In general, you can learn a lot about people based on what is on their bookshelf, whether they even have a bookshelf, and how many bookshelves they actually have. The literature that one reads – from nothing at all to vampire fiction to romance novels to classical literature to anything by dead Russians – reveals a lot about one’s interests, passions, hobbies, and so on. Or, viewed from the other direction, that which we read plays a large role in shaping and molding us: expanding our experience base, informing us about myriad subjects, and, ultimately, influencing our worldview. One might even say that the things we read the most are the best indicators of the factors and values that make us who we are.
This presents an odd little conundrum for the Christian reader. Unless you have shelves full of well-marked copies of the Bible, or unless you can honestly say that you spend more time reading Scripture than anything else (newspapers, instruction manuals, work-related documents, and cookbooks included!), then you have this peculiar little mismatch between what you actually read and the single book which, in theory, is the most formative influence on your life. For instance, even if you spent an hour a day studying the Bible vigorously this past week, chances are you spent at least twice as much time reading other writings, both religious and non-religious. Does that mean you undervalue the Bible? That it is not the most important of all? Can you measure the importance of your literary influences based on number of copies, or number of minutes spent reading them in a given time frame?
It is pretty obvious that, in general, the answer is “no.” While we all would admit that we should spend more time studying God’s Word than we typically do, it is pretty reasonable to conclude that we do not have to spend numerically the most time reading it than anything else in order to prove that we value it more highly than anything else we read. Put differently, God’s Word can be the definitive, rock-solid authority in our lives without negating the possibility that we can benefit and learn from other texts.
Strangely, this seemingly simple truth seems lost on many biblical scholars who draw puzzling conclusions about the nature of early Christianity by taking a look at what I’m calling the “early church bookshelf.”
If you wanted to put together a list of the “bottom 10” people in the Bible (excluding Satan, to be fair, since it wouldn’t be right to put God or Jesus in the “top 5” people), you would have a lot of folks to choose from. These would be a good place to start: Cain (first murderer, not including Satan), Ahab / Jezebel (a tag-team of badness), Manasseh (child sacrificer), Jeroboam I (who kicked off all the badness for the Northern Kingdom), Herod the Great (slaughterer of children), Herodias and Herod Antipas (beheaded John the Baptist), Judas (for obvious reasons), Pontius Pilate (the hand-washer), and Saul/Paul.*
I want to argue that the tenth should be a little-known figure buried in 1 Samuel named Doeg the Edomite. The way in which Doeg appears on the scene, wreaks havoc, and disappears offers a great case study about how God relates to evil.
In the introduction, I provided a somewhat tongue-in-cheek retelling of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls through a Major League Baseball card analogy. In that fake scenario, a collection of old baseball cards was found buried inside tree trunks in the woods, and a media frenzy broke out over the findings. In my analogy, three basic types of baseball cards were present in this collection: (a) rare, mint condition rookie cards of famous baseball players of the past (e.g., the Great Isaiah Scroll); (b) some worn out baseball cards of recognizable players, but not on the same level as a Honus Wagner or Mickey Mantle card (e.g., fragments of various religious writings like 1 Enoch or Tobit, which were already well-known before the DSS discovery); and, most shockingly, (c) baseball cards representing players, teams, statistics, and playing positions that no one had ever seen before or heard of in all the history of baseball.
In an era of Wikileaks, Edward Snowden, Bradley (Chelsea?) Manning, and Twitter, we can imagine just how quickly such a finding would spawn all sorts of conspiracy theories. Is Major League Baseball hiding some secret past? Why have they never shared this information before? Is there an underground league of aliens or mysterious people groups playing baseball that Bud Selig does not want you to find out about? We must get it out in the light and expose the lies and secrets!
It All Started with Throwing Rocks in the Hills of Qumran
No, really, that is how it all started. After almost seventy years of “Whodunnit,” we still really do not know the full story of how the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered and initially handled. The reigning theory – based on who said what and when and who paid whom off and so forth – runs as follows. In the winter of 1947 or spring of 1948, a group of (Muslim) Bedouins were tending their flocks on the northwest hillsides of the Dead Sea, near the ruins of an ancient community of some sort named Qumran. One of the Bedouins had a habit of throwing rocks into caves to pass the time, and one day he heard something shatter when his rock entered. Days later, his friend Muhammad edh-Dhib returned to scout out the cave to see what it contained. They uncovered some pottery containing what appeared to be ancient scrolls – 3 at first, and then 4 more were discovered later. At this point, the eyewitness accounts get murky about what they did with those first scrolls, who they talked to, who bought them first, how those initial seven were divided up, and so forth. Antiquities dealers, Roman Catholic priests, American scholars in Jerusalem, and many more players got involved. Press releases announcing these scrolls were published prematurely, scholarly bragging rights as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars were at risk, and the whole thing initially got a little out of hand.
Imagine yourself walking around with some buddies and your dogs out in the woods. To pass the time, you start throwing rocks at trees to see if you can get one to land in a hole or split the imaginary uprights of the tree branches or whatever.
Now imagine that one of the rocks makes it inside a tree hole and causes a loud crashing noise. You ignore it, and a few days later one of your buddies goes back out in the woods to that tree to investigate what caused that noise. And lo and behold, he makes one of the greatest discoveries of rare baseball cards of all time.
Hidden in the tree is a metal case containing several Mickey Mantle rookie cards, a handful of Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, and – the jackpot – multiple Honus Wagner T206 cards. Some are in mint condition, some are not, but either way, this collection of rare cards is priceless. Your buddy hides some of the cards and sheepishly tells you something vague about “finding something out in the woods,” and then he hits the road. Suspicious, you start looking around the other trees in the vicinity, and you find more card collections. Some are grubby and hard to read, others are less pristine versions of what was already found (though at this point you don’t actually know what your buddy, who has now found his way to a back-alley card dealer with serious cashflow, has in his possession from the first tree), and a few are cards of players you’ve never heard of. Curious, you make your way into town toting these boxes of miscellaneous cards, wondering what exactly you have found.
I was sitting in a class on biblical interpretation offered at the RTS Washington D.C. campus in the summer of 2012 when I essentially stumbled upon what would later become the genesis of my dissertation topic. The professor, Dr. Tommy Keene, had provided some direction on our writing assignment that morning, and during a short break I was poking around Accordance (Mac Bible software) thinking about what I might want to research for the paper.
I had recently been working through 1 Peter in my personal studies, and our lecture that morning had revolved around the various views of the structure and flow of argument in Romans. Pretty soon I recognized that both letters at key junctures quote the same verse of the book of Isaiah: the stone placed in Zion. What I did not know then but later discovered as I fleshed out my paper and, ultimately, landed on my “stone” thesis idea, was that much of the debate about how Romans and 1 Peter are quoting Isaiah revolves around one key grammatical feature of the sentence: a single pronoun. This one pronoun provides great insight into how NT authors reflect upon and quote from the OT.
On Sunday, September 1, I had the opportunity to preach at the church where I grew up, Macedonia Moravian Church, in my hometown of Advance, NC. I selected Luke 20:9–19, the Parable of the Wicked Tenants, as my sermon text. As I mention in the sermon, it’s a violent parable that hardly cracks the top 20 of anyone’s list of favorite parables, but it carries a crucial message that Jesus decided to deliver during his passion week. It was convicting to prepare and convicting to deliver; as I told my wife, I was testing out the whole “a prophet is not welcome in his hometown” principle. Macedonia has been a special part of my formation as a child and youth, so it was great to be back there today before heading to the UK. The passage is also a key part of my dissertation.
Without question the book of Nehemiah is one of the suspense thrillers, the “how will this ultimately turn out” dramas, the edge of your seat feature films of the Old Testament. It stars Nehemiah himself as the Braveheart-William-Wallace protagonist, who inspires a rag-tag group of his countrymen to undertake what seemed to be impossible: rebuild the destroyed city of Jerusalem.
(Neh 1:3 ESV) And they said to me, “The remnant there in the province who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalemis broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire.”
The task itself seemed too daunting. The wall and temple were burned to the ground. Whoever had returned from the Babylonian exile, combined with those who were left behind, were scattered and lacked any real leadership and / or motivation. The glory of David’s Judah of yesteryear had largely faded. In short, “The English are too many.” But that was not the only problem.
As the song of response concluded, we took a deep breath, fighting back the tears that had been coming off and on for a while. August 18th was my family’s last Sunday at our church of over six years. One-fifth of our lives, nearly all of our married life, and all of our children’s young days have been spent in this church. As Kate and I always do during the final song, we put our arms around each other as we sung along – only this time it was so difficult that we just tried to take it all in. We received the benediction and wondered, “How do you say goodbye to this?”