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 scholarly understanding 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 some 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 just 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.

Scholarly views are not universal on this issue, 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 (southwest 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.

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Grabbing Hold of the New Testament without Letting Go of the Old

Is there a disconnect in the way God is revealed in the Old Testament as compared to the New Testament?


I have been listening to the podcast, Ask NT Wright Anything, with host, Justin Brierley, out of the UK. It’s good to get other perspectives on any topic, as we tend to be blind to the particular bents and biases and ways of thinking that we have, not realizing that there are other ways of viewing things.

One amazing thing about Scripture is that it has been translated into over 300 languages, hundreds of more translations than any other book of any type. Though the combination of writings making up the Bible were written over a period of about 1500 years by about 40 Ancient Near Eastern authors from one concentrated area in the world, it has found universal acceptance and application, even today, nearly 2000 years after the last writing.

From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, Australia to the West Indies, Canada to Papua New Guinea, the Congo to Russia, and El Salvador to Mongolia, the Bible has found an audience of devotees who consider it the Word of God. The Bible has resonated with virtually every people group in the world.

In western civilization, and the American version of it, in particular, we can be pretty provincial in our understanding, for all the sophistication we think we have. We have developed certain blind spots, and we get hung up in certain ruts that we don’t even realize are obstacles to a more nuanced, balanced and (perhaps) accurate understanding.

For instance, the prosperity gospel is uniquely western, and particularly American. The prosperity gospel isn’t preached in Pakistan, Sudan, Honduras or Haiti. It shouldn’t take much thought to realize the reason why. Our America view of the gospel, God and the Bible can be (and is) influenced by our cultural bents. Without the balance of other views, we can tend toward the heretical.

Another example of our cultural bent is our western and American view of the Old Testament and “the God of the Old Testament”. Most non-westerners don’t have the issues we have with “the wrath of God” and some of the passages of the Old Testament that seem unsavory to the modern sensibilities of Americans.

This doesn’t necessarily make the rest of the world “right”, but we have to realize that our views may not be perfectly “right” either. We can all benefit by views of people who have different cultural backgrounds.

American, for instance, have gotten hung up on things like the “inerrancy of Scripture” and a “fundamentalist”, literalistic view of the Bible. NT Wright talks about this often in his interviews with Justin Brierley. He notes that Americans tend to trip over details and miss “the story”.

NT Wright was recently speaking of the issues that some people have with the Old Testament, fixating on whether it is historically and factually true in every detail. In doing so, we may might never get to the story, and the meaning of the story, which is the whole point! We get stuck in a rut asking whether it is true in every detail, and, “If we can’t be sure that it is true on every point, can we really trust it?”

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Judging the Old Testament God with New Testament Morality

We beat the God of the Old Testament over the head with the morality of the New Testament.


I am a fan of Perry Marshall, the author of Evolution 2.0, and a champion of the integration of science and faith. I don’t necessarily agree with him on his conclusions about evolution, but (frankly) that is only because I am not a science guy. I don’t disagree with him either. Perry Marshall, Hugh Ross of Reasons to Believe, Stephen Meyer of the Discovery Institute, and Francis Collins and BioLogos all present reasoned and evidence-based views on science and faith, as do others, and they don’t all agree.

Such is the character of being finitely human. We see in part. We know in part. We just don’t have the kind of perspective to be able to get our arms around the big picture to any degree of mathematical certainty. I enjoy reading them all, and I even listen to and read the atheists and agnostics from time to time.

One of the main objections to “the God of the Bible” is on the basis of morality, not of science. Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein both shared difficulty understanding a God who could/would allow so much pain and suffering in the world. If God is all-loving and all-powerful, what gives? So the thinking goes.

The recent post by Perry Marshall, Isn’t a Deist God a Little Less Troublesome?, deals with this issue. In the article, Perry responds to a someone who rejected Christianity on these moral grounds, but who could not get past the evidence that life could not have just happened the way it exists in the universe with such order without some Help.

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Can We Trust the Bible?

Depositphotos Image ID: 28826745 Copyright: veric1513

One of the most common skeptical positions in regard to the Bible is that we can’t trust it because it has changed over time, and we don’t even have the original text anymore. We likely don’t have any of the original text, and we have very little text that goes back to the 1st or even 2nd centuries.

The “telephone game” that children play is often used as an illustration of how easily things that are communicated get twisted and changed so that we can’t even tell what the original meaning was by the time the communication comes back to us after being repeated over and over from one person to the next. This illustration is applied to the Bible as proof that it can’t be trusted because it has been translated and copied over and over and over again. How do we even know what the original text said?!

These are serious contentions. An honest person cannot just brush these contentions aside.

Yes faith is a foundation of Christian belief, but Christian faith is not a blind faith as some suppose. Christian faith means putting our trust in God, and not in ourselves. Christian faith does not insist or even ask us to throw out our minds in the process.

In fact, we are specifically instructed to love God not only with our hearts and strength, but with our minds! As I have stated previously, doubt and skepticism is not a sin according to the Bible. Thomas doubted, and he became known for his skepticism but he was a follower of Jesus. Though he was skeptical, he came to believe.

Paul urged the Thessalonians to “test everything”, and hold on to what is good and true. I call this “honest skepticism”, which should not be confused with skepticism for the sake of skepticism. Anyone who is skeptical of everything, even the certainty of truth, should not even bother looking into anything because the exercise is pointless for the pure skeptic who is unwilling to commit to any truths.

(Ironically, the contention that there is no objective truth is a self-defeating statement. The statement, itself, is offered as an objective truth, therefore it isn’t even true of itself!)

But we digress. Whether the Bible can be trusted is the question? So, let’s dive in.

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The God that We Judge

CourthousePeople say that they reject Christianity because of the Old Testament. They say that they cannot believe in a God who strikes people dead and instructs His people to wipe out (kill) other people.

There are other reasons, of course, that people give for not believing. My focus in this writing is only this pop culture view of Christianity and the God of the Bible.

I think what people are saying when they say they cannot believe in the God who is described in the Old Testament is that they can’t believe in a God who seems to be (to us) so arbitrary, angry and jealous as God is portrayed in the Old Testament.

There are many things that can be said in response to this popular sentiment. For one thing, if there is a God, it doesn’t matter what I believe or what you believe: God is God regardless of our beliefs. There is Truth in the world, and it transcends me and you. The important question is, then, not what we think about God as revealed in the Old Testament, but whether it is true.

Considering whether God as revealed in the Old Testament is true should begin with some understanding of the Old Testament. In reading what people write and listening to what people say, most people (in my opinion) reject “the God of the Old Testament” or God as revealed in the Bible with very little understanding of what they are rejecting. They are rejecting a distortion or caricature. If you are going to reject something, at least understand what you are rejecting!

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