Remembering Palmyra: a Call to Enter Through the Narrow Gate

The destruction of the ancient ruin of Palmyra is a war crime, but we risk a greater loss.

The Palmyran Valley and Oasis
The Palmyran Valley and Oasis by Steve Murray

Sometimes things we read in the news hit close to home, even from halfway around the world in an ancient, foreign land. A friend from college has a personal connection to the ruins of the temple in the Palmyra Valley of Syria. He visited there and took the photos I have published in this blog with his permission. I started this blog article years ago, when ISIS was at it’s public height.

He describes the Valley, sitting about 125 miles north-east of Damascus, Syria, in the desert, as it appears above, “a welcome relief after weeks, months on the road” for the travelers along the Silk Road from the east. The “peaceful place… filled with memories” was no longer peaceful and filled with pleasant memories when I began this piece. I don’t know how things stand today. The news has moved on, leaving whatever ravages that continue out of the pubic eye.

“’Among the great cities of antiquity, Palmyra is comparable only to Petra in Jordan, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and the Athenian Acropolis in Greece,’ argues GW Bowersock, professor emeritus of ancient history at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.” (quoted in Isis’s Destruction Of Palmyra: ‘The Heart Has Been Ripped Out of the City’ by Stuart Jeffries in the Guardian Sept. 2, 2015)

With fond reminiscences of a peaceful time, relationships developed between disparate brothers and sisters who shared good will and historic significance of this desert oasis along the ancient silk road, the utter sadness and ache of the loss of the ruins is deep and vacuous. And more so now that my part of world has largely forgotten the devastation that exploded in front of the world’s eyes just a few short years ago.

Palmyra’s Baalshamin temple ‘blown up by IS’

read the headlines in Britain. Another British headline grimly pronounced,

ISIS behead archaeologist who wouldn’t give up priceless artifacts for terrorists to loot and destroy.

In the Atlantic, the headline read with finality, An Ancient Temple in Palmyra Is Destroyed. “Reports of the site’s destruction come just days after the Islamic State killed Khaled Asaad, an 82-year-old Syrian expert on Palmyra who refused to divulge the location of artifacts despised by the militant group [and coveted for the booty they would bring]. Asaad had run Palmyra’s antiquities department for 50 years.”

“The taking of the historic city of Palmyra by Islamic State represents ‘the fall of a civilisation’, according to Syria’s antiquities chief Maamoun Abdulkarim. Speaking to Reuters today, he said: ‘Human, civilized society has lost the battle against barbarism. I have lost all hope.’” (Mark Woods Christian Today Contributing Editor 21 May 2015)

Temple at Palmyra
Temple at Palmyra by Steve Murray

Barbaric, incomprehensible, brutal, evil, criminal, atrocity …. Words fall short. No regard for history, culture, art, life …. The ISIS militants did not even have regard for their own lives. The wrought unspeakable destruction and the taking of precious life in the Venice of the Sands.

Christians, humanists, peaceful Muslims, people of all stripes condemn what ISIS has done. The destruction of the ancient ruin of Palmyra is a war crime. The killing of Khaled al-Assad, the curator and protector of the Palmyran antiquities, is an atrocity of the worst order. If he had only given his life to protect those beautiful, ancient ruins…, but ruins were destroyed with him. The various reactions to the crime and atrocity are understandable and expected.

The worldwide reports emphasized a common theme: the harsh clash of religious fundamentalism in the nature of the destruction and violence. “ISIS did not merely blast apart old stones—it attacked the very foundations of pluralistic society” (The Rubble of Palmyra by Leon Wieseltier in the Atlantic Sept. 4, 2015). Indeed, ISIS displayed the worst of religion – the worst of humanity.

And the recent destruction of ancient historical artifacts and buildings is nothing new.

“In this iconoclasm – literally, the destruction of religious icons and other images or monuments for religious or political motives – Isis has its place in a rich history of destruction. Moses reduced the Golden Calf, made from Israelites’ golden earrings, to dust. Centuries later, the 93 carved relief sculptures of the life and miracles of the Virgin Mary in Ely Cathedral’s lady chapel, were hacked off during the Reformation. In between Moses and the mutilation of Ely was something called the Iconoclastic controversy in the history of the Eastern or Byzantine Christian church. Between AD 726 and 843, the then emperors of Byzantium believed icons were not only a reversion to the pagan idolatry of the ancient Greeks and Romans, but that their existence was the chief obstacle to the conversion to Christianity of Jews and Muslims, to both of whom the image was anathema. Iconoclasm, then, is by no means only an Islamic thing.” (quoted in Isis’s Destruction Of Palmyra: ‘The Heart Has Been Ripped Out of the City’ by Stuart Jeffries in the Guardian Sept. 2, 2015)

www.yourmiddleeast.com 660 x 390
www.yourmiddleeast.com

As tempting as it is to reel in sadness and righteous anger (something the irreligious seem to have learned well from the religious in recent times) over the destruction of such significant ancient preserves, there is a greater loss.  Ross Burns, adjunct professor of ancient history at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, whose life is devoted to the preservation, study and appreciation of antiquity, appropriately recognized,

“[T]here are more important considerations in Syria in 2015 than the preservation of ancient monuments. ‘The physical damage to monuments has to be assessed against the scale of the human tragedy….’” (Id.)

Continue reading “Remembering Palmyra: a Call to Enter Through the Narrow Gate”

The Roots of Modern Ethics in the Ancient Near East

Of the origins of monotheistic religion and ethics.

Jerusalem: The Temple Mount from the time of the Second Temple

When I was in college, the first class I took was World Religions. Though I graduated with an English Literature major, I also had enough credits to be a Religion major. I didn’t need the dual major. I only took the religion classes because they interested me.

I also became a believing Christian during my college years. It was a transition that took place between that World Religion class and the summer between Sophomore and Junior years. It’s a long story that I might tell in detail some time, but the point for now is that I did a lot of reading and thinking about these things in those years and in the decades since. It doesn’t make me a theologian, but I have more than a passing interest.

Early on I learned that the creation story and flood story in Genesis, among other things, have counterparts in other religions, including other religions in the same area of the world – the Ancient Near East. Phoenicians, Assyrians, Persians, and other people groups had similar myths that have been uncovered from that general time period.

Zoroastrianism, in particular, was said to share many attributes similar to the ancient Hebraic view of the world, including the idea a singular creator God, a dualistic cosmology of good and evil, the ultimate destruction of evil, judgment after death, etc. The conjecture when I was in college was that Zoroastrianism may have predated Hebraic thought and influenced it.

It occurred to me at the time, not having any reason to doubt that speculation, that Abraham may have been particularly open to his encounter with God if, indeed, he had lived in an area of the world and in a time in which there was this kind of influence. It made some sense. He was the right guy in the right place with the right influences setting the table for an encounter with God, the Creator of the world.

Recently I did a research on Zoroastrianism. Wikipedia acknowledges that Zoroastrianism has “possible roots dating back to the second millennium BC”, though “recorded history” of Zoroastrianism only dates back to the 5th Century BC. (Wikipedia). Obviously, dating the roots of Zoroastrianism back to the second millennium BC is only conjecture if records of Zoroastrianism only date to the 5th Century BC.

If we date the accounts of Abraham and his descendants according the biblical chronology and references, that history goes far back into the second millennium BC, but a loose consensus of modern archaeologists and theologians reject that dating in favor of first millennium BC dating. (See Wikipedia, for example) Modern scholars don’t take the Bible at face value. In fact, they presumptively dismiss it for its face value.

This aren’t the end of the scholarly views of course. Not by a long shot. Some notable evidence and analysis exists that the modern consensus is wrong about the timeline for the life of Moses, the Exodus and other things. (See for instance Patterns of Evidence: The Moses Controversy) The Patterns of Evidence conjecture is that historians and archaeologists who assume a particular timeline for certain events are not apt to see the evidence for those events if they occurred in a different timeline.

The Patterns of Evidence thesis is that evidence for the events described in the biblical narrative is there if we peer through the lens of the right timeline and look for them in the right time periods. Specifically, the biblical accounts of Moses, the Exodus and entry into the land of Canaan are apparent in the archaeological record and historical data on the biblical timeline (second millennium BC), not in the first millennium timeline applied by modern, skeptical scholars.

Certain archaeological finds, like the Ebla Tablets, also raise questions about the modern scholarly consensus. The importance of “looking” in the right places according to the right timelines is explored in Timing the Walls of Jericho.

Back to Abraham, though, he was reportedly from the area of Ur (southeast Iraq), which is quite a distance from the area of Canaan (later Judea) where he ended up – about 1600 miles in fact. In Ur, he may have come in contact with Zoroastrians and other influences. That intrigued me in college, and so I revisit that thought journey again today.

Continue reading “The Roots of Modern Ethics in the Ancient Near East”

To Those Who Don’t Believe in Religion

Some thoughts from a person whose friends probably consider religious who bristles at the word, religion.


A friend of mine commented recently, “I don’t believe in religion.” I agreed with him, responding, “Religion is man-made.” But part of me flinched a little bit at my own comment.

Religion is what I left when I left the Catholic Church, but religion is what I studied in college. A World Religion class led me forward on a journey that ended in my commitment to Jesus as the Savior and Lord of my life, terminology I realize that smacks of religion.

That commitment made in a particular place and time began a life-long journey of faith, of attempting to know, understand and follow a living God. Not religion, but relationship with God, the creator of heaven and earth Who “knit me together” in my mother’s womb, Who can number the hairs on my head, Who knows the thoughts and intents of my heart.

I bristle at the word, religion, but I realize my friends probably consider me religious. Ironic isn’t it.

These thoughts are triggered by reading Colossians 2:8:

“See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.”

I realize this may seem like so much religious mumbo jumbo. All the more reason to unpack it if I can.

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From Islam to Christ

An unprecedented number of Muslims are turning to Christ in the 21st Century.

nabeel


I have been “collecting” the stories of people who became followers of Jesus from all sorts of different backgrounds, including different religious backgrounds. Some of the more interesting and compelling stories are from former Muslims.

The sheer number of former Muslim testimonies is amazing. In fact, Muslims turning to Christ in the 21st Century is a global phenomenon. It’s happening all over the Muslim world. Whole communities are turning to Christ and becoming followers of Christ. This phenomenon is unprecedented over the 14 centuries since the birth of Islam.

In previous centuries, Christian areas were turned wholesale into Islamic areas by conquest and coercion. Even today, the Muslim religion is growing faster than Christianity, but that is first and foremost a matter of demographics – Muslims have more children than any of the other major religions in the world.

In addition, the same coercive practices that grew Islam in the previous centuries are in operation today. While conquest isn’t broadly practiced as it was in previous centuries, strong prohibitions exist in predominantly Muslim countries and areas that inhibit people from leaving Islam. Families disown former Muslims and, in extreme cases, kill them. Those same inhibitions extend even into the west where the same cultural influences discourage leaving Islam or denouncing Islam.

For that reason, the testimonies of Muslims who become followers of Jesus Christ are remarkable and poignant. Afshin Ziafat’s story is such an example. His father disowned him immediately when Afshin admitted that he has become a Christian as a young man in Houston. The decision cost him his father and his family.



One of the hallmarks of the Muslim turned Christian phenomenon of the 21st Century is the way in which so many former Muslims become Christians. A very high percentage of those stories include experiences like visions and dreams of Jesus. Even Islamic radicals and ISIS jihadists have had these experiences that changed their lives. You can watch them tell their stories in their own words on the Muslim testimony page and Muslim/ISIS testimony page.

The Lord Waits to Be Gracious to You

Having sought the holistic promise of Buddhism for most of her adult life, Madelena found that God was waiting for her all of her life.


I have written a number of times on the subject of Buddhism as compared to Christianity. Buddhism attracted me as a young college student seeking truth. It lured me with the promise of harmony with the world and oneness with myself and reality. I was searching for meaning and purpose, and Buddhism promised a journey into a much larger universal reality.

Listening to the testimonies of ex-Buddhists is interesting to me. I could have gone down that road. I started tentatively down that road at one point in my life, testing the waters. When I found the Living Water, Jesus Christ, however, I didn’t need anything else to quench my thirst. I found what my soul was looking for.

As I listened to the testimony of a woman identified only as Madelena, I realized that part of the allure of Buddhism for her was just a mirage. She left the Eastern Orthodox Church she knew as a child to become a Buddhist, and she lived it for many years. The promise of losing oneself in some kind of cosmic oneness is the mirage she exposes in her testimony.

Madelena’s father was a priest in the Eastern Orthodox church. She described it as “intense”, but the religiosity turned her off. She knew what it was to fear God, but she didn’t know the love of God.

When her father separated from her mother, she and her mother were left without support from the church, feeling disconnected. A time of searching and experiences with depression and disconnection from family support led her to embrace Buddhism.

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A Place for Truth in a Pluralistic Society


Is truth so all-inclusive that it doesn’t really matter what you believe as long as you are sincere? We wouldn’t say that about scientific truths, but what about religious truths?

In particular, are the distinctions between the various religions so minor that it doesn’t matter which one of them you believe? Or any of them at all?

These are questions that arise in a pluralistic society such as we have in the United States and much of the Western world. Pluralism accommodates differences, celebrates diversity and promotes inclusion. Pluralism, generally, is a good and wholesome thing in a civilized society.

Whereas, people with differences once harbored hostilities toward one another, and waged war and walled each other out on the basis of those differences, a pluralistic society tolerates, accommodates and even celebrates diversity.

Pluralism allows people to live as they see fit to live and as they believe they ought to live, within reason of course. (My right to live as I see fit ends at your right to be free from my intrusion.) Pluralism maximizes liberty and freedom and allows people choice. Pluralism is a necessary construct in a free society.

Truth, however, is not so inclusive. We don’t accommodate any or all theories in science. We don’t tolerate views in science that compete with proven evidence without equally compelling evidence to the contrary because truth matters to the scientific endeavor.

Truth is what it is.

This is not to say that people aren’t free to adopt their pet theories, but pet theories are not relied upon by a circumspect scientific world that is trying to launch probes to Mars and program vehicles to drive by themselves without killing innocent people.  In the same sense, if truth matters, and if there is any truth to be found in religion, we defy logic and common sense to say that one religion or set of beliefs is just like the next. And the consequences of failing to discern fact from fiction may be just as dire.

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An Ancient Near East View of Israel

Gehenna (Hinnom) Valley near the Old City in Jerusalem

I am grateful for the religion classes I had in college. I wasn’t a religion major, but I took all the classes to be one, including the thesis class. I took them because I was hungry for the truth that was contained in the ancient scriptures. That hunger began as a hunger for truth, and I searched for it in history, literature, art, philosophy and wherever I could find it, including religion.

I searched for whatever truth I could find in the various religions of the world, but the religion classes at Cornell College where I did my undergraduate work were largely the Judeo-Christian scriptures. There I got a solid academic foundation for Old Testament and New Testament, with an emphasis on the Pentateuch (Books of Moses), writings and the Prophets, because one of the two religion professors was Jewish.

I appreciate the sense of the sweep of biblical history that this education gave me. I wasn’t taught in the context of a particular Christian denomination, but from a Jewish perspective. So, I appreciate what James Michael Smith is doing in his ministry, the DiscipleDojo, who presents an authentic Ancient Near East perspective of Deuteronomy in the podcast that is embedded below. I encourage you to listen to the whole thing (and listen to the other installments if your interest is piqued).

To get an accurate and nuanced understanding of God’s interaction in history with His covenant people that became the backdrop and springboard for His plan of universal redemption, it helps to understand the Ancient Near East that formed the historical context for this interaction. The Abrahamic people were very much people of the Ancient Near East. God’s interaction connects with them where they were in the cultural understandings that informed them.

It’s amazing to me to think about how this very intimate and familiar interaction in an Ancient Near East culture with an Bronze Age people (as skeptics like to point out) has become a timeless, ongoing and ever relevant message for us through the Scripture that was inspired and written down in the process. How could such a Bronze Age perspective carry forward such a universal and timeless message?

Continue reading “An Ancient Near East View of Israel”