the text, for themselves. Yet this would not be consistent with how Jews and Christians have understood the inspiration of Scripture, over thousands of years. Instead, the Bible has a progressive character of revelation to it, where God continues to unfold its meaning and the reading communities develop in their understanding of the text, as God intended it to be understood. In the case of the Christian, the culmination of this progressive revelation is the coming of Jesus of Nazareth, as the Messiah, whereas a non-Christian Jew sees the culmination of the message differently.

Helping Christians and Jews Understand Why They Read the Bible Differently

Levine and Brettler admit that their project is two-fold, to help Christians better understand how Jews approach the Bible, and to help Jews better understand how Christians read the Bible. As a Christian, I would say that both Levine and Brettler are to be warmly commended for treating the Christian tradition fairly.  I was won over by their effort, not to try to get everyone to agree on “the” interpretation of particular passages, but rather to encourage sympathy as to why Jews and Christians do indeed differ, in their reading of the text. Nevertheless, there is a polemic edge that pokes through in some spots The Bible With and Without Jesus. Their project is not an apologetic for any sort of relativism. Rather, their work is still an apologetic for their approach to Judaism.

For example, in their chapter on supersessionism in the Book of Hebrews, they correctly note the New Testament claim that the revelation of Jesus does supersede other Jewish interpretations of the Jewish Scriptural tradition. The author of Hebrews repeatedly tries to show how Jesus is better than the angels, better than Moses, better than Joshua, and better than the ancient Jewish sacrificial system. Levine and Brettler reject such a claim, as they consider themselves to be faithful Jews, unconvinced that the Christian message, that asserts that Jesus is the Messiah, is really true. In other words, Levine and Brettler are convinced that the Jewish tradition is still doing pretty well as it is, thank you very much, without having to make an appeal of accepting Jesus as the promised Messiah.

Furthermore, Levine and Brettler would not fit into a purely “conservative” category of scholarship, and this might bother some Jews, in addition to some conservative evangelical Christians who might read their work. For example, Levine and Brettler find a plethora of evidence in the Book of Jonah, that would indicate to them, that this short, popular story from the Old Testament is a work of historical fiction. A few conservative Christians scholars might agree with them, but a vast majority of Christians, and many Jews as well, will probably find such an idea difficult to swallow. But unlike other prophetic books, like Nahum, Hosea, and Haggai, the Book of Jonah has a completely different look and feel to it, which raises questions, both today and in the long history of Judaism and Christianity, as to what is really supposed to be going on in the Book of Jonah. Is it an allegory, a report of factual history, or something more complicated than that? While Levine and Brettler affirm that Jonah was a genuinely historical prophet, in Israelite history, they conclude that the story of Jonah and the big “whale” (thanks to William Tyndale’s translation of Matthew 12:40, that made its way into the King James Version of the Bible), and subsequent repentance of Nineveh was originally meant as a theological message, describing the merciful and compassionate character of God, and not as observable history.

Levine and Brettler happily argue that the Bible is ambiguous, or “slippery,” in its very nature. They would contend that such ambiguity is a virtue. To a certain degree, such ambiguity should cause Christians to embrace a kind of hermeneutical humility, particularly when Christians are unable to agree with one another, on certain Scriptural passages, involving non-essential matters of faith. Fair enough. However, there are limitations to this. Such limitations are found on both the Jewish and Christian sides of the discussion. But I will only focus on a Christian critique here.

For while The Bible With and Without Jesus succeeds in helping the reader to better appreciate why people can read the Bible so differently, thus creating a pathway for better conversation, it still can not get beyond the fact that the fundamental New Testament claim, that Jesus is the Messiah, stands in stark contrast with any other Jewish reading of the Old Testament. Effectively, the New Testament seeks to set forth the definitive commentary and critique challenging other (competitive?? for lack of a better term?) Jewish readings of the Old Testament. After all, Jesus, Paul, and many of the key figures in the early Jesus movement were all Jewish themselves. Yet the scandal of the New Testament is the claim, drawing on the testimony of Jesus as the Crucified and Risen Messiah, that the teachings of Jesus seek to properly interpret the true meaning of Israel’s Scriptures.

Applying this to the example of Isaiah’s prophecy noted above, Christians believe that Isaiah’s prophecy ultimately had Jesus in mind, despite how other Jews might interpret it. Why? Because the New Testament teaches that the birth of Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of what is preserved in the Book of Isaiah.

Critics will indeed dispute this. The claim that Jesus is, in fact, the promised Jewish Messiah is stilly a gutsy bold claim. Grounded in the resurrection narrative, the claim of a once-died but now Risen Messiah still offends the sensibilities of most Jews.

Sadly, Christians like me, for the past 2,000 years, have at times assumed the worst about the Jews. After all, Christians over the centuries have sometimes settled for some rather odd, at best, or even conspiratorial, at worst, understandings of what Jews really think. In response, a number of Jewish critics have charged that it is the Christians who have been the ones to twist the Old Testament Scriptures to serve Christian purposes, thereby obscuring the message of the Torah.

But once we dive into the world of the New Testament, peeling back layers of tradition, we can see the essential Jewish character of the earliest Jesus movement. Far from being a Hellenized (Greek-influenced) heretical spin-off from Judaism, as popularly believed by some in modern times, or even more so by certain extreme skeptics, that Christianity was simply a “copy-cat” religion of other pagan faiths, the early Christian movement was rooted in the central debates of Jewish thought, that were alive and well in first century Palestine, and other surrounding Jewish communities.

The New Testament as Authoritative Commentary on the Old Testament (…. and Not Some Attempt to Paganize/Hellenize Judaism)

Contrary to many critics of Christianity today, there are good reasons to believe that the Christian faith is thoroughly rooted in a first century, Jewish theological context. Here is a good example of this, that blows my mind, every time I think of it, with respect to the work of Dr. Michael Heiser (see my review of Heiser’s groundbreaking book, Angels). Dr. Michael Heiser teaches about how Jesus uses the reference to the “cloud rider” and “one like a son of man,” in Daniel 7:13-14, to refer to himself, in his defense before Caiphas, the High Priest, in Matthew 26:62-65. For years, it really puzzled me as to why Caiphas immediately charged Jesus with uttering blasphemy, because of this statement by Jesus. However, during the inter-testamental period (that time between when the Old Testament and the New Testament were written), some Jews were actively thinking about how to best interpret Daniel’s mystifying statement.

It was as though Daniel was suggesting that Yahweh, the God of Israel, was giving a prophecy regarding the coming of Yahweh, in human-flesh form (“one like a son of man”). Does this mean that there were somehow “two Yahwehs,” one who was not like “a son of man,” and another who was? According to one Second Temple Judaism tradition, this is exactly what they believed.

This “two-Yahwehs” (or “two-powers”) theology was alive and well in the days of Jesus, which is really the reason why Caiphas freaked out, over Jesus’ claim made before the Sanhedrin. Interestingly though, the mainstream of Jewish thought eventually abandoned this interpretation of Daniel, during the early Christian era. Christians, in turn, found in this Jewish strand of thinking, the basis for affirming the divine nature of God the Son, simultaneously with the divine nature of the Father, thus serving as the Old Testament basis for the doctrine of the Trinity. If you have about 10-minutes, it is worth hearing Dr. Heiser summarize the whole thing:

For a 7-minute exploration of the topic at a deeper level, follow this link to YouTube. If both Christians and Jews are “people of the book,” what really separates them, when it comes to how they interpret Scripture? It is worth now taking a stab at an answer.

Whereas Jews can suffer through having multiple interpretations of their sacred texts, but still remain Jews together, due to their ethnic identities and traditions, this can not be said so easily of Christianity. Christianity is not about embracing a particular ethnic identity, rooted in tradition, as in Judaism. Rather, Christianity has an essential universal claim to truth that demands a response from any and all peoples, not just those who share a Jewish tradition. The Christian faith is ultimately bound up in its unified affirmation of fundamental Christian doctrinal teachings, primarily focused around the proclamation of a crucified Jesus as the Risen Messiah.

We Christians still have much to learn from our Jewish friends, in that many Christians still divide over and against one another, in non-essential areas of Christian doctrine. Many of these disputes have been ongoing for centuries, where it is unlikely that there will be any clear resolution to such controversies, prior to Christ’s final return. We can learn more than a few tips from our Jewish friends, in learning how to still view one another as fellow Christians, when we have disagreements with one another over non-essential matters of the faith. For that reason alone, I am grateful for Levine and Brettler’s book.

At the same time, there are essentials to the Christian faith that can not, and need not, be compromised. If you try to take away an essential to the Christian faith, you no longer have a Christian faith. Either Jesus is the crucified Messiah, Risen from the dead, or he is not. Either Jesus is the unique Son of God, or he is not. Either God has revealed himself  in the pages of the New Testament, thus completing what was started in the Old Testament, or he has not.

And so, this means, that Jews and Christian still have much to think about and talk about. Let the conversation continue.

 

The following 4-minute video clip is from an interview with Brettler and Levin about how Christians and Jews interpret the Sabbath commands of the Bible differently. I am not necessarily endorsing the video, but this section of the interview is surely food for thought.

 

How can a Christian worship Jesus, and still be a monotheist? For a more in-depth examination of the “two-Yahwehs” or “two-powers” theology, which was an important component of some Jewish thinking, during the time of Jesus, that prefigured the development of the divinity of Jesus and Trinitarian thinking in Christianity, please spend some time considering the following teaching by Dr. Michael Heiser:

For a longer and earlier version of this lecture (with somewhat inferior audio-quality), please consider this presentation of Dr. Heiser’s teaching:


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.

 

Continue reading


Who Was Lilith? Did Adam Have a First Wife Prior to Eve?

Readers of the Book of Genesis will know that Adam’s first wife was Eve. But some have suggested that the story of Genesis was deliberately changed by the Christian church to hide the fact that Adam had a wife prior to Eve, and her name was Lilith. Is there any truth to this conspiracy claim?

It is true that according to medieval Jewish folklore, that there is a story about a Lilith, who was Adam’s first wife. The most obvious problem with the conspiracy claim is that one of the first Jewish writings to definitively tie Lilith to Adam was a mystical text, the Alphabet of Sirach, composed somewhere between the years 700 C.E. to 1000 C.E.  This is several hundred of years after the New Testament was already completed, and well over a thousand years after the story of Adam and Eve made its way into the Bible.

Lilith (1887) by John Collier in Atkinson Art Gallery, Merseyside, England (credit: Wikipedia)

What gives a little bit of life to the conspiracy claim is that a legend about a female demon, Lilith, did originate in Sumerian and Babylonian writings, centuries before Christ. Tales about Lilith crept into later Jewish writings. But the Alphabet of Sirach was one of the first written works to have made any serious connection between Adam and Lilith, and the Christian church had already been in existence for several centuries.

Dr. Michael Heiser has a 13-minute video explaining the full story about Lilith, including why medieval Jewish scribes invested in the Lilith story, and why the conspiracy theory about her existence as Adam’s first wife being suppressed can be easily dismissed.


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