The Issue of Salvation, Part 3

Dr. Bill Creasy

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William Blake.  “Ancient of Days”   (relief etching with hand coloring), 1794.      Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge University. 

William Blake.  “Ancient of Days”
(relief etching with hand coloring), 1794.   
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge University. 

In “Salvation, Part 1” we established that our salvation is based solely upon Christ’s completed work on the cross and that we appropriate the person and work of Christ by the grace of God, through faith.  This position echoes Paul’s statement in Ephesians 2:8-9:  “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”

         In “Salvation, Part 2” we explored three questions that arise from our thesis in Part I:  1) If we are saved by grace through faith, what role does works play in our salvation? 2) Can we be certain of our salvation? and 3) What about Purgatory?

         Here, I would like to explore three more questions:  4) What do we conclude about children or others who do not have the capacity to make an informed decision about Christ? 5) What do we conclude about those who have never heard the gospel message or who do not understand it? and 6) What do we conclude about those who have other religious traditions?


Question #4-What about children?

This is an easy question to answer.  In Psalm 127:3 we read that “children are a gift from the Lord, a blessing, the fruit of the womb,” and in 2 Samuel 12:23 we find David mourning the death of his infant child.  Listen to his words:  “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept.  I thought, ‘Who knows?  The Lord may be gracious to me and let the child live.’  But now that he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again?  I will go to him, but he will not return to me.”  David is fully confident that his child is among the redeemed, and that when he dies himself he will be with his child once again.  In contrast, observe David’s reaction after his eldest son Absalom is killed in battle.  In manhood Absalom rebelled against God and sinned grievously.  When David receives word of Absalom’s death, the Bible records his appalling grief:

The king was shaken.  He went up to the room over the gateway and wept.  As he went, he said:  “O my son Absalom!  My son, my son Absalom!  If only I had died instead of you—O Absalom, my son, my son!”

                                                                                                (2 Samuel 18:33)

David does not know the destiny of Absalom’s soul.  In his grief, he prays he could have died in Absalom’s place.  David was sure of his infant child’s fate; he was not sure of Absalom’s.

Finally, in Mark 10:13-14 we have an enlightening scene of Jesus dealing with children:

People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them.  When Jesus saw this, he became angry and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”

Jesus loves children.  Although infected with sin as we all are, children are not able to make an informed decision about a Savior, so Jesus takes them as they are, granting them salvation himself.

As a young pastor, Dr. J. Vernon McGee and his wife, Ruth, lost their first child.  Later in life he wrote:

Will our children be as we last saw them?  I do not know nor can I prove it from Scripture (for Scripture is silent at this point), but I believe with all my heart that God will raise the little ones as such, and that the mother’s arms that have ached for them will have the opportunity of holding them.   The father’s hand that never held the little hand will be given that privilege.  I believe that the little ones will grow up in heaven in the care of their earthly parents—if they [the parents] are saved.  One of the worst things of which I, as a father, can conceive, is of parents being in hell knowing that they cannot have their child—there are no children in hell.  What an added joy this lends to heaven in looking forward to having your little one again!  Though the Scriptures do not teach this explicitly, this does seem to be the sense.  Remember that David expected to go to his child.  And referring to children Christ said, “Of such is the kingdom of heaven.”

Dr. J. Vernon McGee

Dr. J. Vernon McGee

I agree completely with Dr. McGee on this issue.

Finally, we might ask, “At what age does one become personally responsible for his or her salvation?”  In most Christian teaching, the traditional “age of reason” is seven, although in Jewish teaching, one isn’t responsible to God until twelve.  In Numbers, those counted in the census are twenty and over, an age at which one is expected to make informed decisions about God and be responsible to him.  According to Scripture, the age of personal responsibility corresponds to the age at which one becomes an adult.


Question #5-What about those who have never heard the Gospel or who don’t understand it?

There is a range of opinion across Christian denominations on this issue.  Some say that Jesus’ words in John 14:6 are unambiguous:  “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”  A restricted reading of this verse has led many to conclude that those born before Christ and those born since who have not heard the gospel are lost.  It is always a danger, though, to read any verse of Scripture without consulting other parts of Scripture that deal with the same issue:  the Bible is a conceptually unified, self-glossing text.  To understand Scripture, we must read all it has to say on a topic against the background of the whole Bible.  Concerning those who have never heard the gospel, the Bible has much to say.

         Psalm 19 sets forth two approaches to knowing about God:  through his creation and through his Word.  Verses 1-6 spotlight creation:

The heavens proclaim the glory of God
and the firmament shows forth the work of his hands.
Day unto day takes up the story and
night unto night makes known the message.

No speech, no word, no voice is heard
yet their span extends through all the earth,
their words to the utmost bounds of the world.

There he has placed a tent for the sun;
it comes forth like a bridegroom coming from his tent,
rejoices like a champion to run its course.

At the end of the sky is the rising of the sun;
to the furthest end of the sky is its course.

There is nothing concealed from its burning heat.

God’s fingerprints are all over creation, from the design of the cosmos to the atomic structure of the elements.  Anyone who looks seriously at creation must seriously consider a Creator.  To do otherwise leads the poet in Psalm 14:1 to say, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’”  When Paul develops his great argument for justification by grace through faith in his epistle to the Romans, he disallows ignorance as an excuse for not responding to God in faith.  Even those without the Scriptures have access to some knowledge of God, “for since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse” (Romans 1:20).  For those born before Christ, responding to God in faith—given the limited information they have—is sufficient for their salvation.  This is clear from the long record of Old Testament saints in Hebrews 11:1-40.  It is for this reason that Paul says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:3).  We might also reference Enoch and Elijah being taken directly into heaven (Genesis 5:21-24; 2 Kings 2:1-11) and Moses and Elijah, sent from God and standing with Jesus at this transfiguration (Matthew 17:3-5).

         I would argue that the same reasoning holds for those living after Christ who have not heard or understood the gospel message.  God will not hold a person accountable for something he or she does not know or understand. As Abraham says to God in Genesis 15:23-25: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked…Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike.  Far be it from you!  Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”  We might confidently assert that, yes, the Judge of all the earth will do what is right. 

         This is clearly the position of the Roman Catholic Church.  In the Vatican II document, Lumen Gentium, the Council explicitly states:

Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation.  Nor shall divine providence deny the assistance necessary for salvation to those who, without any fault of theirs, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God, and who, not without grace, strive to lead a good life.  Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is considered by the Church to be a preparation for the Gospel and given by him who enlightens all men that they may at length have life.

(Lumen Gentium, in Vatican Council II, Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, ed. by Austin Flannery, O.P. (Northport, New York:  Costello Publishing Co., 1975), vol. 1, pp. 367-368.)

This position does not apply to those who willfully and with full knowledge permanently reject Christ.  Paul warns that some people, “although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thoughts became pointless and their foolish hearts were darkened.  Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools” (Romans 1:21-22).  Such people—regardless of their good works, sincere efforts, or noble intentions—will spend eternity exactly as they wish, apart from God.


Question #6-What about those who have other religious traditions?

Here we should address the Jews first.  God chose the Jews as his vehicle for the salvation of the entire human family, and in Exodus 4:22, he says definitively, “Israel is my firstborn son.”  Any discussion about the Jews begins here.  Further on in the Torah God says to Israel, “[I] will never leave you nor forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6), and later in the prophets he says, “as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you” (Isaiah 62:5).  The Jews play a unique role in God’s relationship with the human family, and, in Romans, Paul analyzes that role in relation to salvation by grace through faith in Christ.  He concludes:

I ask then:  “Did God reject his people?  God forbid!  I am an Israelite myself, of the seed of Abraham of the tribe of Benjamin.  God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew….  I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited:  Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in.  And so all Israel will be saved …for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.

(Romans 11:1-2, 25-26, 29)

If we turn to Revelation, the last book of the Bible, and the end of the story of salvation, we find Paul’s statement confirmed in John’s glorious vision of a vast multitude of people seated before the throne of God (7:4-17).  In front of the multitude are those representing all of God’s faithful people from the nation Israel. Concerning the Jews, what we read in the Bible should bring us to our knees before God to beg his forgiveness.  The Church’s treatment of the Jews over the past twenty centuries has been disgraceful and appalling.  When God said in Genesis 12:3, “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse,” he meant it.

         The remaining religious traditions, to a large extent, overlap those we have already discussed.  Lumen Gentium (p. 367) tells us that “the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Moslems:  these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.”  Nor is God remote from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, since he gives to all men “life and breath and all things” (cf. Acts 17:25-28), and since the Savior “wills all men to be saved” (cf. 1 Timothy 2:4).  A person growing up in a culture and religious tradition that differs radically from Christianity may either not have the opportunity to hear the gospel message, or he may not understand it, given the training of his own tradition.  The plan of salvation makes room for such people.

         None of this means that we should not spread the gospel message of salvation by grace through faith in Christ.  God has only one plan of salvation:  “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).  If a Jew or a Moslem or anyone else is saved, it is solely by virtue of Christ’s shed blood on the cross, not because of who they are or what they have done.  It is our task as believers to preach and teach the gospel throughout the world, starting in our own families, schools and jobs.  At the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus gives us this commission:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.  And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

(Matthew 28:18-20)

Each one of us is called to be an ambassador of Christ.  Announcing the gospel is the fundamental mission of the Church:  all else is secondary.  Jesus gave us two unambiguous commandments before he left this world:  1)  “love one another” (John 15:17) and 2) “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).  How we do this depends upon our own talents, gifts and abilities, and upon the doors that God opens for us.


Concluding Remarks

In my rumination on salvation, I have explored what happens from a biblical perspective when we die, both for a saved person and for one who is not saved.  I have also considered many questions that arise from such a dichotomy.  As we have seen, salvation is a radical repositioning of our relationship with God, which is enabled by the death, burial and resurrection of Christ; it is not something we earn through our good works.  As Paul says in Ephesians 2:8-9: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves; it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”  Salvation is the result of a choice that one makes in response to God’s grace; it results from an act of will:  one can choose to accept Christ as Savior and place his or her trust in him, or one can walk away.  It is as simple as that. 

Here is the process in outline:

•  Recognize the condition of sin.  We are each infected with sin from the moment of our conception, and the infection is terminal.  Sinful man cannot be at one with a holy God.  As Paul says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).  From birth we are justly condemned.

•  Recognize the remedy for sin.  John says, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him” (John 3:36).  Paul puts it a different way:  “We maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28).

•  Take action.  In the quiet of your own heart, have an intimate conversation with Christ.  Confess your sins to him, and place your trust in him as your Lord and Savior.  That’s all he asks.  Once you have such a conversation with the Lord, you are adopted into the family of God as a son or daughter.  Jesus promises us:  “everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life” (John 6:40).

•  Live out your salvation.  Once in the family of God, you are expected to honor your Father, not disgrace him.  As James says:  “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this:  to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27).  We cannot live out our salvation alone:  find a faith community of like-minded believers; avail yourself of the Sacraments; speak with God daily in prayer; and serve your brothers and sisters in Christ, using whatever talents, gifts and abilities God has given you.

•   Be joyful in your salvation.  Salvation is a gift from God, a cause for joy.  Paul says that once saved, “the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Galatians 5:6).  In such a life, one experiences “love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).  A faith that brings with it a dour expression, a judgmental attitude, and an ill temper is a faith pointed in
the wrong direction.


Dr. Bill Creasy

Sandro Botticelli,     “  Adoration of the Magi,” 1475     (  Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy).

Sandro Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi,” 1475 (Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy).


In Matthew 2: 1-12 we read:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, for this is what the prophet has written: But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

Tradition holds that the coming of the Magi—wise men from Persia—to visit the infant Jesus in Bethlehem marks the recognition of the Messiah by the Gentile world, thus fulfilling the prophecy in Isaiah 49: 6—“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” Later tradition further identifies the Magi as “kings,” fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 60: 3—“Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”

Although we’re not told in the story how many wise men there were, tradition holds there were three, based upon the three gifts they presented: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Tradition also names the Magi: Melchoir, Caspar and Balthasar. The names first appear in a Greek manuscript written in Alexandria, Egypt around A.D. 500 and translated into Latin under the title, Excerpta Latina Barbari.

Tradition goes on to say that Saint Helena, mother of Constantine, discovered the bones of the Magi on her famous pilgrimage to Palestine (A.D. 326-328), and that upon her return to Constantinople she deposited them at the great church of Hagia Sophia. Later the bones were moved to Milan. In A.D. 1158 the remains of three bodies—said to be the Magi—were found in the Church of St. Estergio. Emperor Frederick Barbarosa captured Milan in A.D. 1164 and moved the remains to Cologne. Chaucer, in his “Prologue” to the Canterbury Tales, tells us that the Wife of Bath visited the “three kings” in Cologne on one of her many pilgrimages:

And thries hadde she been at Jerusalem;

She hadde passed many a strange strem;

At rome she hadde been, and at boloigne,

In galice at seint-jame, and at coloigne.

(ll. 463-466)

Today, the bones of the “three kings” are still said to rest at the magnificent Gothic cathedral of Hohe Domkirche St. Peter und Maria in Cologne. The Shrine of the Three Kings is a gilded sarcophagus dating from the 13th Century, the largest reliquary in the Western world. The shrine was opened in 1864, revealing the remains of three men, along with 2,000-year old clothing.


Shrine of the Three Kings, Cologne

Shrine of the Three Kings, Cologne


Epiphany marks the close of the Christmas season. Traditionally celebrated on January 6th, twelve days after Christmas, Epiphany is today celebrated in most churches on the Sunday following January 6th. This year, Epiphany was celebrated on January 9th. The traditional twelve days of Christmas comprise: Christmas itself, on December 25; St. Stephen’s Day (or Boxing Day) on December 26 (In the United Kingdom, on the first weekday after Christmas, gifts are “boxed” and given to service workers; hence, “boxing day.”); Feast of the Innocents (or “Childermas”) on December 28; and Twelfth Night on the eve of Epiphany (The Feast was made famous by William Shakespeare when he set his play, “Twelfth Night,” on this date.). The entire sequence spanning December 25-January 6 is known as “Christmastide.”

In popular culture the “Twelve Days of Christmas” are memorialized in song. A popular folk song, probably of French origin, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was published as a poem in England in 1780 in the children’s book “Mirth without Mischief.” James O. Halliwell added music to the poem in the 4th edition of his “The Nursery Rhymes of England,” in 1846. The song enumerates a series of increasingly extravagant gifts on each of the twelve days of Christmas:

Day 1 A Partridge in a Pear Tree

Day 2 Two Turtle Doves

Day 3 Three French Hens

Day 4 Four Calling Birds

Day 5 Five Gold Rings

Day 6 Six Geese A-laying

Day 7 Seven Swans A-swimming

Day 8 Eight Maids A-milking

Day 9 Nine Ladies Dancing

Day 10 Ten Lords A-leaping

Day 11 Eleven Pipers Piping

Day 12 Twelve Drummers Drumming

Extravagant in its day, “The PNC Christmas Price Index” calculates that giving such gifts today would cost $96,824.29!

The Church has a rich and colorful history that reflects all the joys and difficulties of living a life in Christ in community. The Twelve Days of Christmas—Christmas through Epiphany—is a joyful highlight of our rich family heritage.

Ambiguity in the Old Testament

I’ve been studying and teaching the Bible for over thirty years, both on the UCLA faculty and with Logos Bible Study.  I’ve taught through the Bible, verse-by-verse, dozens of times.  And every time I do, I find something new.  That’s the joy of great literature in general and of the Bible in particular.

Recently, one of our Logos students asked a question about Genesis 37, the story of Joseph being sold into slavery in Egypt.  I had just taught this story in class.  Here are the verses in question:

Konstantin Flavitsky, “Jacob’s Sons Sell Joseph into Slavery” (1855)

Konstantin Flavitsky, “Jacob’s Sons Sell Joseph into Slavery” (1855)

Judah said to his brothers, “What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood?  Come, let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay our hands on him; after all, he is our brother, our own flesh and blood.”  His brothers agreed.

So when the Midianite merchants came by, his brothers pulled Joseph up out of the cistern and sold him for twenty shekels of silver to the Ishmaelites, who took him to Egypt. 

When Reuben returned to the cistern and saw that Joseph was not there, he tore his clothes.  He went back to his brothers and said, “The boy isn’t there!  Where can I turn now?”

Genesis 37: 26-29

The quote is from the NIV translation, which indicates his “brothers pulled Joseph up out of the cistern and sold him.”  And this is how I’ve always taught the story.

But a quick look at the Hebrew calls this reading into question.  In the Hebrew of 37: 26, the brothers agree to sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites and also that the Midianite merchants came along and took him to Egypt.  But then ambiguity enters the text, as 37: 28 reads: 

Then there passed by Midianites, merchantmen; and they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit, and they sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty [pieces] of silver; and they brought Joseph into Egypt.

Notice that the Hebrew is far more ambiguous than the NIV translation suggests.    Since “they” is grammatically a masculine plural in the Hebrew, it can point to Joseph’s brothers or to the Midianites. 

I had always thought that the Ishmaelites and the Midianites were interchangeable, the result of two textual traditions merging in the text or to both groups being closely related as sons of Abraham (Genesis 25: 2).  If that is the case, then the brothers sell Joseph into slavery to the Ishmaelites/Midianites, Reuben not being present when they do, and surprised when he finds out what his brothers had done.

But if the Ishmaelites and the Midianites are two different groups of people, the Midianites discover Joseph in the cistern and sell him to the Ishmaelites, who then takes him to Egypt and sells him to Potiphar.  If this is the case, then the brothers know nothing about it until Reuben discovers that Joseph is missing.

The Hebrew grammar allows for either reading.

If we accept the latter reading, then the implications ripple throughout the rest of the story, manifesting themselves in how we understand the brothers’ guilt regarding Joseph’s disappearance, why they cover it up as they do, Joseph’s reaction to his brothers when he first meets them, the brothers’ reaction when they recognize Joseph, and Joseph’s struggle to forgive his brothers in the end.

In the traditional first reading, the brothers’ motives are malignant; in the second reading we witness a prank gone awry. 

Such ambiguity abounds throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, greatly enriching the text and opening a variety of interpretative possibilities.  This is a signature of world-class literature, and it is one feature that makes the Bible so intriguing and such a joy to read.


Reading the Story of King David

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In King David, the Real Life of the Man Who Ruled Israel, Jonathan Kirsch observes:

At the heart of the Book of Samuel, where the story of David is first told, we find a work of genius that anticipates the romantic lyricism and tragic grandeur of Shakespeare, the political wile of Machiavelli, and the modern psychological insight of Freud.  And, just as much as Shakespeare or Machiavelli or Freud, the frank depiction of David in the pages of the Bible has defined what it means to be a human being:  King David is “a symbol of the complexity and ambiguity of human experience itself.”[1]


No two-dimensional pious character, David “played exquisitely, he fought heroically, he loved titanically,” as historian Abram Leon Sachar notes.  “Withal he was a profoundly simple being, cheerful, despondent, selfish, generous, sinning one moment, repenting the next, the most human character of the Bible.”[2]  Like everyone else, from Samuel to Saul to Jonathan—to God himself—when we encounter David we are charmed by him, and we fall under his spell. 

As a work of literature, the David story is one of the most complex and subtle narratives in the Bible, and it is among the greatest stories in world literature.  When we approach it, we do well to bring all of our critical reading skills, sharply honed.

To understand any literary work, we have to answer several questions in the course of our reading:  What is happening in the story?  Why is it happening?  What connects the present event to the preceding and following actions?  What are the characters’ motives?  How do they view their fellow characters?  What are the cultural and social norms that govern the world of the narrative?  The answers given by each reader enable him or her to reconstruct the reality devised by the text and to make sense of the world represented in it.[3]

Michelangelo's David, Galleria dell'Accademia de Florence

Michelangelo's David, Galleria dell'Accademia de Florence

Yet, a close look at a story often reveals how few answers the text explicitly provides.  In most instances, the reader provides the answers, some temporary, partial or tentative, others wholly and completely.  The act of reading fills in the gaps created by the narrative itself.  This “gap-filling” may involve simply arranging textual information in a linear sequence, or it may be more complex, demanding that the reader develop an intricate network of associations, laboriously, hesitantly and with constant modifications as additional information is disclosed at later stages in the story.  The placement of the gaps and their size are a direct function of the narrator, who chooses what to tell the reader, when to tell it, how much to reveal and in what sequence.

Take for instance, the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22.  After the intricate and complex story leading up to Isaac’s long-anticipated birth, we read in Genesis 22: 1-2—

Sometime later God tested Abraham.  He said to him, “Abraham!”  “Here I am,” he replied.”  Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah.  Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.”

As readers, we know that God makes a covenant with Abraham in Genesis 12: 2-3, in which he says, “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you . . . and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”  We also know that the blessing will be transmitted through Isaac, not Ishmael, for when Sarah demands that Hagar and Ishmael be sent away, God says, “Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned” (Genesis 21: 12).  We can only imagine, then, Abraham’s shock when God tells him to sacrifice Isaac, and we can only stand puzzled—along with Abraham—at God’s motive for issuing such a command.  Then, in the next two verses we read, “Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey.  He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac.  When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about” (Genesis 22: 3-4).  Clearly, the narrator has inserted a large gap between verses two and three.  Between these two verses an entire night passes, and by morning Abraham has determined to obey God’s command.  As readers, we are left to puzzle over Abraham’s thoughts during that dreadful night, to imagine the depth and pain of his struggle and to reconstruct the reasoning that leads him to obey God’s command.

As the story continues, “On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance.  He said to his servants, ‘Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there.  We will worship and then we will come back to you” (Genesis 22: 4-5).  Again, our narrator inserts a gap between verses three and four, a gap that spans three days, from the time Abraham leaves his home until he arrives at Moriah to sacrifice his son.  During that time, does he question his decision?  Does he vacillate?  Does he speak with Isaac, or does a grim silence shroud the three-day journey?  The reader can only speculate, and in doing so, fill in the gaps, drawing from previous information about Abraham and his relationship with God, about his decision-making processes, and about what he has learned of Abraham’s personality.  Then in verse 5, Abraham remarkably says, “We will worship and then we will come back to you” [italics mine].   With this additional information, the reader may now conclude that Abraham determined either:  1) God would intervene and stop him from actually sacrificing his son, or 2) he would go through with the sacrifice and God would raise Isaac from the dead.[4]  In either case Abraham confirms the decision he had made during the night prior to leaving for Moriah. 

As Abraham and Isaac trudge together toward the mountain, another gap occurs until Isaac asks, “The fire and the wood are here . . . but where is the lamb for the burnt offering” (Genesis 22: 7).  At this, Abraham’s composure cracks; he replies, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.”  In a dazzling moment of grammatical ambiguity, our narrator strikes a near-fatal blow at Abraham’s resolve, when we are unable to tell if—grammatically—“my son” is an appositive or a vocative; that is, will God provide an offering other than Isaac, or will he provide “my son!”

We could continue reading the gaps in the Abraham/ Isaac story, but you get the idea.  As readers, it is up to us to fill in the gaps, and we do so by drawing from what we have previously learned of the characters, context and action, and we are forced to revise our conclusions as we learn what follows in the story.  This is brilliant narrative technique, and all imaginative literature engages in it to one degree or another.  At a structural level, the gaps enrich our experience of the text as we collaborate with the narrator in constructing the story’s narrative world and the characters that populate it. 

To emphasize the reader’s collaborative role in constructing the narrative by no means implies that “gap filling” is an arbitrary process.  Quite the contrary.  For the process to be valid, it must be legitimized by the text itself and not by subjective concerns, personal desires, or by introducing later historical or theological thinking that is outside the narrative world.  In the New Testament, for example, the Gospels present Jesus’ virginal conception as a fact of the narrative, but it does not support the perpetual virginity of Mary:  this is a later development, which draws upon centuries of theological inquiry; it is not a part of the narrative world presented in the gospels.  To impose the perpetual virginity of Mary on the gospel narrative is to introduce an anachronism, to distort the narrative and to produce a misleading reading. Please understand that I am not questioning the perpetual virginity of Mary, but I am saying that such a relatively modern doctrine cannot be introduced into an ancient text to fill the gaps and produce a sound reading of the narrative itself.[5]

Likewise, in the David story, to which we will turn shortly, the rabbis confronted a formidable and very emotional problem:  How could Israel’s greatest king—and a writer of the psalms, at that—be an adulterer?  The most frequent solution imposed on the text is that David did not commit adultery with Bathsheba, for her husband Uriah the Hittite had divorced Bathsheba before leaving for the war!  As Rabbi Shmuel bar Nakhmani argues, “Whoever says that David sinned is totally mistaken. . ..  How could he fall into sin while the Divine Presence rested upon him? . . .  Under the house of David, whoever went forth into battle would give his wife a letter of divorce” (Shabbat 56a).  Besides, argue the rabbis, the alluring Bathsheba seduced David, not the other way around.  Such argument is pious and well-intentioned, but it has no support whatsoever from the immediate narrative—never mind Nathan’s sharp rebuke of David in chapter 12 and David’s own confession in Psalm 51.  Again, for a legitimate reading, the gaps must be filled in a manner congruent with the text, not according to one’s wishes or to beliefs that postdate the narrative world.

This concept of “reading the gaps” is essential to reading all literature; it is especially important in reading the Bible; and it is critical in reading the David and Bathsheba episode.  I would like to work through the episode in some detail to illustrate the process.

As we read the David story in 1 & 2 Samuel, David is God’s “golden boy” through 2 Samuel 10:  God has anointed him king to replace Saul; David has triumphed again and again in his battles against Israel’s enemies; he has conferred with God at every crucial moment; he has proven himself to be a brilliant strategist and tactician; and he has shown himself an altogether magnificent warrior/king. 

And then we encounter 2 Samuel 11. 

Let me present the first five verses of 2 Samuel 11 in a literal translation of the Hebrew to emphasize their diction, grammar and syntax:

In the spring, at the time when kings go out to war, David sent Joab and the king’s men and all Israel and they destroyed the Ammonites and they besieged Rabbah and David was sitting in Jerusalem.   

And it happened at evening that David got up from his bed and was walking about on the roof of the king’s palace and he saw from the roof a woman bathing and the woman was very beautiful and David sent and inquired about the woman and the one he sent said, “Isn’t this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, wife of Uriah the Hittite?”

And David sent messengers and he got her and she came to him and he lay with her (now she was purifying herself from her uncleanness), and she returned to her house and the woman conceived and she sent and told David and said, “I am pregnant.”

Most modern translations eliminate the repetitive words and smooth out the syntax to make the verses more palatable to our modern stylistic tastes.  It is important to retain the sense of the original, however, if we are to understand how our author crafts his narrative.

Notice several elements in these five verses.  First, they recount a terrible failing on David’s part.  In every chapter leading to this episode, David is the warrior par excellence; he leads from the front; he is the tip of the spear:  after all, that is why the people wanted a king to begin with, “a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Samuel 8:20).  Here, David sends out “Joab and the king’s men and all Israel and they destroyed the Ammonites and they besieged Rabbah.”  In sharp contrast, “David was sitting in Jerusalem,” is wholly uncharacteristic of David, if we may judge from everything we’ve read to this point.  The very structure of the sentence highlights the sharp contrast.  We may view it in two parts:  1a) “In the spring, at the time when kings go out to war, David sent Joab and the king’s men and all Israel and they destroyed the Ammonites and they besieged Rabbah;” and 1b)  “and David was sitting in Jerusalem.”  In the first part, the Hebrew consists of twenty-three words that pile up the action, beginning with “Joab” and moving to “the king’s men” and “all Israel” (from one person, to many, to a multitude), who “destroyed the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah.”  In purely informational terms, this may make an appropriate prelude to a war story centered on Joab and his army, but this is not a war story; it is a story of David’s intimately personal life.  As readers, we reach this realization abruptly in part two of the sentence, when we read, “and David was sitting in Jerusalem.”  In Hebrew, the verb “was sitting” is an active participle, indicating that as the action in 1a is taking place, David “was sitting in Jerusalem” the entire time.  The contrast between Joab and his men “going out” and “destroying and besieging” with David “sitting” in Jerusalem is magnified by the sharp contrast between the twenty-three words in the first phrase and three words in the second.  The dynamic action of the first phrase spotlights by contrast the static action of the second.  As readers, the abruptness stops us short.  It catches our attention.  Something is wrong.[6]

In addition, the information our narrator gives us is purely objective, with no probing of motive or thought.  Admittedly, biblical narrative is often sparse to the point of frugality, but the glaring omission of David’s motives and thoughts (the very information we want) prompt us to ask, “Just what is David doing in Jerusalem while everyone else is out fighting a war?”

The answer arrives in the next four verses.  Verse two intensifies the contrast between David and his men with a movement from general to specific (“In the spring” to “and it happened at evening”) and an “innocent” telling of a sequence of events:  David rises in the evening and strolls about on the roof of his palace, where he sees a beautiful woman bathing.   Such “objective” information causes the reader to fill in the gaps that we clearly sense:  while Israel fights a war, its king lounges in luxury, napping in the late afternoon, rising in the evening, strolling about on the palace roof on a balmy spring evening and watching a naked woman bathe.  Although the narrator remains objective about the scene, we don’t.  Clearly, the narrator has led us ever so subtly to begin making judgments about David, about his motives and about his actions, rather than impose them upon us.

The technique continues in verses three, four and five as we follow David’s actions: “. . . and David sent and inquired about the woman and the one he sent said, “Isn’t this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, wife of Uriah the Hittite?” And David sent messengers and he got her and she came to him and he lay with her . . . and she returned to her house and the woman conceived and she sent and told David and said, “I am pregnant.”  The string of coordinating conjunctions “and” highlights the linear action, as does the sequence of verbs: “sent,” “inquired,” “sent,” “got,” “came,” “lay with,” “returned,” “conceived,” “sent,” and “told.”  The narrative’s objectivity seems stunningly inappropriate, given the content of David’s actions, causing the reader to probe beneath the surface.  Just who is “Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, wife of Uriah the Hittite.”  It is up to us to investigate.  In 2 Samuel 23 we find a list of David’s “mighty men,” thirty-seven in all:  Eliam, Bathsheba’s father, is the son of Ahithophel, who himself will play a pivotal role in the rebellion of David’s son, Absalom, later in the story, and Uriah the Hittite is the last in the list of David’s “mighty men,” one of his key officers (vv. 34-39).  In these verses—withheld from us by the narrator at this point in the story—we learn the magnitude of what David is about to do:  He not only “takes” another man’s wife, but he also betrays one of his own officers and sets in motion a series of cascading consequences that will manifest themselves later in the story.

As the episode continues, I quote from the NIV translation:

So David sent this word to Joab: “Send me Uriah the Hittite.”  And Joab sent him to David.  When Uriah came to him, David asked him how Joab was, how the soldiers were and how the war was going.  Then David said to Uriah, “Go down to your house and wash your feet.”  So Uriah left the palace, and a gift from the king was sent after him.  But Uriah slept at the entrance to the palace with all his master’s servants and did not go down to his house.”

 When David was told, “Uriah did not go home,” he asked him, “Haven’t you just come from a distance?  Why didn’t you go home?” 

 Uriah said to David, “The ark and Israel and Judah are staying in tents, and my master Joab and my lord’s men are camped in the open fields.  How could I go to my house to eat and to drink and to lie with my wife?  As surely as you live, I will not do such a thing!”

 Then David said to him, “Stay here one more day, and tomorrow I will send you back.”  So Uriah remained in Jerusalem that day and the next.  At David’s invitation, he ate and drank with him, and David made him drunk.  But in the evening Uriah went out to sleep on his mat among his master’s servants; he did not go home.

Here, David summons Uriah from the battlefield to Jerusalem.  But why?  Again, the narrator confines himself simply to reporting events, offering no hint at motive and making no judgments.  He leaves that to us.  When we read, “So David sent word to Joab: ‘Send me Uriah the Hittite,’” the motive may be either benign or malignant:  perhaps David wants to confess to Uriah and make right the wrong he has committed; perhaps he wants to make restitution; or perhaps his motive is darker. 

When Uriah arrives, David seems polite enough, asking, “how Joab was, how the soldiers were and how the war was going.”  Again, our narrator simply reports the conversation: “how . . . how . . . how,” offering no motive and no judgment, leading us down a path that can go in either direction, a path that continues when David tells Uriah to “go down to your house and wash your feet” and sending a gift after him (literally, “and the king’s provisions came out after him”).  David’s suggestion entails a delicious double entendre:  washing one’s feet is customary after traveling on hot, dusty roads; it is tantamount to saying, “go home, clean up and refresh yourself”; but “washing your feet” is also a euphemism for having sex, since “feet” in biblical usage also refers to the male genitals, a suggestion that is reinforced by David sending—in effect—a catered dinner of food and wine to create a romantic evening! Is this simple kindness to a loyal soldier?  Or is it something else? 

When David learns that Uriah did not go home, he asks, “Haven’t you just come from a distance?  Why didn’t you go home?” and Uriah replies, “The ark and Israel and Judah are staying in tents, and my master Joab and my lord’s men are camped in the open fields.  How could I go to my house to eat and to drink and to lie with my wife?  As surely as you live, I will not do such a thing!”  So, the ambiguity continues:  if we follow a positive interpretation, Uriah appears noble and rather innocent; if his men are in the field, he couldn’t possibly avail himself of marital pleasures at home in his own bed.

David then asks him to stay a little longer, and he invites him to dinner and he drinks with him before sending him back to the field.

As we move from David’s sending for Uriah to sending him back to Joab, the narrator’s simple reporting of facts, while withholding motive and judgment, lulls us into following a benign interpretation of David’s actions.  Yet, as the narrative proceeds, an uncomfortable awareness emerges:  David has summoned Uriah on a long journey from Rabbah, and no substantive conversation transpires between them, only polite banter that moves over four days from general conversation to a night of dining and carousing. 

The very lack of substance raises troubling doubts about David’s motives, doubts that are then confirmed like a thunderbolt when we next read: “In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab and sent it with Uriah.  In it he wrote, “Put Uriah in the front line where the fighting is fiercest.  Then withdraw from him so that he will be struck down and die” (11:14-15).  Here, a positive reading of the narrative boomerangs upon us as David’s diabolical plot snaps into sharp focus.  David had sent for Uriah in order that he would go home, have sex with his wife, and cover up what David has done.  When the plot fails, David blatantly orders Uriah’s murder.

With this sudden realization, we can now go back and fill in the gaps that our narrator has left open.  Clearly, David recalls Uriah from the front, solely to cover up his own crime.  What seemed like innocent banter, now becomes inane prattling to get Uriah in his wife’s bed.  When Uriah doesn’t go home, we must ask: “Does he know what David has done?”  Recall the number of servants involved in the story:  1) David sends a servant to find out who the woman is, and the servant returns with an answer (11: 3); 2) David sends servants (plural) to get Bathsheba (11: 4); 3) Bathsheba sends a servant to David telling him that she is pregnant (11:5); 4) David sends a servant to get Uriah, who then returns with him on the two-day journey from Rabbah to Jerusalem (11: 6); and 5) a servant (or servants) bring a gift from David to Uriah’s home (11: 8).  The more people involved in a conspiracy, the greater likelihood that the conspiracy will be made known.  If it is, then we must see Uriah—and David—in a very different light.  If Uriah learns of David’s actions before he arrives in Jerusalem, then David’s inane conversation on his arrival and his suggestion that Uriah go home and “wash his feet” along with the gift he sends reveal David as a genuine scoundrel.  And if Uriah learns of David’s actions after he arrives, then we must see Uriah’s transformation during the night from a noble and rather innocent soldier to a wronged husband and a warrior betrayed by his own king.  In either case, both David and Bathsheba clearly know the truth, and if David could see from his roof Bathsheba bathing, then both David and Bathsheba can see each other, and both can see Uriah sleeping at the king’s gate. If such is the case, and if Uriah knows what David has done, then his words to David take on new and dramatic meaning: “The ark and Israel and Judah are staying in tents [as opposed to you, who are lounging in your palace], and my master Joab and my lord’s men are camped in the open field [as opposed to you, who dally in your bed].  How could I go to my house to eat and drink and lie with my wife [as you have done]?  As surely as you live [which may not be much longer], I [as opposed to you] will not do such a thing!”

When David orders the murder of Uriah, any possibility of a benign reading on our part vanishes; we are propelled back into the narrative to fill in the gaps, given the new information we have; and David is revealed as a particularly loathsome villain.

This is dazzling narrative technique—a work of genius—which offers insight into how we should approach all of Scripture.  “Reading the gaps” is a fundamental skill we should develop if we are truly to understand Scripture.  Reading the gaps requires a thorough knowledge of narrative technique; a comprehensive understanding of context; a close reading of the text itself; and the ability to dismiss preconceived ideas and operate solely within the world of the narrative. 

Such is the task of becoming an educated reader.



[1] Jonathan Kirsch, King David, the Real Life of the Man Who Ruled Israel (New York:  Ballantine Books, 2000), pp. 1-2.

[2] Abram Leon Sachar, A History of the Jews, rev. ed. (New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 1967), p. 34.

[3] Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative:  Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading (Bloomington:  Indiana University Press, 1985), p. 186.

[4] The previous occurs, in fact, in verse 12 when the angel of the Lord stays Abraham’s hand as he is about to slit Isaac’s throat.  The latter may also come into play during the dreadful three-day journey, for in Hebrews 11: 19 we read, “Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.”

[5] The perpetual virginity of Mary was proposed officially at the first Lateran Council in A.D. 649, and it was defined as church doctrine in Constantinople at the Sixth Ecumenical Council in A.D. 681.  As a Roman Catholic, I happily adhere to the teaching of the Church on this issue.

[6] As Robert Alter observes, “The verb for ‘sitting’ also means ‘to stay’ . . . but it is best to preserve the literal sense here because of the pointed sequence:  sitting, lying, rising, and because in biblical usage ‘to sit’ is also an antonym of ‘to go out’” (The David Story, p. 250).

A Portrait of God in the Bible

William Blake’s “Ancient of Days” (relief etching with watercolor), 1794.   British Museum, London.

William Blake’s “Ancient of Days” (relief etching with watercolor), 1794. British Museum, London.

We are accustomed to hearing that “God is love,” so it is jarring when we read in Joshua, “When the trumpets sounded, the people shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the people gave a loud shout, the wall [of Jericho] collapsed; so every man charged straight in, and they took the city.  They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys . . ..  Then they burned the whole city and everything in it . . .” (Joshua 6:20-24).  And so the pattern continues throughout the conquest and settlement of the Promised Land, with God encouraging—indeed, commanding—slaughter. 


In our classes, many people are profoundly disturbed when we read such passages, and many ask:  “How do we square the God we meet in Joshua with our understanding of a God who is 'love' in the New Testament?” 



When we first meet God in Genesis 1:1 he is called Elohim in Hebrew, a plural noun of majesty.  In Genesis, God forms man out of “the dust of the earth,” and he interacts with him, walking with him in the “cool of the garden.”  Genesis 1 & 2 portray the relationship between God and man as intimate and tender.  Once sin enters the world in Genesis 3, however, God seems to distance himself from such intimate contact with humanity, preferring to stand afar and send messengers (i.e., angels:  Hebrew, melech; Greek, angelus) as go-betweens.  Later, as the plan of salvation unfolds, God takes on a seemingly different character as he commands the Israelites in Joshua to “totally destroy” the people who inhabit the Promised Land, and he is quick to punish with instant death any disobedience on the part of the Israelites if they fail to carry out his orders.


As our story progresses, God brings a terrible judgment on Judah for its disobedience by using Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, as his instrument of punishment.  In a fearful siege, the Babylonians raze Jerusalem, kill thousands of people and carry the survivors into captivity.  Jeremiah, who witnesses the siege from within the walls of Jerusalem, cries out:  “Look, O Lord, and consider:  Whom have you ever treated like this?  Should women eat their offspring, the children they have cared for?  Should priest and prophet be killed in the sanctuary of the Lord? . . . You have slain them in the day of your anger” (Lamentations 2:20, 21).


As we study through the entire Bible verse-by-verse we do not have the option of reading only those stories we like or only those that make us feel good.  Nor can we indulge in oversimplification and say that we have a “God of wrath” in the Old Testament, but a “God of love” in the New.  Such thinking is not only sentimental, but it is incorrect.  God says plainly in Malachi 3:6, toward the end of the Old Testament:  “I the Lord do not change.”  According to God himself, we meet the same God in Joshua and the Babylonian Captivity as we meet at the foot of the cross and the empty tomb.


So, what are we to make of this God who seems at once loving and angry, patient and petulant, tender and wrathful?


As we read through Scripture we find twenty-one separate comparisons describing God, each one indicating some aspect of his character.  Here’s the list:  God is—


  1.   “A consuming fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24)

  2.   “God” (Deuteronomy 7:9)

  3.   “Gracious and compassionate” (2 Chronicles 30:9)

  4.   “Mighty” (Job 36:5)

  5.   “Exalted in power” (Job 36:22)

  6.   “A righteous judge” (Psalm 7:11)

  7.   “My Rock” (Psalm 18:2)

  8.   “King of all the earth” (Psalm 47:7)

  9.   “Our refuge” (Psalm 62:8)

10.  “The strength of my heart” (Psalm 73:24)

11.  “A sun and a shield” (Psalm 84:11)

12.  “Greatly feared; he is awesome” (Psalm 89:7)

13.  “Holy” (Psalm 94:9)

14.  “My salvation” (Isaiah 12:2)

15.  “Righteous” (Daniel 9:14)

16.  “Truthful” (John 3:33)

17.  “Faithful” (1 Corinthians 10:13)

18.  “Just” (2 Thessalonians 1:6)

19.  “Living and active, sharper than a two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12)

20.  “Light” (1 John 1:5)

21.  “Love” (1 John 4:8, 4:16)


“God is love” is a profound reality.  But to view God solely as “love”—his final attribute in Scripture—is to diminish radically the infinite nature of who he is.  God’s infinite love is the motive for our salvation, but the operative action enabling our salvation is the shed blood of Christ on the cross.  In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus prays in agony: “If it is possible, may this cup [of my suffering] be taken from me.”  It is not possible.  Recall God’s words in Isaiah 53: 10—“It was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer” and the post-resurrection assessment in Hebrews 9: 22—“without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.”


All people are complex creatures, and entering into an intimate relationship with another person reveals his or her complexities.  So it is with God.  As we come to know God in Scripture, we begin to understand the complex nature of a just, holy and righteous God who sees us clearly in all of our grotesque sinfulness, yet who sacrifices his Son that we may live.  Such a God is far more than “love,” even in the highest sense of the term:  he is a God of infinite holiness, of profound justice and of fathomless depths.


On the Road with St. Paul

When I teach Acts, students invariably ask very practical questions about the logistics of travel in Paul’s day: Did he travel by sea or land? How did he pay his expenses? When he asserts his Roman citizenship, how did he prove it? These are all great questions, and most people never think to ask them! So, let’s address them in this article.

In many ways, travel in Paul’s day was very similar to travel in our day.

H. N. Olympias, a modern replica of a Greek trireme, similar to what St. Paul would have sailed on

H. N. Olympias, a modern replica of a Greek trireme, similar to what St. Paul would have sailed on

Maritime trade flourished throughout the Mediterranean world, and passenger travel by ship was commonplace. We see Paul using ships for travel on his first missionary journey with Barnabas and Mark (A.D. 46-48), sailing from Seleucia to Cyprus and from Paphos to the port at Attalia, then upriver to Perge (Acts 13: 4, 13); at the end of their journey Paul and Barnabas sail directly back from Attalia to their home church at Antioch (Acts 14: 26). On the second missionary journey (A.D. 50-52) Paul travels by ship from Troas to Neopolis (Acts 6: 11), from the harbor near Berea to Athens (Acts 17: 14-15), and finally home from Cenchrea to Ephesus and on to Caesarea (Acts 18: 18-22). On the third missionary journey (A.D. 54-57) Paul travels by land from Antioch to Ephesus, the primary deep-water port on the west coast of Asia Minor, but he returns to Jerusalem by ship, sailing from Assos to Caesarea, making several stops for cargo and passengers along the way (Acts 20: 13, 17; 21: 18). Finally, Paul makes his journey from Caesarea to Rome (A.D. 58/59-60) entirely by ship, being shipwrecked on the island of Malta along the way (Acts 27: 1-8: 14). In fact, Paul traveled by ship so frequently that he tells us that he often had been “in danger at sea” and that he had been shipwrecked three times, in addition to the shipwreck on Malta (2 Corinthians 11: 25-26). Clearly, Paul logged thousands of miles on board ships!

And he traveled by foot, as well. The Romans had an extraordinarily well-developed road system, which at its peak spanned 53,819 miles and contained 372 links. The roads were built of stone laid on top of a deep roadbed of crushed stone to ensure adequate drainage and runoff. By law, Roman roads had to measure at least eight feet in width on the straightaway and sixteen feet in width on a curve. Many major roads were much wider.

Typically, people walked on the roads, while cargo was hauled on carts powered by mules or donkeys. Milestones marked distance, and they were placed at one-mile intervals (the English word “mile” comes from the Latin “milia passuum,” “one thousand paces,” or roughly 1,500 meters). Carts could travel about fifteen miles per day, walkers somewhat more, so the Roman government built way stations or “masiones” (“staying places”) at 15-18 mile intervals. Often, small villages or towns grew up around the way stations, offering private lodging, dining and entertainment, as well as maintenance for carts and animals.

Of course travel can be expensive, especially when you are on the road as long as Paul was. Fortunately, the Roman Empire had a banking system that accommodated travel and international commerce. The system included professional bankers throughout the Roman Empire who received and held deposits for an indefinite or fixed term and then lent the funds to third parties, acting as a creditor. The bankers functioned much like a guild, lobbying the government, exerting political influence, and protecting their interests as a group. Roman law regulated them, including who could enter the trade and the interest rates they charged. Not as developed and integrated as the modern post-industrial financial system, Roman bankers were more like small-scale entrepreneurs who worked behind a counter or in a shop. They learned their trade through an apprenticeship and they were obliged to respect the regulations that governed their trade. The Roman road system enabled the bankers to work with one another both locally and regionally, processing transactions as travel and trade demanded. In many parts of the Middle East today, such informal banking systems still exist. I’ve used them myself in both Jerusalem and Cairo.

Paul would certainly have access to such a banking system, but he probably didn’t need it all that often, for he and his companions could easily have carried cash. The smallest Roman currency of any real value was the denarius and drachma, each equal to one day's labor, and there were gold coins valued at twenty-five times the value of the drachma/denarius.

Today we can economically travel through the U.S. on $35-50 per day, staying in campgrounds, cooking our own meals and using public transportation or walking. We know that Paul walked to many of his destinations and he almost always stayed with friends once he arrived. Therefore, the cost of his time “in transit” could easily have been financed by half a day’s wages or less, as he stayed at way stations. If Paul took several gold coins, and he used friends and the local population for hospitality, his travels would require something on the order of five gold coins for each year of travel for each person in his group. Of course, such a plan could sometimes break down. Paul tells us that at times he would be hungry and cold, going without sleep, perhaps due to being robbed or simply running short on cash, in which case he would use the services of the local bankers.

More difficult problems would arise when Paul encountered legal difficulties, as he so often did. In Philippi during his second missionary journey, Paul is arrested, flogged and imprisoned, and again in Jerusalem he is arrested and about to be flogged. In both instances, Paul asserts his rights as a Roman citizen. When he does, his legal status instantly changes, for Roman citizens had considerable rights under Roman law. One might reasonably ask how Paul would prove his citizenship.

The Roman Empire of Paul’s day was a hierarchical and class-conscious society. In general, Roman society could be divided into two categories: 1) the upper classes, which included the senatorial class and the equestrian class and 2) the lower classes, which included the commons, Latins, freedpeople and slaves.

The basis for the senatorial class was political, and it included all men who served in the senate. Senators had to prove that they had property worth at least 1,000,000 “sesterces”; they collected no salary for serving in the senate; and they were prohibited from engaging in nonagricultural business, trade or public contracts. The basis for the equestrian class was economic. An equestrian had to prove that he had stable wealth (usually in the form of property) worth at lease 400,000 “sesterces.”

Among the lower classes, the commons were all other freeborn Roman citizens. They had the right to contract a legal marriage with another Roman citizen, beget legitimate children who were also Roman citizens, vote, and enjoy all the benefits of Roman law. The Latins were freeborn citizens of Italy. Freedpeople were men and women who had been slaves but who had bought their freedom or been freed by their masters. When Philemon frees Onesimus, this is the category into which he would fit. Finally, slaves were the property of their owners. Roman slavery was not racially based. Typically, a person was sold into slavery through war or piracy. Although slaves were the property of their owners, they could buy their freedom or be granted it by their owner.

When Paul is asked by the Roman commander in Jerusalem, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” Paul answers, “Yes, I am.” To which the commander replies, “I had to pay a big price for my citizenship.” And Paul says, “But I was born a citizen” (Acts 22: 27-28). The Roman commander had probably been a man captured in war and sold into slavery, but who had bought his freedom and become a member of the freedpeople; Paul, however, was born a Roman citizen and was probably a member of the commons.

Since Roman citizenship carried such important legal rights as the ability to enter into contracts, the right to a trial in the presence of one’s accusers, and the right to judicial appeal, Paul doubtless would have carried evidence of his citizenship on his extensive travels throughout the Empire.

University of Michigan Papyrology Collection, P. Mich. inv. 2737.

University of Michigan Papyrology Collection, P. Mich. inv. 2737.

The University of Michigan’s Papyrus Collection offers a sample of such evidence. Among its collections is a wood and wax document certifying the Roman citizenship of Marcus Cornelius Justus. Dating from A.D. 103, the document originated in the Roman province of Alexandria, Egypt, and it reads, in part: “. . . [Cornelius] Justus, the son of Marcus, whose census rating is 20 [thousand] sesterces, [registered] in the monthly record as a Roman citizen [my son] Marcus Cornelius Justus, born [. . .] Heras, daughter of Marcus, on the 4th day before the ides of September past.” The document measures 13.5 x 7.2 cm (approximately 4 ½ x 2 ½ inches); it is durable; and it is portable.

Although claiming to be a Roman citizen when one is not was a grave offense under Roman law, Paul would certainly have carried a document like this one, much as we carry a passport when we travel.

So, travel in Paul’s day was not much different from travel in our day. In our many “Study Abroad” tours to Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Greece and Italy we encounter crowds at airports, security checks and hospitality of various sorts; we sometimes run short of cash; and we often have to produce evidence of our citizenship.

Just like Paul.





The Issue of Salvation, Part 2

Questions Raised

Question #1- If we are “saved by grace through faith,” what role does works play in our salvation?

Lucia take Dante to the entrance of Purgatory, by William Blake

Lucia take Dante to the entrance of Purgatory, by William Blake

This is a very good question, and it naturally arises from Paul’s great thesis in Romans, which he further develops in Galatians and Ephesians.  Nothing about salvation by grace through faith, however, suggests that works are unimportant.  James says in 1: 22-24, 27:

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves.  Do what it says.  Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like….  Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this:  to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

James’ statement reiterates what God said repeatedly to Israel throughout the Old Testament:

He [God] has showed you, O man, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
And to walk humbly with your God.

(Micah 6: 8)

         Salvation carries with it responsibilities, as well as privileges:  with faith comes works.  Salvation is not something that is added to one’s life; it is a radical repositioning—enabled by God’s grace—in one’s relationship with God.  Paul uses very vivid terms to describe it:

We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?  Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

(Romans 6: 2-4)

         Once we are “saved,” we die to our old life and begin living a new life in Christ.  To change the metaphor, being “saved,” we are adopted as sons and daughters into the family of God.  And that requires a new mode of behavior.  We cannot turn to Christ without turning from sin.  Once “saved,” God expects us to live a life worthy of his sons and daughters; that is, a life that honors our Father, not one that shames him.  Once “saved,” God expects us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, defend the victim and live a life of “faith expressing itself through love” (Galatians 5: 6).  Living life in this way involves a process of sanctification, a life that becomes centered in God and that is ever-more holy.  It is our destiny as children of God.  As Paul said in Ephesians 2: 10­­— “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

         Many people get salvation and sanctification in the wrong order, thinking that a life of good works and holiness results in salvation.  It does not.  Salvation results from placing our faith in Christ, from trusting in his atoning work on the cross, and from putting our lives in his hands; sanctification is the living out of a “saved” life.

         This relationship between faith and works has proven difficult for Roman Catholic and Protestant dialogue since the Reformation.  Fortunately, the issue has been resolved.  After more than thirty years of discussion, the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church have issued Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by Faith, signed on October 31, 1999, that states:  “By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.”


Question #2- Can we be certain of our salvation?

         If salvation hinges on faith in Christ, then one might reasonably ask:  “If I have come to Christ and confessed my belief in him as my savior; if I truly put my trust in him; if I strive to live out my faith in a live of active love; can I then ever lose my salvation?”

         We learn much by thinking of salvation as a relationship with God, not as a reward.  When we are adopted as sons and daughters into the family of God, he assures us that he will never reject us.  Jesus tells us in John 6: 39-40:

I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise him up at the last day.  For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.

         And again in John 18: 9 Jesus says, “I have not lost one of those you gave me.”  When the good shepherd starts out with 100 sheep, he arrives home with 100 sheep.  The Apostle John echoes Jesus’ words in 1 John 5: 13, the concluding remarks in his first letter:  “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know [my emphasis] that you have eternal life.”

         Confidence in our Father is the primary message of the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15: 11-32.  The younger boy in the parable is a son, yet he turns his back on his father and goes his own way, falling into sin and disgrace.  Although his father has every right to disown his son—indeed, to have him stoned to death—he doesn’t.  When the son arrives back home, his father embraces him with love and open arms.  Although the son had turned his back on his father, his father had not turned his back on him:  he is still his father’s son, regardless of what he had done.

         We may be confident that, like the father in the prodigal son story, God, our Father, will never reject us.  As Paul says in Romans 8: 38-39:

I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

         This is not to say, however, that one cannot lose one’s salvation.  In Hebrews 6: 4-6, our author says:

It is impossible for those

who have once been enlightened,
who have shared in the Holy Spirit,
who have tasted the goodness of the
                        word of God and the powers of
                        the coming age,

If they have fallen away
            to be brought back to repentance,
            because to their loss they are
                        crucifying the Son of God all
                        over again and subjecting him
                        to public disgrace.

         I have emphasized the verses by spacing to highlight their meaning.  If a genuinely saved person who has been enlightened, who has received the Holy Spirit, and who has tasted the goodness of the word of God and the power of the coming age; if such a person—willfully, definitively, and with full knowledge—rejects Christ, the source of his salvation, then his salvation is lost.  It is not something God has done; it is something he has done.

         There is nothing about salvation that supersedes a person’s freedom to accept or reject Christ, the basis of his salvation.  God loves us and he will never reject us:  of that we may be certain; but we may reject him.  If we do so willfully, definitively, and with full knowledge, we would continue to be his son or daughter, just as our own children would continue to be ours if they rejected us, but we will spend eternity exactly as we chose:  apart from the Father.


Question #3- What about Purgatory?

         The Bible is silent on the question of Purgatory.  Although the Roman Catholic Church teaches the doctrine of Purgatory, there is no explicit mention of it in the common canon of Scripture.  The concept of Purgatory developed in the Roman Catholic Church between A.D. 1150 and 1200.  Although Origen, St. Augustine, Gregory the Great and some others flirted with the idea of some type of purification between death and the final judgment, the noun purgatorium did not enter the Latin language until the end of the twelfth century.  In the technical sense, Purgatory as a place did not exist in Church thinking until then.  It sank its deepest devotional roots in the medieval monastic tradition, particularly among the Cistercians, became systematized in the scholastic thinking of the thirteenth century and was popularized in art and literature.  Purgatory exerted such a pervasive—and sometimes negative—influence on the Church (for it sometimes resulted in the abuse of Church authority to get souls out of Purgatory) that the Council of Trent (1545-1563) expunged the idea of Purgatory from Church dogma, making the location of Purgatory and the penalties inflicted there matters left to individual opinion.  After Trent, Purgatory moved from the concrete to the abstract, from a place—in the Dantesque sense—to a state, or condition of the soul.

         In our generation, Vatican II addressed the issue of Purgatory quite clearly:

In fidelity to the New Testament and Tradition, the Church believes in the happiness of the just who will one day be with Christ.  She believes that there will be eternal punishment for the sinner, who will be deprived of the sight of God, and that this punishment will have a repercussion on the whole being of the sinner.  She believes in the possibility of a purification for the elect before they see God, purification altogether different from the punishment of the damned.  This is what the Church means when speaking of Hell and Purgatory.

(Recentiores episcoporum synodi, in Vatican Council II, More Postconciliar Documents, ed. by Austin Flannery, O.P. (Northport, New York:  Costello Publishing Co., 1982), vol. 2. p. 502.)

         If you would like more information on the concept of Purgatory, see Jacques Le Goff.  The Birth of Purgatory, trans by Arthur Goldhammer.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1989.  It is the single best work on the subject that I have read.



The Issue of Salvation, Part 1

Of all the issues we may raise in our Bible study, Salvation has perhaps the most urgent personal relevance. All of us will one day pass through death’s door, and we all wonder what we will find on the other side. Here’s what the Bible has to say.

The Problem: Sin

The entire story of the Bible focuses on redemption from sin. As we have learned in our study of Genesis 3, sin is not an act that one commits, but a condition that one is in: like a genetic disease, the condition of sin is passed on from generation to generation. None of us is spared. The acts that we usually think of as sins are merely symptoms of the condition we are in. Sin entered the world in Genesis 3 and by Genesis 6: 5 we read that “The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.” By Psalm 14: 1-3, nothing has changed:

The fool says in his heart:
“There is no God above.”

Their deeds are corrupt, depraved;
not a good man is left.

From heaven the Lord looks down
on the sons of men

to see if any are wise,
if any seek God.

All have left the right
path depraved, every one;

there is not a good man left,
no, not even one.


And Paul, after quoting this psalm, contends that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3: 23). Paul bases his statement not just on theological reasoning, but on his own experience. In a moment of profound insight the great apostle says:

I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do--—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Romans 7: 18-24)

He goes on to conclude that “the mind set on sin is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God” (Romans 8: 7-8). Such words are brutally honest, and if we look within our own hearts, we find they apply to us as well as to Paul.

Given the vast chasm between sinful humanity and a holy God, each one of us stands condemned before God. Applying God’s standards to humanity, we all deserve the just consequences of sin: death and eternal damnation. It is important to understand that condemnation is not something that results from living a bad or immoral life: we are born infected with sin; we are condemned from the start. David sees this clearly. In Psalm 51: 5 he says, “in guilt I was born, a sinner was I conceived.” And in John 3: 36, the pivotal roles both sin and faith play in damnation and salvation cannot be plainer, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains [my emphasis] on him.”


The Solution: Redemption

God’s plan to redeem humanity is put in place in Genesis 12: 2-3, when God chooses Abram and tells him:

I will make you into a great
nation and I will bless you;

I will make your name great
and you will be a blessing.

I will bless those who bless you, and
whoever curses you I will curse; and
all peoples on earth

will be blessed through you.

From Abraham and Sarah, God builds a nation, and from that nation comes the Messiah who takes away the sin of the world. As Isaiah 53: 5-6 says, “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

Exactly how redemption is accomplished is the subject of much theological debate. In technical terms how God redeems humanity is called the atonement, a Middle English word that literally means “at-one-ment,” or how humanity becomes “at one” with God. We explore the atonement in depth during our study of Leviticus 16, but let me present it briefly here.

The Bible does not present a philosophical discussion of the atonement, although it does give a great deal of information about it. We might summarize what the Bible says in this fashion:

  • The atonement is an accomplished and completed fact (Hebrews 9: 13- 26);
  • The atonement is essential to human salvation (Luke 24: 41-47; Acts 4: 12);

  • Although the entire earthly life of Jesus contained an atoning and even sacrificial element, the virtue of the atonement is found chiefly in his death on the cross: Jesus’ death is indispensable to our salvation (John 3: 14-15);

  • In the atoning death of Christ, God exhibited not only wrath against sin but love toward sinful humanity (Romans 3: 25-26; 5: 6-8; John 3: 16);

  • Redemption was in the thought and plan of God from the very beginning; when man fell, he fell into the arms of divine mercy: the Lamb of God was slain from the foundation of the world (Revelation 13: 8; 1 Peter 1: 19-20);

  • The atonement is not limited, but universal; it applies to the entire human family (Hebrews 2: 9; 1 Timothy 2: 5-6; Romans 5: 18; 2 Corinthians 5: 14-15);

  • Although the atonement is universal, salvation is not. God’s offer of salvation may be—and often is—rejected; when the rejection is final, atonement counts for nothing (Mark 16: 16; John 3: 36; Hebrews 10: 26-29);

  • The atonement is the objective ground for the forgiveness of sins and acceptance by God (John 3: 16; Acts 2: 38; Ephesians 1: 7; Colossians 1: 14).

Interpreting what the Bible says about the atonement has taken three directions during the history of the Church. Those three directions are still evident today. A fanciful notion has also surfaced periodically that the death of Jesus was a ransom paid to Satan to redeem those who had come under his power. Origen (A.D. 230) taught this, as did Gregory of Nyssa (A.D. 370). Although prominent at times, this idea was always met with the strongest opposition and was never accepted as doctrine.

The first serious understanding of the atonement is called the Satisfaction Theory. St. Anselm (A.D. 1100) stands as its strongest proponent. In his book Cur Deus Homo he emphatically views the atonement as satisfying divine justice: man sinned, and a penalty must be paid. Although God is love, he is also justice, and the requirements of divine justice must be satisfied before God’s salvation can be granted. Anselm illustrates his theory with an analogy: when Christ bore the punishment for our sins, he literally paid a debt in the manner of a commercial transaction. Carried to its logical conclusion, however, such reasoning leads either to a limited atonement or to universal salvation, both of which pose enormous philosophical and theological problems; not to mention that they flatly contradict the Bible.

The second understanding of the atonement is called the Moral Influence Theory. Peter Abelard (A.D. 1100), St. Anselm’s chief opponent, stands as its strongest supporter. Abelard rooted the atonement squarely in the love of God, teaching that nothing in God’s essence requires satisfaction for sin: God is love, period. The suffering and death of Christ on the cross is the purest example of God’s love; hence, its effect is principally moral. It was intended to soften the hearts of sinful men and to lead them to repentance and devotion to Christ. To my thinking, however, the moral influence theory, though containing a profound truth (God is love), falls far short of adequately representing what the Bible teaches. It leaves out the fact (stressed in Leviticus and throughout Scripture) of a real, objective basis for atonement, and by doing so reduces the suffering and death of Jesus to an object lesson. Even so, many people in the church today—both Catholics and Protestants—subscribe to the moral influence theory of the atonement, especially among the more liberal movements and denominations.

The third understanding of the atonement is called the Governmental Theory. Hugo Grotius (A.D. 1617) is its chief proponent. Writing against those who denied the vicarious character of Christ’s death, Grotius held fast to Jesus as our “sin bearer,” but he viewed the vicarious nature of Jesus’ suffering and death as meeting a requirement of moral government, not some rigid sense of justice inherent in God’s character. This is a subtle, but important distinction. According to Grotius, Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross in our place makes it possible for God to exercise divine mercy. At the same time it protects the dignity of the Law, the honor of God and the moral interests of the universe. As a theory, Grotius’s position is appealing, for in one sense it reconciles the satisfaction and moral influence theories. Held to strongly, though, the governmental theory loses sight of the fact that divine government must be a reflection of God’s divine nature, and hence, what is required by divine government must also be required by divine nature. Further, if taken to its logical conclusion, the governmental theory degenerates into a cosmic moral spectacle, becoming—in effect—just another approach at a moral influence theory.

Today, theologians seek ways of mediating between or uniting these three theories, for each one alone inadequately represents the fullness of what the Bible teaches. Clearly, Scripture represents the death of Christ as a profound manifestation of God’s love; yet, it also represents his sacrificial death as required by God’s justice. It is equally clear that Christ being nailed to the cross in our place satisfies the requirements of divine law and the moral economy that God has established.

When we seek to understand the atonement—the dynamic that allows sinful man to be “at one” with God—we enter an arena where finite man struggles to understand infinite God. It is no easy task, and no simple answer will suffice. If we turn back to Scripture, the Gospel of Matthew gives us a place to rest our inquiry. Matthew is a very precise and careful narrator, giving us full details throughout his Gospel of what Jesus said and did. However, when he reaches the cross—the place where the atonement takes place—the narrative becomes sparse:

As they were going out, they met a man from Cyrene, named Simon, and they forced him to carry the cross. They came to a place called Golgotha (which means The Place of the Skull). There they offered Jesus wine to drink, mixed with gall; but after tasting it, he refused to drink it. When they had crucified him, they divided up his clothes by casting lots. And sitting down, they kept watch over him there. Above his head they placed the written charge against him: “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews” (Matthew 27: 32-37).

Notice that we do not actually see Jesus crucified. They offer him a drink, but he refuses it; then we read “When they had crucified him….” The crucifixion itself takes place between the lines. The atonement—what actually happens on the cross—is similar. In Matthew, it is a private matter between the Father in heaven and the Son on the cross. Prying eyes are not privy to it. True, those loitering about the cross mock Jesus and heap insults on him, but from the sixth hour to the ninth, God lowers a mantle of darkness over the scene and the transaction between Father and Son takes place. It is as if God says, “This is something you cannot look at. It is beyond human understanding. The suffering cannot be comprehended.”

I cannot imagine a greater demonstration of God’s love, nor can I imagine a more profound sacrifice, in the levitical sense of the term. Yet, I am at a loss as to how to explain what happened precisely. God shrouded the atonement in darkness, and we simply cannot see it in all its details. To pretend that we can is arrogance and speculation. So I leave it to rest. I do know, however, that what transpired on the cross dealt with the issue of sin once and for all: this is clear throughout Scripture. We can add nothing to the completed work of Christ. John (who was there at the foot of the cross) tells us that at the end, Jesus said quietly and simply: “It is accomplished” (John 19: 30). And with that he died. At the same moment the curtain of the temple—the one separating the holy place from the Holy of Holies-—was torn in two from top to bottom, giving sinful man access to God once and for all.


The Result: Salvation

The death of Christ on the cross enables sinful humanity to be “at one” with God; it enables our salvation. Importantly, this salvation is a gift freely given by God: there is nothing we can do to earn it. Paul says, “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Romans 3: 21-22). And lest there be any confusion, Paul goes on to say in his letter to the Ephesians, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves; it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2: 8-9). Here, Paul isn’t developing a theology; he is simply repeating the gospel message. Recall John 3: 16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Then go to John 3: 36, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.” Note the significance of “remains.” Condemnation does not result from living an evil or immoral life; it results from our inherent sinful condition. Each of us is condemned from the start. Finally, recall Jesus’ own words in John 5: 24, “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.”

Clearly, the Bible teaches that our own personal salvation hinges on belief in the Lord Jesus, not on any works we may do or on any ceremonies we may go through. Again, Jesus himself tells us in John 6: 29, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” If we believe in Jesus as our Savior (that is, if we accept God’s freely-given gift of salvation by placing our faith in the person and work of Christ) we are saved; if we reject it, we are not. Thus, God’s plan for salvation is remarkably simple; one need not be a theologian to understand it. And there is no Plan B. Jesus’ death on the cross bridges the chasm between sinful humanity and a holy God; through Jesus—and only through Jesus—do we achieve salvation. In John 14: 6, Jesus tells us plainly, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

What's with B.C. and B.C.E.?

I get this question all the time in class.  Here's the answer.

Dionysius Exiguus (c. A.D. 470-544)

Dionysius Exiguus (c. A.D. 470-544)

Events in the Bible are typically dated in reference to some epoch event or person. In biblical times events were dated according to “regnal years.” For example, if I were living at the time of David and my wife gave birth to a son, I would say that my son was born “in the 16th year of King David.”  That would date his birth relative to a local event that we all know.  We see such references, for example, throughout 1 & 2 Kings.

In New Testament times, the Roman Empire operated on a much larger scale than the reign of a tribal warlord or local king, dating events “from the foundation of the city of Rome,” or ad urbe condita (abbreviated A.U.C.), which correlates to 753 B.C.

Under the direction of Pope St. John I (A.D. 523-526), Dionysius Exiguus introduced the use of B.C. and A.D.  With the Edict of Milan legitimizing Christianity in A.D. 313 and Theodosius I making it the official religion of the Roman Empire in A.D. 380, the birth of Christ became the “epoch event” used for dating.  B.C. stands for before Christ, and A.D. stands for anno domini, or “in the year of our Lord”  (not “after death”).

Although invented in A.D. 525, it took several centuries before B.C. and A.D. came into common usage. Today new terms have been introduced:  Common Era (C.E.) and Before the Common Era (B.C.E.).  In the 21st century we recognize that Christians are a minority of the world’s population, and we recognize that dating anno domini, “in the year of our Lord,” is not an appropriate reference for much of the world’s population, since they do not recognize Jesus as “Our Lord.”  Although some criticize the new terms as being “politically correct,” C.E. and B.C.E.  have become standard usage in scholarship and journalism for addressing a global audience that is 33% Christian, 21% Moslem, 16% nonreligious, 16% Hindu, 6% Buddhist, 0.22% Jewish and 8% Other.

So . . . if you’re writing for a Christian audience, it is certainly appropriate to use B.C. and A.D. (I do so on my web site, blog and for explicitly Christian publications); if you’re writing for a more general audience (say, for a newspaper or an academic or scientific journal) use B.C.E. and C.E.

Dionysius Exiguus, by the way, was a very interesting character.  His name means “Dionysius (or Dennis) the Small (or “lesser”),” a self-proclaimed nomenclature that distinguishes him from Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, mentioned in Acts 17: 34, who became one of the few believers in Athens.  Tradition views this Dionysius (the Areopagite) as a martyr and the first bishop of Athens.

Our Dionysius, however, was one of the great scholars of the 6th century, extraordinarily learned in Scripture, well versed in canon law and a tireless translator who rendered many Greek texts into Latin, preserving significant works whose Greek originals have been lost.  Dionysius Exiguus (or as one evangelical wag called him, “Dennis the Dwarf!”) wrote a collection of 401 ecclesiastical canons, including apostolic canons and decrees of the councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, Chalcedon and Sardis.  His friend, Cassiodorus (c. 485-585), states that Dionysius was from Scytha, a region near the Black Sea, and he refers to him simply as “a monk,” although the Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History refers to him as an “abbot.”

Dionysius’s works appear in Migne’s Patrilogia Latina, vol. 67.  He died sometime before A.D. 550.

Is Jesus Mentioned Outside the Bible?

Dr. Bill Creasy

The synagogue where Jesus taught

The synagogue where Jesus taught

The Gospels give us a great deal of information about Jesus, but I’m often asked if there is any mention of Jesus outside of the Bible.  Is there any independent documentation that refers to Jesus in the first few hundred years of the Church?  The answer is: very little.

During the first century after Jesus’ death, the world took little notice of what it considered to be a minor Jewish sect.  For the most part, Jewish and Hellenistic writers completely ignored both Jesus and Christianity.  Here is a representative selection of the little that does exist.

The Jewish historian Josephus (c. 37-95 A.D.) rather thoroughly describes the Jewish sects in first-century Palestine.  He mentions Jesus in Jewish Antiquities (18.3.3):

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man.  For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly.  He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks.  He was the Messiah.   When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him.  On the third day he appeared to them restored to life, for the prophets of God had prophesied these and countless other marvelous things about him.  And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.

A few pages later, Josephus mentions John the Baptist and his death under Herod (18.5.2), but he says nothing of the connection between John and Jesus.  He mentions Jesus in passing again (20.9.1) when he mistakenly notes that the high priest Ananius summoned the Sanhedrin, the Jewish governing council…

and brought before them the brother of Jesus who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned.

The Talmud contains only a few references to Jesus (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 43a, b; 103a; 106b; 107b), though later censors may have removed others.  The ones that do remain are very brief and often veiled.  If we did not know of Jesus from the New Testament, we would probably not recognize the allusions to him in the Talmud.

Suetonius’ Life of Claudius (early 2nd century) has one line describing the emperor Claudius’ handling of foreign people (25.4):  "Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome."

Acts 18: 2 picks up the story.  In Corinth Paul meets Aquila and Priscilla, a Jewish couple, who had been expelled from Rome by Claudius.

A longer account shows up in Tacitus’ Annals (early 2nd century).  He recounts the great fire in Rome under Nero (XXV.44.2-8):

Nero fastened the guilt and afflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace.  Christus, from whom their name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate, and a deadly superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out, not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but also in the city, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world meet and become popular.

The earliest non-biblical report about the Christians comes from Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia (c. 112 A.D.)  He isn’t quite sure how to deal with the Christians, so he writes to the emperor Trajan for advice (Letters 10.96).  He had tortured a few Christians, and he passes on the information he received:

They maintained, moreover, that the amount of their fault or error had been this, that it was their habit on a fixed day to assemble before daylight and recite by turns a form of words to Christ as to a god; and that they bound themselves with an oath, not for any crime, but not to commit theft or robbery or adultery, not to break their word, and not to deny a deposit when demanded.  After this was done, it was their custom to depart, and to meet again to take food, but ordinary, harmless food . . ..  I discovered nothing else than a perverse and extravagant superstition.

A final account of the Christian movement before the end of the second century comes from the satirist Lucian of Samosata (A.D. 120-180).  In his Passing of Peregrinus he slams Peregrinus—the very model of the conman.  Among those duped by Peregrinus was a group of Christians (Peregrinus 11-13):

It was then he learned the wondrous lore of the Christians by associating with their priests and scribes in Palestine.  And—how else could it be—in a trice he made them all look like children; for he was prophet, cult leader, head of the synagogue, and everything, all by himself.  He interpreted and explained some of their books, and even composed many, and they revered him as a god, made use of him as a lawgiver, and set him down as a protector, next after that other, to be sure, whom they still worship, the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world.
Then at length Protus was apprehended for this and thrown into prison, which itself gave him no little reputation as an asset in his future career and the charlatanism and notoriety-seeking that he was enamored of.  Well, when he had been imprisoned, the Christians, regarding the incident as a calamity, left nothing undone in the effort to rescue him.  Then, as this was impossible, every other form of attention was shown him, not in any casual way, but with assiduity; . . . people even came from the cities of Asia, sent by the Christians at their common expense, to succor and defend and encourage the hero.  They show incredible speed whenever any such public action is undertaken; for in no time at all, they lavish their all.  So it was, then, in the case of Peregrinus; much money came to him from them by reason of his imprisonment, and he procured not a little revenue from it.  The poor wretches have convinced themselves, first and foremost, that they are going to be immortal and live for all time, in consequence of which they despise death, and even willingly give themselves into custody, most of them.  Furthermore their first lawgiver persuaded them that they are all brothers of one another after they transgressed once for all by denying the Greek gods and by worshipping the crucified sophist himself and living under his laws.  Therefore they despise all things indiscriminately and consider them common property, receiving such doctrines traditionally and without any definite evidence.  So if any charlatan and trickster able to profit by occasions comes among them, he quickly acquires sudden wealth by imposing on simple folk.

As we all know, there are still quite a few Christian charlatans around today, too!

It is not surprising there is so little documentation about Jesus outside of the Bible. Christianity is born in the eastern backwaters of the Roman Empire, a minor sect within Judaism, which itself was a very minor religion in the Roman Empire.  Although no precise figures survive, there were certainly fewer than 100,000 Christians by A.D. 100; 200,000 by A.D. 200; and around 6 million by A.D. 300, out of a total population of around 60 million, roughly 10% of the Roman Empire.  That changes dramatically in the fourth century.  In A.D. 313 Constantine signs the Edict of Milan, officially tolerating Christianity; on 27 February A.D. 380 Theodosius I declares Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire; and by A.D. 400 roughly 90% of the Empire claims to be Christian.  The fourth century is the single most important century in Christian history, except for those years when Jesus walked among us.

Although history barely notices Jesus in the early days, he becomes the single most important person who ever lived, shaping 2,000 years of western culture and history and the lives of countless millions of people.

Reading Scripture, A Personal Journey

Dr. Bill Creasy

Teaching at Karnak Temple.JPG

When I began my Ph.D. studies at UCLA in 1977, I focused on late medieval English literature, particularly the 1450-1550 period.  It is a fascinating era that introduced profound changes, not only in art and literature, but also in Western civilization as a whole. 

The decade of the 1450s saw the introduction of the movable-type printing press by Johannes Guttenberg, fundamentally changing the way society disseminates information. Prior to this time, written works were hand-copied by scribes, a lengthy, tedious and expensive process; after the 1450s, written works could be printed in hundreds of copies in a matter of days for relatively little cost.  By the 1590s, William Caxton introduced printing into England, and his successors, such as Wynkyn de Worde and Richard Pynson, produced a flood of works in his wake.

The Bible was among the most popular books issued by the early printers.  As demand increased and sales grew, calls for new translations of the Bible into common English emerged, generating William Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament into English (1525-26) and his translation of the Pentateuch (1530) and Jonah (1531). A quick succession of translations followed Tyndale—Miles Coverdale’s (1535), John Rogers’ (1537), Thomas Cranmer’s “Great Bible” (1539), the Geneva Bible (1560), and the Bishop’s Bible (1568)—ultimately culminating in the King James Bible of 1611, the translation that remained “the gold standard” until the 1950s.

The ready availability of Bible translations in English was one of the driving forces behind the Reformation, of course, but the translations also had a profound effect on the development of English prose style.  If you read a Bible translation in English prior to 1450 (such as John Wycliffe’s), it sounds like Chaucer; if you read one written after 1550 (such as the Geneva Bible), it sounds like Shakespeare; the same holds true for non-biblical literature (compare Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Artur, published by William Caxton in 1485 with Sir Thomas Elyot’s The Boke Named the Gouernour in 1531).  Something huge happens to English prose style during that brief but very fruitful one hundred years, and the Bible stands at the very center of it.

Such was the focus of my Ph.D. studies.

During that time I began reading everything I could get my hands on about the Bible, and I encountered Northrop Frye’s, The Great Code (1981).  Frye, a professor of literature at the University of Toronto, was one of the era’s greatest literary critics, who burst on the scene with the publication of his first book, Fearful Symmetry (1947), a brilliant study of William Blake’s prophetic poetry, and whose lasting international reputation was cemented with Anatomy of Criticism (1957), one of the most important works of literary criticism written in the twentieth century.  In The Great Code, Frye argues that although many different people wrote the Bible over a period of more than 1,500 years, and although it passed through the hands of many editors and redactors, the Bible—as we have experienced it in the Christian canon across 2,000 years of Western civilization—is a unified literary work.  It has a beginning, a middle and an end; it employs a consistent set of metaphors, similies and other literary devices; and it draws upon a consistent set of symbols, such as light, dark, water, fire, oil, and so on.

To me, Frye’s statement was an epiphany.  Prior to reading The Great Code, I had viewed the Bible as simply an anthology of Jewish and Christian literature, rather loosely stitched together, a collection of independent myths, histories, poetry, exordia, epistles and letters, useful for “doing” theology or for rooting out and applying principles for living.  That’s basically what I had been taught while growing up and what I had experienced in the Christian community as an adult.

With this new literary paradigm for reading Scripture, my head spun with the possibilities.  I quickly discovered Robert Alter’s, The Art of Biblical Narrative (1981) and The Art of Biblical Poetry (1985) as well as Meir Sternberg’s, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative (1985).  I devoured them, and they deepened my understanding of Scripture and this new approach to reading it.  At the same time, the Society of Biblical Literature, had began a daring scholarly publication, Semeia: an Experimental Journal for Biblical Criticism (1974-2002) that focused on new and emergent approaches to biblical scholarship, a journal that welcomed a literary approach to Scripture. 

In 1985 I found myself on the cutting edge of biblical scholarship.  It was a very exciting time.

When I began teaching “The English Bible as Literature” at UCLA as a full-time faculty member, I designed the course to reflect this literary approach to Scripture, and when I formed Logos Bible Study and took the course into the broader community, it enabled me to bridge denominational divides and introduce Scripture in a new way to our Logos students, a way that transcends denominational differences, that brings the biblical characters to life, that adds color, tone and texture to the narrative, and that creates an unforgettable story.

There are many approaches to reading the Bible, and they all offer important insights into the text.  The historical-critical method focuses on the historical and cultural backgrounds of the text; the form-critical method focuses on how a story came to be pieced together, drawing on oral and written traditions; the textual method focuses on how an individual text came to be written down and physically transmitted through time; and the theological method focuses on the deeper meaning of Scripture, within the context of a developing theology.  And there are many more, each offering its own important insights into Scripture.

I have been teaching Scripture for a long time now, and I’ve learned that regardless of the approach, Scripture studies are best viewed as complimentary, not competitive.  I encourage you to explore many different approaches to Scripture and to listen to many different teachers from other perspectives.  There are very fine teachers out there who take a fundamentally different approach to Scripture than I do, and they are well worth listening to. 

Reading Scripture from a literary perspective is only one way of approaching the text, but it is my way, and I think it has yielded superb results in creating “educated readers of Scripture” and in bringing people into an intimate, personal relationship with Christ and drawing them deeper into an authentic life of faith.  It has been a terrific journey for me and for tens of thousands of Logos students over the past thirty years.

And what more can you ask from a Scripture study than that?

Welcome to Lent!

The practice of observing Lent dates back to the early fourth century, where the term tessarakoste (“forty days,” similar to pentekoste, “fifty days,” or Pentecost) is first mentioned in the fifth canon of the Council of Nicea (A.D. 325).  The term “lent” is an English word introduced during the Middle Ages to denote the forty days leading up to Easter.  “Lent” originally meant “spring” (as in the German lenz and the Dutch lente), a period when the hours of daylight begin to lengthen.

Forty is a symbolic number of completion in the Bible:  the flood lasts forty days and forty nights; Moses stays with God on Mt. Sinai for forty days and forty nights; the Israelite spies spend forty days exploring the Promised Land; the Israelites themselves spend forty years in the wilderness after the Exodus; Elijah spends forty days and forty nights traveling to Mt. Horeb; both David and Solomon reign for forty years, and so on.  The forty-day period of Lent reflects the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness being tempted, prior to beginning his public ministry and the traditional forty hours he spent in the tomb, from 3:00 pm on Good Friday until 7:00 am on Easter morning.

In the Western Church Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday, a total of forty-six days.  The six Sundays of Lent are not counted among the forty days, for each Sunday in considered a “mini-Easter,” celebrating Jesus’ resurrection.  That leaves exactly forty days of fasting during the Lenten season.

In the Bible, God only commands his people to fast one time each year, on the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16); it is a complete twenty-four hour fast:  no food, no water.   Fasting later becomes one the three devotional pillars of Judaism:  prayer, almsgiving and fasting.  Jesus speaks of these practices in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6: 1-18).

Fasting continues as a devotional practice in the early church, especially during periods of preparation for rites such as baptism and receiving the Eucharist, or Holy Communion.

The three devotional pillars of Judaism—prayer, almsgiving and fasting—became dominant themes in the observance of Lent in the early church:  prayer (discipline that focuses on God); almsgiving (discipline that focuses on others); and fasting (discipline that focuses on one’s self).  All three serve as means to move into a closer and more intimate relationship with God.

The practice of observing Lent was universal in Christendom until the Reformation. Today the Roman Catholic Church, along with most Lutheran, Methodist, Anglican and Episcopalian churches continue to observe Lent with varying degrees of devotion, but many Protestant churches still do not.

For those who do observe Lent, it is not an oppressive time of prayer and penance, nor a time of silly abstinence (“giving up” desserts for Lent), but a time set aside to reflect on who Christ is, on what he has done for us, on preparing for the joy of his resurrection and on living a life “worthy of the calling” we have received (Ephesians 4: 1).