Category Archives: Biblical Studies

Bonus Post: Where Was Jesus Born?

Thomas Marberry

(Editorial Note: As a gift to our readers, we’re posting a second time this week on the theme of Christmas; Enjoy!)

Matthew and Luke both give brief discussions of Jesus’ birth. They emphasize the importance of his birth, but they manifest little interest in the circumstances. Matthew, for example, mentions only that Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea during the reign of Herod the king. He offers no insight into the specific location of Jesus’ birth or the circumstances surrounding it. Luke provides a little more information, but even he focuses his attention on the significance of Jesus’ birth rather than on the situation in which Jesus was born. He notes that Joseph and Mary traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem “because he was of the house and lineage of David.” The text does not say that Jesus was born shortly after their arrival in Bethlehem, but that may be the implication of the passage. Luke states only that there was no room for them in the inn and that the baby was placed in a manger after the birth. Luke devotes no attention to the location of Jesus’ birth or how his birth affected Joseph and Mary.

In his discussion of where Jesus was born, Luke uses two significant terms. The first is kataluma which is the Greek word translated “inn” in most English translations. It is a very general word, rather similar to the words “lodging” in English or “posada” in Spanish. This word is used in various ways in the Bible and in Greek literature outside the Bible. It may describe a public inn where people rent lodging. It is used in Luke 22:11 to describe the guest room in a private home. It is used in the Septuagint to describe a public shelter where people might gather for the night.  Some commentators note that it may describe an eastern inn which often consisted of a series of rooms arranged around an open courtyard.

The second important term is phatnē which is often translated “manger.” This word was used in two primary ways. It was used to describe a stall or stable in which animals were kept. It was also used to describe a feeding pan or trough that was used to feed animals. The use of this term may indicate that Jesus was born in a stable, but it is by no means conclusive proof. It was common in first-century Palestine to keep animals at night inside the family home or in a shed attached to the family home. It is also possible that Mary and Joseph were allowed to camp out in the open area of the village inn. There is also an early Christian tradition that locates the birth of Jesus in a nearby cave that was used to stable animals.

In the mild climate of Palestine, animals often spent a good part of the year outdoors in the pasture. It is possible that Joseph and Mary were allowed the use of an area where animals were sheltered in cooler weather. Luke makes no mention of animals being present at the time Jesus was born.

The circumstances of Jesus’ birth are certainly interesting; we wish we knew more about them.  The evidence does not indicate that Jesus was born into a situation of absolute poverty; it seems that Joseph and Mary were making the best of a difficult situation. It does indicate that He was not born among the rich and powerful. He came to earth as one of the common people of the land; He came as one uniquely qualified to be our Lord and Savior.

Showing the Good God to Pagans: A Review

Thomas Marberry

Dr. Jeffrey L. Cockrell serves as Associate Professor of New Testament at Welch College. He is currently the Program Coordinator both for Theological Studies and for the M.A. program in Theology and Ministry. He has served our denomination in a variety of different capacities, including almost thirty years of experience as a local church pastor.

Paul, Peter, and other early Christian preachers generally proclaimed the gospel to audiences that were Jewish in character, but occasionally they had the opportunity to share the Good News with the worshipers of pagan gods. Paul did so on two occasions in Acts; the first took place in Lystra as recorded in Acts 14:15-17. The second is his famous sermon before the Areopagus in Athens as found in Acts 17:22-32. As Bruce correctly notes, “Probably no ten verses in Acts have formed the text for such an abundance of commentary as has gathered around Paul’s Areopagus speech.”

In this paper, Cockrell argues that Paul’s speech to this well-educated and sophisticated congregation can serve as a model for presenting the Gospel to secular audiences in today’s world. He begins by explaining that Paul was well prepared for this important task. Cockrell writes, “His background was cosmopolitan. He was a citizen of Rome and Tarsus.” While growing up in Tarsus, Paul experienced both Hellenistic rhetoric and Stoic philosophy. When he came to Athens as an adult, Paul was well prepared for the cultured pagan environment that he would encounter there. Yet these experiences did not lead Paul to abandon his Jewish, and later Christian, heritage. He remained true to the monotheistic faith that he had been taught as a child.

Cockrell demonstrates a thorough understanding of the intellectual conditions existing in the city of Athens during the first century. The Areopagus was an important court in the city that had jurisdiction over issues of religion and morality. The term “Areopagus” described both the court and their meeting place on the hill of Ares, the god of war. When the Romans took over the Greek gods, they gave the Roman name “Mars” to this location.

In the conclusion to his paper, Dr. Cockrell outlines several ways in which modern Christians can use this sermon as a model for presenting the gospel today. First, he points out that Paul knew how to adapt his remarks to the audience he was addressing. This does not mean that Paul compromised his message; it does mean that he presented the message in such a way that the Athenians could understand and appreciate it.

Paul introduced his sermon by pointing out several positive aspects of the religious practices of the Athenians. He did not ridicule or belittle them. He followed this instruction by presenting the true God who had created the universe. He presented this God as One whom they could know in a personal way.

It is true that some began to mock him when Paul began to preach about the resurrection, but it is also true that some did believe his message. This essay gives us an excellent understanding of the background behind Paul’s famous sermon. It also offers several helpful suggestions on how we can present the gospel message to our secular world.

Paul’s Address to the Ephesian Elders: A Review

Thomas Marberry

Danny Dwyer has been an important part of Free Will Baptist work for many years. He has served as senior pastor for churches in Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, West Virginia, and North Carolina, and taught Pastoral Theology and Biblical Studies at Southeastern Free Will Baptist College for 14 years.

This essay is a theological and pastoral analysis of one of the most well-known passages in the book of Acts, Paul’s address to the elders of the Ephesian church (20:17-38). Dwyer’s objective in his presentation was two-fold. First, he sought to analyze the content of this famous sermon to ensure that it is correctly interpreted. Second, he examined the lessons that modern pastors can learn from this important passage. The balance between interpretation and application which Dwyer maintains in this article is important. Biblical passages must be correctly interpreted; they must also be properly used in preaching and teaching. Preachers and teachers may correctly interpret a Scripture passage and still commit serious errors in applying the teachings of the passage to contemporary situations.

Dwyer argues that modern Christians should give serious attention to the sermons in Acts because they present essential Christian truths and make an important contribution to the progress of thought in the New Testament. He notes that speeches in ancient writings were often used to “embellish the character’s abilities and person.” Such was not the case with the sermons in Acts. The sermons in Acts were much briefer than those found in secular literature. They were also not designed to enhance the reputation of the speaker, but to convey a message.

Paul’s address to the Ephesian elders is one of ten sermons or sermon summaries recorded in Acts.  Dwyer notes that all of the sermons in Acts are brief and should probably be understood as summaries rather than as transcripts. Of these ten sermons, the address to the Ephesian elders is the only one that is addressed to an exclusively Christian audience. It contains none of the missionary or apologetic emphases that are found in the others sermons. Rather, it focuses the hearers’ attention on the responsibilities of pastors and other leaders in Christian communities.

In this sermon, Paul uses himself as an example which the Ephesian elders are to follow. He reminds these leaders that his ministry has been characterized by selflessness and sacrifice. He has not been concerned with the accumulation of wealth, power, or influence. His only concern has been to advance the cause of Christ. As Dwyer explained, “it is clear that Paul took his responsibility to proclaim the Gospel very seriously.” After this examination of his own ministry, Paul then gives a direct and personal challenge to the Ephesian elders. They must first take heed unto themselves and their ministries. They must exercise constant spiritual care and oversight over their flocks. Paul reminds these Christian leaders that they must faithfully preach the Word of God. As they preach the Word, they must be careful to interpret and apply it correctly. Dwyer reminds modern preachers and teachers that they are responsible beings. They are responsible to be the kind of leaders that can bring glory to God here on earth.

Matthew McAffee’s “Creation and the Role of Wisdom in Proverbs 8”: A Review

Kevin L. Hester

Dr. Matthew McAffee, Provost at Welch College, presented one of the most compelling papers at the 2018 Theological Symposium sponsored by the Commission for Theological Integrity. His paper, entitled “Creation and the Role of Wisdom in Proverbs 8: What Can We Learn?” was one of two heavily exegetical papers presented as part of the program. In it, McAffee draws parallels between the personification of wisdom in Proverbs 8 with the Genesis account of creation. While he recognizes that the primary purpose of the exhortation to wisdom found in Proverbs 8 is not to provide didactic material on the nature and scope of creation, McAffee asserts that there are a number of implications that can be drawn from the text that have important ramifications for the process of creation, the textual criticism of the Old Testament, and the relationship of the Genesis creation account to other Near Eastern creation stories.

McAffee outlines the role of Wisdom in Proverbs 8 and connects it with the two other speeches from Wisdom in Proverbs including 1:20-36 and 9:1-6. The Proverbs 8 discussion is unique because of its reference to the creation of Wisdom before the foundation of the world. While he recognizes that the purpose of the passage is not to present a holistic theory of creation, he argues that the text’s apologetic argument for wisdom rests upon a particular understanding of creation.

McAffee provides robust lexical analysis on several Hebrew terms used in reference to creation. These are analyzed in their Biblical and Near Eastern contexts to clearly show that the author of the wisdom literature expresses an ex nihilo view of creation. He then demonstrates a number of lexical parallels between Proverbs 8 and the Genesis narrative which indicate the author’s resonance with the Genesis narrative.

McAffee’s interpretation of Proverbs 8 and his investigation of its parallels with the Genesis account of creation produce a revisionist conclusion that rejects, on the one hand, the critical consensus of any documentary hypothesis that views the wisdom literature as predating the composition of the Genesis narrative. On the other hand, his work also provides a compelling argument for distinguishing the Genesis account of creation from Babylonian and other Near Eastern creation stories. Thus, McAffee’s work here leads to three important implications.

First, the traditional canonical order of Genesis preceding the wisdom literature better explains the parallel between Proverbs 8 and the Genesis account. Otherwise, following the critical tradition’s dating of Proverbs prior to Genesis produces a significant anachronism wherein, “the presumed older text (Prov. 8) preserves a purportedly late Hellenistic view of creation, while the assumed younger text (Gen. 1) preserves a much earlier Babylonian one.” (p. 145)

Second, the purpose Wisdom’s pre-existent role in Proverbs 8 shows a vision of ex nihilo creation over against other near eastern creation accounts that image creation as the ordering of chaos or construction from pre-existent matter thus distinguishing the Biblical accounts. The text’s usage of the Genesis account, once established, demonstrates that the author of the wisdom literature is reading the Genesis account of creation as ex nihilo documenting a consistent view of creation that is distinctive and prior to other expressions of cosmogony.

If both the Genesis account and the vision of creation in the wisdom literature are consistent with one another and distinctive from other Near Eastern models, then this conclusion upends the commonly held belief that ex nihilo creation was a later, Greek idea incorporated into Judaism. Rather, God’s creation of all things from nothing seems to represent a longstanding Jewish belief.

Third, once the parallel between the creation accounts of Genesis and Proverbs 8 are established and the consistent view is demonstrated to be distinctive from later Greek expressions, the only remaining potential source for the Genesis narrative of creation is the Babylonian Atra Hasis account. This has been the traditional, critical approach. However, the distinctive approach to creation in the accounts from the Babylonian tradition and especially the ex nihilo reading of the Genesis account by the author of the wisdom literature raises real questions about this critical assumption. Such a position seems hardly tenable. Instead, it is more likely that the Atra Hasis and other near eastern creation models are either dependent upon the Genesis account or entirely separate from it.

Thomas Marberry’s “The Lucan Concept of Perseverance”: A Review

Kevin L. Hester

Dr. Thomas L. Marberry, Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Randall University, presented his paper entitled “The Lucan Concept of Perseverance” at the 2018 Theological Symposium held at Randall University in Moore, Oklahoma. The Theological Symposium is sponsored by the Commission for Theological Integrity of the National Association of Free Will Baptists.

Free Will Baptists are not strangers to theological discussions related to the perseverance of the saints and the possibility of apostasy. Theological and exegetical discussions of the topic abound, yet most of the exegetical arguments have been confined to Hebrews, II Peter, and the gospel of John. In 2013, Dr. Robert Picirilli published his book, Discipleship: The Expression of Saving Faith (Randall House), in which he outlined the importance of perseverance in faith as a necessary characteristic of a disciple. While not dependent upon this work, Marberry’s paper, focusing upon the gospel of Luke, extends some of Picirilli’s important conclusions related to the concept of discipleship in the synoptic gospels.

Marberry demonstrates that the concept of perseverance is lexically important in Acts and therefore conceptually in view in the gospel of Luke. Luke presents a number of calls to discipleship by Jesus and warnings against falling away during “trials and temptations.” Unlike Calvinist interpreters who prefer to see such warnings as either hypothetical or instrumental; or, who see such language as reflective of temporary followers who had insufficient, faulty, or false faith, Marberry concludes that Luke never makes such concessions. Instead, Luke’s understanding of faith is that “even true believers can depart from the faith and that perseverance is necessary for all who name the name of Christ.” (p. 63)[1]

Through a review of a number of Arminian and Free Will Baptist statements of faith, Marberry shows that this tradition has consistently insisted upon perseverance in faith as a necessary component of discipleship. Marberry then reviews several places in Luke’s gospel that seem to lead to the same conclusion. He discusses the Olivet Discourse (Luke 21), the Parable of the Sower (Luke 8), and the Parable of the Unfaithful Steward (Luke 12). Marberry provides important lexical analysis of key terms and compendious references to commentaries on these texts from differing theological positions. His conclusion is that Luke makes no distinction in his usage of the word faith and that attempts to read these warnings and descriptions as hypothetical or the result of false faith are driven by theological assertions unsupported by the Biblical text. Instead, Luke’s warnings indicate a real possibility for the believer’s falling away.

Marberry then briefly discusses the narrative accounts of Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial. He posits that both examples contribute to Luke’s understanding of perseverance. Judas turned away from his faith whereas peter repented and returned. Marberry asserts that the parallel indicates that both Judas and Peter were “true and faithful disciples of Jesus.” (p. 74) Peter, even in his failure, becomes an example of perseverance; whereas, Judas serves as a trope for apostasy.

While Marberry recognizes that “faith exists in degrees” (p. 74), the warnings of Luke’s gospel against falling away teach two important lessons. First, true believers who have true faith, can and do turn away from the truth they once received.  Second, while God’s will is “that believers endure the testings, trials, and tribulations” of this life, only those who persevere to the end shall be saved.” (p. 75)

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[1] All page numbers are derived from Symposium Digest of Papers.